My face must have betrayed my hesitance because she added with a laugh, “Seriously, don’t feel bad about calling me at any time. You know how it is, being a big sister. My need to nurture is very strong.”
Her comment was lighthearted. But it bears deeper implications about the nature of womankind. Big sisters or not, all women have this natural, inherent desire to nurture and care for others — a virtue which Blessed John Paul II described as “the feminine genius” in his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem
The Catholic Church teaches that all women are called to be mothers, whether physical or spiritual. Gertrud von le Fort wrote in The Eternal Woman, “To be a mother, to feel maternally, means to turn especially to the helpless, to incline lovingly and helpfully to every small and weak thing upon the earth.”
We are natural nurturers, in other words, and obeying our instinct to lovingly care for the human person is part of our God-given vocation as faithful Catholic women.
What happens, then, when a woman chooses a profession that seems to contradict that call? What happens when a woman takes up the weapons of war? The issue of women in the military is a controversial one in secular society — how much more so for Catholics, who face an additional set of dilemmas?
First, certain moral issues accompany the unique characteristics of feminine biology. For one, during lengthy deployments many female soldiers use birth control so that they only have three or four periods each year — a moral issue for Catholic women and an especially serious one for those who are married.
And what happens if a female soldier becomes pregnant? In 2009, several news sources reported
that American women soldiers who get pregnant while deployed could face a court-martial or even a prison sentence. A prison sentence for pregnancy contradicts the Catholic mentality that every child is a gift and every life a blessing. It also happens to sharply contradict society’s refrain about “choice.”
War brings psychological issues to contend with, as well. Men often have a natural proclivity for aggression and competition, yet even male war veterans often deal with severe psychological trauma following their deployments. How much more traumatic must these experiences be for women, given their nurturing instincts? Even preliminary statistics show that female war veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at more than twice the rate
that men do.
Post-war trauma isn’t just the result of combat either. Women soldiers are highly vulnerable to rape and sexual assault — in fact, more than 40 percent of female veterans reported being sexually assaulted while in the military
. In the majority of cases, these women were attacked by their fellow soldiers.
Despite the dangers, women increasingly have unique roles to play in military service to their nation. For example, local protocol prevents male soldiers from entering women’s tents and homes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Female soldiers, however, can. One female soldier who took part in such a “Cultural Support Team” recounts that some Iraqi women she encountered on a recent mission refused to believe she was a woman until she took off her helmet to reveal a mane of hair
. Women soldiers can forge friendships with local women, relationships that may prove crucial to the morale of American missions abroad.
But as Catholics contemplate this issue, we must square yet another consideration: What about St. Joan of Arc? One of our most revered and popular saints, she rode at the very front of her army, rousing the French soldiers to victory by her courageous example. Her honored position within the Catholic Church suggests that military service is not only acceptable for women, but may actually be conducive to holiness.
There is substantial evidence that women are capable of military service, and efforts are being made to place them in even the most demanding combat roles. Indeed their femininity may prove an advantage in certain war-related situations. The question, then, is whether military service is complementary to feminine nature, or whether it contradicts this nature in a potentially harmful way.
I myself am not in the military, but I know many Catholic women who are and who have found a way to reconcile their profession with their feminine vocation. Still, I wonder: What is the nature of this reconciliation? Given her natural tendency to nurture and biological and psychological differences from men, can today’s Catholic woman be honest to her vocation while undertaking military service? God only knows. Well, and perhaps Joan of Arc.Theresa Civantos is an editor and writer in Washington, D.C. This article originally appeared in Altcatholicah on July 19, 2011.