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The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect, and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.

The words appeared in the closing address of the Second Vatican Council; they were renewed at the beginning of John Paul II’s letter Mulieris Dignitatem; and they were voiced once more last weekend, at a conference commemorating the letter’s twentieth anniversary. Held at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., the two-day conference was co-hosted by the Catholic University Columbus School of Law and Ave Maria School of Law, bringing together twenty-five scholars, including Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M., Gerard V. Bradley, W. Bradford Wilcox, Fr. John J. Coughlin, O.F.M., and Helen Alvaré.

Aimed at a serious study of the pope’s apostolic letter and its implications today, the conference addressed such topics as “the nature of the feminine vocation,” “the importance of Christian anthropology for an understanding of equality,” and “the relevance of the Church-Bride mystery for contemporary society.” (For those interested in the full discussion, the papers are scheduled for publication in the 2009 Ave Maria Law Review.)

Thirty-three years have passed since the Vatican Council’s prophetic declaration, but it has not grown old. More than ever, women need an identity—an identity reclaimed from both patriarchal oppression, real or imagined, and feminist autonomy; they need to rediscover their dignity and their vocation as women. In contrast to the modern world, which makes woman so collectively autonomous that she no longer knows who she is, John Paul II proposes a “new feminism”: a vision of woman whose equality with man is only fully illuminated in their complementary roles¯their mutual, but distinct, call of service.

Pope John Paul wrote the apostolic letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” in 1988, several years before the U.N. Cairo Conference and the Beijing World Conference on Women. Yet with three previous world conferences on women, held between 1975 and 1985, he could see the seas already churning. It was to these still-tempestuous waters—and the lifeline John Paul offered¯that last week’s conference turned its attention.

Marguerite Peeters, journalist to the U.N. and founder of the Brussels-based Institute for Intercultural Dialogue, delivered the keynote address, placing the question of women’s rights and dignity in an international context. A key sign of what is at work, she said, is revealed in the very words we speak. Over her years as a reporter on U.N. debates, she has noted a global paradigm shift manifest in vocabulary changes: spouse to partner , universal values to global ethics , population control to reproductive rights , parenting to child-rearing , the family to the family-and-all-its-forms . And these are just a few. Meanwhile, such words as service , conscience , virgin , and truth have been lost all together¯and, of the stray appearances mother makes in U.N. documents, all are in the unenviable context of “single mothers” or “poor mothers.”

Mere words. And yet, these verbal changes signal far more than linguistic evolution: The way we talk flows from the way we think, and it filters the way we see ourselves and our world. Semantic disputes, however muted or covert, have social roots and certainly social results.

With the fall of communism, the battleground shifted to within Western democracy itself, as the agenda of the sexual revolution¯namely unrestricted autonomy, which entails the deconstruction of gendered roles and familial norms¯masked itself under the mantra of Western rights and values. Of course, no one with influence was content to confine these changes to the West. With the U.N. conferences at Cairo and Beijing, we witnessed a global power-grab under the guise of liberating women in developing countries, and spreading the doctrine of unisex norms and the non-imposition of values. The notable exceptions, of course, were the sacrosanct right to choose and the unquestioned value of not being feminine.

The result is the death of women¯both literally, manifest particularly in sex-selective abortion, and figuratively, in the loss of their femininity. Sr. Prudence Allen, a philosopher and professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, observed that the globally minded, environmentally conscious person now “sees himself as an enemy of life, a disturber of nature,” with a remarkable hatred of his own greatness. At the same time, he desires to be master and possessor of nature¯his own nature¯ridding himself of social and biological restrictions. (It is a conflicted situation: One need look no further than the woman swallowing her artificial contraception pills with organic green tea.) No longer should women be mere appendages to their husbands, says the cultural consensus; no longer should they be subordinate non-players in global, local, and ecclesial communities but, rather, equals in social rights and relationships.

John Paul II does not disagree. He does, however, go much deeper. Entering the theological realm, he examines the scriptural account of the creation of man and woman¯ In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them . Women and men realize the truth of their equality, John Paul explains, in their recognition of being made in God’s image. That is to say, when they realize that they are persons by virtue of their intellect and will, able to stand before the Lord in knowledge and love, and able to stand in a similar way before each other. In this call, where human meets divine, they are equal.

The notion of equality, however, can break in either of two ways. One is the doctrine of autonomous equality, in which all humans are equally free to construct their own lives and identities. To speak of human nature, in this view, much less of feminine or masculine nature, is oppressive and wrong.

Needless to say, this Cairo equality is not what is found in the pope’s letter. As Sr. Prudence and many of the other speakers repeatedly emphasized, man and woman’s equality is complementary, rooted in and illuminated by their shared call to relationship, to a communio personarum . “To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion,” writes John Paul. “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift.” We are called by this love¯mutual, self-giving service¯to mirror God’s own Trinitarian life, in which each person is equal, but each has a distinct identity of relationship.

The identity of woman in this relationship is as wife and mother, by virtue of her physical and spiritual predisposition to receive and foster life; it is she who is first entrusted with the gift of life, and she who entrusts that life to the father, to society, and ultimately to God. John Paul observes that so strong is her body-soul connection with procreation and parenthood, that the man must “be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special dept to the woman . . . . In many ways he has to learn his own ‘fatherhood’ from the mother .”

What, then for the woman who is unmarried or has no children¯the woman who is infertile, still single, or a consecrated virgin? Continuing with his theological discussion, John Paul praises Mary as the exemplar of feminine identity: most blessed among women . She is mother, but she is also virgin; that is to say, she gives life, but always points to the source of life. She heard the word of God and listened. Mary is a living sign of the spiritual marriage between God and the soul, between Christ and his Church: a bride called, like all men and women, to intimate union with the Lord.

This marriage, Sr. Prudence emphasized, is indeed a fruitful one. She is no less a woman for her vow of chastity, and she lives her feminine call to motherhood spiritually, through her care for her religious family, her attention to her students, her continual resolve to see the complete personhood of others. Most importantly, she imitates Mary in bringing Christ to the world. And this spiritual motherhood is just as essential to the vocations of married women. “The spousal dimension of vocation,” said Sr. Prudence, “is the heart of the Church.” That is a bold claim, but not one inflated by spiritual romanticism. We are in the image of God, and God is a community of love.

Trinitarian theology and Marian spirituality are well and good, and the conference presenters kept returning to their implications for womanhood. But what about the nitty-gritty of life in the family room strewn with Lincoln logs, the kitchen with its unwashed dishes, the piles of laundry, the nausea of morning sickness, the smudges of grimy fingers on the newly upholstered sofa? What about dollar-and-cents, broom-and-dustpan practicality? Nobody says that motherhood is easy, or that cleaning toilets is a female aspiration.

Simone de Beauvoir certainly didn’t. “Gestation,” she declared, “is a fatiguing task and of no benefit to the woman.” As Helen Alvaré, a mother and professor of family law at George Mason University, noted, it’s not surprising that so many marriages are painfully dysfunctional and that four out of ten end in divorce¯for even the minimal service demanded by minimal family life is commonly seen as a burden. The unfounded consensus of leading family-law scholars is that service is the problem.

In contrast, John Paul proposed, it is precisely service that is the solution. We must restore an understanding of marriage as mutual service, not where chores are rigidly divided and tallied, but where both spouses are looking first to the good of each other and the children. A society, in particular, where women’s work is not dismissed with scorn as mere diaper-changing, but where the rearing of children is recognized for its preeminent social role.

University of Virginia sociologist and First Things contributor W. Bradford Wilcox elaborated on this discussion, with statistical data showing the familial and societal benefits of a traditional division of labor. Moreover, he linked biological findings with social science arguments for why women do, indeed, make better nurturers, and why they are better able to communicate with and emotionally understand their children. Not to mention the minor fact that only women can breastfeed (a major protection against breast cancer and benefit to the child’s immune system), and there’s no such thing, properly speaking, as “We’re pregnant.” In biology and the social sciences, the notion of maternal gifts is no myth; drawing on copious economic data, CUA professor Maria Sophia Aguirre agreed. In the work of the home, the next generation is shaped, and while no one says that this is woman’s sole or exclusive task, many would say it is her greatest.

If men and women are complementary, they need to understand each other to understand themselves. The conference concluded with an open discussion on future paths and progress, and foremost was the need for education: education, in particular, of young women, showing them that motherhood is a spiritually and socially valuable vocation, that their fertility is not something to be denied or suppressed but an intrinsic aspect of their identity, that they do have the right to be ladies.

“The Vocation and Dignity of Women”: Theology can start to articulate the foundations of this phrase and its Trinitarian significance, but lived out on the ground, there is no single path of femininity. The biographies of the female conference presenters spoke that truth clearly. There were, for instance, the noted legal scholar and mother, the home-on-the-farm mom of seven, the young single philosopher from Rome, the religious sister who writes and lectures. Each was living out her feminine vocation, and it was clear that each was successful and fulfilled.

Amanda Shaw is an assistant editor of First Things .


Mulieris Dignitatem : Apostolic Letter of John Paul II

Mulieris Dignitatem : Twentieth Anniversary Conference

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