Part 18: Women at Work and the Feminine Genius

The following is part 18 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

Nothing that I wrote in the previous article in this series, "Women and the Family," should be construed as implying that for Catholicism, a married woman's place is solely in the home. As we have already seen, the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament describes the ideal wife as one who works both inside and outside the home (38:16-20). Moreover, in our survey of Catholic history, I offered numerous examples of women whose achievements were crucial to the progress and humanization of civilization.

In apostolic times, there were prominent Christian businesswomen such as Lydia, a seller of fine garments, who were known to St. Paul personally, and there is certainly no record that he called upon them to abandon their work in the world and go back home (Acts 16:14). As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981): "There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women's access to public functions" (section 23).

Even in the most puritanical age in the history of Christianity - the era of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation - the Church still left the door open, just a crack, to other options for women than childcare and homemaking. For example, the Roman Catechism of 1566 had this to say on the subject:

To train their children in the practice of virtue and to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns should ... be the especial objects of [a wife's] attention. The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; she should never presume to leave home without her husband's consent. (from Part Two, the Sacraments, Matrimony, the Duties of Married People)

Let's look at this statement more closely. A wife and mother's "special concern" should be the care and nurture of her children at home, and yet she may "go out"- in other words, she may take up duties outside the home - if compelled by "necessity" to do so. The nuance that the New Catholic Feminism would add to this teaching is that all this is primarily true of mothers who have very young children at home (say, 5 and under): Only a compulsion of "necessity" would normally justify such a mother in seeking full-time employment outside the home, because the pre-school years above all are those in which children seem to need the close and intimate care of their mothers for their proper nurture.

A mother's capacity for a unique bond with her young children because she gave life to them in her own womb, gave birth to them, and nourished them at her own breast, usually makes her well suited for this vocation, caring for her children primarily at home. Except when exceptional circumstances arise, that is usually the best arrangement for the family to make. The Second Vatican Council briefly referred to this in the council document Gaudium et Spes (section 52): "[C]hildren, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved."

One of the pioneers of the New Catholic Feminism, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, spelled this out at greater length in her online essay, "Catholic and Feminist: Can One Be Both?":

Each day, our media offer new examples of the desperate condition of children who lack the love and security that a strong, two-parent family provides. And we all know that such families still depend heavily upon women, even if many fathers are doing more than in the past. Women do have a unique relation to the children they bear, and that relation should be understood as both a vocation and a sacred trust for which women should be honored, in the exercise of which they should be supported, and in which they themselves should take pride.

Of course, as we all know: An ideal to shoot for is one thing, but life circumstances (such as medical, psychological or economic problems) sometimes do not make it possible for those ideals to be fulfilled. In whatever difficult circumstances mothers with young children may find themselves, the virtue of charity, "caritas," always takes precedence, and anyone who follows that path faithfully will be blessed by the God of love, and her children will be blessed as well.

We also need to remember that God's plan of humanizing the world through sanctified femininity is not confined to those with a vocation to marriage. "The single woman, the barren wife, the widow and the consecrated bride of Christ will all be given opportunities to exercise motherly hospitality: to shelter others, to harbor the lost, and to love the unmothered" (Kinecke, The Authentic Catholic Woman, p. 60).

The Church does not forget the long line of female saints whose feminine gifts, and especially their compassion, expressed in their religious or celibate vocation, blessed the lives of the sick and the suffering in every generation, for example, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Angela Merici, and St. Theresa of Calcutta, just to name a few. Summing up the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II on this point, Genevieve Kinecke writes:

Some women are called to an intimacy with God that precludes other relationships in order that they may manifest a strictly spiritual motherhood .... [The Consecrated Virgin] is an "image of the Heavenly Bride of the life to come, when the Church will at last fully live her love for Christ the Bridegroom."... "The consecrated life lies at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element of her mission, since it 'manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling' and the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse." (Kinecke p. 51-52, quoting Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, 1996)

Saint John Paul II was emphatic that whenever women do step out of the home to participate in public functions, they must bring their femininity with them. This is a fundamental principle of the "New Catholic Feminism" that he launched. The world desperately needs the "Feminine Genius," as he called it, the life-affirming gifts that women can bring to the spheres of business and government, academia and medicine.

In government, it is women who must lead the way for the protection of innocent human life from conception to its natural end. Moreover, because of their special aptitude for compassion, it is women who will be more likely to resist the tendency in the business world to seek for profit at the cost of the health and well-being of workers, and in society as a whole, they are the ones will be most likely to witness to the Catholic social principle of the preferential concern for the plight of the poor.

Indeed, women are liable to accomplish these things, the Pope insisted, not because they are "the same" as men, but precisely because they are not, by God's creative design. The natural feminine gifts of responsiveness, openness to others, nurturing and compassion, along with a special appreciation for the value of human life - these gifts are desperately needed to fully "humanize" the contemporary world, the Holy Father claimed: that is, to treat all human beings as persons of value, rather than as mere objects to be used and then thrown away. In a world that has become increasingly "inhuman" through the prevalence of exploitation and violence, it is the Feminine Genius, above all, that can come to the rescue.

This is not just some "starry-eyed" Catholic ideal. In fact, there is an increasing body of research that tends to point in the same direction. For example, in 2001 a World Bank Policy Research Report on the impact of gender on public functions and decision making found that greater women's equality in these areas generally promoted social and economic well-being. For example, the empirical studies on which the Report was based found that higher representation of women in legislatures generally went together with lower levels of corruption.

The research suggested that women "rarely succumb to authoritarian styles of behavior," and that "the presence of women in higher echelons of the hierarchical structures [e.g. of business and government, academia and medicine] exercises an extremely positive influence on the behavior of their male colleagues by restraining, disciplining, and elevating the latter's behavior" (Mary Rice Hasson, editor, The Promise and the Challenge, p. 78). An article in the journal Fiscal Times on May 25, 2012, pointed to the positive impact on business when both men and women bring their characteristic strengths to the workplace:

Men and women can be just as different in the professional world as they are in their personal lives. What executives are just beginning to understand is that these differences can be great for business. Typically, "men are linear in thought process and more narrow in their focus, so they are able to break down problems into their component parts and solve it," says Keith Marron, a senior associate at Barbara Annis & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in gender diversity. "Women more often see a problem holistically and are able to come up with an understanding of that situation without needing to know what all the parts are. When it comes to problem solving - particularly in business - you need a balance of both perspectives." (As quoted in McGuire, Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female, p. 186-187)

All of this tends to confirm what Pope St. John Paul II taught in his "Letter to Women" of 1995, and that we quoted in the very first article in this web series: "[A] greater presence of women in society will prove most valuable, for it will help to manifest the contradictions present when society is organized solely according to the criteria of efficiency and productivity, and it will force systems to be redesigned in a way that favors the process of humanization which marks the civilization of love."

It should be noted that the Pope was not opposed to efficiency and productivity! Men tend to be very good at creating social systems that excel in these areas (e.g. the military, or the traditional corporation). But when society is fashioned "solely" on that basis, the Pope said, it tends to become inhuman, to treat persons as mere cogs in a well-oiled economic or military machine: hence the need for the corrective of the Feminine Genius.

Next Time: The Feminine Genius and a Civilization in Crisis

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.


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