The excruciating pain of birth is followed by the elation of holding one’s child in one’s arms. Mothering is an experience of this constant marriage of pain and elation. For some women, the pain of childbirth is nothing compared to the sleepless nights and chaotic days of early parenting. It is not surprising that many mothers experience post-natal depression, especially when they are single parents or are isolated from family.[i]
As a mother leaves behind the physical demands of early childhood, she finds herself negotiating the sometimes even more demanding emotional needs of her growing children. Whereas early mothering involves providing a safe environment for exploration, discovery, and growth, in later years the task is to expand the boundaries of that domestic ‘womb,’ until the child no longer needs it and can create his or her own boundaries. Containers, boundaries, a “womb,” are important because boundless freedom can become imprisoning when chaos reigns.
At the same time boundaries and structures must allow room for growth in spirit, mind, and body. For example, when buying a child’s shoes, one leaves a bit of space for the feet to grow; when teaching, one provides the basics but also sprinkles in a few innovative ideas to stretch the mind, and the good storyteller will provide comfort and familiarity to an audience but also end with a challenge or invitation to spiritual growth.
These maternal experiences and perspectives mean that I have real difficulties when I read accounts of the motherhood of the Church by some of the most respected twentieth century theologians and priests. For example, Henri de Lubac emphasizes that the type of motherhood he is speaking of with regard to the Church is the opposite of human mothering. He writes:
…whereas in the physical order, the child leaves the womb of his mother, and withdrawing from her, becomes increasingly independent of her protective guardianship as he grows, becomes stronger and advances in years, the Church brings us forth to the new life she bears by receiving us into her womb, and the more our divine education progresses, the more we become intimately bound to her. [ii]
Whether from a psychoanalytic perspective or from the perspective of organizational behavioral theory, this is a disturbing analogy. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it suggests somebody whose psycho-sexual development has halted at a point where his sense of the feminine is projected onto a mother figure – in this case, the Church. A developed psycho-sexual self is able to integrate the feminine principle, the anima, with the masculine principle, the animus. However, the failure to achieve such integration can lead to the mother or mother figure becoming his muse, one to whom he wishes to be bonded forever – to re-enter her womb and remain there. This diminishes the capacity to form meaningful relationships beyond the muse. For example, a man who chooses the celibate life might project the feminine principle onto the mother and, by extension, onto all other women.
This desire to unite with the feminine principle can conflict with a man’s vow of celibacy, if it leads him to seek emotional or sexual bonding with a woman. Seeing all women as mothers enables him to relate to them in a non-sexual way, but this inability to integrate with his own femininity may result in limited contact with females or worse perhaps, relationships with females that unconsciously reject, ignore or even denigrate them – unless they are viewed as sexually safe mothers.
[i] Cf. “Postnatal Depression” in Beyond Blue, https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/postnatal-depression, accessed 21/10/17.
[ii] Henri de Lubac, The Motherhood of the Church: followed by Particular Churches in the Universal Church and an interview conducted by Gwendoline Jarczyk (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), p. 69. See also Hugo Rahner, Our Lady and the Church (Bethesda: Zacchaeus Press, 1961); Robert C. Koerpel, “The Form and Drama of the Church: Hans Urs Von Baltahsar on Mary, Peter, and the Eucharist”, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 2.1 (2008): 70-99; and Pope Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Adrian Walker, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005).