Fatal Abstractions


We know that a utilitarian view of the human person is contrary to the teaching of the Church. The human person has intrinsic value. A person is never to be used as a means by another — he is an end in himself.

This stand, which is necessary and unchanging, pits us against those whose arguments are often couched in terms of “the pragmatic” and “the practical.” This sometimes confuses non-Catholics, as well as Catholics who misconstrue or misstate it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care if something — a cure for disease, an economic remedy, a political arrangement — works or not. It isn’t a case of the practical being at odds with the moral. Instead we will always find that the Church’s view of the human person leads to the most practical solutions to human problems.

It is instructive to spend a moment unpacking that thought in the light of several remarkable sentences from the Vatican’s letter On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.

Among the fundamental values linked to women’s actual lives is what has been called a “capacity for the other.” Although a certain type of feminist rhetoric makes demands “for ourselves,” women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other. 

This intuition is linked to women’s physical capacity to give life. Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way. It allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its responsibilities. A sense and a respect for what is concrete develop in her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society.

What exactly are these fatal abstractions? The document itself names radical feminism as one of them. But the Church has named others including communism and materialism. They are abstractions in that they are theoretical constructions — ideas, really — about what things are and how things should be. They each paint their own fantastic, utopian picture of the future and ask us to buy into it.

And the Church says that women are better than men at seeing through the sales pitch. Why? For two reasons. First, because a woman can take that abstraction, that idea, that fantastic vision of the future, and imaginatively live in it, using her feminine genius to understand what the real effect will be upon real people. Second, because women are even now living with, in, and under these fatal abstractions and dealing with the real effect they are having on real people, and they are less inclined than men to subordinate the person to the abstract idea.

This is why radical feminism is dying. The “have it all” rhetoric falls on the tired ears of actual women who wonder, “When, exactly, in the middle of raising kids and climbing the corporate ladder am I ever supposed to rest, relax, enjoy life?” The real toddler goes to a real day care center and pines for the real Mommy all day and she for him.

Other abstractions are coming to the same end. The welfare system replaced the black husband and father with a check. Black women, actual women, know what this has done to their communities and their children.

Lots of fancy ideas about educating children have hit the concrete schoolroom floor (not to mention the sometimes hard heads of the kids) and the teachers — mostly women — can tell you about it.

The women know, in short, what works and what doesn’t. They know when the look-good-on-paper dream meets the runny nose, the heart-broken teenager, the jailed dad. And the Church cares that this knowledge of the concrete that women possess should be brought to bear upon all policy decisions — from the corporate boardroom, to the city hall, to the highest levels of national and international policy-making. Hence, the document goes on to say “that women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society [with]access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.”

We Catholics agree, then, with that old feminist bumper sticker that read, “A woman belongs in the house…and the Senate.” For those who know there is a Queen in Heaven, it would hardly do to hold that the fairer sex is constitutionally unfit for the highest positions of leadership.

But what of that woman senator, prime minister, CEO or local store manager, or clerk, for that matter, when she is also a wife and mother? If women belong in these roles, they belong as mothers and that means there is a cultural challenge for men and women to humanize and family-ize every rung of the ladder of professional success in every field.

As the document goes on to say: “The harmonization of the organization of work and laws governing work with the demands stemming from the mission of women within the family is a challenge. The question is not only legal, economic and organizational; it is above all a question of mentality, culture, and respect.”

Now that’s what Catholics mean when we say, “It works.”

(© 2011 Mary Kochan)


About Author

Mary Kochan, former Senior Editor of CatholicExchange, is one of the founders and Editor-at-large of CatholicLane.com. Raised as a third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary worked her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church on Trinity Sunday, 1996. Mary has spoken in many settings, to groups large and small, on the topic of destructive cultism and has been a guest on both local and national radio programs. To arrange for Mary to speak at your event, you may contact her at kochanmar@gmail.com.