Global conference addresses challenges of women
Catholics reflect on Pope John Paul II’s document on ‘feminine genius’
By Teresa Tomeo
"He who accepts the challenge of going deep into this document will discover its richness."
This quote by former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – came after the release of Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women"), Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter on women in society and the Church. The words were also used in the opening remarks for an international conference marking the 20th anniversary of the document’s release.
"Woman and Man: the ‘Humanum’ in Its Entirety," presented Feb. 7-9 in Rome by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, involved 250 participants from 49 countries involved in Catholic women’s associations, religious institutes and episcopal conferences.
Over the three days, participants studied and applied the document to a number of challenging issues facing today’s Catholic women: the balance between family life and work; difficulties faced by Catholic women trying to live in the secular world; a woman’s inner beauty and call to holiness; and women’s progress over the past 20 years since the document’s release. A key portion of the presentations and panel discussions also focused on life issues impacting women and society, especially abortion and reproductive technology.
In addition, participants heard from Catholic theologians, researchers and biblical experts regarding anthropological truths of women and men, a key issue detailed in Mulieris Dignitatem.
Genevieve Kineke, U.S. author of "The Authentic Catholic Woman," was grateful for the opportunity to share ideas and concerns with Catholics from a variety of cultures. "This conference provided a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with women from around the world — women who have reflected at length on the words of [Pope] John Paul II," she said.
War against women
Church leaders and other presenters helped delegates understand what Catholics are facing in today’s increasing secular culture. This includes 53 million abortions a year globally and other devastating results of the sexual revolution and radical feminism, such as high divorce rate, birth control, cohabitation, the exploitation of women through pornography and the entertainment industry, and the idea that men and women must compete instead of complement each other.
Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, described the current state of affairs as a culture war.
"Radical feminists claim a woman’s identity comes through being man’s enemy, canceling out any differences and physical identities," he said. "This has led to a culture war and a war being waged against women."
He stressed to the congress that a necessary first step to combat the culture is the call for Pope John Paul’s "new feminism" that highlights the true feminine genius "overcoming all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence."
Helen Alvare, a Catholic University of America law professor and former pro-life spokeswoman with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told participants that many women have given into the pressures from society that focuses far too much on money, power and, especially, unbridled sex:
"Feminism says unbridled sexuality is another sign of freedom. The ‘freedom’ characterized by a rejection of the truth drew upon the worst characteristics of bad male behavior."
Pope Benedict told the delegates during a private audience to stay close to Christ in order to foster and support true promotion of both women and men.
"When, therefore, men or women pretend to be autonomous or totally self-sufficient, they risk being closed up in a self-realization that considers the overcoming of every natural, social or religious bond as a conquest of freedom, but which in fact reduces them to an oppressive solitude."
Cardinal Rylko encouraged participants to build upon what they learned and take it to the streets, their parishes, their families and associations.
"Only in this way will a new culture and fabric be born," he said. "We should go back home after this conference knowing that we have been sent and that Christ is counting on each of us."
During the international conference marking the 20th anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem, Our Sunday Visitor asked women who attended from throughout the world what issues women in their countries face, how women’s roles have changed since Mulieris Dignitatem’s release and how the Church and their faith help them deal with these issues. Here are some responses:
Sister Marta Tobisch, 40, Bishops Conference of Hungary
"Our country has had many historical changes over the past 18 years. We are less protected, and liberalism is flowing in, bringing with it new ways of life for women that are not always good or positive. We are seeing more divorce and broken families."
"The Church has been a great foundation for me, and I was glad to see so many women coming here in support of the Church teachings, not trying to challenge or disagree with them."
"We have good efforts at the parish level such as support for divorced women, plus World Wide Marriage Encounter is growing in our country and the movement is helping."
Maribel Gomez, 39, World Cursillo Movement, Los Angeles
"I think women are too much focused on themselves. We need to focus more on our children, not just our biological children but on children and families in general."
"The Church helps me because it makes me realize that we are all part of the family of God. Also, the foundational truths/teachings of the Church are very comforting to me."
Nuala Scarisbrick, 69, Life House Ministries, Great Britain
"There hasn’t been a lot of talk about men here, but, in our country, men and young men are not taught to respect themselves and one another or relationships . . . and we are increasingly taking up the whole issue of relationships and what people want from relationships."
"The changes for women have been negative. There is an increasing message that women should be able to do and have everything. I don’t know how they expect women to do all this and also to be fulfilled women who are created by God in the image and likeness of God and who should be much more conscious of their own dignity."
"The Church helps me a lot. I am what they call a devout Catholic, and our bishops have been very brave about speaking out about so-called same-sex marriages and the rights of Catholic schools to teach the faith, and to teach about the dignity of being male and female."
Maria Jessica Agama Sanchez, 40, Marian Community of Reconciliation, Peru
"We have started understanding more our real dignity and identity, and not to be men but to be women. Being real women … to give our gifts and our talents to society and that’s what we need to do."
"Domestic violence is very bad; difficulties to find jobs for women and sexual liberation is very bad. But we are trying to teach the people and women that we need to fight against this."
"Pope John Paul II’s ‘Letter to Women’ and the letters Pope Benedict wrote when he was Cardinal Ratzinger about the relationship of women and men in the world — those documents are very interesting, and this conference of 250 women and men talking about important issues is a good thing."
Suzene Chikaunda, 52, Bishops’ Conference of Malawi
"The main issues in my country are illiteracy, poverty and sexually transmitted diseases. At the end of the day, sometimes you don’t have women who want to come to church because they are tired and hungry and don’t have food to put on the table.
"I don’t see our situation improving or our roles changing. But Church in my country does try to teach women on what they have to do to prevent AIDS. The government talks about contraception, but the Church is teaching women to be faithful. The Church is also in a small way trying to teach women how to better run their families."
Understanding Mulieris Dignitatem
In Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women"), Pope John Paul II looks at Jesus’ interactions with women in the Gospels, showing that "in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ became a promoter of women’s true dignity." Other themes include the exploitation of women, marriage, motherhood, distinct feminine gifts and why women cannot be ordained to the priesthood.
Teresa Tomeo writes from Michigan.