It is difficult to be a woman today, especially a Christian woman. It’s no wonder Catholics are confused about who they are. The Church boldly declares feminine traits are part of a woman’s core identity, deeply rooted in their souls, not just apparent in their physical appearance. Saint John Paul II, in his letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, explains God created women to be different but equal to men as complementary partners, be it as married or religious/consecrated or single women.
Our contemporary culture opposes this view as misogynistic. Some feminists promote the idea that women are born as blank slates with exactly the same traits as men, dismissing femininity as simply learned behaviour. If this were not confusing enough, society now toys with the idea of a blending of genders. We have somehow lost the truth about how great being a woman actually is.
Nature Versus Nurture
As for this whole nature versus nurture controversy, I tried to raise my children without imposing gender stereotypes on them. However, as almost every mother will tell you, even as babies, little boys are intrinsically different than little girls. Since I grew up with only one sister, my son’s behaviour constantly surprised me. I remember stopping in mid-stride, frozen with my mouth hanging open when I observed my twelve-month-old son pushing a toy car back and forth on the Chesterfield while he studied the rolling wheels. My boys were boisterous and physical. Even though I tried to hide the existence of guns from them, they made their own swords and guns out of sticks. Their spatial thinking was amazing and their obsession with Lego equally baffling.
Don’t get me wrong; I put effort into drawing out the feminine side of my sons. One day when Mark was about four, he asked for his sister’s waterproof doll while in the bathtub. I was so please, I almost raised a fist in triumph as I thought,“Yes! I have raised a son with nurturing instincts!” When I came back into the bathroom, the head was off the doll and he was holding the rubber tubing connecting the doll’s mouth to its bottom. Mark was making loud machine noises as he lowered the head into the water, filled it, then lifted the swinging head to pour water into a plastic pail. Rather than mothering this plastic baby, my son had transformed it into a piece of machinery.
I started to laugh at my son, laugh in the face of the whole nature versus nurture controversy, and laugh at my failure to change nature. Children are not born as a blank slate.
It’s Great To Be A Woman
Our universal vocation as women is to love because “love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (CCC 2392). Our secondary vocation is our job and our primary vocation is our specific state in life be it as a married, religious or single person. Just the idea God has a plan for each of us should be thrilling but modern Catholic women struggle with exactly how to live faithfully the teachings of the Church while remaining true to themselves as members of contemporary society.
Youth are especially turned off by old-fashioned reflections on vocations which romanticize mothers and deify nuns while managing to leave them feeling patronized at the same time. Any vocational decision a woman considers clashes with contemporary concepts of feminism and success. Life as a religious is a laughable waste of time if one views a nun as someone retreating from the world. A celibate single woman faces even more derision from a culture obsessed with sex. Women whose heartfelt desire is to become mothers, feel dismissed and ridiculed for wanting to embrace this most sacred, natural role of women as nurturing mothers.
Many feminists choose to develop masculine behaviours, thinking they must act like men if they want to succeed. They try to free themselves from the constraints of pregnancy and childcare. A woman’s inner life often crumbles to ashes, sacrificed on the altar of success. Motherhood, religious and a single state are choices women should feel free to make without feeling ostracized by a society which is building a false narrative by looking down on women’s unique gifts. If women want to discover what it really means to be a woman, they must look deeper than answers provided by our ever vacillating culture. If women settle for passive submission to current whims, they will end up playing a role in a play written by modern society simply by default. This is hardly an attractive alternative.
Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) was a Jewish German philosopher who converted to Catholicism, became a Discalced Carmelite nun, and died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She grappled with the nature of women but instead of denying her gender, she looked to her body as the image of her soul. Katharina Westerhorstmann discusses Stein’s view of women in On the Nature and Vocation of Women: Edith Stein’s Concept against the Background of a Radically Deconstructive Position. Although Stein understood every woman was an individual, she believed women’s bodies and souls share a basic nature designed to give and receive love, the “forming principle of the female soul.” According to Stein, the entire being of a woman seeks to be filled with love. This tendency can only become stable when she is connected to the “external sources”.
Be it in the home, office or on a mission field, women have a gift of knowing when another person needs to be loved. “It is her gift and her happiness to share the life of another human being, namely by taking part in everything that concerns him: in big and small matters, in joy and suffering, and also in tasks and problems”. Women can be fulfilled in a myriad of vocations as long as they are free to develop this gift of being there for others by serving and loving.
“Each vocation is a vocation, to maternity: physical, spiritual, moral maternity,
because God has placed in us the instinct of life”.- Saint Gianna
People of faith who want to understand their identity as men and women must look deeper than answers provided by our ever vacillating culture because we want to live in eternal truth and in reality, not play roles written for us by a society which will only change their opinion in a few years. Let’s celebrate the natural, inborn differences between men and women and say with joy,” Vive la différence.”