One humid Sunday morning in May, I went with my parents and a dear family friend to church. Towards the end of the service, the priest asked for all women in the church to rise for the Mother’s Day blessing.
I figured he must have misspoken. He meant for all the mothers in the church to rise for the Mother’s Day blessing. But when some of us childless females stayed in our seats, he iterated: All women, please rise, mothers or no. I stood, feeling my eyebrows knit together, while the priest raised his hands over me and all the other women in the church, with and without children.
Let me be clear. I don’t doubt that priest’s good intentions. I think he was genuinely trying to do something nice for women. Nevertheless, I left mass feeling troubled. First, mothers work hard, and I was uncomfortable sharing the honor due to them. Second, I felt like the indiscriminate grouping conflated my identity as a human and a woman with my reproductive capacity. The priest probably didn’t intend to make me feel that way, but nevertheless, that’s the way he made me feel.
God does not choose according to human criteria: the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus are the shepherds, simple and humble people, the first witnesses of the Resurrection are women.
This is beautiful, and this is the mission of women, of mothers and women, to give witness to their children and grandchildren that Christ is Risen! Mothers go forward with this witness! What matters to God is our heart; if we are open to Him; if we are like trusting children. But this also leads us to reflect on how in the Church and in the journey of faith, women have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord, in following him and communicating his face, because the eyes of faith always need the simple and profound look of love.
I have seen many people — on Facebook, on blogs — read this passage in ways that circumscribe women. They point to Pope Francis’ reference to mothers as evidence that women are called to be mothers and nothing else. One blogger gleefully opined that “feminists aren’t going to be happy” and that “this is a good day for our team.” (“Our team”?)
Such an interpretation, I think, takes the pope’s words out of context. Francis mentions women and mothers independently; he does not conflate them, as if the only way a woman can be a woman is to be a mother. Furthermore, it’s clear that Francis’ goal in this passage is to celebrate the power of women, not to confine that power. I wonder if commentators who read this passage as “motherhood only” realize how such a narrow definition of Christian womanhood marginalizes single women, religious women, and married women who cannot have children.
It may seem like I’m making a big deal out of a small thing, but I think these small things can have a big impact on how welcome women feel in the Church.
I’m not denying the value, the centrality even, of mothers. I hope to be one someday. I have a great one myself. And yes, I have seen women discriminated against because of their desire to be mothers, told that they must choose their careers over their families. I condemn such discrimination. But there has to be some way of accommodating and celebrating the Herculean efforts of mothers without marginalizing the women who, whether by choice or by circumstance, live out their Christian lives in other ways.
I am a feminist. There: I said it. For me, feminism means: (1) respecting the human dignity of women; (2) seeing women as individuals with unique desires and gifts; and (3) encouraging women to use their unique desires and gifts for the good of the world, with or without children. All of these principles apply equally to the treatment of men. To paraphrase Henrik Ibsen, I don’t believe in women’s rights — I believe in human rights.
As a feminist, I enthusiastically applaud mothers for everything that they do. But as a feminist, I also worry about women being shunted automatically into the mother box. Saint Paul said that there are many kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4), and Pope Francis said that what matters to God is our heart. Let’s work toward a world in which every woman can use her own gifts for the greater glory of God, in which the heart, not gender, not marital or parental status, is what matters.