Male and Female He Created Them

Male and Female He Created Them April 28, 2012

I’ve been thinking about gender differences recently.  The genesis of this was a discussion in my diaconate class about women’s ordination.  This led me (eventually) to an on-line essay by Peter Kreeft on women’s ordination and sexual symbolism.  The heart of his argument, as best as I can discern, is that

To understand this second proposition, we must distinguish “male” from “masculine.” Male and female are biological genders. Masculine and feminine, or yang and yin, are universal, cosmic principles, extending to all reality, including spirit….Male and female are only the biological version of cosmic masculine and feminine.

I found parts of this argument dubious, but it did get me thinking about the differences between men and women.  On one level, they are obvious.  As the song “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” from Annie Get Your Gun puts it:

My tiny baby brother, who’s never read a book,
Knows one sex from the other,
All he had to do was look!
On the other hand it is not clear how far these differences extend and what they entail on an existential or ontological level for men and women.  In Genesis 1:27 we are told that
God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.
This passage can be read as suggesting that God created men and women in “his image” but imbued them with intrinsic differences.  But do these differences extend beyond the biological differences required for pregnancy and childbirth?  Spiritually, St. Paul seems to assert an essential unity between men and women as a consequence of baptism:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)
The meaning of these passages are contested, with interpretations being advanced that both support and minimize the differences between men and women.   Many arguments about the intrinsic differences between men and women have been advanced that are based on natural reasoning and metaphysics (cf. Kreeft’s article cited above).  I have discussed some of these arguments in the commboxes several times in the past.   But I have always approached them with a hermeneutic of suspicion, if only because of the cultural constraints which cause many of these arguments to do little more than enshrine existing prejudices.  One oft quoted example is the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Women, which includes such gems as
It should be emphasized here that man owes his authoritative pre-eminence in society not to personal achievements but to the appointment of the Creator
The sexes can never be on an equality as regards studies pursued at a university.
[T]he political activity of man is and remains different from that of woman, as has been shown above. It is difficult to unite the direct participation of woman in the political and parliamentary life of the present time with her predominate duty as a mother.
I think it is fair to say that no one gives too much credence to these particular arguments.  Beyond these, however, I also recently stumbled upon passages in both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in which they argue for the natural superiority of men over women.    Augustine argued that
Because the one [man] rules, the other [woman] is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. (On John, Tractate 2.14)
Similarly, Aquinas stated that
There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates. (Summa Theologica I, qu. 92, art. 1, ad 2)
Catholic teaching on marriage has decisively moved away from “man is the head of the woman” arguments, to a view based on equal partnership and mutual service, albeit grounded in a notion of complementarity.   I bring these older arguments up primarily because they are grounded in natural reasoning that no longer carries much  weight.
However, it seems to me that Aquinas is on the right right track when he attempts to draw a distinction between what existed before and after sin entered into the world.   In light of this, the question becomes:  to what extent are the differences we see between men and women part of the order of creation—and so to be celebrated and respected—and what part of them are due to the Fall—and so to resisted and ameliorated as best as possible given our sinful natures?   The Catechism makes this point explicitly when discussing the sacrament of marriage:
Every man experiences evil around him and within himself.This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character.
According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman.Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust… (CCC 1606-7)
I find this passage persuasive, but its consequences are not well explored.  Certainly, the discussion of women’s ordination (which is only pages away) completely ignores the arguments in favor of it which attempt to ground opposition to women’s ordination in this “relationship of domination and lust.”  Moving away from women’s ordination (which I do not particularly want to talk about) what are the consequences of this passage?  What are the differences between men and women that matter, which are cultural epiphenomena, and which are tragic consequences of our sinful natures?

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