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On the Vocation of Woman, Part II

September 4, 2009

Part I

Motherhood is bound up with the structure of the woman as person.  John Paul II reminds us that Man only finds himself through a sincere gift of self, and that this truth about the person leads us to a full understanding of motherhood.  Motherhood is the fruit of the marriage union of a man and woman, and this mutual gift of the person in marriage opens to the gift of a new life, another human person.[1]  “When a woman agrees to sexual intercourse she consents to God’s direct partnership with her in creating new human life.  This is an amazing affirmation of her personhood.  With it comes a great responsibility.”[2]  For the woman, becoming a mother is an event that consumes much of her energy; she dedicates her entire self to the task of growing, birthing, feeding, and caring for each of her children.  Woman finds herself in this giving of herself.  Although both the man and the woman are parents, motherhood comprises the most demanding part; parenthood as such is realized more fully in the woman.  “It is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul.  It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman.”[3]  A man is somewhat separated from his own child, but the woman gives her very body over for the sake of the child.  They exist together, and in a sense, it is woman who gives the child his personhood, for it is in the relationship between mother and child that the child becomes a person and not a mere individual.  John Paul II writes, “‘Communion’ has to do with the personal relationship between the ‘I’ and the ‘thou’….  On the human level, can there be any other ‘communion’ comparable to that between a mother and a child whom she has carried in her womb and then brought to birth?”[4]  Therefore, “it is essential that the husband should recognize that the motherhood of his wife is a gift.”[5]

Edith Stein notes that woman’s mission as mother is closely related to her vocation as spouse.  She must care for her children and lead them to their full development.  This requires her to guide her children but then step back to allow them to become who they are.  “This demands… an even more refined gift of sympathy because it is necessary to comprehend the dispositions and faculties of which the young people themselves are as yet unaware; she has to feel her way towards that which wishes to become, but which as yet does not exist.”[6]  At the same time, she may have the greatest singular influence upon her children.  A child is extremely formable, and this gives a mother great responsibility.  Just as woman’s feminine nature can lead her husband to become more human, she also develops the humanity of her children.  Stein says this requires an attitude of selfless service.  Her children are not woman’s to possess; they are gifts entrusted to her by God, and her motherhood is a holy duty to fulfill.  This is partially due to the fact that she must lead them in spiritual development.[7]

The communion with the child that woman experiences leads her to sympathize with every child and every human being.  Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb….  [T]he mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb.  This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality.[8]

This is what John Paul II calls the feminine genius.  Every woman shares in this genius, if she is open to it, even if she never physically bears children.  Stein writes that maternity must be interpreted as both natural and supernatural for it to be developed in its full sense; furthermore, “it is also possible for supernatural maternity to be disassociated from natural maternity.”[9] This leads us to vocations of women in the realm of virginity. 

Christ teaches about the value of celibacy, a voluntary celibacy for the Kingdom of heaven, which points to Man’s end or his eschatological vocation to be in union with God.  Such celibacy must result from the free choice of a man or woman and the grace of Christ who calls a person to this vocation and enables him or her to live it out.  While Christ is addressing men in the Gospel, what he teaches has value for men and women.[10]  Virginity, then, is a way a woman can realize her womanhood in a way different from marriage.  “By freely choosing virginity, women confirm themselves as persons, as beings whom the Creator from the beginning has willed for their own sake.  At the same time they realize the personal value of their own femininity by becoming ‘a sincere gift’ for God who has revealed himself in Christ, a gift for Christ, the Redeemer of humanity and the Spouse of souls: a ‘spousal’ gift.”[11]  In this way we can understand why Edith Stein says that all women are called to be spouses and mothers.  Every woman is called either to be the spouse of an earthly husband or of Christ.  And as the gift of self of a woman to her husband leads to her natural maternity, so too does the gift of self of a religious woman or consecrated virgin lead to her spiritual maternity.  Women called to a vocation of virginity are called to be loved by Christ himself, directly; as Christ loves her, she returns his love with a sincere gift of herself.  In this way, a virgin is not just a woman who is unmarried, or single, in the natural sense.  Rather, she says yes to Christ in a radical way, “because virginity is not restricted to a mere ‘no,’ but contains a profound ‘yes’ in the spousal order: the gift of self for love in a total and undivided manner.”[12]  In the same way, the virgin state does not mean that a woman says no to motherhood; on the contrary, “the renunciation of this kind of motherhood, a renunciation that can involve great sacrifice for a woman, makes possible a different kind of motherhood: motherhood “according to the Spirit” (cf. Rom 8:4).”[13]  Spiritual motherhood can take many forms; a woman who chooses to live a life of virginity will care for others either directly, in hands-on experience with those who are in need – “the sick, the handicapped, the abandoned, orphans, the elderly, children, young people, the imprisoned and, in general, people on the edges of society” – or through prayer if she lives a contemplative life.[14]  Thus, motherhood exemplifies the gift of self a woman makes to others in a way that transcends physical motherhood.

Just as virginity receives from physical motherhood the insight that there is no Christian vocation except in the concrete gift of oneself to the other, so physical motherhood receives from virginity an insight into its fundamentally spiritual dimension: it is in not being content only to give physical life that the other truly comes into existence.  This means that motherhood can find forms of full realization also where there is no physical procreation.[15]

Although physical motherhood is exclusive to some women, all women are called to be spiritual mothers.  In this sense motherhood can be – and should be – realized by all women.  John Paul II writes that there is a “certain diversity of roles” that we can appreciate as being “in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female.”[16]


[1] Mulieris Dignitatem, 18.


[2] Mary Shivanandan, “Mary and the Gift of Life: Motherhood Requires Openness to the New Person,” 2003; available from; accessed 7 November 2008.

[3] Mulieris Dignitatem, 18.

[4] John Paul II, Letter to Families, Gratissimam Sane, 7.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol. 2, Essays on Woman, eds. L. Gelber and Romaeus Leuven, trans. Freda Mary Oben (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987), 110.

[7] Ibid., 110-111.

[8] Mulieris Dignitatem, 18.

[9] “The Church, Woman and Youth,” in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol. 2, Essays on Woman, eds. L. Gelber and Romaeus Leuven, trans. Freda Mary Oben (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987), 241.

[10] Mulieris Dignitatem, 18.  Cf. Matthew 19.

[11] Mulieris Dignitatem, 20.

[12] Ibid., 20.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Ibid., 21.

[15] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” 13.

[16] “Letter of John Paul II to Women,” 11.

  1. Craig Baker permalink
    September 5, 2009 8:24 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post. I find it problematic however to use language like “pay” and “special debt” and “most demanding part” when it comes to motherhood’s role in parenting. It would seem to undermine the very nature of the gift and lead to a situation where the wife could develop the attitude of “you owe me” toward the husband. As I’ve experienced in my own marriage, the spouses both pay (when both are fully active in their roles) with their whole selves for the development of the family, to parenthood, but in different modes, one more transcendent the other more imminent, but both essential and taxing. I don’t see how we can place a greater than value of one over the other.

  2. September 9, 2009 9:55 pm

    It took me a little while to read fully, but I really enjoyed it when I did.

    I know I have always been called to motherhood, it was just realized in different ways throughout my life namely through working with children in a daycare, nannying, summer camps, an orphanage, youth ministry and more. Now that I have my own child, I know that my purpose has been realized.

    I look forward to what comes next, both for me and from you.

  3. Marjorie Campbell permalink
    September 15, 2009 2:10 am

    “Every woman shares in this genius, if she is open to it, even if she never physically bears children.”

    Wow. what a great piece. thank you for posting both parts. May I pose a question here. I know it’s not terribly academic. But Henry Karlson just introduced me to your writing and I wonder if the dialogue can address some very real modern concerns that puzzle me. Forgive me if I am too pedestrian, okay? Does “every woman” share in this genius, really? Let’s take a signficant swath of women I live amongst here in San Francisco, some I call “friend”, who the world calls “Dyke Lesbian” … by every measure of what’s traditionally feminine within our Stein/JPII construct, these girls fail ( I think). By physical measure of what’s female, they pass. How do we explain a gender based vocation when, by physical deal of the dice and cultural influences, they seem to defy the gender categories Stein and JP II presumed obvious? Getting down to the floor boards here, is our theology of female addressed, too, to women affiliated as “Dykes on Bikes” or as “suicide girls” (caution here please explicit photos)? As our moral theology meets modern reality, which gives … or do we look toward these women’s “sympathy” and genuine love for each other (and the children they might have or the gay men they might nurture) and assert, “Our theology applies” or do we dismiss them and assert “they are not open to it”? I am extremely interested in this … and you have my email which you are welcome to use!

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