Amid Cultural Confusion, ‘Truth of Love’ Conference Unveils the ‘Meaning of Sexual Difference’

A conference focused on St. John Paul II's theology of the body revealed many truths about the masculine and feminine, for those called to be fathers and mothers, both physically and spiritually.

Spiritual mothers and fathers gleaned insights at the July conference on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Spiritual mothers and fathers gleaned insights at the July conference on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville. (photo: Courtesy photo / Franciscan University of Steubenville)

On July 8-10, Franciscan University of Steubenville partnered with the Veritas Amoris Project for its second “Truth of Love” conference, discussing the virtues of fatherhood and motherhood and the meaning of sexual difference. 

Stephen Hildebrand, professor of theology and dean of the school of theology and philosophy at Franciscan, and Stephan Kampowski, professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome, were in charge of the conference. 

“We have a lot of personal and professional ties with Veritas Amoris,” Hildebrand said. “When the project got started, Franciscan was very happy and delighted to collaborate with a team of such wonderful scholars with such a noble mission and vision.”

In his theology of the body catechesis, St. John Paul II places great emphasis on the “spousal” meaning of the body: “The body, which expresses femininity ‘for’ masculinity, and, vice versa, masculinity ‘for’ femininity, manifests the reciprocity and the communion of persons.” 

Namely, sexual difference reveals the call to a reciprocal gift, according to Hildebrand and Kampowski. Following these insights, the conference approached the topic of sexual difference by examining the virtues of fatherhood and motherhood.

“We wanted to take a particular approach to sexual difference because sexual difference seems to be a very crucial issue today,” Kampowski said. “Many are wondering, what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Is there anything in between? Can a man become a woman? Can a woman become a man?”

There are many theories and ideologies that can confront these issues and prove that they are wrong, Kampowski said, but what he and Hildebrand wanted to do was propose something positive about our sexual differences. 

“If you look at fatherhood and motherhood, there’s something there that reveals the meaning of sexual difference, that being a father tells us something about being a man and being a mother tells us something about being a woman,” Kamposki said. 

Hildebrand said that the audience got a sense of the profound meaning of the body from all the speakers. 

“It’s not just some kind of accidental biological difference, but the meaning of it is far-reaching,” Hildebrand said. “It’s very clear that [the sexual difference] affects our whole way of relating to others. It can affect the way we think, the way we feel, how our relationships are, and therefore how we act in community to serve each other and love each other. All of that is permeated by the sexual difference.”

In theology of the body, St. John Paul II says that masculinity contains in a hidden way the meaning of fatherhood, and femininity, that of a mother, Kampowski said. 

This quotation from St. John Paul II reveals that the purpose of masculinity is fatherhood, and the purpose of femininity is motherhood, Hildebrand said. When we look at masculinity and femininity in their stage of fulfillment, we can get a better sense of what they mean, he continued. 

“We didn’t name the conference, ‘The difference between man and woman,’ although that’s obviously part of it. We chose fatherhood and motherhood precisely because fatherhood and motherhood are the fulfillment of sexual difference,” Hildebrand said. 

Even though there are many men and women who will never become fathers or mothers in the flesh, those men and women are called to spiritual fatherhood and motherhood, and in that, they can also find masculine and feminine fulfillment, Kampowski said.


Education on the Fulfillment of Masculinity and Femininity 

While the first two sessions discussed the virtues of fatherhood and motherhood respectively, the final session tied together teachings on masculinity and femininity with the virtues of educators (mothers and fathers), the collaboration of a mother and father, and their mission together. 

About 20 Dominican sisters on campus attended the conference, Hildebrand said. Since their charism is education, Hildebrand was grateful to see how impacted they were by the conference. 

“Their reactions really struck me, and it shows you the relevance of this theme,” Hildebrand said. “These are sisters living the celibate life. And they found every part of the conference relevant to their life.” 

Even though none of these sisters are living vocations of familial motherhood in the flesh, Hildebrand said the themes of masculine and feminine fulfillment still struck them because they are spiritual mothers. 

“I got the sense that what they were hearing at the conference illuminated their experience and helped them to understand different ways of relating boys and girls that they saw in schools where they’re teaching,” Hildebrand said. “I think it applied not only to their work, but to their own lives.”

The importance of education was made evident in the conference, and Hildebrand said this session was also his favorite of the whole conference. 

“It’s very clear that education is more than a curriculum, more than a body of knowledge that you’re communicating,” he said. “You’re really shaping the way we relate to one another and the way we behave toward one another.”

In between sessions, participants had an hour or hour and a half to discuss these topics together, not in breakouts or small groups, but free-flowing discussion. 

Marguerite Naaden, a senior at Franciscan who attended the conference, said she was greatly impressed by both the speakers and those in attendance who added to the discussion. 

“It was reassuring to see such a big group of really smart, really dedicated people fighting for the faith,” Naaden said. “The issues of masculinity and femininity [in our society] are just getting more and more widespread, and it’s doing more and more damage to families. I think it’s really important that we talk about it, especially from a Catholic perspective.”

While covering the fulfillment of masculinity and femininity, Naaden said they also discussed the importance of a father in the family. 

Deborah Savage, Franciscan visiting professor of theology, spoke on “The Collaboration of Father and Mother in the Education of Children.” Her forthcoming book is titled, Man, Woman and the Body of Christ. Referencing the creation accounts in Genesis, she said, “Taken together, the creation accounts establish, first, both man and woman simply must be understood to be equally human.” She then explained that “sexual difference or gender, as we call it these days ... is an essential property of man and woman.”

She went on to discuss the importance of the example and guidance of mother and father as vital to human flourishing when educating children.

“Both the mother and the father are essential to the child's happiness,” she said, underscoring her previous points about how mothers teach love and fathers teach risk-taking, adding that “women hold the key to the recovery of our culture.”

For his part, Joseph Atkinson, associate professor of sacred Scripture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, spoke on the “Narratives of Fatherhood in Scripture.” 

He emphasized, “Families are to live their lives in Christ,” citing St. Paul in Ephesians 5:21 and how the domestic church should be “subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”

He continued, “Fatherhood must be lived out in Christ ... lived out in daily relationships,” adding that this is very much needed in modern culture: “The Christian message is indeed good news.”

“While a mother teaches a child how to love, a father teaches a child how to step out of himself and how to embrace the world and not be afraid,” Naaden said, reflecting on what she heard. “That’s just a really important role in a child’s life.”

Kampowski said he was reminded of the importance of educating early and how the father and mother are the primary educators in a family. 

“Education is certainly about learning and mastering your different subjects and so on, but even more fundamentally, you’re really learning to be a man and a woman, practicing developing the virtues that you’re going to need for the fulfillment of your masculinity and femininity, respectively,” Hildebrand said. 

“Each family has its narrative and takes on their practices to the culture,” Kampowski said. “They’re building the virtues by living the virtues.”