Man and woman are created to be like eagles, not
It has unfortunately become normal to watch the most dramatic and
scandalous events that the media daily show us and often parade to
satisfy the morbid curiosity of a broad section of the public: a husband
grabs a weapon and kills his wife in a fit of anger, another pushes his
wife out the window, a third seriously injures his partner with a knife.
These scenes may occur in any quiet and peaceful town where
neighbours waste no time in joining together to express their amazement
and dismay. And after having heard more or less coherent complaints, we
switch to another item of news, thinking that society should provide
women with better protection.
Without denying that this protection is indeed urgently necessary, it
must be said that the results of certain recent inquiries give food for
As a German psychological journal (cf. Psychologie heute, July
2004) claims, it is men,
not women, who suffer most from domestic violence. Women are also
showing a growing inclination for physical aggression, whereas their
husbands prefer to keep quiet about the abuse they suffer.
"I have always been careful only to slap educated, gentle men who
would not have slapped me back", an active feminist declared (cf. Die
Welt, 11 June 2004).
Apart from this revealing confession, it is known that women are
capable of [...] damage by means of psychological torture, embittering
the lives of their families by more subtle and "indemonstrable" means,
such as coercion, humiliation or constant bad temper.
In such a situation, it is not surprising the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith has addressed its Letter to both men and
women. Its intention is not only to defend the dignity of women, as Pope
John Paul II did with fine sensitivity 16 years ago in his Apostolic
Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, a Document that even gave rise to
admiration in certain radical feminist circles. For example, Gertrude
Mongella, President of the International Conference on Women in Beijing
said: "I would like all the fanatics in the world to reason in the same
balanced way as the Pope" (cf. Kirche heute, December 1996, 26).
Instead, today, in addition to clearly indicating the legitimate
rights of women and working to make them respected on the five
continents, it is also necessary to speak of the duties of both sexes.
To use a more attractive metaphor: the time has come to remind people of
their important mission in this world. We have all been created to be
"eagles" that can soar toward the sun, and we must not diminish
ourselves by behaving like "hens" that do nothing but peck at grain
scattered on the ground.
The call to create
Both Mulieris Dignitatem and the recent Letter to the
Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in
the Church and in the World (31 May 2004) refer to the texts of
Genesis to show the immense value of the human being.
"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gn 1:26), God
said at the culminating moment of creation.
A Jewish tale relates that the plural use of the verb does not solely
indicate the divine majesty and solemnity of the act; but it is as if
the Creator were already speaking to the new creature about to emerge
from his hands: "Look, you and I will make man. If you do not help me, I
will not be able to achieve the eternal and marvellous plan I have in
store for you".
This is an allusion to the human being's freedom that is "built up"
by one's own actions and plays the lead in life. The art of living
consists in helping, with divine grace, the divine plan for personal
To reach this goal we cannot flee from our reality; on the contrary,
we must know and face it to accept ourselves as we are, with the
countless riches we have received from God and the limitations of every
finite being. In this context, it is essential to discover our own
The creation account testifies to the original difference between man
and woman: "So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man,
and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with
flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made
into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 'This one,
at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called
woman, because she was taken out of man'" (Gn 2:21-23).
It is impossible to deduce from this text that the woman is
subordinate or inferior to the man (a mere "rib"), since Adam, before
the deep sleep, is the human person as such. The author of Genesis does
not speak of the sexual difference (Adam still has his "rib"), but says
that man (male and female) is the lord of the creation that surrounds
Woman is also present here to give the animals a name and, without
suitable company, to be lonely.
The sleep of the solitary Adam expresses the mystery: in the
creation of the human being it is God himself who acts, and his plans
are by far superior to ours. In Sacred Scripture, sleep is often a place
for revelation (the dreams of Jacob or Joseph are examples).
Lastly, it is after the sleep that the sexual difference
appears: Adam and Eve recognize each other as equal and complementary.
Thus, it can be said that God created man and woman in a single
mysterious act. There is no right without left, no high without low, no
man without woman.
We can therefore clearly see that the sexual difference is neither
irrelevant nor additional, nor is it a social product: it originates in
the very intention of the Creator (cf. Letter, n. 12).
In creating the human person as man and woman, God wanted the human
being to be expressed in two distinct and complementary forms, each as
beautiful and valid as the other (cf. Letter, n. 8). There is no
doubt that God loved woman as much as man. Upon both he bestowed the
dignity of reflecting his own image and he called both to fullness.
But why did he make them different?
Procreation cannot be the only reason, for it could also have been
brought about by parthenogenesis, asexually or in other ways, many of
which are to be found in the animal kingdom. These alternative forms are
at least imaginable and would be proof of a certain self-sufficiency.
On the other hand, human sexuality implies a clear orientation to the
other. It shows that human fullness is to be found precisely in this
relationship, in existing-for-the-other.
It is an incentive to come out of oneself, to seek the other and to
delight in his or her presence. It is like the seal of the God of love
as an intrinsic part of the very structure of the human person (cf.
ibid., n. 6).
Even if each person is loved by God "for his own sake" (cf. Second
Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, n. 24;
John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, 15 August
1985, nn. 7, 10, 13, 18, 20, 23) and is called to individual fullness,
no human being can attain this fullness other than through communion
The human being is made to give and receive love. Sexuality, in
itself immensely valuable, is an eloquent expression of this. Both sexes
are called by God himself to act and to live together. This is their
It can even be said that God did not create the human being as male
and female for the purpose of begetting new human beings, but rather
that man possesses this capacity in order to perpetuate the divine image
which he himself mirrors in his sexual condition.
Human sexuality speaks to us at the same time of both identity and
otherness. Man and woman have the same human nature but in different,
reciprocal ways (cf. Letter, nn. 6, 9, 11, 12, 14).
According to certain ancient interpretations, Adam goes to meet Eve
just as God goes to meet humanity. One might thus presume that the man
who represents God would be active, whereas the woman who represents
humanity would be passive.
To win this argument, there is no need to repeat the trivial protests
of certain feminists. It is enough to refer to our daily experience to
show that women are not passive in the least (cf. ibid., nn: 1,
16). We can say that women are receptive in their femininity,
since they are images of God like men.
In the intimacy of the Trinity an unfathomable life of full and happy
communion is revealed to us. The Father gives to the Son all that he is,
the Son receives it and exchanges it with equal generosity with the
Father, and they both work in the Spirit who is Love himself (cf.
ibid., n. 6).
Contemplating this mystery, we can discover that "perfect" love does
not consist in giving... and giving... and giving, without desiring
anything in return (in the human context, this attitude can express a
latent need to be important and can become oppressive for the
Perfect love consists in giving and receiving, even in the divine
intimacy. The capacity to receive is also a requirement of love, and at
times can cost us more than giving because it requires humility.
Returning to the relationship between the sexes, it is obvious that
it is not only men who give and only women who receive. The love to
which both are called is expressed in the free, reciprocal gift of
themselves that is only possible if the desire to receive is also
Like the capacity for giving, the capacity for receiving is a
constitutive element of communion and bears positive fruit for both. In
fact, in receiving we give happiness to the other, enriching and
strengthening the other, given that acceptance is one of the greatest
possible gifts that can be offered to a person.
Receptivity thus entails an activity, but one that accepts,
interiorizes and serves to deepen the other's action. In addition to all
this, receptivity can be wholly understood if it is recognized as a
special form of activity, expression and creativity.
The human person feels "alone" (like Adam in Paradise) without the
other, aware of his/her own inadequacy (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem,
n. 7; Letter, n. 6). Therefore, man innately tends towards woman,
and woman towards man. They do not seek an androgynous unity such as the
mythical vision of Plato in his Symposium might suggest, but need
each other if they are to develop their humanity to the full.
The woman is given as a "helpmate" to the man and vice versa, and
this is not equivalent to "servant", nor does it express contempt (cf.
Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 10; Letter, n. 6). The Psalmist
also says to God: "You are my help" (Ps 70:6; cf. Ps 116:9-11;
We know from the primary experience that it is not necessarily a
question of the relationship between a single man and a single woman.
Reciprocity is expressed in various different life situations, in a
multi-coloured mosaic of interpersonal relationships, such as
motherhood, fatherhood, filiation and brotherhood, friendship and
collegiality, and many others that refer at the same time to every
person. Some, therefore, point out that this is an "asymmetrical
The sexual difference
So, what are the sexual differences?
Man and woman differ from each other, of course, because of their
potential to become father or mother. Procreation is ennobled in them by
love that is the proper context; and precisely because it is linked to
love, God has put procreation at the centre of the human person as a
joint act of both sexes.
Yet, if we say that the possibility of begetting cannot be the only
reason for the sexual difference, we must not focus exclusively on their
common fatherhood-motherhood, even though this reveals a special
protagonism and immense confidence on the part of God. Being a woman and
being a man, however, does not end in becoming, respectively, a mother
or a father (cf. Letter, nn. 2, 13).
Considering the specific qualities of the woman, the recent Document
speaks opportunely of the "genius of women" .(n. 13: the expression was
coined by John Paul II, Letter to Women, 29 June 1995, nn. 9-10).
This "genius" consists in a basic attitude that corresponds with the
physical structure of women and that they in turn promote.
It does not, in fact, seem out of place to presume that a woman's
close relationship with life might give rise in her to particular
natural tendencies. Just as during pregnancy, a woman experiences a
unique closeness with a new human being, so too her nature favours the
interpersonal encounter with her surroundings.
The "genius of women" can be expressed in delicate sensitivity to the
needs and demands of others and in the ability to realize that others
may have inner conflicts, and thus to understand them. This feminine
genius can be identified with a special practical capacity to show love
(cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 30) and with the "capacity for the
other" (Letter, n. 13).
Obviously, however, not all women are gentle and dedicated; they do
not all show an inclination to solidarity; it often happens that in
certain cases a man possesses greater sensitivity in acceptance and
caring than the majority of women; and a man can also be meeker than his
In this sense, the recent Letter has made a real step forward;
not only does it recall that feminine values are human
values, but it also makes a fine distinction between the woman and her
most characteristic values, and the man and his (cf. ibid., n.
14). This means that every person can and must also develop the talents
of the opposite sex, although this may normally prove to be a little
If there is a "feminine genius", there is naturally also a "male
genius". What is the specific gift of the man?
By nature, he is more detached from practical life. He is always on
the "outside" of the process of gestation and birth, in which he can
only participate through his wife.
It is precisely this greater distance that enables him to act more
calmly on behalf of life, to protect it and guarantee its future. This
can bring him to become a true father, not only in the physical
dimension but also in the spiritual sense.
Furthermore, it can bring him to be a firm, reliable and trustworthy
reference point; but it can also bring him to have a certain lack of
involvement in practical daily life, which was unfortunately encouraged
in the past by a unilateral form of education.
In comparison with Mulieris Dignitatem, the Letter is
concerned with extremist ideologies of gender that deny sexual identity,
for the influence of these theories has notably increased in the past
decade (cf. ibid., n. 2).
Whereas the term "sex" refers to nature and includes two
possibilities (man and woman), the term "gender" comes from the
linguistics sector where there are three variables: masculine, feminine
Over and above obvious morphological differences, therefore, we might
suppose that the differences between man and woman do not correspond to
a nature "given" by the Creator, but were mere cultural conventions
"made" to correspond to the roles and stereotypes that every society
assigns to the sexes.
Given these premises, it is right to highlight the exaggerated
emphasis placed on these differences in the past, which led to the
unjust discrimination of women. For long centuries, woman's lot was
"cast" as an inferior being, excluded from public decision-making and
In our day, however, we must not stubbornly close our eyes to the
fact that on various occasions the Holy Father, also on behalf of
Christians, has asked forgiveness, publicly and officially, for the
injustices that women have suffered down the centuries; moreover, the
change in the treatment of women, politically, legally, socially and
privately, is obvious.
In the human person, sex and gender, the biological foundation and its
cultural expression, are certainly not the same thing. Yet they are not
totally independent. The Letter suggests establishing a correct
relationship between the two.
Collaboration: man, woman
There is a profound unity between the corporeal dimension and the
psychological and spiritual dimension of a human person; an
interdependence between his or her biological and cultural dimensions.
Behaviour is rooted in nature, from which it cannot be completely
The unity and equality of man and woman does not cancel their
differences. Although feminine (like masculine) qualities are not
rigidly identifiable, they cannot be completely ignored. A natural basic
configuration continues to exist that cannot be deleted without
desperate efforts that lead, in short, to self-denial.
Neither the woman nor the man can oppose their nature without making
themselves unhappy. A separation from biology frees neither; rather it
is a path that leads to forms of pathology for both.
Culture, in turn, must provide an adequate response to nature. There
must be no obstacles to the progress of a group of people.
It is obvious that in history there have been and continue to be many
injustices with regard to women. This long list of unjust forms of
discrimination has no biological foundation but on the contrary,
cultural roots; the discriminations are simply consequences of sin and
be wiped out (cf. ibid., n. 7).
It is to be hoped that women will assume new roles in harmony with
their dignity: that they will be present in the world of work and in the
organization of society, and have access to positions of responsibility
in politics, culture and the economy (cf. ibid., n. 13). These are not
concessions imposed by the spirit of the times, but the clear
consequences of a deeper knowledge of the divine plan for creation (cf.
ibid., n. 4).
Several years ago, Pope John Paul II urged men and women to
participate in "the great process of women's liberation" (John Paul II,
Letter to Women, n. 6). The goal of emancipation is to prevent
manipulation, in order not to become an object but to be an original
It is this resistance against erroneous trends that is the acid test
of one's freedom (cf. Letter, n. 14). An authentic promotion does
not consist in the liberation of the woman from her own way of being,
but in helping her to be herself. For this reason it also includes the
reassessment of motherhood, marriage and the family (cf. ibid.,
nn. 11, 13).
If today we are fighting against the social pressure of the past that
excluded women from many professions, then why is there such a fear of
opposing the current, far more subtle
pressure that deceives women, seeking to convince them that only outside
the family will they be able to find fulfilment?
Women in the Church
And what about in the Church?
It is not right to fix on the one thing that women cannot be through
the divine and ineffable will (that is, priests), but we should look
with joy at the many possibilities that are opening to them, both in
theology and in other educational, juridical and organizational contexts
at all levels (cf. ibid., n. 16).
The Church is the greatest institution in the world "in favour" of
women. No institution of the United Nations Organization has so many
collaborators on all the continents
from the smallest African countries to the most remote Pacific islands
who work to train women and help them live a dignified life.
Just as sin broke the ties between the sexes, so grace can create a
new harmony (cf. ibid., nn. 11, 17). Their relationship will be
all the more beautiful the closer it is to God (cf. ibid., n.
As Christians, men and women can exercise their freedom maturely.
They can live side by side with equal rights, in shared responsibility
for the future of our world.
And lastly, they can help one another soar like "eagles", higher and
higher towards that sun which is Christ.