Mulieris Dignitatem Twenty Years Later: An Overview of the Document and Challenges

Article excerpt


August 15, 2008, marked the twentieth anniversary of the promulgation of the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem. (1) This Article provides an overview of Mulieris Dignitatem, looking at some of the key principles Pope John Paul II articulates. This Article describes how the principles were innovative with respect to previous teaching about women, evaluates the principles in light of present developments in our American culture, and suggests some possible ways we might consider acting on these principles for a new evangelization. Reflections proceed chronologically and thematically through Mulieris Dignitatem.

This Article discusses the following themes: Part I, the truth about the human being; Part II, Mary, the Mother of God, as our pilgrim guide; Part III, communio in the Holy Trinity as analogous for communio of women and men; Part IV, the rupture within a person and among persons through sin; Part V, encountering Jesus Christ as enabling this rupture to be overcome; Part VI, the mandate to release each woman's genius in the face of evil for the good of all; Part VII, paradigm dimensions of women's vocations in the Church; Part VIII, complementarity through spousal bonds; and Part IX, plans of action through educating on the nature and dignity of women and through ransoming language.


In this meditation on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II returns to the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), promulgated in 1965. (2) An integral part of Mulieris Dignitatem comes from a famous passage in Gaudium et Spes. (3) The passage states, "Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear." (4) How does Jesus do this? How does Jesus Christ reveal one to oneself, as this particular woman or man, at this particular time and place in his or her life? Mulieris Dignitatem helps answer this question.

This call to discover the greatness of the human being is in both Gaudium et Spes and Mulieris Dignitatem. (5) Compare those texts with the following observation from Cardinal Ratzinger:

      Today there is a remarkable hatred among people for their own
   real greatness. Man sees himself as the enemy of life, of the
   balance of creation, as the great disturber of the peace of nature
   (which would be better off if he did not exist), as the creature
   that went wrong. His salvation and the salvation of the world would
   on this view consist of his disappearing, of his life and soul being
   taken back from him, of what is specifically human vanishing so that
   nature could return to its unconscious perfection in its own rhythm
   and with its own wisdom of dying and coming into being. (6)

The call to overcome this "remarkable hatred among people for their own greatness" brings a kind of new urgency to our reflections during this year, the twentieth anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem. Reflecting on this call is not simply an intellectual exercise; it is also a way of participating in the new evangelization of the Church and the world. This call to overcome self-hatred begins with the truth about the human being, about woman and about man. Each of us has been created with the possibility of eternal life in communion with God and the saints. (7) This is the true greatness of our unique personal being.

Pope John Paul II explores this truth at the beginning of Mulieris Dignitatem, and he shows how it relates particularly to the dignity of women. John Paul II says that understanding woman's dignity and vocation requires us to

   understand[] the reason for and the consequences of the Creator's
   decision that the human being should always and only exist as a
   woman or a man. It is only by beginning from these bases, which
   make it possible to understand the greatness of the dignity and
   vocation of women, that one is able to speak of their active
   presence in the Church and in society. …