Christian TraditionsJourneys of FaithRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

The Feminine Genius

In my previous post, I spoke about the problems of modern secular feminism, and I offered Saint John Paul II’s teaching on the dignity and vocation of women as an alternative for the modern Christian woman. This week, I intend to delve more deeply into this teaching, which represents centuries of the Catholic Church’s teaching on women. In subsequent posts in this series, I wish to closely examine the lives, writings, and teachings of various women in the Church: those four wonderful female Doctors (Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and Saint Hildegard of Bingen); those 19th and 20th century saints who demonstrate the life of a faithful women in the modern world (Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, Dorothy Day, Saint Katharine Drexel, Saint Edith Stein); and those saints whose boldness shines forth through the centuries to inspire women still now (Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Angela Merici, Saints Felicitas and Perpetua, and so on). Yet before embarking on this series and putting my MA in Church History to good use, I must first introduce the Church’s teaching on women, especially the notion of the “feminine genius.”

Saint John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem rests on the belief of Christian complementarianism, which asserts that men and women are created with equal dignity, nature, and value in the Image of God and that role differentiation accompanies this equality.[1] This role differentiation does not mean, as some Evangelical circles teach, that men are the essence of authority and women are the essence of submission. Rather, Saint John Paul II (now referred to for the sake of brevity as Saint JPII) affirmed that the Biblical creation story in Genesis 2 “provides sufficient bases for recognizing the essential equality of man and woman from the point of view of their humanity.”[2] He thus stated that men and women, while they do occupy different roles, are not bound to an authoritative-submissive paradigm. “Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: men and women are complementary. Womanhood expresses the ‘human’ as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way.”[3] The unique and complementary roles of men and women contribute unique things to the dignity of humanity and the work of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Logically, the Christian complementarian model makes sense. I do not tend to the laundry, dishes, and floors because I am submissive to my soon-to-be husband’s authority; rather, I work these chores because my schedule allows and my own disposition finds accomplishment in a clean kitchen. Likewise, my fiance goes to work each day as an engineer not because his authoritative essence demands it, but because he possess a work ethic that motivates him to work hard for us, especially as I search for employment. When we face big decisions, such as saving up for a house or even how to treat our sweet puggle’s recurrent ear infection, we make these decisions as a team. The beauty of the complementarian model is that it offers adaptability to couples, business partners, and groups; if a husband and wife are more comfortable in a traditional division of bacon-winner/homemaker, then that is complementarianism for them; if a man and woman start a business together and share in the responsibilities, that is complementarianism.

The religious tradition in which I was raised and the one to which I converted in my early twenties both reflect this complementarianism in their hierarchy. Neither the LCMS Lutheran Church nor the Roman Catholic Church permit women’s ordination, yet both offer a wide variety of options for women to serve in the Church. Women can serve as deaconesses, nuns, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, campus ministers, teachers, Directors of Religious Education, professors of theology, and so on in both Churches. The Church epitomizes this complementarian model: it models the relationship of man and wife through that of Christ and the Church, and it possesses both uniquely Marian and Petrine elements.

In addition to the complementarian model, Mulieris Dignitatem employs the term “feminine genius” to describe the role of women in the Church. “The Church gives thanks for all manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations,” Saint JPII wrote.[4] The concept of “feminine genius” received a more thorough treatment in the pope saint’s subsequent Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women. “Feminine genius” opens itself to interpretation throughout the whole piece, as established by the opening salutations in gratitude to mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, working women, and consecrated women. “Feminine genius” can manifest itself one way in a stay at home mother, another way in a female scientist striving for a breakthrough cure. This genius, as Saint JPII strongly emphasized, complements the masculine genius for the genius of humanity to fully flourish. “It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization.”[5]

Saint JPII also emphasized the indisputable contribution of the “feminine genius” to progress in science, technology, society, human rights, and the Church. “The various sectors of society, nations and states, and the progress of all humanity, are certainly deeply indebted to the contribution of women! Progress usually tends to be measured according to the criteria of science and technology. Nor from this point of view has the contribution of women been negligible,” he wrote.[6] The “feminine genius” has significantly shaped the life and progress of the Church from the Virgin Mary, who is the pinnacle of the “feminine genius,” and onward: “In this vast domain of service, the Church’s two-thousand-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the ‘genius of woman’; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest calibre who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history.”[7] He particularly referenced the female martyrs, the doctor ecclesia women, and the women who devote their lives to serve the least of us.

Most significantly for us modern women, Saint JPII urged women to reflect upon what the “feminine genius” means and to foster it in one another for the flourishing of society and the Church. “It is thus my hope, dear sisters, that you will reflect carefully on what it means to speak of the ‘genius of women’,” he wrote, “not only in order to be able to see in this phrase a specific part of God’s plan which needs to be accepted and appreciated, but also in order to let this genius be more fully expressed in the life of society as a whole, as well as in the life of the Church.”[8] He addressed women collectively here, for, like the rest of human life, the “feminine genius” is relational.

This relational aspect extends to both genders (just as its masculine complement does), but for the sake of this essay, I wish to focus on the relational aspect of the “feminine genius” between women. In my previous essay, I referenced the Mommy Wars and how modern secular feminism has created a divide amongst women. If we are to contribute to society, make advancements in science, raise well-rounded and healthy children, or balance a marriage, career, and clean house, we as women need to stop warring against each other. This warring prevents our “feminine genius” from flourishing. I am sure I am as guilty of it as many other women. However, if you read the comments on any female-written blog or article, you will understand that of which I speak. We waste so much time and creative energy engaging in body-shaming of fat women, of thin women, of muscular women, in writing long articles about why body-shaming is wrong, in disparaging a woman’s decision of homebirth or hospital birth, in attacking women because their understanding of vocation does not align with ours. Where does our genius foster in these harsh words and judgment, my sisters?

The relational aspect of the feminine genius also need not be regulated only amongst conversation with our living sisters; we have rich history of strong yet gentle women with from whom we can learn. The female saints especially offer excellent examples to help us foster our feminine genius. Oftentimes, when the burden of graduate schoolwork weighed too heavy, I thought of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who outwitted philosophers in the very center of philosophy during her time, and of Flannery O’Connor, who produced incredible literary works and profound theological reviews despite the diagnosis of lupus at age 25. When I question my courage to take risks in career and face rejection and failure, I reflect upon the much greater bravery of Saint Joan of Arc, who let neither her age or gender prevent her from following her call. In communion with these saints, we as modern women can take inspiration that, no matter our station in life, our feminine genius can flourish.

View Sources

Laura Norris

Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a Catholic, freelance writer, running coach, and outdoor enthusiast. She holds a master's degree in Theological Studies and now works as a running blogger and coach as, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, "a woman for others" in helping others live a healthy life and achieve their goals. She and her husband live on the Eastside of Seattle and spend their time running their own businesses and hiking in the mountains.

Previous post

Why Would a Protestant Convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity?

Next post

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil