Mary and Women: John Paul II's Thought on
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.)
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. 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. 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
(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. 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.
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.
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 love
Originally, rivalry between woman and man was not part of the divine plan.
It is part of human sinfulness.
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.
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’.
Hence, each woman
ought to live according to the special qualities proper to the fact of her
more information you can connect to 9 at the end of this page.)
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.
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.
Following this train of thought, the typical vocation for every woman
according to the Roman Pontiff is motherhood in its physical and/or
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.
The Pontiff addresses
in the first place the biblical image of woman,
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!
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”
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.”
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.”
It refers to women’s intuition to preserve all that is true and fitting.
Genius and Practical
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Greater efforts are
needed to eliminate discrimination against women especially in areas that
include education, health care and employment.
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.
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.
Abortion as consequence
of a permissive society is often woman’s only choice borne not seldom in
solitude and excruciating hardship.
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.
In an attempt to restore dignity to women John Paul II turns
first of all to women themselves,
though he tries hard to achieve a change in consciousness in men as well.
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.
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.
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.
For this concept of woman’s vocation the ideal
of the Blessed Virgin,
the culminating point, the archetype, of the
personal dignity of women,
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.
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