The Holy Father, while rejecting "gender theory," exalts "the feminine genius"
The Holy Father’s video hits on key social and political issues for women today — workplace discrimination, sexual violence, modern slavery — but for a man known to have an intimate devotion to Mary, Francis’ prayer that every nation honor the “essential contribution” of women seems like a personal, even philosophical one.
When I first saw the video, Karl Stern’s 1965 book The Flight From Woman came to mind. Stern, a Bavarian-Jewish psychiatrist who fled the heart of Nazi Germany and converted to Catholicism later in life, practiced psychiatry for decades in Canada. While relatively unknown today, he corresponded over the years with the likes of Thomas Mann, Carl Jung and Dorothy Day, who played an integral role in his conversion (and who Francis extolled in his speech to Congress last year).
The Flight From Woman — a holistic work that’s part psychoanalysis, part philosophy and part biography — begins with a chapter on “womanhood” that engages the thought of feminists like Margaret Mead and Simone de Beauvoir. “For millennia women have suffered atrocious forms of social and legal injustice,” Stern writes. “It is no exaggeration to say that they have been, and often still are, the victims of a kind of interior colonialism. However, since the French Revolution and the rise of the feminist movement, the cry for equality has changed into an assertion of sameness.”
Stern counters that, right or wrong, the celebration of the complementarity of the sexes found in so much ancient literature — from the Tao Te Ching, to the Upanishads, to the Old Testament — is rooted in biology. (Like a good Freudian, he begins with the decisive “drama” of the child-mother union, and then analyzes the complementary roles of males and females in reproduction.) But the key question is whether or not complementarity extends beyond the facts of biology and into the “the person of man and woman.” Is male-female complementarity as such an existential fact or a social construct?
Stern argues that not only is it an existential reality; it also permeates the two modes of human knowledge. The “masculine” manifests as “scientific knowledge,” a mode of cold infiltration and analysis that moves around the object, while the “feminine” manifests as “poetic knowledge,” a mode of warm receptivity and intuition that enters into the object. The first mode is driven by separation and culminates in technique, “always in a sense directed against nature,” while the second is driven by union and culminates in love, finding harmony with “the rhythm of being.”
This is far from a quaint nugget of “poetic knowledge” itself. A recent neuroscientific study confirmed that female brains are better equipped for empathetic, emotional and situational thinking, while men’s brains favor individual, exact and task-oriented thinking.
In no way is Stern denigrating intuition. In fact, to hear a negative connotation of “inexact” or “soft” (and not a Bergsonian connotation of “absolute”), and to assume that Stern is secretly privileging “maleness,” only reinforces the book’s argument: that the world has become imbalanced in what it considers “good” or “valid” knowledge. Harmony between the two modes, Stern argues, is an ideal state of affairs. But at present, the world is in desperate need of feminine first principles.
The rest of the book gathers evidence for this thesis from the life and works of seven influential thinkers. As a clinician, Stern finds that an overemphasis on rationality, doubt and separation from (and mastery of) the body and nature, coincides with conflicts with the feminine generally and often with the maternal in particular. (Descartes and Tolstoy lost their mothers at the ages of one and two, respectively.) In some cases (as with Schopenhauer, who was repulsed by the female form and wrote that “deceit is inherent to woman”), the conflict rises to the level of brutal misogyny; in all cases, the conflict correlates to a basic attitude of cold distrust and disassembly.
Reading Francis through this lens, we can see just how much of his pontificate it explains. The feminine in this broader sense informs not only his critique of a gender theory “which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it,” but also of a rapacious “technocratic paradigm” that would confine itself to “logical and rational procedures.” When Francis sets flowers at Mary’s feet everywhere he goes, we’re not just seeing the warm affection a son has for his mother. We’re seeing an exaltation of the “feminine genius” that guides the Church itself.
“Do not forget that the Church is feminine: she is Jesus’ bride,” Francis said in a Q&A with consecrated women. “Faithfulness, the expression of the love of the consecrated woman, should — not as a duty but as a natural characteristic — reflect the faithfulness, love and tenderness of the Mother Church and the Mother Mary.”
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.