Deepening respect

It is an affront to God to consider the dignity
of women as less than that of men.

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ
Consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services

Pope Francis’ April prayer Intention for the role of women:We pray that the dignity and immense value of women be recognised in every culture, and for the end of discrimination that they experience in different parts of the world.”

Pope Francis’ prayer may be received with scepticism by many women. They would say that women’s needs would best be explained by a woman who can speak from inside. Men will necessarily see it from outside. And priests, male religious, and indeed Pope Francis himself, are associated with an institution where the dignity of women has often gone unrecognised, and their enormous value has been exploited without proper remuneration.

That conceded, however, Pope Francis has put into words a prayer that Jesus might have endorsed when on earth, one which all Catholics can surely pray with full conviction. The heart of the prayer lies in his call to recognise the dignity of women.

In the Catholic understanding, dignity is not something we earn by our good deeds or lose by behaving badly. It comes with being human. Dignity describes the unique gift and value that each human being has, simply by being human. Each person is deeply loved by God regardless of our gender, our race, our background, our wealth, our intelligence, our political views, our religion or our behaviour. Each human being is God’s gift, and is entitled to food, shelter, freedom to grow and to develop, to raise families and to have a say in decisions that concern them. It is an affront to God to consider the dignity of women as less than that of men.

Pope Francis also speaks of the enormous value of women. They are of equal value in society, and each brings a unique gift. Part of that gift lies in their unique capacity to bear children. In most societies this is associated with a special responsibility and gift for the raising of children in the home. For Pope Francis that special, but not exclusive, responsibility in the home is part of the enormous value of women. It remains so even where, as in our society, the value of women is also expressed in the opportunity to work and build a career. The raising of children and the chores that underlie the making of a home are commendably shared more equally between men and women.

The challenge of Pope Francis’ prayer lies in his prayer for respect for women by every culture. In some cultures women have been regarded as of lesser value and as deserving of less respect. They have effectively been owned by their men, their lives restricted, and liable to abusive behaviour. A woman is not seen as a woman but as just a woman. That view is often imprinted in our society by the media and by childhood experience. It is reflected in Australia by the fact that most victims of domestic violence are women.

Pope Francis’ prayer does not demand only a change of behaviour but a change of culture in institutions such as schools, churches and businesses. For that reason, Pope Francis prays for an end to discrimination against women. This does not mean seeing women as no different from men. It sees them as precious, both in their shared and equal humanity and in their difference. Discrimination focuses on a difference that divides people into those of equal value to us and those who are of lesser value. The latter may be treated differently. The attitude that Pope Francis focuses on recognises difference as a gift to our human community that deepens our respect and admiration for one another.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.

Banner image by Wanan, Canva.

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