[Editor's note: As the Vatican congress described below indicates, Holy Mother Church earnestly desires Catholic women to give attention this year to unpacking the riches of this Catholic teaching. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of John Paul's Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Catholic Exchange is offering a ten week, online women's study that begins April 7th 2008. The online format provides great flexibility for participation and includes a certificate of completion for the women who wish to take this course to fulfill catechesis credits at the approval of their diocese or DRE's. The study has been approved by National Association of Catholic Chaplains for continuing education credits. Go here for registration.]
"If we had held a congress on Mulieris Dignitatem twenty years ago, it would have unfolded very differently." Cardinal Rylko, President of the Pontifical Council, for the Laity made this statement at the outset of his final remarks, bringing to a close a three day International Congress which focused on John Paul II's remarkable 1988 document "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women."
Women in the conference hall, nourished throughout by a wealth of inspired presentations, nodded in agreement. They had enjoyed hearing the sublime truth of God's creation of male and female considered from a variety of angles, through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, politics, theology, history, biology, philosophy and personal experience. Each dimension underscored the beautiful truth: "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27).
While some could recognize the tremendous insights of Karol Wojtyla long ago, when he first offered his thoughts on the feminine vocation, most have needed the ensuing years to take them to heart, to pray over them, and to apply them to various fields of inquiry. The time has been well-spent.
Hanna Barbara Geri-Falkovitz of the University of Dresden, for example, related how freeing the Judaic understanding of woman was in a world deeply involved in fertility cults, which degraded both women and motherhood. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also called women into personal relationship with Him and elevated their motherhood to an integral part of His covenant with mankind. While each new soul was indeed part of the tribe, the joy of procreation was a personal event which linked each mother with the plan of God and provided a treasured means of witness.
Later, in the earliest years of Christianity, women — both Jewish and gentile — flocked to the new faith, for they saw in it the beautiful call to metanoia which reflected their own freedom and dignity. Jesus had called particular women of varied backgrounds, which underscored His care for each soul, His generous mercy toward contrite hearts, and the value He placed on their feminine gifts in the Kingdom of God.
Jack Scarisbrick gave a riveting talk about the courage and creativity of faithful women in the recusant period in England, when Henry VIII and Elizabeth I made fidelity to Rome a capital offence. Whether busy running manor homes or attending to their servile tasks, many Catholic women of all ranks managed to hide priests, to establish clever networks and to make the sacraments available to those who remained loyal to Holy Mother Church. These women risked financial ruin, corporal punishment, shunning by the wider community — and ultimately many paid with their lives.
Janne Haaland Matlary has had a distinguished public career in Norway and serves on various Vatican committees. She offered her perspective on the way that women in northern Europe have attempted to combine motherhood with paid work, and how her legislature has attempted to help. In her estimation, the government's provision of extended paid maternity leave has helped to boost the birthrate in a region where birthrates are precipitously low. She acknowledges that each region of the world must respond wisely to its own challenges, but she was in a unique position to say what practical steps have worked for her country.
On an international level, Marguerite Peeters of Belgium related how the gender feminists have coopted the mechanisms of the United Nations in order fabricate world-wide consensus on terms that have never even been defined. They are using this international body to facilitate frightening social engineering methods in countries that turn to the organization for funding their projects and assisting with dire medical needs. What they receive instead are coercive programs that undermine family life, existing values, and the very culture that has sustained them for so long. Key to the destruction is the attack on motherhood and chastity of the young, and key to curbing this insidious attack is an exposition of the language at the heart of the lies.
Helen Alvare, law professor at Catholic University in Washington, DC, gave an energetic presentation on the objectification of women which is driven by a two-fold agenda. Men, obviously, derive a certain satisfaction from this trend; but the shocking element is the cooperation by women in their own degradation. Having chafed in previous generations over being denied access to education, important parts of the job market and respect as serious contributors to the world outside the home, women's access to all three has instead brought with it an obsession with superficialities such as beauty, fashion, and the pursuit of eternal youth. Curiously, despite their anger in the past over being reduced to sex objects, presently they seem to be pursuing this very thing with abandon.
Two Italian sociologists, Giulia Paola Di Nicola and Attilio Danese, collaborated beautifully on a presentation about the sociological distinctions between the masculine and feminine vocations, stressing the importance of each sex in the formation of the next generation. Elaborating on the difference between how Christian anthropology and existentialism each see the human child, they cited studies that show how damaging it is to raise children with androgynous or even "neutral" views on gender identity. Moreover, they stressed that not only does each child need models to help with healthy sexual identity, they also thrive best when they are exposed to the truth about their ultimate vocation — which is to find authentic communion with God and others.
Collaboration of the Petrine and the Marian Dimensions of the Church
These three examples barely scratch the surface of the breadth of information provided at the Congress, aptly titled "Woman and Man, The Whole of Humanity." Cardinal Rylko, his staff and all the participants were obviously pleased at what had transpired and wished fervently that the wisdom imparted would not only spread to a wider audience, but also inspire local initiatives that would add to the understanding of our two-sexed universe.
Since the Church has steadfastly responded over the centuries to various attacks on her deposit of truth, the intensity of the attacks over motherhood, fatherhood and family life in recent decades has brought about a similar reaction. In this case, the confusion has caused Catholics to deepen their understanding of human sexuality and has intensified their desire to spread the good news about the theology of the body. Essential to that understanding is the collaboration between men and women, and the beauty of their shared perspectives. To that end, the Cardinal remarked joyfully that the Congress itself had been a marvelous example of the harmony reached when the Marian dimension of the Church — the women, who prayed and studied and taught — were in union with the Petrine dimension of the Church — the men who had offered their lives in imitation of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
It was a privilege to participate in and contribute to such an endeavor. It was indeed a prophetic moment in the history of the Church. It now remains to us to live it, to study it, and to share it. Not only is this the age of the laity, but we find ourselves in a particular juncture in history in which women, "imbued with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling" (Closing Documents, Vatican II).