A Civilization of Vows and the Dignity of Women

By Shivanandan, Mary | Ave Maria Law Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

A Civilization of Vows and the Dignity of Women


Shivanandan, Mary, Ave Maria Law Review


The inimitable G.K. Chesterton in The Superstition of Divorce characterizes the Christian Middle Ages as "the age of vows" and skeptical modernity as "the age of contracts"--contracts that are all too easily broken. (1) In his usual paradoxical way, Chesterton says, "It began with divorce for a king; and it is now ending in divorces for a whole kingdom." (2) The monastic vows and the marriage vows together sustained Christian society, along with the voluntary submission of the craftsman to his guild and the knight to his lord. What is unique about the vow is that it "combine[s] the fixity that goes with finality with the self-respect that only goes with freedom." (3) The vows themselves were "sustained by a sense of free will; and the feeling that its evils were not accepted but chosen." (4) For Chesterton, the alternative to the freedom guaranteed by the vow is slavery. How he works this out in the economic sphere is not our concern. How the vow relates to the dignity of women as virgin, spouse, and mother is our concern and the theme of this Article.

It was in the context of a vow of virginity that Mary conceived and bore her Son Jesus. John Paul II writes in Mulieris Dignitatem that unless one looks to the mother of God, it is impossible to understand the mystery of the "woman" or of the Church. "The Church herself is a virgin, who keeps whole and pure the fidelity she has pledged to her Spouse" in the Christ-Church union. (5) Mary as "woman" is a "singular exemplar" of the fruitfulness of both virginity and motherhood. (60) Her unique role underscores the unequivocal perspective of the feminine in understanding both the nature of the "human" and the divine economy of salvation history. The Church as Bride of Christ reveals woman fully to herself as virgin, mother, and spouse.

This Article explores on the one hand how our culture endangers woman's fulfillment as virgin, mother, and spouse, and on the other, how the vows of consecrated virginity and marriage crowned by motherhood restore woman and marriage to their true dignity. The first part illustrates the danger presented by our contemporary culture, as shown in the hookup society, the culture of divorce, and the reproductive revolution. The second part (1) gives a brief analysis of the nature of a vow within the Christian context, (2) discusses the meaning of freedom in the context of a binding vow, (3) shows that woman is oriented by nacre to the self-gift of the vow, and (4) views the "Great Mystery" of the union of Christ and the Church as the context for the vows of sacramental marriage and consecrated virginity. Finally, the Article concludes by drawing out some implications for restoring the dignity of woman, marriage, and motherhood in contemporary society.

I. CONTEMPORARY CULTURE

Let us begin with our contemporary culture, whose primary freedom is "the sort of sexual freedom which is covered by the legal fiction of divorce." (7) Three aspects of our culture are: (1) the hookup society, (2) the culture of divorce, and (3) the reproductive revolution.

A. The Hookup Society

A college student from California, in an article in the New York Times, reflects on his generation and their way of relating--or rather, not relating--to the opposite sex. His observations are entitled Let's Not Get to Know Each Other Better. (8) The young man had what he calls the "weird" desire to take a girl on a date with "flowers, dinner and all that." (9) Somehow he thought it would make him "feel more like an adult and less like a dumb little boy." (10) He contrasted this idea with casually asking the girl home where "you can sit around watching TV" and "you hardly even need to stand up, let alone put on a nice shirt." (11) The occasion inevitably ends in sexual intercourse, since he subscribes to the popular adage, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" (12) In other words, why make an effort or incur expense when you can get your pleasure for nothing? …

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