Male and Female -- Does It Matter?

Author: Rev. Timothy Finigan MA STL


Rev. Timothy Finigan MA STL

Lay people used to complain that they could not remember which translation of the various responses to join in with. Increasingly, as a priest, when concelebrating, I find occasions where I am in the same position. It is not that the Church has yet authorised a new version of the Mass in English. Rather, many priests now feel obliged to change the words of the Mass <ex tempore> to suit the demands of politically correct feminist language.

To some this seems a minor point and there will probably be some debate about how the language has now changed <de facto> because of the pressure that feminists have brought to bear. It would not be sensible to resist every change in the language but it will be a difficult matter to discern the boundary between changes in everyday language and expressions that carry with them undertones of doctrinal error concerning the Incarnation or the human nature of Christ.

Some may resist to the last ditch. I would have a great deal of sympathy with this approach but it might be compared with the position of a person who tries to use the word "gay" in everyday language. One can still resist the pressure to use the term of a homosexual orientation but it would now be difficult to use it straightforwardly to mean "light-hearted and carefree".

Others may feel that a sense of chivalry would lead them to give way. For the sake of politeness and a desire not to offend, they will do whatever is necessary to meet the demands they believe women to be making. Others again will be more active in the cause, taking up the cudgels (as they see it) on behalf of women who are "oppressed" by the Church and manfully using the authority they have to bring about change, so that the balance of power is shifted and women take their rightful place among those who take decisions in the Church.

Seldom do such misguided male feminists stop to reflect that they are not in fact campaigning on behalf of women generally but only on behalf of the small minority of women who espouse radical feminism. Most of the women who make up the majority of our Churchgoing population do not have the slightest affinity with the aggressive and highly articulate feminist theological lobby. The claim that such a lobby speaks for women generally is a presumption that is increasingly resented, especially by younger women who do not usually wish to be thought of as feminists. Indeed the campaigns to "raise consciousness" tend to suggest that the opposite is true. A good question to ask whenever a policy is proposed on behalf of "women" is "Do you mean women or only feminists?"

It is crucial to realise that radical Roman Catholic feminism leaves little behind that would be recognisable as historic Christianity. An extreme but by no means uncommon example would be the assertion that the traditional theory of the Atonement, whereby God sent his Son to suffer and die for us, is a theory of "divine child abuse". A radical feminist could make such an assertion from the enthusiasm of his or her cause. The average woman in the pew who might sometimes be rallied by an appeal to the battle of the sexes would be appalled. The key area of debate <is> the question of the theological meaning of gender. It is common for feminists to argue that the only reason that they cannot be priests is because they do not have a male sexual organ. In a crude way this focuses the question whether there is a theological meaning to gender at all. This is a key principle because if there is a theological meaning then Jesus Christ's gender is significant and so is the gender of the priest. If there is no theological meaning, then we can speak as easily of "Christa" as of Christ and it is feasible to eliminate all gender-specific language from theology.

The challenge for the Church, then is to develop a theology of gender. This was the project set for Pope John Paul II by the Bishops in the synod of 1987.

One of their recommendations was for a 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 of being a man. It is a question of understanding 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. (<Mulieris Dignitatem> n. 1)

The Pope's response was the magnificent encyclical <Mulieris Dignitatem> which offered many very fruitful lines of thought, some developing the ideas, for example, of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, especially as regards the Trinitarian analogy for marriage. However, as Fr Holloway has pointed out, although this is certainly a beautiful analogy in spiritual terms, it essentially remains in the order of the spiritual and symbolic rather than at the level of the extrinsic, both with regard to the Trinity itself and with regard to our sexuality. Furthermore, as an analogy, it is concerned with the "mutuality" of the sexes as called to live in communion. It meditates on the spiritual fruitfulness of there being two sexes. It does not deal directly with the question of the theological meaning of each sex individually.

Within the Church, the question of whether gender has any intrinsic meaning has arisen because of the campaign for women priests. Outside the Church, the matter is not at all so exalted. The same question is at the heart of the debate over whether a lesbian couple may legitimately adopt children, or whether a book portraying two homosexual men as the permanent carers of a small girl is simply the illustration of an acceptable alternative family. These have been the questions at the heart of the recent population conferences at which the Vatican delegations have held out against the attempt to make "gender" a matter of personal preference rather than biological fact.

In her teaching on the question of homosexuality, the Church has relied heavily on the doctrine of the wrongfulness of any use of sex outside marriage. The gay activists reply routinely that this discriminates against those who, through no fault of their own, are the subject of a homosexual orientation. The teaching that such an orientation is intrinsically disordered is dismissed as "homophobia". Ultimately, the fuller answer to this matter must also lie in the development of the theology of gender. At the moment, the Church teaches that a homosexual condition is disordered without giving a complete explanation of why heterosexuality is well ordered, and exactly what that good order consists in. To give such a complete explanation would require a confident answer to the question of the meaning of our gender. The theological meaning of being a man and being a woman may be a new issue in the Church but it is none the less urgent for that. We can start with St. Thomas and the natural desire for the vision of God. This natural desire is within us, but its attainment is entirely beyond our reach unless God offers us the means by which it can be fulfilled. (Cf. "Desire for God, natural and freely given" <Faith> Nov 1995) We argue in Faith that such a desire is fulfilled through the Incarnation of the sec and person of the Blessed Trinity. This makes the In carnation predestined apart from sin because the natural desire for the gift of the vision of God is not the result of sin, but something that is a part of our nature which survives despite sin. To argue for the necessity of the Incarnation is to argue for the intrinsic vocation of the flesh of man, destined to be divinised through communion with the flesh of Christ. Although Pope John Paul does not argue for this directly, he does say that the meaning of being a man or a woman is only completely revealed through the Incarnation:

This eternal truth about the human being, man and woman—a truth which is immutably fixed in human experience—at the same time constitutes the mystery which only in "the Incarnate Word takes on light... (since) Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear," as the Council teaches. In this "revealing of man to himself," do we not need to find a special place for that 'woman" who was the Mother of Christ? Cannot the "message" of Christ, contained in the Gospel, which has as its background the whole of Scripture, both the Old and the New Testament, say much to the Church and to humanity about the dignity of women and their vocation? (<Mulieris Dignitatem> n.2)

At the Incarnation, as we know, orthodox Christian belief has always held that Mary conceived and gave birth to Christ whilst remaining a Virgin. The reason for this is not always well explained or understood. When Christ comes to dwell among us in the flesh, it is not possible that he should be made a human person. His conception and birth cannot involve this creation of a new person as it does for every human person born into the world. Jesus Christ is a divine person, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, and so at the Incarnation he must receive a true human nature but not be created a human person. He remains the person of the divine Word.

The means by which this happened is described perfectly in the familiar narrative of St. Luke's gospel. When the angel announces that she is to give birth to a son, Mary asks "How can this come about since I am a virgin?" The angel answers that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. On this occasion, uniquely, the conception of a new human life is not associated with the creation of a new human person. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the ovum of Mary is determined to become the embryo of the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and the giver of life who gives life to the womb of Mary. She provides for God the flesh which is used in the human nature of Jesus Christ.

At this point, (with due deference to Galileo) we need to move away from our customary habit of regarding the earth as the fixed point. It is our mindset to think of "the way things are" as fixed so that God is bound to use them as best he can. But what if "the way things are" is due to the will of God from the beginning, the "plan he set forth in Christ from before the foundation of the world"? Then we could say that God was not constrained <a posteriori> to use the convenient vehicle of human reproductive biology mat just happened to be so suitable for the Incarnation. We could argue that the make-up of human biology that so perfectly serves God's purposes was part of the divine "master plan" by which all things were created through Christ and for Christ. They were created through his eternal wisdom for him as the Word made flesh, so that in him, the whole of creation could be summed up and perfectly fulfilled.

Hence we can say that the very division of the sexes is itself a part of the economy of salvation. The human race was made male and female in order that it should be brought to the fullness of the divine life. If it were not, there would be no possibility of the Incarnation since there would be no way for a man to be born into the world without at the same time being determined by a purely human act of generation involving the creation of a new human person. The conception of a truly human nature by the power of the Holy Spirit without the creation of a new human person would not be possible, since the conception of new life would always be simply determined by the will of the one creature alone. Mary's question "How can this be?" only arises because of the division of the sexes and refers to the usual means of human sexual reproduction.

The maleness of Christ, then, is not like God voting for one of two possible political parties but is written into the fabric of creation itself. Male and female exist so that the Holy Spirit can be the Lord and life-giver for the flesh of Mary and Christ is brought forth to be the one whom it is our salvation to confess as Lord. The political restructuring by which we make him female for part of the afternoon is not simply an absurd piece of liturgy, it contradicts the meaning of creation, the Incarnation and the whole of salvation history. The idea that the division of the sexes is part of the economy of God for the In carnation of Christ is perfectly consonant with the patristic interpretation of the second chapter of Genesis. When Eve is taken from Adam and he recognises her as "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh", the Fathers saw a prophecy of Christ and the Church. St. Paul indeed explicitly states the typological significance of Adam and so this very exegesis is part of the inspired word of God. In the case of Eve as a type of the Church, the universality of the exegesis is strong evidence for its being a part of the <traditio apostolica.>

The relationship is made even clearer upon a careful reading of the fifth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. When St. Paul describes the relationship that <should> exist between husband and wife, he refers to the relationship that <does> exist between Christ and the Church. In our customary secular and geocentric perspective, we might easily make what seems the familiar and visible thing-the relationship between husband and wife- the analogy for the unfamiliar and "other worldly" relationship between Christ and the Church. This is not what St. Paul does. He makes the relationship of Christ and the Church the primary reality and explains marriage with reference to it.

The meaning of the sexes for St. Paul is explained in terms of Christ and the Church. Husband and wife are joined in a particular way because that is how Christ and the Church are joined. For St. Paul, all things were created through and for Christ and are summed up in him. It is natural for him to explain the meaning of the man and wife relationship in terms of the fulfilment for which it was created, the perfect sharing of the divine life through the human nature of Christ, brought to us in the Church.

It is not only in St. Paul that we find material for reflection on the theological meaning of gender. The vision of St. John gives us a "revelation" of the inner meaning of reality. The "great sign" of chapter 12 has the "woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery." In the "natural" meaning of the vision, the woman is the earth because it is clothed with the sun and the moon and the stars. The life that the earth bears is now made clearer for us than before with our knowledge of the biosphere and its evolution. However, the earth has always been seen as productive of life-in the vision of St. John, the earth ultimately brings forth the man-child who bears the rod of divine authority. In other words, the earth, creation itself, bears within itself the means by which the creator can assume flesh and bring the eternal plan to perfection. This means is the womb of the woman who is provided for in the very make up of creation from the beginning. The Fathers of the Church saw the woman in the vision as the Church. However, the distinction is not as clear-cut as we might think since for the Fathers, the Church was ancient, pre-existent in a certain way, going all the way back to Eve because predestined for our divinisation. Victorinus of Pettau, the first Latin commentator on the book of Revelation, writing towards the end of the third century, says:

"She is the ancient Church of the patriarchs and prophets and the saints and the apostles. The groanings and the torments of her yearnings were upon her until she should see that Christ, the fruit of her people according to the flesh, had from that very race taken up a body."

In the woman is summed up the desire of the whole of mankind. Christ must be the fruit of the people according to the flesh. To be fulfilled in the plan of God, we need Christ to come in the flesh so that we can share in his flesh and be divinised in him. In the same chapter, the child is said to be "one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,"—a clear reference to psalm 2 which was seen by the Apostles and the Fathers as a prophecy of the Incarnation. The phrase <You are my son, it is I who have begotten you this day> refers to the eternal generation of the Son. The phrase <ask and I will bequeath you the nations> refers to the prayer of Christ the suffering servant who accomplishes the will of the Father. As the Son of Man, he receives the ends of the earth into his possession, so that the Kingdom may be complete and handed triumphantly to the Father as the consummation of all things.

Such an exegesis can lead us to the full meaning of the passage of St. Paul which is found so embarrassing. "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God." (I Cor 11.3) As Fr Holloway has said "This is the <sexual order> through which human nature and human society is structured. The nature of mankind is divided ministerially for the coming of Christ." We exist as male and female because God willed from the beginning to determine the womb of Mary. Every man shows in his own sexuality the promise of the Messiah to come through this overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. Every woman shows in her sexuality the means by which nature, according to the universal law of God enshrined in creation, co-operates with God so that he can "come into his own". From the side of the Son of Man, the Church is formed, <bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh>, so that Christ can communicate his divine life through the sacraments. As we become members of the body of Christ and receive the flesh of Christ, we share in his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

In the Church, this "sexual order" of creation is continued in the order of grace. Our holy Mother the Church brings forth Christ anew in every celebration of Baptism and in every celebration of the Holy Mass. We have been given a perfect way to symbolise this relationship of Christ to the Church in the offertory of the Mass where the bread and wine, the offerings of the created order, are brought to the altar so that they may be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and Christ can be brought forth on the altar to make his tabernacle among us. The priest stands <in persona Christi>, in the person of Christ the Lord. The Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life comes down upon the gifts that Christ may set up his tabernacle among us. The fact that Christ is male and the Church is female is the primary reality according to which God created us male and female in the beginning.

In the matter of the theology of gender, the choice before us is more than usually stark. Without a coherent account of the meaning of our gender, there is no way in principle to avoid the rewriting of the whole of the Scriptures, and the rejection of historic Christianity as essentially "patriarchal end oppressive". If we cannot say what it is to be a man or a woman, we will find ourselves in difficulties answering those who claim that it doesn't matter and that the two are interchangeable. If, on the other hand, we can give a genuine theological meaning to the division of the sexes as I have tried to show from the perspective of the <Faith> Movement, then there is a way forward for a confident and positive call to both women and men to live the fullness of life in Christ through his Bride, the Church.

This article was taken from the July 1996 issue of "Faith Magazine", published by The Faith-Keyway Trust, 16a off Coniston Way REIGATE Surrey RH2 OLN, Phone 01737-770016, email