This is the first in a series of articles on the dignity and vocation of women, published in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem. Read Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, and Part V here.
Back in the spring, I accompanied my twenty-five year old daughter to her first pregnancy scan, at just eleven weeks. The nurse placed the ultrasound device on her abdomen, and immediately an image appeared onscreen: a tiny human child, with legs, arms, vertebrae, skull and face; and an even tinier heart, pulsing away in a body barely 5cm long. But the thing that struck me most was the space around that body. A perfectly formed, dark space, sheltering this child in the midst of my daughter’s own flesh.
The ultrasound scan is a good metaphor for the advances modern medicine has made, advances that enable us to see and understand the extraordinary feat of procreation as it unfolds. In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II praised such advances, but he also issued a warning that such advances should not trap us in a bio-physiological interpretation of women and of motherhood. “Such a restricted picture would go hand in hand with a materialistic concept of the human being and of the world. In such a case, what is truly essential would unfortunately be lost. Motherhood as a human fact and phenomenon, is fully explained on the basis of the truth about the person. Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift. … Mary’s words at the Annunciation – ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word’ – signify the woman’s readiness for the gift of self, and her readiness to accept a new life.”
Unfortunately, the culture of the so-called developed world increasingly fails to cultivate, or support, this fundamental outlook on the part of women, and this creates a crisis for motherhood, though of a different nature than the crisis of inadequate maternity care elsewhere in the world. Many Catholic commentators have traced the crisis in the West to the separation of the unitive and the procreative aspects of the nuptial act, and this is correct. However, it doesn’t help us rectify the problem, unless we are able to grasp the deeper roots of the cultural crisis. Somehow, we have to get beyond the ghetto of religious discourse into which we are increasingly being corralled. We have to create a culture of life which replies adequately to the culture of death – and that may mean using all manner of media, including that made possible through the internet, but also novels, poetry, theatre, film, painting, sculpture, music. A vital part of doing this authentically (rather than as propaganda) involves a rich enunciation of the phenomenology of maternity.
Let us start with the experience of a hypothetical woman: a practicing Catholic at the beginning of the 21st century. She is married, and very much in love with her husband. She is educated, and wants to use her education not simply for her own benefit, but for the benefit of those around her. She may not think of it in exactly this way, but she has an intuition that goes beyond worldly ambition or even personal idealism: an intuition that she could give glory to God through her gifts. And she is also open to new life. She is ready to be a mother, ready to be generous with her body, her mind, her soul. This is about as good as it gets.
Now the challenges arise. In my own country, the reality of what couples go through in trying to create a home and devote themselves to their family is impacted by an economic system which completely fails to take into account the value of this unpaid, therefore unprofitable and untaxable, labor of love. Housing – something crucial to the domestic sphere – is expensive, at least in the major urban centers where most employment is to be found. There is no fiscal acknowledgement of the needs of single-income families on the part of the government. Even if the mother continues to work, it is very unlikely she will find a professional structure that takes into account the changing work-life balance that ought to be respected throughout the early years of a child’s life. Which means we are forcing women to make an impossible choice. A choice which, incidentally, may deprive the work-place of the unique contributions that such women could make. And the presence in the work-place of genuinely maternal women would, in many fields, impact positively on other women, as well as men.
Then there is the fact of what such a woman will face simply at the hands of the medical profession, which in the UK is now schooled uniformly to withhold acknowledgement of new life if the mother is not fully committed to it herself. If the child in utero turns out to have a congenital problem, she is suddenly left in a terrible limbo. This actually happened to my daughter at her 20-week scan, when it was discovered that her baby had talipes – a totally treatable condition. I will never forget the atmosphere of reserve, the lack of a sense of support and reassurance while first the nurse, then a consultant, silently scrutinized my now even more developed grandchild’s ultrasound images, and then waited to hear that my daughter and her husband were completely committed to their pregnancy.
Women in every strata of society are impacted by the unspoken contempt for the mystery of procreation, and it is not surprising that many respond by either rejecting it, or using it to bolster their position in a situation where they have no other perceivable social traction. Every woman, like every human being, longs to be loved. It is a sad indictment that some should want a child to provide the love they never found anywhere else. All these phenomena are the product of a long, slow cultural erosion.
Pope John Paul II constantly emphasized not only in Mulieris Dignitatem but also in Evangelium Vitae that mothers do pay a personal price for this procreative act. What we heard him define earlier as “the woman’s readiness for the gift of self” – i.e the unitive principle – and “her readiness to accept a new life” – i.e the procreative principle – are indeed inseparable. What we must take care to avoid is letting the former lapse once the latter is achieved.
If the father of the child does not ensure that the unitive principle persists through time, in such a way that the mother is accompanied in the sacrifice that the gift of herself will entail, her maternity will be compromised. If the surrounding community, beginning with the couple’s own families, does not honor the unitive principle in their own support for the consequences of procreation, the couple will be compromised. And if the larger society around the couple does not reflect the profound respect for the unitive principle, if they are not ‘one’ with the family as primary building block of society (see Familiaris Consortio), then the family is fatally compromised.
Modern sexual mores, and modern reproductive technology, have in fact separated what John Paul called “the original unity of the two”, both man and woman, as well as unitive and procreative. Now that we have come to think of procreation as a life-style choice to be made by the economically worthy, we have somehow monetized it. We approve of making babies, by any means and for the benefit of any configuration of ‘parents’ with enough economic clout to command the privilege, because this somehow fulfills our notion of family as something we can choose, control and manipulate.
In short, family has become a power base, rather than the locus of open-ended self-gift. There is no room in this scenario for the unitive principle to be extended to the children: for the kind of open-ended interaction without which human beings cannot learn to become fully human. Children have become objects of procreation, rather than subjects finding their own unique place within the social fabric of the family. It is as though we had taken the womb and polluted its waters: rendered it a cast-iron receptacle guaranteed to turn out a certain kind of person. The kind of person who knows what counts: power and material success.
Blessed John Paul II constantly reminded women that they should not fall into the trap of competing with their brethren for power or influence. He called for a ‘new feminism’, which would not imitate models of masculine domination, but would mine the ore at the heart of what it really means to be a woman. As his template for the unity between men and women he, like Pope Benedict in Deus Caritas Est, and Pope Francis after him, could find no better image for this than the nuptial mystery which is at the heart of both the human story and the nature of the Church. It is significant that the present Pope refers constantly to motherhood when he is talking about the true nature of the Church, and the paradigm for how a Christian should interact with the world.
And the nuptial mystery is meaningless without the central fact of the womb, that interior ocean over which the Spirit hovers, in which all life thrives. For as Christ the Son is the manifestation of the Father, the human womb is the manifestation of nuptuality. It is the locus of incarnation, dignified forever by the fact that God took flesh in a woman’s womb and dwelled among us.
The womb, far from being a liability, is the reminder to all of us that there is always something mysterious, something beyond ourselves and our wretchedly utilitarian horizons. The fact that the womb exists at all is the protective veil under which the very meaning of what it is to be human is enabled to flourish. The womb is the ethos in which something even smaller than a mustard seed can grow to be a whole new human being, with all the impact that this may have on the world at large.
This article is based on a presentation made by Leonie Caldecott to the September 2013 conference of MaterCare International. For more information please see www.matercare.org.