The Unique Genius of Woman in the Church and Society
This week includes the feast days of some remarkable women, giving us an opportunity to celebrate again the nature and dignity of women, recognizing the indispensible role that women have played in salvation history and in the transmission of the faith (see Proposition 46 of the Synod on the New Evangelization). This includes the many great women in our own country who led the way in establishing school systems and hospital networks, and who performed other invaluable good works.
Born into a wealthy family, Saint Katharine Drexel (March 3) devoted her life to service to the poor and neglected. She became a missionary upon the invitation of Pope Leo XIII, giving herself totally to God. Then, in the course of founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and establishing missions and schools for Native Americans and African Americans, she gave away the entirety of her multi-million dollar personal fortune.
The young mothers Perpetua and Felicity, whom we shall discuss more on their feast day of March 7, were martyred in Carthage during the persecution of Emperor Septimus Severus. Given the strength of the Holy Spirit, their witness not only gave inspiration to the other Christians who were martyred with them, but to all the faithful throughout the ages.
After the plague claimed the lives of two of her three children, Francesca Romana (Saint Frances of Rome, March 9), who had been born into a noble family, also gave up her wealth to care for the sick, including the use of her home as a hospital for the poor. Called the “most Roman of women saints” by Pope Benedict XVI, her unreserved dedication to God and neighbor led her to establish a religious congregation to serve the poor. Following the death of her husband, Francesca entered the Monastery of Tor de’ Specchi, which she had established in the heart of Rome. Today, her spiritual daughters continue to maintain a unique balance between religious life and secular life, combining the monastic ideal of contemplative prayer and social involvement in charitable service.
It is not infrequent these days that the Church will be accused of being anti-woman. But in fact, long before modern feminism – millennia before, in fact – the Church celebrated and promoted the fundamental dignity and equality of woman. “Respect for woman, amazement at the mystery of womanhood, and finally the nuptial love of God Himself and of Christ, as expressed in the Redemption, are all elements that have never been completely absent in the faith and life of the Church,” writes Blessed John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Moreover, in the face of cultural forces trending toward the objectification of women, an “authentic theology of woman is being reborn. The spiritual beauty, the particular genius, of women is being rediscovered.”
Woman has, within her nature, a unique capacity for the other. This capacity is “a reality which structures the female personality in a profound way” (Letter to Bishops, 13). We see this most abundantly in Mary, the Virgin Mother, whose feminine personality is directed toward the pureness and fullness of spousal and maternal love. This is a love which is by its very nature dynamic and fruitful, directed toward the gift of life, not only as a biological phenomenon, but spiritual motherhood as well (cf. General Audience of December 6, 1995). It is this vocation to love that all women are called, just as all men are also called to such a complete gift of self in fruitful love, albeit in a way specific to them and their own paternal nature (Familiaris Consortio, 11).
Made in the image of the Triune God, the human person is, by nature, a social being, made for loving relationship in a communion of persons. Tragically, we live in a society where some seek to condition people – girls and women especially – to denigrate motherhood and spousal relationship, going so far as to insist with the HHS mandate that that which is unique to woman – the ability to conceive and bear a child – should be viewed as something like an unwelcome disease which needs to be suppressed. Far from being an advancement in freedom for women, such attitudes diminish women and detract from their fundamental, inherent dignity.
To be clear, “women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, [and] women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems” (Letter to Bishops, 13), but woman finds her dignity by virtue of relationship, first and foremost as a daughter of God. Each woman is also, by her inherent nature, called to be a sister, a spouse, and a mother, if not in the flesh, then spiritually, as beautifully illustrated above by the examples of Saints Katharine, Perpetua, Felicity, and Francesca.
It was through such relationships of love that these monumental women made such fruitful contributions to the Church and, thus, to all humanity. In the final analysis, every human being, man or woman, is called to be “for the other” in this way. We will take up the matter of the nature and vocation of men on the feast day for Saint Joseph, March 19.