This post will come off as a rant. And I apologize in advance. I just can’t help myself.
Several posts ago, I declared myself a Catholic and a feminist. However incongruent that sounds, I believe there is a place for Catholic feminists of both genders in the church. And with the pontiff Francis I, I feel we may be going somewhere with that. But they’ve got to stop doing this one annoying thing. Comparing all women to St. Mary, most especially women who are also mothers. As a Catholic woman, and one of my reasons to remain a Catholic was in no small part due to St. Mary and the prayers and intercessions that She has bestowed upon me. I look to her as a source of comfort and inspiration in difficult times, but I do not model my life after hers. That would be an act of supreme folly.
Let me explain why. Mary, The Mother of God, was a unique woman in history. There was no one like her before and no one after. There will never be another woman like her. Her position in the church is unique. She was called upon by God to carry his only Son to bring him into this world to save us from our sins. She did so willingly, graciously even at great personal danger to herself. She was also made to endure the ultimate grief of a mother in the most horrific way, seeing the son she carried, nurtured and raised for the Lord, be executed by being nailed to the cross. He did it to save us from our sins though I don’t think that thought lessened Mary’s pain and grief.
Also, Mary existed in a time and space in history where women’s choices were limited. In ancient Jewish society, unless she was somehow unmarriageable due to a disability or a mark on her family’s name and reputation, Mary would have been required to marry a suitable man in her social class at a suitable age. Unmarried women in ancient Jewish societies drew scorn and suspicion as evidenced by Mary Magdalen. The rumor that she was the ‘fallen woman’ that Jesus saved would not leave her, though there was no evidence that she was ever a prostitute. She was just an unmarried women with some means, as a result, her reputation as the whore that Jesus saved as reverberated throughout church history. She is held up as an example of even sinful women can be saved. The fact that Jesus chose to reveal himself to her first after His Resurrection only drew more ire from the patriarchs of the early church and have never corrected the rumor that she was a prostitute.
Modern women living in modern times have choices (the other thing the Church hates for women), whether to marry, to become a mother or not or to dedicate our lives to the church either as a Consecrated Virgin or religious orders. We can manage this all on our own without any input from the geriatric cardinals in Vatican City.
The ‘Church’ (aka the above mentioned geriatric cardinals) have decided that for any woman, once she becomes a mother and adopts Mary’s devotion to motherhood, all of that have ailed us will be solved. If we were depressed and directionless? Go get married and have children, that’ll take care of it. If we are unsure as to what we should do with our lives in terms of career path, go get married and have children, that will give you new purpose and meaning. The church’s doctrine of subsuming that every woman’s dearest wish is to become a mother is demeaning and infantilizing to women. And for the record, it’s not every woman’s dearest wish to become a mother. Most women in this world do not have not much choice whether they become a mother or not or how many times they wish to become a mother. Only women in the West and advanced economies and societies have such a choice.
Next, the women that choose to become mothers and should we encounter difficulties with motherhood, their answer is to ask us to turn to St. Mary. Look to her example and again, all our problems will be magically fixed. In fact, any issue relating to Catholic women, we are told to look to St. Mary for guidance (she never gave any ‘advice’ during her life), to look to her intercession and to her life’s example as a template for our own. It’s as if all the answers to women’s problems can be found in the life and actions of St. Mary (which by the way, are scant on details in the Bible).
I thoroughly reject this. Catholic church leaders have not-a-clue what a woman goes through on a day to day basis, the relentless pressures we face, regardless if we are mothers or not. This is just another way to demean, shame and dismiss women because we know we will fall short of the glory of St. Mary. St. Mary is not someone we should even compare ourselves to to begin with. The ‘What would St. Mary do?’ is not the same as ‘What would Jesus do?’ The ‘what would Jesus do?’ is a real rhetorical question and it’s been universally accepted by Christians that Jesus, his actions and sufferings during his life was infallible and irrefutable. No one really expects people to ‘be like Jesus’, only emulate to the best of our ability. But this is not the case when comparing women to St. Mary. Women do not get this ‘pass’. Women are really expected to be like St. Mary, not just ‘to the best of our ability’ metaphoric way.
Catholic women are tasked with the monumental task of keeping our families together. If the ship is steering in the wrong direction, it is our responsibility to steer it back on course. If your husband is unhappy, find ways to make him happy. If your unruly kids are tearing apart your marriage, make them behave. As long as the man is bringing home the bacon and fulfilling his basic responsibilities as a provider, he’s basically off the hook. In the case of Catholic divorces, women always get the short shrift. It’s the women that bears the ‘shame’ of a divorce in the Catholic church, if she were to remarry and wish to remain as an active member of the church (attending mass and receiving communion), she will be branded an ‘adulteress’ because that’s what church law says. It doesn’t matter why she divorced, whether if it was her choice or not. Her husband could have been an alcoholic, drug addict, physically or emotionally abusive, he could left her for another woman, all of which she has no control over but she somehow bears the shame of divorce within the church context. It’s easy to tell a divorced Catholic to cease going to church, but what if she doesn’t want to? What if she likes attending mass and receiving communion because that is her spiritual home and wishes to do it with a new partner. She’s now an ‘adulteress’?
In my local parish, every so often, when certain parish members is coming up on a special anniversary, they are ‘celebrated’ for their longevity in marriage before the end of mass, and the presiding priests says a few words of congratulations to the couple and words of encouragement to the rest of the congregation. Invariably, it’s always a very elderly cute couple (the kind you say ‘aww’ to when you see them on the street) who’ve been married 50 years or more (blissfully as they’d like you to believe), who are in church that day with all of their children, grandchildren and even at times great-grandchildren, being shown off to the rest of the congregation and held up as an example to the rest of us, this is how we commit ourselves to our families, for better or for worse. A whole host of descendents all originating from the same mother and father, there are no ‘steps’ and ‘half’ siblings in this equation, only full siblings.
While it’s heartwarming to see and elderly grandfather leading his elderly wife of 60 years to the podium with all of their descendants behind them, I only think what it took for them (specifically for the grandmother) to keep this marriage together. And was it really as ‘blissful’ as they like us to believe. What were their struggles? What were their arguments? Were they anything like the arguments of modern day couples? How did they resolve it? Do they know something we don’t? Whereas I am full of contempt and anger doled out by silent treatment to my spouse when I am unhappy with him, what did she do? Did she ‘cave in’ to him save the marriage and family unit? And most importantly, was it all worth it? To be the ‘good couple’, the good family, the couple that upheld the church’s teaching on marriage and family, did it bring them satisfaction and happiness at this stage in their lives (like the church said it would)? Would they do it all over again? The real and honest answer, not the one you tell to strangers and polite company. Would you do all this again if you knew then what you know now, 60 years later?
As I was thinking these thoughts, I leaned over to my husband and whispered to him ‘I hate how they make it look so easy, it makes me sick’. He looked back at me a little surprised and said ‘why do you say that?’ And therein lies the problem. He thinks this whole ‘marriage’ thing is a cakewalk whereas I am over here trying so hard to be the best wife, mother and woman that I know how, without losing myself, without lessening my standards of what I find acceptable and tolerable. It’s a constant battle for me, when do I ‘cave’? When do I stand my ground? Does it even matter in the end? Will my best ever be good enough? Not just for him and my children, but for me.
So, no, do not compare me to St. Mary. Do not shame me because I fall short of St. Mary’s heroism and kindness, I already knew that. Do not diminish my womanhood because I refuse to compare or even emulate myself after a saint. That’s why she’s a saint and I am a sinner.