Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The feminine mistake

During my retreat last weekend among the Benedictine monks at St. Anselm's Abbey, I realized during prayer that I need to gain an understanding of how being created a woman enables me to love God and my fellow human beings in a special way.

I shared my thoughts yesterday over the phone with my friend Steve Kellmeyer, author of Sex and the Sacred City, which is an excellent introduction to the theology of the body. I told him I realized more than ever why I react with a visceral distaste to the public images projected by many Christian women's fellowship groups. Although I may like the women who take part in such groups and approve of their activities and goals, I'm put off by the way they present their mission in reactive terms. They either try to appropriate feminist ideology in favor of a "true feminism" (a term I realize echoes Pope John Paul II's well-intentioned call for "a 'new feminism'"), or they attempt to counter it with a reactionary return to 19th-century models of fa-de-la, flowers-and-lace femininity. (I'm thinking of certain exhortations of Alice von Hildebrand with regard to the latter, though I agree with her on many fundamentals.)

As I said to Steve, in a strange way, I almost agree with the radicals who claim that sex — or, as they call it, "gender" — is a social construct. They have themselves in fact reconstructed sex roles in such a manner that many of the best minds of the Church seem unable to define womanhood outside of feminist terms. Christian women's fellowships are left trying to frame feminine identity according to a relatively recent ideal — be it that of the 1890s, the 1950s, or a trendy modern vision — when they should be doing what Pope John Paul II urged in his theology of the body: discovering woman's true identity "as it was in the beginning."

Steve observed that in that sense, the radicals' claims are like every heresy. At their root is a grain of truth, grossly overemphasized and taken out of its proper perspective. The truth is that man and woman's original identities — who the sexes were in God's image — were marred in the Fall. Since then, society has at various times attempted to reconstruct them, but they remain in some sense artificial — unless they can be reattached to their original meaning and purpose. Jesus necessarily points the way as the new Adam, as does the one whom He called "Woman" to signify her identity as the new Eve.

To find an answer to the question of what it meant to be a woman as it was in the beginning, the first thing on my reading list is Pope John Paul II's "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women" (Mulieris Dignitatem), which I am reading today. If you're familiar with it, I would be grateful for your thoughts in the comments section below.