Mary and Women: John Paul II's Thought on Women

Introduction 

At the dawn of the third millennium, the so-called woman issue is much debated inside and outside the church.  The controversy is not without bias.  Tendencies within feminist theology often attribute a unilateral perspective to the topic which is informed by ideological interest and aimed to attack the apparent discrimination of women in the church.

On the other hand we also observe that some women see in John Paul II a strong protagonist for true femininity, for example, Gertrude Mongella, who referring to the Pope alleged, “if everyone thought as he does perhaps we wouldn’t need a women’s conference.” (For more information you can connect to 1, 2, 8, 10, and 14 at the end of this page.)

Equality and Difference

Departing from centuries-long tradition, John Paul II teaches in no uncertain terms that women and men are equal as persons before God.  Both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image.1   Like men, women are created in the image and likeness of God.  Consequently they are capable of loving and are equipped with reason, free will and conscience.2  Both men and women are called to God’s covenant which culminates in the new covenant with Mary.  In the order of redemption men and women belong to the Mystical Body of Christ, are heirs of eternal life and are called to discipleship.  (For more information you can connect to 6 and 15  at the end of this page).

The power of this at first glance rather theoretical affirmation of spiritual and metaphysical equality is nuanced in practice by the pope’s commitment to gender difference. His work consistently draws upon the traditional view that men and women embody human nature in two contrasting but complimentary ways, which means that they must play distinct social roles.  (For more information you can connect to 4, 5, and 7 at the end of this page.)

Coexisting feminine and masculine subjectivity however must not imply any threat or isolation.3  Advocating the equality and dignity of women does not mean to play them off against men as is often done in certain feministic circles.  Quite the opposite, ideally apparent tensions should be used in a creative way through reciprocal complementarity and enrichment.  John Paul II calls this the "unity of the two." Man and woman have been created as two persons in order to reach the full potential of what it means to be human. 

It also means that man and woman, created as a "unity of the two" in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life.5

 Complementarity and Communion                                                                      

 Communion and complementarity of man and woman are anchored in the anthropological truth that both are created as an image of the Trinity. Within the communion of the Triune God is found absolute unity and simultaneous free unfolding of the differences of the persons and their attributes. Notwithstanding their differences they are one; in as far as each one pursues their mission, they can communicate union.7  The communion within the Trinity is reflected in the union of man and woman: absolute unity through freedom and distinctive differences. This can be only accomplished through love8  Originally, rivalry between woman and man was not part of the divine plan. It is part of human sinfulness.

Sadly, a long history of sin has disturbed and continues to disturb God's original plan for the couple, for the male and the female, thus standing in the way of its complete fulfillment. We need to return to this plan, to proclaim it forcefully, so that women in particular—who have suffered more from its failure to be fulfilled—can finally give full expression to their womanhood and their dignity.9

 Uniqueness

Consistent with dual gender tradition the pope cautions women not to depart from the riches of their feminine nature. 

In the name of liberation from male ‘domination’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality’.10

 Hence, each woman ought to live according to the special qualities proper to the fact of her femininity.  (For more information you can connect to 9 at the end of this page.)

The Church, writes the Pope, gives thanks for each and every woman, for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family ...; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility.11

 The uniqueness of woman lies in the notion that she is made for the ‘order of love’: Woman can find herself only by giving love to others. 12 Following this train of thought, the typical vocation for every woman according to the Roman Pontiff is motherhood in its physical and/or spiritual dimension.

This concerns each and every woman, independently of the cultural context in which she lives and independently of her spiritual, psychological and physical characteristics, as for example age, education, health, work, and whether she is married or single. 13

The Marian Model

The main focus for John Paul II’s reflection on women is Mary’s role as mother of God which with ineffable truth stands at the center of the mystery of God’s plan of salvation.

What is most important about this motherhood  to which she gave her free consent is that it places her in union with God uniquely so on a physical level and also, in an archetypical way representative of the whole human race, on a spiritual level through grace. Since all of this happens to her precisely as woman, she also signifies “the fullness of the perfection of what is characteristic of woman, of what is feminine. Here we find ourselves, in a sense, at the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women.” 14-15

For John Paul II, any accurate statement about woman’s dignity and vocation must be rooted within this Marian scope since Our Lady’s role in the divine plan of salvation

sheds light on women’s vocation in the life of the church and society by defining its difference in relation to man. The model Mary represents clearly shows what is specific to the feminine personality. Indeed Mary is the model of full development of woman’s vocation. 16

 More precisely, this means that like Mary, women should emulate a life style marked by an attitude of authentic service. Furthermore, women should develop certain characteristics that will enable them to live their true vocation to the utmost. In the encyclical letter Redemptoris Mater  the Pope lists these virtues as follows:

It can thus be said that women, by looking to Mary, find in her the secret of living their femininity with dignity and of achieving their own true advancement. In the light of Mary, the Church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement. 17

 A Threefold Gift

In his public statements regarding the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II repeatedly speaks of the 'genius of woman'18 stressing its importance and indispensability for our time. With this term he wants to highlight the specific feminine genius which should permeate all spheres of life for the enrichment of our contemporary society and culture.19

The Pontiff addresses in the first place the biblical image of woman,20 innate in every woman though not automatically realized, since self-identity or self-realization is not the result of a mechanical process but depends on human freedom to be brought to fruition. Every human person’s vocation has the potential to succeed or to fail. In view of the genius of woman this means: Become who you are!21  It is precisely here that education and formation of women has to commence.

According to biblical and theological findings woman has been endowed with three essential tasks. All are rooted in the order of creation, are perverted by original sin and are reconstituted and made transparent through redemption. 

They concern first of all the fact that woman is “a suitable partner for him” 22  i.e. man, describing a reality that originates in Eve and culminates in Mary and the Church. Thus the first gift offered to woman is her bridal relationship and cooperation in creation and redemption. Secondly, woman is “the mother of all living.” 23  This gift comprises woman’s fruitful receptiveness of [pro]creation, of the divine Word, the Logos, and her solicitous care for both. The third gift is expressed in the word to the snake: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman.”24  It refers to women’s intuition to preserve all that is true and fitting.

Genius and Practical Implementation

As we take a closer look at the characteristics of being a woman we need to focus on the specific gifts of women which John Paul II calls her genius. At issue is the ontological vocation of being woman from which arise concrete ways of implementation in family, church and society.  Speaking about the genius of woman, John Paul II usually refers to a concrete aspect of women’s gifts connected to her vocation as woman. For example he says that woman possesses a specific sensitivity for the human person, and for all that benefits her or him, or that she is called to safeguard the moral dimension of culture.25  All in all, woman’s gifts render her “an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit.”26  Through this genius woman has the task to positively influence the human communities she encounters, and to manifest a new ideal of authority that is based on the dignity of the human person as transmitted in the Scriptures.

Bringing Mary’s archetypal feminine function to ecclesiology, the Pope refers to Hans Urs von Balthasar in order to note the distinction between the Marian and Petrine dimensions of the church.27  The Marian dimension, seen most clearly in Mary’s fiat, symbolizes the church in her identity as the handmaid of the Lord, as the one who believes, as the Virgin dedicated to God’s service, as the spouse made fruitful by the Spirit, and most of all as mother, caring for the children of God in Christ. This Marian, maternal dimension, functions in a discreet and hidden way. It is the attitude of spiritual union with Christ, of prayer, of self-giving service, of abiding faith. In distinction from the Petrine office, the Marian face of the Church is different from and complementary to the ministerial or hierarchical aspect.

Human Rights and Discrimination

John Paul II is keenly aware of the discrimination women have faced throughout history. It is mostly anchored in the violation of universal human rights.

If the potential and aspirations of many of the world's women are not realized, this is due in great part to the fact that their human rights, as acknowledged by these instruments, are not upheld.28

Greater efforts are needed to eliminate discrimination against women especially in areas that include education, health care and employment.29  Other forms of discrimination include the fact that women are virtually ignored by those who write history.

History is written almost exclusively as the narrative of men's achievements, when in fact its better part is most often molded by women's determined and persevering action for good.30

 Concretely, the Holy Father condemns the degradation of women to objects of exploitation.

The trivialization of sexuality especially in the media, and the acceptance in some societies of a sexuality without moral restraint and without accountability, are deleterious above all to women, increasing the challenges that they face in sustaining their personal dignity and their service to life.31

 Abortion as consequence of a permissive society is often woman’s only choice borne not seldom in solitude and excruciating hardship.32  In particular John Paul II abhors,

Women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.33

In an attempt to restore dignity to women John Paul II turns first of all to women themselves,34 though he tries hard to achieve a change in consciousness in men as well.

I appeal to all men in the Church to undergo, where necessary, a change of heart and to implement, as a demand of their faith, a positive vision of women. I ask them to become more and more aware of the disadvantages to which women, and especially girls, have been exposed and to see where the attitude of men, their lack of sensitivity or lack of responsibility may be at the root.35

Mary – Archetype of Feminine Dignity

Due to the irreplaceable dignity of men and women the Roman Pontiff urges  an end to all discrimination and marginalizing of women. Above all he criticizes the degradation of women to a mere object which offends and violates her basic right to personhood.  Yet his proposal to assure the rehabilitation of woman’s dignity

…involves more than simply the condemnation of discrimination and injustices, necessary though this may be. Such respect must first and foremost be won through an effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, concentrating on all areas of women's life and beginning with a universal recognition of the dignity of women. Our ability to recognize this dignity, in spite of historical conditioning, comes from the use of reason itself, which is able to understand the law of God written in the heart of every human being. 36

It is imperative that women themselves recognize and preserve their dignity through a corresponding life style. By implementing their feminine genius women cooperate in the esteem and betterment of family, politics, society and church.37

For this concept of woman’s vocation the ideal of the Blessed Virgin, the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women,38 is indispensable. In her is perfectly realized what every human person, i.e. man and woman alike, should aspire to: To serve Him means to reign.39


1   MD 17
2   See: GS 24, MD 29 and 6.
3  See Angelus address June 18, 1995.
4  MD 6.
5  MD 7.
6  MD 7.
7  Greshake, Gisbert. Der dreieine Gott. Eine trinitarische Theoolgie. Herder 1997, 265.
8   See: MD 7.
9  John Paul II, Message for the XXVIII World Day of Peace: "Women Teachers of Peace." December 8, 1994. January 1, 1995
10  MD 6.
11 MD 7.
12 MD 7.
13 Greshake, Gisbert. Der dreieine Gott. Eine trinitarische Theoolgie. Herder 1997, 265.
14 See: MD 7.
15 John Paul II, Message for the XXVIII World Day of Peace: "Women Teachers of Peace." December 8, 1994. January 1, 1995
16 John Paul II. Theotokos: Woman, Mother, Disciple: A Catechesis on Mary, Mother of God. Pauline Books and Media 2000, 45, 43.
17 RM 46.
18 For example: MD 30, VC 58, Letter to women (6-29-1995) 9-12, Angelus addresses on July 23 and 30, August 6 and 20, September 3, 1995.
19]Compare among others MD 30, EV 99.
20 Compare MD 30.
21 See: FC 17.
22 Genesis 2:18. Other translations are "a helper meet for him and a helper suitable for him."
23 Genesis 3:20.
24 Genesis 3:15.
25 CL 51.
26 MD 30.
27 See: MD 27.
28 John Paul II. "Papal Message On Women's Conference to Mrs. Gertrude Mongella."  May 26, 1995, 2. Henceforth cited as Mongella.
29 Mongella 6.
30 Mongella 6.
31 Mongella 7
32 Mongella 7; see also MD 14.
33 "Letter of John Paul II to Women."  June 29, 1995, 3 (acquire more information on documents 11 and 12)
34 See MD 14.
35 Pope John Paul II, "Papal Appeal on Behalf Of Women." August 29, 1995.
36 June 29, 1995
37 Cf. Angelus addresses of July 16, 1995 August 27, 1995, September 9, 1995.
38 MD 5.
39 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium," 36 and MD 5.


1.  http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/1prowoman.html

2. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/2newffem.html

3.  http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/3christwom.html

4.  http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/4womedu.html

5.  http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/5womnobility.html

6.  http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/6wommasterpiece.html

7.  http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/7rolewom.html

8.   http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/8eternalfem.html

9.  http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/9geniuswom.html

10. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/10womnature.html

11. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/11papalappeal.html

12. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/12holysee.html

13. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/13womneeds.html

14. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/14popehelps.html

15. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/15womvocation.html

16. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/16womaction.html


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