Text till samtal tisdagen den 13 december 2016:

The Dignity of Creation – a conversation with Pope Francis’s Theology

Tina Beattie
Professor of Catholic Studies, Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing

University of Roehampton, London

Dignity, Difference and Rights

 – A feminist Thomist dialogue with Pope Francis’s theology


The principle of human dignity has been a recurring theme in Catholic theology. However, rarely has it played as central a role as it does today. This reflects a wider trend, which can be dated back to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The opening words of that declaration read:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world …[1]

This ushered in an era when the language of rights would eventually displace nearly all other terms of reference for addressing complex moral dilemmas and questions of social justice.

In Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris,[2] the United Nations (UN) and the UDHR gained official support from the Catholic Church, and the language of human dignity and rights has been a key feature of conciliar and postconciliar documents. Pope John Paul II summarises what this means when he writes that


The recognition of the dignity of every human being is the foundation and support of the concept of universal human rights. For believers, that dignity and the rights that stem from it are solidly grounded in the truth of the human being’s creation in the image and likeness of God.[3]


Nevertheless, the concepts of universal human dignity and rights are contested, with continuing debates as to their foundations and coherence.[4] Since the 1990s, these debates have become polarised with the increasing prominence given to the language of sexual and reproductive rights. On the one hand, a secular rights-based rhetoric is producing an ever-more fragmented, diffuse and individualistic notion of rights in response to the politics of identity and gender which have come to dominate much public debate in the western democracies.[5] On the other hand, the Holy See, using its permanent observer status at the UN, has in the past joined forces with a number of Muslim, evangelical and conservative political campaigners to condemn so-called gender ideology and to block any attempt to make sexual rights part of the official discourse of the UN.[6] Pope Francis has done much to soften the tone of such debates, but he repeatedly condemns what he calls ‘gender ideology’, and there has been no substantial change in the Church’s position.

These are some of the issues that form the context of this paper. What role does the language of dignity and rights play in the teachings of the postconciliar church, to what extent can this be underpinned by an appeal to tradition, and how are church teachings on dignity and rights applied when it comes to questions of women’s rights in the postconciliar church, up to and including Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’? I am focusing on Thomas Aquinas as representative of tradition here, though this is only one of many possible foci within the rich diversity of Catholic theological tradition(s). If, as many feminists argue, the generic term ‘man’ privileges the male subject as normative and the female and nature as other, to what extent can the concept of ‘the rights of man’ be extended to incorporate a more diverse and inclusive understanding of dignity and rights, consistent with Catholic teaching and responsive to the challenges of our times?


Thomas Aquinas on Human Dignity


As Fergus Kerr points out, there have been many versions of Thomism in the last century, and Thomas has been appropriated by conservatives and liberals to support their positions.[7] When we approach Thomas from the perspective of a modern understanding of human dignity, we must do so mindful of the vast social and epistemological differences between our world and his. According to Servais Pinckaers, the term ‘dignity’ (‘dignitas’ in various Latin forms) occurs more than 1,700 times in Thomas’s works, but he offers no analysis of what the concept means.[8] Most of these references apply to different social roles and responsibilities, while some refer to Christ’s dignity. Only a few can be interpreted as referring to human dignity as such.

Pinckaers argues that we must approach Thomas’s understanding of ‘dignity’ from the perspective of his account of the person. This is a complex task, because for Thomas ‘person’ refers primarily and perfectly to God in the three persons of the Trinity, and only derivatively and imperfectly to the human made in the image of God. However, in order to speak analogically of the personhood of God, we must begin with the human person, because for Thomas, following Aristotle, all our understanding is formed through intellectual and contemplative reflection on our experiences of the material, sensory world. We are therefore only able to speak about God in human terms, but we must remember that ultimately we are speaking of a profound and incomprehensible mystery. In Thomas’s widely quoted aphorism, ‘What God is not is clearer to us than what God is.’ (ST I q.1, a.9)[9] However, as Pinckaers points out, this means that Thomas’s analogies of divine personhood ‘provide us first of all with a definition of the human person’.[10]

To summarise a complex argument, dignity is for Thomas the defining attribute of personhood, and it derives from our rational nature. It is insofar as we are free to act in accordance with our reason and our will – we act rather than simply being acted upon – that we acquire the unique dignity of the person, and this dignity is perfected in the intelligence, will and mastery of the divine persons. It is worth adding that Thomas, with reference to Boethius, develops these ideas in the context of the understanding of ‘person’ in Greek theatre.[11] The human person acquires dignity from the vocation to union with God in whose image he or she is made, but also stands in need of redemption. Christ restores and increases the dignity that was degraded through original sin.

James Hanvey traces Thomas’s understanding of human dignity back to its Augustinian roots, pointing out that ‘Augustine’s insight was to see that the imago Dei of Genesis had now to be read as the imago Trinitatis if Christian revelation was to be coherent.’[12] Hanvey argues that Augustine’s understanding of the imago Trinitatis in terms of the mental capacities of memory, understanding and will is not static but is rather ‘something which we live’ through directing our whole being towards the love of God. He goes on to argue that ‘If we think of dignity in this context, then it is not only a quality possessed or attributed but a manifestation of our person in our way of living.’[13]

This argument is strengthened if we bear in mind that, notwithstanding subtle differences between the Trinitarian analogies of Augustine and Thomas, they both situate these in the context of love.[14] In Book 9 of De Trinitate, Augustine uses the analogies of ‘the lover, the beloved, and the love’ (De Trinitate 9.2)[15] and of ‘mind, love and knowledge’. (De Trinitate 9.4)[16] Thomas writes of the ‘principle of a word, word, and love’. (ST I, q.93, a.6). The centrality of love to the personhood of God and therefore to the dignity of the human person emphasises a point that has been neglected by much post-medieval theology and all but abandoned by modern philosophical theism, though it has been a significant feature of feminist theology – namely, that personhood is essentially relational. The person comes to be through the dynamic giving and receiving of love which is awakened and sustained by an other who is not the self – initially and primarily God, who arouses our desire through the beauty and goodness of creation. Also worth nothing here is the extent to which Augustine and Thomas use maternal analogies of conceiving and begetting to speak of the Trinity. Relationships within the persons of God are like (and not like) the process by way of which a mother conceives and gives birth to a child.[17] The weaving of the Word or Logos into Trinitarian theology means that, for Augustine and Aquinas as for modern language theorists, language itself is essentially relational. Human knowledge is constituted by the inherent relationality as well as the rationality that comes with the formation of concepts and categories, and the self thus conceived expresses itself in loving and communicative relationships with God and with others.

The theological focus of traditional and modern Catholic concepts of dignity calls into question the coherence of Enlightenment claims about the foundations of dignity in human rationality and autonomy, particularly when approached from a relational Trinitarian perspective. In the Catholic theological tradition, while dignity arises from the freedom of the human person, this is not the freedom of the autonomous subject of modern individualism. It is a creaturely freedom, dependent on God, interdependent on others, and constituting the freedom to seek to do good and avoid evil. Similarly, rationality is not an attribute that sets the human mind over and against nature, including human nature, but is rather a characteristic that enhances our desire for God by enabling us to recognise and interpret the rationality, order and beauty of creation, all of which bears some Trinitarian likeness to the creator.[18] The natural law discernible to human understanding is an intimation of God’s eternal law that sustains the universe in being. This eternal law is the source from which all human values, laws and institutions derive their meaning insofar as they are just, virtuous and orientated towards the good of each and all. The theologians of the Reformation rejected the Catholic theological premise that grace perfects nature, ushering in a more dis-graced theology of creation in the context of original sin. This paved the way for modernity’s dualistic conflict between nature and reason, and the post-Kantian rupture between reason and revelation,[19] though many feminists would argue that the seeds of this dualism were sown when patristic and medieval theologians sought to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology.[20]

With this preamble in mind, let me consider how we might flesh out what we mean by ‘dignity’ in a Catholic theological context, before asking what happens if we introduce a wider concept of dignity and rights into the discussion. I begin with Thomas and move on to more recent treatments of the theme of dignity in church documents.


Thomist Perspectives on Dignity, Being and Doing


Thomas’s understanding of dignity is both ontological and teleological. It is an aspect of what we are (our being), and of who we are (our doing). Hanvey refers to these as the intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions of dignity, but we could also use the language of essential and inessential dignity. Our essential dignity belongs to the very nature of the human made in the image of God. The word ‘person’ implies ‘dignity’. To quote Pinckaers, ‘Natural human dignity … subsists beneath sin.’[21]

Ontological dignity is the gift that is bestowed upon us by God by virtue of the kind of being we are – a rational and relational creature made in the image of the Trinitarian God. We could describe this as a naked dignity, as yet unclothed by any personal characteristics or contexts. It is unaffected by any of the contingent factors of human existence, and can never be destroyed.

Teleological dignity is what each of us brings to our particular personhood as we develop and mature. It is the clothing of our naked human dignity in our own personal narratives – that weaving together of memory, understanding and will which issues forth in the loving activity of a life well lived, and communicates itself in the language and gestures of human interaction. It emerges and grows in proportion to the diligent and creative use of our rationality and freedom.  Unlike ontological dignity, teleological dignity is contingent, contextual and diverse in its degrees and characteristics. It can be nurtured and developed, and it can be squandered and violated by our own freely chosen decisions as to how to live. Teleological dignity flows from the primordial dignity of the creature made in the image of God, but it is ethical and vocational rather than ontological. To quote Pinckaers again, ‘Human dignity is dynamic. It tends to grow, but it can also diminish and be lost, and then regained through penitence.’[22]

We might see the importance of differentiating between these two aspects of dignity if we consider Thomas’s problematic discussion regarding the death penalty.[23] He argues that unrepentant sinners can be killed by legitimate authorities because they have lost their dignity and been reduced to the level of worse than a beast:


[I]f a human be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he or she be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lum’ (1 Cor. 5:6) By sinning a human departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from human dignity (dignitate humana), in so far as the human is naturally free, and exists for himself or herself, and falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he or she is useful to others. … Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a human so long as he or she preserves their dignity, yet it may be good to kill someone who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad human is worse than a beast, and is more harmful. (ST II.II, q. 64, a. 2 and 3)[24]


Thomas here seems to be suggesting that not only the teleological dignity of the human, but also his or her ontological dignity can be lost through sinful acts. We can lose our human status and become worse than beasts. In our own time, we know the unthinkable consequences of reducing people to the status of vermin and beasts in order to kill them, and we might detect a distant precursor to that mentality in Thomas’s argument. Even making allowances for historical differences in context and culture, Thomas’s justification for killing other human beings is inconsistent with his more general understanding of the ontological dignity that derives from the Imago Dei and the Incarnation.

Pinckaers tries to rescue Thomas from this quandary. He acknowledges that there would appear to be a ‘flagrant’ contradiction between this text and Thomas’s assertion that ‘the first and principal foundation of human dignity’ is to be found in ‘the very principles of human nature with its properties, that is, our rational nature with its faculties. … These goods cannot be destroyed, nor even diminished by sin.’ (ST I-II 85). The human creature is by nature endowed with reason and will being made in the image of God, and this predisposes us to virtue. Sin can diminish but cannot destroy this disposition, nor the rational nature associated with it. So, argues Pinckaers, ‘Sin, … however grave, does not destroy the dignity of the human person but diminishes it by blocking its dynamism’.[25] He suggests that, when Thomas discusses the death penalty, he is speaking at a different level, on a social rather than a moral level, but he acknowledges that this is not an entirely satisfactory solution.

I would argue that, whatever the inconsistencies in Thomas’s understanding of the nature of dignity, there is a strong case for upholding a distinction between the ontological dignity of the human made in the image of God, and the teleological dignity that pertains to the virtuous life. This would preclude Thomas’s justification for the death penalty, however grave the crime or sin that person has committed, which would be more in line with recent church teaching.[26]

With this in mind, let me turn now to the question of woman’s human dignity in the context of Thomas’s thought. Once again, we have to extrapolate from the contexts in which he uses the term to gain some insight into the meaning he attaches to it.

 Woman’s Dignity according to Thomas

 If Thomas’s account of human dignity is ontological insofar as it pertains to the divine image with which male and female are fully and equally endowed (Genesis 1:27), the teleological dimension of dignity was and remains implicitly and profoundly gendered. Thomas was a man of his time, but he was also socially conservative. He found in Aristotle a potent philosophical resource for rationalising the hierarchical socio-sexual order of medieval society. When American presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed that Pope Francis was a political man (not intended as a compliment), Francis’s response was to thank God, ‘because Aristotle defined the human person as an 'animal politicus' (a political animal). So at least I am a human person.’[27]  If being political is a sign of being a human person, then a question mark hangs over the personhood of women in the Church and in society, in our own time no less than in Aristotle and Thomas’s time. Thomas would almost certainly have rejected the idea of a ‘femina politica’ (cf. ST II-II, q.47, a.11).

Prudence Allen, in her book The Concept of Woman, argues that the rise of Aristotelianism in the medieval universities, and its popular dissemination by way of the Church’s preaching and teaching, had devastating consequences for women. By their exclusion from the universities and the separation of male and female religious orders, the Aristotelian view of women as inferior and subordinate to men became a cultural reality. She writes that ‘Aristotle had argued that women could not be wise in the same way as men; European society became structured in such a way that this theory inevitably became true.’[28]

We know from some of the debates in Thomas’s works that searching questions were being asked regarding the role of women in thirteenth century Europe. Thomas consistently responds in a way that upholds the status quo by appealing either to scripture or to an Aristotelian model of social and sexual hierarchies based on the paternal character of divine form and the maternal character of matter, even as he asserts – contra Aristotle – the ontological dignity of both male and female made in the image of God.[29] This means that, even if women are ontologically equal to men in dignity, teleologically they cannot possibly be equal. Teleological dignity is tethered to our roles, responsibilities and status in society. Women have been deemed subordinate by nature and inferior in wisdom, and they are therefore never able to attain to the greater dignity that comes with more elevated social and ecclesiastical roles.

To illustrate this, let me focus more closely on Thomas’s representation of woman’s dignity, in ST II-II, q.164, a.2. Thomas’s interlocutor offers a number of objections to the scriptural account of the punishments meted out to Adam and Eve in Genesis. First, pain in child-bearing cannot be punishment for sin because it is a natural part of the female disposition. Second, the subjection of woman to man is part of the natural order because man is by nature more perfect than woman, so it cannot be punishment for sin. Third, and we should note this well:

 that which pertains to a person’s dignity does not, seemingly, pertain to their punishment. But the ‘multiplying of conceptions’ pertains to a woman’s dignity (dignitatem mulieris). Therefore it should not be described as the woman’s punishment. Further, the punishment of our first parents’ sin is transmitted to all … But all ‘women’s conceptions’ are not ‘multiplied,’ nor does ‘every man eat bread in the sweat of his face.’ Therefore these are not suitable punishments of the first sin.

 Modern translations of Genesis tend to refer to God multiplying the woman’s pain in childbirth. However, the Hebrew hārōn means conception, not birth, and I want to bear that in mind for later. This last objection sees multiple pregnancies as part of what it means to be a woman – to say that it pertains to a woman’s dignity is to say that it constitutes a good and purposeful way for her to live in accordance with her role in life. This would suggest that a woman’s dignity increases according to the number of children she conceives.

Thomas responds to these objections by arguing that the man and woman receive bodily punishments according to their sex – the woman ‘in respect of two things on account of which she is united to the man’, that is, childbearing and domestic life. So a woman experiences weariness in pregnancy and pain in childbirth, and she is subjected to her husband’s authority. The man, who has responsibilities to provide for the family, is punished through the struggle to produce food from the earth. Thomas quotes Augustine to the effect that childbirth in the state of innocence would have been free from pain, just as sex would have been free from ‘lustful desire’. Woman’s subjection is not punishment because ‘even before sin the man was the “head” and governor “of the woman”’. However, the punishment comes from ‘her having to obey her husband’s will even against her own.’

At the very least, Thomas’s response would suggest that, in the community of the baptised, the alleviation of suffering associated with pregnancy and childbirth, and the rejection of all forms of male domination, would be signs of redemption. The restoration of freedom of the will to women, equal to that of men, would be an aspect of the restoration of the full human dignity that was lost in the fall but redeemed and enhanced in Christ. The Christian community would be counter-cultural insofar as it would not only seek to liberate sexual desire from lust (as it consistently has in its theology of marriage as well as in some of its more repressive attitudes towards sexual pleasure), it would also seek to free women from the negative effects of reproduction. I shall come back to that suggestion. As for the man being ‘head and governor of the woman’, this is a clear example of where a Pauline injunction (1 Cor. 11:3) is legitimated and upheld through an appeal to Aristotle, in a way which overrides the more egalitarian and inclusive model exemplified by the teachings, relationships and practices of Jesus in the Gospels, and some Pauline teachings that invite a more egalitarian interpretation (cf. Gal. 3:28).

So against this Thomist hinterland, let me now turn to consider recent church teaching. How has the doctrinal understanding of dignity and rights developed during the last fifty years, and what questions does this raise with regard to the dignity and rights of women?

 Women’s Dignity in the Church Today

 Pope John Paul II adopted the innovative theological doctrine of ‘complementarity’ as a way of rejecting the traditional sexual hierarchy of male authority and female subordination.[30] Complementarity asserts that the sexes are equal in dignity but different not only in their social roles and responsibilities, but in their psychosomatic natures. This has resulted in a highly romanticised and essentialist theology of sexual difference associated particularly with the theology of the body movement.[31] It is a theological account of sexual difference that rejects what Popes Benedict XVI and Francis refer to as ‘gender ideology’, as well as homosexuality, feminism, contraception and abortion, even as it claims to assert the full and equal dignity of male and female. However, notwithstanding the more problematic aspects of theology of the body, John Paul II dedicated more time and thought than any other modern Pope – including Francis (so far) – to questions of women’s dignity and freedom.

John Paul II addresses the question of women’s dignity most fully in his 1988 apostolic letter, ‘On the Dignity and Vocation of Women’ (Mulieris Dignitatem).[32] While he affirms that every woman, from the beginning, ‘inherits as a woman the dignity of personhood’,[33] it is clear that he understands women’s dignity in the context of the vocation to motherhood, revealed and personified in the divine motherhood of the Virgin Mary, which ‘determines the essential horizon of reflection on the dignity and the vocation of women’.[34] Motherhood and virginity thus constitute ‘two particular dimensions of the vocation of women in the light of divine Revelation’.[35] Those who renounce marriage and physical motherhood practise ‘motherhood “according to the Spirit” (cf. Rom 8:4).[36] Woman, made in the image of God and equal to man, conquers the sinful inheritance of Genesis – male domination – by following the path of femininity within which she comes to ‘understand her “fulfilment” as a person, her dignity and vocation’.[37]

However, a close reading of Mulieris Digntatem reveals that there is no form of dignity particular to women, other than biological motherhood. That cannot be a uniquely human dignity, for it is common to the female of every sexually reproductive species. As John Paul II acknowledges, there is a ‘personal-ethical’ as well as a ‘bio-physical’ sense to mothering.[38] Yet when we consider the attributes that translate the biological into the personal and the ethical – in other words the characteristics that transform the animality of mothering into the human activity of mothering – it becomes clear that these are not uniquely female. This is particularly true when sexual difference is used as an analogy for the nuptial relationship between Christ and the maternal Church, where femininity becomes the inclusive attribute of the whole Church, while Christ’s maleness is used to affirm the essential masculinity of the priesthood.[39]

 John Paul argues that

 Rereading Genesis in light of the spousal symbol in the Letter to the Ephesians enables us to grasp a truth which seems to determine in an essential manner the question of women’s dignity, and, subsequently, also the question of their vocation: the dignity of women is measured by the order of love, which is essentially the order of justice and charity.[40]

 He goes on to assert that ‘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 which she gives in return.’ The person created in God’s image, finds himself or herself ‘through a sincere gift of self. … This ontological affirmation also indicates the ethical dimension of a person’s vocation. Woman can only find herself by giving love to others.’[41] So we have here again an affirmation of ontological and teleological dignity. Ontologically, woman is created in God’s image. Teleologically, a woman accrues dignity by giving love to others. In his closing remarks, John Paul II concludes that ‘In the Spirit of Christ, in fact, women can discover the entire meaning of their femininity and thus be disposed to making a “sincere gift of self” to others, thereby finding themselves.’[42] All this begs the question: if women’s teleological dignity is ‘measured by the order of love’, how is men’s teleological dignity measured?

The invocation of femininity in this context makes some sense if applied analogically to the Church as Bride and Mother, but it cannot in any literal sense constitute a vocation to dignity that is unique to women. The giving of self through the giving of love is the essence of the Christian vocation for all the baptised, and therefore the teleological or ethical dimension of the vocation to love cannot be particular to one sex. So apart from a biological capacity for motherhood, woman has no unique or particular dignity that might constitute her personal telos as different from or complementary to that of man. The fulfilment of a biological function cannot in and of itself be a source of personal dignity, and it is clear in Mulieris Dignitatem that whenever John Paul II elaborates upon the ethical attributes of motherhood, he is describing virtues that are not and should not be particular to women.

For all its inspiring insights into the potential of nuptial and maternal analogies of love, Mulieris Dignitatem offers no substantial account of a gendered aspect of human dignity that would be unique to women. In seeking to explain the concept of complementarity in a way that would affirm the personal dignity of women while also affirming the exclusive masculinity of the priesthood, John Paul leaves us with a model of essential man (only men can be priests because the Bridegroom is masculine)[43] and inessential woman (all are called to be the Church as Bride).[44]

I move on now to consider dignity in the thought of Pope Francis, again with a particular focus on women’s dignity. Pope Benedict XVI was more preoccupied with ‘gender ideology’ than with the woman question, and he did little to challenge or change the legacy of his predecessor.

From the outset Pope Francis has acknowledged that the Church lacks a theology of woman. Yet this is in my view the greatest weakness of his papacy so far. Let me consider by way of example his response to a journalist’s question about women priests on the flight home from his visit to the United States in September 2015. Here is his response:


Regarding the question of women priests, that is not possible. St John Paul II said so clearly, after much study. Not because women do not have the ability. In the Church women are more important than men, because the Church is a woman. It is ‘La Chiesa,’ not ‘Il Chiesa.’ And the Madonna is more important than popes, bishops and priests. But I must admit we are somewhat late in an elaboration of the theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology.[45]


This short throw away comment summarises all that Francis has said in his more considered reflections, and it highlights the problems with his understanding of women.[46] First, who is this ‘we’ and what does it mean to say that ‘we are somewhat late in an elaboration of the theology of women’? The Church has a far more developed theology of women than it has of men, because ‘man’ is normative and ‘woman’ is the exception. So the theological tradition is primarily about the human (‘man’), and woman. What we really lack is a theology of man as male. Consider for example the 2004 Letter to the Bishops issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the signature of the then Joseph Ratzinger, ‘On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World’.[47] That letter says nothing about men. It is primarily a warning about the dangers that women who are influenced by gender ideology and feminism pose to the family.

Moreover, while the quest for a theology of woman might ring alarm bells insofar as it sounds like a call for a male hierarchy – ‘we’ – to once more objectify woman as the problematic other that proves resistant to thought, there is no lack of theologies by and about women. From the women saints and preachers of the early Church to the vernacular theologians of the Middle Ages and the women biblical scholars and theologians of the postconciliar Church, there is a vast corpus of women’s theological writings that could be incorporated into church teaching, quoted in papal documents and used to inform the development of doctrine, but even under Pope Francis women remain the silenced others as far as official church teaching is concerned – spoken about but never invited to speak.

In everything that he has said about women at the time of writing this, it is clear that Francis belongs within that long tradition that recognizes women’s dignity primarily in the context of motherhood. The female body has evaporated into a romanticized miasma of gendered roles in which ultimately the male body can perform the maternal feminine role of the Church as well as the masculine role of the priesthood, and woman remains a biological body in search of a fully human, sacramental narrative. Francis has most decidedly reanimated the vision of Vatican II, but he has yet to rehabilitate women in a way that is coherent with the development of that vision. It remains to be seen whether his appointment of a commission to investigate the possibility of women deacons will bring about a more substantial change,[48] but let me give one example to support these claims.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes about homiletics under the title ‘A mother’s conversation’.[49] The church ‘preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child’. The Christian faith must be communicated in ‘our “mother culture,” our native language’, in a setting that is ‘both maternal and ecclesial’. This inculturated preaching requires a synthesis that comes from the passionate heart of the preacher, rather than ‘ideas or detached values’, argues Francis. But surely, the idea of a priest speaking as a mother, in a role that female bodies are prohibited from occupying, is a somewhat detached idea?

With this in mind, I turn now to consider more closely the implications of identifying the difference between the sexes, and the unique dignity of women, with the capacity for biological motherhood, bearing in mind that, while church teaching denies this is simply a question of biology, that is the only aspect of mothering that it does not also apply to men. Today as in Thomas’s time, women’s dignity is bound up with reproduction, and the more children a woman has, the more she increases the dignity particular to her as a woman. This is a suggestion that I believe derives some justification in the context of Humanae Vitae’s prohibition against artificial birth control.


Women’s Human Dignity and Reproductive Rights


As I mentioned earlier, the Church, represented in the international policy-making community by the Holy See’s delegation to the UN, has proved highly resistant to attempts to include sexual rights among the growing number of individual rights that proliferate under the umbrella of universal human rights. Part of this resistance might arise from a conflict between a theological understanding of the bodily self as a gift from the creator, and a modern rights-based concept of the body as the possession of the autonomous individual. This notion of the autonomous self lacks the ethical perspective necessary to reflect upon the complex duality of the maternal body and its claims upon the individual woman.

However, the Catholic tradition acknowledges that human beings do have sexual rights, in the medieval concept of the marriage debt.[50] Neither a husband nor a wife can take a vow of celibacy without the consent of the other. One could therefore argue that the Catholic Church embraced the idea of mutual sexual rights long before the language of sexual rights entered UN debates. For the sake of consistency with its own tradition, rather than denying that such rights exist, the teaching magisterium might rather ask about the nature and extent of such rights. This might include questions such as, what happens in a marriage when a husband refuses to comply with the disciplined demands of natural family planning, or when his violent and abusive behaviour makes marital sex a violation of the wife’s dignity. In such a situation, is the right to sex in marriage overridden so that the wife has the right to refuse, or, as has most often been the case in practice if not always in doctrine, should she suffer through repeated pregnancies, even when her own well-being is seriously jeopardised, and accept abuse as Christ accepted the cross?

My concern here, however, is with the vexed question of reproductive rights. If a woman’s telos is not reducible to her maternal capacity, how might a woman develop her personal dignity whether or not she has a vocation to or indeed a capacity for motherhood, bearing in mind that not all women want children and many women who do want children cannot have them?

I have argued elsewhere that postconciliar documents are a rich resource for developing a theology of human dignity that would encompass women’s reproductive rights.[51] What follows is a brief summary of those arguments.

Chapter 1 of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes focuses on the Dignity of the Human Person.[52] The ‘exalted dignity proper to the human person’ brings with it certain ‘universal and inviolable’ rights and duties necessary for ‘leading a life truly human’. These include ‘the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family’, as well as the right to ‘appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.’[53]

This would suggest that women have a right to information and freedom of conscience with regard to the state of life they choose. That must include decisions not just about the right to found a family, but about the right to seek the conditions within which they can transform the biological function of reproduction into the virtuous human activity of mothering, including the number of children they choose to bear, or to choose a different state of life which is better suited to their gifts and abilities than motherhood. Unless such distinctions are made and such freedoms are respected, women’s dignity will remain tethered to their biological capacity, in a way that diminishes their capacity to develop their personal dignity through exercising their particular gifts, abilities, rights and responsibilities. To say that every woman expresses these individual characteristics first and foremost through the vocation to motherhood is to diminish the opportunities through which women might develop and express their human dignity in ways particular to who they are. Conversely, though less doctrinally controversial, the Church must continue to defend the rights of women to have children, in the face of Malthusian population control policies imposed by rich nations on poor communities.

Let us remember, in a faithful Hebrew translation of Genesis, the multiplying of pregnancies is a punishment for sin, not a blessing or a vocation. If a woman is to develop her human dignity through education, employment and the freedom to follow her conscience, as Gaudium et Spes affirms, then she must be able to exercise some control over her reproductive capabilities. An adolescent girl, pregnant through rape, incest or other forms of sexual coercion, forced to abandon her schooling to care for her child and often shunned by her community as a result of her pregnancy, is not fulfilling her teleological dignity simply by virtue of giving birth to a child. While her ontological dignity remains inviolable, her capacity to develop her dignity teleologically has been trampled upon, degraded and stolen from her. Yet Mulieris Dignitatem would invite us to conclude that none of this matters, because in bearing a child she is attaining to the unique and sublime dignity that constitutes the vocation of woman. Less dramatically but no less importantly, a married couple must also be able to decide upon how many children they are able to care for well, because good parenting is an ethical way of life pertaining to our teleological dignity.

Central to all these arguments is the shift in Catholic teaching during the twentieth century to a position in which freedom of conscience is recognised as the sine quae non of the rights and duties that flow from the first principle of intrinsic human dignity. This is a radical teaching whose full implications are still debated and contested. A crucial paragraph in the Council’s 1965 document on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, reads as follows (I have feminised the translation):[54]

 It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all women should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, women cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in her very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.[55]


Note that here again there is an implicit distinction between ontological and teleological dignity. Our ontological dignity demands certain inviolable freedoms, even if we exercise those freedoms in a way that violates our teleological dignity by failing to ‘live up to [our] obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it’. The caveat that such failures must not constitute breaches of public order has always been part of the reasoning which differentiates between legality and morality.[56]  

Thomas is clear that only in exceptional cases should the law be used to prohibit widely accepted cultural norms, and that laws can and should change in accordance with custom. (ST I-II, q.97, a.3) Given that statistics suggest that the majority of Catholics worldwide practise some form of artificial birth control[57] – a practice that is almost universally accepted among secular cultures – this would suggest that any attempt by the Church to impose its objection to artificial birth control by seeking to influence politics and law violates its own teaching on freedom of conscience. Intimate personal questions of sexuality and procreation have profound moral significance, but even if one believes that contraception is immoral, that is not in itself a justification for making it illegal.

Some conservative Catholics lay the blame for many of the ills of modern society at the door of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, including the invention of the contraceptive pill. Yet this pessimistic evaluation fails to take account of the fact that many Catholic couples have decided in good conscience to reject the Church’s teaching. There is also abundant evidence that, when women are educated and when infant mortality is reduced, women find effective ways to limit the number of children they have. Providing women and girls with the means to fulfil their potential (i.e. to develop their teleological human dignity), is an end in itself. It can never be made into a means to a more functional end. Nevertheless, it brings with it the added social benefit of reducing population growth not through coercion but through promoting women’s dignity through education and social justice.

Here, it is worth noting Leslie Griffin’s argument that, while the affirmation of dignity and freedom of conscience in Dignitatis Humanae protects the rights of the religious individual against the state, it does not protect the right to religious freedom of individuals within the Church.[58] In this context, it is worth noting that the principle of religious freedom was invoked by a number of Catholic organisations in the United States seeking exemption from the legal requirement to provide contraception to employees under the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as Obamacare). Given evidence of the widespread use of contraception among American Catholics, this would seem to be a clear example of where the appeal to religious freedom violates the freedom of many individuals within the Church, while upholding the principle of religious freedom to defend church institutions. The Church invokes the right to religious freedom to oppose the right to access to contraception, but the Church does not recognise women’s religious freedom if they choose to practise contraception.  Yet that passage from Dignitatis Humanae makes clear that the recognition of human dignity means that women must be free to take ethical responsibility for their own reproductive decisions, even when the Church believes their decisions to be morally wrong or misguided.

Turning to possibly the most politically radical of the postconciliar documents, PopulorumProgressio[59] argues that integral human development ‘involves building a human community in which people can live truly human lives, … free from servitude to others or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily.’ For the vast majority of the world’s women and girls, freedom from servitude to others and freedom to satisfactorily control the natural forces of pregnancy and childbearing in order to live truly human lives is still a distant and impossible vision.

For the final part of this paper, I want to consider how an engagement with feminist maternal ethics might provide a resource for further reflection on the teleological aspect of dignity, as this pertains not only to women as mothers but also to the maternal Church. We have already seen how Mulieris Dignitatem has an inclusive understanding of maternal characteristics as these pertain to men as well as women in the context of the Church as bride and mother. I focus here on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.[60]

 Laudato Si’ and Maternal Feminist Ethics

      In Laudato Si’, Francis calls for ‘a bold cultural revolution’,[61] but this is as much a theological and ecclesiological revolution as a cultural one. Weaving together a Franciscan celebration of creaturely communion, with a Thomist affirmation of the participation of all creation in the divine being, Francis offers a vision that is radical in both senses – it is deeply rooted in scripture and tradition, and it is revolutionary in its potential to transform the relationship between the human species and the rest of creation.

Laudato Si’ calls for a delicate balancing act between respecting the ‘intrinsic dignity’ of all creation, and respecting the unique and equal dignity of the human. This marks a decisive shift away from post-Kantian concepts of dignity as exclusively human, and removes any ambiguity within the Catholic theological tradition as to the dignity of non-human creatures. It merits far closer attention than I can offer here, so I continue to focus on the implications of various shifts in the Catholic understanding of dignity for the full recognition of women’s human dignity. In this context, Laudato Si’ cries out for an engagement with feminist thinkers, and particularly with maternal feminist ethicists.

The maternal, Marian Church is at the heart of Francis’s theology. In Laudato Si’, he extends this maternal imagery to Mother Earth. In the first paragraph he refers to Saint Francis of Assisi who ‘reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.’ He goes on to quote Francis of Assisi’s canticle: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.’[62]

For some liberal feminists, this association of the female body with the maternal and nature is deeply problematic. In the writings of romantic feminists, it becomes an eco-fantasy redolent with unsustainable claims about women’s natural goodness and affinity with nature. My own position is that rather than rejecting the language of Mother Earth and Mother Church, feminist theologians should insist that we have something to offer with regard to developing a sustainable maternal ethos capable of informing church teaching.

There are many resonances between a maternal theological ethics and Laudato Si’. These include a critique of modern anthropocentrism with its dualism, its individualism, and its alienated approach to embodiment and nature; an insistence upon the inseparability of social justice and care for the natural world, and a move beyond philosophical concepts of divine omnipotence, omniscience and aseity, to a more merciful and tender understanding of God incarnate in the humanity of Jesus, in the communities and cultures of history, and in the fragility and wonder of creation.

Francis dedicates a section of the encyclical to ‘The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism’ which compromises ‘the intrinsic dignity of the world.’[63] Part of this ‘distorted anthropocentrism’ lies in a misrepresentation of Christian anthropology, so that ‘Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about.’[64] As a result, human power has become unleashed from any constraints or sense of humility, so that ‘we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it … we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.’[65] Feminist theologians have been arguing this for the last forty years and more, in what is now a vast body of theological literature from many different cultures and contexts.

If we want to see how far a certain Promethean mastery has shaped Catholic social teaching, we might compare the human subject of Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio,[66] with the human subject of Laudato Si’. Populorum Progressio is a document of its time, for all its enduring insights about social justice. Its underlying ethos is of man seeking to assert his will over an inert material world in order to further human progress. It offers a politicised understanding of the earth in terms of nations, societies and international relations, with little acknowledgement of the organic interconnectedness of a graced creation. This is androcentric as well as anthropocentric, for its image of the human is thoroughly rooted in the post-Enlightenment concept of the autonomous man of reason forging his destiny in the world:

 Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.[67]

That is indeed a Promethean vision of mastery. Francis shares Populorum Progressio’s radical approach to social justice, but he invites us to adopt a different anthropological perspective and a more creation-centred ethos, redolent with maternal values.

Populorum Progressio was written in an era when Marian devotion and the idea of the Church as mother were at a low ebb in the modernising aftermath of the Council. This prompted a backlash in the form of the lavish sentimentality of a maternal Marian ecclesiology inspired by the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and popularised by John Paul II.[68] If Francis’s emphasis on the maternal is not simply to perpetuate these nostalgic romanticisms, then women need to be liberated from bearing the burden of an archaic yearning associated with the maternal relationship, in order to play a full and equal role as persons in the Church. Of course, the maternal body is female, but not every female is maternal, and a mother is a person before she is a mother. There is a complex and ambiguous relationship between the female person and the maternal function, which is not sufficiently acknowledged in church teaching. Woman is not synonymous with mother, and neither of these terms is synonymous with Church.

As Sara Ruddick argues, ‘Actual mothers have the same kind of relationship to maternal practices as scientists have to scientific practice, as believers have to religious practice.’[69] To return to two kinds of dignity, good mothering is extrinsic and not intrinsic to being a female person. It is teleological, not ontological. A woman who biologically bears a child is not necessarily maternal in her ethical and existential understanding of who she is. Rather than a romantic celebration of maternal nature, Ruddick invites reflection on the practices and moral qualities that constitute good mothering. She observes that ‘achievement, in maternal work, is defined by the aims of preserving, fostering, and shaping the growth of a child; insofar as one engages in maternal practice, one accepts these aims as one’s own.’[70] In particular, Ruddick appeals to Simone Weil’s concept of attentiveness. This is ‘a special kind of knowledge of the individual’; it is an ability to ask ‘what are you going through’ and an ability to hear the answer.[71]

Many women are unprepared for motherhood as a mature and ethical vocation, because they have never been allowed to develop an ethical sense of self independently of their usefulness and responsibilities to others. In 1960, Valerie Saiving wrote a gendered analysis of sin which, with hindsight, has been recognised as a pioneering work in feminist theology. Saiving writes


A mother who rejoices in her maternal role – and most mothers do most of the time – knows the profound experience of self-transcending love. But she knows, too, that it is not the whole meaning of life. … [A] woman can give too much of herself, so that nothing remains of her own uniqueness; she can become merely an emptiness, almost a zero, without value to herself, to her fellow men, or, perhaps, even to God.[72]


If we raise our daughters to see themselves only in terms of marriage, motherhood and service to others, without developing in them a sense of personal dignity and selfhood, we leave them lacking in the inner resources they need to live as mature and responsible adults in the world. In other words, we deprive half the human race of its personal capacity to grow and develop in the dignity that is proper to a human adult.

The teleological dignity of good mothering entails virtues that are the hallmark of every Christian life. Maternal love is the telos of the Christian character, insofar as it means a willingness to be defined by the quality of our care for the vulnerable, the dependent and the weak, by our ability to negotiate different needs and demands, and to put an attentive concern for the well-being of the other before our own needs and desires. The Christian life is maternal insofar as it is, in the words of John Paul II quoted earlier, ‘measured by the order of love’. The child in this case becomes a metaphor for all those to whom we owe a duty of care in the world. Raising children is not a gendered activity. A good father needs the same qualities as a good mother, for a child’s needs are the same, whether they are met by a man or a woman. The duality of the stern, law-giving father and the tender, forgiving mother sometimes distorted the medieval cult of the Virgin, when Mary was portrayed as a protective mother shielding believers from the wrath and judgment of God the Father. Such gendering of maternal and paternal qualities distorts the relationship between a child and those who care for it, and it has been rendered anachronistic by feminism’s exposure of its patriarchal ideological underpinnings. Any adult who has had full responsibility for raising a child knows that it is a vocation that needs all the resources and characteristics traditionally divided between the paternal and the maternal.




Church teaching has yet to fully reflect the fact that a woman’s teleological dignity – her human vocation, gifts and abilities – cannot be conflated with her biological capacity for childbearing, any more than a man’s desire to achieve his full human dignity can be reduced to his biological capacity for fatherhood. The Catholic hierarchy has yet to accept that there are ways of being a fully human female without being either a virgin or a mother. The attempt to justify the exclusion of the female body from sacramental significance and magisterial authority is impoverishing the Church’s ability to create a culture wherein each and every person can develop his or her human dignity free from repressive stereotypes rooted in anachronistic models of masculinity and femininity.

Let me end with a quotation from Catholic writer Dorothy Sayers: ‘The first thing that strikes the careless observer is that women are unlike men. They are “the opposite sex” (though why “opposite” I do not know; what is the “neighbouring sex”?) But the fundamental thing is that women are more like men than anything else in the world.’[73]


© Tina Beattie 2016


[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations website: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/: (last accessed 3.10.16).

[2] Pope John XXIII, Encyclical Letter, Pacem in Terris (On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty), 1963.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Letter to Mrs. Gertrude Mongella, Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women of the United Nations, 26 May, 1995, section 2, available at the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/1995/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_19950526_mongella-pechino_en.html (last accessed 3.10.16).

[4] Cf. the collection of essays in Christopher McCrudden (ed.) Understanding Human Dignity (London and Oxford: British Academy and Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] Cf. Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991) for a study primarily concerned with these issues in the context of American law and politics.

[6] Cf. Tina Beattie, ‘Whose Rights, Which Rights? – The United Nations, the Vatican, Gender and Sexual and Reproductive Rights’, Heythrop Journal, Vol. 55, Issue 6, 2014: 979-1112; Buss, Doris and Didi Herman, Globalizing Family Values: The Christian Right in International Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[7] See Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (Malden MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), and Kerr, Twentieth-century Catholic Theologians: from Neoscholasticism to Nuuptial Mysticism (Oxford and New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

[8] See Servais Pinckaers, ‘Aquinas on the Dignity of the Human Person’ (1987) in John Berkman and Craig Stevens Titus (eds), The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005): 144-63, 146. Pinckaers is referring to the number of occurrences of ‘dignitas’ and its derivatives in the Thomist Index of Father R. Busa.

[9] References are to the parallel Latin/English text, St Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947), available online at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/FP/FP093.html#FPQ93A6THEP1 (last accessed 7.11.16).

[10] Pinckaers, ‘Aquinas on the Dignity of the Human Person’, 146.

[11] For the discussion on the divine persons, see ST I.1, Q. 29.

[12] James Hanvey SJ, ‘Dignity, Person and Imago Trinitatis’ in McCrudden (ed.), Understanding Human Dignity: 209-28, 217.

[13] Hanvey, ‘Dignity, Person and Imago Trinitatis’, 219.

[14] In the discussion that follows, I am indebted to a short but densely referenced paper by Dunstan Robidoux OSB, ‘Aquinas on Memory and Consciousness in St. Augustine’, available to download from the website of the Lonergan Institute: http://lonergan.org/?p=1720 (last accessed 3.10.16).

[15] Augustine, On The Trinity, ed. Gareth B. Matthews, trans. Stephen McKenna (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 25-27.

[16] Ibid., 27-28.

[17] Cf. Tina Beattie, Theology after Postmodernity: Divining the Void – a Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013): 66-70, 343-363; Tarsicius Jan van Bavel, ‘Maternal Aspects in Salvation History According to Augustine’, Augustiniana, Vol. 47, No. 3-4: 251-290.

[18] Cf. Jean Porter, Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law (Grad Rapids MI, Cambridge UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005).

[19] Cf. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[20] Cf. Beattie, Theology after Postmodernity.

[21] Pinckaers, ‘Aquinas on the Dignity of the Human Person’, 159.

[22] Pinckaers, ‘Aquinas on the Dignity of the Human Person’, 159.

[23] ST II.2, Q. 64, articles 2 and 3.

[24] Space precludes a discussion of the dignity and rights of non-human creatures here. However, see Judith A. Barad, Aquinas on the Nature and Treatment of Animals (San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1995) for an analysis of inconsistencies in Thomas’s understanding of animal dignity.

[25] Pinckaers, ‘Aquinas on Human Dignity’, 159.

[26] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Life in Christ, Section Two, Chapter Two, article 2267, at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm [accessed 31.10.16]. It is also interesting to note that Thomas argues that only lawful authorities can put a human to death (ST II.II. q. 64, a. 3), but clerics cannot because they are called to imitate Christ and ‘are entrusted with the ministry of the New Law, wherein no punishment of death or of bodily maiming is appointed’. (ST II.II, q. 64, a. 4).  The Second Vatican Council decisively rejected this idea that only the clergy are bound by the ministry of the New Law, when it affirmed the apostolate of the laity. See Pope Paul VI, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 1964; Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Catholicam Actuositatem, 1965. This would suggest that no Catholic may in good conscience support the death penalty – a suggestion that is perhaps implicit in recent church teaching. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 3, Section 2, Chapter Two, No. 2267, available at the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm [accessed 23.11.16].

[27] Gerard O’Connell, ‘Aboard plane home, Pope Francis Responds to Questions on Donald Trump’, America, February 18, 2016, at http://americamagazine.org/content/dispatches/aboard-plane-home-mexico-pope-francis-responds-questions-donald-trump [accessed 29.2.16].

[28] Prudence Allen RSM, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution 750 B.C. - A.D. 1250 (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 415.

[29] Cf. Allen, The Concept of Woman; Beattie, Theology after Postmodernity; Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Subordination and Equivalence: the Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1995); Richard J. McGowan, ‘Thomas’s Doctrine of Woman and Thirteenth-Century Thought’ in Mark D. Johnston and Samuel M. Riley (eds), Vol. 2, 1985, available to download at http://www.illinoismedieval.org/ems/VOL2/mcgowan.html [accessed 23.11.16]

[30] Cf. Mary Ann Case, ‘The Role of the Popes in the Invention of Complementarity and the Vatican’s Anathematization of Gender’, Religion & Gender, 2016 (forthcoming).

[31] See John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman: ‘Catechesis on the Book of Genesis’ (1979-1980) on-line, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/audiences/catechesis_genesis/ [accessed September 2013]. See also Christopher West, Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s ‘Gospel of the Body’ (revised). (Boston MA: Pauline Books and Media, 2007 [2003]).

[32] Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, Apostolic Exhortation on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, August 15, 1988, at http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19880815_mulieris-dignitatem.html [accessed 28 February 2016].

[33] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 13.

[34] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 5.

[35] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 7.

[36] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 21.

[37] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 10.

[38] See Mulieries Dignitatem, n. 19.

[39] See Mulieris Dignitatem, Part VII.

[40] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 29.

[41] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 30.

[42] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 31.

[43] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 25 and 26.

[44] Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 27.

[45] Gerard O’Connell, ‘Pope Francis: Some Final thoughts on the Flight Home’, America, September 28, 2015, at http://papalvisit.americamedia.org/2015/09/28/pope-francis-some-final-thoughts-on-the-flight-home/ [accessed 29 February 2016]. He used almost exactly the same words when he answered a Swedish journalist’s question about women’s ordination on the flight home from a visit to Sweden in November 2016 – see http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-pope-francis-in-flight-presser-from-sweden-66035/ [accessed 24.11.16]. It has been pointed out to me that the noun for Church in Polish is masculine, so Francis’s gendered analogy breaks down at this point. Perhaps a more in-depth study of gender theory would help him to avoid some of these pitfalls!

[46] For a detailed analysis, see Tina Beattie, ‘Transforming Time: The Maternal Church and the Pilgrimage of Faith’, Ecclesiology, Vol. 12, Issue 1, January 2016: 54-72.

[47] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World’, May 31, 2004, at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040731_collaboration_en.html [accessed 29.2.16].

[48] See Joshua J. McElwee, ‘Francis institutes commission to study female deacons, appointing gender-balanced membership’, National Catholic Reporter, Aug. 2, 2016 at https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-institutes-commission-study-female-deacons-appointing-gender-balanced [accessed 24.11.16].

[49] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World, 24 November 2013, No. 140, at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html [accessed 29.2.16].

[50] Cf. John T. Noonan Jr. (trans.), Marriage Canons from the Decretum of Gratian and The Decretals, Sext, Clementines and Extravagantes, C33 1967, at http://faculty.cua.edu/Pennington/Canon%20Law/marriagelaw.htm [accessed February 29, 2016]. See also Jean Porter, Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids MI and Cambridge UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 208.

[51] Tina Beattie, ‘Dignity Beyond Rights: Human Development in the Context of the Capabilities Approach and Catholic Social Teaching’, Australian eJournal of Theology 22.3 (December, 2015), at http://aejt.com.au/2015/volume_22/vol_22_no_3_2015 [accessed November 1, 2016].

[52] Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, December 7, 1965, section 26, at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html [accessed February 29, 2016].

[53] Gaudium et Spes, No. 26.

[54] Pope Paul VI, Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, December 7, 1965, at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html [accessed 29.2.16].

[55] Dignitatis Humanae, No. 2.

[56] Cf. ST I-II, q.96, a.2: ‘[H]uman laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained’.

[57] Cf. the results of a worldwide poll of more than 12,000 Catholics conducted by Univision, which found that 78% of Catholics worldwide support the use of contraceptives, and this rises to 86% in Europe and 91% in Latin America: http://www.univision.com/noticias/la-huella-digital/la-voz-del-pueblo/matrix [accessed 24.11.16]. See also Julie Clague, ‘Catholics, Families and the Synod of Bishops: Views from the Pews’, The Heythrop Journal, Special Issue: Faith, Family and Fertility, Vol. 55, Issue 6, November 2014: 985-1008

[58] See Leslie Griffin, ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ in Kenneth R. Himes (ed.), Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005): 244-65.

[59] Populorum Progressio, No. 47.

[60] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home, 24 May, 2015, at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html [accessed 29 February, 2016].

[61] Laudato Si’, No. 114.

[62] Laudato Si’, No. 1.

[63] Laudato Si’, No. 115.

[64] Laudato Si’, No. 116.

[65] Laudato Si’, No. 105.

[66] Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, Encyclical on the Development of Peoples, March 26, 1967, section 47, at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum_en.html [accessed 29 February, 2016].

[67] Populorum Progressio, No. 15.

[68] See Tina Beattie, New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

[69] Sara Ruddick, ‘Preservative Love and Military Destruction: Some Reflections on Mothering and Peace’ in Andrea O’Reilly, Maternal Theory: Essential Readings (Bradford, Canada; Demeter Press, 2007), Kindle Loc. 3218 of 23407.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow (eds), WomanSpirit Rising – A Feminist Reader in Religion (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992): 25-42, 43.

[73] Dorothy Sayers, ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’ in Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood (eds), On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), p. 10.



Text till Filosofisamtal Kärlek och Hopp
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onsdag 11 maj 2016 19.30

Werner Jeanrond

Death and Love

 Werner G Jeanrond, Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and former Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow.

 As the church celebrates the feasts of all saints and all souls in the dying of the year, an eminent theologian finds new perspectives on death in today’s culture.

 While the biological fact that all life must die has not changed over the centuries, human approaches to death have changed radically in more recent times.  While our Christian forefathers and foremothers prayed to God to protect them from a sudden death, we are more likely to pray to God for a sudden death.  While they were constantly and directly threatened by death in their day-to-day lives (in childbed, from epidemic diseases, from hunger etc.), we today are mostly confronted by death through the media: daily news of deaths as a result of airplane crashes, car accidents, war, terror, family drama, but also endless numbers of deaths staged in popular television series and films.  Our experience of death is mostly mediated and hence less real.  Elvis still sings on our screens.  Alas, the King is alive!

 Moreover, we rarely are present when our loved ones physically die, since their death very often occurs in medical institutions (care homes, hospices, hospitals etc.).  In some western cultures, such as Sweden, death begins to be treated as basically a medical problem – hopefully overcome soon by scientific progress, death as a challenge not yet fully mastered by scientific evolution.  Hence, a number of people desire to be frozen when dying in order to be revived later when science will have conquered death once and for all.  In a way death has lost quite a bit of its reality impact for our generation and for our children whose computer games provide them no longer only with one but with numerous lives to play with.  Strange as it may sound, today we have to convince ourselves of the actual fact that we are all going to die and that death remains the physical limit to our existence and power.

 Ever increasing numbers of people wish to decide for themselves when their death is to occur, to plan their death, or at least to decide how their death ought to be experienced by their loved (and hated) ones.  Thus, they leave minute instructions as to which hymns to sing and which tunes to play at their funeral services, where and how they wish to be buried, and how their death should be announced or not.

 Not only the perception of the reality of death has changed in our western cultures, also our interest in an afterlife has cooled off.  We consider our present life here and now as our only opportunity to do something meaningful.  What comes thereafter, if at all, is of no concern to us right now.

 Obviously, many aspects of traditional Christian proclamation and faith praxis do not make sense any longer against this changed approach to death and dying.  While the church promises eternal life, we are keener on immortal existence.  Instead of longing for heaven in the insecure environment which our ancestors faced, we enjoy life and therefore want a longer life and, if death is genuinely unavoidable, a quick and painless passing.  Rather than praying for the dead and their transmortal migration from purgatory to heaven, we pray for a fulfilled existence on this side of death.  While our life is exciting, their heaven seems boring.

 A proclamation of the gospel that starts with references to our physical death seems doomed today.  Rather than longing to be prepared for the next world, people seem more committed to this world.  Salvation from death is no longer a burning issue.  What might move us to listen to and reflect on the Christian gospel of life?

 Medieval Christians were predominantly concerned with how to reach salvation from sin and damnation, modern men and women asked questions of existential meaning.  However, postmodern men and women today are chiefly concerned with relationships – not just on Facebook, but also in everyday life.  Am I loved?  Do I have enough friends and supporters?  Am I suitably known if not famous?  Does one recognise my potential?  How can I increase my health, my beauty, my profile, my lovability?  Which products should I buy to raise my relational stakes?  Which networks may I enter to be properly and promisingly connected?  What do I do when I fail in my relational pursuits?  Where should I turn when I am kicked out of X Factor or sacked by Lord Sugar?  Social death is a much more threatening reality to many today than physical death.  We want to be part, to belong, to be seen and recognised, to be loved.  Who can save me from social death, from exclusion, from loneliness here and now?

 There is no point in moralising and complaining over the fact that people today no longer feel like previous generations of Christians when reflecting upon death.  Cultures change and expectations vary.  However, the fear of social death opens new perspectives for us even with regard to approaching the gospel.  Looking through a perspective of social death on the accounts of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament we may see afresh that Jesus was in fact less concerned with what comes after this life than how we could live this life in love with each other, with God, with God’s creation and with our own emerging selves.  This dynamic network of loving relationships is the place where God’s transforming presence is at work.  Love, not as romantic sentiment, but as attention, respect and care for the other was promoted by Jesus as key to participating in God’s creative and reconciling project here and now.  The Parables of the Kingdom illustrate God’s universal invitation to all men, women and children to take part in this transformative movement of creation and reconciliation.  Jesus confronts people with the option for new life, not with a plan for a proper death.  He urges liberation from all sorts of oppression – all forms of external and internal bondage are to be resisted and overcome.  He invites us to share in the abundance of God’s grace and care for each one of us.  Jesus preaches the gospel of life; he invites us to choose between the path of life and the path of death.

 That Jesus ultimately accepts his own violent death on the cross does not imply a divine option for death; rather God accepted Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice for the sake of eternal life.  However, God did not desire the death of Jesus; rather God accepted it and manifested his divine affirmation of life in the resurrection of the so violently murdered Jesus.

 The resurrection of Jesus represents God’s ultimate victory over the power and terror of death, though not God’s undoing of death as a mark of the life of all creatures.  The resurrection does not establish an after-life for us, but it opens the horizon of eternal life – a divine quality that wishes to transform all human beings already here and now into a community of love.

 We are still facing physical death.  As human beings we remain limited by time, space, and language.  However, our human limitations are no longer our enemy but the graced matrix in which we can live a life of eternal transformation in love.  In God’s community of love eternity is present already in time.  As reliable fact and boundary, our death opens time for us and thus makes our acts of love possible in the first place.  Death, thus understood, could be welcomed as a gift to love.  ‘Love is strong as death’ (Song of Solomon 8:6).  Death opens a framework for our love and frees us from the destructive power game of controlling, instrumentalising and dominating others – fellow humans, God, God’s creation and our own selves.  The mystery of human mortality might lie in the encouragement to love.

 The recent concentration on social death in western culture may thus be welcomed as a timely reminder of what we can reasonably expect from God’s salvation in Christ: not one more world after this, not liberation from physical death and hence from our creatureliness, not immortality, not liberation from this world which is God’s loved creation and the place for human love, not a heaven in terms of an anti-world.  But we can expect to participate in God’s eternal community to which Jesus Christ has invited us – a community characterised by dynamic and mutual love relationships.  In this human-divine community eternity has already broken in, has interrupted the normal course of things: of never ending power games, oppression and exploitation.  Surely, such a community of liberation could become the salt of creation as the gospels illustrate so powerfully.  Such a community will enjoy openness to God’s transforming presence, trust in God’s forgiveness and healing of the wounds we have inflicted on one another and on our own selves, and hope for the fulfilment of God’s eternal gathering of his loved ones in the transformation afoot here and now.  This community already enjoys ‘heaven’ though not yet in its fullness.  Much more is to come.  Welcome to Advent.  Heaven is open.