I have been reflecting a great deal on Eve Tushnet’s excellent article in The Atlantic that many of you have probably, already read (and if you haven’t, by all means, check it out). I’ve been thinking of her article, in part, because she’s a great writer, but also, because I spent the weekend with my best friend from childhood with whom I remain very close despite the fact that we have many very different views, me being a promoter of the Catholic vision of the person and sexuality and him, being an expert on and professor of queer theory. Obviously, we have a lot of interesting and vigorous discussions on the nature of the person, sexuality, gender, and our shared Catholic faith.
In light of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about a minor point in Eve’s article referencing her struggles with what she referred to as, “repressive ideas of gender which would leave no room for St. Francis and St. Joan. (n.b., follow the link for her expansion on this point).”
What Does the Church Teach about Men and Women?
I have to say that while I am aware that many people share her opinion of the Church’s vision of men and women, and while I have met many pious Catholics who I think, personally, have rather retrograde views of masculinity and femininity, I don’t think they got them from an honest reading of the Church’s thinking on the topic. In fact, my reading of the Church’s teaching on gender strikes me as rather novel and counter-cultural (and when I say that, I don’t just mean counter-secular feminist culture, but also counter-conservative stereotypical culture).
Male and Female He Created THEM.
My understanding of the Church’s view of masculinity and femininity is that maleness and femaleness is not, as many conservative Catholics mistakenly think, determined by the preferences you have, the work you do, the things you like or the toys you played with as a kid. The Theology of the Body makes the point that Genesis 1:27 says, “Male and female he created them.” TOB asserts that this passage does not mean that God created males and females. Rather, it means that men and women have both masculine and feminine dimensions to their personalities. Culturally, we may say certain traits (such as nurturance, gentleness, or sociability) are more “feminine” traits, and that other traits (such as assertiveness, ambition, or competitiveness) are more “masculine” traits, but from a TOB point of view, it would not be reasonable to then say that a woman who was assertive or ambitious was somehow less womanly or a man who was nurturing or gentle was somehow less manly.
The Body Makes Visible That Which is Invisible…
The TOB argues that what differentiates men from women is not traits, preferences, work, or habits, but their bodies and how those bodies allow them to express–in complementary ways–the virtues and qualities that evidence their shared humanity. The short version is that being made in the image and likeness of God means that God takes all the virtues (i.e., all the qualities that make men and women human) from his own heart and shares them equally with men and women. BUT he creates men and women’s bodies to be different and complementary to each other so that when they live out those human virtues through the bodies God gave them, they can emphasize different and complementary aspects of those virtues and, by doing so, present a more complete image of that virtue that reflects God’s face to the world.
Practically speaking, this means two things.
First, it means that men and women can both fully demonstrate all the qualities that make us human. BUT because of the body (and mind, which is part of the body) God gave us, men and women will display complementary variations on those qualities. For instance both men and women are called to be fully nurturing as a part of their human nature but he has created men’s and women’s bodies differently. A woman, for example, is able to nurse her children and thus express nurturance in a particularly profound and intimately embodied fashion. A man can’t lactate, but he is also required to be fully nurturing if he is to be fully human. He also expresses his nurturance through his body. For instance, because of greater upper-body strength, a man can more easily toss his kids in the air (and sometimes, even catch them!). Likewise, even men who shave have more facial hair than the hairiest woman. My little one loves to sit on my shoulders and rub my fuzzy face. She loves when I put my scratchy, tickly chin under her chin and go “phhhhhhhhhhfffffffffffffftttttttt!”
My wife and I must both be fully nurturing to our children, but we express that nurturance differently through the bodies that God gave us. Our respective efforts to be nurturing feel different to our kids. The masculine and feminine versions of nurturance are both sufficient on their own, but together, they are a more complete presentation of the virtue of nurturance itself. When a man and woman are both fully nurturing in their unique and complementary way, they do a better job of making visible the nurturance in God’s own heart.
The same applies to any other quality or virtue. Catholics have never believed that there is only one way to be a man or a woman, which is why we have saints like St. Joan and St Francis as well as St Therese of Lisieux and St Ignatius.
The second example of the practical significance of all this is that although both men and women are capable of being fully human and living out the fullness of all the virtues that make them human, men and women’s versions of those respective virtues/qualities are appreciably different and complementary. A man who is fully nurturing will always nurture differently than a woman would. Likewise, the most ambitious, assertive woman will still be ambitious and assertive in a way that is, somehow, more feminine than the way a man is ambitious or assertive. That doesn’t mean that one is inferior to other. They are both perfectly complete, acceptable, efficient, healthy modes of being. BUT they are substantively different from and complementary to one another. Even if a man tries to be effeminate, he only ends up coming of as a caricature of femininity and the same for the woman who tries to be masculine. Men and women can be fully human and live out the complementarity of the virtues that comprise their shared humanity, but they cannot ever be the same even when they try.
The Feminine Genius.
Which brings us to what JPII meant when he wrote about the “feminine genius.” While I understand where Eve’s coming from (as well as other critics who feel the same) I have never read the Church’s writings on this subject as being patronizing. (And you might say, “that JUST what a man WOULD say!” but that really would be patronizing). To my way of thinking, the point of saying that there is a feminine genius is not to say, as Eve suggest (in the second link above), “Oh, don’t worry your pretty little heads, ladies, of course you’re special too!” Rather, it is to say that in contrast to secular feminism which tells the world that only the masculine versions of the various virtues count, that the feminine complement to these same virtues presents a full, dynamic, vigorous, and valuable contribution to the human experience and that women, as well as men, serve their humanity best, not by trying to imitate the other, but by exploring the fullness of their own humanity which is beautifully, powerfully, and more than adequately expressed by the humanity represented in their own gender.
I’m really not sure what is so retrograde about that. In fact, this view of gender sounds like nothing else I’ve read on the subject. The Catholic vision of masculinity and femininity, to my way of thinking, goes beyond the too easy stereotypes of the conservative/historical patriarchal view of gender and stands in opposition to the reaction-formation that is the secular feminist view. It is a fresh, exciting, and freeing view of the person that presents a mode of being that allows man and woman to both be fully human and completely unique.
For more information on living out this vision of the sexes in your marriage, check out For Better…FOREVER! or to pass this vision of masculinity and femininity on to your children, pick up a copy of Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Children