“Women,” writes Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, “are not suited for certain occupations,” for “a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family.” How such statements have not received more attention is at first glance baffling, given how often Rerum Novarum has often been the occasion of debates between Catholic communitarians and integralists on the one hand and Catholic proponents of free-market economics on the other. My suspicion is that the reason lies in a general Catholic reluctance to confront those modern sensibilities that are especially hardwired into the popular consciousness. We already have to explain to unsympathetic listeners why we hesitate to admit gay “marriage” and transgender bathrooms, so the reasoning goes, so why pursue a bridge too far by questioning the modern understanding of equality of women and men?
Such reasoning seems to me wrong-headed. Either Leo XIII is someone to be taken seriously or he isn’t, and if we accept the 21st-century politically correct view, which would characterize his remarks about women as not merely wrong, but inexcusably stupid and bigoted, then we have more or less consigned him to the latter category. In other words, either Leo is not a wholesome thinker or the startling statement women are not suited for certain occupations is not so monstrous as conventional wisdom would suggest.
In any case, sexual dimorphism is hardly a minor point, so Leo takes for one of his first principles an anthropology that almost all public figures today would resolutely deny. It is strange indeed for Catholics to argue about the meaning of a papal teaching while ignoring the fact that an extraordinary counter-revolution against feminism would be necessary long before said teaching could ever be put into effect.
Leo XIII is not alone in addressing differences between the sexes. Pius XI makes similar remarks on the subject in Quadragessimo Anno:
Mothers concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children.
“Every effort must therefore be made,” concludes the pontiff, “that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately.”
Let us be blunt. For us, Pius XI’s instructions are not merely politically incorrect, but illegal. That is, any employer who heeded the exhortation to pay more to “fathers of families” would promptly find himself on the pointy end of a lawsuit. And if either the social justice crusaders of Ethika Politika or their freedom-fighting nemeses at the Acton Institute have ever expressed appropriate outrage over the fact that it is illegal for a Catholic to follow Pius XI’s counsel, I must have missed it. Yet how is Pius XI’s affirmation of economic patriarchy any less a part of Catholic teaching than, say, the putative right of migrants to occupy somebody else’s country? As for advocates of the free market, if they are not concerned with the Catholic entrepreneur’s liberty to run his business in accord with papal teachings, what liberty do they care about?
There is no point in pretending to admire someone when we insist upon filtering and sanitizing him to fit our preconceived notions of what we know — or, maybe, what we think we know. To take a less authoritative example than that of the popes, it may be instructive to consider the iconic localist hero E.F. Schumacher. Although attracted to Eastern religion when he composed his signature work Small Is Beautiful, Schumacher would cross the Tiber shortly before the book’s publication, becoming one of the foremost Catholic proponents of local community and human-scale economics. But if even devoted “crunchy” admirers of Schumacher have been wont to gloss over his religious conversion, even more have managed to ignore his claim that “women, on the whole, do not need an ‘outside’ job,” that “the large-scale employment of women in offices or factories would be considered a sign of serious economic failure” in any decent society.
Once again, these are not minor asides, for Schumacher was convinced that only a fool would “let mothers of young children work in factories while the children run wild.” Far from informing discourse about social justice and the welfare of the next generation, such commonsense observations would today swiftly get someone fired. Precious few Catholic “conservatives” seem to have much of a problem with this, and even some “traditionalists” gloss over the matter, preferring instead the much safer course of railing against capitalism. Evidently, we are all just supposed to shut up and swallow the bizarre, counterintuitive dogma that children may be as effectively nurtured by daycare center hirelings as by a stay-at-home mother.
Just so there is no misunderstanding, if the Catholic tradition is “sexist” — in the sense that it acknowledges that sex exists — it is hardly misogynistic. We revere a Queen, after all, and more than anyone, it is the Catholic who celebrates the unambiguously feminine virtues, even as he remains flexible-minded enough to pay tribute to the generalship of a Joan of Arc or the mystical wisdom of a Catherine of Sienna. In other words, feminists are indulging in make-believe when they act as if they are the ones who discovered that some females excel in traditionally male fields. At the same time, it must be added that the exceptions tend to justify the rule, as the most formidable women of achievement are rarely motivated by careerism. Rather, they usually seem to be motivated by some passionate devotion that has little or nothing to do with the feminist cause. Joan was interested not in blazing a trail for her sisters, but in liberating France; Catherine was interested not in feminine empowerment, but in healing the Great Schism. As for more typical women, we are in an upside-down world indeed when self-centered politicians and corporate lawyers are deemed more valuable citizens than those who “merely” nurture children and make homes. The real misogynists are those who refuse to honor motherhood as a full-time vocation of the highest order, and who cannot accept that God made the sexes complementary rather than equal.
Jerry Salyer has contributed to publications such as Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, New Oxford Review, Crisis, Abbeville Institute, Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic World Report.