The contemporary attack on motherhood 

I have had the joy of guiding tens of thousands on pilgrimages within St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Part of the tour involves identifying some of the huge marble statues found throughout Christianity’s most famous church. Many of them depict saints, but even more depict the Christian virtues. From pre-Christian Roman times, the virtues have always been depicted as women, because women were considered more stable than men. 

The virtue of justice, for example, is a woman with scales in her hand, giving to each his due; the virtue of faith, a woman with a crucifix; the virtue of contemplation, a woman with a Bible looking up to Heaven. I generally quiz the pilgrims about what virtue they thought is being depicted, so that they will acquire the ability to “read” the message being conveyed just like Christians in previous centuries did so easily. Over the course of the two-hour visit, most get good at making educated guesses. 

I have always been surprised, however, by how many pilgrims fail, toward the end of the tour, to get one of the virtues depicted on Bernini’s famous funereal monument of Pope Alexander VII: a woman with three young children, one in her arms and two playing behind her. When I ask what this virtue depicts, many respond, “Patience!” Others blurt, “kindness!” Others proffer, “courage.” But few ever get it — even when I give them the hint, “It begins with an L.” Almost everyone, from Roman times through the height of the Renaissance and beyond, has been easily able to grasp quickly what our generation seemingly can’t: that a woman with multiple children is a depiction of the virtue of love.

Why is this so difficult today for many to discern? One of the principal reasons, I think, is because for the last several decades there has been a conceptual war against motherhood and the love that ought to flow so naturally from mothers to children. Most of this damage is being done by a radical feminist ideology that, in claiming to advance the good of women, is actually harming women because it treats motherhood not as a blessing but as a curse. During this week in which we celebrate our mothers and thank them for all their acts of love, big and small, over the years, it’s important for us to note — and resolve to remedy — this cultural trend denigrating not only the importance of their sacrifices, but also their maternal nature. 

Many radical feminists claim that for woman to become fully alive and free, she needs to be emancipated from the maternal reality of her femininity. Motherhood, for them, must be an optional part of what it means to be a woman. This, however, is the antithesis of any authentic pro-woman feminism. The woman is created with a maternal meaning to her body, a meaning she experiences every monthly cycle. Even if a woman remains celibate, her whole existence remains maternal and is meant to welcome other people and their gifts and nourish them, helping them through love to grow, as so many women religious (and unmarried aunts) have done throughout the centuries, and as adoptive mothers have shown par excellence. To try to separate what it means to be a woman from this maternal significance is, in fact, not feminism at all, but a cruel anti-feminism. 

We see the starkest expression of this anti-feminism in the practice of abortion, when a mother — and a pregnant woman is already a mother — rather than welcoming, nourishing and protecting the child growing in her womb, allows trained assassins to terminate that child’s life, often in unimaginably gruesome ways. The anti-feminist ideologues then abashedly try to convince the woman that such a choice is good. If this corrupted reversal of maternal love is not the work of the father of lies, I don’t know what would ever qualify. 

Another anti-maternal practice is contraception. In this year marking the 50th anniversary of Pope Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning the use of contraception in Marriage, it’s important for all Catholics — especially those who might not understand the why behind the what of its teaching — to reexamine its prophetic words as well as ponder more deeply what contraception inevitably does to the understanding of motherhood. 

The birth control pill, which treats pregnancy as a sickness and therefore motherhood as something to be medically prevented, is the antithesis of the gift of maternity we celebrated on Sunday. It has facilitated a revolution in the self-understanding of many women, as women sever the maternal meaning of their existence (and not just their bodies) from their femininity, and do so in particular in the very act by which that maternal meaning is most powerfully and naturally expressed. This is a mysogynist anti-feminism marketed falsely as a feminist advance. 

When Pope Paul VI penned Humanae Vitae in 1968, eight years after the advent of the pill and described that and why the use of contraception in Marriage is sinful, he also prophesied that if the use of the pill became widespread, it would have disastrous consequences. He said that it would facilitate conjugal infidelity, the general lowering of sexual morality, a loss of respect for women, and would become a dangerous weapon in the hands of those in authority. Can anyone doubt the fulfillment of these predictions? I’ll focus just on the last one. Contraception has not only been forced on women in countries with strict birth limits but has also been a means to pressure professional women to sacrifice motherhood in order to compete not just with men, but with their pill-popping female colleagues. 

True respect for woman starts with accepting, indeed reverencing, her according to all aspects of her humanity. It involves creating the conditions for her to live freely and fully, without discrimination, according to what Pope John Paul II, echoed by Pope Francis, has called the “feminine genius.” This refers to her special wisdom in caring for the intrinsic dignity of everyone, in nurturing life and love and in developing others’ gifts: basically in living out the maternal meaning of her femininity. 

We need to move beyond the anti-maternal ideology in which the unique value and dignity of motherhood is insufficiently defended, appreciated and advanced, and in which mothers’ often invisible and heroic service is disparaged as an antiquated and unwholesome model of feminine life. The future of humanity is dependent on mothers making the choice not just to welcome children, but raise them to be virtuous and authentically human, something that in turn hinges on society’s strengthening women for this service. Humanity owes its survival to the choice women make. 

Will our culture celebrate those who live by the motto, “My body, my choice,” or rather, those whose lives are a commentary on the words, “This is My Body given for you”? 

Will we recognize a woman with children as an image of love or pretend that happiness and fulfillment will come rather by rejecting that image? 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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