The Gender Gap

The Pope‘s Lesson in Sex Education for the American Bishops

Although some Catholic theologians and writers are celebrating the Pope’s recent apostolic letter on the role of women as a confirmation of what the American bishops maintained in their pastoral draft, “Partners in the Mystery of Redemption,” a close reading of both documents suggests crucial differences. Since these are not just differences of temperament but also of theology, they have important implications for the way that male-female issues are taught in the American church, both in Catholic schools and from the pulpit.

Reading the bishops’ letter in the context of the Pope’s document, Mulieris Dignitatem, immediately two major flaws surface in the bishops’ approach. The Pope not only avoids these errors but posits an alternative understanding more closely attuned to the traditional Catholic teaching and to the way that most people want to live.

The Nominalist Fallacy

The first flaw in the bishops’ letter is the nominalist fallacy. Nominalism supposes that the universal terms we do not refer to any objectively given reality, but constitute simply a convenient means by which we group together certain things or people. Nominalism presumes that the underlying reality to which such words refer is itself a human fabrication. In our society, informed to such a large extent by the graphic media and the advertising industry, nominalism seems to have found a home particularly suited to it. The image, as Daniel Boorstin pointed out years ago, has for us replaced the substance, the reality. Politicians worry much more about the images they project than about the principles they actually hold.

Within our society, the names of religions have become to a large extent mere labels, a convenient means for identifying large groupings of people, but pointing to or signifying no underlying reality, no shape or form except that which is fabricated by their members. And, as in the case of Coca-Cola, the underlying fabrication can be refabricated or changed without the name itself being affected. This, in practice, is what a large number of nominal Catholics today believe, whether they be so-called “cafeteria” or so-called “cultural” Catholics. For them, the Catholic faith is whatever the individual Catholic wishes it to be. It is no longer an objective, public, commonly held faith to which the individual conforms himself or to which he is converted.

This nominalism is apparent in the pastoral draft at several levels. First, it is apparent in the “Voices” sections, wherein we are presented with the views of a number of women who, presumably, all claim to be Catholic, but whose views clearly and frequently diverge from the Catholic faith, especially in such areas as contraception, abortion, and marriage.

On what grounds do these women claim to be Catholic, if they do not share with the rest of us that faith which is identifiably Catholic? And on what grounds can they argue that the teachings of the Church ought to be changed, as so many of them clearly suggest, unless they suppose that the faith which has been handed on to us is nothing more than the fabrication of previous generations and therefore subject to refabrication by us? That such views exist today should not surprise us; that the pastoral draft does not challenge this nominalism should disturb us.

Unfortunately, however, this nominalism was implicit in the questions the bishops themselves asked us to consider. For the questions to which these “voices” were responding asked only about the individual feelings and experiences of women in American society today. No mechanism was built into the data-gathering process which would allow anyone to differentiate between those responses coming from nominal Catholics and those coming from women speaking out of a living practice of the faith. Thus, while it should disturb us that the bishops did not challenge this nominalism, it should not surprise us, for they themselves invited it.

Nominalism is also apparent in the responses of the bishops, especially in the manifest inconsistencies in their attitude with regard to what is real and what is ideal. Are the teachings of the Church to be regarded as virtually unrealizable “ideals,” nominally nice to con-template but realistically impossible to live, as several sections of this document suggest (87,96,121,128,138, for example)? Or are the teachings of the Church, or at least the teachings of the American bishops in this pastoral draft, to be understood as “ideals of Christian behavior that are both desirable and possible”(110)?

Unfortunately, the “ideals of Christian behavior” which in this document turn out to be “both desirable and possible” are narrowly defined, apparently restricted in one way or another to what the document itself characterizes in several places as the “sin of sexism,” and therefore constitute only those teachings of the Church which are compatible with the secular and feminist agenda of today’s society. This document, whether intentionally or not, moves in the direction of refabricating the Catholic faith along the lines of that agenda.

Finally, the nominalism of this document is apparent in the extent to which the document not only recognizes a conflict between the views of individual women, on the one hand, and the views of the Church, on the other (for which the document cannot in itself be faulted, since such conflict clearly exists), but also seems to side, at least by implication, with the views of the individual against the views of the Church. Hence, the document tells us that the Church is called to “a radical conversion of mind and heart” (18) without once suggesting that any of the views expressed by women in this document indicates the need for any conversion at all.

Instead, we are several times counseled to extend compassion to, rather than to call to conversion, those women whose actions are incompatible with Catholic teachings (121, 126, 128, for example). What the document time and again suggests is that the views and practices of individual women are to be taken with greater seriousness than the public, commonly held teachings of the Church (hence, the earlier noted tendency to treat the views of individual women as real and the teachings of the Church as ideal). Indeed, this document is remarkable for the nominal fashion in which those teachings are presented. The lack of enthusiasm is palpable.

Who’s Converting Whom?

The second great flaw of the bishops’ document has to do with its methodology. The critical questions which any age addresses to our faith require that we seek a more profound understanding of that faith. The traditional view of theology as “faith seeking understanding” is the proper attitude not only of theologians, but also of bishops who teach in the person of Christ the faith that He makes known in and through the Church. To seek the views of the faithful is entirely appropriate, for this is the best way to understand the questions which are being asked, but to attempt to tailor the faith of the Church to the views of particular individuals in the Church (especially when it is not clear in what sense those individuals claim to be in the Church) runs contrary to both the authority and the responsibility invested by Christ in the bishops. Christ calls us to repentance and to conversion to the truth which He personally embodies. He does not solicit our opinions with a view to conforming Himself to them.

The fundamental failure of this document lies not just in the lack of enthusiasm with which Church teachings are presented, but even more in the lack of any serious attempt to plumb the depths of those teachings, to bring the light of reason to bear on the revelation given us. Indeed, the document, by the kind of sympathy it extends to those who do not follow Church teachings and, even more, by the failure to correct so many of the erroneous views expressed by women in the “Voices of Alienation” section, conveys the impression that the experiences of women in today’s society are to be taken, as more revelatory of reality than are the teachings of the Church.

We have all of us already seen in so much of contemporary theology the use of methodologies which would make human experience and the hermeneutical schema of theologians themselves more basic than revelation, and therefore capable of judging that revelation, rather than the reverse. That theologians have embraced this error is bad enough. Can we afford to have the bishops repeat it?

Yet that error is just what is conveyed in statements which label as sexist, without qualification, “church teaching and-practice over the centuries and still in our day” (39), which, again without qualification, call the Church to “a radical conversion of mind and heart” (18), which speak of an attitude of male dominance in authority which, once again without qualification, has “influenced family and church structures and distorted the way in which we understand the truth of our heritage” (224). Not only are all of these statements unqualified, they all leave the impression that there is some more basic revelation which can be brought to bear upon and correct the faith and structures of the Church.

Where is this revelation to be found? The document offers no answer to this, unless we are to understand the experiences of unidentified and alienated women to be the source of such a revelation. At the end of the document, many a puzzled reader has to ask not only who is teaching whom, but where the light is to be found which illuminates the rest of reality.

The Papal Difference

By contrast, what strikes the reader of the Pope’s letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, is an entirely different approach and method, an entirely different tone and context for the discussion of the significance and dignity of women. In section one, the Pope tells us that the dignity and vocation of women can only be understood by understanding “the Creator’s decision that the human being should always and only exist as a man or a woman.” In section two, he characterizes his approach to such an understanding as a “meditation.” In the following section, he notes that people throughout history have looked to religion for answers to the human condition and concludes that the expression “the fullness of time,” of which St. Paul speaks, “emphasizes the response of God himself” to the questions posed by us. In other words, the Pope’s letter is a meditation which begins in faith and seeks only a more profound understanding of that faith in light of the questions which people today address to it. Nothing could be further removed from the methodology employed by the American pastoral letter.

Furthermore, the Pope makes it quite clear that the theological basis for such a meditation is not abstract but quite concrete and historical and not at all divorced from the realm of human experience (18). For, as the Pope points out, because we are created in God’s image, “God too is in some measure ‘like man,’ and precisely because of this likeness, He can be humanly known” (8). This means that our imaging of God, even though diminished and obscured by sin, still remains as the essential element of our own experience and propels us to God for answers to the questions we ask about ourselves. Meditation on Genesis confirms this experience, telling us that because we are made in the image of God, we can seek our identity only in and from the God Whom we image.

Genesis, however, is just the beginning of that revelation, not its culmination. Only “the fullness of time” supplies us with God’s complete and definitive answer to our questions, and that answer is also not abstract, but the concrete, incarnate Son of God Himself. Therefore “we must go back to the foundations which are to be found in Christ, to those immutable truths and values of which he himself remains the faithful witness (cf. Revelation 1:5) and teacher” (28). The Pope links the continuum of Adam-Christ with that of Eve- Mary. Mary, he tells us, realizes within herself the perfection of the feminine. She is “the new beginning of the dignity and vocation of women, of each and every woman” (11).

Like the American pastoral, therefore, the Pope appeals directly to human experience as the source for understanding the human condition. Unlike the American pastoral, however, the Pope looks not to the witness of women alienated from the Church, but to the witness of the incarnate Son of God and to the witness of his mother — the one woman who precedes and sums up, in her own faith and experience, the mission of the Church — in order to understand the significance, the dignity, and the vocation of women.

Six Principles of Gender

The Pope distances himself from both the methodology and the nominalism of the American pastoral, and it therefore ought not to surprise us that his meditation on women incorporates many features which one would look for in vain in that draft. Those features, however, are the key elements of the Pope’s letter and the key elements of our faith regarding the nature and value of the female; we overlook them at our peril. Six elements of the Pope’s letter are particularly important for us, within the context of American society, to consider in relationship to the value and dignity of women.

First, the Pope insists upon the differentiation and complementarity of male and female. The differentiation, in fact, exists for the sake of the complementarity, which is to say, for the sake of community. The two become “one flesh,” and in this union they “mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life” (7). This communal imaging of the communal God has long been the basis for the Pope’s “theology of the body,” in which he insists upon the nuptial significance of the body. At the outset, then, the Pope gives a kind of priority to the communal dimension of human existence.

Second, this priority is based upon the centrality and the essence of love as revealed in Christ. As the Pope points out, Christ’s prayer that “all may be one . . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22), implies, as the Pope puts it, “a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons and the union of God’s children in truth and charity” (7). The revelation that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that, among the virtues, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13), underlies the anthropological “ethos” which “reaches its apex in the commandment of love” (7).

Third, this love commanded by Christ is best understood in terms of giftedness and entrusting. There is a kind of paradox at the heart of the human condition. On the one hand, man is, as the Pope puts it, the only creature whom God “has willed for its own sake” (7), thus making man the only creature who is a person. Being a person, on the other hand, means that “self- realization” can only come through the giving of oneself to another person. God created Adam and Eve for one another. Hence, although each of them has been willed for his or her own sake, neither can be fully understood apart from the other, apart from the union of the two, which can only be achieved by the total giving of each to the other. This mutual self-giving is the vocation to which every human being is summoned.

Parameters of Marriage

Fourth, this universal human vocation or call to interpersonal communion is, in its most fundamental dimension, marital by nature (7). The man is to leave his own father and mother for the sake of union and communion with his wife. Indeed, the Pope understands the source of this union to lie in the fact that God, in the very creation of Adam and Eve, entrusts them to one another. The fact that they not only give themselves to one another, but are entrusted by God to one another, means that they are charged with responsibility for one another. “This entrusting,” the Pope points out, “is the test of love, spousal love” (14).

Fifth, although both the man and the woman are entrusted with one another, in the final analysis women bear more responsibility for this entrusting than do men. “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way” (30). The Pope discusses this matter within the context of the “woman clothed with the sun” in the Book of Revelation, the woman who stands alone before the serpent who wishes to devour the child she is carrying. She not only stands alone before the serpent, she alone stands between the serpent and the child. It is this great drama which is foreshadowed back in Genesis, in the enmity which God places between the woman and the serpent. In both instances, the woman is placed at the center of the human and historical struggle for salvation. As the Pope sums it up:

Is not the Bible trying to tell us that it is precisely in the “woman” — Eve/Mary — that history witnesses a dramatic struggle for every human being, the struggle for his or her fundamental “yes” or “no” to God and God’s eternal plan for humanity? [30]

Mary in particular stands for entrusting in a special way. For, as the Pope pointed out in Redemptoris Mater, issued earlier this year:

It must be recognized that before anyone else it was God himself, the eternal Father, who entrusted himself to the Virgin of Nazareth, giving her his own Son in the mystery of the Incarnation. [39]

While in Mulieris Dignitatem the Pope speaks of entrusting as the test of spousal love, he had earlier, in Redemptoris Mater, indicated that “everything expressed by the intimate relationship of a child with its mother” is included in what we mean by the word “entrusting”(45). He concluded that “such entrusting is the response to a person’s love, and in particular to the love of the mother”(45).

While it may initially surprise us that the Pope locates “entrusting,” in its most basic sense, in the mother-child relationship rather than in our relationship to Christ or to the Father, a moment’s reflection will indicate why he does. Every child is entrusted to the care of a mother before that child is called to entrust himself to anyone else, God included. For the first nine months of his life, he knows directly only his mother, and in most instances and for some time to come after the umbilical cord is severed, he meets others, including his own father, through and under the watchful eye of his mother. Therefore, as the Pope points out, even though parenthood belongs to both fathers and mothers, it “is realized much more fully in the woman, especially in the pre-natal period” (18). For this reason,

The man-even with all his sharing in parenthood-always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother. [18]

Hence, “In God’s eternal plan, woman is the one in whom the order of love in the created world of persons takes first root” (29). For this reason, women enjoy a certain priority in the “order of love” (29).

If the man is called to love the woman as Christ loves the Church, this is because “it is she who receives love, in order to love in return”(29). But her love, rooted in her capacity to be a mother, is not just returned to the man, but is extended beyond him to others. She is called to exercise that love “within all the interpersonal relationships which, in the most varied ways, shape society and structure the interaction between all persons — men and women”(29). Herein lies her priority in the order of love.

Finally, the Pope locates in Mary’s motherhood the beginning of the New Covenant. It is through Mary that God begins this new covenant (19). If we ask why it is he should do so, the answer is quite simple.

Precisely because this Covenant is to be fulfilled “in flesh and blood” its beginning is in the Mother. Thanks solely to her and to her virginal and maternal “fiat,” the “Son of the Most High” can say to the Father: “A body you have prepared for me. Lo, I have come to do your will, 0 God” (cf. Hebrews 10:5, 7). [19]

Here the Pope reminds us that Mater is indissociable from materia, that motherhood is indissociable from material mediation.

If the Old Testament or Covenant is appropriately patriarchal, this is because, as Karl Stern once noted, the male stands for that which is not yet materially manifest. “The remote foreknowledge of that which one will neither see nor touch, is the paternal.” On the other hand, the Blessed Virgin Mary is properly invoked in the New Covenant, because with her, in Stern’s words, “faith achieves the immediacy of certitude, in that carnal link with being which is the core of all womanhood.”

Incarnation necessarily involves a woman, because no one, the Son of God included, can enter this world as a human being except by way of a mother. “The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood” (19). God entrusts his son to Mary in order that the uncreated order of love might become visibly manifest “in the created world of persons.” Upon this entrusting of God, upon this trustworthiness of Mary, the whole of our faith depends.

Because Mary was trustworthy, Christ could entrust to her, standing at the foot of the Cross, the whole of humanity. To her love he could commit the rest of us. For the love which Mary, as woman and mother, returns to him she also extends beyond him, to every child of every mother and to every mother herself. In this, Mary precedes and embodies in herself the primary role of the bridal Church, namely to make visibly manifest in the world “the love with which every human being — man and woman — is loved by God in Christ” (29). Herein lies the essence of the female, for, as the Pope notes, “it is precisely the woman — the bride — who manifests this truth to everyone” (29).

The greatest flaw of the American pastoral on women is not what’s in it, but what isn’t. The document entirely fails to take into consideration the current Pope’s enormous body of writing or what he has characterized as a “theology of the body.” Indeed, dissenting theologians generally treat this work as nonexistent. We are continually told that the Pope breaks no new ground, contributes no new insights into the issues which most disturb people today. It is almost breathtaking to see the degree to which this illusion has managed to obscure the truth of the matter, for in fact the Pope is almost the only one around today who is genuinely breaking new ground, contributing new insights with regard to these issues.

I am persuaded, as a Catholic, as a theologian, and as a woman, that this Pope’s “theology of the body” supplies the basic direction in which Catholic theology must move today. There is little question that the implications of his theology are far greater than most of us imagine and will require radical modifications in our presentation of the Catholic faith, not just in how we view the role of woman or the meaning of marriage or the nature of human sexuality, but in how we view the totality of that faith.

Generally speaking, our presentation of the faith must today be Christocentric rather than theocentric. This means, concretely, that we must find the center of our faith not in God, but in the God-man, and not just in the divinity of the God-man, but in the union of the divine and human in him. We must also take into account not just the historical Christ, but the Total Christ, that is to say, Christ in relationship to that female activity which complements and completes his own, namely, Mary and the Church. The fullness of that new covenant is given in the union of the bridegroom and the bride. The relationship of Christ and Mary, Christ and the Church, must be moved to the center of our theology and our catechesis. In order to do this, there are, broadly speaking, two areas in which we must make serious changes in our presentation of the Catholic faith.

First, we must give much greater emphasis to the value and significance of materiality. We already generally recognize, because of the incarnational and sacramental character of our faith, the important role which materiality plays in it. But we have not yet gone far enough.

For instance, our presentation of man’s creation in the image of God continues to be over-spiritualized. Catechisms generally speak of our imaging having to do with the fact that we have intellect, free will, a soul. All of this is true, of course, and the Pope certainly reiterates this aspect of our imaging. But the Pope, unlike our catechisms, goes beyond this to discuss our imaging of God as male and female, as an imaging not just of the divine nature but of the Trinitarian community of persons as well. Because of this, the Pope can speak of our bodies as “nuptial” and therefore as participating in our imaging of God. All of this needs to be made very clear right at the beginning of our catechesis, in what we say about creation itself.

In ecclesiology, we need to find room in every catechism to discus the marital union of Christ and the Church and the bridal character of the Church. We need to find a way to discuss our creation as male and female within not only the Trinitarian but also the Christological context, that is, as a participation in the Christ/Church relationship. As the Pope points out, marriage is the “primordial sacrament,” instituted at creation and raised to the sacramental level by Christ. Neither of these statements makes sense apart from the groom/bride relationship of Christ and the Church.

Dogs in Heaven?

Then, with regard to salvation itself, we must emphasize in the context of Christ’s resurrection and our own, the fact that salvation extends to the whole of creation. The Pope has clearly identified the resurrected human body as the door by which all of the created order enters into and participates in salvation. It is a source of some amusement that I insist, in all of my classes, that there will be dogs in heaven. I myself, however, am quite serious about this. The created world, very clearly and as the Pope points out over and again, was created for us. It is a gift to us. It is an extension of us. In Genesis, it falls with us, and, in St. Paul, it moans with us for salvation. To talk about the resurrection of the human body requires us to talk about the salvation of all of creation.

There is a twofold reason why materiality must be moved to center stage. On the one hand, unless the material has central significance and value, we have no answer to the feminist insistence that women be freed from our biology. The female has always been identified more with materiality than has the male, even linguistically in the identification of mother and matter, and if we want to take that identification seriously, as the Pope certainly does, we must insist in every way possible on the value of materiality, both with regard to the human body and with regard to the whole of the created order.

On the other hand, while we may be concerned that our students today are materialists and need an injection of spiritual values, in fact our students are not materialist enough. They look to the material realm to supply themselves with instantaneous gratification, with temporary distractions from what might otherwise be a boring existence, with immediate material advantages and a comfortable life. This is all they ask of it, because they see in it no possibility that it mediates enduring truths about God, about man, about human sexuality. They see in it no possibility that it too shall endure eternally.

They live in a consumer society which has taught them that all material things are disposable. They are therefore already too prone to think of themselves as immortal souls in disposable bodies, as spiritual beings fundamentally untouched by material influences and activities, inhabiting a world which is as disposable as are their own bodies. Unless they can be persuaded that they are, in their essence, material beings, that salvation comes by way of material mediation, that the God whom they shall someday live with is Himself already united to the material order, and that heaven itself shall be, in all likelihood, even more material than the world they live in now (as C.S. Lewis argues in The Great Divorce), we shall lose them. For, as it should by now be very clear to all of us, Catholicism lives by the material, the sacramental, the Incarnational. Those who distance themselves from these elements, as is very clear today, either find themselves outside the Church or in conflict with her.

Second, we must in theology take into much greater account the role of “entrusting.” The truth of Christ simply cannot stand in our world apart from the trust and entrusting of Mary and of the Church. Such entrusting, rooted as it is in the mother-child relationship, is always interpersonal, always communal. It calls us not only to entrust ourselves to others, but to be entrusted with others, to entrust ourselves to the truth and to be entrusted with the truth. Such entrusting invests us not primarily with rights, but with responsibilities. Because God entrusts the man and the woman to one another, the child to the mother, he charges those who are entrusted with great responsibility.

Today our society is obsessed with “human rights,” and we must be very wary of this. Rights are associated with individuals, regardless of their involvement with others. Responsibilities are always associated with relationships, with individuals precisely to the degree that they are entrusted to one another. The real horror of abortion, for example, is not that it violates the rights of the unborn child. The real horror is that it violates trust, and does so at the deepest level possible in this “created world of persons” in which the most basic form of entrusting lies precisely in the mother-child relationship. In so doing, it poisons all human relationships, for, to put it very simply and very bluntly, if we cannot trust mothers, to whom God himself has entrusted all children, whom can we trust? As Mother Teresa has quite rightly observed:

Abortion is the great killer of peace in the world … the greatest destroyer of peace because if a mother can destroy her own child what is left for others but to kill each other? There is nothing to prevent them.

Feminists and others will continue to insist that the Pope relegates women to second-class citizenship, denying to them, as he does, entry into the ordained priesthood. And many of our fellow Catholics will agree with them, despite the fact that the Pope gives women a certain priority in the “order of love.” This tells us a good deal more about what our society thinks of love than it does about what the Church thinks of women. But it also tells us that we, as Catholic theologians, have somehow failed to communicate the centrality of love in our faith.

The Pope fears that women will become “masculinized” in our present society (Mulieris Dignitatem, 10). What he has in mind, I think, is that women will embrace for themselves a masculine calculus of values, by which success is measured in terms of money, status, power, public admiration, by what we do instead of by who we are, by the rights we can successfully wrest from others instead of by the responsibilities we recognize ourselves as having toward others. Women are entrusted in a special way to summon all of us to an “order of love.” They are especially charged with reminding us, as Mother Teresa recently has, that God calls us not to be successful, but to be faithful.

American Catholics, students and adults, children and parents, must be confronted, squarely and continually, with this “order of love” and the primacy we are called to give it in our lives. Christ loves his bride in order that she might love in return. Christ loves all of us in order that we might love in return, and extend that love to everyone whom it pleases God to entrust to us. This love is expressed primarily, as Mother Teresa points out, by “the little things of everyday life: fidelity, punctuality, little words of kindness, just a little thought for others, those little acts of silence, of look and thought, of word and deed.”

  • Joyce A. Little

    At the time this article was published, Joyce A. Little was assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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