Let’s stop defining women by fertility and motherhood

It’s been an interesting week for women in the church. First, there was the back and forth between prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz and the Vatican over who knew what about the crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Then yesterday Pope Francis gave a somewhat odd speech while addressing women religious from 75 countries who were attending a gathering of International Union of Superiors General. He urged the women religious to be fertile spiritual mothers in the church, as opposed to being old maids or spinsters. The pope said that the nuns’ vow of chastity must be “fertile” and generate “spiritual children in the church.”  

So, even being an unmarried, celibate women still means that the church will define you by fertility and maternity? Continuing to define women by themes of motherhood and maternity undermines the real progress that has been made in the ways that we think about women. The church doesn’t ask priests and monks to be "manly." Why then does it insist that women must be nurturing mothers?

Pope Francis this Easter praised women for the “primary, fundamental role” they played in the gospels, recognizing that women were the first witnesses to the risen Christ at the empty tomb. In the same talk he mentions how women “have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord.” That is certainly true, and women—both religious and not—have opened innumerable doors to the Lord in roles separate from motherhood. Many of our church “mothers” were martyrs, teachers, and spiritual guides. More recently, women have been paving the way in the field of theology. And women religious are constantly on the front lines promoting justice, having dedicated their lives in service.

All of these women—some mothers, some celibate, some single—have all worked to promote church and faith, even if the road isn’t always easy. Women have so much to offer to the church—let’s stop defining them by one characteristic. 

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.