Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Dignity of Women: A look at Mulieris Dignitatem (post 2)

In last week's post, I looked at some of the reasons Pope John Paul II offered for writing Mulieris Dignitatem. The foundation of Christianity and salvation history intimately depends on the participation of women. This role is exemplified in the unfallen femininity of Mary who achieves perfect union with God. In order to bring this discussion into a broader context, John Paul II directs his attention to the creation narrative to understand the beginning of man.

One of the things that may be difficult for some people to discern is when John Paul II uses the term "man" to refer to both man and woman and when "man" only refers to man and not woman. I hope that it will suffice to point out that man, at least in the English translation, is used both ways in Mulieris Dignitatem. Although I find the usage of man reasonably obvious, I have heard many people complain about the opposite.

Any attempt to comprehend and construct a Christian anthropological understanding of man must flow from understanding man as made "in the image and likeness of God." John Paul II claims that man—both man and woman, is collectively the culmination of creation. In reference to the first creation account in Genesis, John Paul states:

This concise passage contains the fundamental anthropological truths: man is the highpoint of the whole order of creation in the visible world; the human race, which takes its origin from the calling into existence of man and woman, crowns the whole work of creation, both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image. (MD: 6)

Accordingly, this "image of God" translates into a quality common to all humans that constitutes a major way humans differ from animals: rationality. As rational beings, humans have the conscious ability to know, choose, and intend to follow the will of God or, as we soon discover, to rebel against God. "Every individual is made in the image of God, insofar as he or she is a rational and free creature capable of knowing God and loving him." (MD: 7) While reason is definitely a likeness to God, another significant and primary way humans reflect this reality consists of the original unity between man and woman.

The second creation account of man found in Genesis uses metaphorical language to express human likeness to God in terms of the communion between man and woman. Man, in his original solitude, recognized more differences than similarities between himself and the animals because he was of a different essence. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II explains that original solitude refers to the experience of man as such because the experience of original solitude is substantially prior to the masculinity and femininity of the original unity (TOB; 8:1). We must realize that experience of original solitude is universal to all humanity, prior to masculinity and femininity, and yet prefigures this sexual duality. Furthermore, this experience of solitude translates into every human's experience as a unique autonomous individual. In contrast to the original solitude, we learn that it is not good for man to "be alone." Already God reveals something of his own inner-mystery. Man ought not to be alone because God is not alone, but a communion of persons.

In the description found in Gen 2:1 8-25, the woman is created by God "from the rib" of the man and is placed at his side as another "I", as the companion of the man, who is alone in the surrounding world of living creatures and who finds in none of them a "helper" suitable for himself. Called into existence in this way, the woman is immediately recognized by the man as "flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones" (cf. Gen 2:23) and for this very reason she is called "woman". In biblical language this name indicates her essential identity with regard to man - 'is-'issah - something which unfortunately modern languages in general are unable to express: "She shall be called woman ('issah) because she was taken out of man ('is)": Gen 2:23. (MD: 6)

Only when both man and woman are present to each other can they transcend the original solitude, and this is called the original unity. Man is able to understand himself in an essential way of which he was not capable before the presence of woman. Likewise, the woman can only understand herself in the presence of man. Thus, both the man and woman become mutual helpers of each other. For between man and woman there is more similarity than difference. Man expresses this truth in his confession to the woman: "flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone." While man found more difference than similarity among the different plants and animals, only in the face of woman does he find someone of the same essence and dignity. Through the experience of the other, man and woman come to understand their own human nature.

From the previous passages, we can deduce that man became the "image of God" not only through his own humanity and rationality, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning. The sexual designation of the body and spirit only make sense if the opposite sex exits. Man and woman exist mutually for each other. The presence of the other allows man and woman to recognize their call to communion and love, and this communion of love mirrors the divine mystery of love that originates in relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Human love and family finds its source in God. Man ought to love because God is love.

To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist "for" others, to become a gift. (MD: 7)

The experience of being either man or woman, masculine or feminine, exists as "two reciprocally completely ways of 'being a body' and at the same time of being human" and "two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body" (TOB; 10: 1). This duality calls us to an interpersonal communion with the other. The original unity becomes the basis for all community and the economy of the gift. The good of the individual is united to the good of every other individual. From the beginning this call is manifested within marriage, but as the whole of human history unfolds, other ways to express this communion open up on the horizon of salvation history. The summary of this truth is that man and woman cannot find themselves fully except through a sincere gift of self.

In my next post, I will focus on the rupture in the relationship between man, woman, and God. With the introduction of sin and the original dis-unity, John Paul II points to the tendency of male dominance and the reduction of women as objects of lust rather than mutual helpers that has consistently plagued humanity in every generation. Contrary to the original unity, sin always threatens to distort the proper relationship between man and woman.

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