Published October 27, 2023
The expansive working document, or instrumentum laboris, for the Synod on Synodality explores many of the issues facing the world today, while offering a remarkably simple solution: synodality.
“Synodality,” defined as “walking with others,” is repeated throughout and is presented as a solution to all that ails the culture today. Synodal notions like “listening” and “walking together” are appealing as deeply human and fostering rich relationships.
It isn’t surprising to find these maternal characteristics promoted in Holy Mother Church, but what is surprising is that the synod document appears to make them both the means and the goal, while many of the Church’s teachings and traditions — like truth and holiness — remain absent.
What is also absent, despite the synod working document’s seemingly maternal reach, is any reference to mothers, motherhood or mothering, other than two nods to the Blessed Mother. Instead, an anemic figure of womanhood emerges, adorned in mid-century Marxism.
Stepping back into a bit of 20th-century history, a main goal of the Marxist ideology, which expressed itself in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and now in New Left America, is the idea that men and women must become ideal workers, finding fulfillment in work. As Auschwitz reminded its inmates under Hitler’s Third Reich, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free).
Marxist thought has slashed women’s unique vocation to motherhood. Although Friedrich Engels wrote that women produce children, Marxists in the 1950s deemed the production of children to fall short of the right kind of production. Women must work outside the home, as all good Soviet and later Chinese women understood, through aggressive and violent societal and military force. A softer approach was used in the United States.
In 1963, Betty Friedan, long a student of communism, published The Feminine Mystique, a book that sold more than 3 million copies in its first few years of publication. In it, Friedan urged women to escape “the comfortable concentration camp” of the home and get out into the workplace. She encouraged all women to find freedom in productive work, emphasizing power and control, instead of service and tenderness.
This idea, so deeply rooted in communism, became the backbone of the feminist movement, as it asked, “How do we help women become like men?” not “How do we help women as women?” As women marched, wittingly or not, toward what they thought would be a glorious Marxist revolution, husbands and children were targeted as the primary obstacles to women’s goals of career and happiness.
This line of thinking, that women need to become like men to fully flourish, extends to our own day and can clearly be seen in the synodal document. The unspoken premise is that women aren’t made for the home (even though a woman’s body is every child’s first home), and women aren’t made to be mothers. Motherhood is optional, not essential. Meanwhile, plenty of attention is given to women in general.
The working document asks the participants to consider how women can become more engaged in governance and decision-making and more fairly remunerated for work. Perhaps women need to be included in the diaconate, the document asks. There are no questions about how women can be supported better in the vulnerability associated with motherhood, how to help women become stronger wives and mothers, or how to navigate the struggles in raising faithful children. The questions are related to work, authority, power and control. Women, under the document’s scrutiny, appear still meant to be Marxists, not mothers.
The “fruit” spoken of frequently in the document (36 times) is not the fruit of fertility and childbearing, but an abstract fruit difficult to quantify and measure, with statements like “the fruits gathered during the listening phase,” or “a Church increasingly capable of making prophetic decisions that are the fruit of the Spirit’s guidance” (6, 31).
A child needs a mother who is dialed into him — someone who pays attention to who he is and what his needs are, often before he knows them himself. Most women have been told to “lean in” to careers, not to “dial in” to their children. When this doesn’t happen, many children grow into adults feeling unseen, unknown and unheard. Too many feel abandoned and alone. The focus away from the home has created massive emotional wounds rarely spoken of but healed in small ways by having someone “listening” to our needs — listening in a way that a mother should do for a small child.
The synod’s key concepts of “walking together” and “listening,” can (and should) supply a kind of balm to those suffering these realities, but they are especially necessary when they have not been applied where they ought — at home. Mothers spend large swaths of time just holding, rocking and carrying their children and even more time listening to their children for cries, tears, breath, laughter and all the seemingly not-so-important chitchat. These are the key moments children need to know they are known and loved so they can emerge from childhood as mature and healthy adults. But this is precisely what has been stripped away from so many children of the last three generations.
Walking and listening can also only limp in a childish manner if not balanced with truth and authentic charity. The other essential action mothers perform is to teach their children right and wrong — what is harmful and what is good. Here, too, is the deep connection between good mothers and Holy Mother Church. But here again, the synod documents emphasize unity over what is considered “political polarizations,” “destructive polarizations” or “divisive language” (5, 6, 12).
Every good mother knows the difference between authentic unity among her children in heart and mind versus a superficial appearance of unity displayed merely to keep the peace, while discord hides just beneath the surface. Our fragmented and polarized world of which the document speaks, without true conversion and truth, will remain discordant no matter how much walking and listening take place on a global scale.
Since the Church’s inception, women have seeded the faith in the hearts of the children in their charge, in husbands and friends, in leaders and lepers. Their love and capacity to see the needs of others have made them mothers, nuns, religious, consecrated, saints and even doctors of the Church, ministering uniquely to the world. All have mothered others — not just biologically, but also psychologically and spiritually. They have provided nourishment, shelter and education to meet the physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional needs of those they serve and love.
We are not, of course, privy to the discussions at the synod, which will conclude its first phase this week. We can, nevertheless, hope that the delegates correct the oversight of motherhood and raise the issue, particularly modeled by the Blessed Mother, in their actual discussions.
Women like St. Helen, St. Monica, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Calcutta are reminders that, more than anything else, what the Church, the world, and all men, women and children need is simple: mothers. We need women who will ardently follow the model of the Virgin Mother, who is ever calling all her children home to heaven, in truth and in love.
Carrie Gress, Ph.D., is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is the co-editor at the online women’s magazine Theology of Home.