The recognition of women’s special and integral role in human progress cannot overlook the dignity of women as wives, mothers and a voice for the vulnerable, a Vatican official told the United Nations this month. “Women’s essential contributions to the development of society through their dedication to their family and to raising the next generation is inadequately acknowledged,” said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations. “Sometimes their invisible and often heroic service is even disparaged as an antiquated and unwholesome model of feminine life.” “Such criticism does not come from a genuine appreciation of woman in her totality and her true equality, in complementarity and reciprocity, with man,” the archbishop added, rejecting the idea that women’s equality requires that women perform all the same roles as men. “True respect for woman starts with accepting her according to all aspects of her humanity. It involves creating the conditions for her to live freely and fully.” Archbishop Auza addressed the international community on March 13 and 18 during two presentations on the dignity of women. March is celebrated as Women’s History Month in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and contains the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8. In promoting women’s rights and equality, the role of family must not be forgotten, the archbishop said. He emphasized that women have a great number of gifts and talents to offer society, including “not just the aspects she shares in common with man, but also the unique gifts that pertain to her as woman,” such as the capacity of motherhood. This capacity, he continued, is not just a physical capability. Rather, it also encompasses the capacity for “a spiritual, educational, affective, nurturing and cultural way of life,” whether or not a woman is a physical mother. This “special wisdom in caring for the intrinsic dignity of everyone, in nurturing life and love and in developing others’ gifts” is referred to by Saint Pope John Paul II as the “feminine genius,” Archbishop Auza explained. By downplaying the role of family and motherhood, societies risk denying the human dignity of women as an entire class, he warned, cautioning that “the unique value and dignity of motherhood in some societies is insufficiently defended, appreciated and advanced, leaving women culturally and legally in a position to choose between their intellectual and professional development and their personal growth as wives and mothers.” When the family “is ignored or attacked, we must stand and speak up for it candidly and with respect for all, and courageously advocate for better structures and policies that support working women who desire to have children or who want to dedicate themselves, partially or fully, to the care of their family,” Archbishop Auza stated. He also noted that motherhood and family are affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Speaking on March 18, Archbishop Auza expanded on these themes, discussing the role of women in human development. He praised a number of women — including Dr. Carolyn Woo, the President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services; Magalie Dresse, owner of Caribbean Craft Haiti; and Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Catholics of the Rio Grande Valley — along with female saints and blesseds for their role in aiding the development of persons. The feminine genius, Archbishop Auza said, is linked deeply to “solidarity in caring for the vulnerable and in creating a better world.” While governments are tasked with ensuring a just society and the respect of all persons’ rights, “some members of our human family fall into cracks, or have disabilities and other risk factors that even well-ordered and just societies may overlook or pay less attention to.” In cases like these, “they need people who care, who treat them with the love that accords with the fullness of their human dignity,” a task to which women are uniquely attuned, he explained.   This care for persons, he continued, has had a profound impact on human history and development. All of civilization, he said, “owes an unpayable debt of gratitude to the less chronicled or even unknown contributions of women that have shaped civilizations, like the silent but constant flow of deep waters that shape rivers.” Human development starts “in the relations human beings have with one another and the way human beings care for one another,” a realm influenced greatly by women’s feminine genius, he said. Humanity can “learn from it and resolve to do what we can to see this genius expand and assume a greater influence, for the good of individuals and society today and for the betterment of persons and nations tomorrow.”