Essay: What does it mean to be a helpmate?

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Secretum Meum Mihi Press


by Kristen West McGuire

(This essay marks the beginning of a new series, “Holy Helpmates: Successful Male-Female Partnerships Through the Ages.” The collection of essays is already available in book form. These essays were originally published in 2007.)

Is the term “Catholic feminist” an oxymoron? When Edith Stein immersed herself in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, she became one. The coherent integration of mind, soul and body for both men and women is a collaborative effort.

Stein struggled in her relationships with men. Her father died when she was two. Her brothers were much older and overshadowed by her mother. Her potential boyfriends during her university years were intimidated by her intensity and intelligence. Her dissertation director, Edmund Husserl, was a father figure to her. Later, his lack of support for her career goals devastated her.

After her conversion, she found more balance in her friendships with men. Her steady prayer life tempered her professional disappointments. And she read St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas said some awkward things about women, based on the limited biology of his day. Somehow, Edith Stein was able to look past the warts and see the beauty of the whole. For Aquinas, form and function pointed to essence, the underlying meaning of life. Thus, the human body has meaning beyond the “accidental” facts of gender difference.

Thus, the creativity of men is oriented toward action, protecting and sustaining life. The physical need for exercise that men experience, and their ability to focus on the task at hand allows them to dominate the created order. Men build castles.

Conversely, women are receptive and nurturing. The feminine ability to conceive and nurse a child implies a gender goal exclusive to women: to bring forth new life, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Women build relationships.

Together, men and women reflect the image of God. But original sin has introduced a rebellion in that union. Edith Stein pointed to two types of rebellions, the opposition of man to God’s dominion, and the opposition of the will against the intellect. She notes, “In man, this results in brutish dominance and enslavement to work while the human nature atrophies, while in woman it is seen in servile dependence on men and in sensuality that is not true spirituality, but just a capitulation to the senses.”

In other words, men and women need each other. The fullness of human perfection is found in obedience to God and in mastering our passions. Because the receptivity of a woman led to the advent of the Messiah, in the new covenant, women have a unique role to play. Receptivity is prior to creativity.

The Kingdom is not yet fulfilled. Women experience an imbalance of power in daily life, both at home and at work. Even though three-fourths of American women work outside the home, women fill only a tiny fraction of seats on corporate boards of directors. There are few women leaders serving in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. And women still perform the vast majority of homemaking, nursing and caregiving chores.

Is this patriarchal oppression? Or does the power of women just manifest itself in a different way? How can men and women work together successfully? The next ten issues of My Secret is Mine will explore these questions.

Each chapter highlights a historical pair who worked together for the sake of the Kingdom. The essay and historical sketch will highlight their enduring contributions to the Church. The bible study and book review will add deeper meaning to their stories, and highlight the particular virtues they perfected in this life. And we will pray to become the change we wish to see in the world.

As it happens, Pope Benedict indicated that he intended to install some women in higher Vatican offices and did so before he died. Further, Pope Francis appointed three women to the Dicastery of Bishops, the Vatican office which selects candidates for new bishops.

No matter who sits in the hot seat, men and women were created to work together. We cannot take the kingdom by force, nor can we force others to love as Jesus taught us. Love is discovered by practicing it. To serve is to reign.

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