It is worth pondering why John Paul II should not be more explicit on the subject of women’s work. Firstly, in his characterisation of woman as demonstrated by Mary, he recognises not the incomplete “Adam’s Rib” of medieval theology, but the exemplar of human choice: the fully human subject, the “I” who chooses to accept God. Thus, so much of women’s subjectivity is, like men’s, about individual faith and conscience in discerning God’s will. Secondly, if we believe that womanhood is about the potential to embrace and nurture life, then activities outside the home are no measure of what a woman actually is. The “genius of woman” does not disappear at the door to the workplace, any more than that of a man.
In fact, as the CDF pointed out in 2004 – under Ratzinger’s prefecture – the feminine genius is such that it should not be confined exclusively to the home (or convent). And this insight follows directly from the complementarity of the sexes: women have much to offer the world of work, not because women are the same as men, but precisely because they are not.
For those mothers who do “wish also to engage in other work,” however: “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.” These are facts that I, and I dare say many others, know all too well.
The solution, as the future Pope Emeritus goes on to say, “is not only legal, economic and organizational; it is above all a question of mentality, culture, and respect. Indeed, a just valuing of the work of women within the family is required.” This would permit granting working mothers an “appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one’s own equilibrium and the harmony of the family.”