Sunday, May 25, 2014

Femininity, Society and the American Church


     I see a lot of people in the Church talking (mostly on television and online) about the destructiveness of feminist ideology as a cause of the contraceptive mentality and abortion and the denigration of the role of motherhood in the establishment of stable societies. And those are all the effect of feminist ideology. Feminists were conned, a long time ago, into embracing the sexual objectification of women (and men,too) as a cause, relegating all sexual activity to something merely physical and subjective, unconnected to psychological or emotional health, or spiritual well-being, or cultural mores.And we Christians are good at identifying this and protesting against it.

      But there is another, more insidious side to feminism that we are in danger of embracing. And that is the notion that in order to become good Christians (or good citizens) we must somehow evolve into smaller, more sensitive, prettier versions of men. We know abortion kills humans, and we know that contraception destroys the  real meaning of the sexual act. But we seem to be uncomfortable with other aspects of human sexuality--the ones connected to our human nature, which make us very different from men, able to raise and educate children and guide family life. Even devout Christians talk to mothers about "offering up" changing diapers, and "making time to pray" aside from the busyness of housework and childrearing and meal preparation, as if those activities were simply functions to be gotten through and accomplished in order to make room for the really important things.

     This is based on a misunderstanding about what a woman is, and what, essentially, it means to be feminine. It seems to be guided by an over valuation of accomplishments which have been up until now identified with masculinity: working outside the home, and acting in the public, social sphere where accomplishments are measured in terms of worldly success, financial gain, and public acceptance. It is certainly true that women are indeed capable of satisfying that kind of ambition. It is also true that for a lot of women now, the ability to function  in the more public arenas like business, academia, and manufacturing is essential in order to support themselves or their children. Unfortunately one cannot even begin to discuss women in society without making that concession. But an overemphasis on public achievement and worldly success as a manifestation of social equality is often done at the cost of an appreciation of the genuine gifts that women give to society. And that mentality has unfortunately been assimilated into the thinking of many Catholics. It is as if women are understood as nothing more than generic humans who are like men in every respect except that we can have children. But the fact that women can have children is not an added-on feature--it is what, essentially, we are. One of my favorite teachers in college (who was herself childless) defined a woman as "someone who has children".  That fact is the truth upon which every other aspect of our natures rests. And  when we women consider ourselves as spiritual  beings, it is something not to be set aside. Unlike hair color, height, body shape, sexuality is not an "accident". It is in the soul. The soul is male or female.
     Therefore it seems myopic for us to address spirituality in a masculine light--as if the body and its functions were somehow incidental to our life as Christians. And this is what I see happening in the Church. We do not espouse feminism's most destructive aspects, but we do share in the prejudice that raising children is only a part of  a woman's life, something she eventually relinquishes as they age, in order to join the world. If you really examine this kind of thinking you will find at its roots a particularly insidious form of secularism which has invaded the American Church.

        What has been lost is the understanding of the family as a place where the divine enters through the personal, and the personal is expressed by and in the physical aspects of human life. The society finds itself immersed in the impersonal and public aspects of life, and everywhere people are looking for "me" time, designing their lives and houses to taste, looking for a refuge from the anonymity of standardization and collectivization by expressing personal tastes in the marketplace. The addictive nature of this activity seduces the consumer into a constant repetitive seeking of momentary pleasures over and over again, in newer and more varied ways, in his search for his lost sense of self. This search does not exclude a kind of spiritual tourism and religious experimentation. But the psychic roots of our  identity have been lost, because they arise and are nurtured within the confines  of the family, rooted in a relationship between a man and a woman. The roots of who we are, are, in fact, personal.

     If you wanted to destroy a society, you could do it by destroying the family. And if you wanted to destroy the family, there is only one really  effective way to do it. And that is to attack the essence of what it is that makes a family, and a home. And that is woman in her capacity as mother. From that everything follows.  It is not enough to say that reproduction cannot be separated from the sexual act, and leave it at that. That sounds almost as if we were describing a machine and leaves out every other aspect of sexuality. And we see that there are men capable of barbaric behavior who father many children either born to many different mothers, or who are aborted, one pregnancy after another.  What has been lost any sense  what it is that makes a woman who she is, and consequently a man who he is.

     If we can make an effort to understand and embrace this one quality--and to treasure not only the importance of motherhood in relation to society but as it reflects nature working through us and in us, we might have a different understanding of the spiritual qualities of women as they are manifested in the realm of the personal. Because the personal is where women live, whether they're in a boardroom or a kitchen. The personal is what makes humans human. If women are not allowed to function fully on level and in that particular way, and are instead  encouraged to compensate for their biological differences by imitating men (which is always possible)--well, you are seeing it now.  It is a great pity when Christian women, as well, devalue it. When a mother "offers up" an activity which could be an act of worship in itself, and hurries to put the kids to bed and clean the kitchen because she is doing some kind of parish "Apostolate" and needs to get ready for the meeting to be held in her living room, she is in a small way taking her focus off of  the concrete reality of her life and sacrificing it to a  relentless and ever present denigration of private life which only sees the spiritual in public worship , and spiritual life in terms of public ministries, and which has unfortunately become enshrined in the teachings and practices of American Catholics.

(to be continued)



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