At times, it can be tempting to just ignore the differences between men and women. Why does gender really matter, if women are in the workplace and men are co-parenting with style? Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone in this transgender debate if we just stop caring so much about gender in the first place?
Yet, even as we consider these questions, something within us cries out against this simplification. We may not be able to say what it is that makes a woman to be a woman, or a man to be a man, but we know that the two are different. We know that this difference matters, even if we are hesitant to pinpoint any particular thing that differentiates the sexes.
Strangely, it seems that everyone these days does, too. Because, while the transgender movement may want to say that those differences lie solely in hormones and physical characteristics, in simply saying this, this movement acknowledges that there is a significant difference between men and women. Significant enough that people want to do various things to make sure that everyone “feels” as though they are the “correct” gender. What a monumental admission from a culture that cannot say what the difference between the genders is!
In truth, this brings us to the root of the problem: ultimately, what does it mean to be feminine or masculine? If the differences between men and women are merely biological, how can someone psychologically “feel” that he or she is the “wrong” sex? What are feminine/masculine feelings, apart from the biological ones, if this is the only difference? What is femininity, if it doesn’t mean the stereotypical love of pink, dresses, and babies?
As both modern people, and as Catholics, we have to grapple with this question– and be prepared to answer it in a way that makes sense given our experiences. Each of us is in some ways a product of feminism– women vote, and often work outside the home, and enjoy a certain amount of equality that is unprecedented in history. Women have been able to make incredible contributions to the fields of science, politics, medicine and countless others. These are good things.
Women have shown themselves to be the “equal” of men in so many ways that the stereotypical answers for what makes someone feminine does not apply. We cannot simply say that a woman is made to bear and raise children, or to make a home, and leave it at that. As Catholics, we cannot allow our answer to be that simple. Instead, given our experiences and the glorious inheritance of the Church, we are called to find an answer to this question of difference in a much more complicated, nuanced and challenging way.
Fortunately, in his wisdom, God didn’t leave us alone to grapple with this question. In his Church, and in particular in the writings of Saint Pope John Paul II, we find the beginnings of an answer. It has been almost twenty five years since John Paul II wrote his apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem). At the time, he was facing the radicalization of feminism, in which many were trying to eliminate the differences between men and women. He sought to offer an answer to this problem through reflecting on the role of women in both the Scriptures and the Church, helping all to see how the “feminine genius” enabled God’s salvific plan and continues to work for good in the world. In this rich letter, he offers so much to unpack– providing a foundation to answer both those who minimize gender differences and those who place their emphasis on the wrong aspects of it.
In light of today’s cultural questions, visiting this document has become imperative for serious Catholics. However, many of us have also found that encountering John Paul II’s writings on our own can be…difficult. Here is where the organization Endow comes in: founded twenty years ago specifically to help women unpack the mystery of their own “feminine genius”, Endow’s study on Mulieris Dignitatem walks women through this important document, in the company of other women who are also searching for answers to questions about what it means to be a woman in today’s society.
In studying this document, each of us can find an answer to the question of what makes the feminine genius both unique and necessary in the world we live in. While it may not be the answer our modern culture proposes, it is an answer that challenges us each to live an authentically Christian life in accordance with the way in which we were created.
To learn more about the Endow organization, please see here. To learn more about the study for Mulieris Dignitatem, please visit the study page, found here. Endow is also doing a monthly web-discussion of different parts of this study in honor of its twentieth anniversary– you can sign up for future meetings of this webinar through this link. To listen to an interview with a former trans “woman,” click here to link to the Endow Podcast or YouTube channel.