Woman’s Fidelity: Permanence Piety Place

The Catholic woman—inheritor of the Judeo-Christian tradition—is many times blessed. The roots of her good fortune are nearly 4,000 years old, for some 4,000 years ago there was revealed to the Hebrew people a new principle of order: fidelity. This new principle of public and private order hinged upon God’s faithfulness to us and, in turn, our faithfulness to God. It formed the linchpin of order both in the soul and in the community.

To keep faithful was undeniably difficult for humankind, and the Hebrew people failed time and again. Yet each time they failed, God the all-faithful one took them back, and each time He renewed His covenant with them. That He expected—commanded—them to be faithful meant only one thing—that they could indeed be faithful. Because each one of them, possessing reason and will, was made in God’s image, faithfulness was possible.

Christ elevated fidelity to an even loftier height, to the spousal union of the Bridegroom Christ with His Bride the Church. And as Saint Paul described Christian marriage, the spousal union of man and woman mirrors the love of Christ for His Church.

Woman is the beneficiary of this high principle of fidelity. In this grand design of spousal faithfulness woman, as well as man, is to be treasured and cherished as a person made in the image of God. Neither man nor woman may regard the other as an object. Each is to love the other as a unique human person created by God. Although fidelity benefits a man, it brings even greater benefit and protection to a woman and her offspring. Therefore, its good extends to the family and community.

Living under the protecting aegis of the principle of fidelity, the Christian woman is the recipient of a tremendous gift. A gift inspires gratitude. Such a precious gift as fidelity calls forth also the desire to receive the gift properly and responsibly. Thus, how does the Christian woman, especially the Catholic woman, receive the high principle of fidelity, and how does she best foster its development as the centerpiece of moral order both in the soul and in the commonwealth? How particularly does she do so in a world afflicted by grave spiritual and moral disorder?

There is but one answer to how she receives her gift and how she shepherds and even expands this principle of fidelity. In a word, she gives it away. She gives it away in the role that comes naturally to her—as a spouse, as a mother, and as a teacher. Her role as spouse, mother, and teacher applies whether or not she has a husband and children of her own. For in any case she is the beneficiary of the spousal love Christ has for His Church. In any case she inherits her feminine nature that disposes her to maternity. Even if maternity is not physical maternity, it nonetheless is always potentially spiritual maternity. A woman is meant physically or spiritually to be a mother—to take care of, to cherish. As any wife and mother knows, to take care of, to cherish is above all to teach.

In giving away to others the gift of fidelity that the long Judeo-Christian tradition has bestowed upon her, a woman teaches others, particularly the men and children closest to her, what fidelity is. By word and example she teaches faithfulness, honesty, firm adherence, loyalty, constancy, and steadfastness to husband, children, parents, friends, community, church. It is important to note that a woman’s teaching of fidelity does not rule out a man’s teaching of it. A good man is the supreme teacher and model of faithfulness. In an endangered society, however, men often are knocked off course, and their capacity for fidelity becomes warped. Though both men and women are to be faithful, if women are not faithful, then no one is. Hence the fidelity of women is paramount.

A woman’s teaching of fidelity encompasses three aspects: permanence, piety, and place.

The Pre-eminence of Permanence

Permanence, first of all, assumes that fidelity is not temporary. Permanence is the essence of fidelity. To be faithful indicates that some things endure; they are fixed and changeless. God does not change. Nor does humannature. The inviolability and changelessness of both are the beginnings of thinking about truth. It may be easy enough to see God as permanent and changeless, but it is harder for modern people to think of human nature as unchanging. After all, scientists are now experimenting on human embryos, cloning embryos, even attempting to mix human with animal genes. Almost anything can now be done or shortly will be done to assault human nature. Yet no matter what violence is done to human nature, “man’s proper and primordial nature,” as Veritatis splendor calls it, nevertheless remains the unity of soul and body that makes the person to be human. Human nature makes the human person who he is.

Much of the disorientation of the modern world arises from a denial of human nature. If there is no such thing as a nature that properly defines who and what a person is, then there is no code that legitimately can define human conduct.

When freedom becomes a person’s ultimate goal—instead of right conduct based upon intelligence that is ordered to the good—then the individual insists upon deciding for himself what truth is. What is proper conduct becomes whatever he says it is. He will accept no authority outside his own will. As Pope John Paul has said in Veritatis splendor, “Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes.” This “individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others,” is the modern dilemma. “Taken to extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.”

Abortion and euthanasia are the most clear-cut examples of the denial of human nature. Calling the unborn child “fetal tissue” or the “product of pregnancy,” or declaring that a worn-out old person is “in a vegetative state,” is to deny that the person, young or old, is really human. It is to deny the Church’s proclamation (in Familiaris consortio and repeated in Veritatis splendor) that the human person is a “unified totality,” “a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit.”

The Church further teaches that human nature is distinctly masculine or feminine. It is vital for the Catholic woman to teach a confused world what human nature is, what masculine and feminine natures are. In this work her ally and mentor is Pope John Paul himself. Pope John Paul, in his masterful treatise Love and Responsibility, and in his other writings on marriage and family life, explains better than anyone else ever has that man and woman complement each other and are made for each other. He understands that masculine and feminine natures are sacred and inviolable, that each is a gift that man and woman give to each other. For that reason, their masculinity and femininity must never be manipulated so that man and woman treat each other as objects rather than as persons. Marriage, consequently, is permanent as long as both spouses live. Neither spouse can end the marriage—a lesson that even in our age of serial polygamy the Church still teaches.

Hand in hand with the sanctity of the human person goes a corollary—the sanctity of the word. If God’s Word shows His faithfulness, then the word of man, who is made in God’s image, also must show faithfulness. The word refers to reality. It cannot be deconstructed to mean nothing. Promises, therefore, whether they are made in marriage or elsewhere in life, rely on meaning. That is, the words used in a promise refer to objective reality—to beings that truly exist. Thus a lie—using words so that they do not refer to reality—is a grave infidelity.

A society that forgets about essences, that ignores the distinctive nature of anything, human or otherwise, is a society in which people have much difficulty in keeping their word, a society in which neither the people nor their government can be trusted. Thirty years ago the late Richard Weaver saw the dilemma when the inhabitants of a technological, highly centralized, bureaucratic, dependent society forget that being has meaning. He referred to the tension of status and function. Things are both being and becoming, as the philosophers say. The status of a thing is its nature, its being. As Weaver wrote in Visions of Order, “We feel intuitively that things have a being, that they show a certain definable essence which we can grasp through the intellect. The world may be constantly flowing, yet it is a world.” “If reality were merely a flux,” said Weaver, “‘selves’ and ‘natures’ would be illusions, and we could never consciously deal with the world.”

If the status of a thing is what it is, then the function of a thing is what it does. Any society has to look both to status and to function, to being and doing. It needs both. In our technological society, however, the emphasis is nearly all on function. What people do is far more important than who they are. Activity is a higher good than contemplation, which is seen mostly as useless. As Weaver summarized, “The greatest weakness of a function- oriented culture is that it sets little or no store by the kind of achievement which is comparatively timeless—the formation of character, the perfection of style, the attainment of distinction in intellect and imagination.”

A function-oriented culture, needless to say, is hard on women. Such a society masculinizes them. In the masculine and feminine expressions of human nature there is a natural emphasis on masculine doing and feminine being. Women were once honored for their activities that did not produce objects so much as enhance being. Their nurturing, educating, beautifying activities; their formation of young characters; their hospitality; their charity; their contemplation; their enrichment of culture were once considered indispensable to a man’s well-being and happiness and indispensable to the humanization of society. Today a woman is judged much less by these “useless” enterprises than by her ability to produce in the same way that men do. In our current arrangement, time-pressed and managed to the nth degree, things and people are worthy not in themselves but only insofar as they can be useful. In such an arrangement we all suffer. Women are frazzled; children are neglected; and men long for a spiritual dimension that they can have only when women concentrate on their natural feminine enhancement of being.

In summary, if women fail to uphold permanence in human nature, marriage, family life, and society, then men and children cannot be faithful either. The Catholic woman ought to express her feminine nature much more in attentiveness to the essences of life than to the utilities of life.

Piety Preserves Our Memories

In addition to her emphasis on permanence, the Catholic woman should teach piety. Piety is dutifulness toward those who are worthy of respect because of their station—spouse, children, parents, benefactors. It is carrying out what justice requires. Above all, it is reverence toward an order higher than oneself, an overruling order—in other words, the moral order. It is a sober acceptance that the moral order requires obedience, which obedience, of course, is actually our freedom and happiness. It is a humble recognition that the moral order cannot be overturned by force of will. The stark impiety of abortion is a willful revolution against the order that transcends us, as if our “choosing” could change reality. The moral order to which we are all subject, however, inheres not in the will but in the whole nature of things.

Piety is recognition of proper authority. Thus the Catholic woman rejoices in the Magisterium of the Church. She is faithful to this authority which acknowledges and promotes the dignity of the human person in the rich expressions of masculine and feminine nature.

Integral to piety, bound inseparably to it, is memory. Without memory we cannot remember who we are. We cannot remember that God created us in time, and hence we have a past and a future; we have a history. Without memory we cannot remember the past and so have nothing to think about in the present. We have no way to connect past and future. Without memory we forget who went before us, who paved the way through all the centuries before we came on the scene. If we forget who went before—the “cloud of witnesses”— then we are hit with the terrifying absurdity that perhaps there was no one before us and there may be no one after us. In each case we are utterly alone. If we remember, however, we are struck that God has never forgotten us. His very essence is to remember us. The psalmist says that God has known us since we were in our mother’s womb. The Lord’s entire word to us throughout the Old and New Testaments is a constant call that neither should we forget Him. To know is also to remember and to integrate into one’s mind and heart and soul that memory.

“Remembering your rulings in the past, Yahweh,” says the psalmist, “I take comfort.” He also says, “I recall the days of old, I reflect on all that you did, I ponder your deeds; I stretch out my hands, like thirsty ground I yearn for you.”

Memory is so mysterious that it is little wonder that all great writers have found it fascinating. As Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and the Southern Agrarians knew, if one loses his memory, he in some sense loses his mind. Richard Weaver wrote, “One of the obvious and easy ways to take leave of oneself is to forget, to cease to hold in consciousness what one has been. This is personally annihilating, for no man exists really except through that mysterious storehouse of his remembered acts and his formed personality. His very reality depends upon his carrying the past into the present through the power of memory.”

If a person can choose to forget his past— that is, to lose his memory—so also can a society. In either case the loss is disastrous. If revolution is the goal, then memory is the first thing ideologues would destroy. It must be so, because recollection would mean a return to sanity. The well-ordered culture, like the well-ordered person, is recollected and alive to memory. That the discipline of history, along with literature, is today the primary target of deconstructionists in academia is one more proof of the attempt to destroy a culture through disrupting its memory. In history and literature, after all, are stored the voice of a people—the works of their authors through which a people have expressed their incarnation in time. History deals specifically with incarnation. Weaver captured this incarnational aspect when he defined history as “the memory of all the past with all its uniquenesses, as they were expressed in the concrete matter which is creation.” Because of its link to uniqueness, to concreteness, our history contains the intimacies that most capture our hearts. It enfolds our families who came before us, who live with us, and who will come after us; it contains the story of our faith, our communities, our country.

Our soul, individually and collectively, is in our history. The destruction of memory—of our history—is extreme impiety and is, therefore, infidelity. And yet women can be the very antidote to loss of memory and consequent loss of mind. Catholic women, especially, with their place in the grand continuum of universal history through which the Church appears in time, are able, if they will, to draw young people once again into the comforting spiritual sustenance of memory. A mother, a teacher calls a child over and over to remember, to recite, to recollect, to review, to integrate past and present and future. It is she, by calling to memory, who transfers a civilization, with its faith, its culture, its piety, from one generation to another. It is she who receives what is handed down and passes it on to her children; it is she who builds respect and duty between generations.

Faithfulness Embodied in Place

Third and finally, a woman, in addition to teaching fidelity through permanence and piety, teaches faithfulness through place. We live in an incarnate world, in which spirit lives in embodied people. A woman naturally understands how spirit inhabits flesh; she is the bearer of just such a being, her baby. Bound by her very nature to bearing and nurturing life, she is a remedy for modernity’s obsession with abstraction and utopianism. If she is faithful to her own feminine nature, she finds her greatest happiness and freedom in close attention to the incarnate world, to the concrete, to the spouse and children who are sent into her care. Her own nature is to be devoted to place; it is also to be place, and place is in large measure exactly what she means for her husband and children. Place is intensely related to enhancement of being. Human beings need a place in which to be conceived, to be born, to be formed and educated, to conceive others—in short, a place to be. That place is home, the place where being becomes incarnate, loves, thrives, dies, and is replaced by another generation. Home in its widest encompassing of place is essential to our spiritual well-being. We simply cannot exist without it. Wendell Berry, in his short story “Fidelity,” describes the predicament of Burley Coulter, a sick old man made confused by his stay in the hospital. “He was no longer in his right mind, they thought, because he was no longer in his right place. When they could bring him home again, he would be himself.”

One’s homeplace is the opposite of mobility. Its essence is not doing but being, not function but status. What it is bears intimate relationship to where it is. It bears intimate relation, as well, to who one is. Little wonder, then, that frenetic movement across space, not travel for enrichment of being but travel for the sake of function and utility, leaves people disoriented and depressed. Human beings are meant to be rooted in the world. They cannot live without a homeplace which serves as the seat of fidelity, of love and friendship, of hospitality that welcomes new life and old life. In the home grow the bonds to community. In the home occurs the generational transfer of civilization. The home is the schoolroom for teaching piety toward the moral order.

The world, however, does move and change, in spite of our ardent yearning to preserve our place. And so we face a dilemma. In our world that is not only being but also becoming, everything of earth is constantly passing away. Our homeplace, being of earth, is consequently destined to crumble and fade over time. Our home here does not last, and ultimately we cannot count on a place that we ourselves make. Our place, then, must be a place that God makes. For the Catholic woman that place is the Church. Much as she loves her place at home, much as she does her utmost to make her place bloom, she also knows that the residents of her home are passing through this life on a journey to a place better than the one she can offer. Finally there is only one perfectly steadfast place in this world— and that is the Church. The Catholic woman, then, loves her home—but she looks to the Church as her ultimate place. The Church is her home that transcends time.

Fidelity today is a virtue much at risk, but it is not lost. Consider a hopeful example of women inspired to teach permanence, piety, and place. A group of faithful young women at the University of Dallas, inspired by their professor and mentor, Dr. Janet Smith, have organized the Margaret Roper Society. Their model is Margaret Roper, daughter of Saint Thomas More, a woman wisely and brilliantly educated, intelligent, noble, good, and filled with faith. When young women take for their spiritual, intellectual, and moral inspiration such models as Margaret Roper, then we hear the Spirit stirring the breeze on God’s holy mountain.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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