Magisterial Documents: Mulieris Dignitatem

Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year Pope John Paul II
15 August 1988

The full document is available on the internet.

Brief History

The introduction to the apostolic letter gives the exceptional prominence of women's issues as the reason for writing the document. Questions concerning the vocation of woman and the dignity of woman have been, as the document states, "a subject of constant human and Christian reflection." (MD 1) The works of Pius XII, John XIII, and Paul VI with their efforts to enhance woman's dignity and responsibility are referred to. The Synod of Bishops in October 1987, had discussed women's issues in the light of twenty years of post-Vatican II teaching. One of the resolutions of the synod had asked for a "study of the anthropological and theological bases that are needed in order to solve the problems connected with the meaning and dignity of being a woman and of being a man." (MD 1)

Pope John Paul II insists that any discussion about woman is necessarily a study of what it first means to be a human being and what the Incarnation signifies to our humanness. "This eternal truth about the human being, man and woman – a truth which is immutably fixed in human experience – at the same time constitutes the mystery which only in 'the Incarnate Word takes on light... (since) Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear...." (GS 22; MD 2)

Mulieris Dignitatem consists of nine sections. The signs of the times and the Marian Year are the points of reference. By looking at Mary's union with God, and the results of this union, the basis is to be set for understanding what the human person can come to be.

The document teaches that Mary is the fulfillment of the creation of the human person in the image and likeness of God. Mulieris Dignitatem presents the doctrine of creation, especially the creation of the human person as person-communion-gift. The reason that a human person is like God is because this is God's choice in creating us in his image and likeness. The text continues, "But then, God too is in some measure" like human beings; "precisely because of this likeness, God can be humanly known." (MD 8) Pope John Paul II speaks of the relationality of humanness and of the likeness and difference of human generation and the divine generating of God.

Mulieris Dignitatem explains the first sin. (MD 9) The symbolic character of the biblical text is not overlooked, but beyond all symbolism, the truth of human brokenness remains. (MD 9) The healing begins to take place in the parallel Eve- Mary. The consequences of human brokenness were felt for both man and woman; and the special character of human rejection of God, especially that of woman's burden and brokenness, is answered in the human Mary and in the God-man Jesus Christ. (MD 10-11) Mulieris Dignitatem describes Jesus, the redeemer, as the one who changed and healed women; he restored their dignity. (MD 12) Several examples of Jesus' relationship to women are given. (MD 13) Mid-way into the document, the vocation of woman as mother and virgin, the two dimensions of woman's vocation, are discussed. (MD 17) Motherhood is first and primary. (MD 18-19) Virginity is for the sake of the kingdom; it a motherhood according to the Spirit. (MD 20-21)

The document then discusses the Church as Bride of Christ. This mystery, a gift, explains the Church's relationship to Christ. Ultimately, the mystery and the gift are love. (MD 23, 27) Hence, woman - in herself and in what she represents in and to the Church – is described as an answer of love for the Church, the world, and to God. (MD 28)

The Marian sections of the document are secondary, even when these elements are the demonstration of the ideal woman. Mary is depicted as a woman – exemplary to both women and men – who cooperates in establishing Church through the most intimate possible union with God. She does this freely, relationally, in God's own image and likeness, out of the fullness of her own identity – woman.

Mulieris Dignitatem teaches that woman and man are created with the power to love and to do so freely. This is what it ultimately means to be God's image. Mary is the case in point. Mary's life testifies to repeated examples of motherly love.


I. Introduction

A Sign of the Times 1
The Marian Year 2

II. Woman-Mother of God (Theotokos)

Union with God 3
Theotokos 4
"To Serve Means to Reign" 5

III. The Image and Likeness of God

The Book of Genesis 6
Person-Communion-Gift 7
The Anthropomorphism of Biblical Language 8

IV. Eve-Mary

The "Beginning" and the Sin 9
"He Shall Rule Over You" 10
Proto-evangelium 11

V. Jesus Christ

"They Marveled that He Was Talking with a Woman 12
Women in the Gospel 13
The Woman Caught in Adultery 14
Guardians of the Gospel Message 15
First Witnesses of the Resurrection 16

VI. Motherhood-Virginity

Two Dimensions of Women's Vocation 17
Motherhood 18
Motherhood in Relation to the Covenant 19
Virginity for the Sake of the Kingdom 20
Motherhood According to the Spirit 21
"My Little Children with Whom I Am Again in Travail" 22

VII. The Church -- The Bride of Christ

The "Great Mystery" 23
The Gospel "Innovation" 24
The Symbolic Dimension of the "Great Mystery" 25
The Eucharist 26
The Gift of the Bride 27

VIII. "The Greatest of These Is Love"

In the Face of Changes 28
The Dignity of Women and the Order of Love 29
Awareness of a Mission 30

VII. Conclusion

"If You Knew the Gift of God"


AAS 80 (1988): 1653-1729;
St. Paul Books and Media, 1988 (Vatican Translation)

© This material has been compiled by M. Jean Frisk.
Copyright is reserved for The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute.
Most recently updated in 2005.

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