This was first published in the Toronto Catholic Register
I was looking for it today. As cynical politicians and others depend on our shortened memories, it is important to witness to events and people one remembers. I believe it is going to be very, very important for devout Catholics to remember whatever they can of Saint John Paul 2, the good and the bad, study his works, and fight for his "Gospel of Life" legacy. Here's what I wrote about his respect for the dignity of women.
The Radical Feminism of John Paul II
I’ve been invited to give four talks to Polish women on retreat at the Redemptorists’ retreat centre in Krakow. One of my topics is “John Paul II and Mulieris Dignitatem,” and if you are wondering if the thought of giving a talk—in English—in Polish women in Krakow about Blessed John Paul II is intimidating, the answer is “Yes.”
Canadian Catholics know how beloved John Paul was and is to his fellow Poles. What we might not remember is how much respect he had for women. When I was a child—and a teenager—and a young adult—I constantly heard muttering of how John Paul II didn’t like women. Even Catholic women complained about the Pope’s lack of concern for women: this usually meant the Pope’s refusal to magically declare that it was now okay to ordain women priests. Thus, when I finally got around to reading John Paul II’s theology of women, I was blown away by how radical it really is.
The major sources for John Paul II’s theology of women are Love and Responsibility, Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity of Women”) and his 1993 “Letter to Women.” Love and Responsibility is associated more with sex and marriage and, of course, has touched off a huge “Theology of the Body” industry. As such, it does not interest me as much as Mulieris Dignitatem and “Letter to Women,” which are more about women in ourselves. The key to John Paul’s theology of woman can be found in his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows that his motto “Totus Tuus” (“All Yours”) refers to her. And it is not a surprise, either, that someone who lost his earthly mother at the age of eight might adopt our Lady so totally as his mother and guide. And it is significant, of course, that Mulieris Dignitatem was published on the Feast of the Assumption during a Marian year.
John Paul begins his reflections with a meditation on the Annunciation. A woman was asked to be the means through which God would send his Son to redeem the world—but not just as means, but as a mother. And thus, of all the human race, it is a woman who “attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit.” As a human being, Mary represents the humanity that belongs to all human beings, men and women. And she is a model for both men and women because she said “Yes” to God. As her Son would later identify himself as a servant, so Mary during the Annunciation also calls herself the “maidservant of the Lord.” It is the dignity of both women and men to serve.
Service to God and others is fundamental to John Paul II’s theology of what it means to be a human being in union with God. And he notes, both in Mulieris Dignitatem and in his “Letter to Women”, that women seem to have both a special genius for receiving the Word of the Lord and in serving others. Following the work of Saint Edith Stein, he asserts that all women, not just women with children, are called to be mothers. It involves “a special readiness to be poured out for the sake of those who come within one’s range of activity.” It involves being open to each and every person. And this is not proscriptive, incidentally, but descriptive. John Paul is well aware of the many ways in which women have always poured themselves out for others, ways that have not always been as respected as they should be.
And that’s where things get radical. Moving beyond St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Edith Stein, who both believed that woman was made for man, to be the companion of man, John Paul asserts that woman was made for herself, as the human being—male and female--was the only creature made for himself. Woman is called to be the companion of man, but man is also called to be the companion of woman. All humanity is thus “a unity in two.” Again and again John Paul repeats that men and women are equal in dignity. Masculinity is no more important than femininity. He lists and deplores the way in which discrimination has hurt women since the Fall. He interprets Saint Paul’s thoughts about married life as a call, not for wives to be subjugated to their husbands, but for “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ.”
John Paul offers our Lord Jesus Christ as a model for how men should treat women. He notes that our Lord behaved in a counter-cultural way by how he spoke with women, healed women, included women amongst his followers and friends. The Gospels are full of stories of women of age and condition, all of whom our Lord treated with kindness and respect. Men who do not treat women with kindness and respect sin both women’s dignity and their own.
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