"The Feminine Vocation" in Pope John Paul II's Mulieris Dignitatem
Prokes, Mary Timothy, Ave Maria Law Review
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 ....
... It is a question of understanding 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. (1)
~Pope John Paul II
It is audacious for anyone, in the contemporary global context, to address and interpret the meaning of "The Feminine Vocation." Yet that is precisely what Pope John Paul II did in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem in 1988. In the previous year, the Synod of Bishops had focused on "The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World Twenty Years after the Second Vatican Council." (2) The Synod recommended "further study of the anthropological and theological bases that are needed in order to solve the problems connected with the meaning and dignity of being a woman and of being a man." (3)
The Pope did not simply encourage others to take up this task. He swiftly contributed to it, building upon almost ten years of his public audiences that were rooted in scholarly reflection on the Theology of the Body, the meaning of marriage and human sexuality, and major contemporary developments challenging integral relationships. (4) His personal experience as priestly mentor to young women and men in Poland, his penetrating understanding of human life in desperate conditions of war and persecution, and his poetic sensitivity to human relationships enabled him to apply theological insight, prayerful wisdom, and philosophical acuity to urgent human questions. He perceived a particular need for "the vocation of women [to be] acknowledged in its fullness." (5)
As a basis for understanding his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem in its profundity, this paper will first discuss two essential aspects of the document: first, the universal breadth of its approach; and second, the terminology employed in developing this reflection on the feminine vocation. With these in mind, I suggest that understanding three basic elements of Mulieris Dignitatem assists one in receiving Pope John Paul II's self-described "meditation" on the feminine vocation. (6) The three elements are the centrality of Divine Revelation, the communion of opposites, and an understanding of the embodied person as gift.
I. UNIVERSAL CONTEXT
In chapter two of Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II expressly interprets the "feminine vocation" within a universal context-indeed, a cosmic context--extending from the creation of human life to the end times. (7) The chapter opens with the Pauline text from Galatians 4:4: "When the time had fully come, God sent Forth his son, born of woman." (8) In that proclamation, St. Paul indicates that a preparatory period--indeterminate in the human measuring of time--had reached the point of readiness for the Incarnation. The Pope notes the significant fact that "St. Paul does not call the Mother of Christ by her own name 'Mary,' but calls her 'woman': this coincides with the words of the Proto-evangelium in the Book of Genesis (cf. 3:15)." (9) Mary of Nazareth is the woman, present and completely given to the central salvific event marking what St. Paul called the "fullness of time." (10) The Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity was realized in and through her, and it remains the key event of salvation history. (11) The phrase "fullness of time" designates the definitive self-revelation of God expressed humanly, bodily: the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate in Mary's womb. (12)
Since all creation revolves around this event, and since, as John Paul avers, every human question pertains to it, he locates his approach to the "feminine vocation" in that perspective, describing his approach as panoramic. …