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The Gospel: the fundamental charter on the dignity of women

In the Aparecida document, the bishops teach that “man and woman, created in the image and likeness of God, possess an inviolable dignity at the service of which the fundamental values that govern shared human life should be conceived and acted” (n. 537). In the face of the undignified reality in which may women live, they do not hesitate to call for change: “There must be greater awareness of the difficult situation affecting the dignity of many women. Some are subjected to many forms of violence, even as children and adolescents in the home and elsewhere” (n. 48); “the so often silenced cry of women who are subjected to many forms of exclusion and violence in all their forms and at all stages of their lives must be heard” (n. 454). These pastoral guidelines are a part of the reception at the local level of the Second Vatican Council and the teaching of Paul VI, the part that was developed by the General Episcopal Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean, creating a theological, ecclesial and pastoral tradition of firm and united commitment to the poor and the afflicted. Medellín (1968) signified the activation of a Church motivated by human development and the beginning of liberation theology: at Puebla (1797) the “preferential option for the poor” (n. 1134 ff.) that John Paul II universalized with his Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) was made official. The creative impulse of the Latin American Churches brought to the Church in the second half of the 20th century a renewed option for those who are most in need. For, who are the “poor and afflicted” of Vatican II? (cf. Lumen Gentium , n. 8; Gaudium et Spes, n. 63; 69). 

They are precisely all those persons and groups of people who are deprived of their fundamental dignity. Christ, who “being rich, became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9; cf. Phil 2:6-11), was united with them in his Redemptive Incarnation and Passion, in order to give them life (cf. Jn 10:10). In Latin America, the reality of the poor led to a recognition of the various faces of exclusion: women, the indigenous, Afro-Americans, migrants and others. The prophetic response to the people’s aspiration to lead a dignified human life gave rise to various theological perspectives on behalf of their integral liberation (cf. Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 30 and following): theologies for the poor, for a fuller life for women, for indigenous peoples. Faced with these newly emerging themes, new positions among believers also arose and those which proclaimed the dignity of women, their freedom and liberation acquired strength. In short, the Catholic Church in Latin America became aware of the unacceptable and dehumanizing situation in which many women lived: Puebla spoke of “poor women as doubly oppressed” ( Document of Puebla, DP, n. 1135, note); the theology of woman completed the picture, saying: if a person is poor and a woman, she is doubly excluded, and if she is poor, a woman and black (or indigenous) she is trebly excluded. For the variables that form the basis of exclusion can be added on to the other(cf. Document of Aparecida [DA], n. 454). Santo Domingo (1992) summed up the situation of women with these challenging words: “To her who gives and defends life a dignified life is denied; the Church feels called to stand by the side of life and to defend it in woman”. Aparecida (2007) continued the journey begun by preceding conferences with several changes: it expanded the doctrinal foundations on equal dignity, it introduced a critique of the male chauvinist mentality and the use of inclusive language; and it explored proposals for cultural and ecclesial renewal. The point of departure for my reflections is human dignity, since this at times appears as the dignity of woman, and they set forth the human advancement of women as “implicit in the Christological faith”, following a powerful idea which Benedict XVI expressed at the 5th Conference. As a criterion for the dignity of women and their indispensable value, Aparecida first highlights the practice of Jesus in an age marked by male chauvinism. “He spoke with them (cf. Jn 4:27), he was singularly merciful to women sinners (Lk 7:36-50; Jn 8:11), he healed them (cf. Mk 5:25-34), he defended them in their dignity (cf. Jn 8:1-11), he chose them as the first witnesses of his resurrection (cf. Mt 28:9-10), and he brought women into the group of people who were closest to him (cf. Lk 81:3)” (DA, n. 451). Truly, the Gospel of Jesus represents the fundamental charter on the dignity of women. First, it should be remembered that “God sent his Son, born of a woman [Mary]” (Gal. 4:4) and that in him “there is neither Jew nor Gentile; neither slave nor free; nor is there male or female” (3:28). Moreover, a woman was the first to be sent to announce the Resurrection to her brethren, just as previously it had been a Samaritan woman who was sent to announce it among her people (cf. Jn 20:17;4:26,29,39). Rightly does Aparecida present women as “the primary ones passing on the faith and assisting official church leaders, who should serve them, appreciate them, and respect them” (n. 455). Among the Christological texts which speak about human dignity, this paragraph stands out: “We bless [God] for making us his daughters and sons in Christ, for having redeemed us with the price of his blood and for the permanent relationship that he establishes with us, which is the source of our absolute, non-negotiable and inviolable dignity”. The bishops express their regret that “countless women of every condition are not valued in their dignity” and they call for the overcoming of a “a chauvinist mindset that ignores the newness of Christianity” (DA, n. 453). Chauvinism or sexism, understood as a way of thinking and acting which foments the discrimination of women on account of their sexual difference leads to a breakdown of mutuality in the relationship between man and woman and contradicts Christian anthropology, which proclaims their equal in dignity as they are both created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Address in the opening session of the proceedings [DI], n. 5; DA, n. 451). Aparecida also questions the responsibilities of men and fathers of families in the face of the “temptation of surrendering to violence, infidelity, abuse of power, drug addition, alcoholism, male chauvinism, corruption, and abandonment of their role as fathers” (DA, n. 461). This “chauvinist mindset” creates situations that are contrary to the plan of God (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 29) and that may be interpreted as social sin inasmuch as they create a dislocation in family and social relationships. What then must the Christian Churches proclaim? Benedict XVI recalled the problem of structures which create injustice and he reaffirmed the value of proper structures as an indispensable condition for a just society (cf. DI, n. 4). There is no space for dignity, participation and mutual and relationships of love and care once male chauvinism enters into structures. Conversion of heart is therefore not enough; the transformation of structures is also needed. In response to situations of inequality and violence that many women experience, we must envisage an inclusive anthropology. This is based on the Christological faith that invites us to be a poor Church for the poor, as Pope Francis has asked. In his inaugural address at Aparecida, Benedict XVI presented the unity of the love of God and neighbor; and he affirmed that faith in Christ and life in him are not a private escape, but rather an act of responsibility to others. He therefore affirmed that the preferential option for the poor is implicit in Christological faith, in that God who became poor, so as to enrich us by his poverty (cf. DI, n. 3). He also criticized the persistent chauvinistic mentality that ignores the newness of Christianity (cf. DI, n. 5). Aparecida addressed both of these aspects: it affirmed that the option for the poor “comes from our faith in Jesus Christ, God made Man, who became our brother” (cf. Hebrews 2:11-12) and he added that “if this option is implicit in Christological faith (…) we are called to contemplate, in the suffering faces of our brothers, the face of Christ who called us to serve him in them”. Something similar may be said of Christ and women: the promotion of the dignity of women comes from our faith in Jesus Christ, God made Man and our brother. In the person and practice of Christ, the mystery of woman is exalted, faith in him involves, for us, a commitment to the fullness of life for every woman and every human being. When I think about the dignity of women as implicit in Christological faith, I do not think first of those who find themselves in situations of poverty; I do so in an inclusive way. The dignity of every human person, man and woman, is included in faith in Christ, because in Him we have been created and redeemed (cf. DA, n. 104). The goal is to affirm the dignity of women as an ethnic-religious priority. For Pope Francis, the presence of women, especially in decision-making areas in the Church and in society, must become more inclusive (cf. Evangelii gaudium, n. 103). 

Since Christ has united himself to every human person, man and woman, faith in him involves the good news of the full dignity of every man and every woman (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 22). The dignity of women and due solidarity toward them is implicit in Christological faith, which in a special way includes all women - elderly, adult, young, and children - who suffer from inequality on account of their sexual difference and who cannot participate fully in religious and social life. A theology of woman with historical bite proclaims the “equal dignity of man and woman, by reason of being created in the image and likeness of God” (DA, n. 451); it blesses God “for making us his daughters and sons in Christ, for having redeemed us with the price of his blood” (n. 104); it denounces the violence, abuse of power and chauvinism which so many women, wives and daughters endure (n. 461); and it proclaims the dignity of women: disciples and sisters of Jesus (cf. 451). When we women do theology, let us give thanks for the tenderness of God, who makes us sisters and brothers of his Son; let us think about equal dignity and the gift of difference, let us be united with all women who suffer because of a lack of recognition, participation or support, without forgetting the other human creatures that are victims of exclusion. Theology done by women can contribute to a deeper understanding of the Gospel of human dignity. Is it not precisely this sort of theology that can be of assistance in discerning the charism of women in the body of Christ and suggest necessary paths of transformation for ecclesial and social renewal? (cf. Evangelii gaudium, n. 104).

by Virginia R. Azcuy

The Author

Born in 1961 in Argentina, a doctor in theology - among other places, she studied at T übingen under the direction of Peter H ünermann - since 1988 Virginia Raquel Azcuy has taught in the faculty of theology of the Catholic Pontifical University of Argentina, with a chair in Buenos Aires. She serves as General Coordinator of Teologanda (a study, research and publication program), and as Vice-President of the Argentinian Society of Theology. She also heads the Icala program of Stipendienwerk Lateinamerika-Deutschland for the scientific promotion of women in Latin America.

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