Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Dignity of Women: A look at Mulieris Dignitatem (post 3)

After examining the original solitude and original unity of man and woman as created in the image of God, both as individuals and collectively, John Paul II describes the nature and consequences of original sin. In order to properly understand the dignity of women, we must first understand how this dignity has been affronted through the fall of humanity. The introduction of sin ruptured the original unity between man and woman. This fall from grace has irrevocable effects on all relationships.

The mystery of sin can only enter the world through humanity because man and woman reveal the image of God. Although destined and called to freely share in the inner life of God, man and woman must still choose God and willfully make a sincere gift of self. God endowed man and woman with the natural goods of reason, free will, and a partner to help them understand their call to communion and the sincere gift of self, yet man still rebelled.

By committing sin man rejects this gift and at the same time wills to become "as God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5), that is to say, deciding what is good and what is evil independently of God, his Creator. The sin of the first parents has its own human "measure": an interior standard of its own in man's free will, and it also has within itself a certain "diabolic" characteristic, which is clearly shown in the Book of Genesis (3:15). Sin brings about a break in the original unity which man enjoyed in the state of original justice: union with God as the source of the unity within his own "I", in the mutual relationship between man and woman ("communio personarum") as well as in regard to the external world, to nature. (MD: 9)

John Paul II makes it clear that independent of the ‘distinction of roles’ that Adam and Eve performed in the narrative recounting original sin; both man and woman are equally responsible for the transgression against God. Man rejects likeness to God by refusing to make a sincere gift of self, and this destroys the communion of persons. This willful disobedience puts a tragic strain on the relationship between God and man that God cannot ignore. God is offended, man and woman are deeply affected, and man’s eternal destination for supernatural happiness has been rejected.

The mystery of sin brings about the experience of suffering. The great offense done to the creator affects all of creation and more particularly this rupture resounds in the physical and spiritual condition of man. The newfound knowledge discovered by man was toil, pain, and death imbedded in the human experience for all generations.

Original Sin also creates a fundamental division between man and woman that threatens their ability to enter into an authentic relationship of love. Scripture describes one of the consequences of sin to the woman: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). John Paul II states that this dominion over women by men denotes a “loss of the stability of that fundamental equality” that man and woman mutually possessed in unity with one another. This dis-unity diminishes both the dignity of man and woman because the authentic communion of persons depends upon the equality rooted in their dignity (MD: 10).

In a way, this division connotes a type of primordial divorce between the sexes that threatens the sacramental meaning of marriage and this danger exists in every generation.

The matrimonial union requires respect for and a perfecting of the true personal subjectivity of both of them. The woman cannot become the "object" of "domination" and male "possession". But the words of the biblical text directly concern original sin and its lasting consequences in man and woman. Burdened by hereditary sinfulness, they bear within themselves the constant "inclination to sin", the tendency to go against the moral order which corresponds to the rational nature and dignity of man and woman as persons (MD: 10)

The consequence for men is a tendency to objectify women as objects of lust rather than subjects recipient to love. The “inclination to sin” will continuously burden the mutual relationship between man and woman.

It is very important to understand that the dominion of men over women occurred as a consequence of sin, and that John Paul II claims that this dominion over women and tendency to objectify must be overcome through God’s grace. Still, given modern debate of “women’s rights,” another danger arises. In trying to liberate women from the sin of male domination this should not attempt to “liberate” women of their femininity.

Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words "He shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the "masculinization" of women. In the name of liberation from male "domination", women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine "originality". There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not "reach fulfilment", but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness. (MD: 10)

Women must act in an authentically feminine way as embodied in the openness and humility of Mary, the mother of God. The richness of being woman is intimately connected to her femininity. Modern feminism that tries to trivialize the sexual differences of man and woman attack the natural goodness of sexuality and sexual differentiation. Love does not seek to irradiate sexual difference but to conquer sin.

The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her "fulfilment" as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the "image and likeness of God" that is specifically hers. The inheritance of sin suggested by the words of the Bible - "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" - can be conquered only by following this path. The overcoming of this evil inheritance is, generation after generation, the task of every human being, whether woman or man. For whenever man is responsible for offending a woman's personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation. (MD: 10)

Every woman has the task of exploring the meaning of her femininity and her special dignity as a woman. Every woman reflects the image of God in a unique way, and she plays a particular role in the family of God. The meaning of being man and woman cannot be understood apart from the other and apart from the reality of being made in the “image and likeness of God.” Because of the inter-connectedness between the sexes, the dignity of woman must be protected by man and male dominance must be resisted for the sake of both man and woman.

Original sin leaves humanity in a dire predicament. Next week I will discuss the mercy of God on humanity and what has been named the “proto-evangelium” which foretells the prominent role of woman in the redemption of humanity.


Sarah Metz said...

This is great! I actually just finished writing about Edith Stein's views on this exact topic, but I guess I'll save it for another time :)
It's a fascinating subject and extremely relevant to all of our relationships. Just out of curiosity, what do you think the application is to the idea of a woman president (not necessarily Hillary Clinton)?

Ryan Hallford said...

I have no problem with the idea of a woman president. I think the present state of politics in the United States makes it difficult for a woman to achieve presidency while maintaining an authentic expression of her femininity, however I believe this is currently true for men as well as an authentic expression of masculinity. A feminine expression in the office of president might be of worthwhile value to our country. Sadly, I believe politics are presently hostile to both sexes seeking to serve their country with integrity and virtue. The only stipulation I would have for candidates seeking political positions like the presidency is that the position they seek should not lead them to neglect their responsibility to their spouse and children, whether that candidate is a man or a woman.