Monday, December 8, 2008

Mother Mary: The Archetype of Woman, of Man.


This year, 2008, marks the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter to Women, Mulieris Dignitatem. This anniversary was celebrated in February earlier this year with a large conference in Vatican City, at which woman scholars from all over the world gathered to both commemorate the anniversary, as well as discuss this papal document and what it means for the women of today's world. As today is the Marian Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I thought that it was appropriate to reflect a little bit on this papal document.

Holy Mary is the archetype of woman. About a week ago, I finished reading Karol Wojtyla's (John Paul II) philosophical work, Love and Responsibility for a class. Having studied Mulieris Dignitatem previously in another class, I was stuck deeply by the extent to which Wojtyla's discussion and analysis of the human person and of human love can enrich the understanding of JPII's discussion of the dignity of woman, and how Holy Mary, as discussed by JPII, is the archetype not only of the dignity of woman, but also that of every person.

“What is a person?” and, more specifically, “What is woman?” Karol Wojtyla employs the personalistic norm to explain what is a “person” as he explains that a person is an unique and unrepeatable entity that has free will and is self determining. The person cannot be treated as an object of use because it is a “good toward which the proper and only attitude is love” (L&R 41). Pope John Paul II similarly says, “The person must be loved, because love alone corresponds to what the person is” (MD §29).

By its nature, “a person is its master and cannot be ceded or supplanted to another in any context where it must exercise its own will or make a commitment affecting its freedom” (L&R 125). Furthermore, the person never loses its essential value as that value is inseparable from the person’s essential being (L&R). Woman is the feminine expression of the person, the human being. Particularly, as Pope John Paul describes, woman has an originality, or genius, in what is the form of human excellence that is peculiar to woman (MD §10).

A woman’s dignity is connected closely to the love that she experiences by her being feminine (MD §30). By virtue of her femininity, the “order of love” first manifests in the created world through woman, and it is in this that the dignity of woman is appreciated. The “‘order to love’ belongs to the intimate life of the life of the Trinity, in which the Holy Spirit is the personal hypostasis” (MD §29). As the Holy Spirit unites the Father and the Son in love in the Trinity, the Spirit’s love becomes a gift to created persons that communicates itself to creatures. The creation of woman at the side of man, and their union, creates the condition for God’s love to given into the heart of human persons. Love is the authentic commitment of the free will of one person resulting from the truth about another person (L&R 123).

In this, it needs to be understood that woman must receive, or be given love so that she can give love in return. “Love is of its nature reciprocal: he who knows how to receive knows also how to give” (L&R 129; emphasis in original text). Woman’s experience of love is best exemplified in the life and love of the Virgin Mary, particularly in her fiat and in her motherhood to Christ.

In her fiat, or her unreserved assent to bear and be mother of Christ, the Son of God, Holy Mary makes of herself a self-gift in her opening of herself to receive and be in union with God’s will, which is love (MD §19).
Woman’s experience of self-gift and her experience of love are very similar. Indeed, woman’s capacity to make a gift of self originates from her capacity to love.

Woman’s dignity is exemplified in her self-gift in the act of motherhood as it is here that her genius as a woman is most evident. In Mary, we see her dignity as a woman, at the moment of her conceiving Christ, consisting in a supernatural elevation to union with God. This was only possible through her being woman and capable of motherhood (MD §4). Mary’s fiat is not only the most perfect example of love as self-gift, but in her fiat, which is an act of the will, she “highlights a form of union with God which can only belong to the woman” (MD §18).

In her union with God, Mary is the archetype of woman, but also she is the archetype of the human and self-gift (MD §4). Mary’s, woman’s readiness to make a gift of herself and the readiness to accept the “pangs of childbirth” includes a self-surrender and acceptance not only of the physical pain and discomfort of the act of childbirth, but includes all of the pains of motherhood. Indeed, Mary’s gift of self as mother of Christ continued in it faithfulness and strength even to her sorrow at the foot of the Cross (MD §18, 19). This readiness is a quality of the gift of self that is of love as goodwill or a divine aspect of love. Not only is it is a desire for happiness or unlimited good for the other person, but it also has its full value when it involves and is the work of the will (L&R 129). “The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open. One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them” (L&R 135).

Particularly in Mary’s motherhood to Christ, it is seen that motherhood is associated with woman’s interior structure and to the personal dimension of her gift of self (MD §18). “Woman finds its culmination in the motherhood of the Mother of God” (MD §19). Woman discovers herself, her dignity in the sincere gift of herself by which she opens herself to bear forth a new life for which she will care and nurture.

Though the nature of the person is that it is “its own master” (L&R 125), in woman’s self-gift, “the truth about the person and the truth about love is thus confirmed” for all persons in its demonstration that a person cannot find itself except through a sincere give of itself (MD §30). “Love forcibly detaches the person from its natural inviolability and inalienability and makes that person want to surrender itself to another” because the true nature of love is that it reveals itself most fully in the gift of self by the person who loves (L&R 125).

In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II seeks to define and defend the dignity of woman, particularly by pointing to the Virgin Mary, in whom the world sees the archetype of the personal dignity and genius of woman. In view of this, Mulieris Dignitatem and, indeed, John Paul II have been held in general suspicion by modern feminist thinkers and philosophies. The suspicion holds that Mulieris Dignitatem seeks to define and promote a particular role of women, in motherhood and self-gift, that would assign and keep woman in a role in society in which she would remain vulnerable to be used by man. Contrary to this suspicion, Pope John Paul II seeks to illuminate the role of woman, which he more appropriate refers to as an “originality” or “genius,” to point to the dignity of this and to show that it is because of the dignity of this role that must be respected, not used, by man.

“Use,” here, refers to that which is the opposite or falsification of love (L&R 28) that violates the intrinsic value of the person. In his apostolic letter to women, John Paul specifically addresses use of woman that is not proper to her dignity as woman. While both man and woman are capable of and called to gift of self, the particular way in which woman gives of her self has a greater risk of her being used by man than man’s gift of self has of being used by woman (MD §18). Karol Wojtyla provides an in-depth analysis of the two meanings or manifestations of “use” in Love and Responsibility’s first chapter, “The Person and the Sexual Urge.”

Relations between two human persons that treat one or both persons as a means, Wojtyla explains, are not only impermissible, but these are problematic as they are contrary to the attitude of love that is only proper to the person. Objectification and/or use of woman by man or of man by woman must not only be avoided, but such a threat must be countered by true love. “True love, a love that is internally complete, is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person…as the person on whom to bestow the gift of his or her own life” (L&R 134). Love of this kind requires a responsibility for the immensity of the love being given, which can only be understood by someone who understands the value of the person receiving the gift. “A woman is capable of truly making a gift of herself only if she believes in the value of her person and in the value as a person of the man to whom she gives herself. And a man is capable of fully accepting a woman’s gift of herself only if he is fully conscious of the magnitude of the gift – which he cannot be unless he affirms the value of her person” (L&R 129).

“Freedom exists for the sake of love” (L&R 135), Karol Wojtyla describes, as love is the authentic commitment of the free will in a gift of self, which has its full value when it involves and is the work of the will. The dignity of woman as such is constituted in her capacity to love and this is closely connected to the love that she experiences by her being feminine. As Pope John Paul II explains in Mulieris Dignitatem, the Virgin Mary is the archetype of the personal dignity woman as she exemplifies the “genius” of woman’s experience of love. Woman discovers herself, her dignity in the sincere gift of herself by which she opens or gives herself up to receive the love of another and, in the originality of motherhood, to bear forth a new life. It is because of this dignity that woman ought not to be defiled by any use or treatment that is contrary to that dignity, but rather honored and protected.


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