Pope John Paul II delivered Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) at St. Peter's in Rome on August 15, 1988, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, during the Marian year. On January 31, 2008, the Vatican Congress celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem in hopes to encourage an authentic promotion of femininity. On February 7th to the 9th, this commemoration was followed by a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Counsel for the Laity entitled "Woman and Man, the 'Humanum' in its Entirety" which culminated with a Papal address from Pope Benedict XVI.
Because of the importance of this document, I would like to take the opportunity of exploring some themes, insights, and relevant text of this letter. If nothing more, I hope to give an adequate summary. John Paul II has done much to try to fight the reduction of femininity that exists in modern feminism circles in hopes to create a new feminism that is rooted in the divine plan and dignity of womanhood.
Given the domination and objectification of women that tends to be perpetuated throughout the ages since the fall of man, there is always a need in the church to emphasize the dignity of women and the particular challenges that culturally arise in every generation. The Church must continually reflects on the nature of human dignity and develops Her social consciousness. Much of what John Paul II says in Mulieris Dignitatem has been stated elsewhere, yet the beauty of this document stands on its own. In fact, the organization Women Affirming Life has a collection of links to all of Pope John Paul II's writings on The Feminine Genius.
Appropriately, Mulieris Dignitatem begins by quoting from the Closing Message of the Second Vatican Council:
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 this 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. (MD: 1)
In light of the ongoing battle to advocate for the role of females within society, the Church must reveal the nature of true femininity and aid women in living out their vocations and professions in an authentically feminine manner. However, given modern notions of femininity and attacks on the family, the true meaning of womanhood is often vague and obscure in the minds of modern men. John Paul II has championed the need to develop an adequate anthropology and theological foundation for understanding the role of the sexes within the order of divine love. He makes clear the need to explore the place of women in the Church and society in this quote from Pope Paul VI:
Within Christianity, more than in any other religion, since its very beginning, women have had a special dignity, of which the New Testament shows us many important aspects…; it is evident that women are meant to form part of the living and working structure of Christianity in so prominent a manner that perhaps not all their potentialities have yet been made clear. (MD: 1)
The very foundation of Christianity and its present holiness depends on the involvement of woman. Thus, a discussion on the dignity of women cannot be separated from the role women play in God's plan of salvation and ultimately Mary, the Mother of both Jesus Christ and the Church, because she holds a special place of honor for all humanity. More so than any other human person, man or woman, she acts as the perfect model of faith and vessel of God's grace. The Marian dimension of the Church encompasses relationship of God with the entire human family.
The mystery of salvation cannot be understood or fulfilled without human participation, and Mary stands at the center of this mystery with her fiat. Mary discovers the meaning of her femininity in her fiat by which she abandoned herself to the will of God, making a sincere gift of self. The discovery of her authentic femininity is united to her awareness of God's grace and generosity. She recognizes herself as a creature and handmaiden of the lord.
Mary attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit. It even exceeds the expectations of all Israel, in particular the daughters of this Chosen People, who, on the basis of the promise, could hope that one of their number would one day become the mother of the Messiah. (MD: 3)
It is right to emphasize Mary as an example for all women because she acts in an un-fallen femininity that reveals the true nature of womanhood and sets an example for all humanity. Her humility and openness exemplifies the true motherhood and blessedness by which God exalts her. Similar to Eve, Mary was conceived full of grace. Unlike Eve, Mary was obedient to God and said yes where Eye said no. In Mary, we see how blessed women can really be!
Therefore the "fullness of grace" that was granted to the Virgin of Nazareth, with a view to the fact that she would become "Theotókos", also signifies the fullness of the perfection of" what is characteristic of woman", of "what is feminine". Here we find ourselves, in a sense, at the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women…The dignity of every human being and the vocation corresponding to that dignity find their definitive measure in union with God. Mary, the woman of the Bible, is the most complete expression of this dignity and vocation. For no human being, male or female, created in the image and likeness of God, can in any way attain fulfillment apart from this image and likeness. (MD: 5)
God has honored Mary, a woman, by entrusting Himself completely to her. Mary receives God completely so that God through the incarnation could give his life for the salvation of all humanity. In this way, Mary has given her life to God. Because of her openness, Mary has become mother and the fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ, brings the Church into existence. The motherhood of Mary stands at the center of salvation history.
John Paul II points out that women represent the archetype of union with God. With total surrender and a willful yes, the Church as a whole takes on a feminine nature. Beyond mere symbolism, Mary is able to fulfill a union not possible by men—the union between mother and son. The reality is not that all humans become masculine in their relationship with God, but that all people must become feminine in their relationship with God. This is why the Church is appropriately referred to in the feminine and Christ is considered the bridegroom and we the bride. Our earthly understanding of this divine reality finds its roots in human love and the designation of human marriage. All feminine and masculine qualities find their perfection in God. This is why "man" — male and female — made in the image and likeness of God can find femininity or masculinity as two different ways in which the human person is created in the image of God.