Pope Francis has a penchant for using maternal imagery in reference to the Church, and true to his gift for holding up the beauties of the Church’s tradition to let them speak for themselves, he does so in ways that transcend any pietistic stereotypes. Recently, he used this type of language to turn the language of military hard power on its head. We may be accustomed to the stock phrase “mother of all X” to convey magnitude, but the pope’s simple statement pointed out that the use of such a phrase for a deadly weapon is deeply ironic to the point of obscenity.
“A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is happening?”
The history of Mother’s Day, particularly in the US, makes his point all the more fitting. Before it was a Hallmark holiday, it was a reaction to the horrors of war, as felt especially keenly by women. This is most clearly expressed in Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” or as she titled it, “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world,” which reads in part:
Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.
Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
The changed nature of how wars are now fought can make Howe’s approach seem somewhat antiquated, but in a way that highlights how some of those changes have obscured the true human costs. Her language can make one almost nostalgic for a time when wars had clear beginnings and ends, and enemy combatants were inescapably visible and inescapably human. Nostalgic, when a bomb called “Mother” now brings death from a distance, without anybody having to see the people she killed.
But what really makes Howe sound antiquated is her gender-based appeal, now that daughters and wives and, yes, mothers are routinely trained to injure and kill alongside sons and husbands and fathers. It’s jolting to be reminded of a time when women being left to bear the emotional toll of war from the home front was simply taken for granted. But perhaps the particular moral authority Howe derives from this experience, as a woman and even as a feminist, can jolt us out of the assumption that it has only been a positive advance for women that we too are now trained to unlearn our human sensitivities to the depth and breadth of suffering caused by violence.
It’s no wonder that Pope Francis, with his calls for a “revolution of tenderness” and his signature emphasis on mercy, would hold the name of “Mother” so dearly as a favored image for the Church – nor that he would not miss the perverse irony of bestowing the same name on an inanimate bearer of destruction.