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The Woman in Childbirth: Icon of the Christian Life



Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 09/12/14

Sacrificing oneself to bring forth new life sums up the life of anyone who follows Christ.

Somewhat earlier than planned, the lovely Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, has announced her pregnancy with another prospective heir to the throne. The reason for the hasty tidings is that the same wretched “morning” sickness that marked her first pregnancy has now forced her to cancel many upcoming appearances.

I wonder if she feels the same way about pregnancy as I do. The truth is, I think it’s kind of awful. I mean, for a while it makes sense and it’s mostly cool—right up to that point when you realize (and you always do), that there is no magical way for that baby to leave your womb, that virgin birth is not even remotely possible. It’s either labor and delivery or someone is going to cut you open.

In the West we are mostly anesthetized to these realities, quite literally. And this is probably a good thing, because I am pretty sure we would have waited a very, very long time for a second baby had I not been promised it didn’t have to be that bad again. I thought I was going to die.

But it isn’t just labor and delivery that make pregnancy tough. The rest can be bad, too. And I earnestly mean that. Just ask Kate. I do know women who have tolerable and even enjoyable pregnancies. And I praise God for that. But I have not loved my pregnancies. I have mostly just wanted to survive them.

And all of this is something we don’t talk about very often. Perhaps because we worry that negative talk about pregnancy might drive more women to the abortion mills, or cede some line of victory to the feminists. Or perhaps we worry that it will undermine our efforts to defend the Church’s teaching on contraception. All of this would be understandable.  

But the upshot of this reticence is that it’s the feminists who spend most of the time talking about the difficulties and dangers of pregnancy—no small irony, since the feminists of our generation tend to spend very little time pregnant.

But I think we should talk more about the negatives. Not to be dour, of course, but to help people understand the fundamental meaning of the Christian vocation, a message that is central to Mulieris Dignitatem and the Second Vatican Council. You just can’t advance these majestic teachings on a cartoon image of the pregnant woman that sweeps away hardships. People do not want to escape from sufferings. They want to know that their sufferings have meaning.

And what is the meaning of pregnancy and childbirth? The pregnant woman is a sign of contradiction—because pregnancy, which brings new life, cannot end without a laying down of life. The pregnant woman is also a sign of the Passion of Christ, most especially in the act of childbirth. And she is a sign of the fruitfulness of the Church, the Bride of Christ. Taken together, pregnancy is exactly a sign of what it is to be a Christian. And just like pregnancy—Christianity seems to make sense and be cool for a while at the beginning, right up to the point when you realize, and you always do, that running the race to the finish calls for laying down your life.

InMulieris Dignitatem (22), John Paul II reflects:

“…it is precisely in the face of the ‘mighty works of God’ that Saint Paul, as a man, feels the need to refer to what is essentially feminine in order to express the truth about his own apostolic service. This is exactly what Paul of Tarsus does when he addresses the Galatians with the words: ‘My little children, with whom I am again in travail’
(Gal 4:19). In the First Letter to the Corinthians (7:38) Saint Paul proclaims the superiority of virginity over marriage, which is a constant teaching of the Church in accordance with the spirit of Christ’s words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (19:10-12); he does so without in any way obscuring the importance of physical and spiritual motherhood. Indeed, in order to illustrate the Church’s fundamental mission, he finds nothing better than the reference to motherhood.
(Emphasis mine.)

It is for this reason that the secular world is at war with pregnancy and motherhood. And this is worth pondering. The rejection of femininity is closely tied to the rejection of the Church. “Women of Jerusalem, weep for yourselves and for your children. For if they do this to the green wood, what will be done to the dry?” If it sometimes seems as if the world has trained its choicest weapons upon all that is most beautifully feminine—well, it has. This is the real war on women. 

Of course none of this is merely an accident of our times. The early Christians distinguished themselves from the very beginning by rejecting abortion and the exposure of infants. And this was true in a time when every pregnancy carried with it a real risk of maternal death. We were not yet immunized against its dangers, yet still the early Church fostered a love of fertility deeply inimical to the prevailing cultures of the day.  

The Church is still up to the same thing now: honoring pregnancy with all of its attendant difficulties in the face of a culture which prevents and disposes of pregnancy like none other recorded in human history. She even praises as models of heroic virtue those women (St. Gianna Molla and others) who show us how to love motherhood more than life itself. From this perspective, we can see the stationary point in the history of the Church:  “…one can have no adequate hermeneutic of man, or of what is ‘human,’ without appropriate reference to what is "feminine” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 22).

The fate of the Church, indeed the fate of humanity, rises and falls with the dignity accorded to women.

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk
is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010).  She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and their seven children.

ParentingPope John Paul II
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