The 20th anniversary of the apostolic letter Mulieris dignitatem was marked by a conference held by our dicastery from 7 to 9 February 2008 in Rome on the theme: “Woman and man, thehumanum in its entirety”. 280 delegates took part, coming from 49 countries in the five continents, representing 37 bishops’ conferences, 28 movements and new communities, 16 women’s associations and 9 religious institutes.
This title was chosen in order to highlight the fact that debate on the question of the feminine has entered a new phase. The principle of the equal dignity of men and women originated in Judaeo-Christian tradition and has now gradually entered into many cultures. From the 18th century many advances have been made in the political, economic and educational fields. The theme of women has also given rise to some extreme ideological positions. The radical feminism of the nineteen-sixties was viewed as a power struggle against men in order to obtain total autonomy for women with absolute control over their own bodies. This style of feminism demanded “sexual licence” and abortion as a right, thus showing the inconsistency of the basics. Such an approach has disillusioned the expectations of many women who long for self-fulfilment.
John Paul II, always attentive to the signs of the times, published Mulieris dignitatem in order to respond to the question of the dignity of women from the standpoint of Christian anthropology. In particular, he introduced the concept of unity-duality as a key to understanding the relationship between the sexes. Today we can see that the validity of this teaching persists. The international conference “Woman and man, the humanum in its entirety” emphasised that any attempt to deal with questions regarding the feminine condition also requires analysis of the masculine condition. A correct anthropology must consider duality from the standpoint of unity, for this continues to be the underlying principle. We therefore realised that it was necessary to take an anthropological approach which starts out with the original unity of the person, and then recognises the difference between the masculine “I” and the feminine “I”.
The interest the topic generated far surpassed our expectations. The conference opened on 7 February with an introduction by Cardinal Stanis»aw Ry»ko, President of our dicastery. He emphasised the progress that has been made concerning the condition of women in the world as there is now more widespread sensitivity and recognition of their dignity and rights in all areas of social life. On the other hand, however, he pointed out concerns that are arising because of serious deviations in the post-modern world way of conceiving the man-woman relationship. Two extreme perspectives prevail which, on the one hand, increase conflict and competitiveness, and on the other, try to cancel out all differences. According to Cardinal Ry»ko, the cultural battle that awaits us concerns the very concept of the person and the recognition of their dignity. He invited the participants to take up this anthropological challenge with courage, and not to fear going against the tide. He also urged those present to denounce all abuse of the dignity of women and not to be influenced by worldly models or by those that may be politically correct but that go against Gospel values.
Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain, dealt with the principles contained in Mulieris dignitatem. He underlined the need for a positive approach to the question that will not let it become a case of taking a position against someone or something. An attitude of clear reasoning that is joyful and positive should be offered to the Church and society.
The second talk was on the topic “Jesus of Nazareth, Mary and the women in the Gospel and in the early communities”, and it was given by Professor Hanna Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, lecturer in Philosophy of Religions at the Dresden University of Technology. She gave a clear explanation of the new elements introduced to the condition of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Professor Gerl-Falkovitz described how the Old Testament had already come a long way from the stereotypes in the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In those cultures women were considered only in relation to sexuality and child-bearing, seen as epiphanies of some mysterious divinity. Judaeo-Christian revelation humanised women by going beyond the limited vision of only regarding the biological aspects and by considering women as persons. Then, unexpectedly, new elements were introduced into history by Christ that went far beyond the old habits and customs. Through his teachings and actions, Jesus proclaimed the good news to men and women without distinction, encouraging unity rather than differences.
During the afternoon of the first day several viewpoints were discussed on the theme “Christianity and the advancement of women”. Professor Antonia Bel Bravo introduced the debate by pointing out that if we are to deal with the feminine question from a historical point of view, we must be careful about our research method because it should adapt to the object and not the contrary. Reality should determine the methodological approach and not the other way round. She recommended adopting the new historiographic criteria that take human actions into due consideration, thus putting into right perspective the place of structures and institutions. This new approach helps us to be free of prejudice and anachronisms, real pathologies in historical science. Professor Bel Bravo encouraged us not to concentrate only on what women have not been able to achieve, but to look at what they have managed to do, even during very difficult times in history when the feminine condition was particularly discouraging. The English historian Jack Scarisbrickmade reference to one of the lesser known periods in the history of his country. Some of the data he gave was disturbing: during the anti-Catholic persecution of 1606, of the 820 accused, 532 (65%) were women. In a later persecution in Warwickshire, almost 70% of the 235 victims were women. He also spoke of how, during this period of persecutions, women had a decisive role in transmitting the faith and fidelity to the Pope. Professor Angela Ales Bello, lecturer in philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, spoke of the contribution of Edith Stein to dual anthropology in the man-woman relationship. She pointed out how Edith Stein, on the basis of ample psychological analysis, not only identified the general distinctive elements between male and female, but also specified the irreducible distinguishing characteristics. For Edith, a Carmelite martyr, it is precisely these differences that determine the destiny of each human person. Therefore she said that the feminine should be rethought in relation to the masculine in order to find a balanced relationship between the sexes. Eva Carlota Rava, an Argentinian Lecturer in spiritual theology, spoke of the women mystics and doctors of the Church. She demonstrated how the nature of their teachings is deeply feminine, rooted in life from which they found form and content. She observed in particular how, while men doctors teach us love for the truth, women doctors teach us the truth of love. Sister Grazia Loparco, a Church historian, showed how the Church has accompanied the path trod by women towards an ever greater understanding of their dignity and mission. She mentioned the great number of women founders of new religious congregations in the 19th century dedicated to education and health services. It was through their female sensitivity that they identified the needs of their times and they responded accordingly.
The final talk on 7 February was given by Professor Blanca Castilla de Cortázar on the theme “‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Gn: 1:27): person, nature and culture”. Professor Castilla emphasised the importance of a theology of image based on the story of the creation of man and woman in the first chapter of Genesis, following the outline suggested by John Paul II in Mulieris dignitatem. She noted the innovation the Pope brought to the theology of image, no longer limited to rationality and freedom, but extended to the relational dimension.
The second day of the Conference opened with a contribution by a married couple, Attilio Danese and Giulia Paola di Nicola, who spoke on the theme “Woman and man, created each for the other”. They both spoke on the “uni-dual” anthropology from the sociological standpoint. They pointed out that ecologists insist so much on biodiversity, yet the attempted non-discrimination of the sexes is being passed off on human beings in spite of the evidence of nature being quite the contrary. They then outlined the characteristics and tendencies of womanhood and manhood, emphasising their importance for the balanced development of humanity.
The panel discussion on “Problems and contemporary cultural trends” was opened by Marguerite A. Peeters, a journalist and director of the Institute for Intercultural Dialogue Dynamics. Her talk dealt with the current question of the so-called gender ideology. The concept, according to her clear analysis, is only the tip of the iceberg of the ongoing silent cultural revolution of deconstruction that claims to do away with the natural anthropological structure of man and woman in order to leave sexual identity itself to be an autonomous subjective decision. Olimpia Tarzia, President of the World Women’s Alliance for Life and Family, dealt with the theme of the defence of life. She warned of the distorting language currently in use that is carefully chosen in order to tranquillise consciences with regard to the serious attacks made on life and maternity. Maria Elena Lugo, President of the “ Padre José Kentenich ” Bioethics Commission, advanced a Christian vision of generation as a religious act in which the maternal womb is conceived of as an altar on which the married couple consecrate a new life. Helen Alvaré, former spokesperson for the United States Bishops, concentrated on the phenomenon of the reduction of women to consumer objects. She demonstrated how this reduction is tied to the extolling of the feminine body to the detriment of the soul. The process takes place through faulty language that appears to be praising women but in fact degrades and dehumanises them. When reduced to objects, they become incapable of authentic relations and gift of self. The session concluded with a presentation by Professor Janne Haaland Matlary, former foreign minister of Norway. She dealt with the theme of women in the world of work. She pointed out how policies in many western countries have no interest in the primary value of the family, thereby aggravating the problem of the low birthrate, and so these countries are becoming societies of pensioners.
The afternoon session on the second day opened with a talk by Paola Bignardi, Coordinator of the International Forum of Catholic Action. She spoke on “Women’s responsibility and participation in building up the Church and society”. Ms Bignardi specified that the responsibility of women in the Church is to be guardians of the original nature of the feminine genius that is expressed in a lively and intense interaction with men. The task of women is to build a Church with a maternal face, attentive to the demands of individual people and to authenticity in relationships, overcoming utilitarian and purely pragmatic outlooks through a re-evaluation of the contemplative dimension of Christian life.
Professor Giorgia Salatiello of the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome was the first on the panel to speak on the theme “The role and mission of women”. Carmen Aparicio, also a lecturer in the Gregorian, developed the theme of women as educators by presenting the figures of Maria Montessori, Carmen Cuesta and Edith Stein, three women who lived through the same period of history in different parts of Europe. Each led an approach to education that was able to combine intellectual training with the demands of an integral education. Sister Cristiana Dobner, a Discalced Carmelite, spoke of the feminine religious sense, beginning with Mary as an exemplary figure who is presented in Luke’s Gospel as one who kept all that took place and pondered them in her heart (cf Lk 2:51). Mary’s attitude is typically feminine. It implies vigilant attention to events, depth of thought and ability to accept: a reflective and prayerful attitude. But it is precisely because of it that one is ready for action. Brenda Finlayson, Vice-President of the World Union of Catholic Women's Organisations (WUCWO), offered her testimony on the importance of spousal and maternal love. Sister Enrica Rosanna, Under-Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, demonstrated that consecrated life shows how women in the Church have the opportunity to discover the treasure inherent in their own feminine identity by taking it to full maturity as an expression of the power of the Holy Spirit.
On the morning of 9 February the Holy Father Benedict XVI received the conference members in the Clementina Hall in the Apostolic Palace. In his address, the Pope recalled the teachings of John Paul II concerning women that are based on the mutuality of the sexes and their dual unity. “Therefore, when men and women demand to be autonomous and totally self-sufficient, they run the risk of being closed in a self-reliance that considers ignoring every natural, social or religious bond as an expression of freedom, but which, in fact, reduces them to an oppressive solitude. To promote and sustain the real advancement of women and men one cannot fail to take this reality into account”. The Holy Father continued: “A renewed anthropological study is certainly necessary based on the great Christian tradition, which incorporates new scientific advances and, given today's cultural sensitivity, in this way contributes to deepening not only the feminine identity but also the masculine, which is often the object of partial and ideological reflections”.
All the participants at the Conference were encouraged by the Holy Father to promote “a culture that recognizes the dignity that belongs to women, in law and in concrete reality”, and to build the Church and society in every sphere with their feminine genius. Working groups according to issues and geographical areas concluded the Conference. Cardinal Ry»ko, in his closing address, encouraged the participants to take coordinated action using all the forces available and to engage in parishes and dioceses. Following the example of Mary, they may thus freely follow their calling and fulfil the mission entrusted to them in the Church and society.