Having been received in the Church on the day after the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I also pondered the Holy Mother’s response to the Annunciation: “Let it be done unto me according to Thy Word.”
The injunctions to charity and service unmistakably applied to all Christians, but it was difficult to deny that, since the moment of the Virgin Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel, they applied in a special way to women. Her example, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has reminded us, offers the exemplary embodiment of faith. “Faith is the surrender of the entire person: because Mary from the start surrendered everything, her memory was the unsullied tablet on which the Father, through the Spirit, could write His entire Word.” It is incontestable that, throughout most of history, women have suffered injustices and abuse that cry out for redress. It is no less incontestable that the path to justice and dignity for women – the recognition of their equal standing with men as human persons – cannot lead through the repudiation of the most basic tenets of our faith. No amount of past oppression can justify women’s oppression of the most vulnerable among us – or even our repudiation of our own specific vocation as women.
Pope John Paul II has written extensively on the special dignity and mission of women, frequently provoking the shrill opposition of feminists, especially Catholic feminists. Above all, feminists deplore his insistence upon the abiding differences between women and men and upon women’s exclusion from the priesthood. I would be astonished if, at one point or another, every woman has not tasted some of that anger, the outraged sense of “Why me? Why should I always be the one to give?” And it does not help if men interpret women’s yielding as proof of men’s superiority. Not expecting heaven on earth in the near future, I see little prospect that either of these responses will simply evaporate. Yet both miss the key to the Holy Father’s theology of the person, namely, that the essence of our humanity lies in our capacity for “self-gift.” This understanding links our relations with one another to our relation to God, reminding us of the danger of treating another person as an object. It also suggests that, whether in relation with others or in communion with God, our highest realization of self results from the gift – or loss – of self. – from A Conversion (2000)