Thursday, March 19, 2015

A World in Which Women are Encouraged to be Barren, is a World That Marginalizes All

Pope Francis recently celebrated International Women's Day on March 8, and he offered a special message to all women of the world, honoring them, but also speaking to the whole world, reminding all people that, "A world where women are marginalized is a barren world." He reminded pilgrims to St. Peter's Basilica that women offer the world something more creative, patient, and tender, especially in and due to their ability to give life, not just through birth, but also in their gift of self.

Madonna and Child by Sassoferrato
It's interesting that a message about the dignity of women, which began well before Pope Francis, is generally ignored by those who claim the Catholic Church is patriarchal, misogynistic, and out of touch. The reality is, a Church that honors several women as Doctors of the Church, and is also criticized for its honoring of Mary, Jesus' Blessed Mother, cannot also be utterly anti-woman, as the argument goes. In fact, the Church's beautiful teachings on the dignity of women are nearly completely at odds with the predominant culture, in which women are encouraged to be more like men as a requirement for respect and success in the working world. Also at issue, are the dramatic persecutions of women in other parts of the world, where women are seen as lesser human beings and even property. Certainly, when we consider these views alongside those of the Church, it begins to become clear who is truly "anti-woman", and in case you missed that, it's not the Church.

A Tale of Two Cultures
Recently, I came across a couple of articles articulating two very different realities regarding women in the workplace. The first was by a career businesswoman, who, having recently had her own child, wrote about her past biases and the way she had treated or seen mothers treated in the workplace. The second was regarding Vodafone's latest policy change regarding maternity leave and workplace reintroduction, in which women were afforded a longer paid leave and a longer period of time to transition back to the workplace at reduced hours but at full salary levels. The first article, while apologetic, reveals the nature of the treatment of women in the high-pressure business world, and the expectation that they will subordinate and even avoid family life in favor of advancing their career. The other article highlights dramatically more accommodating workplace policies that make motherhood and even fatherhood more manageable...and more gratifying. What parent, feeling confident in their involvement in their child's life wouldn't feel less anxious and instead, more confident about their work? Many mothers in less high-pressure jobs feel equally pressed on both sides. There are often difficult compromises to be made about day care choices, the amount of time parents can volunteer or help with homework, or even how to handle something as basic but serious as sacrificing hours to care for a sick child or sending them to school because of the risk of even losing a job.

Dignity, Not Dishonor
The Catholic Church has maintained the dignity of women and their special charisms as the natural carriers of lives created by God, brought into the world and ennobled by woman's love and protection. Mothers face a difficult struggle in a world that often forces women to choose between being mother and wife or being a "respected" member of the working world. In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII addresses the new reality of women in the workplace at that time, "Women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers" (PT, 19). Some misunderstand this statement as teaching that women need to subordinate their career aspirations to some archaic idea that they must first be wives and mothers. This is a gross misunderstanding of the pope's statement, which actually advocates workplace accommodations that allow them to be the wives and mothers they want to be (if that is their vocation), so that women aren't forced to choose between being a good mother and being a good employee. How forward-thinking for an "old man in Rome"!

John XXIII was not a lone advocate in the Church for the rights and dignity of women in the world. In fact, he was not even the first. For those who claim the Catholic Church advocated the same limiting ideas that affected the female contemporaries of Jesus, it would be wise to consider what Sacred Scripture has to say on the subject. That is, that women are also created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27), equal in dignity regardless of gender and race (Gal 3:28), especially by nature of Christ's death on the Cross, "for all," that is, the sake of every woman as much as every man, equally (2 Cor 5:14-15, Rom 6:10, 1 Pet 3:18; see also CCC 2334). It's no surprise that women were important in the early Church, even comprising a large portion of the early Church along with slaves and others of low stature, causing Roman critics to question those who would join what they viewed as an abysmal group of social undesirables (Celsus, The True Discourse). 
Adam and Eve are Expelled from the Garden
Charles Joseph Natoire

"He shall rule over you..."
The message of the world is one that seeks to diminish the realities of gender in the name of "equality", but this is always a losing proposition because equality is not derived from "sameness". Rather, the Church teaches about the complementarity of the sexes, in which they constitute the whole, when man and woman join together to fill the void in the other, the reality of uniting Adam's rib with his own body, for the woman, Eve, "is at last, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen 2:23). From the beginning, man and woman were designed for relationship, for communion. At the Fall, unfortunately, this right order became dis-ordered, and among the consequences was a reality that becomes ever more clear each day, "...he shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16). This is no less true for the ordained and consecrated, for those women unite themselves to Christ Himself, and men, to the Church.

Why does this matter in a world that has forgotten God, let alone the nature of the true dignity of women? Human beings desire genuine communion, and whether they will admit it or not, the only source and end of a relationship of such satisfying purity is God. Made in the "image and likeness" of God, man tends toward freedom, and the freedom offered by God is one that respects the individual will and satisfies man's desire for happiness and fulfillment, so long as he respects the rules in the "instruction book" of how the human nature is created to achieve perfect happiness, beatitude. The "freedom" the world promises can never satisfy because it does not appeal to the innate likeness of God present in us all, which desires authentic freedom and relationship. Once man, by his sin, violates his true freedom, he violates his own nature and abandons his dignity. In his encyclical, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope St. John Paul II identifies the modern intersection of man's rule over woman and the loss of dignity through the violation of one's human, and in this case, female nature:

"[E]ven the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words "He shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the "masculinization" of women. In the name of liberation from male "domination", women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine "originality". There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not "reach fulfilment", but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness" (MD, 10).

Marginalization is Not Progress
An attempt to advance the rights, dignity, and freedom of women cannot successfully come from efforts to mold woman in man's image because she, with man, is man in God's image, and changing this dynamic naturally sets man above her in power and influence and reduces her uniqueness to a mere characteristic to be restrained in a misguided desire for what is really just "sameness". Rather, women should be given the opportunity to contribute in the workplace, receiving the just wage and respect to which she is entitled, regardless of her gender or family status. Again, the Church, specifically, John Paul II, is unbelievably clear here, saying again and again that women, rather than being "relegated to the home", ought to be respected in their contributions to society in every industry because they offer unique gifts that are specific to their nature, but women should, in no way, be required to sacrifice their uniquely feminine aspirations in deference to their careers:

"[I]t is fitting that they should be able to fulfil their tasks in accordance with their own nature, without being discriminated against and without being excluded from jobs for which they are capable, but also without lack of respect for their family aspirations and for their specific role in contributing, together with men, to the good of society. The true advancement of women requires that labour should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role" (Laborem Exercens, 19).

True Freedom and Prosperity Don't Require Self-Denial
The idea that the "rights" available to advance women's equality (i.e., abortion, artificial contraception, sterilization) actually promote social progress logically inconsistent with woman's nature. If women have special charisms and abilities, especially her unique ability to be "mother", then denying those elements of her nature degrades rather than elevates her value. The idea that the "freedom to choose" abortion and sterilization somehow preserves woman's equality is a complete fallacy because neither of these is necessary for women to be equal, and we have seen the commoditization and exploitation of women has increased as the ease of eliminating the accountability of sex, especially for men, who experience very minimal consequences for their part. This does not lead to an authentic freedom, but a slavery to the world's expectation that one should employ these "rights" to  avoid "ruining one's life" or keep family life from becoming an inconvenience. Increasingly, women are expected to do great violence and harm to their bodies and their persons to maintain the respect of and their place in the world.

So then, this is not freedom, not progress; this is self-marginalization, and it never elevates the dignity of women, but destroys the life-giving nature of the "female genius" in today's world. Ultimately, no society will prosper or find full equality for all of its members when its very source of life and compassion is called to be sterile and against her own nature. Diminishing the nature of one member diminishes the value of all because nothing will stand in the face of arbitrary valuation of the human person. Only life gives life, and true respect for each person's nature brings true freedom. Anything less than this is nothing more than a caricature and beneath we who are the Imago Dei.

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