Contemporary Catholic Motherhood

    In America Magazine‘s recent interview with Jennifer Fulwiler, author of Something Other Than God, Fulwiler shares her vision of Catholic motherhood.  To her, motherhood has a spiritual meaning: it is one way to fulfill our call to love and serve others.  As an adult convert to Catholicism, it was a big change for her to see that all people are called to forming bonds of love with others.  In light of this calling, being a mother of small children shifted from from being something through which to grit our teeth and endure, to something that helps us realize our very essence.
    I agree.  Motherhood helps us fulfill our purpose.  We are meant to be beings in relation with others, as Jacques Maritian, John Paul II and others have emphasized.  Motherhood is the quintessential vocation for forming such bonds.  Hence motherhood is a vehicle for human happiness.
    I’d like to bring out another dimension of Catholic motherhood, however.  What is distinctive about the Catholic notion of motherhood?  What does the Church teach us that makes the Catholic notion of motherhood different from, say, atheist or other religious views?  I’d like to suggest that the Catholic view of motherhood is different from both the radical feminist idea of motherhood on the one hand, and the 1950’s stay-at-home motherhood, on the other.
   The Church’s view of motherhood differs from the radical feminist perspective, namely that women should not get “stuck” in motherhood, but prioritize actualizing their potential in the public sector.  As Fulwiler brings to light, the Church’s view is that motherhood is not something to get beyond, but rather, something that we can delve into in order to find our truest selves.
    But the Church’s view of motherhood is not my Baptist grandmother’s view, either: that wives and mothers are domestic servants, subordinate to their husbands, and their place is in the kitchen.  Just because the Catholic Church heralds motherhood as one of the great paths to happiness and holiness, the Church does not thereby relegate women, and even mothers, to the home.  The Church invites, indeed encourages, the laity to step into the marketplace, the school systems, the healthcare institutions, the government, and achieve our full potential.  We are called to be “leaven,” and bring the light of Christ into every corner of the world (Lumen Gentium).  In fact, the Church admonishes the laity, including women and mothers, to give the gifts that God has given them for the good of the Church and the world.
    Applying these teachings to motherhood, is the Church teaching that the best mothers are the stay-at-home mothers?  I do not think so.  The Church is saying: “Prioritize motherhood.  See its potential to cultivate holiness and happiness in you.  And, find creative ways to give all you’ve got to the world.  Serve.  Teach.  Build.  Cure.  Operate.  Legislate.  Write.  Sing.  Paint.  Photograph.  Lobby.  Petition.  And do it all for the glory of God and salvation of all people.”  Mothers are encouraged to thrive in their motherhood, and in other ways, too.  This encouragement is not saying, “Do not get stuck in motherhood; motherhood is inferior to other roles.”  It is not the Gloria Steinem message.  Rather, it is saying, “Become a gift to others.  Give yourself as a gift to your children, to the Church, and to the world.”  This is a broad invitation, and every mother must find her own path forward.  Broad though it may be, it is distinctive.  It is decidedly modern.  And decidedly true to the spirit of the Gospel.