Holloway on The “Dignity of Womanhood”
Holloway on The “Dignity of Womanhood”

Holloway on The “Dignity of Womanhood”

Holloway on… The Apostolic Letter “Dignity of Womanhood” - Part 1

In this Editorial from the January/February 1989 issue of FAITH, Fr Holloway admires Pope St. John Paul II’s landmark document on womanhood but identifies a lack of a coherent theology of the sexes. In Part 2 of the Editorial, which will be published in our next issue, he suggests a further theological development.
Pope John Paul has chosen to give the Church and the World his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem [1988] in the form of a pastoral meditation rather than a didactic statement. The document is immensely more important in what it says than meets the eye. The horizons it opens up for Catholic theological thought would never be guessed from the initial reactions of the secular or the Catholic media who have almost entirely missed the point. One must say at once that it is not ‘about women priests’ although that was all the secular press was waiting for or was interested in. The reference in the apostolic letter to the ministerial priesthood (section 26, p.460, col 2, Briefing trans.) though clear and important is the only time the matter is mentioned. The apostolic letter is a meditation on all the dimensions of Womanhood, and femininity, in the revelation of God from the beginning, in the theology of Christ and the Church, and in the juxtaposition of Eve-Mary, and Adam-Christ.
The letter makes very heavy reading at times, partly because of the complex style, and partly from the constant switching in the thought of Pope John Paul from what might be called the order of the real and the order of the symbolic based upon the real - and then back again. There are times when one longs to take sections and to rewrite them in simpler tones. It could often be done without any loss to the essential beauty of the Pope’s vision of the meaning of “The Woman” in creation and its fulfilment in God. It would be done too, with a great gain in clarity for the foot-soldiers of the theological world.
Context of the Apostolic Letter
Everything one has read so far (and of course these are early days) continues to miss the essential point. Pope John Paul has written his meditation as his response, from his office, to a challenge. It is a challenge of tremendous proportions. Did those who made it really understand how great a thing they were asking? Like Rome itself, such a development of the theology of the Church cannot be ‘built in a day’. It cannot be presented to the People of God by return of post. Pope John Paul indicates this challenge in the Introduction (op. cit. p 431, col. 2) “The Fathers of the recent Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (Oct. 1987) which was devoted to the ‘Vocation of the Mission of the Laity in the Church and the World’ once more dealt with the dignity and vocation of women. One of their recommendations was for a further study of the anthropological and theological bases that are needed to solve the problems connected with the meaning and dignity of being a woman, and being a man. 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 as a man”. The Pope declares that he is giving himself to this task, and contemplating it, and that is why he prefers the format of a meditation.
Theology of Sexuality: Starting from Nothing
It is a bold and thrilling task he has set himself, and Mulieris Dignitatem takes us a very useful mileage along the way. He does not finish the job to which his hand is set. He could not expect to; development of doctrine is never one man’s work. What the apostolic letter does do, and what the almost casual ‘request’ of the Fathers of the Synod lays bare, is to reveal that we simply do not have a theology of human sexuality. We never have had, in any developed sense. We have simply taken it for granted as a fact of biology which had no intrinsic relationship to theology. The Pope has made some beginning with the Meaning of the Feminine, but he just cannot leave it there. He or another must meditate equally the Meaning of the Male. The bishops did ask for that, casually — rather like “Daddy, may I have a real spaceship for my birthday?” But now the Pope and the Church, which one supposes must mean the theologians, need to give themselves to the theology of the male. For these two are complementary; they are “a unity of the two” as the Pope says constantly through his apostolic letter. The partial references to such a theology in the Pope’s consideration of chapter five of St. Paul to the Ephesians is in no sense a working out or a new synthesis of “the unity of the two.” But it is a beginning. Upon such an anthropology and theology of the meaning of sexuality in that creation which is a synthesis of matter and spirit, there depends the vindication of the ministerial priesthood, the vindication anew of the meaning of marriage, the vindication of consecrated virginal chastity “for the Kingdom of God’s sake”, and the prenuptial chastity and relationship of boys and girls.
The Need for a Theology of the Masculine
The relationship of the consecrated woman to a fuller meaning of “Motherhood” through the vocation of Mary, Virginal Mother, and fulfilment of all the meanings of “Eve”, mother of the living, is very well done in this document. In this respect the Pope’s meditation continues and deepens the same theme found in his Familiaris Consortio. Until the meaning of masculinity is equally pondered and related, there is going to be an unbearable lack of balance. Without such a development, the Pope’s clear and stringent assertions, easily proved from both scripture and tradition, of the total equality in personality of the male and the female is not going to be believed by women. They could regard the Pope’s apostolic letter on their dignity as a sop to women and womanhood, and the failure to address oneself to the complementary but only equal vocation of the male, as a sign that in fact the male is a superior form of being, and the top dog, and he knows it. The priest about the parish can see a desperate need to develop and teach the vocational meaning of Manhood equally with, and at the same time as the vocation and meaning of Womanhood. Without it there will continue the decline of vocations to the priesthood, and the decline in the quality, chastity, and permanence of marriages. Boys and girls, husbands and wives, both have to be able to glory in their mutual gifts and see them reflected in reality, as well as in symbolism, in the flesh of Jesus Christ.
Problems of Analysis
The Holy Father has done a tremendous job, although in an idiom which mixes the order of the physically real, the order of the spiritually real based upon the sexual distinction, and the order of a spiritual symbolism related more distantly and analogously to sexuality or the “nuptial.” This can be confusing to read and to evaluate. When the Pope addresses himself to the final, the ultimate reason why God ‘decided’ to make mankind male and female he seems to place its essence in a desire to manifest to humankind that the unity and joy of the Divine nature is held in a self-giving which is ontological, that is to say which belongs to the very definition of God’s reality itself, and consequently also to that of the spiritual creature. He expresses this in section 7, “Person — Communion — Gift”. The Pope relates this to the image of God in man, and, at least as I understand him, finds its expression in that “Unity of the Two” which consists in the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, with the Holy Spirit as the Fruit, or Communion which is their mutual love. He is most careful to point out that such an analogy is only extrinsic to that which takes place in and defines the Trinity of God, which is altogether divine, of the “totally other” and in no way or manner “sexual” in principle in human terms or understanding. All the same, it is not very coherent, and does not seem to hang well together except as an extrinsic and shall we say “devotional” analogy. Perhaps I am quite wrong, but I do suspect that Cardinal von Balthasar has some meditations on the Trinity in relationship to the family which are not dissimilar. While the communion of knowledge and of love between man and woman, between consecrated virginal manhood, and consecrated virginal womanhood does have some extrinsic analogy in the life of the Church to the life of the Blessed Trinity, this does not give any intrinsic reason why God should have created man, that synthesis of matter and spirit, as male and female, and as the Fathers of the 1987 Synod remarked, only as either male or female.
Image of God: Same in Man and Angel?
For the essence of the image of God in man is total in man and in woman as individuals; it is univocal and equal in order and degree and does not derive from their sexual differentiation or mutual sexual complementariness. The Trinitarian image in mankind is best expressed in the so-called ‘faculties’ of intellect and will, and the manner in which these express and identify the conscious personality of man or woman. On this one cannot now delay. For this writer there is a problem of coherence in relating God’s ‘decision’ (almost as if it were arbitrary) to make man male and female in order to show an intrinsic relationship of person — communion — gift (the gift of love in the sincere donation of oneself) in the different possible orders of human vocation and human love. This order of God’s decision, if it had any bearing in mankind on the ontological meaning of the image of God in the personality of man and woman, ought to be true also of the angels of God. These most perfectly mirror and express the being of God, the image of God, the communion of God, and the inner self-giving of God. Yet, in their nature, so close to the divine, there is no sexuality nor any generation.
Sexuality Basic to Divine Economy
And yet, the Pope is so obviously right to say that in the meaning of Man, as a spiritual being, made to the image of God ontologically and of very essence, there is a spousal relationship to the divine, and in man and woman to each other, which is at the very heart of divine revelation. The Pope traces it brilliantly from the protoevangelium — the first chapters of Genesis — and their promise and proclamation, through the sweep of the Old Testament, to the manifestation of Jesus Christ as ‘the Bridegroom’. Just as fully, and in a relationship to the destiny of mankind which is total, he traces the spiritual significance of the relationships Adam-Eve, Christ- Mary, serpent-Eve, dragon-Mary, and the ‘war’ placed between the seed of Eve, and the seed of Mary.
There certainly must be something here which is fundamental to the meanings of God in our sexual differentiation, and not only because of the fall of mankind, but from the very origin of our destiny in the mind and will of God. The Pope says expressly that sexuality in mankind does have this total and theological meaning: it is not simply an incident of biology. There are a number of arresting declarations; one would chose:
“Since the Church is in Christ as a sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, the special presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of the Church makes us think of the exceptional ‘link’ between this ‘woman’ and the whole human family. It is a question here of every man and woman . . . in whom from generation to generation a fundamental inheritance is realized, the inheritance that belongs to all humanity, and is linked to the mystery of that biblical beginning: — ‘God created man to his own image, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them’ (Gen.
1: 27)”.
See also: Section 22.op cit., the place of the feminine in the basic order of God’s intention in salvation economy. Also again, one suggests, section 3, 432:
“In his goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself, and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will, by which through Christ, the Word made Flesh, man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit, and comes to share in the divine nature (cf. Eph. 1:9; Eph. 2: 18; 2 Pt. 1:4).”
The context of this last statement is that “The Woman” is to be found at the central definition of this economy of God. The editor of FAITH cannot but be heartened that the whole tenor of the Pope’s apostolic letter emphasizes the Divinization of Man through the economy of the Incarnation in the very sense of the Greek Fathers of the Church. Central to this divinization, expressed fully in the Incarnation, is to be found the meaning of “The Woman” and hence of human sexuality, the division of the flesh into man and woman. This is the cosmic vision of the meaning of Christ which makes the decree of the Incarnation something willed irrespective of the Fall of Man, and of the redemption from sin alone.
Theology of Sex Relevant to Decree of Incarnation.
The magnificent things the Pope says concerning the meaning of “Man” and “Woman”, the order of matrimony, and the order of consecrated virginal fatherhood and motherhood, would make so much more magnificent and coherent a sense if it were related to the nature of matter in the spiritual personality of mankind. It is here we are different from the angels of God, equally and splendidly made like us to the image of God, equally and fully entering into Salvation through the Eternal Word through whom and in whom were made all things visible and invisible. The Pope’s vision of the reason why God made mankind male and female, far exceeds and develops the declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1976) Inter Insigniores, which simply restates the positive theology of the Church concerning the ministerial priesthood and only hints at some “special relationship in the division of sexuality to the divine plan of creation”. Pope John Paul develops this theme, in the context of the unique place of The Woman in the essentials of the dispensation of God for humankind. He relates it to that inheritance which is to become “consorts of the Divine Nature” itself.
The Nuptial Mystery and the Eucharist
That apart, most of the essential themes of the letter on the dignity of women are to be found briefly enumerated at least in Inter Insigniores: for example, the Nuptial mystery of God and Israel, fulfilled in the Church in Christ and Our Lady; and the Eucharist as the Marriage Feast the King made for his Son and Heir. This, the Eucharist, is but a foreshadowing of the Bridal Feast in heaven, the vision of the book of Revelations, the presentation of the whole People of God, the ‘New Jerusalem’ as Bride of Christ. There is a passage in the document Inter Insigniores which seems linked to the Pope’s effort to deepen our insight into the mystery of human sexuality: It reads (CTS trans. sec. 5): “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a King who gave a feast for his son’s wedding (Matt. 22: 1-14). It is through this scriptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable”. The document of the CDF of 1976 then immediately relates the maleness of Christ, Bridegroom of the Church, exercising his ministry of salvation in the Eucharist, to the ministry of the male in the Sacrament of Order. In the apostolic letter The Dignity of Woman, the Pope does hardly more in the matter of Holy Order than repeat this sole point against his much fuller background on the meaning of the Feminine in salvation



Fr Edward Holloway (1917-99) was a parish priest in the South of England and the author of Catholicism: A New Synthesis and other theological and philosophical works. He was the editor of this magazine for 22 years and the founder of the Faith Movement.

Faith Magazine

September/ October 2020