In last week’s column, I wrote about my great admiration for St. Catherine of Siena and for the role she played in the Church and society of her day. This week as we prepare to celebrate Mother’s Day and indeed the “motherhood” of all women in various ways — including those in religious or consecrated life — I want to highlight again the gift and role of women in the Catholic Church.

As noted previously, Pope Francis has called for greater roles for women in Church leadership. The Holy Father notes that the contribution of women to the Catholic Church is to be found in the “feminine imprint” of the divine image in which she is created. As he stated in the closing document of the Amazonian Synod, “women have kept the Church alive … through their remarkable devotion and deep faith.”

In the pope’s mind, more essential than the call for women’s ordination to the priesthood — which he as the Successor of St. Peter believes the Church has spoken on and cannot be changed — is a call for a “deeper theology” of the role of women in Church and society. Francis believes that women must be valued and not simply clericalized. Such thinking comes from his own rejection of “machismo” — an exaggerated manly pride — as well as “clericalism” — an exaggerated view of the power and the privilege of the clergy.

In this year’s homily for the World Day of Consecrated Life on February 2 (Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple), Pope Francis spoke of religious life as “seeing what really matters in life.” Also in 2014, in his Angelus message on the same occasion, he stated, “What would happen if there were no sisters? Sisters in the hospitals, sisters in the missions, sisters in the schools. … One can’t imagine it! They are the leaven that carry the people of God forward! The Church and the world have need of this testimony of the love and mercy of God. Those who live a religious life in imitation of Christ’s own poverty, chastity, and obedience, offer a special witness to the gospel of the Kingdom of God.”

Such reflections lead one to reflect on the gift of womanhood not only in terms of “gender equality,” but even more in the age-old and biblical notion of “gender complementarity.” In 2007, at a United Nations session on gender equality and the empowerment of women, the Holy See’s representative stated, “The legitimate quest for equality between men and women has achieved positive results in the area of equality of rights. This quest needs to be accompanied by the awareness that equality goes hand in hand with and does not endanger, much less contradict, the recognition of both the difference and complementarity between men and women. Without this recognition the struggle for equality would not be authentic.”

A concern I have today is the movement to alter “gender identity” in the name of “gender equality.” To me, such an attempt goes against who I am made to be by God and my own unique role in the human family and in God’s plan of salvation.

An example of this effort would be the Equality Act that is before Congress. This legislation purports to protect people experiencing same-sex attraction or gender discordance from unjust discrimination. Although this is a worthy purpose, the Equality Act does not serve it. And instead of respecting differences in beliefs about marriage and sexuality, the Equality Act discriminates against people of faith precisely because of those beliefs. In the process, the Equality Act codifies the new ideology of “gender” in federal law, dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting “gender” as only a social construct rather than originating in the divine plan for the human person.

Womanhood … manhood … is not a social construct! It is who you and I are in God’s eyes! As the prophet Isaiah testifies, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine” (Is 43:1). To be redeemed is to literally be bought back, meaning that in this instance you and I — as we are — matter to God!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

(No. 369) “Being man” or “being woman” is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator. Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity “in the image of God.” In their “being-man” and “being-woman,” they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness.

(No. 2333) “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.”

Some may feel I have slipped away from the original intent of this column of celebrating the gift and role of women, but my greater intent is that it does not get lost in the “-isms” and “movements” of the moment. I am the man I am today because of the women who have been part of my life for 58 years now. My own mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my godmother, my sister, my sisters-in-law, my aunts, my women teachers, my female classmates, my female friends, women religious whom I have known, the women in my parishes and workplace — all have been and are invaluable and precious gifts and presence on my road of life.

I know who I am and how I can be better by the witness, counsel, and friendship of the women who were and are so willing to share life with me. Today, I just want them to know the blessing and gift they are to me by being who they are in my life.

And yet, sadly, I realize that giftedness of women is not always recognized and even abused. To women who experience such heartbreak in their lives, whether in the family or in society or even in the Church, I assure you not only of my prayers, but of support. The Catholic Church through its teaching, agencies, and presence in our communities is trying to assist with issues that affect women today: human trafficking, poverty, discrimination, support in pregnancy, domestic violence, bereavement groups, and gender equality.

In this month, dedicated to Mary, Mother of the Church, it is good for all of us to call to mind a gift we often take for granted: the role of women in the life of the Church and of our society. Indeed, without their nurture and openness to life you and I wouldn’t be here. Happy Mother’s Day!


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