In all the recent chatter about the Catholic Church and women, it’s hard not to think that somewhere, somehow, wires are getting crossed.
Much of the secular media and more than a few politicians have one idea about what the Church teaches: Women are an inferior sex, not to be trusted with much beyond the domestic sphere.
Plenty of Catholics also have bought into some false ideas of what the Church thinks about women, believing (some with approval, some with opprobrium) that all members of the fairer sex are called to become plasticized versions of St. Thérèse of Lisieux or the Virgin Mary, cookie-cutter caricatures of consecrated virgins and holy wives.
All of which couldn’t be further from the truth.
So, what does the Catholic Church teach about women?
Setting the record straight
For starters, the Catholic Church believes neither sex is superior to the other. It doesn’t teach gender polarity — that men are better than women — nor reverse gender polarity — that women are better than men. In ages past, some Catholic theologians, taking Aristotle’s theories on biology a little too seriously, bounced the idea of gender polarity around, but their ideas have been roundly dismissed in the centuries since. What the Church actually proclaims is gender complementarity, meaning men and women are equal but different in mutually beneficial ways.
Likewise, while the culture might hold up one universal ideal for what makes a woman beautiful, desirable and successful — an ideal measured in clothing sizes, sexual dexterity and bank balances — the Church sees things a little differently. According to its teachings, women are beautiful when we’re being the women God made us to be; we’re desirable simply by virtue of being women, always sought after by our Creator who loves us and wants us to be with him; and we’re successful when we’re doing the things God calls us to do.
Importantly, because God created no two people alike, being who God made us to be and doing what God calls us to do means there is no one model or mold we have to follow or fit. Each and every woman images God in some singular way.
That’s why one of the great tasks of our lives is learning to faithfully image him as no one else can — as wives and as mothers, yes, but also as doctors, lawyers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. The Church recognizes that God has gifted women with minds and abilities as singular as their souls, and expects women to use those minds and abilities to serve God, the Church, and the world.
In that work, however, we’re not entirely on our own. Each woman’s soul may be an unrepeatable work of wonder, but it is still a woman’s soul. Accordingly, the Church teaches, like her feminine body, a woman’s soul bears within it not just a capacity for, but also a call to nourish and nurture life. In other words, it’s made for motherhood.
Motherhood, the Church tells us, is the feminine genius, the thing women can do that men simply can’t. It’s also the thing women must do in order for cultures and souls to thrive, and the thing women need to do in order for us to be the women God made us to be. It’s what makes our work as butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers both effective and necessary. It’s one of the reasons why the world needs us so.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that all women are called to physically bear children. Some aren’t. Others can’t. Rather, it means all women are called to be spiritual mothers, nourishing and nurturing the souls that cross our paths. In our homes, our parishes, our places of business and communities — wherever life takes us — women are called to carry out spiritually the same essential work mothers carry out in their homes.
So, just as mothers surround their children with love, helping them understand that they matter, that they are important, so too are women called to do that in the world. We’re called to see the unique beauty in every person we meet and acknowledge that beauty. It’s our task to help people understand how precious they are.
Also, just as mothers are their children’s first teachers in virtue, helping little ones grasp the importance of saying “please” and “thank you” and sharing toys, women are called to be the culture’s first teachers in virtue. It’s up to us to keep the “civil” in civilization, treating others with kindness and charity; dressing, speaking and acting with modesty; expecting and pursuing chastity; practicing patience; and expressing gratitude for all that’s good.
Then, there’s beauty. It’s a mother’s job to make her home a well-ordered place where children thrive and guests are welcome. In the world, women are called to do much the same. We’re called to appreciate and cultivate the beautiful in some way — dressing with style, planting gardens, renovating old houses, supporting the symphony, or simply making the occasional visit to the museum — so that through beauty we (and others) can encounter God, who is beauty.
And, of course, there’s prayer. In the home, a mother’s prayers for her children are perpetual. She never gives up, she never lets go, she is faithful to the end. Like the persistent widow in Scripture, all women are called to do the same — pestering God with tenacity for the lost, the confused, the hurting, and the lonely.
A mother’s disposition
Through the centuries, women have understood that doing those things well requires cultivating certain habits and dispositions, recognizing that ultimately, motherhood isn’t about what we do. It’s about how we do it.
Not surprisingly, at the top of the “how” list is receptivity. Wherever we find ourselves and whatever we do, women need to cultivate a spirit of receptivity — receiving others as readily as we receive God’s wisdom and grace.
We also need to be attentive — paying more attention to others than to ourselves. We need to be responsive — reacting rightly to meet the needs we see. We need to be submissive — to God’s will and the Church’s teachings. And we need to be gentle (controlling our strength so we don’t crush the bruised reed), as well as tenacious (holding on when all hope seems lost), and beautiful — cultivating loveliness in body and soul so that we can reflect the loveliness of our Creator.
That’s the Church’s call to women. That’s what it asks of us: to care for the world and all within it with a mother’s love and do it all in the singular way that only we can.
That’s not oppression. That’s freedom.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years” (Emmaus Road, $12.95).