What Does It Mean to Be a Woman?

Vatican Conference Commemorates 25th Anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem

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«God entrusts the human being to the woman,» is the title of a Vatican conference underway to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem. 

The three-day conference is being hosted by the Pontifical Council for the Laity until Saturday. The title is a quote from the document, written after the 1987 synod on the role and vocation of laity in the Church.

A fuller sense of the title can be grasped from the entire passage from which it was taken: «The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way — precisely by reason of their femininity — and this in a particular way determines their vocation» (Mulieris Dignitatem 30).

With this passage as a starting point, the aim of the conference was to examine changes throughout history in how women have been perceived; what has led women to oftentimes renounce their role; and the many aspects that have arisen as a result of the current cultural crisis. 

«The conference has brought together an incredible group of gifted women who are serving the Church,» Dr. Vicki Thorn told ZENIT. 

Thorn, who was one of the keynote speakers during the gathering, is the founder of Project Rachel — a ministry which seeks to provide healing and support to mothers and fathers who are grieving after abortions — and is executive director of the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing. 

She noted how such gatherings are critical for those women who feel discouraged in their ministry to encounter others who are working for the Church in similar ways. «To be in the same place together is a great grace because one, you see the other women,» she said. She also said that «the opportunity for networking is really critical — especially because we have so many countries represented — to know what other people are doing that we could take back [to our own countries], or to share the things that we’re doing [with them] that they can take back.»

In her talk, Thorn noted how she drew from her «experience of talking to a lot of young adults, and not-so-young adults, in terms of a different approach to talking about our sexuality, which is the science that undergirds Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body.»

«My experience is that people are very open to hear this, because they haven’t been told,» she said.

She went on to say how men and women have been conditioned to think they are «sort of sexual animals» without self-control, and for this reason are simply given what is necessary to prevent STDs. 

What men and women are not taught, Thorn said, is about «the awesomeness of how we’re made.» 

She went on to explain how, for example, «women carry cells of their child for the rest of their lives, which they pass on to the other kids; we carry our mother’s cells.» She also spoke about «what happens when on the [birth control] pill in terms of causing [a woman] to choose the wrong biological partner, which then may lead to divorce; the changes in women’s brains, in how a woman’s brain grows like a man’s brain, when she’s on the pill.»

«These are critical things,» she said, «but they’re science.» 

These facts, Thorn continued, allow those «whose lives may have been a mess because of sexual choices to make sense out of things.»

Citing her own experiences working with post-abortive mothers, she noted how receptive these women are to her message.

«The wounds are there,» she said, «but they only know a little bit. They don’t know enough to work through what’s happened to them.»

Natural law

Meg McDonnell works for the Chiaroscuro Institute, a non-profit which aims to support marriage and the well-being of children among what might be referred to as the working class (lower and middle-class America). A colleague of one of the keynote speakers, Helen Alvaré, McDonnell noted how the international presence at the conference demonstrated the similarities and differences between women of different nations.

«What struck me most,» she told ZENIT, «was being able to see the similarities, see the differences, and put together how the Church can weave together, through its teachings, an approach that can be applied in the extreme differences in a way that captures what it means to be a woman: how woman cooperates with man, how man cooperates with woman, and how the family continues to be the bedrock of any civil society.»

Speaking about applying the principles of Mulieris Dignitatem to her work, she noted how «none of us can teach if we are not witnesses.»

«On a personal level,» she said, «there’s a lot of my own reflection as they speak about Mary, as they speak about the virtues of women.»

She cited how in the United States, one theme that is often discussed is the working mother vs. the stay-at-home mother. For the Catholic woman, the struggle «is to identify as gentle, but strong — as we perceive in Mary — the feminine genius, the pursuit of motherhood while also applying my capabilities, my gifts, my talents to the professional life.»

McDonnell cited the challenge of articulating these principles on a professional level to a secular audience «in a way that resonates.»

«How can I talk about the being of Mary,» she said, «and the virtues she displayed … her strength, her humility, her radical ‘yes’?»

The conference, McDonnell said, offered a reflection on how to bring these principles «to those who are not with us in Church teachings, but who could be with us in what we would believe is natural law, and a natural understanding of the human person.»

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Ann Schneible

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