There is a manifest faith and science conflict that no one talks about, so here goes. Young Catholic women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (i.e., STEM careers) get mixed messages from their two cultures—scientific and Catholic. I am concerned that the ambiguity is harming them and causing a missed opportunity for society in general.
The scientific community emphasizes the importance of women among its ranks. Administrators and policymakers note that STEM fields are historically male-dominated. Experts conduct studies to figure out to what extent discrimination, bias, and the “girls-can’t-do-math” stereotype are the causes of gender disparity. To compensate for the inequality, young women are pervasively encouraged to become STEM professionals. Missing from all the gender-bias dialogue is a defense of exactly what it is that women contribute to the scientific community. More bodies?
In a parallel, but very different, universe, young Catholics are taught the importance of the family in God’s plan, that marriage is ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of the children (CCC 2201). Although there is no mandate that a woman must become a wife, or that a mother must be a homemaker, there is a natural and reasonable expectation that mothers of young children forego demanding careers. In this role as matriarch of the domestic church, the contributions of a woman’s genius to the good of society are strongly emphasized.
So, when a young Catholic woman decides she loves science because it is the study of the handiwork of God, and she becomes enthused about a STEM career, she is faced with two (seemingly) opposing choices: the lab or love. This a false dichotomy, but not one that is clarified much in public.
Science of today needs a woman’s touch. Men are analytically rigorous, focused, and goal-oriented, and that is indeed good. But women nurture. They step back and take in the tapestry. They are adept at systematic thinking, placing the details of projects into the context of the past, present, and future, the local and the global. They ponder things in their hearts. The civilized world is navigating difficult technological and ethical issues regarding the dignity of human life (cloning, euthanasia, stem cell research, CRISPR), the stewardship of our planet (alternative energy sources, public policy), and the betterment of humanity (food sources, water supplies, medical care). Women leaders, especially those who have embraced the practice of virtue, are needed to equilibrate the decisions.
I hear from these high school and college-aged women a lot. They experience angst because they want to do the right thing. They realize that they have opportunities women in past generations did not have, and they are humbled and appreciative. Many (not all) also feel called to be wives and mothers. The newness of this women-in-STEM career phase has left a void of balanced guidance.
A woman considering a STEM career worries about the potential of raising a family. Secular culture says to put off having kids or to limit the number of them if you want to work outside the home. Yet, this is contrary to the Catholic understanding of the conjugal love of man and woman in marriage that instructs spouses to submit to the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity so the marriage remains ordered to the procreation of human life (CCC 2362-66).
In feminist circles, they say, “Let the man take care of the kids.” And certainly, for some families this is a viable solution. The woman works outside the home; the man tends the housework and children. But let’s be real. While young men can assume they will work outside the home and a wife will stay home with the kids if the couple decides to raise a family, no woman, no matter how modern and forward-thinking, assumes such will be her situation. Besides, making such assumptions about a man makes the woman guilty of reverse gender discrimination. We’re trying to avoid that, remember?
In Catholic circles, they say, “Just trust God and follow his will.” But this is not really advice so much as it is a statement of fact for leading a life of faith. Some go further and insist, “A woman’s place is in the home,” which is not helpful at all. Discernment demands that a woman try on different scenarios in her mind so she can decide what works best for her situation. That’s the problem, though. How is she supposed to figure out various scenarios without any data? It’s not like a woman can commit four-to-eight years of her life to an advanced STEM degree and then another five years raising a family before she chooses her path.
These anxieties are common for young adults in general. It is natural for young people to wish they could plan out their futures. In STEM fields, however, there is added pressure. These ladies wonder (in secret) whether it is a form of male-aping to become a scientist. Will the “masculine” traits that make her a good scientist also make her a bad mother? Will nurturing come naturally for her? What if it doesn’t? Is she wasting her life studying science if she is only going to “throw her degree away”? These are some of the things I want to address in future writing.
For now, listen up ladies. Yes, it’s worth your time to devote your life to science if you are a Catholic woman, even if you become a mother and decide only to work in your field a handful of years (as I did).
The knowledge changes you, and you will always be able to put it to use. Some people travel the globe to see the world. But scientists, engineers, and mathematicians can grasp the world at an entirely deeper level. Knowledge of the inner logic of nature will allow you to stand perfectly still and peer into an invisible reality that underlies all the macroscopic realm surrounding you, the cars, the smartphones, the plants, the angles, the waves, the trickling water, the intensity of sounds traveling in compressions and rarefactions through the air, the frequencies of light racing at a foot-per-nanosecond that make up all the color you will ever see. You’ll traverse landscapes in your mind without moving a muscle.
Even more, you will be an explorer. If you earn a PhD, your work will add new knowledge to your field. You will reach into the unknown and pull back the veil a little further, and forever own the satisfaction of knowing you discovered something new. That insight will affect your relationships. It’s true. Should you ever be so fortunate to hold your own child in your arms, you will understand the miracle of human life and the passing of time in a way that will leave you utterly breathless and awed that such robust matter could become such fragile life. Trust me when I say this: this is the kind of passion that the scientific community needs. Even if you never enter a lab, you can be a leader in society.
Last, let me just say that I realize the teaching of the Church regarding vocation, fertility, marriage, and virtue can seem distant and dry at times, like pronouncements lacking in tangibility, but so do physics equations and chemical reactions to those who do not rely on them for their work. You are not winging it alone. The instruction from Scripture and Tradition will illuminate your way. If you don’t already, in time you will maneuver through the teachings of the Church just as agilely as you will manipulate matter in the atomic world.
I will explain more of these points in separate essays—the beauty of living the scientific method, the practice of prudence, dealing with anxiety, remaining true to your femininity, having courage to make changes when necessary. You know what I am going to say, don’t you? I’m going to tell you to be a saint—a Catholic woman scientist saint. Because humanity needs you.
Mary, Queen of the Universe, Mother of our Creator, pray for us.