The Church typically responds to questions about faith, waiting until a topic has been seized upon by the faithful – pondered and debated, even mauled and misunderstood. Over the centuries, it happened in the case of the Trinity, the meaning of the Man-God, the essential truths surrounding the Blessed Mother, and the nature of the sacraments, to name a few. Each time, the theological speculation raged, the essentials were revisited, the previously established foundation was considered and the Holy Spirit was prevailed upon to guide the Church to a deeper understanding of what has ever been. That is what drives the Magisterium – or teaching office – of the Church.
Recent decades have heaved the truth and meaning of human sexuality into the public arena, stretching our imagination, assaulting our moral structures, and seeing how malleable this gift really is. We can gauge by the results that we’ve gone too far.
There are two essential lessons that we can draw from this painful history. First, there is a tremendous spiritual component that has been missing from our understanding of human reproduction thus far; and secondly, the topic couldn’t have been effectively discussed in any previous generation because of the stringent – and rightful – restrictions on the public’s willingness to talk about the nuts and bolts of physical intimacy. Simply ask yourself whether your grandparents would have been willing or able to talk about the theology of the body effectively.
Certainly, nothing justifies the decadence and depravity of our generation, and often we fear that we wallow in a sewer, if the mass media is any indication. But our debased language and lack of reticence to talk about such things gives the Church a tremendous opening to talk about God’s truth written in our very bodies, and the beauty of spousal love echoing throughout creation. Try bringing those topics up in a Victorian drawing room!
We must begin with our use of language, and to exercise great care in the words we choose. We will flatly reject the use of “role” because it indicates an external part to be played, and suggests a lack of integration about who we are. We must also reject the phrase “the opposite sex” because men and women aren’t opposites – they are created as helpmates and collaborators in the stewardship of the family. Finally, we have to eschew the use of “gender,” which proves to be an inadequate (and often politicized) description of the God-given gift of femininity and masculinity.
In their places, we would use vocation, complementarity, and sex, as indelicate as the last may sound. “Male and female He made them” (Gen. 1:27) and it is that point of creation that leads us into the first paragraphs of Mulieris Dignitatem.
In addition to carefully chosen words, John Paul II grounded this meditation on women in non-negotiable theological truths: The creation of human beings in God’s image and likeness was very good, but something happened at the outset that corrupted his world. Classically, we are taught that man’s intellect was darkened, his will was compromised, and his passions were disordered. This undermined all relationships – between humans and God, and among persons. Ultimately, it impacted male-female relationships, causing each to suffer in different ways.
The Biblical creation account is the starting point for John Paul II, and the end-point is the culmination of salvation history – Jesus Christ, born of the virgin, offered in atonement for our sins. All of Mulieris Dignitatem is an interplay between these two critical reference points, and within that framework is an unfolding drama that highlights the dignity of woman that made it all possible.