Recently, something called “The New Feminism” has been getting quite a bit of press, both in print and online. An expression coined by St. John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the New Feminism is about helping women to live and express Gospel values more effectively in the Church and in the world, by recognizing their own authentic gifts and mission.
It remains to be seen what new initiatives will arise from this more recent conversation, but as the mother of a teenage daughter, I am thrilled that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has called for a more profound theology of women in the Church. His cry for progress recalls St. John Paul II’s Letter to All Women:
I am convinced that the secret of making speedy progress in achieving full respect for women and their identity involves more than simply the condemnation of discrimination and injustices, necessary though this may be. Such respect must first and foremost be won through an effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, concentrating on all areas of women’s life and beginning with a universal recognition of the dignity of women.
We are created to have a necessary and lasting impact on the world.
For women to see themselves as God sees them—beautiful, influential, vital to the health of the Church—our lives need to more clearly embody the virtues that women most naturally exemplify. We should never bow to pressure from false guides who would have us negate our femininity as if it were a burdensome mistake. Authentic femininity can be powerfully expressed in any of a multitude of callings and professions. We women, in all our dignity and giftedness, are created to have a necessary and lasting impact on the world, through our individual responses to God’s call to our sensitive, generous, receptive, and maternal hearts.
And of course, our feminine beauty is sacramental, a visible reminder of God’s self-donating love. Gorgeous curves aside, with our natural receptivity in both the spiritual and physical realms and our enthusiasm for creating sanctuaries of love, learning, and peace, our femininity actually exemplifies the proper relationship of the soul to God.
Even men, spiritual writers tell us, assume a feminine attitude in relationship to God. The soul is not taken by force, but falls in love and becomes receptive, the way a bride is receptive to her groom. So many popes and saints have enjoyed a deep and transformative relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” Our Lady is the perfect example of both feminine perfection and Christian discipleship. Mary’s example of heroic virtue, generous receptivity, and a will exercised courageously in the service of God has become a blueprint for sanctity throughout the history of the Church, for both men and women.
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, the wife of the late Dietrich von Hildebrand, wrote a beautiful little book called The Privilege of Being a Woman, which illuminates the many features of our femininity that are unique, beautiful, and profoundly Christian. As she explains, our feminine “weakness” (compared to the generally greater physical strength of the male body) images the weakness and vulnerability chosen by Our Lord. Jesus deigned to stoop down to the earth and assume human flesh in the form of a helpless human infant dependent upon the care of human beings, rather than appearing in all his divine glory to impress or dominate us. Even in his adult life, he appealed to us through gentleness and a willingness to serve: healing, cleansing, and feeding others wherever he went.
Paradoxically, his humility—which the world would describe as weakness—is a mark of his great strength. Likewise, through the very characteristics that are integral to our feminine beauty—our receptivity, gentleness, and compassion—we image the all-powerful King of the Universe. Jesus was never a careerist or a glory-monger; he did not demand to be hailed as a king or lauded as a hero. He came to live among us, to suffer with us, and to serve us from the heart. He came to teach us how to love.