God and the Sexes
by Evelyn Birge Vitz
For Christianity, gender is both important and irrelevant. God
creates, Christ redeems, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies men and women
alike, along with Jews and Greeks, rich and poor, black and white. But,
apart from salvation, gender possesses a special importance in Christianity
that cannot be viewed as either accidental or superficial.
Both views flow from the fact that God is understood in the Judeo-Christian
tradition as being fundamentally, if mysteriously and
non-genitally-. God is "He." True, God is also seen in some
sense as transcending gender or at least as containing both male and female
principles. Otherwise, he could not create both man and woman "in his
But the fact remains that the Lord, the unique "I AM WHO AM," is a Father
God, not an androgynous divine entity. Indeed, the entire Trinitarian
Godhead is male: Christ is the Son, physically, genitally, as well as
ontologically. And the Holy Spirit, though in some respects linked to the
Old Testament theme of "Wisdom," has been, since the dawn of Christianity,
understood in male terms. The Holy Ghost is not an "it," or a "she," but a
third "he," united to the Father and the Son in the intensely loving but
non-erotic union of the Trinity.
Human gender is unimportant to the Christian tradition in the sense that
all human souls are "feminine" in relation to God, the
husband and the lover of each soul. In the larger sense, this view derives
from the understanding of Israel as not merely God's chosen people but as
his wife. The Old Testament expresses this eloquently. The Song of Songs
evokes the deep love, indeed the intense, almost embarrassingly erotic
of the lover and the beloved, allegorically or symbolically
understood to represent God and his people. The prophets, Isaiah in
particular, speak sometimes poetically and idealistically of Israel as
God's beloved bride-Jerusalem is "wedded" to the Lord.
The Christian tradition maintained this powerfully gendered concept of the
relationship between God and his people as a whole, and between God and the
individual persons who constitute his people. At the mystical level, the
Church is the Bride of Christ, living only in relation to him, obedient to
him: Christ is the head and husband of the Church. Thus, the Fathers of
the Church presented the Church as born from the wounded side of Christ, as
Eve had been created from Adam's side: from his rib.
The same relationship is borne out at the individual level. Each of us is
called to be responsive to divine love: to the love of the Father, to the
inspiring love of the Spirit, and to the love of Christ the Bridegroom of
the soul, for all are "brides" of Christ.
If all are female in respect to God, what then is the fundamental
importance of gender, of sexual identity, to the Christian tradition-to
We return to the Fatherhood of God, and to the fact that he did not create
human beings as androgynous aggregates. Nor did he make five sexes, as some
at the United Nations are arguing today. Now, how does that list ?
Maybe it is: hetero male, homo male, middlesex, homo female, hetero female?
Or maybe it is hetero-, homo-, bi-, trans- . . . -but I am missing one. And
where is bestiality? At any rate, this list of sexes is clearly not to be
understood as sacrosanct. The point is simply that, in our secular and
neopagan world, there are lots of sexes and lots of sex. What you start out
with, or , doesn't much matter.
But in the traditional Christian view, as taught in Genesis, God created
them and , that is, either male female,
one the other. God found that division into two sexes to be
"good," a reality not to be improved upon. Thus, our individual gender, our
sexual identity, constitutes a fundamental and God-given part of our
creatural identity. Indeed, we will retain our sex even at the
Resurrection, when our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies.
Our sex is not something we are free to choose for ourselves.
Nor is our sexual identity something that we can "construct," or that
society constructs for, or against, us. This is not to deny that different
societies organize and deploy sexual identity and sexual roles differently;
in this sense, gender can be partly a "construct." But our
sexual identity is a gift to us from God, no less than our very life, our
soul, and our various physical and mental traits.
The fact that not everyone feels comfortable with the sexual identity
assigned by God is neither here nor there. Many of us are not especially
pleased with the way God made us. If we were in charge, we would make
ourselves more gifted athletically or academically or musically, more
charming, taller and thinner, and so on. Moreover, sex and gender are at
as fallen as anything else about human beings. Most of us have
a hard time living with a wide range of sinful tendencies and have to
struggle against the inclination toward sexual perversions, or alcoholism,
or depression, or procrastination and laziness, or violent rages. Sexual
nature is by no means a special case.
Looking at the New Testament, we may as well begin with the obvious fact
that Jesus Christ chose twelve men as his Apostles; these were his original
followers and his commissioned emissaries to the entire creation.
Presumably, he did not choose them because men are better than women. One
of the Twelve was his betrayer, a fact which Jesus knew well in advance.
Moreover, no human can ever be as perfectly good as the Blessed Virgin.
Mary is honored as the Queen of Heaven, Queen of Angels, Queen of Saints,
etc. She is the Queen and not the Queen the
Apostles. "Goodness," then, is not the issue.
Can it be that Jesus choose women because of the low status
of women at his time? This argument has always struck me as ridiculous. Or
rather, and quite simply, only those who do not believe that Jesus is God
can hold such a view. As the punchline to an old joke goes, "A 500-pound
gorilla can sleep anywhere he pleases." Well, God those
gorillas. God makes the rules. Are we really to believe that Jesus-God-did
not, not do something he wanted to do-pick women to be
Apostles-because he was worried about what people would think?
If he did all these things, it must be because that was precisely what he,
as the Son of God-as God himself- to do. No other view is
even seriously worth consideration. Since women as priestesses were common
in other religions of the time, it can hardly have failed to dawn on God
that this was a possibility.
It has been charged that, at some point, Christianity got onto the wrong
foot about the way in which power is assigned differentially to the sexes.
But, in fact, this is the foot on which Christ his religion.
Certain fundamental roles of active leadership, of power in this world,
were assigned to , and to .
Paul follows Jesus's lead in his letter to the Ephesians when he says that
wives should obey their husbands and that men should love their wives as
Christ loves the Church. All husbands, like the Apostles, represent and
embody Christ in the world. And women carry on, and live out, in a special
way, the life of the Church. Husbands are to be to their wives
Christ is to his Church. Not merely gender alone but gender authority is
therefore divinely instituted.
Should we women be offended? Am I angry that I can't be pope, and more to
the point, that I am not even theoretically ? Or, that I
cannot be a bishop, and rule over a diocese? That I cannot celebrate the
Mass? And, what's more, that my husband, Paul C. Vitz, was not told to obey
But before distributing authority as he saw fit, God had first
men and women. It seems safe to assume that, since he foresaw how he was
going to assign power relations on earth, he designed his creatures to find
in this arrangement. This is not to ignore the effects
of the fall, which corrupted human desires and behaviors. But in any event,
God made the sexes , with different gifts, desires, needs.
Though we all have our "end" in God, what is natural to one sex is not
necessarily natural to the other.
Though Jesus choose men as his disciples, he was extraordinarily good to
women. He obviously loved women, as he loved men. He treated the women he
met with great tenderness, justice, and mercy. And how those women, those
non-Apostles, loved him! One need only think of the "sinful woman" washing
his feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair, whose lavish
gratitude he defended. Of his kind, tactful, handling of Martha or the
woman with the hemorrhage. Of the Samaritan woman at the well, to whom he
told the truth about her life, and to whom he promised eternal water. Jesus
gave to women the honor of standing at the foot of the Cross, when almost
all the men, his chosen Apostles, had denied him and fled. He also gave to
these women the glory and the joy of being the first to see him risen from
the grave. If you will allow me a bit of Christian irony and paradox, he
also gave these same women the honor of his Apostles' disbelief; in this
way, he first shared his cross with them after he had risen.
And what of Mary? God honored women by calling his Mother to a perfection
that no one else-and in particular, no man-can achieve. Mary, imitated for
centuries by both sexes, has been the very definition, not of worldly
power, but of compassionate motherhood, of devoted service, of willing
obedience. We are told that, from the depths of her loving heart, she
"pleads for sinners." I sometimes think that that is women's most important
function on this planet: like Mary, like the mother who reminded Jesus that
even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall under the table, like the
woman with the unjust judge, like Martha and Mary who wanted their brother
Lazarus back, we women are here to love and to .
What are the advantages of accepting such a Christian, specifically
Catholic, view of gender and its importance? It is worth emphasizing the
advantages of such a vision of gender as compared with Protestant views.
The original Protestant reformers eliminated, along with many other things,
the religious dignity of the female and the feminine: they got rid of the
Church, the Bride of Christ. They demoted the Blessed Virgin to an only
temporarily-virgin mother of Jesus-a nice lady, to be sure, but nothing
extraordinary; no special crown in heaven for her! When they disbanded the
Catholic Communion of Saints (all the redeemed being equally both wretches
and holy), they sent into exile, along with the male cohort, such great
female figures-friends of men and women alike-as Agatha, Agnes, Barbara,
several Catherines, Cecilia, Christine, Dorothy, Elizabeth, and on through
the saintly alphabet. In the insistence that all should marry, they
eliminated the special vocation of consecrated virginity, which had given a
special dignity and spiritual authority to nuns and other religious, as
brides of Christ. They also attacked the indissolubility of marriage, which
has-as even many feminists now recognize-protected women far more than men.
Many holy nuns and abbesses have exercised remarkable power in the
Church-even in the world-with a spiritual influence extending far beyond
the confines of their convent. One thinks of Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine
of Siena, and Teresa of Avila-of their eloquent but forthright letters to
popes, kings and emperors; their wide and effective travels; and their
unflagging zeal for renewal in the Church.
It is important to stress the fact that in the
world, no branch of Protestantism, nor any secular ideology, has such a
tradition. In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy alone do women and feminine
principles play so vital and positive a role. In traditional Christianity
are women praised and prayed to every day by millions of the
By the time the Reformation was over, the female-and indeed all honor paid
specifically to women and femininity-had been expunged from Protestant
Christianity. The only important "female" left was the Whore of Babylon.
Only males and masculinity were given important roles and glorified. The
original result was that men were not only the leaders of churches, they
were . It is not, of course, that salvation was closed to
women, but women had nothing but bit parts and walk-on roles in traditional
Protestant society and church.
But there has been a recent development to all this. Since Protestantism
had no valued roles to assign to the feminine, as modern secular culture
has moved increasingly toward demands for "justice" for women-and away from
the roles of wifehood and motherhood-the only apparent solution was to
embrace the principle of androgyny. In fact, the attempt has been made to
abandon gender identity as having any theological significance at all.
Thus, even the traditional Christian sense that we are feminine
souls in the presence of a Divine Husband-almost completely disappeared
from Protestantism. Today, mainstream Protestant women preach and are
ordained to the ministry; they hold positions of church leadership. Today
only rarely do Protestant women promise to obey their husbands in their
marriage vows. Men and women are indeed understood to ,
ontologically, alike. And it is hard to believe that the Fatherhood of God,
or the Sonship of Christ, or the "-us" endings to
will long survive the modern attack on gender in the Protestant
denominations. The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York
City has a large crucifix with "Christ" on it over the altar. The
Holy Spirit is increasingly replaced by the female "Sapientia."
In his John Henry Newman
explained carefully how one can distinguish between development, on the one
hand, and corruption, on the other. One of the primary earmarks of genuine
development is that it be the continuation and fulfillment of something
that existed earlier in Christian tradition. The new "doctrines" on the
role of women, and on the concepts of gender and sexuality in general,
cannot be seen as the development of an earlier Christian principle. They
are novel, and they have their roots in modern secular culture. This is
not, then, a genuine "development of Christian doctrine," but the
importing, into Christianity, of fundamentally ways of
There are three ways of thinking about gender. The first, androgyny, ends
up in nihilism and perversion, by making sex arbitrary and trivial. The
second, crude male power over women, is, as we all so clearly see, the
result of original sin. The third is what Christianity has always taught:
the of the sexes, in a structure of servant
leadership by males. This is not only the tradition of the Church, but it
corresponds to our nature. What more can we ask?
This article was taken from the June 1995 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe
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