In 2008 we shall have the twentieth anniversary of the Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem by John Paul II on the dignity and vocation of women. This letter is in perfect continuity with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council which encouraged a much wider participation of women not only in the cultural and social sphere, but also in the ecclesial sphere. In the decree Apostolicam actuositatem we read: “Since in our times women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various fields of the Church’s apostolate” (no. 9). The concern of the Church for the effective advancement of women did not cease with Vatican II.
In 1973, six years after the establishment of the Consilium de Laicis, Paul VI, responding to an explicit request from the Synod of Bishops and in view of the International Year of women proclaimed by the United Nations in 1975, instituted the “Study commission on women in society and in the Church”.
In 1988, in response to the wishes of the Synod of Bishops concerning the participation of the laity in the life of the Church and in order to study the question of women, John Paul II published Mulieris dignitatem. It is significant that this letter was written during the Marian Year, a providential time to look at the theme of women while looking at Our Lady. In this path of reflection, Mulieris dignitatem is a milestone. For the first time, a pontifical document was entirely dedicated to the topic of women. John Paul II proceeds with an anthropological analysis in the light of Revelation in order to derive, both from the first chapters of Genesis and from the words and actions of Jesus Christ, fundamental truths like the equal dignity of men and women created in the image of God, the unity of the two and the call to communion, the importance of complementarity and reciprocity between men and women, the appreciation of the feminine “genius”, the figure of Mary as a model for women, and the total fulfilment of human beings called to holiness.
It is an established fact that, twenty years after Mulieris dignitatem, the language and contents of the magisterium of John Paul II have not only been assimilated but they have also generated a perspective of renewed appreciation of women and a keener awareness of the importance of reciprocity between men and women. John Paul II laid the foundation for a new feminism and his reflection has brought a breath of fresh air to a culture often hurt by antagonistic tendencies in the man-woman relationship, a theme that was later developed in the Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world published in 2004 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Benedict XVI in turn expressed and took up again the appreciation of the Church for the contribution of women. It is enough here to mention the catechesis in the general audience of 14 February 2007, dedicated to women and their ecclesial responsibility from the early Christian communities until today.
On the twentieth anniversary of Mulieris dignitatem, the Pontifical Council for the Laity is again taking up this in-depth study of the relationship man-woman and the participation of women in the mission of the Church, with a conference on the theme: “Woman and man, the humanum in its entirety”. It will be held in Rome from 7 to 9 February 2008 with the participation of around 250 people coming from the five continents. The main objectives of the Conference are to review the progress made over the past twenty years in the field of the advancement of women and the recognition of their dignity; to open up a reflection in the light of revelation on the new cultural paradigms and on the difficulties faced by Catholic women in living according to their identity and in collaborating in fruitful reciprocity with men in building up the Church and society; to remind women of the beauty of the vocation to holiness, encouraging them to respond to it with increasing awareness and, as players in the mission of the Church, to place at the service of the apostolate, family, workplace and culture, all the richness of the feminine “genius”.