Authentic Femininity in a Technological and Consumeristic Society
Genevieve S. Kineke
If man and woman are called to collaborate in a fruitful way in society, then all technology and all consumer objects offered to us are to be judged by one criterion: what impact does each have on our call to authentic communion—and its natural corollary, our life-giving capacity? Technology is neutral, but its application blankets us with a spirit of utilitarianism; and consumer goods, though not inherently evil of themselves, create an atmosphere that quickly manages to objectify the human person as well. Such objectification harms woman in particular, as her body is subject to packaging and marketing, and her essence is subsumed by lust—degrading everyone who participates in the enterprise.
As pilgrims in a material world, as ambassadors of love, as bridges to the infinite truth about the human person, women in particular are uniquely suited to apply their feminine genius to the proper integration of technology and consumer goods, so that utilitarianism and objectification of persons are perpetually resisted. All persons, woman and man, the whole of humanity are made for communion—with God and one another. And in light of properly ordered relationships, the consumer must weigh the use of these gifts and their effects on the common good.
Motherhood marks the woman’s personality
The feminine vocation is distinctly ordered to the human person, to which her child-bearing physiology bears witness. “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” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 18). Her feminine personality, if properly formed (and not marred by wounds or resentments), will be directed by prayerful discernment to gauge the possible harms that technology and goods pose to the persons in her sphere of influence. For example, she could ask the following:
Will this application enhance the male’s ability to protect and provide?
Will this form of entertainment degrade the value of life or present relationships?
Will the acquisition of this item keep the woman from relating to her loved ones?
Will our embrace of this lifestyle strengthen or weaken family bonds?
Will this path enhance or diminish the female’s desire to receive and nurture life?
Will these goods interfere in our relationship with God and the call to holiness?
One key to our discernment process is our ability to perpetually hold in sight the nuptial backdrop to creation, in which men and women are invited to engage in the spousal mystery with their everyday lives—whether single, married, or called to a priestly or consecrated vocation. Thus men, as icons of the Bridegroom, will find themselves through an oblative service to the family, which they are called to lead; and women will find themselves in service to the human person as virgin, bride and mother. Foundational to both the masculine and feminine vocations is the mandate to give oneself totally for the good of the other, through various means and channels. Mulieris Dignitatem cites Gaudium et Spes in offering the pivotal truth: “This likeness [between God and man] reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self" (MD, 7).
The Nuptial Mystery Reveals Woman as Bride
When she is able to receive the love of the bridegroom and bear life, the woman is most profoundly herself. Despite all the essential activities of daily life, despite the heavy demands of family and work (paid and unpaid), despite the rupture of essential relationships making her path more difficult, despite all who depend on her in myriad ways, the woman must remember that her vocation is primarily ordered to authentic communion, not efficiency or accomplishment. Concrete tasks are necessary and unavoidable, but the spirit behind the tasks—the spirit of the Bride—has the capacity to transform each one into an expression of love: love for the encountered soul, and love for the Bridegroom through Whom and for Whom she acts. In this way, the woman distinguishes the true value of technology and the appropriateness of any consumer good.
“The ‘woman,’ as mother and first teacher of the human being (education being the spiritual dimension of parenthood), has a specific precedence over the man” (MD, 19). Every woman, no matter the particulars of her vocation, is called to arbitrate wisely the goods and services of this passing world so that the lives she nourishes can find God. A woman imbued with the spirit of Christ sees transportation as a means of uniting souls and increasing viable options for education and employment; she engages labour-saving devices in order to enhance her personal encounters elsewhere; she gives sincere thanks for medical technology that assures the comfort and survival of her children and ailing relatives; and she embraces the information technology that enhances the authentic vocations of her loved ones. Surely, telecommuting, flex-time and video-conferencing options have widened her income-earning opportunities, allow her to use genuine talents and gifts, and combine well with motherhood. We should give sincere thanks that oppressive isolation is no longer a burden of those tied to the home.
Women are Called to Discern Wisely
Technology and consumer goods must be engaged in life-giving ways, and women must prudently recognize the temptations to the contrary. Medical technology cannot be used in ways that undermine nuptial love and the sacredness of all life, from conception to natural death. The same mobility that multiplies legitimate options has the capacity to fragment the family and undermine its traditional bonds. Certainly, information technology has the potential to wedge itself into the home, replacing eye-contact and conversation with the impersonal transfer of data, and undermining the family as arbiter of values. We have all been adversely affected by the consumerism that has managed to “package” the woman as an object of pleasure, and sell sex as one more form of entertainment. “Disposable goods” have made their firm imprint on young minds, and there is the danger of all relationships being seen through the prism of utility and pleasure.
Two particular dimensions of the feminine vocation that John Paul II highlights in this document that are essential to the discernment process are empathy and entrustment. Empathy is a bridge of communion among persons, and the woman’s response of receiving and caring for what has been entrusted to her restores each soul to the perfect will of God. He writes in Mulieris Dignitatem that women who can truly empathise with the moral and physical suffering of the world (cf. MD, 19) will make manifest the truths of God that can alleviate and transform that suffering into life-giving grace united to the passion of the Bridegroom.
His emphasis on these themes reflects the influence of the work of a woman he took joy in raising to the altar of God, Edith Stein, known in religion as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. This philosopher-convert pondered the two-fold creation of male and female and wrote profoundly on the woman’s vocation. She knew that God entrusts each person initially to the loving care of a woman to be nourished in critical ways; she taught that education for women is essential to the health of the culture and the future of a given society; and she emphasised that the interior richness of women provides the foundation for loving collaboration within the family and beyond:
To become what one must be, to unfold and mature in the best way one's hidden humanity... to make it mature in that union of love that alone can animate this rigorous process, and at the same time, drive others toward perfection and maturity: this is the deepest need of woman... A specifically feminine need.
That need has no doubt been ever a divine inspiration, because through it a woman’s fulfillment is her culture’s gain. Without such a goal of perfection and maturity, a society will certainly settle in imperfection and mediocrity that will eventually prove fatal.
Recognition and Value of Suffering
Surely, the impulse behind the creation of a technological and material-rich culture was the effort to decrease suffering and to minimize pain. These are worthy endeavors and we are grateful for many of the gifts that they make possible. But while some suffering can be alleviated by technology and material goods, they can never replace the affection and sincere motherly concern that a woman must provide, so that those who suffer know their value in the family of God. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta reminds us that “The greatest suffering is to feel alone, unwanted, unloved. The greatest suffering is also having no one, forgetting what an intimate, truly human relationship is.”
Women grounded in the truth will recognize that only the complete gift of self can alleviate this suffering. The balm of these generous encounters reveals the power of love, which is the essence of God Himself, and makes manifest the authentic feminine dignity to which women are called:
A woman's dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity; it is likewise connected with the love which she gives in return. The truth about the person and about love is thus confirmed (MD, 30).
Ultimately, the suffering that is inevitably part of a fallen world is not to be feared, but embraced by women in love with Jesus Christ, Who endured and transformed it. Having suffered the dehumanizing effects of National Socialism herself (and at whose hands she would ultimately lose her own life), Edith Stein wrote prophetically:
One can only gain a scientia crucis (“knowledge of the cross”) if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: Ave, Crux, Spes unica (“I welcome you, Cross, our only hope”).
This brings us to the landscape before us, which is dark and treacherous in so many ways. Utilitarianism runs rampant, unbridled lust surrounds us, materialism distracts so many from their call to holiness, many relationships are undermined and shredded, and family life is attacked by a combination of toxic ideologies. The only response is a return to the theological virtues, in which we place our own trust.
Mulieris Dignitatem is one portion of a larger treasure entrusted to the Church at this confused juncture in history to help us return to the path of sanctity. This revelation of the theology of the body is an unforeseen gift that deepens and enriches our understanding of the Gospel as it applies to our situation at present. Edith Stein highlighted the beauty of our faith when she wrote:
The imperturbability of the Church resides in her ability to harmonize the unconditional preservation of eternal truths with an unmatchable elasticity of adjustment to the circumstances and challenges of changing times.
From the very ashes of the current misunderstandings about the human person—from which the world suffers so grievously—emerge brilliant discoveries written in our very bodies. We must cling to these eternal truths, and have faith in the Holy Trinity, Whose communion we are called to reflect in the collaboration of nuptial love.
The dehumanised and misguided popular culture cannot strip us of our hope, about which Pope Benedict XVI has so recently written. Hope, as ever, was embodied in the response of one faithful woman, the Blessed Virgin of Nazareth. He reflects:
When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see your cousin Elizabeth, you became the image of the Church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history (Spe Salvi, 50).
The world first knew hope when It took flesh from a woman receptive to the will of God and responding generously with the complete gift of self. Surely, Our Lady kept hope in her breast at the foot of the cross, when all seemed lost and the gift of her Son was yet not fully realized. Through Our Lord’s Passion, the world learned the value of suffering, that the light cannot be overcome by the darkness, and that our very tears will water the seeds of grace that bring life to those who are dead in sin. Indeed, one of the greatest gifts we in turn can give to other women is the witness of our own suffering transformed, our own faith journeys turned from folly to truth, our own realisation of the gift of motherhood which is often scorned and dismissed. With God all things are possible for those who trust in Him.
Finally, in my humble estimation, the most profound truth in Mulieris Dignitatem is John Paul II’s teaching about a woman’s place in the order of love.
The passage from the Letter to the Ephesians which we have been considering enables us to think of a special kind of “prophetism" that belongs to women in their femininity. The analogy of the Bridegroom and the Bride speaks of the love with which every human being—man and woman—is loved by God in Christ. But in the context of the biblical analogy and the text's interior logic, it is precisely the woman—the bride—who manifests this truth to everyone.
Our late and beloved Holy Father indicates clearly that because of a woman’s physiology of receptivity and her more immediate relationship to the human person, she is first in the order of love, which gives her the unique privilege and responsibility of promoting the very essence of God Himself.
Thus, only by taking seriously this privilege and responsibility will she enhance and highlight her feminine dignity and be successful in manifesting the kingdom in our midst. The most remarkable truth contained in this document relates to us the startling reality. Ultimately, it is not what women do that will “aid mankind in not falling” (Closing documents of Second Vatican Council), but it is through discovering and understanding what women are: icons of the Bride, entrusted with the salvific love of Christ, through which they give flesh to His heirs by means of their spiritual and physical motherhood. This is a tremendous, exalted and incomparable vocation!
The years before us are ripe with possibilities as women ponder these things and weigh the cost of convenience and comfort. There is no doubt that technology and consumerism influence the core values of our society, which sees discomfort and want as spectres to be exorcised by material incantations.
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” (Rev. 22:17). The feminine genius we are called to manifest to the world will remind persons that love is the measure, and that which interferes with love must be cast aside for the sake of souls. The woman is called to "receive and bring forth.” Our interior resources must direct souls to their essence and to God. The feminine genius, as John Paul II coined it, will be the constant recollected discernment of how to promote love in, through, and often despite our technological and consumeristic society. As icons of the Bride, we will populate heaven through our humility as creatures, through our trust in the plan of God, and through our receptivity to the Word of Life. For all the technology and goods at our disposal, we must always, “choose life!” (Deut. 3:15).
Mary is indeed our model, our path, and our hope. We turn to her, using Pope Benedict’s words: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!” (SS 50).