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Gender, Reality, and Our Lady

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger at the end of July, 2004, released a new document that not surprisingly ruffled many feminist feathers. The letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith to the bishops of the world entitled On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World (dated May 31), has reaffirmed Catholic Tradition and common sense: men and women are profoundly different.

While the cultural ideologies murmur and shout “how dare he!” the Cardinal continues to state the obvious: a denial of the evident differences between men and women calls into question “the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make[s] homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality” (2). When more and more people cannot state without hesitation that marriage is always and only be between one man and one woman, then someone needs to keep repeating the obvious.

With an ironic twist that is typical of this kind of debate radical feminists say that the Vatican needs to “get real.” Considering the actual cultural circumstances with, for example, the majority of married women working full time, and more and more women competing successfully in traditionally masculine disciplines, we are told that we need to abandon “gender roles” and get in step with progress. In fact Cardinal Ratzinger does take into account the actual circumstances of the present culture, but he also states plainly and correctly that the denial of the real differences between men and women is “lethal” to “getting real.” The legitimization of sodomy through the legalization of same-sex marriage is not getting real. The “liberation” of women from subjugation to men through abortion and birth control is not getting real. The denial of the fundamental right of children to be conceived in an act of love between a man and a woman who are committed to each other for life is not getting real.

Scientists on both sides of the issue face off with dueling studies as to whether sex differences are biologically or culturally determined, but it is clear that much is at stake that turns upon the answer to this question. Yet even some feminist academics admit real sex differences, so it is clear that their reticence to accept church teaching on these differences has deeper roots. Here is the give away taken from interviews conducted by The Guardian:

Dr Helena Cronin, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, said: “It’s absolutely true that we are different, in a variety of ways.” She said that in all mammals, females showed a greater propensity to caring for the young than males did. But she added: “That’s not saying that women have no other vocations, or that they should be devoted [to motherhood].”

. . . . Eva Figes, whose book Patriarchal Attitudes was one of the major works of feminism’s “second wave” in the 70s, said: “I have always thought men and women were different—we have better linguistic skills, for instance—but it wasn’t politic to say so when I was writing 30 years ago.”

She added: “The trouble is we all know the Pope’s opinions on issues such as abortion and contraception. There is another agenda there: he will think maternity is more important than public life. I don’t see why women should not have both—and it should be their choice.”

And there it is. The Pope in fact does say that women “should be devoted to motherhood,” that abortion is the taking of innocent life, that contraception is always a mortal sin, and that for women “maternity is more important than public life.” Yes, There’s the rub. Gender differences are not convenient. So much for the objective science of radical feminism.

The position of these women is predictable. They are, after all, essentially secularists. But it is one thing for them to rely exclusively on a science rooted in secular humanist principles when they seek to answer questions about what it means to be a woman. It is another for those who profess faith in Christ to divorce natural science from ultimate answers about God’s design for His creation.

The most profound differences between the sexes are neither biologically nor culturally determined, but established by the plan that God has for men and women. That plan we must choose to follow and participate in an active and collaborative way. Women can in fact have both maternity and public life, but their destiny in God’s plan is to be mothers, whether physically or spiritually. And yes, they must choose what is most important to them, as men must choose whether or not they will honor and respect women in their destiny to be mothers. But let’s get real. Some choices are good, and some are bad. Facing reality prayerfully helps us to know the difference.

Nature bears witness to the plan of God for men and women, but as followers of Christ our collaboration is nothing unless it involves an act of faith. For Catholic women to choose maternity as their primary vocation, no matter whether they have a career or not, or to see their task in the workplace as an extension of their maternal vocation, is a simple act of faith in the order that God has established. Such a common sense affirmation may be a voice in the wilderness that is out of step with the actual culture, but it is also evangelical. It is a proclamation that indeed Christ does have a better way. It is, in fact, a way to get real.

The Cardinal reminds us that the Church is a mother, and that there is no life without out her. This is not a metaphorical convention, but absolutely true because Mary, the Mother of Jesus “constitutes the fundamental reference in the Church” (15). No Mary, no Jesus. No Church, no grace. Maternal mediation is the way of life. And so it is Mary that defines the feminine, and it belongs to women in a particular way to bear witness to this way of life.

Christ himself that teaches us what Cardinal Ratzinger calls the “way of love” that “is a royal power which vanquishes all violence,” and a “‘passion’ which saves the world from sin and death and recreates humanity” (16). And as Jesus entrusts this mystery to the Church, it belongs to Mary in a preeminent way, and therefore to all women as well in imitation of Her. Mary’s maternal solidarity, Her enduring compassion, her sacrificial fidelity is the way of life and of love. It is something that both men and women must understand, but women in a particular way are its witnesses.

This is the real origin of the chivalric attitude of men toward women. Behind chivalry’s oft recounted excesses of the worship of women on the one hand and wanton exercise of power on the other, there was something far more courteous and sublime. The flower of chivalry among men was fed by the “glorious spring of purity and virginity, the gentle and glorious Virgin Mary” (Geoffroi de Charny, The Book of Chivalry, c. 1352). In the light of Christian revelation, women are rightly understood to be the guardians of chastity, and the bearers of the flame of the “better part” entrusted to the human soul. What is physically realized in their bodies through maternity is in fact realized on a moral and personal level through the “order of love” which belongs to them in a particular way (cf. John Paul II, Mulieris dignitatem 29).

This is not about limiting the options available to women, but about humanizing and supernaturalizing marriage, family life and the public order. It is about all of us, men and women, but especially men, living honorably, living for the right reasons, and being willing to die for what we live.

The movie, The Passion of the Christ is the popular representation of this ideal. It is curious that many reviewers have either missed entirely the clear perspective of the film, which is the passion of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mary, or else they have assessed Mary’s character, along with that of Mary Magdalene, as being nothing more than the shallow representation of a weeping woman. The complement to the “passion” of Jesus is the “compassion” of Mary. Compassion means “to suffer with.” She is the Co-redemptrix with the Redeemer. The movie is really about the Virgin Mother’s solidarity with Jesus, and our solidarity with Him through Her.

Is it really so hard for us as Catholics to accept as the ideal of family and public life the love shared between the hearts of Jesus and Mary? Some things just deserve to be honored. So that life might be civilized, some things must be honored. Jesus honored His Mother Mary; He honored Her maternity, by making it fruitful in a new way at the foot of the cross. May we do anything less and hope to build culture which truly respects women?

So let’s get real. We are confronted with the same old problem. Either we allow ourselves to be swept along by the spirit of the age, or we evangelize the age through the spirit of Christ. As to which way we go not only “should be a matter of our choice,” it is matter of our choice. But two witnesses stand at the top of the world and at the crossroads of time to testify to the truth. If we choose to forget what they have done for us we turn away from our hope. And it would be a sham to call that “getting real.” If on the other hand we stand in the shadow of the cross we may hope with all true gentlemen and gentlewomen against the day that we meet the good King Jesus and His mildest Mother Mary, in whose likenesses we have been made.

Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger is a Franciscan friar and author of numerous articles in the areas of Mariology and culture.

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