Monday, September 28, 2015

A Woman's Worth Does Not Depend On Her Virtue

I'm sure you're familiar with the creation story: God made the light and the dark, God made the earth and the sky, God made animals and man, and then God made woman. John Paul II stressed that God created mankind as "the crown of creation," being that we were created in the image and likeness of the Triune God who created us for the sake of loving us. (Dies Domini, #11) This nature of our being, the Imago Dei or the "image of God," is the source of our great and irrevocable dignity as human beings, a dignity we share and enjoy equally as men and women. It is this very dignity which compels God to look at all creation which he deemed "good" and distinguish man and woman as "very good."

This dignity, which is intrinsic and immutable, remains with us from the moment of our creation at conception and forever into eternity. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and we do not cease being made in his image when we fail to live up to the degree of dignity we each inherently possess. Our dignity, though perhaps more difficult to observe and realize, remains with us even after the Fall, even when we sin, and even when we are humiliated or behave in ways inappropriate for God's children. It remains with us as the eternal character of our identity, precisely because God's love and desire for us remain with us eternally. In fewer words, our dignity is irrevocable because the love of God for us is irrevocable.

This simple reality is why it is not only incorrect, but damn near repugnant, to base a woman's worth on her practice of virtue. Now, it would require turning a blind eye to state that men and women deal equally with the issue of purity being preached to them, or are equally criticized for their manner of dress or the length of their clothes. And, in fairness, it would require an astounding amount of ignorance to claim that men dress immodestly as often as women. However, while this may be justification for discerning methods of promoting reverence for the body in a way specific to women, it is far from justification for diminishing or devaluing the irrevocable Imago Dei present to us in each woman.

It seems to be a subtle inclination more than an outward claim: that women and their worth as persons or as partners are inherently linked to their manner of dress or the manner in which they conduct themselves. Concepts such as purity and modesty are not merely more frequently addressed to women, they are increasingly considered women's issues. The distinction, at face value, may seem arbitrary and irrelevant; however, when purity and modesty are isolated as feminine virtues in our minds we can be certain we have lost a deep and necessary respect for purity, modesty, and women.

Of course, there are those who will say that purity and modesty are not strictly feminine virtues, and they are correct. These virtues extend to men and women as demands on our dignity. What I'm referring to is a particular attitude towards women which seems to permeate what I lovingly refer to as "the modern modesty movement." (I know, I am so clever, with muh creative alliteration.) I sincerely doubt that most people who promote this perspective realize they are doing it, let alone do it to be simply malicious. However, this does not free us from the burden of bringing our understanding of human dignity and women to a higher and more virtuous degree in light of the understanding of the Imago Dei we have as the Church of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate as Man.

So, what exactly is this attitude I'm talking about? Well, it's difficult to pin down. As I said, it is more of a subtle inclination -- an implication of a woman's worth being based on her virtue -- than an outright claim most of the time. Some examples which come readily to my mind, though, are two particular concepts I encountered as a teenager: the "pie theory" and the "rose theory" (which I have cleverly named myself!).

The "pie theory," a straightforward name probably granted it by someone incredibly stunning and wise, states very basically that premarital sex/dressing immodestly are akin to having a whole pie (yourself) and giving pieces away to random passersby. So the story goes, by the time you're married and have found the perfect husband to whom to give your pie (I am aware, as you may be, of the unintentional 21st-century eroticism contained in the word "pie," but let's move on), there remains either only one or two pieces, perhaps half the pie, or maybe even some crumbs. Hubby dearest, naturally, is extremely disappointed, and obviously very hurt, because he was hungry and you gave his pie away.

The "rose theory" is one I remember quite vividly from an experience at the women's session during one of my Steubenville retreats centuries ago when I was like 15. I am still unable to put a name to exactly what it was I felt at the time, but it was not a resounding sense of agreement. The speaker took a girl on stage and gave her a rose, then proceeded to name off sins against chastity and modesty after each of which she would pluck a petal off of the rose and toss it carelessly to the ground. This was supposed to be some sort of metaphor for the gift of ourselves; someday a man will come along who will want you to give him your rose and you'll only have a stem left, if not a hideous and tattered three-petaled rose. How sad.

Though I never experienced it, another "theory" I've heard described to me involves chewing bubblegum. It's really pretty direct: no one wants a piece of bubblegum someone else has already chewed.

The obvious implication in ideas such as these is that a woman's worth -- her value, her dignity -- are based on her choices in life. Whether she has remained chaste, whether she dresses appropriately, and especially how many partners she's had along the way. The extreme flaws in these metaphors, however, are not only miscommunications on the part of a woman's worth, they are damaging. To tell a woman that her value is both directly linked to how much a man is pleased with her and how virtuous her life has been up to this point, diminishes the great gift she is in and of herself and disregards the face of God present in her very being.

As stated above, the innate dignity of a woman is in her being created in the image of God. This is an immutable reality which cannot be taken away, no matter how many pieces of pie or rose petals find themselves somehow separated from her. Because all people bear the image of God in their very being, a prostitute is equal in dignity to a consecrated religious; a porn star equal in dignity to a virgin on her wedding night. (see the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #144)

So, why do attempts to teach purity and modesty to young women so typically hinge on their value to men as women? The answer, I think, is very simple: human beings have a desire to be pleasing to an "other," and in our current society (and societies of the past) young women are known to stake a great measure of their dignity and value as persons on whether a man finds them desirable or worth fighting for. This desire is incredibly easy to exploit: we see it everywhere, from clothing commercials, to makeup commercials, to the covers of magazines, and even in the super-fun sleepover quizzes found in preteen magazines.

That we, the church, have taken to similar methods to get young women to "buy our product" (which, in this case, is the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ) is deplorable. The inexhaustible treasury of the Church contains within itself all the grace and mercy needed to calm and quiet the human spirit's aching and yearning for affirmation and love, and we resort to pies and roses.

Why not just Jesus? It is Jesus --  not pies, not roses, and not bubblegum -- who reveals to man and woman their powerful dignity as beings created in the image of God. The human desire to be desired and wanted and loved and valued is offered total satisfaction in the heart of Jesus, who looks on human beings with "a gaze of joyous delight. This is a "contemplative" gaze which does not look to new accomplishments but enjoys the beauty of what has already been achieved." (Dies Domini, #11) The "achievement" spoken of here is not a human achievement, but the achievement of God, who created man and woman in his own image, and delights in that simple fact. When Jesus adores us, he adores us for who we are: his beloved.

Women are created in the image of God, the same God who created us for the simple sake of loving us. This dignity granted us is not something that changes over time, or something that can be traded off or given away or cut to pieces or torn to shreds. This dignity is permanent, the very character of our existence. Our value as women is eternal,. and no measure is appropriate by which to account for our worth apart from the love of Jesus who willingly suffered and died to redeem us and draw us to himself.


  1. I think I agree with what you're trying to say... If our dignity comes from our relationship with God, then wouldn't damaging our relationship with God damage our dignity? And restoring our relationship with God restore our dignity?

    1. Our dignity doesn't come from our relationship with God. Our dignity comes from being made in His image, which is true about us whether we have a relationship with Him or not.