Part 4: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 4 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

Let's begin, therefore, at the beginning; I mean literally at the beginning. Jesus said "from the beginning," God made us "male and female" (Jn 19:3). And the Bible indicates that he made them different, but equal in dignity and value, right from the start.

First of all, we find this indicated in the biblical manifesto of human dignity, Genesis chapter one, verse 27: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." Commenting on this passage in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women, 1988), Pope St. John Paul II wrote:

This concise passage contains the fundamental anthropological truths [of Christianity]: man is the highpoint of the whole order of creation in the visible world; the human race, which takes its origin from the calling into existence of man and woman, crowns the whole work of creation; both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree; both are created in God's image. This image and likeness of God, which is essential for the human being, is passed on by the man and woman, as spouses and parents to their descendants: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:28). The Creator entrusts dominion over the earth to the human race, to all persons, to men and women, who derive their dignity and vocation from the common "beginning." (Mulieris Dignitatem, section 6)

Then the Pope included an important addendum to this in the very next section of this Apostolic Letter:

Every individual is made in the image of God insofar as he or she is a rational and free creature, capable of knowing God and loving him. Moreover, we read that man cannot exist "alone" (cf. Gen 2:18); he can exist only as a "unity of the two," and therefore in relation to another human person .... Man and woman, created as a "unity of the two" in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the three [divine] Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. (section 7)

In other words, to be made in the image of God means that women and men are to be a created reflection of the eternal communion of love among the divine persons of the Holy Trinity.

This also means, of course, that man and woman profoundly need each other, in order fully to live out that image of God. In Genesis chapter two, therefore, the Lord says "It is not good for man to be alone," and so God's creation of the human race is not fully "good" until he has created the woman as "helpmate" for the man (Gen 2:20).

Some biblical scholars have pointed out that the word "helper" or "helpmate" used for the first woman here - namely, the Hebrew word ezer - is often applied to God in the Old Testament, when he comes to the aid of his people. Thus, taken on its own, at least, the word does not necessarily imply an inferior status for the woman, as if she was merely to be the man's servant. The word certainly signifies that she is God's gift to the man, to enable him to overcome his original solitude and loneliness. Moreover, given that the woman is also the last thing created on the whole six days of Creation, this also implies that she is the pinnacle and crown of creation in a special way (a mystery that we will explore later in this web series).

On the other hand, with regard to the familial and social roles that men and women are meant to fulfill, the word ezer is somewhat ambiguous. Protestant biblical scholar Thomas R. Schreiner points out:

[W]ords are assigned their meanings in context, and in the narrative context of Genesis 1-3, the word "helper" signifies that Eve was to help Adam in the task of ruling over creation. Indeed, in some contexts in the OT, the word "help" designates those who assist a superior or ruler in accomplishing his task. For instance, in I Kings 20:16, thirty-two kings who have less power than Ben-haddad helped him in war. Indeed, the verb "to help" is used of warriors who helped David militarily (I Chron 12:1, 22-23), and it is clear that David was the leader and they were assisting him. Similarly, David exhorted leaders to help Solomon when he was king (22:17), in which case there is no doubt these leaders were assisting Solomon in his leadership over the nation. An army also helped King Uzziah in a military campaign (II Chron 26:13). Yahweh pledged he would nullify those who helped the prince in Jerusalem (Ezek 12:14; cf. 32:21), and those who helped were obviously subordinates of the prince. These examples show that context is decisive in determining whether the one who helps has a superior or inferior role [that is, context indicates whether the ezer in question is the leader in the situation, sharing in leadership, or assisting a someone else who has the principal leadership role]. (Stanley N. Gundry, ed., Two Views on Women in Ministry, second edition, p. 292-293)

In any case, the Genesis story tells of how the first woman was taken from the rib of the man while he slept, and that she is thereby "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh" (Gen 2:23) - that is, that she is fully human, on the very same level of created being as the man - and therefore a suitable companion and helper in their common vocation to be stewards of God's creation ("subdue the earth," Gen 1:28), as well as in their common task of being "fruitful," procreating with God's help human offspring, made in the image of God, to "fill the earth" (Gen 1:28).

All of this shows that sexual distinction is not irrelevant to the essence of human nature, the created reality of what it is to be "human." "From the beginning," as both Jesus (in Mt 19:4-6) and Genesis teach us, God created two distinct ways of being fully human, equal in worth and dignity, and biologically complementary. They are to live out their vocation as creatures made in the "image of God," as rational and free beings, but also as beings capable of living in a communion of love that is an earthly reflection of the heavenly and eternal communion of love in the Blessed Trinity.

Next Time: The Fall of Man, the Order of Creation, and the Dignity of Woman in the Old Testament

Follow the series at

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

You might also like...

Freedom must always be bounded by charity, and it is simply not charitable to men to have to have their chastity assaulted whenever they walk down the street in the summertime.
Women are called today to turn the world upside down. What does that mean?
We need to remember that God's plan of humanizing the world through sanctified femininity is not confined to those with a vocation to marriage - and those who stay at home to raise the children.