A Traditional Catholic Wife?

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I know a large number of amazing young Catholic women – smart, beautiful, and devoted to their faith – who are searching for good husbands; so many, in fact, I sometimes wonder where they all were when I was their age and looking for a wife.

When I’m honest with myself and look at the bright young Catholic men I teach, I have to admit that, at their age, I was as clueless about marriage and family as they seem to be. So although there were probably plenty of wonderful Catholic women around, I’m sure I didn’t: (A) notice them, or (B) have the courage to ask any out on a date. Thus, I’m not unsympathetic to the problems experienced by both sides in the current dating impasse.

Men don’t know how to ask, and women aren’t supposed to be looking to be asked, so the result is a stalemate. Dating is no longer a choreographed dance between the sexes; it’s a potential war zone you drive through at high speed in your armored Humvee, praying you don’t hit any land mines along the way. The whole thing is extremely trying.

Several young Catholic women I know have gone on web sites such as Catholic Match. I have no objection in principle to such things. In Jane Austen’s day, young men and women sometimes wrote letters to get to know one other before they could spend time together. There were sometimes unfortunate, nasty surprises in Austen’s day too. But such efforts were not unknown in a culture where educated, capable young women were searching for husbands of character and quality, unwilling to marry the burly blacksmith down the lane or an elderly landowner just because they happened to live in the same town. So although the Internet is an imperfect medium, it may be a necessary one.

And yet, may I offer young Catholic men some gentle advice? Gentlemen, it has become very clear from the responses I’ve heard repeatedly from bright, beautiful, devoted Catholic women that you would be making a big mistake were you to announce you wanted a “traditional Catholic wife.”

What young women hear when you say a “traditional” Catholic wife is that you want a woman who will stay home, cook, clean, and take care of the babies, while you work all day. To put this another way, you want your mother. And the one thing most bright, devoted Catholic women don’t want (especially the ones who want plenty of children) is to be some grown man’s mother.

There is also a nagging historical problem as well. What do you mean by traditional?

The Reluctant Bride by Auguste Toulmouche, 1866 [private collection]
The Reluctant Bride by Auguste Toulmouche, 1866 [private collection]
For most of history, most husbands and wives had to work just to survive, and both worked at or near the home. Even early manufacturing tended to be done in houses, which is why they were called “cottage industries.”

It’s important to understand that the first fatal blow to the family came during the Industrial Revolution when fathers left the house for the bulk of the day. The deleterious results that followed from ripping fathers away from their children were seen almost immediately in the slums and ghettos of the large industrial towns, as young men, without older men to guide them into adulthood, roamed the streets, un-mentored and un-apprenticed. There, as soon as their hormonal instincts were no longer directed into work or caring for families, they turned to theft and sexual license.

The “traditional Catholic family” where the husband worked all day and the wife stayed home alone with the children only really existed – and not all that successfully – in certain upper-middle class WASPy neighborhoods during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Working in an office all day is not necessarily evil (depending upon how it affects your family). It’s just modern. There’s nothing especially “traditional” about it.

As a medievalist, when I hear a young man say he wants a “traditional” Catholic marriage, I imagine he wants to train as a knight, become a vassal to the local lord, obtain some landholding after a few successful battles, and then find a good woman to run the manor while he’s away – someone who can milk cows, load hay, and direct the farmhands.

That’s not as ridiculous as it may sound. I know a young man whose father was a professor, but also a part-time farmer, who began a correspondence with a fetching young woman who shared his passion for farming. She had written a “Letter to the Editor” in response to an article he had written in a farming journal. He was smitten, it seems, and off they went to get married, raise children, and farm some acreage. God bless them.

By the same token, I don’t think this sort of life would have appealed to young Jane Austen, as it rarely appeals to her modern-day Catholic equivalent. But it has an undeniable beauty and involves a “tradition” in the sense that it is bound up with very definite practices and virtues.

Let me suggest, therefore, that a “traditional” Catholic wife is one whose life is bound up with a tradition constituted by virtues and practices – in this case, let’s say the Catholic intellectual tradition and the life of the intellectual, moral, and theological virtues. That’s the key “tradition” you should care about. It would be foolish to define “traditional” by one particular arrangement at a narrowly circumscribed point in time.

Tough, smart virtuous women want a tough, smart virtuous man, not a boy looking to replace his mother. So man up. Accept it. You’re going to have to raise those kids along with your wife. If you think you can “offshore” that task and dump it on your wife or the teachers at the school, you’re not doing the traditional Catholic thing. You’re just doing the traditional stupid thing.

A tough, smart wife who challenges you will make you a better man.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.