Men And Women: Diversity and Mutual Complementarity

William E. May
©Culture of Life Foundation 2009
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Men and Women: Diversity and Mutual Complementarity is the title of an important and helpful book published by Libreria Vaticana Editrice in 2006 containing papers given at the Study Seminar held in Vatican City 30-31 January 2004. It contains 12 essays divided into 4 major parts. I will try to summarize the thought of some of the major papers in two articles.

Here I will take up the following essays: (1) Lucetta Scaraffia's "Socio-cultural changes in women's lives"1;(2) Vincente Aucante's, "Fatherhood"2; (3) Maria Teresa Garutti Bellenzier's "The identity of women and men according to the teaching of the Church"3; and Carlo Caffarra's "Benchmarks, problem areas and issues for debate."4 In another article I will consider the contributions of Karna Swanson, Manfred Lutz, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, and Marguerite Peeters.

1. Scaraffia's essay

Scaraffia says that in the 1970s for the first time feminists openly proclaimed the right to personal self-fulfillment and that individual selfish desire is what was behind their drive for "reliable" birth control. She then declares: "The linkage between women's emancipation and the spread of birth control - the only condition for enabling women to liberate themselves from their biological destiny without having to embrace chastity - demonstrates that feminism cannot be considered to be just one more movement among many, a mere process of enlarging democracy. Woman's emancipation presupposes controlling life (which obviously involves controlling death) and therefore forces us to address issues that have always been considered as falling into the realm of religion." Although having a baby is considered vital to civilization, birth control (contraception) is now regarded as the basic condition for implementing women's emancipation and equality with men and an undisputed achievement of Western culture (21). Today, women are rediscovering the value of motherhood, and insofar as they are, they are not adaptable to modern culture and birth control and "stand as an insoluble contradiction within the dogma of individual self-fulfillment, of happiness as the fulfillment of one's own desires. Motherhood… teaches us that human beings are not called merely to achieve the gratification of personal desires but to reach out to what is new, to accept the unexpected, and to be repaid in ways that cannot even be imagined," and thus the time has come to think of the reasons why the Church condemns birth control (22).

2. Aucante's essay

Aucante early on cites Tony Anatrela who declared: "May 1968 marked the death of the father," a tendency that has become more complex with the new reproductive technologies. Indeed "one can well imagine that it will not be long before the father's genetic contribution will no longer be necessary to produce children" (25). Aucante's aim is to examine fatherhood from a phenomenological perspective to identify the place of the father in fatherhood and to discover whether the father-child relationship is or is not a natural disposition (25). He considers fatherhood in (i) generation, (ii) birth, (iii) "filiality," and (iv) during infancy. Considering (i) he notes two specific features of fatherhood. First, the roles of mother and father are such that fatherhood is correlative to motherhood in a paradoxical way since only the mother can bear the child within her body whereas fatherhood can only be considered in terms of the relationship that unites a man and a woman. Second, the father awaits his child and looks forward to it. This gives us "a first key to interpreting fatherhood: once conception has occurred, fatherhood consists of silently expecting and waiting for the secret of a life that is developing" (27-28).

Birth (ii) places the child in the arms of its father and from the first months a deep and intimate bond develops between them little by little. But "the father must receive the child…not only in the sense in which a child is always received…but because he has to take in a being which is alien to him in so many respects." While the child is always naturally born of its mother, it remains a child of a father who is unknown. Adoption, Aucante holds, is similar in that the adoptive father waits in anticipation for the adopted child (29).

(iii) Fatherhood and "filiality" develops the idea that "the child does not cling to its father as immediately as it does to its mother…So long as the child is safe within its mother, the father remains something of an outsider, which does not mean that he must be absent, or that he will remain a stranger to his child after birth. For the fatherhood which then unites the child to its father remains intimately linked to motherhood, while not confusing them…One can…talk of 'maternal fatherhood,' that is, fatherhood intimately linked to motherhood" (31). Fatherhood is inseparable from a deep and true love that requires him to wait again, "entering into a state of ascesis which we believe to be one of the secrets for an understanding of the role of the father in the education of his children, [an ascesis]…accepting a relationship that is not yet complete, and keeping a reserve which is not possible except in loving dialogue with mother and child" (31-32).

(iv) Fatherhood during infancy develops the idea that the father, as representing "otherness," is born into fatherhood by heeding the call of his child, who first calls on his father to initiate what we can call "paternal fatherhood." The father must take in his child by listening to him and exercising a paternal authority that helps his child to mature (33-34).

Throughout Aucante is heavily in debt to Gabriel Marcel's profound and beautiful reflections on fatherhood, developed further by Jean-Luc Marion.

3. Garutti Bellenzier's essay

Garutti Bellenzier shows how the Church's teaching on the identity of women and men has developed in the Church. She first considers their identity in God's plan for creation, the "traditional interpretation," "John Paul II's catechesis," and "the current teaching." All these interpretations are rooted in the "creation narratives" of chapters 1-3 of Genesis (chs. 1 and 2 with different accounts of the creation of man and woman, and chapter 3 on their "fall"). All the "traditional interpretations" also were based on Paul's interpretation of those biblical texts.

Discussing the "traditional interpretation" (103-106), Garutti-Bellenzier points out that the second account of creation (Gen: 2.7, 15-24) influenced the formation of theological anthropology in the Church's teaching. In 1 Cor (11.7-10) Paul "explicitly states that man is made in the image and for the glory of God, while the woman is made in the image of man, coming from him and being created for him." While some Fathers granted that woman was made in the image of God, they took this to refer to the rational and spiritual soul, ignoring the sexual - sexual differentiation was limited to the bodily sphere (103). Still the dominant idea was to deny the theomorphic nature of women, whom they also regarded as obliged to be subservient to her husband (cf. Eph 5.22-24;1 Tim 2.11-15). Moreover, the Fathers saw Eve as the prototype of female moral weakness and prone to seduction, while Adam was viewed as sinning to please her. The Fathers also held man's superiority over woman in procreation as its active agent, and that sin was transmitted to offspring through his seed. This patristic tradition was basically that of the Scholastics. Thomas Aquinas said the only help woman gives man is to procreate and for all other needs another man is a better helper, although her end, like his, is union with God in the beatific vision (cf. Summa Theologiae, 1, 92,1 and 1, 98, 2) ( 104-106).

Garutti Bellenzier notes that this interpretation was not expressed in the explicit declarations of the magisterium but through the practice of the Church as a whole (105-106).

She then shows how John Paul's Wednesday catecheses on the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 (along with ch 3 and the story of man's fall) (the "theology of the body") provide a far different interpretation of these texts than the one that was "traditional." He stresses the "theological" nature of the first (chronologically later) account and according to it both man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God. He then focuses on the second account, which is above all subjective (i.e., about subjects or persons) and psychological. He argues that the solitude of man is a basic anthropological problem proceeding from man's very nature. He calls this man's original solitude whereby he realizes, precisely because of his body, that he is "alone" before God. John Paul II affirms that "man" would emerge from this solitude with the creation of woman: it is "through God's creative initiative [that] solitary man [emerges] in his double unity as male and female…. In this way the meaning of man's original unity, through masculinity and femininity, is expressed as an overcoming of solitude and the discovery of an adequate relationship to the person and therefore as an opening and expectation of a communion of persons." It is in this communion "that man becomes the image of God."

Thus this second narrative could be understood "as a preparation for understanding the Trinitarian concept of the image of God." Because Adam recognized Eve "as bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," their homogeneity as persons was emphasized, but this included the body and sexuality which was integral to their being as persons. Moreover because both the man and the woman experienced shame over their nakedness after the fall in place of their nakedness without shame prior to the fall, this shows that both, the man and the woman, were the cause of their fall and alienation from God and from one another. John Paul's interpretation of these key texts is surely quite different from the "traditional interpretation" (106-108).

With regard to man's dominion over creation (and woman) and her duty to submit to him, John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem stressed that "both men and women are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image"…and both are entrusted with dominion over the earth (Mulieris, no. 6.). They are both called to live in a communion of love, mirroring the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the mystery of divine life even though God is "wholly Other" (see Mulieris, nos. 7-8) (109).

She then considers "current teaching," emphasizing that this teaching, rooted in Gaudium et Spes and John Paul II, is not an uncritical adjustment to contemporary culture but to "an absolute fidelity to Revelation, which is now more thoroughly understood because the Holy Spirit also reveals God's plans through human awareness and the events of history. Both man and woman are equally responsible for the fall, and woman is fully man's equal and both are to be submissive to one another" (110-111).

There follows a section on sexuality and marriage (112-118) in which she first uses texts from Gaudium et Spes 49, John Paul II's teaching in "theology of the body," and documents such as the Congregation for Education's Educational Guidance in Human Love and the Pontifical Council for the Family's Human Sexuality: Truth and Meaning (112-114) to show how positively human sexuality is valued today as integral to the being of human persons. She shows how John Paul's teaching in Familiaris Consortio 25-29 relates to the man-woman relationship, pointing out his insistence that "women's sensitivity for what is essentially human" is "characteristic of their femininity" and how he appeals in Familiaris 24 for an awareness that in marriage there is a mutual "subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ, and not just that of the wife to the husband" (115-118).

Our author follows with a section on the presence and roles of women in the Church (118-129). In the early Church there was no problem with women cooperating with men in many ways (hospitality, ministering to the sick, participating in the liturgy and spreading the gospel). What is unusual in this - clearly stated in the New Testament - is that only recently has this been rediscovered "confirming that the Word of God must always be listened to and interpreted with the support of the ethical and spiritual awareness of any given moment in history" (119). Two phenomena in the early Church of particular importance on woman's identity in the Church are martyrdom and female monasticism (120-123).

On the question of ministries there is today a heated debate, with issue of the nature of the diaconate exercised by women in the early Church one concern. However, only recently have some claimed that women can be validly ordained to the sacramental priesthood; the question was unthinkable for centuries, in part because of the "traditional understanding" of woman's identity previously described. However the Magisterium, through documents published by Paul VI, John Paul II, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith firmly taught that only men can be validly ordained to the sacramental priesthood, offering arguments to show why; the CDF declared that this teaching was infallibly proposed by the ordinary and universal exercise of infallibility by pope and bishops in union with him (123-125).

Garutti Bellenzier ends her long contribution by calling attention to recent documents (Christifideles Laici, Vatican II's Decree on the Lay Apostolate, etc), showing that in both theory and practice women have a necessary role to play in participating in the saving mission of the Church (126-129).

4. Carlo Caffarra's essay

He considers benchmarks, problem areas, and issues for debate. In "benchmarks" he tries to identify "the main benchmarks for guidance and criteria for making judgments within…a very complex subject area. These can be identified by carefully meditating on the history of women within the history of salvation. It is from this history that we can discover the truth about women - the original truth, the disfigured truth, the transfigured truth" (131).

He thinks that the original truth about women is found principally in the second creation account (Gen 2.16-25). Caffarra's reading of the text is similar to that of John Paul II although he does not refer to in text or notes. His point is that the existence of woman "was necessary so that the humanity of the human person could attain the fullness of being…because only woman could make it possible to establish the communion of persons which would bring man out of his solitude. Woman's creation made it possible to establish communion between persons." This truth can be summed up in two fundamental statements: "the first is that the woman was a human person equal in dignity to the human person-man. The second was that the woman was a different person who differed from the man and it is because of this diversity that the man broke out of his solitude [as the only bodily being in relationship to the Other who is the Triune God] and the communion of persons was formed. …humanity was created in two ways, each having equal dignity but differing in their internal configuration of masculinity and femininity." He then emphasizes the free "gift of self" of the man to the woman and of the woman to the man, showing that the biblical text reveals man's [male and female alike] vocation is self-giving love; this was made possible by the presence of the woman "who was given in a special way the mission of making the communion of persons reality." Woman's mystery is manifested and revealed through motherhood, cooperating "in a unique way in order to form a new human person" (132-135).

The disfigured truth is verified at two levels: the level of "permanent anthropological" structures and at the level of the historical and institutionalized forms the first disfigurements have brought about, particularly damaging to female identity. With respect to "permanent anthropological" structures Caffarra contrasts the authentic "personalistic" view of the person as a being in relationship with others and the "individualistic" view that has supplanted it. This anthropological disfigurement makes the woman's body an object to be used and not integral to a person who is to be loved and the same is true of the man's body although Caffarra does not bring this out sufficiently. It also denigrates marriage, deeming cohabitation and same-sex unions as equally valid or even superior to marriage, disparaging motherhood and making sure that "no unwanted baby ought to be born" (135-139).

Citing Gal 4:4: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman," Caffarra affirms: "The original truth about women is perfectly fulfilled and transfigured (emphasis added) in Christ. By taking flesh, the Word wished to have that unique, fundamental relationship that every human being has with women, the relationship between the child and its mother. Each one of us is molded by a woman and our humanity comes through her. This also applied to the Word: his humanity was molded by Mary, because he was procreated by her in our humanity. She is therefore, in every sense, 'Theotokos,' the Mother of God." In fact, Caffarra is convinced that Mary "alone is capable of making women aware of their femininity and…is the key totally interpreting it"(139).

He prepares the way for giving his reasons for this conviction by summing up the Patristic and medieval understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church with that between Adam and Eve, whose bodily unity prefigured that unity of two in one flesh that defined the salvation event: "the Church, which is the perfect fulfillment of what was prefigured at the origin of creation: Body and Head, Bride and Bridegroom, humanity made divine, and Christ." [I find Caffarra's view here somewhat paradoxical, given Garutti Bellenzier' critique of the "traditional interpretation.] It is no accident, Caffarra continues, that the Church "is 'female,' that ecclesiality is revealed in the form of femininity…[moreover] "Our ruin was brought about by cooperation between both Adam and Eve; Christ and Mary cooperate, albeit in an essentially different way, in bringing about our salvation." He draws attention to a text of St. Thomas Aquinas, who said that when the Word became flesh in Mary's womb it was like the celebration of marriage between humanity and the Word and her consent "was in lieu of the entire human nature" (Summa Theologiae, 3,30,1) (139-140).

Then, citing John Paul II's Mulieris Dignitatem, he says that John Paul has taught us that the real "symbol of the whole body of the Church, women and men, is woman." Indeed, in the Church he teaches that "every human being - male and female - is the 'Bride,' in that he or she accepts the gift of the love of Christ the Redeemer, and seeks to respond to it with the gift of his or her person" (Mulieris Dignitatem, 12 and 25). Caffarra then shows how the gospels demonstrate Christ's high esteem for women and that in the eyes of his contemporaries he "became a promoter of women's true dignity and of the vocation corresponding to this dignity." Caffarra then focuses on Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman; "it was to her above all that Jesus revealed his identity as he had done to no one before, and she became the first person to proclaim the gospel" (see John 4:18-42). Even more significant was the fact that on Easter morning Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene who is like the real symbol of the sinful humanity called to intimacy with the Bridegroom; "it was in this sinful woman, now called to union with the Lord in glory, that the most profound truth about woman was reaffirmed, and this reaffirmation signified humanity….Woman has thus been redeemed and transfigured. Redeemed from what had disfigured her original truth, transfigured, because He fully revealed the very essence of femininity in Mary his mother" (141-143). This is the reason why Caffarra is convinced that "Mary alone is capable of making women aware of their femininity and…is the key totally interpreting it."

Caffarra then considers problematic issues. By these he has in mind the difficulties Christian thinking has today in envisioning woman's true self-fulfillment. The first issue is methodological. Christian understanding of woman's true self-fulfillment is not to tailor this understanding to "changed social conditions," but rather to judge those conditions in light of the truth revealed about woman, starting with "the beginning," i.e., God's creation of man, male and female, and fully revealed and transfigured in Christ. The second concerns the basic anthropological structure of men, male and female, whose bodies are integral to their being as persons and not, as modern individualists hold, a merely privileged instrument of the "person" who has dominion over his body and the freedom to make it what he wants it to be (143-144). A third problematic, closely linked to the second, is woman as mother and the one who welcomes new human life as a gift from God as opposed to the view that motherhood is optional and open only to the child who is "wanted" here and now to fulfill some desire (144-146).

He concludes with what he calls open issues. The first is to revive the true anthropological structure of the human person, the second is to recover the meaning of the human body as integral to this structure, and the third is the significance of procreation (146-147).


1 Scarrafia is lecturer in contemporary history at La Sapienza University in Rome. [Back]

2 Aucante Is director of San Luigi dei Francesi Cultural Center in Rome and advisor to the embassy of France to the Holy See. [Back]

3 Garutti Bellenzier heads the "Progetta Donna" Cultural Association. [Back]

4 Carlo Caffarra was the first president of the Istituto Giovanni Paolo per studi su matrimonio e famiglia in Rome, serving in this capacity from 1981-1995; he was then Archbishop of Ferrara-Comacchio from 1995-2003; in 2003 he was made Archbishop of Bologna and in 2006 was named Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna. [Back]