This is the third in a series of articles on the dignity and vocation of women, published in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem. Read Part I here, Part II here, Part IV here, and Part V here.
Consider these extraordinary and compelling words of Blessed John Paul II in his 1988 encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem – On the Dignity of Women. “The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood; crossing it conditions “the revelation of the children of God”.
What does he mean by this? In order to understand, we need to grasp not only the whole drift of this encyclical, but also what he had in mind when, seven years later in Evangelium Vitae – The Gospel of Life, he challenged us to create a new kind of women’s movement – just as in earlier encyclicals he called for a ‘new evangelization’ and a ‘new theology of liberation’. He wrote:
“In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination’, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation” (n. 99).
Through motherhood, Pope John Paul II went on, women who are are mothers “first learn, and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognised and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change.”
I believe we need to understand the potential of motherhood, or the capacity to bear children, as being somehow paradigmatic of what it means to be female: every woman, whether she has children or not, is by definition a potential mother. She must go through the trials and tribulations of feminine biology, even if she is a consecrated virgin. Yet Pope John Paul II read this ‘data’ in a much wider sense than just the biological one. He linked the potential for motherhood not just to family life, but to society as a whole, offering a vision of what women could contribute to the good of the Church and the world, not only with our bodies, but with our minds and, most importantly of all, with our souls.
Before he speaks about the position of women in society, Pope John Paul II first speaks about the mystery of creation. Echoing that marvellous catechesis which is at the heart of his Theology of the Body, he reminds us of the significance of the Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve.
“By reflecting on this account, we can understand even more fully what constitutes the personal character of the human being, thanks to which both man and woman are like God,” he writes. And further, he says: “Man cannot exist “alone”; he can exist only as a “unity of the two”, and therefore in relation to another human person. It is a question here of a mutual relationship: man to woman and woman to man. Being a person in the image and likeness of God thus also involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other “I”. This is a prelude to the definitive self-revelation of the Triune God: a living unity in the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
In other words, the relation between male and female reveals something which is at the heart of God himself. And by extension, in becoming a mother, a woman activates the trinitarian dynamic which is inherent in the spousal mystery. Without her spouse, the dynamic is not present. It doesn’t just take two: it always takes three. This is the essential building block of a healthy society, because there is an intimate connection between the personal development of the child, and the larger society around that child. If we understood this, and were able to truly communicate this ethos, people might understand much more readily why so much contemporary reproductive technology is both inappropriate, not to mention a criminal waste of resources, even if they were not able to fully understand the moral arguments.
I am thinking here of two news reports which surfaced in the last few years. The first one was an article in the New York Times by Ruth Padawer, on the practice of implanting more than one fetus in women having fertility ‘treatment’; then eliminating one, or even several, so that she is only left with one child. The article begins with an account of a woman who is glad that the overhead screen for the ultrasound is turned off, so that she does not have to see ‘the two shadows floating inside her. Since making her decision she had tried hard not to think about them, though she could often think of little else.’ The other was a report of a woman who was woken by the phone in the early hours of one of the riots which ripped apart British cities during the summer of 2011. She was told that her son, in his early teens, was on the streets with a gang of other youths suddenly turned feral, only to express her annoyance that her sleep had been disturbed… Everyone who commented on this could see how shocking it was!
When millions of women in less developed countries are still dying in childbirth simply because they lack basic care, we have to wonder how our own countries can get their perspectives so radically upside down. If we can get people worked up about global warming, why can’t we get them to care about the mystery of creation, the human microcosm of the wonder which is our planet, right here, right now, right under our noses? Similarly, if a dawning interest in natural medicine can make us question the over-dependence of our culture on drugs, how can it not make us question the highly dangerous use of artificial hormones, at either end of the reproductive life of a woman, or more questionably still, in practices such as IVF and surrogacy?
Pope John Paul II invited women to create a new feminism based on a new outlook.
“Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a ‘wonder’ (cf. Ps 139:14),” he wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem. “It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image” (n. 83).
He was sure that if only enough women responded to this invitation, the world would be a better place. It is not enough to witness to the truth: we have to approach people with what I can only describe as a motherly or fatherly care. There is no doubt in my mind that Pope John Paulbelieved that women had a crucial role to play here, as women who respond to the example of Christ, and who in turn inspire men to genuine spiritual fatherhood.
So let us look for a moment at the existential raw material, so to speak, of giving birth. Of course, the most noticeable thing is that it involves suffering. Women may already suffer when they are pregnant. We certainly suffer when we give birth. An acceptance of that suffering for the sake of the ‘other’ – the child – is part and parcel of what a mature maternity means.
The human reaction to suffering is often to reject, or at least try and protect oneself from that which makes us suffer. And yet women giving birth must do the opposite: we must embrace, protect, rejoice in the very cause of our suffering. We must pass through the Cross. This is surely the existential truth at the heart of what St Paul is referring to when he says that women are saved by child-bearing. If this insight on his part is taken in a moralistic, or worse – a chauvinistic – sense, it entirely misses the point. For we are not saved by suffering in and of itself. Neither are we saved by our usefulness to society. We are saved by the passion and death of Christ. The new feminism will, I suspect, be rooted in the central mystery of Christianity: the mystery of fruition through suffering.
More than this: after giving birth, we are asked to be present for our children at every level, not just in early childhood, not just in the teen years, but potentially, at some moments, all through their lives (and by extension, to all those other souls who enter into our children’s lives). In this we touch on the Marian mystery. If we have ears to hear, we hear the voice of Christ through our exercise of both psychological and spiritual motherhood. We are asked to hear this voice, to hear this word, the Logos which gives supreme meaning to each individual life. Women have the potential to become the locus of everything that makes a society function properly: to be, sometimes invisibly, yet always tangibly, a sphere of creative influence in the world.
The experience of childbirth, one of the few loci of biological realism left in a materially-cushioned culture, can put us in contact with the suffering of the rest of the world. As such it could, if we let it, contribute to a new template for social cohesion. A template in which the worst moments of human existence are redeemed by the knowledge that nothing is meaningless, nothing is in vain. The meaning is quite simply the Logos, the Word made flesh, not an abstraction but a Person, given to us even today, under the form of bread and wine. A body and blood which, like the womb which bore Him, never fails to nourish.
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We ordinary, fallen women may contribute to something much, much greater than ourselves. This is surely what Blessed John Paul was referring to as that ‘threshold’ of maternity, which has such influence on the human race. Certainly he more than hints at this mystery, which echoes the final mystery of the rosary, when he starts to unpack the meaning of the words: And your sons and daughters shall prophecy. Here is my final quote from Mulieris Dignitatem.
“If the human being is entrusted by God to women in a particular way, does this not mean that Christ looks to them for the accomplishment of the “royal priesthood”, which is the treasure he has given to every individual? Christ, as the supreme and only priest of the New and Eternal Covenant, and as the Bridegroom of the Church, does not cease to submit this same inheritance to the Father through the Spirit, so that God may be “everything to everyone”. Then the truth that “the greatest of these is love” will have its definitive fulfillment.”
This article is based on a presentation made by Leonie Caldecott to the conference of MaterCare International. For more information please see www.matercare.org.