On the Dignity of Women
In the beginning, God created them male and female in His own image and likeness. When God chose to come into the world, He chose a woman. A woman was chosen to be an essential part of the history of salvation. Therefore, women’s importance, dignity and vocation cannot be minimized. This is, I am afraid, precisely what has been done in the pages of The Observer.
In her letter to the editor last semester, Judy Amorosa tried to right ancient wrongs, but she did so unjustly and therefore only succeeded in producing more wrongs. She tried to show us the magnitude of woman’s contribution of life, but she overdid it by minimizing the biological role of men in procreation. Later, she asserted men have responsibilities towards children: yet men have great responsibilities because their role is not incidental, but as essential as women’s. Nonetheless, as Pope John Paul the Great says in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (MD), women bear the larger load. The pope goes so far as to say that “in their shared parenthood [the man] owes a special debt to the woman,” affecting the very definition of equal rights (par. 18).
Women are not mere receptacles, just as men are not mere tools. Referring to Mary as a spiritual vessel and a vessel of honor is an admittedly imprecise way of noting Christ lived inside her. For Mary did much more than provide living space — in bearing God, she gave Him His humanity.
Mary’s proclamation of herself as the handmaid of the Lord is a parallel to Christ being the servant of the Lord of whom Isaiah spoke. Mary’s station is full of dignity. It is not offensive to women to say that the woman is a handmaid, since Mary is imitating God Himself in being a servant (MD par. 5).
The Incarnation of God in Mary is not a myth, as Ms. Amorosa implies. Mary is the model of a woman of the New Covenant. Her dignity is enormous, as she is united to God in a way no other human being ever has or ever will be; this kind of union can only happen between a mother and her child (MD par. 4). This bond is so beautiful and powerful that it cannot be broken. A mother’s bond with her child is sacred, and this sanctity not granted or taken away by the courts but inscribed in nature by nature’s God.
Power implies responsibility, not rights. A few nations have the power to blow up this planet with atomic bombs. They also have the power to save this planet by better distribution and management of resources. A woman has, indeed, the power to kill the child who lives in her body and the power to introduce her to the world. However, just as there is no right to choose to blow up the world, there is no right to choose to kill a fetus. Fortunately, might is not right; this is bad news for abortionists and for wife-beaters. “For whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and vocation” (MD par. 10), which is one of total self-giving.
And yes, fetuses — who have not committed any crimes — are innocent.
After the Fall, the woman was told the consequences of her sin: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). This statement makes reference to what a true marriage is: a communion of equals who have different vocations and roles and who can find personal fulfillment only in complete and mutual gift of self. Therefore, women “cannot become the ‘object’ of ‘domination’ and male ‘possession,’” and neither can she let herself be ruled by her instincts and passions. Genesis 3:16 describes precisely this concupiscence, this inclination to sin. Yet the rightful woman’s rebellion against objectification cannot imply a loss of “the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation,” a richness so great that the first words of man upon seeing her are of “admiration and enchantment.” Only by embracing her share in the image and likeness of God, as it was bestowed on her, can woman rid herself of the “inheritance of sin” implied in Gen. 3:16, and attain fulfillment in the giving of herself (MD par. 10, 18).
The pope goes on to note that the Genesis story of creation implies men and women are human beings to an equal degree and woman is a person just as man is. The language of the second story is less precise and more metaphorical, but in expressing the truth of creation the author notes that “the woman is immediately recognized by man as ‘flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones,’” with equal dignity (MD par. 6; Gen. 2: 23).
Men and women were created to be, not only together, but more importantly “one for the other,” in communion. This union is the image of the Holy Trinity, for women and men are designed to help each other in a mutual gift of self (MD par. 7). Precisely because man and woman are God’s image and likeness, one can speak of God attributing masculine and feminine qualities to Him so as to understand better the mystery of the divine. Yet the pope warns that our Deity is spiritual and therefore is neither masculine nor feminine. God chose to be called Father, but His is a spiritual fatherhood, free of bodily connotations (par. 8).
When we proclaim woman’s vocation and dignity, we imitate God. In the Old Testament, God spoke to both women and men, although He chose men to establish the Old Covenant. But when the new and everlasting Covenant was established, He started with a woman, Mary. For in Christ “there is no male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). And then she sings that the Lord has done great things for her, the pope says, because the Incarnation has meant “the discovery of all the richness and personal resources of femininity, all the eternal originality of the ‘woman,’ just as God wanted her to be, a person [loved by God] for her own sake, who discovers herself ‘by means of a sincere gift of self” (MD, par. 11).
Christ was an advocate of the dignity of woman in more than one way. A very significant way He did this was by proclaiming women’s rights on the question of divorce. Women could no longer be cast aside when found unattractive or useless, but ought to be valued just as men, for “in the beginning” marriage had been established forever (MD par. 12; Mt 19:6). He referred to women with terms that had been previously reserved to men, like “Daughter of Abraham,” distancing himself from the discrimination of his day (par. 13).
Commenting on the episode of the woman caught in adultery, the pope says: “Jesus seems to say to the accusers: is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your ‘male’ injustice, your misdeeds?” (par. 14). Are not the adulterer and the adulteress equally sinners? I am reminded of a saying of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz that I will paraphrase: in prostitution, who is the biggest sinner? The one who sins for pay or the one who pays to sin?
We take for granted what Jesus means for women. Jesus talks with women often, communicates profound mysteries to them and receives deep expressions of faith from them. We take for granted that He spoke with the Samaritan at the well, forgetting that it was unusual for an important rabbi to speak with a woman (MD par. 15; John 4:27). Christ valued women, their great dignity and their special vocation.
Women, do not lay aside your dignity. Do not abdicate it to abusive men or abusive ideologies. For you were born in the dawn of time, and yours is the inheritance promised to us. Live your vocation, where you are called, as women. Live fully, giving fully of yourselves.
Gabriel Xavier Martínez is a graduate student in economics. Suggestions, approval and comic relief from Theresa Rae Carder were crucial in the writing of this article.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, August 4, 1999