When JPII wrote Mulieris Dignitatem, he opened with the Second Vatican Council’s closing message. In his own way, JPII used that powerful verbage to set the stage for a much needed understanding of where women stood, both in the Church and as women of God and followers of Christ.
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 his 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.
At the time of JPII’s writing, in 1988, feminism had become quite “radical.” Women were floundering to understand who they were and in their “identity” quest, mistakenly believed that they ought to “masculinize” themselves. What began, years before, as an attempt to right some of the wrongs inflicted upon women, the feminist movement began inflicting their own wrongs upon the female population. The pendulum had swung from one extreme to another with the result still being one in which women were victims. Only now the culprit was other women.
Nothing more blatantly shows the error of the ways of feminism, as identified by secular standards, than the recent nomination of Sarah Palin whose “glass ceiling” bashing is now getting bashed. Those who have, at different times, listened and/or adhered to what feminists espoused are stumped about the Palin bashing. Could it be because she is pro-life? If Sarah Palin was anti-life (see, I’ve learned the spin) would feminists love her? I found great wisdom in Genevieve Kineke’s September 18th Catholic Exchange article, The End of Feminism, when she suggested that feminism was never really about the recognition of the great value and ability of women, but, rather, is simply an anti-male, anti-father, anti-life campaign. An agenda that was much easier to sell under the guise of “equal pay for equal work” slogans but whose whole premise could not hold water, especially when it became clear that a woman, who by all appearances was a “feminist,” was denied female support because she was also pro-life and pro-man.
As the speaker at a recent woman’s retreat, I shared my personal belief that it is no coincidence that during this election year we celebrate anniversaries of two great Catholic Church documents; Humanae Vitae and Mulieris Dignitatem. God’s timing is intentional and if we didn’t get the message of these documents in 1968 and 1988 respectively, it is now our chance to accept them and embrace them in this critical election year of 2008.
So, in his great wisdom (and I would even imagine in a sort of sadness), and with God’s providential hand guiding his writing, John Paul II knew it was both necessary and important to share with his flock, males and females, what God had intended when He created man and woman. Throughout the Mulieris Dignitatem discourse, JPII brilliantly sheds light upon the phrase “equal but different.” The reader of Mulieris Dignitatem, whether man or woman, cannot help but see the error in not living each and every individual life according to God’s plan for it. And make no mistake about it, God has a plan for every child, even aborted children, which makes this election such a significant one. Indeed, JPII spends a great deal of time expounding on the gift of self, which is the ultimately way in which a woman creates with God.
Another important point that John Paul II spends time on in this profound writing is God’s punishment in the words, “Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master.” These words were not meant only as a punishment for women, but also a punishment for men. Men were not created to rule and lord power over women but were intended to share in their divine appointment in marriage and in life. Man and woman were created with each bringing a unique and necessary piece to the home, the family, the community, and the world. When man misinterprets these words from God, man is losing out just as much as woman is and thus the punishment is complete for both.
Woman, for her part, “urges” after her husband as punishment that isn’t in a physical sense but in the longing for the husband’s role or position. Thus, feminists have effectively portrayed to the world the great pain of a woman who disregards the need and necessity of a man being a man and a woman being a woman. This isn’t to say that each has “gender specific roles” but, rather, each has a vocation from God that ought to be filled (think Queen Esther or Judge Deborah or Sarah or Rebekah). A woman may indeed be called to be vice-president or president and a man may indeed be called to support that woman.
What is far more important than pigeon-holing male/female roles is that each is responding to the marriage union in a mutually respectful and loving way. When God calls a man or a woman, God calls the spouse as well. This truth is seen again and again in Scripture. Consider Noah’s wife. Could Noah’s mission be accomplished without the Mrs.? No. Each was equal, but different, in the roles necessary for the saving of mankind during the flood.
But what does this really mean: equal but different? And what is the harm in aspiring to being politically correct and thus seeing everyone as the same? Our answers are found in the Matriarchs of the Jewish faith: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, the original feminists.
Four specific adjectives are applicable to Sarah, the first Matriarch, and to whom God’s promise of an heir to Abraham clearly resides. Sarah is referred to as beautiful, prophetic, regal, and barren. In the politically correct world of feminism at least two and probably three of these adjectives would be considered objectionable. Certainly we have been led to believe that it isn’t appropriate to call a woman “beautiful” and yet isn’t it true that some women are more attractive than others? Do we deny that God has made us different in our appearances?
Whether we agree or disagree with such a label, Sarah was a physically beautiful woman. This particular attribute paved the way for Abraham to gain passage through Egypt and made her attractive enough to Pharaoh so that he would “want” her and yet in the “wanting” of her be punished by God and thus we find Pharaoh heaping material goods and possessions upon Abraham. Yes, Sarah’s physical beauty served God’s purpose.
She never used it to her own benefit, or coyly, but simply as a beautiful woman who served God. However, we also know that when Scripture identifies a woman as beautiful it is often an indicator of her interior beauty as well. Other words that could be used to describe Sarah would have been virtuous, honest, righteous, and trustworthy.
Along with being beautiful, Sarah was considered prophetic. Just as Catholics have a mystical aspect of their faith, so, too, do Jews. In this way, Sarah was said to be prophetic in that she spent a great deal of her life converting her pagan neighbors to the monotheistic faith of Judaism. She “understood” the things of God, just as JPII speaks of in Mulieris Dignitatem. JPII specifically says, “Christ speaks to women of the things of God and they understand; there is a true resonance…”
Thus, a true feminist embraces and values her prophetic nature, that ability to “understand” the things of God. It is only in the “understanding” that she is able to work with God, that she is able to be who God has called her to be. Sarah was in a powerful position and used that position as God intended it to be used but was only able to do so because of her spiritual nature, because she worked in union with Abraham. When feminism abhors a woman’s innate ability to “know the things of God,” feminism is asking a woman to masculinize herself and “turn off” that part of herself that God created for His own indwelling. A true feminist may attain great heights of notoriety and fame or may never be known but lives the vocation to which God has called her live.
Sarah was also said to be “regal.” This would have been applicable to the way she physically carried herself as well as the way in which she carried herself through difficult times. In that way, her regality was tied to her barrenness. But it was within the midst of her great personal despair of remaining childless that she witnessed to her own personal commitment to the one true God. As much as others may have attempted to provoke Sarah and question the real power of the God she served, Sarah remained regal in her ways. After all, to outsiders, Sarah was professing the power of a God who wasn’t giving her children, but Sarah wouldn’t be dissuaded. This isn’t to say she was without fault and it can easily be said that in her own jealousy or impatience she took matters into her own hands in asking Abraham to take Hagar as a surrogate; but, in this way God is able to assure us, today, that He will remain faithful to His promises even if we make mistakes and have lapses in judgment.
Sarah is followed by Rebekah who, herself, is a mighty and formidable Matriarch, a real feminist who “understood the things of God.” It is said that the divine presence that left Sarah’s tent upon her death, returned when Isaac married Rebekah. The Holy Spirit was with Rebekah, just as the Holy Spirit is with each woman today. Our Advocate and Ally, the Holy Spirit allows us to discern and live the vocation to which God has called each of us. Not only are we equal but different to men, the Matriarchs remind us that we are equal but different from one another.
As feminists try to erode all labels they ask that each of us not only be equal and the same as the very men they despise, but also that we be equal and the same to one another. But Catholic women who feel faithful to Church teachings also ought to be cautious in their views. One good friend recently told me of her own prejudices when she rallied against any woman coming to “power.” My friend said she now could see the errors in her own attitudes because they were simply at the opposite ends of the feminist spectrum. A view can’t be applied in a one-size-fits-all way but must be applied in a way in which each person is supported in his or her own vocation to which God has called him or her.
JPII writes about spousal love and commitment in such a way as to make us understand that in the married state, when God calls one, He is also calling the other. Thus, the joining of a Christian man and a Christian woman in the Sacrament of Marriage is not merely a symbol of unity but is a real and actual union on which God ought to be able to rely. It is in His presence that a couple proclaims their love and support on one another, and the ways in which each may be called to serve God.
Rachel and Leah are the Matriarchs referred to in the blessing given to Boaz for his marriage to Ruth. It is the union of Boaz and Ruth that gives us the lineage from which Christ will be born. Rachel and Leah, and their two maidservants Zilpah and Bilhah, bring 12 boys into the world from which the 12 tribes of Israel will derive. So when, generations later, in the town of Bethlehem, Boaz marries Ruth, Boaz’s elders say, “May the Lord make this wife come into your house like Rachel and Leah, who between them build up the house of Israel. May you do well and win fame in Bethlehem.” Credit for the building up of the house of Israel is clearly given to two women, feminists in that they fulfilled their vocations as given by God and not by man. These were women who pursued the idea of motherhood and did not consider it a burden to bear children. The very idea of purposely removing a child from the womb would have been abhorrent to these women of God.
Feminism, then, must be defined as a woman filling her vocation, a vocation to physical motherhood, spiritual motherhood, and/or serving the community through positions of authority, but never a vocation of selfish desires. In this way feminism has roots that reach back thousands of years and is packed with myriad examples of women called to a wide variety of vocations with no two being alike but all serving God and following His edicts. Defining feminism by secular standards only causes continued pain, confusion, and frustration being heaped upon women today because feminists aren’t quite sure they recognize feminism when they see it. “Feminists” refuse to admit that a man and woman existing in a mutually loving and respectful union is the ultimate feminist statement because in such a relationship each will uplift the other.
A feminist may be a woman like Noah’s Wife who has remained forever anonymous but whose work on the ark would have been critical to its success. A feminist may be a woman like Queen Esther who was given a role of prominence and fame and who filled it with the humility of one who understands that all things come from God. Feminists are our own daughters who will fill vocations as homemakers or teachers or spiritual mothers or presidents as each is created with an equal dignity that comes from God but whose vocations may be as different as night and day.