The New Evangelization and Gender: The Remystification of the Body

Author: Joyce Little


Joyce A. Little

The choice between symbolic-sacramental man and functional man is, at bottom, a choice between accepting the whole of the Catholic faith or rejecting the whole of that faith.

One morning several years ago, while driving to work, I caught the news briefs on one of the local radio stations. Included among them was this one-liner: "The Pope today acknowledged that the Catholic Church has discriminated against women in the past, and says the Church will continue to do so in the future." Now I do not know with absolute certainty whether or not John Paul II is chauvinistic, but I do know with that complete certainty normally reserved for death and taxes that, even if he is the worst sort of male chauvinist, he is far too intelligent ever to say publicly anything quite as stupid as the remark attributed to him by that newsman.

Experiences like this accentuate two important facts we often overlook. First, the context of a speaker's remarks is as important as the remarks themselves. What, after all, did the Pope actually say and out of what context was he speaking? Second, the context in which the listener hears those remarks is also as important as the remarks he hears. What was the context of the newsman's way of thinking which allowed him to interpret the Pope in this way?

1. The importance of context

The fact that context is so important today is exemplified, at one end of the spectrum, in the recent report that for the first time in our colleges and universities, more young people are majoring in public relations than in journalism, because they are less interested in simply reporting events than in being able to put a "spin" on those events. Putting a "spin" on things is apparently thought to be far more creative and rewarding. Many of us, of course, would maintain that journalism, as practiced today, is just as much involved in putting a spin on events as is public relations. Either way the emphasis today is on the "spin," not on the event. And the "spin," of course, is an interpretation of the event which places that event in the context most amenable to the desired interpretation.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Supreme Court, entrusted with interpreting the Constitution. Here again the "spin" is what counts. And, as has become apparent to so many of us, especially since <Roe v Wade>, there are an astonishing number of truly creative "spins" to which the Constitution can be subjected. Battles over the Supreme Court, and by extension over the Constitution itself, are not about the facticity of the words contained in the Constitution, but about the context within which those words shall be interpreted. As important as the Constitution is, the context in which it is understood is just as important. And that context today up for grabs. Shall it be interpreted within the context within which it was framed or within the context of contemporary society and its values or lack thereof?

In the Catholic Church, we have correlative battles. At one end, we have all the people, theologians and others, who attempt to put different spins on what the Pope says or what the NCCB does, etc. At the other end, we have outright war raging over the Bible. In a sense, that war is fraught with even more hazards than is the secular battle over the Constitution, because we are fighting not only about the context within which to interpret the Bible (shall that context be the Church and her tradition or the secular society and its desires?), but also about the words themselves—as for example, in the debate over inclusive translations of Scripture.

2. The Pope and the context for the new evangelization

Happily, Pope John Paul II is entirely cognizant of the importance of context. In <Redemptoris Missio>, for example, he makes it quite clear that the context for understanding the missionary activity of the Church is twofold. First, evangelization must be understood within the framework of the Trinitarian missions themselves (RM, n. 1). Just as the Father sent the Son to give the Holy Spirit, so Christ sends the apostles in the Holy Spirit to give the Holy Spirit. Second, the Church's missionary mandate must be understood within the context of the "mystery" of redemption, that is, in terms of God's plan before all ages, as Ephesians tells us, to unite in Christ all things in heaven and all things on earth (Eph 1:10).[1] This plan of God's, of course, is the historical realization of the Trinitarian missions themselves. By sending his Son to give the Holy Spirit, the Father intends that all things be drawn by the Holy Spirit into union with his Son and thus into union with himself, their origin and destination. The "great mystery," as Ephesians characterizes it, is the marital union of Christ and the Church, because it is by being drawn into the faith and life of the Church that a person is drawn into that union with Christ which is God's ultimate goal for the whole of his creation. Therefore, a proper understanding of evangelization requires a proper understanding of the Trinity, on the one hand, and of the Christ/Church relationship on the other.

The Pope, of course, is also aware of the fact that the missionary activity of the Church must take place within a variety of contexts, and that those differences must be taken into account. He emphasizes most the difference between evangelization "to the nations" (<ad gentes>) and re-evangelization or new evangelization of those parts of the earth where, as he puts it, "entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith or even no longer consider themselves living members of the Church and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel" (<RM>, n. 33). It is hard to escape the inference that such places include the United States and that "a life far removed from Christ and the Gospel" refers to a context radically different from that of the Catholic faith. What is this different context to which he is referring and what implications does it have for a new evangelization in this country with specific regard to those issues having to do with gender?

3. The Pope and the context of gender

No Pope has written more on the subject of gender than has John Paul II, and no Pope and very few theologians have done more than he to place all of those issues relating to gender within their proper context. Indeed, John Paul II's so-called "theology of the body" is an explicit and extraordinarily original theological reordering of all of those issues within the context of the Catholic faith. Few can read his theology without having their own ideas about gender radically changed. Before examining the context in which gender is understood in today's secularized American society, therefore, I would like first to consider what the Pope has to say about gender and, most especially, what he has to say about the context within which it must be understood.

The starting point

John Paul II points out that the <theological> significance of the human body is rooted in the Incarnation. "Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology—that is, the science, the subject of which is divinity, I would say— through the main door."[2] This significance is affirmed by Christ's Resurrection and Ascension, which reveal the Incarnation to be an irrevocable union of the divine and the human in the Person of Jesus Christ. Thus St. Paul insists that if Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:17), and that our hope as Christians lies specifically in the redemption of the body (Rom 8:23).

The context: Creation

Although the full significance of the body is given only in Christ, the Pope insists that we must return to Genesis, to "the beginning," in order to appreciate the context within which the human body and human sexuality are properly to be understood. Genesis reveals that our imaging of God is bound up as much with our bodies as with our souls. "Let us make man in our image—and so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen 1:26-27). It is crucial that we recognize here, at the beginning, two decisive facts. First, the differentiation of human beings into male and female is the only distinction among human beings created by God and therefore expressly willed by him; and, second, this differentiation is bound up with our imaging of God. Therefore, as the Pope notes, "The theology of the body, which, right from the beginning, is bound up with the creation of man in the image of God, becomes, in a way, also the theology of sex, or rather the theology of masculinity and femininity, which has its starting point here, in the Book of Genesis."[3]

This imaging of God is, of course, Trinitarian, as the Pope understands it, but Trinitarian in a radically different way than had heretofore been generally understood. Theologians in the past by and large missed the fact that our imaging of God in Genesis is directly linked to our creation as male and female and therefore understood it to be bound up solely with the individual human being who, to the extent that he is an individual, images the oneness of God and, to the extent that he operates on the basis of intellect, will and memory, images the plurality of the Godhead. The Pope, on the other hand, while affirming that our imaging of God entails the fact that we are beings of intellect and will, nevertheless recognizes that our imaging of the Trinity is directly related to our maleness and femaleness.

The fact that man "created as man and woman" is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a "unity of the two" in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. (<Mulieris Dignitatem>, n. 7)

The Trinity, therefore, is the only context in which we can properly understand ourselves.

Personhood and relationality: God

The Trinity is, of course, composed of three distinct or different Persons in one substance. Most Catholics know this much, but not a great deal more. There are, however, four points about the Trinity which must be understood if we are to fathom ourselves. First, each of the Persons is a subsistent relation. The Father is the relation of paternity, the Son the relation of filiation and the Holy Spirit the relation of passive spiration—spiration because he is spirated by the Father and the Son, passive because he does not spirate himself but is spirated by them.

Second, each of the Persons is distinct and irreducible to either of the other two, because each is in himself a unique and unrepeatable relation. Fatherhood is different from Sonship, and Spiration is different from both of them. In other words, the three Persons of the Trinity are non-interchangeable. That is, the Father is defined by his paternity and cannot be the Son or the Holy Spirit. By the same token, the Son is defined by his Sonship and the Holy Spirit by his Spiration. This may seem obvious, and yet the implications are seldom recognized. To say the three Persons are non- interchangeable means that, because the Father cannot be the Son, the Father literally cannot do anything which is bound up with Sonship per se, just as the Son cannot do anything which is bound up with Fatherhood per se, and so forth. In short, there are things the Father can do that the Son and Holy Spirit cannot, things the Son can do that the Father and Holy Spirit cannot, and things the Holy Spirit can do that the Father and Son cannot. This is reflected in Scripture, for example, in the fact that the Father always begets, commands and sends the Son. It is inconceivable in the revelation as we have received it to imagine the Son begetting, commanding or sending the Father. We have to do here with three distinct, different, irreducibly singular Persons, because they are three distinct, different, irreducibly singular relations.

Third, and I cannot stress this enough, these three relations or Persons are <ordered to one another>. The Father is Person because he is the Father of the Son. He is ordered to the Son precisely insofar as he is Father. There is no question here of his having the ability to enter into whatever sort of relationship he would like to have with the Son. Each of them is related to the other in a specifically ordered way. In the same fashion, the Holy Spirit is not called Spirit because he is immaterial, but because he is spirated from and therefore ordered to the Father and the Son by virtue of that spiration. The fact that they are ordered to one another allows us to speak of the <circumincession> of the Persons, by which they exist not only in distinction from one another but also in some fashion within one another.

Fourth, within the Trinity, each of the Persons, although possessing the fullness of the divine substance and therefore enjoying the fullness of divinity, is nevertheless radically incomplete considered in himself and therefore equally radically dependent upon the other two Persons, since the full reality of the Godhead is realized only in the threeness of the communion. The Father, therefore, is God, but God is not just the Father.

Personhood and relationality: Man

Our creation in the image of God, we might therefore suppose, entails an analogous reading of person at the human level. This means, first, that just as the Persons of the Trinity are communal, not individualistic, so are we. Just as they are relational, so are we. Therefore, the individual human being, considered solely in himself, cannot be the image of God. Moreover, it is not even enough that man be male and female to image God, since male and female considered solely as male and female do not necessarily entail relationality. Once we understand, however, that the man and the woman are created as gift for one another ("It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" [Gen 2:18]), it becomes apparent that the man and the woman are called to enter into a relationship with one another and to achieve within that relationship the fullness of what it means to be a male person and a female person respectively.

Not just any relationship will do, however. They are explicitly called to enter into a marital relationship. "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). Only in marriage does the man become husband and the woman wife, and these are the specific relations they are called as male and female to be. Moreover, only in marriage do these two relations, husband and wife, effect and bring into existence that sacramental bond which constitutes the third element in their imaging of the triune God and makes irrevocable until death their relationship to one another.

That they are sexually differentiated is crucial to their imaging of God, because they are called to image not only the plurality of Persons but also the distinction or differentiation of relations within the Godhead. The relation of husband to wife is different from that of wife to husband in a way that is analogous to the difference between, say, the relation of Father to Son and the relation of Son to Father. The relation of husband cannot be reduced to that of wife, and vice versa. By the same token, the husband and the wife, like the Persons of the Trinity, are also non-interchangeable, that is, the male cannot do those things appropriate to the relation of wife per se, just as the female cannot do those things appropriate to the relation of husband per se.

Third, and again this point cannot be stressed too much, their sexual differentiation is also crucial to the fact that they, like the Persons of the Trinity, are ordered specifically to one another, male to female and female to male. The woman is created for the man, as gift to the man, just as he is created for the woman, as gift to her. This is reflected, first, in the fact that she is specifically created to be a "helper <fit for him>" and, second, in the fact that Adam, which means "humanity," does not become and is not referred to as male until the point at which Eve is created female. That each is ordered to the other is also apparent in the fact that only the spousal relationship of husband and wife can effect that bond which constitutes the permanence of their relationship even as it makes their relationship an image of the Trinitarian communion of love.

Fourth and finally, both the man and the woman are fully human, but at the same time each is radically dependent upon the other, since each images God not in him— or herself, but only in the "unity of the two." Indeed, just as in the Trinity, the three Persons are persons only by virtue of the fact that they are related to one another, so analogously the male and the female are persons only by virtue of the fact that they too are related to one another. In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, "relativity toward the other constitutes the human person. The human person is the event or being of relativity."[4] The relationality, which is to say the personhood, of the male and the female, therefore, is specifically bound up with the fact that God creates them to be gift to one another.

. . . man now emerges in the dimension of the mutual gift, the expression of which—and for that very reason the expression of his existence as a person—is the human body in all the original truth of its masculinity and femininity.[5]

The nuptial meaning of the body

Here we find ourselves at the heart of what the Pope calls "the nuptial meaning" of the body. The fact that the man and the woman are created to be gift to one another is expressed in the body by virtue of its masculinity and femininity. Masculinity and femininity are two different ways of "living the body" and therefore two different ways of <giving the body>. Both the male and the female are called to give themselves totally to one another, but they are called to give themselves in sexually distinct ways which are expressions of two distinct personal modes of self-giving.

Masculinity-femininity—namely sex—is the original sign of a creative donation and of an awareness on the part of man, male-female, of a gift lived so to speak in an original way. Such is the meaning with which sex enters the theology of the body.[6]

In short, "nuptial" means the capacity to give oneself totally or to love, and the sexual differentiation of the persons, manifested and expressed in their bodies, makes it possible for each to manifest and express that love in a way which is different from but ordered to the other.

The nuptial character of the body also makes it possible for each of them to affirm the value and dignity of the other as a person willed by God for his or her own sake.[7] Each, by the total and disinterested giving of self to the other, affirms the value of the other. In fact this is <the only way> in which the value of another person can be fully affirmed. To give oneself less than totally or out of self-interest is to have some other end in mind than the full affirmation of the dignity of the other person. Therefore the Pope speaks of "that bond that exists between the dignity of the human being (man or woman) and the nuptial meaning of the body."[8]

At the same time, this full affirmation of the value of the other person is also an expression of that person's value as sexually different from and therefore non- interchangeable with oneself. The male, in giving himself totally to the female, affirms her value not just as a person but as a female person different from and complementary to himself, upon whom he is radically dependent precisely because of her genuine otherness and complementarity as female. And she, of course, in giving herself totally to him, affirms his value as male in the same way. To affirm the value of the other <as person>, therefore, necessarily means that one is affirming the other as a genuinely different kind of relation from oneself and therefore incapable of being reduced to oneself or to one's own ends. It also makes possible not only that self-donation by which each fully affirms the value of the other, but also that "welcoming" or accepting of the other by which the value of each is, as it were, doubly affirmed. Thus there is in marriage something analogous to the circumincession of the divine Persons since, as the Pope points out, "the giving itself becomes accepting, and the acceptance is transformed into giving."[9]

The sole basis for all of this is the sexual differentiation itself, since that is the only differentiation with which God has graced the human race from "the beginning." Therefore, as the Pope points out, "Human life, by its nature, is 'coeducative,' and its dignity, its balance, depends, at every moment of history and at every point of geographical longitude and latitude, on 'who' she will be for him, and he for her."[10] Understanding the nuptial meaning of the body is crucial to understanding ourselves, for, as the Pope concludes, the nuptial meaning of the body "is the fundamental element of human existence in the world."[11]

Man as sacrament of God

John Paul II speaks repeatedly of the sacrament of creation and the sacrament of man. For those of us raised in the pre-Vatican Church where "sacrament" was used exclusively in reference to the seven sacraments of the Church, such language can be confusing. But early in the life of the Church the word "sacrament" was used to translate the Greek word <mysterion>, and therefore the Pope's usage of it with reference to creation and man reflects the original breadth of its application. A sacrament, broadly speaking, is an outward or material sign which effects and makes actual that which it symbolizes. Understood this way, the word "sacrament" clearly applies to man in his creation in the image of God as an outward or material sign which makes effective in this world that love which images the communion of love that is the Trinity and which actuates the divine mystery or plan, of which creation is the first step, to unite all things in Christ to God. Man as male and female in the unity of marital love is a "primordial sacrament," as the Pope puts it, because:

The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, as a 'body,' by means of his 'visible' masculinity and femininity. The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.[12]

This Trinitarian and therefore marital and sacramental constitution of man is the only context within which man can properly be understood, for, as the Pope has said, <Man—it is worth recalling—is of immense value in himself, but he does not have It from himself because he has received it from God, by whom he was created "in his image and likeness"> (Gen 1:26, 27). There is no adequate definition of man but this one![13]

4. American society and the context for gender

It is by now almost a commonplace in literature that this century, especially the two World Wars, marks the transition from what has been called the modern world into a new age What that age will someday be named is not yet clear, but it has been characterized quite often as post-modern and post-Christian. Whatever its shape and form, it will have to contend with one express legacy from the modern world—a new understanding of man distinctly different from and in many crucial ways radically opposed to the Christian view of man. This new man has been variously designated as the imperial, therapeutic, narcissistic, emotive, autonomous, or egalitarian self. This is the self which believes it is or can be complete in itself, self-actualized and self-fulfilled, in short, standing in need of no one else.

Peter L. Berger has written a brief, but brilliant, satire on the age into which we are now moving, in which he notes that "One discerns the inner meaning of an age by perceiving how originally disparate trends come together in a new, coherent whole."[14] He believes that we can now see how the disparate trends of our age are coming together. At the same time, Cardinal Ratzinger observes that we are confronted today with two views of man, "the symbolic-sacramental vs. functional views."[15] The disparate trends of our age are, indeed, coming together, and they are coming together to support Ratzinger's conclusion that we are now confronted by a vision of man as functional.

Consider the following movements and ask yourself what they all have in common: feminism, gay rights activism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and New Age spirituality. The one common thread which runs through all of them is egalitarianism. Now, egalitarianism is not simply the belief that all things are equal. It is the belief that, <in order for> all things to be equal, all things must be fundamentally identical. Egalitarianism is the assertion that all distinctions, all differentiations, are either illusory or trivial. Egalitarianism was conceived on the day it occurred to someone that the belief that all people are equal is equivalent to the belief that all differences among people are also equal—and equally trivial.

Thus the feminists tell us that the distinctions between male and female, husband and wife, father and mother, are not significant. Gay rights activists tell us that the distinction between a heterosexual and a homosexual orientation and "lifestyle" is not significant. Multi-culturalists preach moral and cultural relativism, which is just another way of saying that the difference between one culture and another, one morality and another, is insignificant. Environmentalists, especially animal rights activists, have been the source of that politically correct condemnation of speciesism, the sin of those who think that any one species (man, for instance) is superior to any other species (slugs, for instance), and many in their ranks have repeatedly condemned any notions that man might rightly exercise dominion over nature. And New Agers, of course, never cease telling us that any and all differentiations are simply a part of the "dream of separation" in which most of us are living and from which we must awaken in order to realize that there are no different things at all, just the great cosmic Allness of absolute, undifferentiated Unity. All of these propositions are eerily reminiscent of the Marxist classless society, in which all differentiations, all roles, are rendered obsolescent.

In one of those strange ironies of history, it seems far more likely that the classless society will be realized more completely here in the capitalist West than it was in the Soviet Union, because it is here that the imperial, autonomous self is today intent, as Christopher Lasch pointed out, on pursuing a debased freedom which has now worked its way throughout the whole of our society.

"Freedom of choice" means "keeping your options open." The idea that "you can be anything you want," though it preserves something of the older idea of the career open to talents, has come to mean that identities can be adopted and discarded like a change of costume. Ideally, choices of friends, lovers, and careers should all be subject to immediate cancellation: such is the open-ended, experimental conception of the good life upheld by the propaganda of commodities, which surrounds the consumer with images of unlimited possibility.[16]

This notion that I can become anything in general rests upon the assumption that I am not already something in particular. For if I am already something in particular, then what I can or cannot become will be determined to a very large extent by what I already am. In short, this notion that I, in the essential giveness of my being, am defined by nothing I need take seriously is fundamentally nihilistic, since it assumes I am intrinsically a cipher signifying absolutely nothing.

Functional equivalence

If every human being is to be regarded as a cipher to which no particular meaning or significance can be attached, such that every human being can become whatever he or she chooses to be, there is, of course, no possibility of understanding man to have symbolic-sacramental import. This also means that none of the things we are, none of the roles we play, can have any symbolic-sacramental import either. <Who I am can be nothing more than <what I have chosen to function as>. Who and what I am and do can no longer be understood as having any transcendent significance whatsoever.

Even more to the point, I am not <ordered> to anyone else but rather am <interchangeable with> everyone else, since everyone can be anything, everyone can choose to function in any way he or she chooses. Thus, by way of example, we are now told that mothers and fathers are not ordered to each other and to their children in particular, non-interchangeable ways. Instead mothers, it is now believed, can function as fathers and fathers can function as mothers, and for two reasons. First, the differentiation between mothering and fathering is insignificant, since both are mere variations of a single function now called "parenting." Second, because every human being is fundamentally a cipher capable of creating for himself his own roles or functions in life, both men and woman are interchangeably capable of carrying out "mothering," just as both are interchangeably capable of carrying out "fathering." To give another example, the priesthood, like every other role today, can be understood only as functional, not as sacramental. Hence the attempts to characterize priests these days primarily as ministers, coordinators and presiders, because priests, in this new view of things, are people who do nothing more than carry out the functions of ministering, coordinating and presiding. And women, it goes without saying, can do those things, function in those ways, just as easily as can men.

5. Man at the crossroad

We find ourselves today, in this transition from one age to another, at a crossroads of perhaps unprecedented significance. For the choice between symbolic-sacramental man and functional man is, at bottom, a choice between accepting the whole of the Catholic faith or rejecting the whole of that faith. No middle ground is possible here, for to accept the symbolic sacramental reading of man necessarily entails accepting a sacramental understanding of creation which can find its source only in a triune God who created man in his image as martially ordered and therefore sexually differentiated; whereas to reject that vision of man is to reject both the triune God and the sacramental order he has created. For those of us engaged in this struggle, there is both good news and bad news. The bad news first.

Demystification of the body

For those of us waging this war against the ascendancy of functional man, there are three pieces of bad news we ought to consider. First, functional man is everywhere about us. There is no niche within our society he has not penetrated, including the Christian churches. To use a sports metaphor, functional man has the momentum.

Second, and even more alarming, as Peter Berger so strikingly illuminated in his brief satire, we have not yet, but shall soon have to, come to grips with the full implications of this functional vision of man. Having abandoned, in the name of egalitarianism, all of those differentiations which, according to the spirit of our age, "alienate" and "separate" us from one another, whether we be talking about male-female, heterosexual-homosexual, man-nature or a host of others, we still have, as Berger points out, one more step to take. "<We must overcome humanism. Above all, this means that we must give up the unnatural idea that the individual matters.">[17] Berger is right. But why is this so?

Noting that Gaia, or the mother goddess of nature, has become the most prominent symbol upon which the various movements of our age have converged, he points out that Gaia is not simply the all-benevolent, nurturing matrix of our lives which we have been led to believe. Such a notion is nothing more than a mere sentimentalism of which we must divest ourselves.

As soon as we look carefully, nature is neither nurturant nor benign. She is immensely indifferent to suffering and immensely profligate in the expenditure of individual existences. Vast numbers of sperms are wasted so that one ovum may be fertilized. Countless weaker animals are sacrificed to feed the few stronger ones. The evolutionary process as a whole wastes thousands of species as it selects the very few who will survive. It is this understanding of nature that we must appropriate. We will then also understand that, in the final analysis, life and death are one and the same and nothing matters beyond the endless thrusting of the divine energy.[18]

Gaia has another face, as Berger points out, the name of which is Kali-Durga, Indian goddess and consort of Shiva. She is the one who both gives and destroys life. To cite Berger again,

She manifests herself naked, four-armed, her mouth gaping to show bloody fangs. In her four hands she holds a noose, a skull-topped staff, a sword, and a severed head. She is dancing on a mountain of corpses. Many people, perhaps even many of you, think they are not yet ready for this vision. But I assure you it is the future to which she calls us; it is the future that we have already embraced.[19]

Lest anyone think that Berger is here exaggerating when he asserts that the individual, in this new vision of man, does not matter, let me say that he is in fact actually understating the new age into which we are already rapidly moving—and we need only look at the implications of New Age spirituality to see why. For New Agers, reality is nothing but spirit, and spirit is absolute unqualified oneness. Every perception we have of reality as particularized, differentiated, multiple, spread out in space and time is an illusion. Reality is nothing but absolute unity. If we suppose this to be the case, only one conclusion is possible. Every particularity, you, me, Lassie, Morris the cat, to the extent that it has even an illusory reality, can be nothing but a barrier to the achievement of that absolute oneness of spirit which is the one and only true reality. Therefore, you, me, Lassie, and Morris the cat must somehow be eliminated in order that the absolute Oneness may retain or regain, as the case may be, its integrity as absolute Oneness. To the extent that we have, or even understand ourselves to have, an existence different from it, we constitute impediments to it. No longer is it the case that we shall overcome; we must instead <be overcome> by that oneness. We are the problem. Our annihilation is the solution. Not only does the individual not matter. His existence is an affront to the absolute oneness which can be absolute only if he does not exist.

In other words, although one can talk until hell freezes over about the mother goddess Gaia or the absolute cosmic Oneness, what one is really talking about is nihilism pure and simple. Whether one contemplates oneself as a bubble on the great river of life, being reabsorbed only to pop up again only to be reabsorbed, <ad nauseam>, or whether one talks about awakening from the dream of separation into the enlightenment of unqualified unity, what one is talking about is one's own annihilation. In the final analysis, the mother goddess Gaia of feminism and the absolute cosmic Oneness of New Age are indistinguishable from the abysmal Nothingness of Nietzschean madness and science fiction nightmare.

The third and final piece of bad news (if you can at this point brace yourself to hearing any more) is that for this future to become "the future that we have already embraced," as Berger puts it, <only one thing is absolutely necessary>. That one thing is <the eradication from the human mind of any notion that the differentiation between male and female is fraught with significance.> English essayist Roger Scruton has called this process the "demystification of the human body." And it is everywhere present today. The result, as Scruton points out, is that the unborn child is no longer a human person, attached by indelible rights and obligations to the mother who bears him, but a slowly ripening deformity, which can be aborted at will, should the mother choose to cure herself. In surrogate motherhood the relation between mother and child ceases to issue from the very body of the mother and is severed from the experience of incarnation. The bond between mother and child is demystified, made clear, intelligible, scientific—and also provisional, revocable and of no more than contractual force.... In just the same way the sexual bond has become clear and intelligible, and also provisional, revocable and of merely contractual force, governed by the morality of adult "consent".... It no longer seems to us that the merely <bodily> character of our acts can determine their moral value. Hence arises the extraordinary view that the homosexual act, considered in itself, is morally indistinguishable from the heterosexual act: for what is there, in its merely physical character, to justify the traditional stigma?[20]

Functional man is deeply wed to a "mind over matter" mentality, in which the human will exercised as power can bend all things to its own purposes, including the human body. Only this mentality can explain, for example, that bizarre belief that one's sexuality is solely a function of one's mind, one's will, such that a sex change operation can actually bring about a genuine change in one's gender. This same mentality is apparent in the view that homosexuals can marry, since it presupposes that the human body gives us no point of reference by which we might sexually order our lives to one another. A male can be ordered to another male just as easily as he can to a female, by a simple act of the will or by the sheer force of sexual attraction, or so it is thought.

But if the body is demystified, stripped as Ratzinger says, of that transparency "which is self-evident to a sacramental way of thinking," to be replaced only by "the functional equivalence of the sexes,"[21] all relationships previously thought to be rooted in our bodily nature go by the board. Most obvious among these is the mother-child relationship. Thus are we confronted with that extraordinary inversion of language today, by which the "surrogate" mother is the genetic, biological, birth mother, whereas the so-called "real" mother is the woman who has willed and commissioned the conception of the child. Relationality here is rooted not in the bodily link between mother and child, but in the willed link between a woman who cannot have a child and a child conceived and born of another woman who can.

By the same token, abortion has become commonplace in our society precisely because many pregnant women deny any relationship between themselves and the children they conceive. They refuse to understand themselves as mothers and therefore refuse to accept the child as a human <person> who is person precisely because he or she is <related> to them as to a mother. Thus are we confronted by that apparent contradiction by which women who want their children are characterized as carrying babies, whereas women who do not are characterized as suffering from the disease of pregnancy. It is not, however, as absurd as it first sounds. Since to be a person is to be in relation to another person, the refusal of the relationship necessarily entails the refusal of the personhood of the child. And the relationship is refused precisely because the body itself has been demystified, thus rendering the physical, genetic link between mother and child null and void unless the mother herself wills that there be such a link.

Nor is it as absurd as it may seem to characterize pregnancy as a disease. In a functional view of things, whether or not something is healthy or diseased depends entirely upon whether it functions as <we want> it to or not. A machine, for example, can function only in accord with its own design. Therefore, the machine is designed solely in terms of the function we wish it to perform. If it does not produce what we want or produces something we do not want, we go back to the drawing board and come up with a new design. If the body comes to be viewed in the same way as we view machines (and all of the language today about conceiving a child as "reproduction" and about our ability to "control" the "reproductive organs" of the body suggests that this is exactly how the body is viewed), then in theory it should be designed to do what <we> want it to do. The crunch, of course, is that we did not get to design the human body. But we can to some degree compensate for this by manipulating it to suit our purposes. Hence, abortion is a "cure" to eliminate pregnancy; contraception is an "adjustment" to eliminate conception; artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood are all ways to get the product we want even when our own bodies will not produce it; genetic engineering is a way to get the product in exactly the shape and form in which we want it; and euthanasia and assisted suicide are ways to eliminate a product which originally functioned as we desired it to but is now worn out or broken beyond repair.

All of these things become not only possible but desirable and even mandated, once the human body is demystified. And the one certain way to demystify it is to rob sexual differentiation of all significance. With that one single stroke by which is undermined the unique, unrepeatable, singular, non-interchangeable, and ordered relation of male to female as husband to wife all relationships rooted in the bodily, incarnational, sacramental nature of man are rendered functional, which is to say, repeatable, interchangeable and ordered to nothing whatsoever except whatever function each person might will them to have at any given time.

Of course the fact that we did not design the human body should tell us that it bears a significance which cannot be reduced to the status of those machines which are of our own making. Furthermore, the fact that the human body has been designed in such a way as to reflect two different ways of living the body should tell us that this is a significant differentiation which we can ignore only at our own peril. And, most important of all, the fact that this differentiation is the only one which cuts across all human boundaries, whether of race, creed, culture or time, should tell us that this differentiation is <the sole source of a relational order> which can bring about a human community of equals, if such a community there is to be.

In fact, the supreme irony of our situation is that we can safeguard human equality only by safeguarding the significance of our sexual differentiation as male and female. This is true for two reasons. First, there can be an order among things only if those things are differentiated, not identical. Things which are identical cannot be ordered, they can only be interchanged. Hence, differentiation is required if there is to be any kind of order at all. Second, there can be no order based upon relationality unless those things which are different are ordered to one another by their differences. For if they are merely different but not ordered to one another, they can be ranked only according to their differences—as, for example, from the largest to the smallest, from the heaviest to the lightest, from the hardest to the softest, from the most intelligent to the least, etc.— and such ranking necessarily renders them unequal. Only if there is something in the differences themselves which orders them to one another can they be related to one another as equals.

The only such differentiation with which God has invested man is that of male and female. Upon this differentiation, therefore, the whole of human existence and the whole order of human relations depends. Without it there can be one of only two things: either that chaos which is the absence of all order or that tyranny which is the oppression of the lesser in rank by the greater.

Remystification of the body

There is good news as well. The good news is the obverse of the bad news. So let us consider what that good news is, reversing the order in which we considered the bad news.

First, if the bad news is that the eradication from the human mind of any notion that the sexual differentiation is significant is the one thing necessary for functional man to prevail, the good news is that <preventing that eradication is the one thing necessary to defeat this view of man.> Let me reiterate that. The only thing we absolutely must do is see to it that the significance of the differentiation between male and female is not lost to our fellow citizens. Our new evangelization must begin here, not only because this is the central issue of our times, but also because, as Ratzinger has rightly observed, "In a world thoroughly characterized by functionality, it has become difficult even to conceive of viewpoints other than those of functionality."[22] If the context is functionality, no sense whatsoever can be made of any element of the Catholic faith. We must therefore remystify, which is to say resacramentalize, the human body in the thinking of people today.

Second, if the bad news is that we have yet to recognize but shall soon have to face a new age in which the individual not only does not matter but is a positive affront to reality itself as construed by feminist goddess worship or New Age spirituality, the good news is that the value and dignity of every individual human being, which is to say the personhood of every individual human being, can be easily seen, understood and re-implanted in human consciousness within the context of a symbolic-sacramental reading of man.

Third, if the bad news is that functional man has the momentum, the good news is that symbolic-sacramental man has the edge. And he has it for three reasons. First, however much people today may wish to view themselves as functions, the fact remains that God created us to be his image and sacrament. Neither the Fall nor all of the sins committed by everyone since then has or can eradicate completely our capacity to image God as male and female in the sacramental bond of husband and wife. As the Pope has pointed out, "The fundamental fact of this existence of man at every stage of his history is that God 'created them male and female'; in fact, He always creates them in this way and they are always such."[23]

Second, Christ institutes the New Covenant or "new creation" on the foundation of our original creation as male and female. For it must always be remembered that the New Covenant is not just Christ, but the marital union of Christ the bridegroom with his bride the Church. Thus the primary continuity between the orders of creation and redemption is to be found in the fact that both are martially-structured: the first in the marital union of the first Adam with his bride, Eve; the second in the marital union of the Second Adam with his bride, the Church. As the Pope concludes from this,

So the mystery hidden in God from all eternity—the mystery that "in the beginning," in the sacrament of creation, became <a visible reality through the union> of the first man and woman in the perspective of marriage—becomes in the sacrament of redemption a <visible reality of the indissoluble union of Christ with the Church>, which the author of the letter to the Ephesians presents as the nuptial union of spouses, husband and wife.[24]

Of particular significance is the fact that Ephesians characterizes this marital union as the "great" or "profound" mystery, which is to say sacrament, and tells us that the statement back in Genesis that "A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" actually refers to Christ and the Church (Eph 5:31-32). This is not only a reaffirmation of the marital ordering of creation but also a reaffirmation of the marital ordering of the human race, for henceforth "the reciprocal relationship between husband and wife" is not just an imaging of the triune communion of love, but is also "to be understood by Christians as an image of the relationship between Christ and the Church."[25]

Third, we have an edge in the new age, because, whatever this new age might be called, it is but a part of the "last age" of salvation history, the "age of the Church." The age of the Church began on Pentecost Sunday almost two thousand years ago, and in those almost two millennia the Church in her faith, which is to say her tradition, has never abandoned the truth of Christ with regard to the importance of the differentiation of Persons within the Trinity and the differentiation of sexes within humanity. In the fourth century, the Church firmly rejected the temptation, known variously as modalism, Sabellianism, or Monarchianism, to reduce the three Persons of the Trinity to the three functions of creation, redemption and sanctification, and she has ever since kept firmly before our eyes the reality of God as differentiated by the three Persons who are three relations ordered to one another in the triune communion of love.

The Church has also always kept before our eyes the sexually-differentiated character of human existence, first in the importance attached to marriage, family and sexual morality, and second in the importance attached to the relationship between Christ and the Church—liturgically re-affirmed in every Mass in which Christ, in the Eucharist, gives himself totally to the Church, and the Church, in her worship, gives herself totally to Christ, a reciprocal giving which is also a reciprocal receiving in the gifts offered by the Church and in the communion participated in by the faithful.

Moreover, nowhere in the tradition is the importance of the sexual differentiation between Christ and the Church more vividly manifested to the eyes of the faithful than in the reservation of Holy Orders to men only. For Christ's maleness, let us clearly keep in mind, is not the disclosure of some divine maleness (in God there is no gender), but the disclosure of Christ's relation to the Church. <He is male because he is the relation of Bridegroom>. The priest, because he is not just a functionary (no matter how many functions he is required to carry out) but the sacramental sign of Christ, in whose Person he acts, must be capable of entering into that relation which vis-a-vis the Church is explicitly male. To think that a woman can do this is to suppose, as we have already seen, that male and female are not relationally ordered to one another, but simply interchangeable with one another. Happily, the current Pope has closed the door to that way of thinking, declaring in his recent apostolic letter, <Ordinatio sacerdotalis>, that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful" (<OS>, n. 4).

The Pope in the same place called this issue of the male priesthood "a matter of great importance." In fact, hardly anything today in the Church could be characterized as more important than this. For this issue is <the> litmus test for determining whether one shares in the symbolic-sacramental or in the functional view of man. Everything a person thinks from the status of the unborn to the nature of God hinges on how he answers this question of whether or not women should be priests.

6. Conclusion

Let me return here at the end to that one-liner I heard on the radio station, in which the Pope was alleged to have said that the Church had discriminated against women in the past and would continue to do so in the future. It turned out that this one-liner was a conflation of answers he had given to two different questions. In answer to the question, has the Church discriminated against women in the past, he said that she had. In answer to the question, will the Church ordain women in the future, he said she would not. Here the refusal to ordain women was automatically interpreted as a deliberate act of discrimination against women, so much so, in fact, that the newscaster could directly attribute to the Pope the statement that the Church plans to discriminate against women in the future, despite the fact that the Pope made no such statement at all.

The context within which the Pope made that remark was, of course, the symbolic- sacramental understanding of man. The context within which the newsman heard and misinterpreted that remark was the functional vision of man. The newsman in question here probably never consciously recognized the fact that he had distorted what the Pope had said. As Ratzinger says, those operating within a functional vision of man find it all but impossible to conceive of any other view of things.

If there is one theological insight more crucial than any other to the re-evangelization of this nation, it lies in recognizing the true meaning and significance of the word "hierarchy." Hierarchy comes from two Greek words, <hieros>, meaning "sacred," and <archein>, meaning rule or order. Hierarchy, therefore, means "sacred order." The Trinity is a hierarchy, because the three Persons are ordered to one another in their equal possession of the fullness of wisdom, goodness and love. <The opposite of hierarchy> is not equality, as so many people today seem to think. The opposite of hierarchy is one of two things: <either anarchy>, the absence of all order, <or tyranny>, the imposition of a desacralized, unholy order of oppression by the most powerful against the least.

It is sobering to consider that, among the antonyms of "sacred," most dictionaries list "secular," "worldly" and "profane." It is no exaggeration, I think, to say that the most urgent task facing Catholics in particular and Christians in general in a secular society such as ours is to establish and live out, at the level of marriage and family, that imaging of the sacred order of the Trinity which is the only effective means by which to reestablish within our society that symbolic-sacramental vision of man without which any efforts at new evangelization are certain to fail. It is also our one sure bulwark against either the secular anarchy of an undifferentiated multitude such as looms today in the violence in our schools and on our streets, or the secular tyranny of a monolithic State such as looms in the political manipulations of the Constitution and the cultural marginalization of the politically incorrect, all of which are the consequences of our egalitarian and therefore functional vision of man.


1 <RM>, nn. 5-6, 13, 15, 41, 44.

2 <Original Unity of Man and Woman> (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1981), 175.

3 Ibid., 75.

4 Joseph Ratzinger, "Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology," <Communio> 17 (Fall 1990): 452.

5 John Paul II, <Original Unity of Man and Woman>, 109.

6 Ibid., 109-110.

7 Ibid., 117.

8 John Paul II <Theology of Marriage and Celibacy> (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1986), 170.

9 John Paul II, <Original Unity of Man and Woman>, 131.

10 John Paul II, <Blessed are the Pure of Heart> (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1983), 148.

11 John Paul II, <Original Unity of Man and Woman>, 119.

12 Ibid., 143-44.

13 John Paul II, <The Whole Truth About Man> (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul 1981), 145.

14 Peter L. Berger, "The Other Face of Gaia," <First Things> 45 (Aug/Sept 1994): 15.

15 Joseph Ratzinger, "The Limits of Authority," <L’Osservatore Romano> [English Edition], 29 June 1994.

16 Christopher Lasch, <The Minimal Self> (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), 38.

17 Berger, "The Other Face Gaia," 16.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., 16-17.

20 Roger Scruton, <Untimely Tracts> (London: Macmillan, 1987), 205.

21 Ratzinger, "The Limits of Church Authority."

22 Ratzinger, "The Limits of Church Authority."

23 John Paul II, <Original Unity of Man and Woman>, 138-39.

24 John Paul II, <Theology of Marriage and Celibacy>, 259-260.

25 Ibid., 191.

This article was taken from the Winter 1994 issue of "Communio: International Catholic Review". To subscribe write Communio, P.O. Box 4557, Washington, D.C. 20017-0557. Published quarterly, subscription cost is $23.00 per year.