Thursday, August 16, 2012

Edith Stein and The War on Women



Is There Really a ‘War on Women’?
by Kristine Cranley

The claim that there is a ‘war on women’ going on is a serious accusation.  According to the news, women everywhere are under attack by the Catholic Church because of their refusal to pay for women’s contraception and abortion.  As a woman who works for the Catholic Church, these assertions affect me directly, because the accusers claim to be speaking in my name in their attack of my Church.  I have had to ask myself seriously whether I am truly under attack, and by whom?  Are Catholicism and Femininity intrinsically opposed to each other such that one is incompatible with the other?

The question has forced me to ask even deeper questions regarding the nature of femininity itself.  What does it mean to be a woman?  Are women essentially different than men or the same? Is there an ideal of femininity toward which I am supposed to strive?  What do I need in order to flourish and find fulfillment as a woman?  Do contraception and abortion help me to reach this fulfillment or distance me from it? 

In researching these questions I have found varying responses.  Many thinkers claim that there is no true difference between men and women.  Sexual difference, like hair color or eye color, is just a biological happenstance that says nothing about who I am at my deepest level of being.  It is asserted that if women behave differently than men it is because they are conditioned to do so by cultural influences.  Yet this claim does not resonate with my experience of the world and my own instinctive responses to it.  While I recognize that women are capable of performing the same physical works that men can, I also intuit that the way we approach these activities is different. 

An example: at our staff meetings here at St. Mary’s Catholic Center the men often have a vision for the way the Holy Spirit is moving us forward as a campus ministry, while the women have more of a sense of how the various programs fit together as an organic whole and the specific needs and problems that might arise for one area when we change something in another area.  Under Fr. David’s leadership we ‘breathe with both lungs’ (feminine and masculine) asking the Holy Spirit to use all of our gifts for the glory of God.  I have experienced the difference between masculinity and femininity, and the varying gifts which they bring, to be one of the things which make us strong as a campus ministry.   But does this personal experience of a difference between our male and female staff point to anything universally true about men and women in general?   

Saint Edith Stein on the Nature of Woman

After a summer of research, I have finally found a satisfying answer to my queries regarding the nature of woman in the work of St. Edith Stein.  Before her conversion to Catholicism this Jewish-atheist philosopher probed deeply into the question of the nature of woman.  Actively involved in the feminist movement, she spoke of herself as a ‘radical suffragette’ during her first years of university.  A woman of exceptional brilliance, in 1917 she passed her doctorate summa cum laude, during a time when the involvement of women in higher education was uncommon. 

In reflecting on the nature of woman in light of her experience, education, questioning, and new found faith in Christ St. Edith Stein concluded that woman needs to be understood in light of three truths about her nature.


1) Fundamentally, she is human.  She is not a lesser being, nor is she created to be used by another.  She is made in the divine image, and like man, she is called to intimate relationship with the Triune God through Jesus Christ.  This call to ‘divinization’ through communion with Jesus defines the dignity of the human person, male and female.  Catechism 460 states “The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature": "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God."  For both sexes, our ultimate fulfillment comes through our free consent of faith and obedience to Jesus, who forms us into His Mystical Body.  Edith Stein would often quote St. Paul in this regard: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) Thus a woman’s deepest identity, like a man’s, is in being a ‘child of God’.  She finds her fulfillment as a woman through responding to God’s call to communion by making her life a total self gift to Him. Nothing but God can satisfy her. This following of Him will require putting all her gifts of nature and grace at His service, according to the unique path He sets out for her.

2) She is an individual.  God has endowed every human being with gifts for the building up of the Church.  Thus a woman’s mission in life is going to be shaped by the gifts God has entrusted to her.  Stein does believe women are more suited by nature for some professions over others (specifically work concerned directly with helping other persons, such as the medical profession and education).  However she does not believe woman can be excluded from any secular profession because every woman has different gifts.  While she believes men have more of a tendency to think abstractly, and women more concretely, this does not prohibit God from giving gifts to a particular woman which will assist her in a taking up a field traditionally thought of as ‘masculine’ (such as engineering, mathematics, etc.)  These gifts do not make her any less of a woman, and are given so that she can bring her unique feminine perspective into these fields.

3) She is a woman.  Edith Stein believes that we are not just women in body alone, but that our very souls are feminine.  Our femininity thus animates our work and our love, leaving its mark on everything we do.  This femininity is recognized in two gifts which are present in every woman, regardless of her individual gifts or her state in life. 

a) The Maternal Gift - In summarizing the works of Edith Stein on women, Freda Oben writes “Stein believes that God combats evil through the power of woman’s maternal love.  That power exists independently of woman’s marital status and should be extended to all persons with whom she comes into contact”(p. ix). Women have an innate capacity to nurture life in others.  This endowment is also a call to her by God to place these gifts at the service of others, in whatever state of life the Lord leads her to. 

In the above quoted work, Stein writes “woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole.  To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.  Lifeless matter, the fact can hold primary interest for her only insofar as it serves the living and the personal, not ordinarily for its own sake.  Relevant to this is another matter: abstraction in every sense is alien to the feminine nature.  The living and personal to which her care extends is a concrete whole and is protected and encouraged as a totality; … her natural line of thought is not so much conceptual and analytical as it is directed intuitively and emotionally to the concrete.  This natural endowment enables woman to guard and teach her own children.  But this basic attitude is not intended just for them; she should behave in this way also to her husband and to all those in contact with her.” (p. 45)

b)     Companion Gift: Women also have a unique capacity for being the companion of another.  God placed Eve at Adam’s side in the garden as an Ezer Kenegdo – a ‘saving help’ at his side. While men are often gifted for specialization in one particular field and are sometimes tempted to focus on this specialization to the exclusion of all else, women have a distinct capacity to receive the vision and mission of another and to help it to bear fruit.  This does not preclude her being given a vision or mission of her own, but even so, she retains a natural brilliance in assisting others. 

In Stein’s own words: “This maternal gift is joined to that of companion.  It is her gift and happiness to share the life of another human being and, indeed, to take part in all things which come his way, in the greatest and smallest things, in joy as well as in suffering, in work, and in problems.  Man is consumed by “his enterprise”, and he expects others will be interested and helpful; generally, it is difficult for him to become involved in other beings and their concerns.  On the contrary, it is natural for woman, and she has the faculty to interest herself empathetically in areas of knowledge far from her own concerns and to which she would not pay heed if it were not that a personal interest drew her into contact with them.  An active sympathy for those who fall within her ken awakens their powers and heightens their achievements.  …this function will come into play also with one’s own children, especially when they mature and the mother is released from their physical care.” (p. 46)

Because of these gifts, a woman is essential in the home.  They enable her to play an irreplaceable role in raising and caring for her children.  However God did not intend these gifts for family life alone.  This ‘active sympathy’ which ‘awakens [other peoples] powers and heightens their achievements’ is something needed by all who work to accomplish a God given mission.  The more a woman grows in holiness, the more these gifts will become spiritually active in her.  Her spiritual maternity and companionship is meant to be a blessing for all those she encounters, and ultimately to lead them to God.  I believe this is what John Paul II is referring to when he speaks of ‘the genius of woman’ which is needed everywhere for the world to become more human. 

In the encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem he writes:
“The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. … A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God "entrusts the human being to her", always and in every way, even in the situations of social discrimination in which she may find herself. … In our own time, the successes of science and technology make it possible to attain material well-being to a degree hitherto unknown. While this favours some, it pushes others to the edges of society. In this way, unilateral progress can also lead to a gradual loss of sensitivity for man, that is, for what is essentially human. In this sense, our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that "genius" which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human! - and because "the greatest of these is love" (cf. 1 Cor 13:13).” (paragraph 30)


“I will put enmity between you and the woman”

What light do these reflections by this great philosopher saint and martyr shed on the current claim that there is a ‘war being waged on woman’?

If God truly does ‘combat evil through the maternal love of a woman’ then we women are indeed at war.  It is ‘evil’ itself which we do battle with, and which sets itself against our distinctive mothering and companion gifts.  From the fall of Adam and Eve it has been prophesied that God himself “will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman” (Gen 3:15).  This perennial battle is described vividly in the final book of Scripture:  

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman - clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.  She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon… Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. … The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. … Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus – Revelation 1, 3-4, 9, 13, 17

In serving pregnant women in New York, I have witnessed this same story retold in countless women who came in search of help to continue their pregnancy.  Upon discovering that they were pregnant, they were subjected to an overwhelming pressure to abort their child.  Doctors telling her she must terminate, parents telling her they will withdraw all financial support if she gives birth to the child, boyfriends threatening to leave her, or even worse, punching her stomach or pushing her down the stairs to try to cause an abortion … it seems that the dragon waits before every woman to devour her child. 

If companionship and motherhood (whether physical and/or spiritual) are integral to our vocation and fulfillment as women, then abortion and contraception themselves constitute a ‘war on women’. 

We who have been given a distinctive genius for wrapping our hearts and our lives around our beloved are rendered sterile through contraception in order to prevent the sexual pleasure our intimacy provides from resulting in a child which will bind its father to us permanently.  Handing out free contraception to college students means promoting the norm of sex without commitment.  Through ‘casual sex’ woman are treated as mere objects for another’s sexual gratification, while the enduring bond which is intrinsically linked to our bodily self giving is expressly rejected.  The ‘hookup culture’ which contraception makes possible is crushing our feminine hearts. 

We who have been endowed with a fierce instinct to preserve and nourish all life are being pressured through abortion to turn against our own children.  As Federica Mathewes-Green put it "No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg."  

The spiritual and physical fruitfulness with which God has endowed woman is desperately needed in every aspect of life and culture if we are going to ‘breathe with both lungs’ and be a truly human society.  However the contribution we women make can not be given at the expense of our God-given gifts as companion and mother.  Rather these gifts must animate all our works if they are going to be spiritually fruitful. 

The promotion of contraception and abortion is indeed an attack on our nature as women, and a rejection of the very gifts we bring for the healing of the world.  It renders us sterile in our vocation to ‘combat evil through maternal love’. 

Yes ladies, we are at war.  Let us thank God for the pastors of our church and all who fight courageously with us in defense of our true glory as women.

3 comments:

Betty Stevens said...

Good stuff. I really believe all this War on Women propaganda is Evil at work in the world. If anyone would examine the history of the Catholic church and women, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that women are held on a specially high pedestal, rather than the opposite. Now, since the Church also says that men should not use artificial means of contraception, then the Church must also be waging a war on men. See how silly that sounds. Which is worse: a deadly, bloody war on unborn infants or helping people understand the sacredness of all human life?

Sr. Helena Burns, fsp said...

Thanks for this great article! There IS a war on women: it's called contraception and abortion.

Ceckis said...

I truly enjoyed that you included Edith Stein work! Will be helpful to have these quotes for my talks!