On the Dignity and Vocation of Women

Sr. Helena Burns has written: “God did not command men to dominate women. He predicted it as the sad consequence of original sin.” So why do many cringe when Gen. 3:16 or Eph. 5:21-33 comes up?

Probably because lots of the people who discuss them don’t know what the Church actually says about women, men, and marriage. But Mulieris Dignitatem can fix that. It is a letter written by St. John Paul II to the Church, originally published on Aug. 15, 1988. It’s also known as On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.

This week, I fortuitously finished reading it a few days before the encyclical’s 27th anniversary. I picked the edition published by Pauline Books and Media, which features commentary by Genevieve Kineke. And here’s the quick version of what I have to say about it:

  • I wish I had read it years ago.
  • I need to read it again.
  • You need to read it, too.

Click here to order the same version I read, and read on for eight of my favorite quotes:

“Consider how essential Mary’s fiat was. God will not act without permission, but when we give it, God then opens us to a world of grace that transcends our comprehension. Mary shows us the tremendous implications of our personhood, the beautiful potential of womanhood, and the ramifications of holiness, that holiness ripples out to the wider world–indeed, it cannot be contained.” -St. John Paul II, page 17

“…man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist ‘side by side’ or ‘together,’ but they are also called to exist mutually ‘one for the other.’ This also explains the meaning of the ‘help’ spoken of in Genesis 2:18-25: ‘I will make a helper fit for him.’ The biblical context enables us to understand this in the sense that the woman must ‘help’ the man–and in his turn he must help her–first of all by the very fact of their ‘being human persons.'” -St. John Paul II, pages 25-26

“The woman cannot become the ‘object’ of ‘domination’ and male ‘possession.'” -St. John Paul II, page 42

“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 … The overcoming of this evil inheritance is, generation after generation, the task of every human being, whether woman or man.” -St. John Paul II, page 44

“…each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity, as a spouse, has not become in his heart an object of adultery; to see whether she who, in different ways, is cosubject of his existence in the world, has not become for him an ‘object’: an object of pleasure, of exploitation.” -St. John Paul II, page 63-64

Biblical ‘knowledge’ is achieved in accordance with the truth of the person only when the mutual self-giving is not distorted either by the desire of the man to become the ‘master’ of his wife (‘he shall rule over you’) or by the woman remaining closed within her own instincts (‘your desire shall be for your husband’: Gen. 3:16).” -St. John Paul II, page 77

“…the husband is called the ‘head’ of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give ‘himself up for her’ (Eph. 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual. … the awareness that in marriage there is mutual ‘subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ,’ and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behavior and customs.” -St. John Paul II, pages 101-102

“When the author of the Letter to the Ephesians calls Christ ‘the Bridegroom’ and the Church ‘the Bride,’ he indirectly confirms through this analogy the truth about woman as bride. The Bridegroom is the one who loves. The Bride is loved; it is she who receives love in order to love in return.” -St. John Paul II, page 119

For more information about On the Dignity and Vocation of Women or to order your own copy with commentary, click here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great stuff Arleen.

    Your inclusion of the biblical “knowledge” quote got me thinking about why we so often chuckle at that phrase as a silly, prudish euphemism for sex. It’s because we’ve so distorted our understanding of sexuality that modern society sees it first as entertainment and only as a physical event. Hooking up with someone indeed requires no “knowledge” of them at all, just lustful desire and physical activity.

    If we returned as a society to the belief that sexual union is a consummation of the physical, spiritual, and personal union, we’d understand that “to know” is not a euphemism at all, but a literal prerequisite to truly loving sexual union.

  • sarah harding

    I am so happy to see someone else has read Pope John Paul’s ”Letter to Women’. I was so impressed with it that I wrote a book titled ”Rise Catholic Women”. It’s been endorsed by clergy and an award winning journalist. Check it out on Amazon!