A Review of Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

And an inheritance of women offered through von Hildebrand

Cover of Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

There are voices that helped form us, for good or ill, into the people we are today. You can hear them in the nostalgic stories of the past, in an older generation’s lament about the newer generation, in how a mother firmly but lovingly scolds her child, and in a graduating senior’s speech about what living in a small town means to her.

How good it is for us to know the sources of those voices, the ones who shaped the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves.

Alice von Hildebrand is one of those voices for me.

I do not know who first introduced me to her through her book The Privilege of Being a Woman. Likely, it happened sometime in high school.

Cover of The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand

Von Hildebrand was, in a way, always in the background of my life. Her ideas echoed in youth group ceremonies upholding the dignity of womanhood, crowning us ladies as daughters of a king.

And then there she was, eloquently, lucidly, lovingly explaining what it is that makes being female not only tolerable but a good thing. There she was, explaining that the fall in Genesis turned our perception upside down so that weakness was directly marked as something negative, and power was directly marked as something good.

On Femininity

All this happened back before feminism seemed to target children and teenagers. We girls received the trickle-down message from our short-haired mothers that being a woman wasn’t about being girly, that there was no right way to be a girl, and that you didn’t have to be a boy to be cool, athletic, or adventurous.

Femininity had little to do with skirts, long hair and a sashay of the hips but had everything to do with how we were born and grew. Von Hildebrand gave a theological root to this idea, and it would shape me forever. Prudence Allen later offered a scientific and philosophical explanation. John Paul II elucidated the theological and scriptural roots. Still, it was von Hildebrand’s voice that taught me, woman to woman, how to be a woman in a world full of confusion and why no matter how hard the going got, it was worth it, and it was good.

Then last year, she died.

The death opened the door for those who longed to present an even greater body of her work to the world, explore her writings and papers, compile them, and promote her legacy as she did for her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand.

And so, this year, Hildebrand Press published Remnant of Paradise: Selected Essays by Alice von Hildebrand, edited by John Henry Crosby.

Cover of Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

The first set of essays gives the reader an excellent sample of her teaching on that femaleness I spoke of and the privilege of being a woman with wit and wisdom. These are controversial terms these days, no doubt.

She referenced Augustine’s “warmheartedness.” Indeed, here is a woman who understands that to feel and express emotion is a valuable power of the human person, so long as it is ordered rightly. She writes about friendship, an essay I could revisit again and again. She writes about widowhood and old age, under-appreciated topics in our society.

Sample of chapter titles from Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

The final essay selections feel like the essays were collected for me, reassuring me like the lessons or stories an old aunt chooses to tell. She writes about truth and charity, how the first exists and how the two are bound together. Von Hildebrand explains the true meaning behind sacramentals, that it is a betrayal of truth and love to be unwilling to care about a loved one’s moral state, or that an ancient sacred liturgy should not be forbidden.

She gives a voice to the ideas that swirl around my mind and reminds me what we believe and why we believe it.  Reading her words, I feel seen, known and loved. And as always, von Hildebrand does this in an effortless, approachable, conversational style.

In addition to von Hildebrand’s essays, Remnant of Paradise contains remembrances of those who knew her or were influenced by her during her almost 99 years of living. It comes as a paperback book with an unassuming minimal yet feminine design reminiscent of von Hildebrand’s writing style.

This book reminds me of the debt I owe her. It gives me an eager appetite for more. I hope the Hildebrand Project will not let me down.

Target’s change with the changing times: ending “boy toys” and “girl toys”

I’m in favor of Target “de-genderizing” their toy section. Some commentators got out of hand thinking they were putting boy and girl clothes together as well, removing those labels, but that was never true. So let’s focus on just the toys.

I have never liked “girl toys.” What is meant by “girl toys?” If you looked at Target’s aisle, you would know really quickly. It means pink. It means pastels. It means dolls. It means a lot of princess-Disney marketing and it means a lot more pink.

Boy toys? It means blue. It means dark colors. It means action figures and action toys and remote controlled toys.

Girls pretend. Boys control. Ha, sounds like modern dysfunctional relationships.

Some Christian’s object to Target’s decision. Matt Walsh:“Yes, Target, I Do Want My Daughter To Conform To Her Gender”.

I agree that we need to model behavior for children. So for nearly five years now I’ve been really happy to buy pink brooms and pink shopping carts and pink Cuisinart and paint my iron, pink (couldn’t find that one in pink) so that my daughter will know that the fact that all these pretending role playing toys are meant to imitate my life. I’m modeling domesticity for her. Naturally, my things should be pink because I am female and when you mix two X chromosomes you get a pink. I’m fortunate that the birth of my daughter coincided with breast cancer awareness because it’s really easy for me to find lots of pink so I can model good feminine behavior for her.

I also made sure to buy pink high heels and pink fairy dresses for myself.

I got a little carried away there.

I’ve always believed in just buying toys that fit my kids interests. Since my son turns toy guns, sticks, hose faucets, and American flags into guns (my little budding Republican), it’s not hard to figure out he’ll like the Lone Ranger. He can bond with his dad because his dad likes guns and making hose water spray really hard out of diy contraptions. My daughter loves to get fancy so we bought Fancy Nancy books and I buy her headbands that are on sale and jewelry from thrift stores or yard sales.

It pisses me off when a doctor kit comes in pink. What doctor carries a doctor kit? No way, I mean, what doctor uses a pink doctor kit. My kid will be interested in the things she is interested in not because they are pink but because they are interesting and because interesting models of behavior exist in her life.

Medical Care Set
From Target, at least the case is white.

So you know what? I do the sweeping. My son wants to sweep. He has to do it with a pink broom because someone bought a pink broom for my daughter. Oh we’re creating gender confusion! Watch out! Let me get him another gun.

Don’t worry too much about him. He is practicing nurturing with his “baby doggy” rather than a doll. I guess that means we’re on the right path.

I just think that role playing toys are amazing and should as closely reflect the real thing as possible and last more than one child. Melissa and Doug toys are fantastic. Let doctor kits be white and black and whatever other colors doctors like. Let brooms be green or black or wood (I really want a wood indoor broom).

Melissa and Doug doctor kit

Who decided pink was feminine and blue was masculine? It’s an American trend that is not more than a century old.

So go ahead Target. Why not? They’ll look better lying on my living floor if they’re not pink.

Now for the substantial ideas, in a nutshell. To say that pink toys and role playing toys are feminine and feminizing and that dark-colored, action-oriented toys are masculine man-makers is a symptoms of fragmentary complementarity. This is for boys and this is for girls. These are masculine qualities; these are feminine qualities.

What is masculinity and femininity? They are the respective sexes “way of being in the world,” so said Saint Pope John Paul II. They are a way of experiencing the world. Women do not actually wear rose colored glasses so it does not mean that pink toys will help a girl learn to embrace a feminine way of being in the world.

To reduce masculinity and femininity to superficial traits is to totally mis-define what it means to be masculine or feminine. It mislabels individuals who display qualities that don’t fit the Bem Sex Role stereotypes. It makes the powerhouse female saints who are Doctors of the Church to be weird, anomalies, and not feminine.

We should nurture the qualities our children display, whatever they may be. We don’t need pink and blue to do it.

Why I call myself a feminist

Recently I was asked if I have experienced backlash for calling myself a feminist. I haven’t experienced any great backlash but I have seen a few signs of it. Given my interest in clinical psychology, I tend to avoid verbal sparring with people with whom it will make no difference. It wasn’t always the case, and my friends know how to get a rise out of me, but truth be told, I haven’t discussed feminism with too many people.

So why am I a feminist and how do I define feminism?

My first foray into feminism began with a fabulous, radically liberal, shocking reading in a Catholic Studies class, “Woman and Man,” at the University of St. Thomas. I delighted in the discomfort of my male peers and sought to emulate my professors’ devil’s (radical feminist’s) advocate approach. While I could acknowledge the insanity of some of the ideas, I was not afraid of them, and understanding the others’ point of view became an important cause to me.

I took other classes that forced that perspective. There and since then, I learned about many types of feminism. Radical, liberal, new age, pro-life, so-called new feminists, John Paul II femininsts.

Why do Catholics need qualifiers to call themselves feminists? I believe this takes us back to Elizabeth Scalia’s point in Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, particularly in Chapter 3: the Idol of the Idea. Catholic group-think (note: not Catholic teaching) is decidedly anti-liberal, anti-Democratic, anti-feminist. Why anti-feminist? Isn’t the Catholic church decidedly pro-woman? Absolutely. The Catholic Church was at the forefront of educating women, given women positions of power (hello Abbess!), defining a woman not by her status in relation to man (only marriage) but on her own terms (celibate, consecrated life). So why the hate?

Radical feminists are aggressively anti-man. Liberal feminists are aggressively anti-pregnancy (pro-contraception, pro-abortion). Liberal feminists are heavily involved in the political scene. Radical feminism has shaped our modern media which paints male protagonists as antagonists that are either buffoons or bigots, patriarchal, un-feeling jerks. A strong Catholic man who has rediscovered the value of his masculinity and vocation as a man, is naturally disturbed by the treatment of men in the media. A virtuous, just man (qualities that come with that whole good Catholic thing) is abhorred by the institutionalized abuse of woman made possible through wide-spread contraception (“okay men, you don’t have to live up to your responsibilities because it’s her fault she got pregnant, she was supposed to be on the pill”) and the injustice brought upon the most innocent of persons, the unborn child. But these ideas can morph into idols and when this happens, the feminist is the object, the sacrifice to be made to that strange god.

What other ideas spring up when the idea of “masculinity” has become a god? Perhaps that certain tasks or certain personality features belong properly to women or properly to men. If a person disagrees with that concept then he or she can be labeled and dismissed, or worse, insulted, persecuted. This is not evangelization. This is not charity. This is not even a right understanding of the human person.

Masculinity and femininity are a man’s and women’s way of being in the world, according to John Paul II. They are not traits. They are the person’s lived experienced, stamped with his or her perspective, deeply formed by this core component of who he or she is, his or her sex. A man or a woman may be ambitious, caring, aggressive, passionate, but it will look different based on what sex the person is. To simplify things, one might take an approach Prudence Allen defines as fractional complementarity which categorizes qualities as a man’s trait or a woman’s trait. In this view, neither are complete without the other. That hardly seems right as some people are called to virginity for the sake of the kingdom and it diminishes one’s personal value. Integral complementarity, in contrast, sees that our unique perspectives add and inform to the greater good.

The ideas that are central to feminism can float in many circles, if we aren’t afraid of the labels.

1. A woman should not be defined or understood by her relationship to a man. We are all defined by our relationship to God. Some feminists apply the central point to the relationship with God because God revealed himself as Father, but this is applying it in the wrong direction. We are defined by our relationship to God our Creator, not to any human being.

How this central point gets applied: women should not be objectified. Feminists are typically against violent pornography. Feminists are against human trafficking. I watched two documentaries in college: “Killing them Softly” about how women are objectified in advertising and “Dreamworlds 3” about how women are objectified in music videos. These programs are not intended to have a Christian message, but their message resonates with Christians because they value God’s creation, woman.

2. A woman should have equal access and rights. Liberal feminism takes this point and applies it to all groups, regardless of sex, while still identifying it as a feminist mission. This concept has evolved. Earlier it meant equal voting rights, equal pay. Now it is evolving in popular culture to include the concept that some women want to have children, having children looks different for men than women and women should not be penalized for that. Evolution continued: women should not be penalized for having and nursing children. Accommodations should be made. Evolution continued: men are also part of the having children equation and should be involved, allowing them time off from work to be good dads and bond with the babies.

I’m not naive, it has also evolved to equal access to marriage for LGBT persons. But that idea has moved beyond feminism because feminism, as an idea, rests on the question of woman.

Likewise, if people who label themselves as feminists puts a pro-abortion, pro-contraception message above the message of feminism, as in the recent headline stating Democrats blocked an anti-human trafficking bill because it did not include access to abortion, then this is not an issue of feminists making a god of their message, but of people passionate about a pro-abortion/pro-contraception stance, turning that idea into a idol to which other persons or issues should be sacrificed.

Let’s wake up. Quit labeling. The Catholic Church takes what is good and uses it to glorify God. Look at the Pantheon. Look at All Saint’s Day. She did it then. She can do it again.

Summary of the Outline by Pontifical Council for Culture

The summary below of the outline Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference, was originally written to be part of my consideration of the use of a sculpture by Man Ray, Venus Restored, on the Vatican website to represent this document. However, the article became too long and so I have posted it here separately for those who wish to know more.

Content of Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference

The outline begins with a wonderful articulation of the male-female difference and what it means to be feminine.

“The expression “women’s cultures does not imply any division from men’s cultures, but shows our awareness that there is a women’s “perspective” on the world and all that surrounds us, on life and on experience.”

John Paul II wrote that femininity is woman’s way of being in the world. It is how she experiences it, and masculinity is man’s way of being in the world. Masculinity and femininity do not refer to set traits, but general experiences that shape the life of the person in question, making him masculine or her feminine. Both are complete as they are, not in need of the other to be complete, as the opening quote by Edith Stein to this outline so beautifully states.

“I am convinced that the human species develops as a twofold species, ‘male’
and ‘female’; that the essence of the human being, of which no trait should be
missing, is present in both, manifesting itself in two ways: and that the entire structure of being highlights this specific mould.”

The outline begins with an articulation of the presence of a women’s culture, which is experientially different then a man’s culture, because woman experiences the world differently, as a woman. The document takes a realistic view that at one time these different cultures created different spheres of influence for the man (public) and the woman (private), but in time that gap has lessened. Despite the narrowing of the gap, a woman’s reality continues to be quite different than that of a man, and she identifies herself with different terms. The writers propose some important questions regarding the co-existence of equality and difference.

The next section focuses on the concept of generativity and the nature of woman to be linked to and defined by her body. “Putting it in an excessively simplified way, we can affirm that the generative path is divided into four moments: desiring, bringing into the world, looking after, and finally, letting go.” Woman’s genius is not limited to her bio-physiological orientation towards child-rearing, but also in every day practice, the way she goes about the world. “Women executives and managers, for example, who develop managerial processes based on respect, welcoming, making the most of differences and skills, generate and protect life expressing fecundity.”

Recognizing the value of the feminine body, the document goes on to examine the abuses that happen specifically towards women and how these abuses are linked to her body through poverty as “both a cause and consequence of violence on women”, slavery, feminicide (“selective abortion, infanticide, genital mutilation, crimes of honour, forced marriages, trafficking of women, sexual molestation, rape”), domestic violence, non-medical plastic surgery, reducing woman from generator to producer of children, and using woman’s body for marketing, commercialization.

The last section explores the role of women in the Church, which John Paul II called for, as coming to fruition. Continuing the hard, realistic look at the state of things, the authors ask, “What is not working, today, so that the image of womanhood that the Church has kept, does not correspond to reality?” Woman’s engagement with the Church seems to be diminishing. Rather than calling for the replacement of men in positions of liturgical power with women, the authors continue to plea of John Paul II:

“A realistic objective could be that of opening the doors of the Church to women so that they can offer their contribution in terms of skills and also sensitivity, intuition, passion, dedication, in full collaboration and integration with the male component.”

In Catholic circles, we’d like to think that the good we see makes up the majority of the reality, but unfortunately it is not so. Faithful and informed Catholics are quick to point out the Catholic Church has a singular historical role in valuing woman and her contribution (through motherhood, the saints, the Virgin Mary, mystics), educating women (through convents/monasteries, Catholic schools) and creating positions of power (abbess) and importance (teaching, Catholic hospitals). Woman is valued, perhaps now, more than ever and her role discussed with great honor and respect via the writings of John Paul II.

With only a like button possible to quickly post our views, we’re tempted to post only positive things because if we talk about the negative, communication online quickly breaks down. Nevertheless, the conversation is important and must be pursued. I hope you will take a look at this document, and further the discussion of what we can do to help women in society to discovered, with unbridled freedom, her glory and dignity.