Commentary on the Relationship Between Men and Women

Author: Prof. Jutta Burggraf

Commentary on the Relationship Between Men and Women

Prof. Jutta Burggraf
University of Navarre

Man and woman are created to be like eagles, not hens

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 thought.

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 development.

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 sexual identity.

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 him/them.

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).

Human sexuality

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 with others.

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 vocation.

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.

Perfect love

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  other).

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 reciprocal.
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[69]:6; cf. Ps 116[115]:9-11; 119[118]:7; 146[145]:5).

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 reciprocity".

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 wife.

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 more difficult.

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.

Sexual identity

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 and neuter.

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 advanced studies.

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 eliminated.

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 must
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 subject.

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. 12).

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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 February 2005, page 6

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