Twenty years ago, having been pope for almost a decade, John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter in which he explained the transcendent dignity and marvelous gift of femininity. Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”) is not terribly long, nor especially academic – rather, it is completely accessible to the reader who is willing to focus and consider sublime truths about the human person.
The document focuses on women, but is couched in the overarching framework of the theology of the body, which posits that truths about God and man are written in to very human frames in which we “live and move and have our being.” Since humankind was created male and female (cf. Gn. 1:27), John Paul II deduces that there is both a nuptial backdrop to the universe and a spousal dimension to persons that must be explored. Indeed, He spent his entire priestly life laying the groundwork for that investigation.
Clearly, the world at present couldn’t be more confused about human sexuality and the nature of the family. Even two decades ago, the effects of the sexual revolution – crowning a century or more of moral relativism – had taken its toll on marital stability, overall relationships between men and women, the parameters of gender, and the well- being of children. The ground beneath our very feet was shifting and swaying – causing us to tremble through an earthquake of identity, with some looking excitedly toward a whole new paradigm of existence, and others anticipating the inevitable annihilation of all we held dear.
The landscape has been much altered, and yet the dust hasn’t settled completely, not by a long shot. Interestingly, the Letter is filled with awe concerning the beauty of God’s plan of creation and redemption, with confidence about the way that God’s truth is revealed in bodily form, and hope about women and their capacity to bring civilization back on course. Despite being typecast by his detractors as a cranky misogynist, John Paul II was a man who loved Mary, who valued the “feminine genius” as a gift to the world, and admired countless strong women in whom it was manifest.
The most surprising dimension about the theology of the body and the way it brings out the very best in women is the fact that the pope’s vision is forward-looking in the most vibrant sense. Taking his cues from the brief Scriptural scenes explaining creation, he outlines a dynamic view of “original unity” between man and woman that rejects any past epoch as an ideal, but points decidedly towards the future laden with tremendous potential.
Mulieris Dignitatem is an exciting document that should astonish women and cause men to rethink a few things. It deserves a close reading and there’s no better time than this anniversary to shed a new light on what we've previously understood about the Church's teaching on women. To that end, this column will consider the femininity from a variety of angles over the coming months -- so that all women can recognize their unique and dignified call within the Great Commandment to spread the foundational truths of our faith. In particular, we will consider the topic offered to North America: The dignity of woman in a technological and consumerist society. Surely that is a well-chosen theme that speaks to every heart.
When authentic femininity is manifest, the result will be a remarkable calm, ending the continual upheavals of deconstruction, innovation and near anarchy that have tried to shift and tilt our moral universe. The ground beneath us may finally settle – granting us the peace we’ve wanted for so long.