Reflections on Being a Woman and Being a Man

COMMENTARY: The Church’s understanding of complementarity has developed

A tapestry featuring the portrait of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the first married couple to be canonized together, is draped from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square on Oct. 18, 2015.
A tapestry featuring the portrait of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the first married couple to be canonized together, is draped from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square on Oct. 18, 2015. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

The Church illustrates, through its understanding of the complementarity of men and women, that there is something unique about being a woman, and something unique about being a man — and that the two sexes are equal. 

Equality as human persons created in the image of God does not imply that men and women are the same. As John Paul II put it, “masculinity and femininity” are “two different ‘incarnations,’ that is, two ways in which the same human being, created ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27), ‘is a body’” (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 8:2).

One of the beautiful but more complicated aspects of Catholicism is the development of doctrine within the Tradition of the Church. Development of doctrine does not mean that the Church’s teaching changes, but that her understanding of particular truths deepens. Sometimes this means that an interpretation of Scripture reaches a new level of meaning.

When reading Scripture, we have to be guided by the Tradition that teaches us to seek the literal meaning and spiritual meanings (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 115-117), and each passage should be read in the context of the whole of Scripture (see Dei Verbum, 12). No text can be understood in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Part of the literal meaning is keeping in mind the historical and cultural contexts of the human author, but it also contains essential truths communicated through these nonessential cultural motifs and practices of the time. The difficulty lies in distinguishing the essential truths from the nonessential cultural practices. For example, it took more than 1,400 years for the Church to begin to formally condemn slavery. The development of doctrine helps reveal to us the difference.

We can see here an intentional decision to develop the Church’s understanding. In Mulieris Dignitatem St. John Paul II wrote specifically about a synod decision in 1987 to have “further study of the anthropological and theological bases that are needed in order to solve the problems connected with the meaning and dignity of being a woman and being a man” and to understand “the reason for and the consequences of the Creator’s decision that the human being should always and only exist as a woman or a man.”

Thus, when thinking about complementarity, the most important context for reading scriptural texts about men and women is that “in the beginning” both were created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and that the woman’s desire for her husband and his “rule over her” was a curse humanity received as a result of Original Sin (Genesis 3:16). All other texts must be read with this in mind. The development of Tradition has slowly revealed how Christ has restored men and women’s equal dignity, as we have seen changes culturally and in the Church that recognize that women and men are equal.


Subject to the Lord

Take Ephesians 5:21-33: Only recently with the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II has the Church put so much emphasis in her teaching of the idea of being “subject to one another,” which was stated before as “wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord” (though I would like to note that there is discussion of it by some of the Church Fathers). Regarding Ephesians Chapter 5, Pope St. John Paul II emphasized that the submission of the wife is only to the husband’s love, as he loves his bride as Christ loves the Church:

Love excludes every kind of submission by which the wife would become a servant or slave of the husband, an object of one-sided submission. Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and subject in this to the Lord himself, as the wife is to the husband. The community or unity that they should constitute because of marriage is realized through a reciprocal gift, which is also a mutual submission.

When talking about male headship in marriage, Pope Pius XI held that this could be expressed in a range of ways at different places and times (Casti Connubii, 26-29) and emphasized women’s dignity. This shows that the Church is aware that her understanding of complementarity candeepen as our culture learns the truth of human equality. When reading difficult texts like 1 Corinthians 11, we need to keep this in mind. Older readings understood it as the husband being the head in domestic and spiritual matters. But, actually, 1 Corinthians 11 is about practices in the liturgy and gives an analogy of Christ as the Bridegroom and Head and the Church as his Bride and his Body. In the liturgy, men symbolize the priesthood of Christ while women symbolize the (veiled) bride of Christ. This also spills into the domestic church, where the husband has a spiritual, priestly role of blessing his family and making sacrifices for them. The wife continues in the role of the Church, returning the love, submitting to what he offers for her in sacrifice. The text must be understood on a spiritual level that respects the complementarity and equality of men and women.

St. John Paul explains that these spiritual roles in the family and in the Church do not take away from the equality of men and women, but reveal a beautiful divine truth. In his “Letter to Women,” he writes:

If Christ — by his free and sovereign choice, clearly attested to by the Gospel and by the Church’s constant tradition — entrusted only to men the task of being an ‘icon’ of his countenance as ‘shepherd’ and ‘bridegroom’ of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women or, for that matter, from the role of the other members of the Church who are not ordained to the sacred ministry, since all share equally in the dignity proper to the ‘common priesthood’ based on baptism. These role distinctions should not be viewed in accordance with the criteria of functionality typical in human societies. Rather, they must be understood according to the particular criteria of the sacramental economy, i.e., the economy of ‘signs’ which God freely chooses in order to become present in the midst of humanity.


What Is Essential

What a thing does reveals what that thing is — as the scholastic tradition puts it, actions follow from being. But we cannot reduce a being to its actions. We need to distinguish actions that reveal what is essential to being human; actions reveal what is essential to being a man or a woman, and actions reveal one’s unique self.

St. Maximus the Confessor talks about how our acts as humans are much more numerous than our acts as men or women (see On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua). St. Gregory of Nyssa explains that we are in the image of God before we are male or female, showing thatbeing human is more foundational to who we are than being male or female: “Our whole nature, then, extending from the first to the last, is, so to say, one image of him who is; but the distinction of kind in male and female was added to his work last” (On the Making of Men, XVI.18).

Reasoning, loving, working and cooking meals are distinctly human actions. The act that is fundamental to being a man and that reveals him as a man is begetting a new human in a woman. The act that is fundamental to being a woman and that reveals her as a woman is begetting and bearing a child within herself.

Both of these acts can also be reflected on a spiritual level in the spiritual fatherhood of priesthood and spiritual motherhood of religious life for women; though any man can be a spiritual father to another person and any woman can be a spiritual mother. The acts that reveal one as a unique self show one’s distinct personality and gifts. When we restrict acts that are proper to all humans to only men or only women, we limit individuals from reaching full virtue and full flourishing and from developing their unique gifts.

The Church even gives us examples of this in the lives of the saints. One example is St. Gianna Molla, who shared her skill as a doctor even while married with children. And another is St. Louis Martin, the father of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who sold his watchmaking business to devote his career to running the lacemaking business of his wife, St. Zélie.

Certain aspects of roles of men and women flow from what is essential to being a man or a woman, while others flow from cultural traditions — for example, that men ought to be the ones to work outside the home, that women ought to be gentle, etc. The act essential to being a woman is bearing a child in herself. Caring for children after birth is an extension of that, as she naturally can nurture her child from her body. The man, who reveals himself as a man by begetting a child outside of himself in another, must self-sacrificially work in an external way to love and care for his wife and child.

It makes sense for men and women to take on roles that fit with these natural structures. But these natural roles do not morally restrict men and women from taking on other roles. For a society to restrict men and women further than this, in the roles they can take on, is frequently based in the disorders that arose from Original Sin of the man dominating the woman. Bearing this in mind, we should remember that what is morally essential for men and women is that, if married, they care for their children and provide each other with mutual help. The idea that there are specifically feminine or masculine virtues goes against the classical concept of virtue, for one cannot have any virtue fully without having all of the virtues.

A Scripture that illustrates the Church’s developed understanding of sexual differentiation and complementarity is the second creation story of Genesis 2:18-25, so long as it is read in relation to the first creation story of Genesis, where God creates “man” in his image as “male and female.” Genesis 2 shows that God found that the lower, nonrational beings were not suitable “helpers” for the man. The Hebrew word for “helper” is also used by God to refer to himself many times throughout the Old Testament, so “helper” does not imply that the helper is lower than the one receiving help. As St. John Paul II explains in Mulieris Dignitatem:

The biblical context enables us to understand this in the sense that the woman must ‘help’ the man — and in his turn, he must help her — first of all by the very fact of their ‘being human persons.’ In a certain sense this enables man and woman to discover their humanity ever anew and to confirm its whole meaning. We can easily understand that — on this fundamental level — it is a question of a ‘help’ on the part of both, and at the same time a mutual ‘help.’ To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion.

Then, when God takes the man’s rib bone, this prefigures the blood and water pouring out from Christ’s side for the sanctification of the world. We see an intimate relationship between the first man and the first woman, where she is literally of the flesh that he poured out for her. And they see each other, love each other and are not ashamed. This shows the true depths of the love that husband and wife are meant to have for each other — working beside each other to love God, different but equal. Further, “In the ‘unity of the two,’ man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist ‘side by side’ or ‘together,’ but they are also called to exist mutually ‘one for the other’ (Mulieris Dignitatem, 7). And thanks to the redemptive act of Christ, we can live a life of grace, reflecting the equality of men and woman that God intended from the beginning.