Pope Benedict: Equal Dignity of Wives and Husbands
by David Gibson
The equal dignity of women with men is accented forcefully in a major new document signed Nov. 19 by Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to the west African nation of Benin. Recognition of the God-given dignity of both women and men in Africa ought to influence the lives of married couples and their families in important ways, the pope proposes.
He urges husbands in today’s Africa to express love and respect for their wives. And he wants men to realize that their witness to the “dignity of every human person will serve as an effective antidote to traditional practices that are contrary to the Gospel and oppressive to women in particular.”
Husbands should not be afraid “to demonstrate tangibly that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for those one loves, that is to say, first and foremost, for one’s wife and children,” Pope Benedict states in the new document.
Speaking to the Catholic Church’s permanent deacons in Africa, the pope asks that they assist their society “at every level to encourage responsibility on the part of men who are husbands and fathers, respect for women who are equal to men in dignity and concern for children left to fend for themselves without education.”
The new document acknowledges the progress made in some African nations “toward the advancement of women and their education.” But “it remains the case,” Pope Benedict writes, “that overall, women’s dignity and rights, as well as their essential contribution to the family and to society, have not been fully acknowledged or appreciated.”
This papal document, known as an apostolic exhortation, is titled “The Commitment of Africa.” It presents the pope’s reflections on the recommendations made to him by the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome during October 2009. For the document’s signing, he traveled to the coastal city of Ouidah, a former slave trading post.
Due to the wide range of concerns addressed in the synod recommendations, the apostolic exhortation’s scope is necessarily broad. It devotes attention to matters as diverse as governmental neglect and violence, education, poverty and social justice, the necessity of interreligious dialogue, the plight of migrants, abuses of the environment and the church’s sacramental life.
As a theme, the apostolic exhortation calls upon Catholics in Africa to foster a spirit of reconciliation and of genuine community within their own churches and then to take this spirit of reconciliation into the world around them, serving as healing presences within divided societies. In church teaching, sacramental reconciliation leads to and becomes “a way of life and a mission” for Catholics, the pope makes clear.
In one section of his document, Pope Benedict speaks directly and separately to men and to women. In remarks to women, he takes up the synod’s concern that women in Africa frequently are victims of injustice.
The 2009 synod condemned “all acts of violence against women,” such as “the battering of wives, the disinheritance of daughters, the oppression of widows in the name of tradition, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, trafficking in women” and “other abuses such as sex slavery and sex tourism.”
Women’s contributions, “not only in the home as wife and mother, but also in the social sphere, should be more generally acknowledged and promoted,” the synod stated. It urged Catholic men to fulfill their “important roles as responsible fathers and good and faithful husbands.”
In “The Commitment of Africa,” Pope Benedict asks Christians to speak out and condemn “all acts of violence against women.” In this regard, Catholics “ought to be a model for society as a whole,” he says.
Though the pope is convinced that “the church and society need women to take their full place in the world,” he also thinks that women and girls in Africa “are often afforded fewer opportunities than men and boys,” and that “there are still too many practices that debase and degrade women in the name of ancestral tradition.”
Pope Benedict recalls that during an earlier visit to Africa he insisted that “we must recognize, affirm and defend the equal dignity of man and woman: They are both persons, utterly unique among all the living beings found in the world.” It is unfortunate, however, that “the evolution of ways of thinking in this area is much too slow,” he comments in the apostolic exhortation.
For the church, it is a duty “to contribute to the recognition and liberation of women, following the example of Christ’s own esteem for them,” the pope says. He writes:
“Giving women opportunities to make their voice heard and to express their talents through initiatives that reinforce their worth, their self-esteem and their uniqueness would enable them to occupy a place in society equal to that of men — without confusing or conflating the specific character of each — since both men and women are the ‘image’ of the Creator.”
Pope Benedict praises Catholic women for serving as “a kind of backbone” for the life and apostolate of their local churches. He says that women, moreover, “stand up to defend human dignity, the family and the values of religion” when peace is “under threat, when justice is flouted, when poverty increases.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.