Work of God

Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique that

vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity. … Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind’s power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it … when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being.

Though most contemporary feminists have retreated from such harsh language, some continue to attack the life of a housewife. Thus Linda Hirshman argued that “the family—with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.” (Linda Hirshman, “Homeward Bound,” The American Prospect, November 2005)

Is it true that housework is a waste of human potential? While it brings no wordly glory, it nonetheless plays a role in Christian spirituality–as a form of meditation, as service, and as solidarity with God.

The ancient philosophers such as Aristotle scorned bodily work as unbefitting a free man. But Christianity, particularly in the monastic vocation, transformed the status of work. The Benedictine motto, ora et labora–work and prayer–refers not to the prominent, exciting work of the public sphere, but rather to the quiet work of farming, manual labor, manufacturing–and even housework, for, as St. Benedict dictates, “The brothers should serve one another. Consequently, no one will be excused from kitchen service unless he is sick or is engaged in some . . . business of the monastery” (Chapter 35). Benedictine life doesn’t just require work in order to attend to the practical realities of running a monastery, but because of its salutary effect on the soul. As one monastery website says, “while working, monks continue to pray, meditating upon the lectio and the Divine Office.” Anyone who’s ever prayed a rosary knows that occupying the hands, especially with a simple or soothing motion, quiets mental chatter and allows us to focus better on God’s presence.

In addition to conforming well to the rhythms of prayer, housework also allows us to serve God. We can see this in the life of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit brother, who was rejected for the priesthood due to his lack of education and instead became a humble door-keeper at a school. Every time he went to answer the door, he said, “I’m coming, Lord!” For Brother Alphonsus, housework was a way to encounter the living Christ. As Christ says in Matthew 25:40, what we do for others, we do for Him. A life of service to others, whether it’s answering the door or changing diapers, is an ongoing communion with Christ–sometimes with Christ in a “distressing disguise,” as Mother Teresa put it. (And a baby who’s been screaming for three hours, or a husband frustrated with the screaming baby, can be the most distressing of disguises!) Serving the physical needs of others is particularly important, as it reminds us that Christ redeemed the whole person, body and soul, and that our bodies are therefore holy.

Human work–all work–also allows us to participate in three different moments of the divine narrative. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Laborem exercens, wrote that since man is made in the image of God and has been given the mandate to subdue the earth, “in carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (4). In addition to sharing in God’s creative moment, work also allows us to share Christ’s cross:

Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform. (27)

Ultimately, through accepting this toil “in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us,” we also participate in His resurrection (27). We transform toil by embracing it, as Christ did His cross, for the sake of a new heavens and a new earth, and a new brotherhood of man.

Housework, with its “repetitious” and “physical” tasks, lends itself particularly well to this participation in the divine nature. Housework is toil, but housework is also creation–the creation of an orderly home, a loaf of bread, a garden of flowers, a homeschooling activity, a new life. And all of this is undertaken for the common good, just as Christ took up His cross to redeeem His church, the body of believers.

Thus Jesus, who lived the humble life of a carpenter and redeemed our bodies through his suffering on the cross and his bodily resurrection, shows that it is precisely through “repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks” that we can know Him–that we can pray, serve, and become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3).

In my own life, I find more spiritual fulfillment when doing housework or caring for my child than when writing academic papers. I sweep the floor while saying the Jesus Prayer. I play with my baby while meditating on Christ’s incarnation in such a tiny, helpless form. But the minute I sit at my computer to write for school, the complexity of the assignment distracts me from the” one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). Perhaps in time I could learn to maintain the presence of God while tackling weighty academic tomes, but for now, a life of simple service seems to bring me the most peace.



A century of Church teaching on marriage (condensed)

Has Catholic teaching on marriage changed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Some traditionalist Catholics regard modern Church teaching on marriage with suspicion, because they believe it emphasizes marriage’s romantic or subjective elements at the expense of the institutional aspects. But when we read the relevant papal encyclicals through a hermeneutic of continuity, I think we can see how the essential doctrine remains untouched.

According to St. Augustine, there are three purposes or ends of marriage: conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament. Which of these is the chief end? The 1917 Code of Canon Law stated that “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children.” Some Catholics believe that this definition was altered by Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti connubii. In the encyclical, he quoted the canonical definition, but then went on to say,

matrimonial faith demands that husband and wife be joined in an especially holy and pure love . . . this mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof. (24)

And the, just to muddy the waters even more, Pius XI goes on to say that the sacrament “far surpasses the other two” blessings of marriage (79).

So Pius XI apparently holds that conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament are *all* the most important purpose of marriage. How is this even possible, and is it consistent with prior Church teaching, which identified procreation as the chief end?

There’s a clue in the text of the document. Pius XI notes, in his comments on contraception, that “every sin committed as regards the offspring becomes in some way a sin against conjugal faith, since both these blessings are essentially connected” (72).

So conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament are all related–but we’re not precisely told how.

Over thirty years later, in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, we see a shift in language. No longer do we hear of conjugal fidelity; rather, we hear of the “unitive” and “procreative” dimensions of marriage.

Here is the relevant passage explaining the two:

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. (12)

Again, we see the notion that the different aspects of marriage are inextricably intertwined–but with a different terminology, which, according to some critics, signified changing ideas. The term “unitive” has been critcized for apparently referring to romantic love rather than to the more fundamental aspects of fidelity or sacramental grace.

It’s hard to argue against this criticism using only the text of Humanae vitae, since the term “unitive” occurs only twice in the whole document and is never clearly defined. However, I believe Pope John Paul II clarified Church teaching on marriage, particularly in Letter to families.

Once again, John Paul II changed the terminology. He neither reverted to the traditional threefold enumeration of ends, nor consistently used the new terms “unitive” and “procreative.” Instead, he described marriage as a “total gift of self.”

In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm in a responsible way the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant. The logic of the total gift of self to the other involves a potential openness to procreation: in this way the marriage is called to even greater fulfilment as a family. Certainly the mutual gift of husband and wife does not have the begetting of children as its only end, but is in itself a mutual communion of love and of life. (12)

The concept of the “gift of self” demonstrates the underlying unity of the different dimensions of marriage–conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament. In conjugal fidelity, we vow faithfulness to the other. We give ourselves completely, and for life–after marriage, we don’t reserve the right to share our most intimate being with others. In the conjugal act, when it is ordered towards procreation, we also give and receive completely. We tell our husband or wife: “I want all of you–not just the pleasure you give me, but your body and even your children. I want your body, with all its life-giving potential, with no barriers between us. I want your children–your crooked nose, your dark eyes, reflected in a new generation. I want all the mutual cooperation and sacrifice that raising them will entail.” Finally, in the sacrament, the marital gift of self finds its highest meaning through recalling Christ’s gift to His church on the cross.

To say that “the unitive and procreative ends of marriage can’t be separated” is to say that you cannot give yourself only partially. You cannot become one flesh while holding parts of yourself back. The marriage vows demand total, radical openness to the other–a mutual gift of everything that we are, body and soul.

Therefore the three traditional ends of marriage–conjugal fidelity, procreation, sacrament–are all bound up in a self-giving, other-directed love. Through marriage, you fulfill the mission of a Christian, which is to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

Who’s your favorite Doctor of the Church?

The addition of John of Avila to the Doctors of the Church has made me consider: which one is most important to my own life?

It’s hard to choose, isn’t it? Augustine is a towering figure, both for his brilliant theological mind and his humbleness and honesty in recounting his own conversion story. Aquinas is so important he’s sometimes just called the Universal Doctor. The Carmelites Teresa and John of the Cross wrote some of the most moving prose I’ve ever read about falling in love with God.

But I think my personal favorite is . . .

St. Francis de Sales!

Introduction to the Devout Life isn’t a book of profound theology. It doesn’t scale sublime mystical heights or provide new insights into Scripture. It’s just a really great practical guide to being a Christian–but that’s exactly what we all need, isn’t it?

In my opinion, the book is much more humane than the similar Imitation of Christ. While Imitation of Christ urges readers to shun particular attachments such as friendships, and to withdraw from the world, Introduction to the Devout Life teaches its audience how to draw strength from family and friends. For this reason, I think it’s a particularly good book for women, since we often prefer a life of serving and relating to others over the life of a hermit.

The only problem with the book is that de Sales draws his metaphors from nature–but from a 16th century understanding of nature, which was . . . lacking in scientific rigor. Let me open to a random page and provide an example: “as the he-goats, touching the sweet almond trees with their tongues, make them become bitter . . . ” (127). Hmm. Good thing de Sales is a doctor of theology, not a medical doctor!

Quaint metaphors nothwithstanding, Introduction to the Devout Life is the kind of book you should keep on your nightstand, with your favorite passages duly bookmarked and reviewed daily. That way, its advice will pass from the page into your life.

Who’s your favorite Doctor of the Church?

The Common Good

In my last entry, I referred to the concept of a common good but neglected to define it.

The common good is not simply a good that is owned jointly. It is a good that cannot be converted into private shares, for it transcends each private individual.

A house is not a common good. There may be more than two people on the deed, but they can always sell it and divide its financial worth between them.

A home, on the other hand, is a common good. Once a house is sold, it is no longer the family’s home, so they cannot each take their individual shares of “home.” It exists only when shared.

Marriage, family, children–these are all indivisible common goods.

In modern society, we tend to conceive of rights as something we “own,” as possessions for which we owe nothing to society. As a result, we have a hard time understanding common goods. They are something that may benefit us as individuals, something which we may even have a right to enter into, but they are also something that cannot be grasped at or possessed through individual will.

Family, for instance, has ceased to be understood as a common good. Family is instead seen as a product, as something you acquire exactly when you want it, and can discard when it does not meet your specifications. For instance, if you become pregnant with twins but only wanted one, or become pregnant with a Down’s syndrome child when you wanted a healthy child, you can abort the undesired child. Or if you decide you’re simply tired of marriage, you can leave–no questions asked. No-fault divorce is actually *less* restrictive than the return policy at most stores. We are more concerned with family “rights” than with family duties.

This is why “choice feminism” has mostly reconciled itself to the concept of “stay-at-home moms”, no longer advocating for a mass exodus from the home (a few feminist cranks like Linda Hirshman notwithstanding). Because as long as those stay-at-home moms view their time in the home as a right, as a fulfillment of personal desire, the individualistic framework of feminism remains undisrupted.

But if “stay-at-home moms” were to rebrand themselves as homemakers and start speaking of a “common good” or, Heaven forbid, quoting 1 Corinthians 6:20, then modern political ideologies would really be in danger!


SAHM vs. Housewife

“I dance and sing and play the guitar and listen to NPR. I write letters to my family, my congressional representatives, and to newspaper editors. My kids and I play tag and catch, we paint, we explore, we climb trees and plant gardens together. We bike instead of using the car. We read, we talk, we laugh. Life is good. I never dust.” (Quoted in Sandra Tsing Loh, “I Choose My Choice!,” The Atlantic, July/August 2008)

The above is a quote from a stay-at-home mom describing her daily life. Feminist thinker Linda Hirshman famously criticized the anonymous mom for living the life of a “toddler,” and urged all women to forsake the home in order to avoid such a mindless life. Leaving aside the fact that work outside the home can, in fact, be just as mindless (hasn’t Hirshman ever had to work a cash register, grade exams, or write a “mission statement” for a nonprofit?), it’s also important to note that work *inside* the home wasn’t always the way it was described here.

In order to identify the difference, let’s consider the difference in terminology. While women who stayed home were once referred to as “housewives” or “homemakers,” they’re now almost exclusively referred to as “stay-at-home moms.”

The term “housewife” or “homemaker” references the household as a whole: the husband, the wife, the children, servants, elderly parents, pets, etc. It includes all these people, but not as separate entities; rather, it folds them into a single entity, the household. It therefore emphasizes the *common* good.

The term “stay-at-home mom,” however, emphasizes only the mother and, by extension, the children. The husband and any other family members are left out. It therefore emphasizes the mother’s desire to be home with her children–not anyone else’s needs or desires.

Consider the quote above. I don’t know this woman and I’m sure she’s a fine person in real life, but her quote makes it seem as if she pursues nothing but pleasure and play alongside her children. It evinces no concern with keeping a clean, welcoming environment for her husband, or caring for her elderly parents, or with service to a common good at all, really.

There’s a lot to be done in managing a home: cooking healthy meals, cleaning, educating children, caring for the sick, performing religious duties. But if we frame it all in terms of *our* desires, in terms of whether having and staying home with kids fulfills *us* as women, then we really are living the lives of “toddlers.” After all,adults should understand that it’s not all about us. It’s about what best serves the common good.

In short, I think I prefer the term “housewife.” Yes, it’s only a word, and most women use the term “stay-at-home mom” without intending any hidden meaning. But I think the mass use of the term signals a cultural shift that isn’t wholly positive.

Contraceptive failures

Contraception prevents unplanned pregnancy and hence abortion–or so the popular wisdom goes. In reality, the out-of-wedlock birth rate in 1940, before the invention of the Pill, was less than 4%. Now it’s about 40%, and that’s actually lower than most Westernized nations. Abortion rates, too, have likely soared, though it’s difficult to obtain reliable data on abortion rates prior to legalization. But here’s an interesting statistic from our friends at the Guttmacher Institute–54% of all abortions are sought by women who were using contraception when they became pregnant, not by women who couldn’t afford it or who were blocked from finding it through a patriarchal conspiracy.


Empirically, contraception hasn’t actually accomplished what it was supposed to do. During the period in which it’s become accessible and accepted, out-of-wedlock pregnancies have become ten times more common, and over half of all abortions have occurred *despite* contraception use.


How can this be?


Let’s consider for a moment how people assess risk. We are not perfectly rational creatures, and we don’t assess risk through cooly computing the odds of a given outcome. For instance, if the odds of dying in a car crash are greater than dying in plane crash, we don’t then proceed to reduce our driving time and adopt flying as our predominant mode of travel. No, most people, even after seeing the statistics, will continue to fear flying while experiencing little to no fear in a car. Activities that are rare–and for most people, flying is rare compared to driving–will inspire more fear than the mundane and the everyday. Activities in which we exert little to no control over the outcome–and unless you’re the pilot, you certainly don’t have any control over the fate of your flight–will inspire more fear than the ones in which we are, perhaps literally, in the drivers’ seat. So we all fear being abducted by a serial killer, even though the odds of it happening are vanishingly rare, while ignoring the risks of downing the liquid calories and sugar at Starbucks every day or driving to work.


Here’s the problem with contraception: the contraceptive mentality leads to a normalization of non-marital, non-procreative sex. Once this becomes common, people become less likely to perceive the risks. Planned Parenthood can distribute pamphlets helpfully comparing the pregnancy or STD risks of different contraceptive methods–and college students will chuck the pamphlets in the trash and have sex with an expired condom that’s been wedged in a wallet for months. They’re surrounded by sex all the time, so their perception of its risks has been eroded. People won’t use contraception in a perfectly rational manner, because the ubiquity of non-procreative sex leads them to forget that it can actually, you know, result in procreation–in fact, that this is what it has specifically evolved to do.


Since contraception also fosters an illusion of individual control–even more so than an activity like driving, in which we have to be careful of other drivers–it leads us to believe that sex “belongs” to us, like a product to be disposed of at will. It leads us to believe that we can control the outcomes of sex. As Pope Benedict wrote in Deus caritas est, “no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.” We become divorced from our bodily reality, from the great primordial forces of eros that we can assent to but can never completely direct. For this reason, procreation becomes alien to us. It is no longer an integral part of our being, but becomes something we (think we can) ignore.


Contraception is a complete failure at what it’s supposed to do. I don’t mean the 1-10% failure rate of each particular method if used perfectly. I mean that once you deny the reality of procreation, you’re never going to get everyone to use contraception perfectly, because you’re denying the very reality and power of sex.

Biology and destiny

The idea that sexual differences reflect a spiritual reality is often dismissed as meaning that “biology is destiny.”

In other words, if I think that being a woman shapes my personality, my marital role, or my relationship with God, then I’m a slave to my animal parts.

Feminism reveals its embrace of Cartesian dualism–as well as its misunderstanding of the Christian view–through condemning “biology as destiny.”

As a Christian complementarian, I believe that my female sexual organs–along with the rest of my body–are *me.* They are not just objects to be manipulated, mutilated, or sold.

My body was made to grow and nourish new life. I refuse to hate it for this ability; I refuse to drug it or surgically alter it in order to make it somethig different. Instead, I embrace this ability, not only in its physical aspects but also in the way it affects my interactions with the world. I am more timid and careful than my husband is, because my body instinctually wants to protect any life that may be within it. I am good at appreciating the particular over the abstract, because my body brings forth new individuals, each of whom must be cared for according to his or her particular personality. I am comfortable with mystery and do not seek to subject the world to rational control, because for nine months I can carry a baby hidden inside me, a person who I can cherish without knowing.

Nature is fundamentally good, because God made it. Yes, nature is also in a fallen state, leading to corruptions of its goodness, such as disease, death, and decay. But grace perfects nature–it does not abolish it. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says of Mary Magdalene that “I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” But in the Christian, non-gnostic worldview, women need not be stripped of their natures. I don’t need to take a pill to make my body less female; I don’t need to transcend or deny my biological reality. I am made in the image and likeness of God just as I am–body and soul–and hence my spirituality can be in harmony, not in conflict, with my body.

I have a destiny as a child of God.  And my biology is part of that.