Sincere Gift: The Pope's "New Feminism"
Léonie Caldecott


Woman is a space-maker, a protector of growth, an enabler of life, a place of safety where others can encounter Christ and know themselves to be loved.

In Evangelium Vitae (1995), Pope John Paul II calls for a "new feminism" — just as in earlier encyclicals he has called for a new evangelization and a new theology of liberation. He writes: "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 true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation." Through motherhood, he goes on, women who are mothers "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 other 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" (EV, n. 99).

Evangelium Vitae sets out the Pope’s prophetic vision of today’s "dramatic conflict between the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’" as the context for this attempt to enlist women on the side of life (EV, n. 50). The consequences of the Gospel are plain: "Human life, as a gift of God, is sacred and inviolable. For this reason procured abortion and euthanasia are absolutely unacceptable. Not only must [innocent] human life not be taken, but it must be protected with loving concern" (EV, n. 81). "As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can be founded only on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used" (EV, n. 57).

The defense of life is intimately connected with the celebration of life. We can "reverence and honor every person" only if we rediscover a "contemplative outlook" (EV, n. 83). It is an outlook that affects our attitude not only to human life, but to the entire cosmos — as the Pope has made clear on other occasions.1 "Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a ‘wonder’ (cf. Ps 139:14). It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality, but instead accept it as gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image" (EV, n. 83).

This defense and celebration of life, this "contemplative outlook," the Pope sees as entrusted primarily to women. Here lies the great task and the starting point for a new feminism.


The pope’s brief but weighty remarks on the role of women -in the encyclical on life can be expanded with reference to the 1994 Letter to Families, the Message for the 1995 World Day of Peace ("Women: Teachers of Peace"), the Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 1995, and the 1995 Letter to Women, together with the many talks and addresses given around the occasion of the UN’s Beijing Conference. The main theological and exegetical work, of course, had already been done for the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), on the "Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year." What the 1990s have brought is clearly a keener sense of the injustices to which women have been subjected throughout history, and which persist in large parts of the world. Many of the pope’s remarks in 1995 — and even aspects of the Holy See’s official representations at the Beijing Conference itself — took the secular media by surprise.

Pope John Paul’s respect and concern (indeed love) for women is evident in almost everything he writes, and many women respond to him with equal respect and affection. But "old-style feminists" are not so happy. The Pope’s respect for women may be genuine, but they suspect it is based merely on an intensely nostalgic love for his own mother, transferred to the Blessed Virgin and to an idealized image of femininity. Is "motherhood" somehow intrinsic to being a woman, as the Pope always seems to imply? Is there such a thing as "femininity"? Was the decision to restrict the priesthood to men in reality just a way of ensuring that women will never be allowed an influence in the running of the Church, despite all the rhetoric about equality? In trying to answer some of these concerns, I draw on my own experience of the women’s movement, some manifestations of which I had the opportunity to observe both before and after my reception into the Catholic Church.

Even before this Pope came on the scene, there were always many types of feminists, and differences between them that no amount of "sisterhood" could paper over. There were moderate feminists, and radical, separatist feminists. There were feminists who denied any intrinsic difference between men and woman (the extrinsic physical divergences being something that technology was expected eventually to overcome). But there were others, the "eco-feminists" (among whom I more or less counted myself) who believed in very radical differences, and thought that women — by virtue of their femininity, their closeness to nature, and other distinctive qualities — could "save the earth" which men had almost succeeded in destroying by violent assault. However one aspect of eco-feminism that struck me as incoherent even within the framework of the movement was its lack of concern for one particular kind of "violent assault" on life, namely, that represented by abortion. Amidst all the rhetoric about the insidious power of masculine technology, the long-term dangers of nuclear power and male indifference (or worse) to the female sphere of experience in the home or in personal relationships, there was a conspicuous silence about the significance of the central fact in most women’s lives — the capacity to conceive and bear a child. The eco-feminists, in short, wavered in front of the ideological stronghold of mainstream feminism on the issue of "reproductive rights." (Here I was not alone in my concern, and it is important to note the presence on the American scene of "pro-life feminists," of whom Juli Loesch Wiley would be an outstanding example.2) Ironically, the same eco-feminists were often quite sympathetic to "natural family planning," purely on the grounds of respect for the nature of a woman’s cycle. (This, of course, did not preclude using this most effective "alternative technology" with a contraceptive mentality.)

Another aspect of eco-feminism that concerned me was its reliance on pagan spiritualities, often leading to some form of goddess-worship. At the time of my contact with the movement I was researching a book on women and Christianity. The hostility to this subject evinced by most eco-feminists at that time was absolute. Yet I felt intuitively that it was within Christianity that the answer to the problems so eloquently expressed by the eco-feminists truly lay, and it was this intuition that eventually led to my seeking admission to the sacramental life of the Church in 1983, and distancing myself from what I had come to feel was a hopelessly shallow analysis of humanity’s problems. For me, as for many other women, the Holy Father, in asking for a new feminism, is bringing to fruition a question which in many respects is not so new. What is new is the fact that the pope has succeeded in integrating pro-life with the best aspects of eco-feminism, in a way that has its roots firmly in the fertile soil of the Catholic tradition, rather than the ideological newspeak and psychobabble of much of modernity.

The synthesis is made to seem possible, even "natural," thanks to the Pope’s highly developed Christian anthropology. As a personalist philosopher from his days in Lublin, he locates the intrinsic and constant value of every human life in the fact that it is the life of a person in the order of love and grace. Man and woman are fundamentally equal in that sense. As a Christian, he further locates the meaning of human life in love, defined as the giving and receiving of the self. Marriage and parenthood, both human and divine, he sees as revealing love in its most intense and archetypal form. Thus he affirms the importance of a natural complementarity between men and women as such, intended by the Creator as the means by which the loving relations of the Trinity could be mirrored in the cosmos.


To illustrate this further, let us look at a particularly beautiful and moving expression of the Pope’s view of women, taken from a Lenten message to the Brazilian Church in 1990. "Woman ... is a person as much as man is; the person is the sole creature which God wanted for its own sake; the sole creature to be made expressly in the image and likeness of God, who is Love. Precisely for this reason, a person cannot find complete fulfillment except by making a sincere gift of self. Herein lies the origin of ‘community,’ in which the ‘unity of the two’ and personal dignity must be expressed, as much for man as for woman."

Woman, he goes on: "finds her fulfillment and vocation as a person according to the richness of the attributes of femininity, which she received on the day of creation and which is transmitted from generation to generation, in her special manner of being the image of God, tarnished by sin and redeemed in Jesus Christ....

"The hardness of the human heart, wounded by the consequence of original sin in the passing of history, was harming and upsetting the Creator’s plan for woman as well, the image of God. It is necessary for us now to walk down the paths of conversion, to return to the original vision of the Lord.

"Here now I make my appeal to the Brazilian woman and on behalf of her, neither slave nor queen, just woman:

—Woman as child: a being with the look of a simple but rare flower; blooming at the dawn of her life, she wants to receive and reflect God’s light;

—Woman in youth: sun of spring morning, seen clearly radiating hope, in need of respect, trust and dignity;

—Adult woman: midday sun, with her simple dignity, sincerity and purity, giving light and warmth with serene reflection, with rectitude of spirit, with harmony which is her wardrobe and adornment;

—Elderly woman: a welcoming shadow which falls, with natural maternal affection and particular wisdom and prudence, living in self-gift, with the desire to serve the happiness of others, the happiness of her fellow creatures."

Certainly the Pope holds a very "romantic" view of woman. But is it an "unrealistic" view? He is speaking here of "the Creator’s plan,’ in full awareness of the damage wrought by sin. It is useless to protest that the Pope is "idealizing" the feminine. John Paul II believes that God has revealed his own plan for human nature in revealing himself through Mary and Jesus, and that any Christian who reads the book of Scripture and the book of nature with the eyes of faith — in the light of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church — will be able to discern there the features of man and woman as originally created and as presently redeemed. The descriptions he gives of the ideal Brazilian woman at each stage of her life are not mere wishful dreams, but accurate depictions of those women who, joining themselves to Christ, have become saints.

In his Letter to Women, the Pope reflects on the complementarity of men and women, and the "genius" or specific contribution of woman to this partnership in life and salvation. He writes, indeed, that it "is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization" (LW, n. 7). Basing himself on Genesis 2:18-20, he explains that woman is created by God to be a "helper" for man not only in a physical or psychological sense — for the sake of reproduction or comfort — but ontologically, and for the task of transforming the earth through culture (LW, nn. 7-8). Even in the task of salvation, this cooperation is evident: Mary complements Christ by the active receptivity of her fiat. By grace, she is raised (and in her the Church) to union with God in that love which is the eternal dance of the Blessed Trinity. In the Church, as Balthasar writes and the Pope echoes, the "Marian" principle complements the "Apostolic-Petrine" (LW, n. 11). But it is Mary, not Peter, who is supreme: as representative of humanity, she is "Queen of the Apostles without any pretensions to apostolic powers: she has other and greater powers." 3

Given the Pope’s "nuptial" understanding of human nature as a "unity of the two," the first key to his new feminism must lie in the exegesis of the marriage covenant as one of mutual subjection, over against the simple subjection of wife to husband. There is still subjection, still obedience, still a distinction of roles, still complementarity, but it is a mutual subjection and therefore not "oppressive." This is how the Pope introduces the concept in Mulieris Dignitatem, drawing out the implications of Ephesians 5:21:

"The text is addressed to the spouses as real women and men. It reminds them of the "ethos" of spousal love which goes back to the divine institution of marriage from the "beginning." Corresponding to the truth of this institution is the exhortation: "Husbands, love your wives," love them because of that special and unique bond whereby in marriage a man and a woman become "one flesh" (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:31). In this love there is a fundamental affirmation of the woman as a person. This affirmation makes it possible for the female personality to develop fully and be enriched. This is precisely the way Christ acts as the bridegroom of the Church; he desires that she be "in splendor, without spot or wrinkle" (Eph 5:27). One can say that this fully captures the whole "style" of Christ in dealing with women. Husbands should make their own the elements of this style in regard to their wives; analogously, all men should do the same in regard to women in every situation [emphasis mine]. In this way both men and women bring about "the sincere gift of self" (MD, n. 24).

Later on, the Pope concludes: "In relation to the ‘old’ this is evidently something ‘new’: it is an innovation of the Gospel." It is indeed "new, a "call which from that time onwards does not cease to challenge succeeding generations," including our own. In its light we may locate the basis for the "new feminism." As we shall see, this notion of "the sincere gift," which in this context is seen as the central goal of the marriage union, is also at the heart of the new feminism, demonstrating that a fresh understanding of the married state must play a vital role in the renewal of culture towards which the new feminism tends.

John Paul II’s writings on women, in all their essential points, echo the contents of a classic piece of feminist (or perhaps I should say "post-feminist") writing by the "grandmother of European Orthodoxy," Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.4 No doubt independently, working from within their respective traditions, this man and this woman have come to similar conclusions about the role of women and the need for cultural change. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel calls for us to replace the "Cartesian humanism" of the male as "master and possessor" of woman and the earth with a new humanism of tender and compassionate respect for the other. Women’s legitimate roles are infinitely varied: the choice need not and should not be between the domestic and the monastic life. Marriage itself, according to St. Paul, is a mystery of "reciprocal love" and of "submission each to the other." We need a dialogue between theology and anthropology, an understanding of gender that is faithful both to the lived experience of women and to the account of man’s creation in Genesis. The loving unity to which we are called will be achieved not by suppressing all distinctions, but by ending the "quarrel" between the bad masculine and the bad feminine that has developed in the state of sin. Feminism, she concludes, must be freed from the mentality of a society dominated by "perverted masculine values."

Elisabeth Behr-Sigel emphasizes "respect for the other"; the Pope integrates this with "respect for life." His is the fuller and more urgent appeal. The "civilization of love" is also a "culture of life." The special genius of women is concerned with the fact, not that all women are or should be mothers in the physical sense, but that womanhood is "designed" with motherhood in mind, and therefore feminine strengths and sensibilities are orientated towards the welcoming and nurturing of life. "A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling it to grow outside her, giving it room, respecting its otherness" (EV, n. 99). All women as women share this capacity to welcome the life of the other and to create the conditions for it to grow and flourish, whether in physical motherhood or spiritual motherhood; in the home or the office, the factory or the university or the convent; in political life, economic life, in the city or the country.

The particular "genius" (as the Pope terms it) of the woman who has not surrendered her womanhood and yet operates in the working world has been traced by a long line of Catholic writers such as Edith Stein, Gertrud von Le Fort, Caryll Houselander, and Adrienne von Speyr. In an exemplary way, von Le Fort brings the sensibility of a poet to her philosophical and theological reflections, and although she was writing in the 1930s, her prophetic insights remain relevant today. For instance, on the primacy of men and women working alongside each other in the hierarchy of social interaction she writes: "Every sort of co-operation, even the most insignificant, between man and woman is, in its bearing upon the wholeness of life, of far greater import than associations that are purely masculine or purely feminine. Naturally, such associations have their definite purposes inasmuch as they are dedicated to a common struggle or ideal and serve for the development of certain new thoughts, but for limited scope only. In fact they risk sterility because of narrowness or one-sidedness and therefore are of little import in the wider cultural field."5

Her insights into the inner landscape of "women’s work" and its connections with the maternal principle are also fascinating:

"The world has need of the motherly woman; for it is, for the most part, a poor and helpless child. As man comes feebly into the world, so in profound weakness he departs from it; to the hand that wraps the child in its infant clothes corresponds the merciful hand of the woman who supports the aged man and wipes the sweat from the brows of the dying. Between birth and death lies not only the achievement of the successful, but the unending weariness of the way, the workaday monotony, all that belongs to the needs of the body and of life.

"The motherly woman is appointed the quiet stewardess of this tremendous inheritance of necessity and distress. Under this aspect of mother, woman does not represent, as she does as bride, only the one half of reality. Here her part is more than half. People know why the man calls his wife "Mother." In doing so he does not address only the mother of his children, but the mother of everyone, which means above all, the mother of her own husband."6


The Pope’s own most compelling exposition of the social, spiritual and eschatological significance of human motherhood can be found in Mulieris Dignitatem (nn. 18 and 19). After taking a stand against the very biological reductionism falsely attributed to Catholic teaching by feminists,7 he embarks on a profound exegesis of the maternal condition, an exegesis which illuminates all the essential points of Catholic moral teaching in this area, from the defense of life to the need for stable and faithful marriages. Rejecting any "exclusively bio-physical interpretation of women and motherhood," he links motherhood "to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift: ‘I have brought a man into being with the help of the Lord’ (Gen 4:1)." And, whereas parenthood is something that belongs to both men and women, "It is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No programme of ‘equal rights’ between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account." Men in some sense learn their fatherhood from the mother of their children, so that as the child grows, the contribution of both parents can come into play.

Mary’s fiat signifies "the woman’s readiness for the gift of self and her readiness to accept a new life" (MD, n. 18). Through the perfection of her self-gift, made possible by the absence of original sin in her unclouded and lovely soul, the New Covenant is established: between God and man. Though imperfect in comparison, each fresh instance of motherhood in human history is nonetheless related to this central act on the part of Mary. The "fiat mentality" is the essential key to the fulfillment of a mother’s vocation, not only at conception, but throughout the life of the child. For we must remember Jesus’s response to the women in the Gospel of Luke: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it" (11:27-28). This means that "The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the gospel, is similarly not only ‘of flesh and blood’: it expresses a profound ‘listening to the word of the living God’ and a readiness to ‘safeguard’ this Word.... For it is precisely those born of earthly mothers, the sons and daughters of the human race, who receive from the Son of God the power to become ‘children of God’ (Jn 1:12). A dimension of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood enters into human parenthood, making it a reality and a task for ‘new creatures’ (cf. 2 Cor 5:17). The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood: crossing it conditions ‘the revelation of the children of God’ (cf. Rom 8:19)" (MD, n. 19).

The entire passage about motherhood concludes with a meditation on Our Lord’s use of the imagery of childbirth in John 16:21. "The first part of Christ’s words refers to the ‘pangs of childbirth’ which belong to the heritage of original sin; at the same time, these words indicate the link that exists between the woman’s motherhood and the Paschal Mystery." There is a hint here of the mysterious parallel between the feminine vocation of motherhood and the masculine vocation of the priesthood. In any case, the Pope goes on to enumerate some of the sufferings which women go through for the sake of this vocation; before focusing our attention anew on the Resurrection. The key word here is "joy" — "the joy that a child is born into the world," and Jesus’ words before his passion: "I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22-23).


I have quoted from Mulieris Dignitatem at such length because I believe we have here all the essential elements for the creation of the "new feminism," which is intrinsically linked to the maternal capacity of women, a capacity which, it is worth repeating, goes much further than the fact of biological childbearing. In addition to the point about mutual subjection, there are four key concepts to be noted:

  1. The "sincere gift of self," of which the Blessed Virgin’s fiat is the summit.
  2. The "debt" owed by men to women, who pay the heaviest price for the bearing of life.
  3. The "keeping of the Word" by women in their vocation, no matter what it is.
  4. The conditioning of "the revelation of the children of God" as the effect of the relationship between child and mother.

All four are inextricably linked, and necessary for the process of cultural transformation envisaged by the Holy Father.

Firstly, the acquiescence of women to what is asked of them must be sincere, that is to say, arising out of a deep conviction and sense of purpose. It must have a personal authenticity, the subject being defined in terms of her divine destiny, the will of God for her life, and not in terms of the status quo. Mainstream feminism is frequently objecting to the falsity of the feminine consciousness — for example the 1950s-style suburban housewife "married to her house," or the lack of integrity in the (Strindbergian) martyred or devouring mother. The woman of the sex-war, be she collaborator or guerilla, manifestly lacks both sincerity and the ability to give of her true self. This poor, "unrepentant Eve" should hardly be mourned by anyone.

It is worth quoting Edith Stein on this all-important principle of the "sincere gift of self," which links the spousal impulse clearly to the maternal vocation, the married state to that of consecrated virginity. She shows how it is only in the profound communion with her Lord that a woman can find the strength to be truly herself. "The deepest longing of woman’s heart is to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other being completely. This longing is revealed in her outlook, personal and all-embracing, which appears to us as specifically feminine. But this surrender becomes a perverted self-abandon and a form of slavery when it is given to another person and not to God; at the same time, it is an unjustified demand which no human being can fulfill. Only God can welcome a person’s total surrender in such a way that one does not lose one’s soul in the process but wins it. And only God can bestow himself upon a person so that He fulfills this being completely and loses nothing of Himself in so doing. That is why total surrender which is the principle of the religious life is simultaneously the only adequate fulfillment possible for women’s yearning."9

The second point gives us the absolutely necessary precondition on the part of men to the sincere gift of self on the part of women. If their surrender (whose true object is God) is met with ingratitude, or even a dishonorable and inappropriate complacency on the part of men, an offense is committed against both woman and her Creator, and disaster ensues. Misogyny is a very real phenomenon (even if it is exaggerated for the sake of the propaganda war between the sexes), and it is particularly crushing for a woman who presents herself with an attitude of good will and generosity. She may not resort to aborting the child in her womb (either literally or figuratively), but she can be so drained of strength by the encounter that she becomes incapable of effectively nurturing that which God has entrusted to her. The sincere gift of self on the part of the woman is thus guaranteed and protected by a sincere rendering of the debt — a debt of gratitude and all the actions which ensue — on the part of our brothers in Christ.

So the third point concerns the necessity of long-term continuity in the woman’s vocation, a continuity which has perforce to be rooted in the eternal. One of the Christian ideas which secular feminists object to is the emphasis on sacrifice. Yet there is no birth (or re-birth) without a certain blood-letting; there is no unconditional love without the preparedness to suffer. Is it worth speculating, however, on the distinction between the preparedness for sacrifice and the grim determination to carry it out? Could it be possible that there is a grain of truth in the secular crusade against an alleged Christian "obsession" with suffering? We are apt to slide into a kind of complacency with regard to Christ’s passion and death which mirrors some men’s complacency about female suffering. The redeemed Eve does not mind suffering torments to bring a child (or any other of God’s works) into the world, and at her most sublime will accept that her labours not bear fruit until after her own death. Yet if God has called woman into being in order to keep and protect the Word, what shall we say of those who render this continuity through time difficult or even impossible? "Troubles will come," said our Lord, "but woe to him through whom they come." The Holy Father himself has exemplified this logic in his compassion for women who have wounded themselves through abortion.10

The image of abortion (literally "putting out of its place") is an apt one. For woman can be said to have a womb-shaped vocation.11 She is a space-maker, a protector of growth, an enabler of life, a place of safety where others can encounter Christ and know themselves to be loved. Hers is the mission to behold the world and all its confusing travail in a very particular way: to make use of her very weakness (cf. St Thérèse) to obtain the privileged place of the lamb which is carried upon the shoulders of the Shepherd, and thus see things from the perspective of His gaze. "I love you as you are, for I see you as you are destined to be." The eyes of a woman are a precious thing: they should not be put out.

"One of the privileges of the maternal Woman," wrote Gertrud von Le Fort, "is the quiet, extremely important function of knowing how to wait and be silent, the ability sometimes to overlook, indulge in, and cover up a weakness. As a work of mercy this is no lesser charity than clothing the naked. It is one of the most ominous errors of the world, one of the most essential reasons for its lack of peace, to believe that all that is wrong must always be uncovered and condemned."12

The final point is perhaps the most intriguing and profound ever made about the mystery of motherhood by Pope John Paul II: "The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood: crossing it conditions ‘the revelation of the children of God.’" Surely here we see the weighty implications of our theme. Nobody passes into the world without, as it were, passing through the "ambience" of a woman. Woman therefore has, even if only in potentia, an immense influence on the history of mankind. Her attitudes and outlook are paramount. So is her welfare, both physical and spiritual. We see the effects of the sex war in the devaluing of motherhood, degeneration of life-giving attitudes in the home and the assault on the concept of a love faithful unto death. However, it is useless to point back to the "Victorian values" as the panacea: the problem goes much further back than that. Von Le Fort ascribed the rise of the feminist movement, with all its imbalance, to this legitimate sense of cultural loss:

"The feminist movement had its spiritual roots in the dullness and narrowness of the middle-class family. Its economic backgrounds do not concern us here. From the stress of their starving souls, the women of that period cried out for a spiritual purpose in life and for an activation of their capacity for love. It was a tragic motivation, for these women sought out a share of responsibility in the man’s world, and sought it outside the family which could no longer shelter and satisfy them."

As G.K. Chesterton put it, writing at the same period as von Le Fort, and with the same prophetic acuity, even in the Victorian household the hearth was already cold.


How then shall we rekindle the flame in that "hearth" which is embodied by the woman? How shall we reach the hardened heart of those who have sacrificed the hope of children and the love of life on the altar of mammon? How shall we cradle the waifs and strays "liberated" by an illusory revolution for a false freedom? What comes to mind is a prayer card I kept to commemorate my own conversion, a prayer card for the Holy Year of 1983, showing the Holy Father in prayer. His sincerity and "aliveness" radiates through the photograph. It is prayer like this that changes things. That prayer is the human contribution which the Lord desires as our response to his love, a prayer that represents at its own level the profound communion of wills between his Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of his Mother.

* * *

As far as women are concerned, a profitable way forward to the "new feminism" may lie in an authentic meditation on the rich and varied attributes of Our Lady celebrated in the Litany of Loreto. If justice is required, Mary is the Mirror of that justice, not the judge. If devotion is required, she is the Singular Vessel of that devotion, not herself the object of worship. Women can be tempted to turn themselves into goddesses, heroines of the hour in cosmic proportions. It matters not whether she plays Gaia or Kali, it all amounts to the same: the sin of Eve, who listened to the serpentine words "You shall be as gods." "Women for Life on Earth" is a lovely ideal, but women are powerless to do more than wreak more havoc on earth, unless they are rooted in heaven. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." With this help, through the covenant made in Christ Jesus — sealed in the heart of a real human woman, in one real moment of human history — everything is assured for us. Yes, even those sacred spaces, those churches and homes where the divine will is borne to fruition, those little sanctuaries of heaven on earth scattered through time, are assured and protected by those women who follow the Second Eve, whose transcendent humility called down the power of God upon earth — and by those men who, like St Joseph, exercise unceasing and loving vigilance over their interests.14

And what are their interests, these daughters of Zion? Indeed, their ambition, being in the world but not of it, knows no bounds. It is a divine conspiracy in which they collaborate: that of Justice for the sake of Love. The new woman is busy lowering her consciousness, not raising it, since it is humility which calls down the action of almighty God upon earth. "Be it done to me according to thy Word...." It is the Lord who does the raising, giving his own beauty in return for the sincere offering of her identity. The new feminist is truly a daughter of the "Mother of Fairest Love," as the Holy Father dubbed her in his Letter to Families. She is truly free to do the will of the One who sent her, free to give without counting the cost. For she has inherited from her Mother the assurance of true motherhood, in which the economy of the virginal fiat is constantly renewed.

"Every mother puts a surplus at her child’s disposal, a kind of unlimited credit. Every mother has so much maternal love that even the most loving child cannot give it back to her — certainly not now, during the time of expectation. She keeps this surplus ready for the child, for his coming good and bad days. The Mother of the Lord also knows this secret. But over this, too, the grace of her Son has already disposed. So the Mother holds this surplus ready not only for her Child, out of her natural motherliness, but for all the plans, thoughts and concerns of the Child, not only in the measure of their worldwide extension, but also according to their divine, supernatural depths. The Mother’s surplus of love in the expectation is already, even in concealment, flowing over onto the Church and the whole world.15


1. For example, in his Message for the World Day of Peace, "Peace with God the Creator: Peace with All of Creation" (1 January 1990).

2. See, e.g., Pro-Life Feminism, ed. Gail Grenier Sweet (Toronto: Life-Cycle Books, 1985). Also, more recently, Naomi Wolf’s cogent criticism of the internal inconsistencies in the moral reasoning and rhetoric of the pro-choice position.

3. Balthasar’s expression, quoted approvingly by the pope in Mulieris Dignitatem, fn. 55.

4. See Tile Ministry of Women in the Church (Oakwood Publications, CA). I am quoting with approval from her earlier writing, but I emphatically part company with Behr-Sigel in her later stages, where she gravitated towards accepting female ordination. This evolution seems to me to show up, among other things, a certain weakness in her style of reasoning about tradition and adaptation.

5. The Eternal Woman (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1962), 39.

6. Ibid 74.

7. See the alarming satirization of this attitude in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

8. It would require many pages of analysis to portray the permutations on this theme. Karl Stern’s The Flight from Woman contains some interesting, if not definitive, material.

9. Edith Stein, Woman, trans. Freda Mary Oben (Washington: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1987), 62.

10. See EV (n. 99) where, interestingly enough, his thoughts pass immediately from the role of women in bringing about general cultural change, to the spiritual condition of women who have had abortions.

11. on this theme, see Robin Maas’s excellent appreciation of Caryll Houselander in Crisis (October 1995).

12. The Eternal Woman, 75.

13. And see Inter Insigniores.

14. The theology of St Joseph and the meaning of fatherhood needs development, but for one prophetic attempt, see Andrew Doze, Discovering St Joseph (New York: Alba House, 1991). See also my husband’s article in this same issue of Communio.

15. Adrienne von Speyr, Handmaid of the Lord (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 70.


Reprinted with permission from Communio: International Catholic Review 23 (Spring 1996).