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Forming a community of Persons: the rights, dignity and role of men and women: a response

Mary Shivanandan
John Paul II Institute, Washington DC


"The dignity of woman is measured by the order of love, which is essentially the order of justice and charity." Mulieris Dignitatem, Nov. 29 [1]

Professor Patrick Lee has developed well the role of woman in the order of Justice. He has identified the main difference between men and women as the woman's capacity to bear and nurture a very young child. From this given he has argued the moral imperatives of the different roles of both men and women.

He has also considered the question of liberty and autonomy in the order of justice an criticized two inadequate views on marriage related to sex differences: 1) that children are an optional extra to the personal union and 2) that marriage is only for procreation. He has ably outlined the disastrous and unjust consequences to women, men and children that have resulted from feminist attempts to overturn this moral order.

In my paper I would like to examine the roles of women -- and of men -- in the order of charity, through an analysis of John Paul II's writings. In
Mulieris Dignitatem (#29) he goes on to say:

Only a person can love and only a person can be loved...Love is an ontological and ethical requirement of the person. The person must be loved, since love alone corresponds to what the person is.

And in the final section 30, the Holy Father goes on to say:

A woman's dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity; it is likewise connected with the love she gives in return.

These three quotes from
Mulieris Dignitatem focus on three fundamental themes in the work of John Paul II:
1) the dignity of the person
2) the communion of the persons in love
3) the specific characteristics of masculinity and femininity.

The Dignity of the Person

The dignity of the person has been a preoccupation of John Paul II since his earliest years. His commitment was forged in the furnace of World War II when he witnessed, especially through the concentration camps the dehumanization of the person. In a play written in the 1940s by the young Karol Wojtyla one of the characters refers to the difference between the "exchangeable man" who mixes superficially, and the "non-exchangeable." "The non-exchangeable is the most interesting." [2]

The person has been a constant focus of his philosophy and ethics from his thesis on Max Scheler in the 1950s to the Lublin Lectures and his many article contributions to Polish Thomist personalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
[3] In his work on marriage, Love and Responsibility, first published in Polish in 1960 he wrote in the introduction:

The present book was born principally of the need to put the norms of Catholic sexual morality on a firm basis, a basis as definitive as possible, relying on the most elementary and incontrovertible moral truths and the most fundamental values or goods. Such a good is the person, and the moral truth most closely bound up with the world of persons is 'the commandment to love' -- for love is a good peculiar to the world of persons. [4]

His philosophic concept of person is based on that of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its philosophy of being and its grounding in the definition of Boethius. While Wojtyla rejected the "
emotionalist premises" of Scheler, he sought to use the phemonemologist method to deepen understanding of the interiority of the human subject. [5]

But it was Vatican Council II, according to his biographer, George Williams, that was the inspiration for his major philosophical work,
The Acting Person. [6] Another leading biographer, Rocco Buttiglione, agrees that "the philosophic work of Wojtyla has for its center the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II.[7]

In an address on Vatican Radio in 1964, entitled "On Man as Person," during Period III of the Vatican Council he emphasized the immense theoretical significance of the concept of man as person.
[8] The Council's Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) became for him a fundamental source for his own thinking on the person and on communio personarum the communion of persons) a phrase which first appeared in section 12 of the document. [9]

In his commentary on the Council,
Sources of Renewal, he calls Nos. 15, 16, and 17 "the basic framework of man's vocation to human dignity as proclaimed by Vatican II." [10] He quotes Gaudium et Spes extensively in the Sign of Contradiction, the papal retreat he gave in 1976.[11]

These homilies were both a culmination and integration of his philosophical and theological thinking up to that time and an establishment of themes later developed and refined in his papal encyclicals. He quotes from Gaudium et Spes throughout, but two sections cited frequently are central, Nos. 22 and 24. In Redemptor Hominis, he calls GS a "stupendous text." [12] The following are the key excerpts from GS 22 and 24:

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light...Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear. (GS 22)

He (the Lord Jesus) implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Person and the unity of God's sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (
GS 24)

Another fundamental source of John Paul II's thinking on the dignity of the person and the communion of person are the texts of Genesis 1 to 4, linked to Christ's reference in Matthew 19:3-9 to "the beginning."

In Sign of Contradiction he asserted that "indeed it seems to me that unless one does so reflect upon that fundamental ensemble of facts and situations it becomes extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to understand man and the world.[13]

He calls the Genesis account "something like an embryo, containing all that will in time make up the full-grown person".[14] In Familiaris Consortio (No.13) he states that "He (Jesus Christ) reveals the original truth of marriage, the truth of the 'beginning.'"[15] And in No. 17, he teaches, "Accordingly the family must go back to the 'beginning' of God's creative act if it is to attain self-knowledge and self-realization in accordance with the inner truth not only of what it is, but also of what it does in history." Mulieris Dignitatem (No. 1) also refers to the fundamental inheritance of all humanity that is "linked with the mystery of the biblical 'beginning.'"

John Paul II made a special study of that beginning in his Wednesday catecheses from September 5, 1979 to November 28, 1984. They have been published by the Daughters of St. Paul under the titles:
Original Unity of Man and Woman, Blessed are the Pure in Heart, The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy and Reflections on Humane Vitae.

These reflections contain such a wealth of anthropological and theological insight that it is only possible to examine a small part. I have chosen to look at his concept of "original solitude". This concept is essential in his understanding of the person and of the fundamental equality of man and woman.

Original Solitude

John Paul II derives this concept from the
second or Yahwist account of creation, which is considered to have been composed earlier than the Elohist, priestly account. He takes as his starting point the text, "it is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helper fit for him (Gen. 2:18)"[16].

The Pope makes a particular point of noting that man is spoken of as "male" (ish) only after the creation of Eve, so that this solitude refers to man as such. There are two meanings implied in this solitude: (1) from man's very nature and (2) derived from the male-female relationship. The first form of solitude appears to be a "fundamental anthropological problem". It is prior to the second solitude not chronologically but existentially. (OU pp.44,45).

When all the animals are brought before man, he names them, thereby showing his superiority over them. While naming them, man is "
in a sense in search of a definition of himself." His "self-knowledge develops at the same rate as knowledge of all living beings...therefore consciousness reveals man as the one who possesses the cognitive faculty as regards the visible world." (OU pp.43-49)

It is man's body that makes him conscious of being alone. It is precisely through his body that he realizes aloneness and difference from the animals even though he is a body among bodies. Therefore at the same time that man has awareness of his subjectivity he has "consciousness and awareness of the meaning of his own body." (OU p.51ff)

Man is called to till the earth and subdue it and in the activity of tilling the ground the "
body expresses the person", so that "(m)an is a subject not only because of his self-awareness and self-determination, but also on the basis of his own body." (OU pp.55-61) "Consciousness of the body seems to be identified....with the discovery of the complexity of one's own structure which, on the basis of philosophical anthropology, consists, in short, in the relationship of soul and body." John Paul II here expresses the fundamental soul-body unity.

Along with self-consciousness, choice and self-determination are given in the Garden of Eden in connection with the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In this way, John Paul II states that man is constituted as a "partner of the Absolute" since he must choose between good and evil. Man's transcendency is established both in the first account of creation by being made in the image of God and in the second by this solitude in which he alone of all creation "through his own humanity, through what he is, is constituted at the same time in a unique, exclusive and unrepeatable relationship with God Himself." (OU pp.51-54)

This choice between good and evil with its alternative between death and immortality also makes clear that the invisible determines the visible and has a profound significance for the theology of the body. (OU p.59)

Communio Personarum

When Eve is created out of Adam's side, John Paul II says the "
original solitude becomes part of the meaning of original unity." He makes the further statement: "That man is a 'body' belongs to the structure of the personal subject more deeply than the fact ths he is in his somatic constitution also male and female. Therfore, the meaning of original soliutde...is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity." (OU p.62)

The original unity through masculinity and femininity, while it overcomes the frontier of solitude, affirms "with regard to both human beings - everything that constitues 'man' in solitude. In the Bible narrative, solitude is the way that leads to unity, which, following Vatican II, we can define as
communio personarum." (OU p.71)

Before drawing some conclusions for our topic, it is necessary to consider two other concepts. John Paul II says that the discovery of transcendence in "
solitude" with regard to the animals also implies "the discovery of an adequate relationship 'to' the person leading to the communion of persons."

Only through a "double solitude" in which both the man and the woman have subjectivity and consciousness of the meaning of their own body can there be a true reciprocity, as is expressed in the word 'help'. (OU p.72) In the union of one flesh, in which they "submit at the same time their whole humanity to the blessing of fertility", man and woman in a certain sense relive "the original value of man, which emerges from the mystery of his solitude before God and in the midst of the world". (OU p.80ff) Man reflects the image of God both in his solitude but even more in the communio personarum. (OU p.73)

To sum up four essential points in this brief account of "original solitude": It includes an opening to transcendence with all it implies of relationship to God, subjectivity and self-determination; rootedness in the body (male and female are two ways of being a body (
OU p.62); an opening to communion with another person; and a submission to fertility in the union of one flesh. Any true communion of persons in marriage must be based on these four essential elements of the person.


John Paul II reitereates these four points in
Mulieris Dignitatem. First and foremost man and woman are persons; "(b)oth man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image". [17] Both are rational and free creatures capable of knowling and loving God.

As persons they "can only exist in relation to another person". They are called to be for one another as personas and in their masculinity and femininity (which includes motherhood and fatherhood). "This truth about the human being", he states, "constitutes the indispensable point of departure, for any reflection on the vocation and dignity of women". [18]

Motherhood is bound up with the structure of the woman as person. From the beginning motherhood implies a special openness on the part of the woman to a new human person. And "
this is precisely the woman's part". By accepting motherhood through "a sincere gift of self", a woman discovers herself.

The father, John Paul II asserts, in their joint parenthood "owes a special debt to the woman". No program of 'equal rights' between men and women can ignore this fact.[19] In an address on "Fatherhood and the Family" in 1981, John Paul II called for efforts to "restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance"[20].

Nevertheless, as Professor Lee has demonstrated, since the woman is the one who bears and nurtures the young child, a certain division of roles flows from that. This clearly corresponds to the teaching of John Paul II:

There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women's access to public functions. On the other hand the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of the maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human. [21]

As feminists have pointed out, this division of roles exposes women to the danger of exploitation. Woman, John Paul II agrees, suffers more consequences of original sin than man in the disturbance of the
communio personarum because the headship which accrues to man from the order of creation becomes domination and submission instead of masculine and feminine complementarity. The Redemption of Christ has made possible once again the original order of creation but it is continually threatened by sin. [22]

The Order of Love

John Paul II looks at the nature of this headship in Ephesians 5 in the order of love, which is the only order befitting persons. He links, as others have, the admonition for wives to be submissive to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22, to 5:21: "
Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ"[23]. He interprets it that "whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the 'subjection' is not one-sided but mutual".

He calls this a Gospel "innovation". Even though it is expressed in apostolic writings alongside the old customary way of treating the woman as subject, John Paul II says that "all the reasons in favor of the 'subjection' of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a 'mutual subjection' of both 'out of reverence for Christ'[24].

He goes on to say that while both men and women stand in the feminine role of the Church towards Christ (Mary is the supreme example of this), Christ's love as a Bridegroom is also the "model and pattern for all human love, men's love in particular". [25]

The first step in the husband's giving the love of the bridegroom is in receiving the woman's bodily femininity. When St. Paul admonishes the husband to love his wife as his own body, he is called upon to submit himself to the rhythm and cycle of her sexuality and fertility. When he refuses to do this, the woman, in her urge for her husband, may mutilate herself through contraception and/or abortion.

By destroying her unique power of motherhood she masculinizes herself and since the body expresses the person, this masculinization carries over into other spheres, both psychological and social. She becomes man's competitor rather than his partner. They are no longer a gift to each other but a threat.

The Experience of Couples

In the field of natural family planning which has been my specialty for many years, we are seeing how the
communio personarum can blossom when the couple commit themselves to accepting their joint fertility. When the man learns about his wife's gift of fertility he often expresses wonder like that of Adam at the first sight of Eve. Both express wonder at the conception and birth of a child, a new human person.

In the struggle to integrate his sexuality with hers, the man comes to know himself. One husband, who at first wished his wife was more like him and did not have a cycle, found that the problems was his.
His true masculinity lay in mastering himself, not dominating her. By submitting to her femininity, he discovered his masculinity.

In the periods of abstinence during the fertile period, husband and wife live again, in a sense, their original virginal solitude with its unique opening to the transcendent or spiritual. This transcendence is also experienced in the marital union when they imitate the Trinitarian union by being a complete gift to each other. Above all they experience it consciously in conceiving new life. As Eve exclaimed: "
I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord." (Genesis 4:1) [and as for the husband, he frequently reacts in a manner characteristic of NFP couples, "We are pregnant."]

The witness of NFP couples is uncovering the rich dimensions of the Church's perennial teaching on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality, which is at the core of true sexual equality and complementarity.

Empirical studies also are beginning to confirm this wealth of anecdotal information. There are several studies pointing to increased interpersonal communication on NFP as well as a lack of it associated with what is euphemistically called "the more sure methods" of the Pill, the IUD and sterilization. [26]

An interesting recent study by Richard Fehring, Marquette University College of Nursing, on "Spiritual Well-Being, Self-Esteem and Intimacy Among Couples Using Natural Family Planning", showed that "the NFP couples had statistically higher spiritual well-being than the contraceptive couples". [27] Empirical research has barely begun to document the differences.


Justice for women begins in the order of love, the only order fit for persons. In this area the man must take the role of the Bridegroom. If he does not, he himself, society and the Church are gravely diminished. I would like to end by quoting from the play
Radiation of Fatherhood by Karol Wojtyla, written before 1964 but not published until 1979.

The Mother speaking.....
I love Adam constantly and restore to him the fatherhood he renounces. I discreetly turn his loneliness into my motherhood. And this is how people liberate themselves from the heritage that forms the strangest community - the community of loneliness. Adam, too, liberates himself from it. I help him leave the circle that binds him to himself".

"If Adam knew all about me, if he knew the whole truth about me, he would cease to be embedded in loneliness and see in himself the features of the Bridegroom which he is trying to hide." [28]



1 John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Apostolic Letter, Aug.15, 1988, Vatican City.

2 Karol Wojtyla, The Collected Plays and Writings in Theater, Trans. with introduction by Boleslaw Taborski, Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1987, p.167.

3 Stanislaw Kowalczyk, "Personalism Polonais Contemporain," Divus Thomas 88 (1-3) 1985, pp.58-76; Kenneth Schmitz, "At the Center of the Human Drama: The Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II," The McGivney Lectures Series, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1993.

4 Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993, p.16.

5 Karol Wojtyla, Max Scheler y la Etica Christiana, Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Christianos, 1982, pp.205-219.

6 George H. Williams, The Mind of John Paul II: Origins of His Thought and Action. New York: The Seabury Press, 1981, p.186.

7 Rocco Buttiglione, La Pensée de Karol Wojtyla, Trans. by Henri Louette in collaboration with Jean-Marie Salamito. Paris: Communio, Fayard, 1984, p.251.

8 Ibid., p.187.

9 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, Dec. 7, 1965, Boston St. Paul Editions, p.13. (Hereafter referred to in the text as GS).

10 Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council, Trans. P.S.Falla, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.

11 Karol Wojtyla, Sign of Contradiction, Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1979.

12 John Paul II, Redeemer of Man, Redemptor Hominis, March 4, 1979, Washington DC: USCC, p.25.

13 Sign of Contradiction, p.24.

14 Ibid., p.25.

15 On the Family: Familiaris Consortio, Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Dec.15, 1981, Washington, DC: USCC, 1982.

16 John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis, Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981. (hereafter cited in the text OU.)

17 John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 6.

18 Ibid., No. 7.

19 Ibid., No. 18.

20 John Paul II. "Fatherhood and the Family," Address on the Feast of St. Joseph, Terni, Italy 3/19/81, in Sacred in all Its Forms: John Paul II and Selected Documents of Offices of the Holy See and Various Bishops, Ed. and intro. by James V. Schall, Boston MA: St. Paul Editions, 1984.

21 John Paul II, On the Family: Familiaris Consortio, No.23.

22 Ibid., No. 9.

23 cf. P.Remy, "Le Mariage, signe de l'union du Christ et de l'Église; les ambiguités d'une référence symbolique." RSPT, 66 (1982), pp.400, 403

24 John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, No.24.

25 Ibid., No. 25.

26 Mary Shivanandan, "Communication and Family Planning: A Literature Review." Paper presented at the 1993 American Academy of Natural Family Planning annual conference, Omaha NE, July 22-24.

27 Richard J. Fehring, "Spiritual Well-Being, Self-Esteem and Intimacy Among Couples Using Natural Family Planning." Paper presented at the 1993 American Academy of Natural Family Planning Annual Meeting, Omaha NE, July 22-24.

28 Karol Wojtyla, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. Trans. with intro. by Boleslaw Taborski, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987, p.360.

*Published in The Church at the Service of the Family, ed. Anthony J. Mastroeni: Proceedings from the Sixteenth Convention of the fellowship of catholic Scholars, Orange, CA 1993 (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University, 1994), 91-105

This version: 10th February 2003

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