Part 19: The Feminine Genius and a Civilization in Crisis

The following is part 19 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

According to Pope St. John Paul II and the New Catholic Feminism that he initiated, women are called today to turn the world upside down: to upend the anti-life values that govern the technocratic, materialistic culture all around us. Genevieve Kineke puts this in historical perspective for us:

When a people slides gradually deeper into an excess of vice, the only workable way to breathe grace back into the culture is to cleave to its opposite virtue. ...

[As the Roman Empire crumbled] the monasteries were responsible for a gradual infusion of gospel values into their surroundings, an understanding of family life that respected all of its members, an ordering of the day around prayer and the liturgy, an educational model that shared the wisdom of both the Church and antiquity, and a strong agricultural foundation to support the population year-round. It was just what the people needed at that time, and those [religious] orders blossomed in the wake of chaos and deprivation.

Another example comes from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. At this time Christian culture built over the previous half-millennium had lost its moral center. Europe was materially wealthy and steeped in an external Catholic culture, but was no longer focused on the person of Christ. The entrenched structures began once again to decay, as the Church hierarchy used its influence for power and corrupt gain, and a culture overly familiar with the gospel took its message for granted.

Into this void stepped Francis of Assisi - his total poverty the only remedy to the excesses of his age. While many re-energized missionaries preached the message of Christ, it was as much the personal witness of the growing band of Franciscans [and Dominicans] as it was words from any pulpit that brought the culture back to authentic Christianity. ... [T]hese men and women committed themselves to a radical [love of Christ] and separation from the comforts of the world in order to show that such things were superfluous to those given wholly to God. (The Authentic Catholic Woman, p. 135-136)

In the 21st century we face cultural challenges of no lesser magnitude than those faced by the monasteries and convents of the collapsing Roman world, or the friars in the Middle Ages. This time, however, the See of St. Peter has called above all on women to provide the remedy.

In a famous passage from his papal encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), St. John Paul II called upon women to take the lead in finding a way out of what he called "the Culture of Death" - the culture of abortion and euthanasia, drug abuse and suicide, warfare and terrorism, neglect of the elderly and callous disregard for the plight of the destitute - a culture that threatens human dignity as never before. The Pope wrote:

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a "new feminism" which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination," in order to acknowledge and affirm the the true genius of women in every aspect of life and society, and overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation. (Section 99)

Then the Holy Father addressed women directly with these words:

You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person, and at the same time, confers on you a particular task. "Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman's womb .... This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude of toward human beings, not only towards her own child, but every human being, which profoundly marks the woman's personality." A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting its otherness. Women first learn, and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person, a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person, and not from considerations such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty, or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change. (Section 99)

One of the terrible tragedies of our time, however, is how few women are actually making that "fundamental contribution" of their "feminine genius" to the rescue of the civilized world. In some cases they are prevented by men in positions of family, corporate, government, and ecclesiastical power from doing so. All too often, however, they are just as complicit as men in maintaining the Culture of Death: a culture in which a mother's womb, from being a sanctuary of life where a child of God is welcomed into the world, has become instead a chamber of execution. What has happened to "the feminine genius" in a world in which a child in its mother's womb has become an optional, throw-away item?

Sadly, secular Feminism has become yet another chapter in the long, bloody saga of the search for social "equality" on the basis of violence. From the Reign of Terror in France in search of civic equality, to the Marxist revolutions and Communist tyrannies established to enforce economic equality, we can now add the social pressure put on women today to kill their own unborn children in a quest for sexual equality. For this reason above all, and for others touched upon in this web series, we can conclude that secular Feminism has largely failed us - and failed women most of all. It's one of the main reasons why we need the New Catholic Feminism so badly.

Especially clear and poignant in this regard is the summary of Pope St. John Paul II's Letter to Women, a summary penned by the Catholic New Feminist Erica Laethem. She paraphrases the Pope's words as follows:

The women's liberation movement has made many positive strides toward building a society where you can truly be yourselves, yet the work remains incomplete. I am afraid our culture has lost touch with what really matters. It has become overly concerned with efficiency and productivity, and too often, humans are valued for what they can do, how they look, or how useful they are deemed to be. What is needed is a prophetic voice to call the world back to a priority of love, which never reduces the person to an object. You, by virtue of your womanhood, have this special gift - this disposition that carries the potential to soften and humanize the world with love - to which I have given the name the "feminine genius." This gift is essential to building a more humane civilization. You, personally, have a unique mission, a special invitation from God to share His own divine life in the service of life and love. That is why I am appealing in a particular way to states and institutions throughout the world to open themselves to the influence of your feminine genius, to recognize and foster your full development as a woman. At the same time I am inviting you - appealing to you - to put your feminine genius to work for the sake of humanity, to transform the culture of death into a culture of life. (Pope John Paul II's Letter to Women: An Introduction to the 'New Feminism'. Denver: Endow, 2010, p. 113-114)

The key thing to remember here is that it is precisely because women are generally and in some ways different from men - in other words, it is precisely because of their natural, God-given predispositions, their "feminine genius" - that the world so badly needs their social input: for the protection and nurture of every human life, for the cause of human rights, and for the pursuit of justice and peace in a world filled with exploitation and violence.

Of course, our civilization-in-crisis also needs authentic men, and the rediscovery of the masculine genius too. It needs men who are committed, servant-leaders of their families (rather than content to remain perpetual adolescents, grown-up versions of boys, more concerned about spectator sports, playing with high tech toys, and climbing the pecking order at work than they are about leading and loving their own families). In other words, the world needs men to grow-up and accept their family responsibility to make all sacrifices necessary to protect and provide; it needs men who will courageously stand up and dismantle the centralized government and corporate bureaucracies that increasingly threaten human liberty; it needs men who will use their special genius for abstract rationality to revive the philosophical heritage of Christendom - men who will use the sword truth to combat the illusions and falsehoods of our time. As women recover their true vocation in Christ, so men may begin to recover theirs as well.

At first, it all sounds a bit too idealistic and grandiose - a mere pipe dream, some might say. But the transformation can begin with each one of us, in the choices we make in how we choose to live each day.

Next Time: The Triumph of the Feminine Genius Through Mary

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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