A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling that human person to grow inside of her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic when they are open to accepting the other person.
KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - I cannot help but wonder at two opposing visions of women on Mother's Day: the postmodern feminist vision and the Catholic vision. In my first article, I explored a feminist vision of women. In this article, I will explore a Catholic vision using two sources written by Blessed John Paul II: The Gospel of Life and On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, which was written 25-years-ago come this August.
In The Gospel of Life, John Paul II says man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence. This supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence.
Human existence is a process of divinization made possible in and through Christ. It reaches its full realization only in eternity. This means that human life is a sacred reality to be preserved and brought to perfection in love as a gift of ourselves to God and to each other.
Women, Pope John Paul II tells us, are called in a special way to bear witness to this sacred reality through genuine love and to reconcile people with life. Women are specially suited to this task because the experience of motherhood makes them acutely aware of another person. Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life as it develops in the mother's womb.
This unique contact with a new human being developing within them gives rise to an attitude towards all human beings, which profoundly marks the woman's personality. In other words, a mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling the human person to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic when they are open to accepting the other person.
John Paul II develops the Catholic vision of women in more detail in his Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. He begins with these words from Vatican II:
"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 so much to aid humanity in not falling."
The Church also recognizes that the relationship between men and women has been disturbed by sin. Where there was unity, now there is a division and a certain degree of conflict. And this rift is more serious for women. It has hurt and disadvantaged them more, and resulted in certain inequalities.
But John Paul II cautions women that even rightful opposition to this inequality must not "lead to the masculinization of women. . . . 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 fulfillment, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness." After cautioning women against, what I understand as the postmodern feminist position, he offers the following alternative:
Human beings are the only creatures created by God for their own sake; however, because they are created in the image of God they can only find themselves through the sincere gift of self. Although we image God as individuals and in various associations, we most fully image Him in the union of man and woman. Consequently, the dignity of women is closely connected with the love given to them and also with the love they give in return.
The love to be given to women is described in Ephesians, chapter five. It says that Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. Blessed John Paul II says this kind of love affirms women as persons on a fundamental level and makes it possible for the female personality to develop fully and be enriched.
Women return this love in a profound sense by being open to motherhood. Women are naturally (physically and psychologically) constituted in their femininity or disposed to motherhood, that is, conception, pregnancy and giving birth resulting from marital union. So "Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of women and to the personal dimension of the gift [of love]."
John Paul II further explains that the mutual gift of self in marriage opens to the gift of life. By its very nature, motherhood entails a unique openness to a new person. He says this is precisely the woman's part--conception, and by being open to it, she finds herself through the sincere gift of self.
Moreover, women find their dignity and strength in the fact that God entrusts the human being to them in a special way as a direct result of their femininity. Those women who are aware of this dignity and the vocation they derive from it become "an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people." Such women are owed much by their families and sometimes by their nations.
Whether the vocation of motherhood is lived out spiritually or temporally, it involves a special communion with the whole mystery of life, that is, the mystery of creation, redemption and the Church. Because Mary was "full of grace," she entered into this mystery more fully than any other human being in history, and her status as the Mother of God signifies the perfection of what is characteristic of women and femininity.
Mary was so completely open to life that he who is eternal life came to humanity through her. She carried him in her womb and nursed him. But she did something else, something that, I believe, the men and women living in this age need to reflect on. She urged her son, Jesus, the second person in the Trinity, to begin his public ministry at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:3).
If Mary's perfection is characteristic of women and femininity, then rather than minimize the differences between men and women as feminists want to do, it would seem that holy women need to fully embrace the dignity, beauty and mystery that naturally belongs to their femininity. Then they need to urge men to embrace their masculinity and to act, to begin their public ministry, so to speak.
The beautiful writings of John Paul II have always inspired me and given me hope. These short excerpts have given me the following hope: When men and women begin to see their differences as complementarities and as sources of strength to be shared rather than sources of conflict and inequalities, I believe they will set the world on fire and unleash goodness and freedom throughout the world.
Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
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