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The Genius of Womanhood is a new and exciting body of work that explores the profound teaching of Pope John Paul II on the vocation and dignity of women. In this interview, Karen Doyle speaks about her new resource for Catholic women – The Genius Project and her fascination with John Paul’s

Genius of Womanhood

Karen Doyle


Interviewer:          So I’m joined today by Karen Doyle of Choicez Media and the co-founder of The Sisterhood Women’s Movement.  So thanks for joining me Karen.

KD:     Oh you’re welcome, it’s nice to be with you.

Interviewer:          Now it may seem a little bit strange, but today we’re going to talk about femininity, which is probably a bit bizarre because that’s not usually my department, that’s usually Sarah’s department.  However, Sarah’s currently taking a well-earned break visiting family, so I’m stuck here as a man delving into an area that men don’t usually delve into.  But I’m sure I’ll learn a lot today and we’ll see how I go.  Now, first of all I just wanted to bring up something that I sort of saw come across my Facebook yesterday interestingly enough, and it was from the May edition of Harper’s Bazaar – um, I had to explain it was on Facebook so people don’t think I read Harper’s Bazaar , in my spare time.

KD:     Yeah, that’s probably a good point to clarify.

Interviewer         And it was from Kirsten Dunst – actress – probably know her best from Spiderman, films like that – and she said something quite interesting on the notion of femininity in our contemporary age and that was: “I feel like the feminine has been a little under-valued.  We all get our own jobs and make our own money but staying at home, nurturing, being a mother, cooking – it’s a valuable thing my mum created and sometimes you need your knight in shining armour.  I’m sorry, you need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman, that’s why relationships work”.  Now that’s a very controversial statement I think today…

KD:     Ahah.

Interviewer       …because I think there’s a bit of a temptation to…in an effort to create the just equality between men and women, to assume that there is actually no difference; that men and women should strive for power and responsibility in what I think are quite masculine terms.  However, I know that, as Catholics, and I know that you – as a woman who wants to present, say John Paul the Second’s view of masculinity and femininity – that you would agree more with Kirsten Dunst’s line.  Do you want to make a comment about that?

KD:     Yeah, look I think…I looked up the article and I think it’s a really interesting point, because men and women actually do need one another, and to suggest otherwise is quite outrageous as you’ve pointed out.  But it’s very…it’s a real cultural push actually for women to be independent and to be self-sufficient – that we don’t need a man – it’s quite a common theme in our cultural.  But if we go back and we look at Theology of the Body, we look at John Paul II’s view on this, he actually says that right from the beginning man and woman are called to come alongside one another in a relationship of complimentarity rather than competition, and I think wherever we see that competition and those fingerprints we know that that is not God’s plan for us; that we are actually designed to be one another’s friend, helpmate and complimentary partner.  And if we go back to Genesis we see that the man and woman are called to be a gift to one another, and I often speak at the annual Young Men of God Conference and I make the point to the men that the word ‘helpmate’ does not mean slave and domestic help – as they might like to think sometimes – but it actually, translated, that word ‘helpmate’ means divine aid and man and woman are called to be one another’s divine aid.  John Paul II points out that it is ‘in relationship with one another’ that we actually learn what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman: the essence of our being and we only discover that by being in a relationship with one another.  So I like her statement: you need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman, and that’s what makes relationships work, and I think she’s spot-on with that comment.

Interviewer        I guess my next question would be: What does it mean for a woman to be a woman?

KD:     Yeah, that’s a good point .  I think there’s a lot of women out there trying to work that out, a lot of confusion.  I know…speaking at the men’s conferences, a lot of the men have lost their way in terms of trying to work out how to relate to women, and then when I speak to women they’re sort of mentioning the same issues.  And I think obviously the resource that I’ve done is the fruit of my journey and my work with people as well, but what it means to be a woman…I think it’s about engaging on a deep existential level; firstly with the fact that we are the beloved daughter of God, that he has created us – as women – with a great intentionality; it was intended.  Men and women aren’t just randomly…they don’t just come about randomly from the splitting of cells.  Our femininity, or masculinity, is intended by God and I think the beautiful journey that we all have here, on earth, is growing into that, learning to understand that, leaning to understand the vocational nature of our gender.  And part of the resource, and/in part of my heart for women is to help them understand that femininity is vocational; that it has a purpose, it has an intention, and helping women to really understand and to live that.  Because I think when we live our vocation that’s where we really find joy and happiness and peace – not in all the other things that we chase.

Interviewer        Mm.  So then how can women really live out that femininity?

KD:     Yeah I think it comes back to an invitation, and accepting an invitation to kind of come on a journey if you like, and I talk about this, in the resource, about the journey being that of discovery.  I know that I picked up John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, when I was 26, and that was years after it had been written; I think I was in Grade 8 when it was written, and I had attended Catholic schools, youth-groups and I had never come across it.  And so I think for myself  it’s been obviously many years of discovering that, and I think each woman is invited on that journey of discovery.  Sorry – look, you might have to ask me that question again ‘cos I’ve gone off on a tangent .

Interviewer        No, no – I was just asking about how women can live out that sense of femininity that you were describing?

KD:     Yeah.  Yeah look I think…John Paul II’s really big on this – women connecting with their ‘genius’ he calls it and he’s referred to the qualities that are unique to being women as the feminine genius, and in his Apostolic Letter – in his letter to women sorry – he says, ‘I invite you to reflect with me on what it means to speak of the genius of womanhood’.  And I think those qualities that he speaks about…there’s not a one-size fits all kind of definition of femininity – that everyone will manifest these qualities in their own unique way, but because of our nature of design, because of our life-bearing capacity – whether this is actualised or not – women…they need to…it gives rise to certain qualities that we have: these spiritual qualities, and some of those are receptivity, sensitivity, generosity and most obviously maternity.  So they’re just some of the qualities I guess of femininity and I think for women it’s about identifying those in your life, about being receptive to what God is doing, about him revealing…I guess your nature to you, and coming to peace with that and then offering that to others as a gift.

Interviewer        A lot of the time when we talk about things like masculinity and femininity I find that what it can sometimes be reduced to is this sense of men go out and work, women stay at home, and that can really cause a lot of tension today because we find that first of all women tend to be better at University  um, in certain areas, and that there’s a lot more women who are excelling at school and want to go out and live out in the workforce, and then, it comes to marriage and we can give as Catholics, the impression that we’re saying well, too bad, stay at home…

KD:     Yep.

Interviewer        …Is the Catholic message about masculinity and femininity as, for want of a better word simplistic, as simply practical applications, in terms of employment and that kind of thing?

KD:     Yeah look, I don’t think so.  I think…look, going back to these qualities, like women have a…our physical structure gives rise to spiritual aspects of our personality.  Now one of those is our maternity.  So women’s lives are, because of the way our body is structured, to bear life – we have what John Paul II says ‘an other-centered nature’ that we are more focused on the ‘other’ and human life and nurturing and relationship, that sort of thing.  Now he also says that women are needed in all aspects of society.  So I think we’ve got to be really careful in terms of ‘boxing’ people, and genders and stages of life, because I know…going back a little bit sorry, like for a woman who is married with her children – and this is a season that I am in, you know – I have three children under the age of six, and my primary vocation, my primary role is to serve them and to love and to nurture them.  Now obviously I’m down here doing an interview with you, while Jonathan is upstairs looking after the kids, and so we have a great set-up where we support one another; so he’ll support me while I might do a project.  But if as women we’re stepping out and we are working in employment outside of the home and we have children, we need to be very careful about what’s coming first.  So I think rather than asking where women should be and what their place should be, it’s more about their priority.  So if they are married and if they have children, then that needs to be their first priority.  Now they may well work as well, but that work should never come before their vocation as a mother.

Interviewer         Mm, mm.

KD:     If that quite answers your question.  It’s um…

Interviewer       Yeah, no, it does.

KD:     But I think that’s really important.  Because a lot of women think that they have to gain this sense of satisfaction and find a sense of identity in what they do, in their work, but I think for women a great challenge for us, and perhaps for men as well, is our identity actually being in our being, and our being loved by God.  So yeah, I think it’s…it’s really tricky.  Motherhood definitely has demands and challenges and can be difficult at times; it can be lonely for some women, but it’s our first and foremost priority when we have those children, and we can still work and we can still push through projects, but they always have to be number one.

Interviewer        Mm.  I’m probably just going with a little bit of speculation here, but Pope Francis has really been emphasising this idea of women having a greater role in the Church [KD: Ahah] and you know, there’s people who have said oh maybe he means you know, women priests or women cardinals, or things like that, and he’s quite clearly in certain interviews said no, that’s not what I’m talking about.  What do you think he’s talking about?

KD:     I think he’s saying that…as John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, that women play a crucial, irreplaceable role in the transformation of culture, and that women – even if they are mothers at home with their children, are called to transform the culture of death that we have, in which human life and love is not valued into a culture of life and love.  And what I think Pope Francis is saying is that women need to step up, step into that role, step into the places – wherever they are planted, wherever they are called to be – and to offer their femininity, their womanhood as a gift.  So that may be in the life of the Church, it may be out in the workforce, it may be simply in the home in the everyday routine of raising a family, it might be through ministry – it could be through any number of things – but women need to be present.  John Paul II is really big on this: without the presence of women culture is impoverished and it is also dehumanised.  And so I think Pope Francis, one of the things he said is that we really need to keep going, keep developing this theology of womanhood, that I guess Edith Stein, John Paul II really developed and Pope Francis, I’ve heard a number of times, really encouraged women to go further with that.

Interviewer:         Mm.  I really like that image, that the mother is quite possibly one of the most formidable cultural forces in society.

KD:     Mm.

Interviewer:          I really like that, ‘cos it’s true; I mean they’re raising children, they’re raising the next generation.

KD:     Yes, yes.

Interviewer:          Just bringing it, still within the kind of Catholic context, where do consecrated women fit into all this?

KD:     Well I think, I mean in John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter he talks about ‘spiritual motherhood’ so when we talk about this gift of maternity that we have, it’s not limited in a bio-physical sense: every woman…every woman’s vocation is to motherhood, and for consecrated women that is a spiritual motherhood, and they play a very, very important role in the life of the Church and in the lives of both men and women in terms of nurturing, and supporting the priests – coming alongside the priests in the Church, coming alongside the men and the women, and really spiritually mothering them in a way, in a different way to how I guess we are mothered by our physical mothers.

Interviewer:        Mm, mm.  Now of course the reason why you know so much about this is not just because you are part of Choicez Media or the co-founder of The Sisterhood Women’s Movement, but you were referring a bit in there to a resource that you’ve produced called The Genius Project.  Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

KD:     Yeah sure.  Look it’s um…it’s been a Project that’s probably been 10 years in the making, and it’s very much about unpacking Mulieris Dignitatem and this idea of the feminine genius.  Personally I felt that when I came across John Paul II’s document it really transformed my life, my marriage…obviously has then flowed into my raising of my children and the ministry that we do.  And I really…my heart is that all women would be able to access the incredible richness of John Paul II’s teachings on women, because more than any of his predecessors he spoke very publicly and he was very pastoral towards women, and I guess my real heart is that sometimes the Church has the best product in the world with the worst marketing department, and the fact that these letters and these encyclicals were written probably 20 years before, you know many people have even heard of them says a lot – for myself it was 15 years – is really tragic.  Because they just contain such treasures for us – as men and women.

I think for men, as well, really understanding the nature of femininity, the nature of women, empowers men then to call women on and not to put them down, but to really affirm them and call forth those qualities and also for women to really understand, accept and be affirmed.  Because I think a lot of the qualities of femininity can be seen as social limitations or, you know can lead to inequality, or they’re something to be ashamed of, and I think there’s this underlying idea and theme in women’s lives that they, who they are, their womanhood is a problem.  That they’re either too much, or they’re not enough, that they attract too much attention or not enough attention.  And what John Paul II was saying – and what he does in the whole of Theology of the Body in fact – is to offer us a paradigm shift in our thinking and in Mulieris Dignitatem, in/and his teachings on women, he’s doing that.  He’s saying to women, far from being a problem, you are in fact an answer.

And I think that’s probably the crux of the resource, is encouraging women, telling women that they are an answer, that their femininity, their womanhood is an answer to so many of the problems that exist in our culture.  So the resource is a DVD, it’s in four parts – each part goes for 25 minutes and it comes with personal discussion guides – so it can be used for personal use or in a group setting, so in Bible study groups or retreat days – it’s even being used in schools.  So yeah, that’s a little bit about it anyway.

Interviewer:          That sounds fantastic.  I hope that…I don’t know, maybe Jonathan already has and I’m gonna look like a bit of a ditz here , but…could do something for men as well , so…

KD:     Er, well he hasn’t actually yet so there you go .

Interviewer:           There we go, that’s something potentially in the pipeline.

KD:     Oh we have done The Men We Need actually – I do lie – we did a school’s project a couple of years ago called The Men We Need and it’s a seven part resource for boys yeah and for young men.

Interviewer:          Wow, okay.   Okay, excellent.  Well it looks like you’ve got it all covered then.  So thank you very much for joining me Karen.  I hope I didn’t sort of seem like too much of a dufus man trying to go into the area of the feminine.

KD:     Ah, no, not at all – goodness.  I think it’s fantastic.  You know a few years ago at the Young Men of God Conference they asked me to speak about understanding the heart of a woman – or the key sorry – there was one talk called ‘The Key’ and I laughed with them.  I said you’re deluded if you think there’s only one key .  Which I think…I just think it’s so beautiful when men, um…really expose themselves to this as well, because John Paul II had a great quote when he said ‘Life is co-educative, men and women educating one another about what it means to be a human person’.  So you didn’t at all, it was lovely to speak with you.

Interviewer:           Well thank you.  Thank you and I pray that everything goes well with you and Jonathan and God Bless.

KD:     Thank you.

Find out more about the Genius Project Resource – CLICK HERE