The Catholic Feminine Part I – The Good Mother

Aug 19th, 2019 | By | Category: Blog Posts

This is the first of a four-part series examining the feminine “dimension” of the Christian faith. This series is not meant to be argumentative. It should be understood more as reflective in character, although I’m sure there will be plenty to argue about.

In this first part I will outline and contrast two archetypes: The good mother and the bad mother. In the next part, I will develop certain common terms and expose the importance of philosophy and its role as supporting theology. In the third part, I will reflect on specific feminine strengths and qualities as complementary to the masculine strengths. Finally, I will conclude with a reflection on the feminine “dimension” that is uniquely present in the Catholic Church, showing by argument from beauty, that the Catholic Church is the fullest expression of authentic Christianity and therefore the Church that Christ founded.

First, I must mention that the vocational roles discussed below should not be understood to be entirely exclusive to one sex or the other. We know from common sense and increasingly from biological science that masculine and feminine qualities, tendencies, and powers are not found to be strictly binary but are rather distributed in often overlapping ways among the two sexes. If this is true of our very nature itself, much more then is it true of our actions and roles. “Act follows being” — i.e. if we find overlapping qualities and tendencies in our nature itself, then we should very much expect that it will be the case that our proper vocational roles also overlap from time to time in a similar fashion. It will therefore be the case that sometimes a man should take on the role of the “good mother” and sometimes a woman should take on the role of the “good father.” Some examples will be given below to help clarify my meaning.

Before I begin to outline the two contrasting archetypes of “good mother” and “bad mother,” there are two important preemptive qualifications that I need to stress to the reader. First, all women share in the vocation of the good mother and second, no mother (woman) is simply good or bad.

All Women Share in the Vocation of the Good Mother

Every woman is by her very nature ordered towards motherhood1. This does not in any way mean or entail that a woman who does not have literal children is a defective or a bad woman or that she is not fulfilling her true vocation. There are many proportionate reasons why a woman might decide against being a mother in the literal sense of the word. St. Paul gives us the exemplary reason for this,“(s)he who refrains from marriage will do better.”2 There are other proportionate reasons as well, but a naive appeal to “self fulfillment” is not among them for reasons that will be explained in the next part of this series.

Besides the example of a woman who chooses to abstain from motherhood for proportionate or sufficient reasons, there are also many women who do not have children for reasons beyond their control. This is often a source of tragedy and great pain for the woman. She may have been a mother at one time, but lost her child. Or perhaps because of infertility, she has not yet been able to conceive. It may also be the case that she has not yet found a suitable husband. For some women, these stumbling blocks are never removed from their lives.

There is still a more tragic example. There are women who have made grave mistakes in their past for various, often understandable, reasons. I am thinking most specifically of a woman who has procured an abortion and therefore, thrown away her gift of motherhood. I will discuss possible reasons for this below when I outline the archetype of bad mother. But the point to emphasize here is that even in this most extreme case, that woman is still ordered to, and shares in the vocation of motherhood. It is not the successful hunt that makes a lioness to be a hunter; her nature makes her a hunter. Likewise, it is a woman’s intrinsic nature, and not the literal birth of a child, that gives woman her motherly vocation. The lioness, captive from birth against her will, is always a wild hunter by nature. Those women who suffer from some tragic obstacle to literal motherhood are still ordered towards motherhood by nature and will carry out their motherly vocation in other important ways.

No Mother is Simply Good or Bad

The roles (archetypes) that I will describe below apply to any particular woman only “as the shoe fits.” The positive and negative predicates below would apply the same for fathers and mothers. For example, a father may, owing to the vice of sloth, choose to remain in unemployment rather than search for a job to support his family. Here he is acting out the role of “bad father” but can later redeem himself. He does not become a “bad father” because of a single or temporary failure to live out his proper vocation. Likewise, in one way or another, every woman will at some point in her life enact the role of “bad mother.” This does not become her nature.3 For we know that “The flesh is weak”4 and “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”5 With these qualifications out of the way, let’s turn to the outline of the two archetypes.

The Good Mother

The good mother fundamentally does three things: 1. She accepts a good gift. 2. She perfects that gift. 3. She shares the gift.

This first of the fundamental actions of the good mother is especially fitting and proportionate to the feminine spirit. As Pope St. John Paul II explains, women have the natural gift of “receptivity.” This receptivity, while passive in certain external and accidental manifestations, is essentially active owing to her consensual acceptance. Giving consent is an active decision and participation. The “gift” in this case is going to be primarily the gift of child bearing, which is the most proper gift a woman can receive “as mother,” but it can be applied more broadly to other things, at least by analogy.

Now, it may seem implausible that anyone would reject a “good gift,” but we will see that there are multiple reasons why someone might do such a thing when we outline the bad mother in contrast to the good mother. For our immediate purposes, let us look to the ultimate example of this action, which is Mary’s “yes” to the Holy Spirit. This is the very archetypal first action of the good mother, and the gift is the very archetype of a good gift, since the gift was God Himself, the highest good. Mary chose freely. She could have rejected the gift.

In the action of acceptance, the good mother must draw on multiple virtues in order to make the right decision. Foremost among these are faith, hope, and love. Besides these, courage is needed, because good gifts often require sacrifice. Wisdom is also needed to know whether a gift is good or not. Finally, humility is needed, because a prideful woman will not accept the gift, as we shall see in the case of the bad mother.

Let us apply this idea to a more accessible example. Imagine a good mother who lives in great poverty with her small children. In the morning, she goes to the well to draw water for her family. At the well, a concerned neighbor spots her and offers her a good gift of grain to help her struggling family. The good mother is wise and knows that it is a good gift. Out of love for her children she accepts the gift and brings it home.

Now her work is still not finished. The good mother will grind the grains into flour, knead the dough, and bake it into bread. Here, the good mother exercises her proper and unique vocation of nurturing and improving: i.e. perfecting. She does not serve the grains to her children or offer them uncooked dough, although that would be much easier. Rather, it is her joy to take the ordinary and make it better.

Thomas Howard, in his book “Chance or the Dance” insightfully explains this unique vocation of women. He reminds us that it is the mother, in so many ways, who makes the house a home. For example, whereas the man is unlikely to see the utility in setting the table for dinner, the good mother will insist that it be done, and here she is quite right. This is more than a trivial custom. It is the manifestation of the vocation of the good mother in that she takes what is ordinary and raises it to a higher level. The family will not eat straight from the pots. We shall decorate the table, proceed with all pomp and circumstance, and though we be poor, we shall dine as kings and queens.

Note that this “pomp and circumstance” I mention is not often the kind of grandeur one might imagine for a “royal banquet.” Life happens. But that’s beside the point. The good mother always makes things better, even if only in a small way. If some important person is expected for dinner, the good mother will not stop working until the moment this person arrives. There is always more to improve, she knows. This kind of extraordinary “pomp and circumstance” is not practical for everyday life but the point here is that the good mother makes every moment in ordinary life better. She always raises up the ordinary towards the extraordinary, if only a little. The examples are manifold: fixing the collar on her son’s shirt before they walk into church, carefully wrapping a birthday gift, and things like taking the effort to organize family pictures at special occasions. If it were left up to the father, well, most families would be missing a lot of memories. The father won’t take the time to do these things because, unlike the mother, he doesn’t have the intuitive understanding of how important they really are.

As God’s grace perfects nature, the good mother imitates her Lord by perfecting and improving the gifts that she has received. It is easy to see then, why “graceful” is thought to be a more properly feminine attribute. The good mother gracefully improves her gifts and ultimately everything around her.

And yet, her work is still not finished. Having accepted and perfected the gift, the good mother turns now to share the improved gift with those she loves. Further, she takes great care to ensure that each child receives his fair portion, and she attends especially to those most in need. Is it any wonder that we call her “lady justice” and not “sir justice”? This selfless act of charity completes the good mother’s vocation and compliments, by God’s design, the vocation of the good father, with whom, she also shares her gift. In the case of a child, the mother is more intimately connected than is the father. In a certain sense, the child belongs more to the mother than the father.

It is in this light that sharing is the appropriate description. This final act is actually so deeply natural for a mother, that it might not even appear as a choice. How does a mother “choose” to share her gift with the father? Well for example, she calls the child “ours” and not “hers.” This sometimes happens even when the husband is a stepfather (depending on various situations). But another example is that the good mother is not jealous when the child loves his father, even if the child appears to love the father more than her (as sometimes it happens that certain children draw closer to one parent or the other). I will return to this point in the final part of this series.

Now there is a popular cliche in modern wisdom: “happy wife, happy life.” This is usually understood in a negative sense. “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” But I would propose that we re-cast this truism in a more positive light. The good mother is joyful in fulfilling her vocation, and like the external gifts, she lovingly shares that joy with everyone around her. In fact, she can barely do otherwise. Her joy overflows and increases even as she shares it. Yes, “happy wife, happy life,” but this common sense observation is not trivial. It tells us something profound about the natural vocation and power of the good mother. Whatever the good mother has, she will make it better and share it with her loved ones. That is why the loved ones do well to bring her joy. She will multiply it and return it back to them.

The Bad Mother

We shall now turn our attention in contrast to the bad mother. As a reminder to the reader, just as the “good mother” is the description of an ideal or perfection that no one can actually achieve at all times, so the “bad mother” is the polar opposite. One does not become a “bad mother” if she fails from time to time anymore than a single good act makes her the perfect mother. Finally, again, one needn’t be a literal mother to share in the true vocation of motherhood. This applies for the bad as well as the good. Even a man can temporarily enact the archetype of bad mother, as we will see in subsequent parts of this series. He can also, and sometimes should, play the role of good mother.

The bad mother fails, in one or more ways, to live out the vocation of the good mother as described above. In the extreme case, the bad mother does the very opposite of the good mother. She rejects the good gift, she destroys the gifts that she does accept, and instead of sharing her gifts, she takes gifts away from others.

Imagine again the impoverished mother at the well. The bad mother may reject good gifts of grain for many reasons. Among those possible reasons could be pride. Perhaps she will reject the gift so as not to admit of her inability to improve her situation by her own merit. Yet, this is unlikely because women generally have a greater power of resisting the sin of pride than men. Perhaps the bad mother anticipates that if she accepts the gift, then she will be obligated to fulfill the rest of her vocation. She will need to nurture it and then share it. But, if she does not accept it, she reasons, then she will be under no such obligation. Of course, we may discern with prudence in which cases this reasoning is justified.

This is an image of the evil of contraception. It exemplifies how the rejection of a good gift is a direct opposition to the natural vocation. If the act of accepting the gift of grain for her family is essentially related to the consequent steps of preparing and sharing the grain, then deliberately rejecting the gift would ultimately be a rejection of those essentially consequent actions. In this analogy, rejecting the gift of grain is essentially the rejection of feeding her children. At first, this might seem like a bad comparison. In the grain example, there are children who are already alive and the woman has a certain moral obligation to feed them. Thus, she is obligated to accept the grain. Of course, a woman who refuses to feed her starving children is not the same as a woman who uses contraception. However, if one rejects step 1 because it will necessarily lead to step 2, the rejection of step 1 will be morally equivalent to rejecting step 2. If the rejection of step 2 is morally licit, then there is no fault. But if rejecting step 2 is immoral, then there will be fault. In the grain example, step 1 is “accept the grain.” Step 2 is “prepare it and feed the children.” Relating to contraception, step 1 is “have natural sex.” Step 2 is “bear and raise a child.” If it is immoral to reject childbirth and raising children (step 2), then it will be immoral to reject step 1 by having unnatural sex.6

Back to the well. There may be other reasons that the bad mother will reject the gift. Perhaps out of fear or excessive cynicism, she will falsely imagine that the grains are poisoned and she will reject them. Perhaps out of despair, which is the vice opposing the virtue of hope, she will reject the gift because she believes that her situation will never improve, and this food will only prolong the inevitable death of her children.

Now if the bad mother does accept or otherwise comes into possession of some gift, she will not perfect or improve it. Or perhaps she will do a poor job of improvement because she does not care. In another case, rather than improving it she will make it worse. But in the extreme case, she will destroy it. The bad mother, walking home from the well, changes her mind for reasons similar to the ones above, and instead of bringing the grains home, she throws them away, not willing that she should suffer the obligation of preparing and sharing the food. This is an image of the evil of abortion which is the very archetypal act of the bad mother. Instead of nurturing, developing and caring for her child, the highest and most proper gift a woman can receive, she has the child destroyed.

Now finally, whatever the bad mother has, she will not share it. If she does indeed prepare the bread, she will selfishly devour it herself even while her children remain famished. But in all this she has no joy because “bad mother” is never the proper vocation of any woman. That is, this archetype is definitively contrary to the nature of woman. She will not share her gifts or her joy, if she has any. And this affects both her and everyone around her. Not only is it the case that the bad mother will not bring joy to those around her, she will steal it from them. The good mother shares her joy and has it all the more, but the bad mother steals the joy of others and yet has none of her own.

Conclusions

This should suffice for our sketch of these two contrary archetypes. But before concluding this first part, I should again emphasize that it is sometimes appropriate and even necessary that a man take on the feminine role at least in a certain sense. For example, when his daughter is injured, the good father ought to take up the motherly role of comforter. That is all to say that none of the above good tendencies are exclusive to women. They are rather most fitting and proportionate to the feminine power. Women, too, will sometimes find it necessary to take on a masculine role. For example, when a woman notices someone else being mistreated, she is often moved by her natural power of compassion to take on the masculine role of defender.

I intentionally use the word power in describing some of these qualities, because they are sometimes caricatured as weaknesses or trivialities. On the contrary, feminine capacities and inclinations, natural to women, are every bit as classifiable by the word “power” as their masculine correspondents. For example, the more feminine attribute “merciful” signifies the power of acting mercifully. We mistakenly think of “retribution” and “wrath” as powers but not “mercy” and “compassion.”

Women have many natural powers that are often undervalued by society. This is because these powers are most especially ordered towards producing and developing life and love, and the world does not properly value these things. Consider the power whereby women tend to resist the temptation to abandon their motherly vocation. There are many more bad fathers than bad mothers because men generally lack this feminine power. What is worse, the modern feminists go so far as to refer to these and other feminine powers as weaknesses, defects, or hindrances, e.g. “the prison of the womb.” Is this shameful reclassification of feminine powers not in itself misogynistic in the extreme? We will return to this subject later but the point here is to insist that motherhood, and its accompanying powers, proper to feminine nature, are positive goods in the fullest extent.

The reader may now wonder why I have neglected to expound further on the good and bad father as corresponding archetypes. The simple reason for this is that those archetypes are very well known to us even in the modern age. Everyone knows what a bad father is. This archetype is all too familiar. Even the good father is still portrayed in popular media such as television. But notice that Hollywood struggles to portray the dichotomy between the good mother and the bad mother. There are sinister reasons for this which I will explore in the final part of this series.

Concluding, I would like to thank CTC’s Beth Turner for her invaluable input and editing contributions to this and the remainder of the series. I must also heartily acknowledge and recommend two valuable sources upon which I drew heavily for inspiration on this topic. The first is the book entitled, “The Privilege of Being a Woman” by Alice von Hildebrand and the second is the interview of Dr. Carrie Gress by David Clayton entitled: “Femininity and Feminism, Mary and Anti-Mary. The interview can be found here at the podcast “The Way of Beauty”

  1. I will expound further upon what is meant by certain philosophical terms such as “nature” in the next part of this series. []
  2. 1 Corinthians 7:38 []
  3. I will discuss this point further in the next part. []
  4. Matthew 26:41 []
  5. Romans 7:17 []
  6. There can be proportionate reasons to reject procreation and thus there can be proportionate reasons to reject step 1 by abstaining from sex. But there are never proprtionate reasons to have unnatural sex. Note, that selfishness, convenience, or “self fulfillment” could never be proportionate reasons. Also note that step 2 might not always follow from step 1. For example, even if the woman accepts the grain, she might lose it before she gets home. Women who accept gifts at wells do not always successfully put them to good use. Likewise, birthing children does not always result from natural sex. But just because step 2 might not always result from step 1, doesn’t mean that we can reject step 1. []
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  1. […] is the third essay in a four part series on the Catholic feminine. Part one can be found here and part two can be found here. In this part, perhaps the most abstract of the three, I will be […]

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