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On the Dignity and Vocation of Women
The full text of Pope John Paul II's 1988 Apostolic Letter.

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MALE AND FEMALE: THE IMAGE AND LIKENESS OF GOD

...man and woman, created as a "unity of the two" in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love...

The Book of Genesis

Let us enter into the setting of the biblical "beginning". In it the revealed truth concerning man as "the image and likeness" of God constitutes the immutable basis of all Christian anthropology. "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27). This concise passage contains the fundamental anthropological truths: man is the highpoint of the whole order of creation in the visible world; the human race, which takes its origin from the calling into existence of man and woman, crowns the whole work of creation; both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image. This image and likeness of God, which is essential for the human being, is passed on by the man and woman, as spouses and parents, to their descendants: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (cf. Gen 1: 28). The Creator entrusts dominion over the earth to the human race, to all persons, to all men and women, who derive their dignity and vocation from the common "beginning".

In the Book of Genesis we find another description of the creation of man - man and woman (cf. 2:18-25) - to which we shall refer shortly. At this point, however, we can say that the biblical account puts forth the truth about the personal character of the human being. Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God. What makes man like God is the fact that - unlike the whole world of other living creatures, including those endowed with senses (animalia) - man is also a rational being (animal rationale). Thanks to this property, man and woman are able to "dominate" the other creatures of the visible world (cf. Gen 1:28).

The second description of the creation of man (cf. Gen 2:18-25) makes use of different language to express the truth about the creation of man, and especially of woman. In a sense the language is less precise, and, one might say, more descriptive and metaphorical, closer to the language of the myths known at the time. Nevertheless, we find no essential contradiction between the two texts. The text of Gen 2:18-25 helps us to understand better what we find in the concise passage of Gen 1:27-28. At the same time, if it is read together with the latter, it helps us to understand even more profoundly the fundamental truth which it contains concerning man created as man and woman in the image and likeness of God.

In the description found in Gen 2:1 8-25, the woman is created by God "from the rib" of the man and is placed at his side as another "I", as the companion of the man, who is alone in the surrounding world of living creatures and who finds in none of them a "helper" suitable for himself. Called into existence in this way, the woman is immediately recognized by the man as "flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones" (cf. Gen 2:23) and for this very reason she is called "woman". In biblical language this name indicates her essential identity with regard to man - 'is-'issah - something which unfortunately modern languages in general are unable to express: "She shall be called woman ('issah) because she was taken out of man ('is)": Gen 2:23.

The biblical text provides sufficient bases for recognizing the essential equality of man and woman from the point of view of their humanity. From the very beginning, both are persons, unlike the other living beings in the world about them. The woman is another "I" in a common humanity. From the very beginning they appear as a "unity of the two", and this signifies that the original solitude is overcome, the solitude in which man does not find "a helper fit for him" (Gen 2:20). Is it only a question here of a "helper" in activity, in "subduing the earth" (cf. Gen 1: 28)? Certainly it is a matter of a life's companion, with whom, as a wife, the man can unite himself, becoming with her "one flesh" and for this reason leaving "his father and his mother" (cf. Gen 2: 24). Thus in the same context as the creation of man and woman, the biblical account speaks of God's instituting marriage as an indispensable condition for the transmission of life to new generations, the transmission of life to which marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordered: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:28).
Person - Communion - Gift

Person - Communion - Gift

By reflecting on the whole account found in Gen 2:18-25, and by interpreting it in light of the truth about the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27), we can understand even more fully what constitutes the personal character of the human being, thanks to which both man and woman are like God. For every individual is made in the image of God, insofar as he or she is a rational and free creature capable of knowing God and loving him. Moreover, we read that man cannot exist "alone" (cf. Gen 2:18); he can exist only as a "unity of the two", and therefore in relation to another human person. It is a question here of a mutual relationship: man to woman and woman to man. Being a person in the image and likeness of God thus also involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other "I". This is a prelude to the definitive self-revelation of the Triune God: a living unity in the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

At the beginning of the Bible this is not yet stated directly. The whole Old Testament is mainly concerned with revealing the truth about the oneness and unity of God. Within this fundamental truth about God the New Testament will reveal the inscrutable mystery of God's inner life. God, who allows himself to be known by human beings through Christ, is the unity of the Trinity: unity in communion. In this way new light is also thrown on man's image and likeness to God, spoken of in the Book of Genesis. The fact that man "created as man and woman" is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a "unity of the two" in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God through the unity of the divinity, exist as persons through the inscrutable divine relationship. Only in this way can we understand the truth that God in himself is love (1 Jn 4:16).

The image and likeness of God in man, created as man and woman (in the analogy that can be presumed between Creator and creature), thus also expresses the "unity of the two" in a common humanity. This "unity of the two", which is a sign of interpersonal communion, shows that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion ("communio"). This likeness is a quality of the personal being of both man and woman, and is also a call and a task. The foundation of the whole human "ethos" is rooted in the image and likeness of God which the human being bears within himself from the beginning. Both the Old and New Testament will develop that "ethos", which reaches its apex in the commandment of love.

In the "unity of the two", man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist "side by side" or "together", but they are also called to exist mutually "one for the other".

This also explains the meaning of the "help" spoken of in Genesis 2 :1 8-25: "I will make him a helper fit for him". The biblical context enables us to understand this in the sense that the woman must "help" the man - and in his turn he must help her - first of all by the very fact of their "being human persons". In a certain sense this enables man and woman to discover their humanity ever anew and to confirm its whole meaning. We can easily understand that - on this fundamental level - it is a question of a "help" on the part of both, and at the same time a mutual "help". To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion. The text of Genesis 2:18-25 shows that marriage is the first and, in a sense, the fundamental dimension of this call. But it is not the only one. The whole of human history unfolds within the context of this call. In this history, on the basis of the principle of mutually being "for" the other, in interpersonal "communion", there develops in humanity itself, in accordance with God's will, the integration of what is "masculine" and what is "feminine". The biblical texts, from Genesis onwards, constantly enable us to discover the ground in which the truth about man is rooted, the solid and inviolable ground amid the many changes of human existence.

This truth also has to do with the history of salvation. In this regard a statement of the Second Vatican Council is especially significant. In the chapter on "The Community of Mankind" in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, we read: "The Lord Jesus, when he prayed to the Father 'that all may be one ... as we are one' (Jn 17: 21-22), opened up vistas closed to human reason. For he implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons and the union of God's children in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self".

With these words, the Council text presents a summary of the whole truth about man and woman - a truth which is already outlined in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and which is the structural basis of biblical and Christian anthropology. Man - whether man or woman - is the only being among the creatures of the visible world that God the Creator"has willed for its own sake"; that creature is thus a person. Being a person means striving towards self-realization (the Council text speaks of self-discovery), which can only be achieved "through a sincere gift of self". The model for this interpretation of the person is God himself as Trinity, as a communion of Persons. To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist "for" others, to become a gift.


October 1, 2003

Excerpted from Pope John Paul II's 1988 Apostolic Letter,“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” Chapters 7 and 8.

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READER COMMENTS
10.10.03   billyboy says:
Here John Paul II serves up the great key to human reality: God is love. If that’s the case, then three conditions of love are present in the One Being of Love: 1.) Love is given. Love is total self donation to another (Father) ; 2.) Love is received. It's reciprocal. The other receives and gives back the whole self in return (Son) forming a communion of persons. 3.) Love is generative. (Holy Spirit). It is never turned in on itself. The communion proceeds forth, gives life, produces fruit, creates and includes others.In our human nakedness, male and female, we see the capacity for this same reciprocal love, involving total self giving, receptivity and procreative generosity. The parallel with Trinitarian reality is mind boggling. The man and woman (two persons) love each other. They come together in a nuptial embrace made possible only because they are different from each other . The fruit of their love is so real than nine months later they have to give it a name (third person). Three persons, one love, one communion.

10.01.03   Godspy says:
Did you know that marriage between a man and a woman reflects the cosmic unity of the Trinity?

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