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Sexual difference: "Asymmetrical Reciprocity"

Welcome back to this series on sexual difference! So far we have looked at various ways that our culture describes sexual difference (here and here) and have delved into Scripture and the Catechism on the subject. Now, in Part 3, we will examine two phrases – “asymmetrical reciprocity” and “double unity” – that, despite being mouthfuls, are incredibly helpful in illuminating sexual difference.

Asymmetrical Reciprocity

In his book The Nuptial Mystery, Angelo Cardinal Scola offers the phrase “asymmetrical reciprocity” as a way to understand sexual difference. He writes that “nuptiality,” the complex phenomenon of male-female interactions, “manifests a reciprocity between me and another. This reciprocity bears a very peculiar characteristic which I call ‘asymmetry’” (92).

Reciprocity: From another, For another

Let’s start with the word reciprocity. In common parlance, reciprocal refers to those relationships in which something is exchanged; there is a sense of mutuality; a back-and-forth in which both parties receive what they need. Unrequited love is, by definition, not reciprocal.

For Scola, reciprocity means all of this, and more. The “more” is that for Scola, reciprocity is not something chosen; it is something given. That is, reciprocity is present in our lives even before we ask for it. The very fact that I am born means that I come from another, to whom I am connected (a relationship of reciprocity) well before my consent – and even despite it. Scola writes, “There is not first a wholly autonomous ‘I’ which then enters into relation with an other. The relation is not extrinsic and accidental, but intrinsic and constitutive” (121). What he means is that reciprocity is “built-in” to the human experience. We are through and through reciprocal creatures.

Scola acknowledges that “the ‘other’ is obviously a category broader than that of the ‘other sex’” (93). In some sense, every person presents themselves to me as an “other” – someone with whom to interact who is not reducible to myself. However, Scola continues, “it is undeniable that the original and basic experience of otherness is founded on sexual otherness” (93). In other words, sexual difference is the paradigm of reciprocity, of otherness, and of relation. When I encounter a person who is sexually different than me, I am eloquently reminded that I do not, in fact, sum up the entirety of what it means to be human. As Scola puts it, “You, woman, are as fully person as I, man. Yet you are this in a way that is radically different from my own, so decisive and so inaccessible. You are, precisely, other” (381).

Asymmetrical: A difference never overcome, open to fruitfulness

Reciprocity, then, highlights the relational character of human persons, and especially of man to woman and woman to man (sexual difference). But what about the qualifier asymmetrical? Scola uses this term to ensure that reciprocity between men and women does not collapse into something akin to Aristophanes’ myth, where man + woman = whole person. If men and women were “halves,” then their relationship would be perfectly symmetrical, and their encounter would erase all difference between them. Instead – and this is key – the sexual difference between men and women is never overcome. Scola says, “Even in the most intimate form of the unity between husband and wife – the biblical ‘one flesh’ – difference is not abolished. The other remains irreducibly ‘other’” (381). Asymmetry ensures, then, that male-female communion in marriage is not a threat to the personal identities of husband and wife. The mystery of the “one-flesh union” is that even in truly becoming one, the two aren’t dissolved into some sort of amorphous uni-creature.

The importance of asymmetry becomes even clearer when we are reminded that it – irreducible difference – is precisely what enables husband and wife to be fruitful! As Scola writes, “The difference between the two (the man and the woman) makes space for a third…The reciprocity does not cancel the difference because it is asymmetrical, since it exists not for the sake of androgynous union of two halves, but for the procreation of the child” (95, emphasis original). Therefore, asymmetry ensures that the relations between a man and a woman never become an enclosed circle, but rather remain open – from within – to the ecstatic eruption of an entirely new person, the child.

Asymmetrical reciprocity is a useful phrase for talking about sexual difference because it expresses both the “built-in” relation between men and women (reciprocity) but also the fact that their relation is never reducible to a tidy equation (asymmetrical). Scola brings out the wholeness of every man and woman as a human person – a wholeness that is nonetheless always receptive to the other.

Coming on Saturday: Another way to talk about sexual difference – “double unity”

3 Responses to “Sexual difference: "Asymmetrical Reciprocity"”

  1. Cecilia says:

    My question is, in light of society’s negation of God, how can we argue in favor of marriage without bringing God or biblical references into the equation? When secular humanists do not believe in God, why would they care what the bible says? Even though science has, (for example) found genetic component of homosexuality inconclusive, excuses are made to make redefining marriage acceptable. There has to be another way to change hearts and minds with intellegent proof, and not blind faith.

  2. Barb says:

    This reciprocity definition leaves much to be explained. There is approximately 90% agreement from the Catholic clergy polled that are fully aware that homosexuality is not a choice but that it is a biological and God given trait before even conception. If we truly have love for ALL Human life, why does this issue bear any ranking upon acceptance of human life and the blessings of all of our children and talents. My family consists of four daughters, one of which is lesbian. I love her more than words can express. She is a gifted, intelligent, scholarly, beautiful lady. She is welcome to bring her gifted and lovely partner to all of our family weddings, celebrations and get togethers. Why is it so important and utilizing so much energy to misquote all the biblical passages of the old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus did not turn away one person here on earth. Not one of His phrases, sent even one child away from His arms. When asked He said, let them come to Me. My child is gay, you may have a gay grandchild some day. Will you change your stance then? Our Lord and Savior asks that judgement be left to God on High. Take this same sex argument out of what constitutes the “Acceptable Family Model”. Being pro-life, does not constitute us blindly agreeing with this “reciprocity” topic. I am Pro-Life, but I will leave other judgement to our Lord and Savior. When the Catholic Church is worried about welcoming their own back to the church, this is a topic of monumental proportions that is turning millions of our children away. There is only two in our history of the world who had no sins on their way to Heaven, Both are noted in the Mysteries of our Rosary.

    • Samuel Roeble says:

      Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: Do I agree with objective truth and natural law about marriage being between one man and one woman (as defined by our society for centuries, and in 1996 by the Defense of Marriage Act) or do I not? I have a relative who identifies himself as having SSA(same sex attraction)–does that profoundly influence my view of monogamous & reciprocal marriage? No. Why? Because I agree objectively with the Defense of Marriage Act, and with truth. The Bible is a crucial resource, but I don’t need it to explain why marriage is naturally justified and homosexual ‘marriage’ is not. It’s so simple, that people are overlooking it!

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