First in the Order of Love

Anniversary reflections on John Paul II’s letter on the vocation of women.

Roughly 10 years into his pontificate, John Paul II penned an apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”). The letter indicated not only that he took women and their call to holiness seriously, but that he had profound insights into the feminine essence. Twenty years later, as we stand ready to honor the anniversary of the document, we are still unpacking those insights and following his courageous leadership.

As part of the anniversary observance, each continent was offered by the Pontifical Council for the Laity a specific topic to serve as a filter through which to ponder the letter. North America was assigned “Women in a technological and consumerist society.” This inspired choice will provide a concrete and practical guide for prayer and discussion. The topic leaves it to the women themselves to consider the impact each has on the feminine vocation.

Of course, the premise is that there is such a thing as a “feminine vocation.” John Paul II spent much of his priestly life considering such ideas as masculinity, femininity, and complementarity. Indeed, at the very heart of his “theology of the body” is the premise that “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27) has a more profound implication on our personhood than we ever imagined. In Mulieris Dignitatem, we find the familiar interplay between Christ the Bridegroom and his beloved Church, and it is then for us to extrapolate how authentic femininity is manifest. Combining the incarnational realities of our faith and the spousal imagery that provides the breathtaking backdrop to all of creation, it becomes obvious that women are called to live as icons of the Bride.

The feminine vocation is rich, pivotal, and revitalizing, giving flesh to the Marian Church in even the most mundane details of everyday life. The truth that women are first in the “order of love” (cf. MD, 29) reflects the natural order in which the human person is initially entrusted to the mother for his very sustenance. She is charged with introducing him to his father, to the culture of the home, and to the wider world—sacred and mundane. She serves as bridge, arbiter, and sanctuary, nourishing him and guiding him towards the good and away from harm. This physical motherhood is an echo of the deeper order in God’s plan, whereby he counts on the receptivity of each woman to allow his Word to take root and to flourish in her maternal care. It then must be understood that spiritual motherhood and all it entails is the essence of any woman’s vocation, no matter where she is called to live, to work, or to exercise her “feminine genius.”

THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY ON WOMEN

One cannot dispute the enormous effect that technology has had on women. Beginning with the alleviation of most labor-intensive chores, modern conveniences have had an impact on the food and textile industries, provided increasingly clever appliances, and virtually freed her from household work. Medical technology has assured the survival of most children and in many cases has removed ailing relatives from her immediate supervision. Modern transportation allows her greater flexibility in the choice of jobs and schools, and connects her to the wider world. Adding to all of this is information technology that puts the world virtually at her fingertips. Additionally, telecommuting, flex-time and videoconferencing options have widened her income opportunities, not to mention the fact that those working in the home appear in some respects no longer as burdened by isolation.

For all of that, technology is a double-edged sword that carries the potential to harm those who enjoy its benefits. Having enjoyed the lighter demands of household cares, many women have abandoned the home completely as an anachronistic source of their oppression. The very medical technologies that have helped to ease the lives of loved ones have been turned around to eliminate life itself—through contraception, abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia. Transportation options that facilitate freedom of movement have scattered family members to the four winds and fragmented the bonds of clans that were once strengthened by proximity and shared experiences. And the information technology that helped to alleviate loneliness has now driven a wedge into the home, replacing eye-contact and conversation with video games, packaged entertainment, and a culture that undermines the family as primary arbiter of values.

A CONSUMERIST CULTURE

Likewise, the consumer goods surrounding us provide a mixed blessing. They are derived, to be sure, from the technological advances mentioned above, but need to be considered separately for the challenge they provide. Mass production—as a source of both jobs and potential dehumanization— has been a part of our landscape since the industrial revolution. While women are removed from the need to churn and spin and weave, it is hard to live simply when the tide of culture encourages consumption, and keeping pace with contemporaries takes us well beyond authentic need into the realm of frivolity and excess. This intemperance, then, requires added consumption in order to deal with the accumulated wealth. The more you have, the more maintenance necessary to store, to clean, and to keep order of the existing possessions—creating an inherently vicious cycle.

Similarly, it is hard to remain personal with items designed and sold by strangers. Gone are the days of handknit sweaters, toys crafted from wood and fabric scraps, and dresses stitched with love. Warehouses bursting with cheap imports provide the only sensible purchases for those with an eye on the clock and household finances. Most durable goods—from fashion to tools, from decorations to cars—are part of advertising conglomerates that leave little room for idiosyncratic whimsy. The trends wash over us tsunami-like, and it is increasingly difficult to focus on what really matters, with materialism serving as balm, distraction, and buffer.

Our possessions often take charge, creating an odd harbor—for those thirsting for acceptance can find a shred of purpose in wearing the right thing, being entertained in herd form, and enjoying the comforts of communal taste. The mindless parade of gadgets and baubles leads them through the paces of disposable goods, weakening their ability to stand apart and commit to that which is not found on shelves or showroom floors.

GIVING FLESH TO SOMETHING MORE

The year before us is ripe with possibilities as women reflect on these things and weigh the cost of convenience and comfort. There is no doubt that technology and consumerism influence the core values of our society, which sees discomfort and want as specters to be exorcised by material incantations. Women’s lives have benefited tremendously, but they are now called to discern whether there are limits to material gratification and a deeper meaning to the desires that drive these markets.

John Paul II, while encouraging women to give a complete gift of themselves in response to the needs of the other, simultaneously warns that

women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine “originality.” There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not “reach fulfillment,” but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness (MD, 10).

So with this in mind, what is that “originality” or “genius” that women are called to introduce into a modern world saturated with technology and materialism? Simply, it is none other than themselves, their feminine presence so love-struck by the Bridegroom that they bear themselves as torches, sharing the salve of grace, and nurturing the very mustard seeds of hope.

Where she goes and what she does is not so important as who she is. Her spiritual maternity calls her to engage in a “receiving and bringing forth” at all times, and it must be the backdrop to all her pursuits. This is not a compilation of virtue in so much as it is a quality of soul, and essential to her fruitfulness will be her joyful collaboration with the Bridegroom wherever he is manifest in her life.

Thus, it is incumbent on every woman to pray over her distinct vocation— given her circumstances, her responsibilities, and her gifts. If love is the seed and she is its sanctuary, then every day will be a proving ground, for “the dignity of women is measured by the order of love” (MD, 29). Her resolve to nourish and promote it will engage her in countless arenas—beginning with the home and ending in the farthest outpost to which the Bridegroom calls her.

She will not engage in battle in the classic sense—for one cannot fight and be a sanctuary at the same time. This is part of the “feminine genius,” for surely, just as the enemy prowls about seeking destruction, she must harbor love, as authentic peace halts his progress. In this realm, women often forget themselves and engage in the masculine struggle. Each time they do, their essence is compromised, and the men who are called to wage their battle for the bride are emasculated. That is their vocation, not ours.

This quality of soul will allow the woman to discern how and where technology and materialism may take effect in her realm. Each decision will be based on whether it fosters love and growth among persons—or hinders it. Not all comfort is healthy, not all pain is destructive. Christ, who entrusts much to the maternal care of women, counts on authentic femininity to distinguish what will bear fruit and what will not. By now, we should know the difference between the tree in Eden and the Tree of Life. On this anniversary, we’re called to share that wisdom with the wider world.

 


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