In today’s increasingly secular society, it’s very hard to be a woman. From all sides, women are inundated with mixed images: there are the secular feminists who claim that women should anything men can do. On the opposite end, there are those who say that women should only work in the home, serving as wives, mothers, and homemakers. This presents a conundrum for Catholic women who, wishing to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church, desire a way to live out their vocations in their in accordance with the needs of their daily lives.
Many Catholic women proudly identify as feminists. Self-identified Catholic feminists believe that the Church’s teachings regarding the inherent dignity of both men and women go hand-in-hand with the basic tenets of feminism. Other Catholics reject feminism as a secular, anti-religious movement that offers nothing to the life of faithful men and women. And then, some fall in the middle of the spectrum, not sure what to do with this loaded word. However, within the past two decades, it is evident that Catholics can go beyond feminism and engage the feminine genius, a concept taught by St. Pope John Paul II.
What is the “Feminine Genius”?
In June 1995, months before the World Conference on Women took place in Beijing, China, Pope John Paul II issued what is now known as his “Letter to Women.” In it, John Paul II thanked women for their contributions and achievements, and also, simply for being women. He acknowledged “the problems and the prospects” of modern womanhood, while also praising and encouraging the cultivation of true femininity (Letter to Women, sect. 1).
“I know of course that simply saying thank you is not enough. Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity” (sect. 3).
The struggles and marginalization of women is no secret to the Church. The Church recognizes that throughout history, women have been shunned and repressed. Unfortunately, sometimes at the hands of the Church itself. (sect. 3). The document expresses sorrow for women who were not credited with artistic and scientific achievements and for those who were “disadvantaged from the start” (sect. 3). Yet, the letter does not permit women to remain focused on the unfair treatment of past eras. Rather, John Paul exhorts women to embrace their role as women in order to change the world for the sake of Christ. This, the power of women to witness for Christ, is the “feminine genius.”
The Source of Femininity: Christ Alone
Unlike its first-wave predecessor, modern feminism seeks to eliminate the differences between men and women. Women in the West are encouraged to be like men in every way: to eschew marriage and family for the sake of a career or other secular goals. Women are derided, even socially ostracized, for having children, or more children than deemed socially polite. With the rise of the use of contraception (heralded as modern feminists as a “right” for women), even women’s fertility is treated as something to be “fixed,” lest the natural function of a woman’s body hinders her from secular ideals of success. It’s no wonder that faithful Catholic women feel ostracized from local communities outside of their parish walls.
How, then, is it possible for women to live out their womanhood without sacrificing their morality? As with everything in Catholicism, the answer points back to the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Acting counter to the cultural norms of His day, Jesus “treated women with openness, respect, openness, and tenderness” (sect. 3). In order to free women, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, we must look to the “attitude of Jesus Christ himself” (sect. 3). As men and women, we are called to transcend what the culture, and modern feminism, demands. We are called to lives of love and unity, letting Christ live in and through us (Genesis 2:18, Galatians 2:20).
The Joy of the Full Womanhood
The most evident example of full womanhood is presented in the life of the Blessed Mother. Through her “Yes” to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, the incarnate word of God came forth into existence. As a wife and mother, Mary lived a life of service to others from the moment of her consent to God. John Paul writes that through her life of service, “Mary was able to experience in her life a mysterious, but authentic ‘reign’…For her, to ‘reign’ is to serve!” (sect. 10). It is evident from Scripture that Mary took upon herself many roles during her life: handmaid, friend, wife, and mother. Our Lady is proof that full womanhood, the feminine genius, is not confined to one singular role.
Unlike feminism, which often shames women for making choices contrary to the cultural narrative, “The Letter to Women” encourages women to find their place in society – regardless of what that place is. Pope John Paul II does not focus solely on the lives of married or consecrated women, but thanks, all women for all their contributions. He writes:
“Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves…Thank you women who are wives! You irrevocably join your future to that of your husbands… Thank you women who are daughters…and sisters!…Thank you women who work!…You make an indispensable contribution to the growth of the culture…Thank you consecrated women!…You open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God’s love” (sect. 2).
Women are built for multifaceted relationships and roles. Yet, we are all called to motherhood. A wife may become a mother to physical children, while a consecrated religious sister or single woman may have many spiritual children under her care. It is through this universal maternity that women work, learn, and serve the world in the name of Jesus. While modern feminism is about the advancement of self, full womanhood and the feminine genius seeks to empty one’s self for the sake of Christ. This genius is found at work in the home, the office, the church, or the cloister. True femininity that acts in the love of Christ knows no boundaries.
Living Out the Feminine Genius
To the secular reader, the ideals espoused in “The Letter to Women” may appear antiquated. Women as helpers, spiritual and maternal mothers, and handmaids of God often create images of a passive woman who serves only as a doormat to her peers. Instead, these roles of women should be viewed as part of a “sacramental economy” in which women serve as “signs in which God freely chooses in order to become present in the midst of humanity” (sect. 11).
For each woman, the active life of the feminine genius within the “sacramental economy” will look different. A woman who owns a business may offer part of her profits to local and international charities. The woman who stays at home with her children can engage the feminine genius by taking her small children to serve at a local soup kitchen, thereby teaching the next generation the value of service. A single woman may find herself regularly praying the Divine Office for the good of her family and neighbors. Religious sisters and nuns can sweep the floor of their convent and still live out their unique feminine genius. Finally, women from all over engage our political system to fight for the rights of the unborn and other marginalized groups. Of course, this is but a small view of the potential of women around the world. In other countries and continents, there are many more examples of the feminine genius in action.
What About Feminism?
St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women” offers everyone, both male, and female, an alternative to the secularized feminist ideology. While feminism offers women the promise of equality, it often leaves women and men with broken promises and empty hearts. Moreover, the “Letter to Women” states that all of us, especially women, have the ability to “see persons with their hearts.” It is with the heart that women see people “independently of…ideological or political systems” (sect. 12). This is in stark contrast to modern feminism, which too often alienates women because they do not align with the movement’s political ideals, harbor deeply-held religious beliefs, or believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. On the other hand, the feminine genius offers life, love, and compassion to all, regardless of race, orientation, disability, or belief (even if it is imperfectly practiced). Today’s woman, in the face of modern feminism, must have the courage to say “Yes” to engaging the feminine genius. Like Mary’s fiat, one “Yes” from one woman can change the world.