Since theology is the study of God, the juxtaposition of these two terms would be hard to understand or justify in any belief system besides Christianity. Only in Christ does God become man and thus open the door to the study of the human being in light of who God is. Since Jesus is true God and true man, not only can we consider ourselves in light of him, but we must, if we truly want to know ourselves.
Many—if not all—of the questions confronting the Church today about marriage (among other issues) have their roots in questions about anthropology—who man and woman are. This may be why Pope St. John Paul II spent so much of his pontificate exploring this question of who man is. In his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II quoted a phrase from the Second Vatican Council that would come to be one of his most-used lines: “Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22). Only in light of this truth, he said, does man discover “the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity” (RH, no. 10). John Paul II echoes this again in Veritatis Splendor, where he wrote, “only in the mystery of Christ’s Redemption do we discover the ‘concrete’ possibilities of man” (no. 103). And in Fides et Ratio, we read, “the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing” (no. 1). Put another way, human beings are the creatures that ask, “Why?”
The whole of Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body could be understood as a reflection on theological anthropology. Beginning with Adam and Eve, in response to Christ’s direction in Matthew 19 to consider “the beginning,” John Paul II reveals the profound meaning of man’s being made male and female in the image of God. We are “Made for Each Other” and made to bring God’s loving presence into the world. The sexes can be understood as truly one and equal in dignity, but at the same time, totally different. This seeming paradox is possible only in light of a Trinitarian God, in whom difference is not subordination or conflict but the basis for fruitful communion.
John Paul II’s work is called an “adequate anthropology.” This doesn’t mean that it is “barely passable” as a way of understanding the human being. Instead, since we cannot know everything about ourselves, the Holy Father offers us an adequate place to start. (St. Augustine famously noted that God is “more intimate to me than I am to myself.”) In order to grasp something of our own mystery, we need to know, at the very least, that we are created man or woman, a son or daughter, and called to be a father or mother (in some way). Only this is an “adequate” beginning, a portrayal fitting to our identity as humans.
These considerations are ever more important as we approach the current cultural landscape, where every one of these assertions is questioned. We live in a world where people think that, instead of receiving their sexual identity as part of who they are, they should be able to choose their own sex, and that, instead of receiving new life as a gift, they seek control over the coming-to-be of new life, or its destruction. All of these choices have drastic consequences, not only for the individual soul, but for all of us.
Now even the government seems bent on forcing everyone to agree with this false anthropology—one that is not an adequate consideration of what and who a human being is. For example, take a recent veto of a bill in South Dakota regarding facility use. The measure, which passed both houses in the state legislature, would maintain the biological separation of bathrooms, but included provision of “reasonable accommodation” to those who consider themselves to be “transgender” (by providing single-occupancy restrooms, for example). This was not good enough, apparently—everyone must be forced to accept a person’s chosen “gender identity.” And of course the HHS Mandate is all about forcing everyone to provide contraception regardless of their convictions. The anthropology peddled today is a radical disassociation from reality, from the truth of ourselves as sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. We cannot allow this false anthropology to let us forget who we are.
Pope Francis recently reflected on the Gospel reading of Mark in which the Pharisees, wishing to put Jesus to the test, asked him whether it is lawful to divorce. The Pope reminded his listeners that Jesus “goes right back to the days of creation.” Jesus explains, “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female; ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. So they are no longer two but one flesh.’”
Pope Francis had much to say about this event and explained quite beautifully that “the Lord is here referring to the masterpiece of creation.” For God “created the light and saw that it was good.” Then “he created the animals, the trees, and the stars: all good.” But “when he created man” he said “that he was very good.” Pope Francis continued, “the creation of man and woman is the masterpiece of creation.” Also because God “did not want for man to be alone: he wanted him to be with his companion, his companion on the journey.” Pope Francis then explained that this moment was also “the beginning of love.” However, he added that “the Lord’s masterpiece was not finished there…the Lord holds up this love contained in the masterpiece of creation in order to explain the love he has for his people. Yet there is another step: when Paul needs to explain the mystery of Christ, he also does so in relation and in reference to the bride. For Christ is wedded: he wedded the Church, his people; as the Father had wedded his people Israel, so Christ espoused his people to himself.”
All of this, the Pope concluded, brings to mind the “plan of love”, “the journey of love of Christian marriage, which God blessed in the masterpiece of his creation with a blessing that can never be taken away. Not even original sin destroyed it.” And “when one considers this,” he quite naturally sees “how beautiful love is, how beautiful marriage is, how beautiful the family is, how beautiful this journey is.”
For Pope Francis’ full reflection, click here.
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1: 38).”
Today we celebrate that great event when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary and asked her to be the Mother of God. The Annunciation is a huge solemnity in the Church because it commemorates that moment when God took on human flesh. This day exemplifies God’s love for us in so many ways. All throughout the Old Testament we read about examples when God’s love was rejected by His people. Time and time again, He offered opportunities to accept His love, all the while, allowing His people to choose Him freely (or not choose Him as was often the case). Mary’s fiat or “yes” is celebrated because unlike anyone in history before her, she was completely and unreservedly open to God’s will in her life.
The event of the Annunciation teaches us a great deal about freedom. Often times, when we think of freedom, we see it as the ability to choose between “a” or “b,” without any pressure or influence to choose either one. We often believe that such an influence would be considered an infringement on our freedom. But when we look closer, this view of freedom is devoid of all truth. It assumes there is no difference between the options “a” and “b” and that the only good is the ability to choose. It never considers what is being chosen.
Authentic freedom, on the other hand, is shaped by truth. In the words of John Paul II, “Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom.” Apart from truth, freedom cannot exist. Take for example persons considered “free” to “express their sexuality” through the use of pornography, a medium that completely disregards the truth of human dignity and what human sexuality is made for. Through this addicting “expression,” a person can quickly become a slave to the sin of pornography. Contrarily, we are most free when we are living according to the truth of our existence. Because she had never been touched by the stain of sin, Mary was completely free to embrace the will of God. She was completely free to live the life she was made to live.
Another lie society tells us is that our ability to choose is simply that, our choice. No one else needs to be involved and no one else should matter. We are autonomous, self-determining individuals, so the theory goes. The Annunciation shows us this is not the case. Mary’s willingness to participate in the event of the Incarnation has affected all of history. All of creation waited in anticipation of Mary’s “Yes.” We are all sharers in the benefit of Mary’s decision to choose the will of God. No choice we make is ever merely personal because we are all connected through our common humanity.
Finally, the Annunciation shows us that we can never truly separate faith and life. This is sometimes difficult to accept, especially within a culture that emphasizes the importance and necessity of separating “Church and state.” Today, it is considered normal to be “personally opposed” to something, but okay with it happening in the public realm. Our Catholic faith is different, however. There is no distinction between the public and private realm when it comes to living out our faith. Everything we do, whether it be eating, sleeping, talking or reading, should be done with an eye to who we are as created beings and why God made us. The Incarnation shows us that the physical matters. Salvation history occurs within history, it is a physical event.
There is a poem by Rev. John Duffy, C.S.s.R. which describes Mary’s first awakening after the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. In describing Mary, the poem explains “She was the Mother of the wandering Word, little and terrifying in her laboring womb. And nothing would again be casual and small, but everything with light invested (italics mine).” The Incarnation displays for us how involved God is in our daily lives. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16).” He is not some distant God who creates us and leaves us to figure things out on our own. Instead, God is invested in our lives at every moment. He holds us in being through love, in love, and for love. As John Paul II explained, “man remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love (Redemptor Hominis, no 10).” So nothing we do should be separated from this realization that God is Love and desires each of us to be united with Him in Love. When we realize this, “nothing [will] again be casual and small.”
Note: Much attention has been given to a media question and answer session with Pope Francis on the papal flight home from World Youth Day in Brazil. See coverage and context from Catholic News Service here and here. It would be an opportune time to re-visit what the Church teaches about persons who experience same-sex attraction. The following is from the Common Good page on this website and addresses the common question: “How does the Church’s teaching on marriage as the union of one man and one woman relate to people who experience same-sex attraction?” Below the answer are helpful links to further sources of Church teaching, as well as pastoral guidelines and ministries for persons with same-sex attraction.
Jesus was very confident in speaking the truth. He was not confined by the traditions of His time. He did and spoke what He knew was the truth. He Himself is the Truth. Jesus did not discriminate, yet he clearly taught that marriage is only between one man and one woman. He also clearly disagreed with sexual behavior outside of marriage. As Jesus did, the Church teaches that marriage between one man and one woman is the only proper context for sexual relations.
The Church’s teaching on marriage recognizes that every human person is made in the image of God and has inviolable dignity. Every human person is a gift, deserving respect and love. It is important to acknowledge that persons with homosexual inclinations have suffered and can suffer a great deal. Historically, they have been treated as second class citizens in many instances. Often, the early years of persons who experience same-sex attraction can be very painful, and can include long periods of loneliness, confusion about their own feelings, the pain of self-hatred, and most sadly, even thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately, some have gone so far as to act on these thoughts.
The Church cares for and accepts persons who experience homosexual inclinations. She refuses to label anyone. Many with a homosexual inclination attend Mass regularly, are active in parish life, and seek to receive the sacraments. The Church invites and welcomes everyone to pray and worship, and is eager to listen to everyone’s story. The Church has long worked in ministry to those suffering from HIV/AIDS, and she continues her pastoral outreach and invites all people to follow the way of Jesus. The Church does not want the teaching and beauty of marriage, which is a sacrament at the service of union (communion and mission), to be an occasion for deeper division.
Sexuality is a good part of our human nature. The Church, the Body of Christ, encourages all of us to seek forgiveness for human weakness and poor judgment in areas of human sexuality, which often results in human tragedy of the highest proportions.
The Church knows well that sexual sins are not the only sins in the world. Greed, anger, violence, and envy cause untold pain to millions. Yet the Church also understands that sexual lifestyles that disregard marriage as the union of one man and one woman are particularly destructive to lives, to marriage, and to families.
In our culture today, it’s common to hear the words “choice,” “rights,” “tolerance,” and “equality,” particularly among young people, and often in connection with issues such as marriage or sexual expression. But what do these words really mean? Growing up as they do in a world filled with brokenness and rejection, young people are hungry for something more, for something substantial, for the truth. One of the greatest assets of youth is their hunger and enthusiasm. All too often today this hunger is ill fed. The Church invites all of us to proclaim the truth in love as we also live in the light of truth.
For more information, see:
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2358
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (Oct. 1, 1986) – En Español
- USCCB, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care (2006) – En Español
- The apostolates Courage and Encourage are ministries whose principles are in accord with Church teaching (see USCCB, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination, footnote 44).
Sunday, May 26 is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. In his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, Bl. John Paul II wrote about the likeness between the Trinity and human persons.
Bl. John Paul II: God, who allows himself to be known by human beings through Christ, is the unity of the Trinity: unity in communion. In this way new light is also thrown on man’s image and likeness to God, spoken of in the book of Genesis. [link] 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.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Today is the last day in National Marriage Week, and the last in our series on sexual difference.
So far in the series, we’ve looked at various ways that our culture describes sexual difference (part one and part two), examined Scripture and the Catechism on the subject, and added two helpful phrases to our repertoire of describing sexual difference (“asymmetrical reciprocity” and “double unity”). One important point remains to be discussed: Why does sexual difference matter?
Difference: the foundation of love
Before considering sexual difference specifically, let’s take one step back: why does difference matter? Our culture seems a bit schizophrenic on the topic of difference. On the one hand, it loudly celebrates “diversity” and the virtue most in vogue is, of course, “tolerance” for people different from you. But on the other hand, difference – especially between men and women – is often treated as suspect, as a thin veneer over inequality. In other words, equality is confused with sameness.
But in a world where everything is the same, love would be impossible. G.K. Chesterton explains why:
“I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different. If souls are separate, love is possible. If souls are united, love is obviously impossible. A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship.” – Orthodoxy (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 128.
Difference, in other words, is what saves us from the fate of Narcissus. Difference – recognizing the other as other – is what prevents us from becoming entranced with our own reflection in a shoddy imitation of love.
But even if we accept Chesterton’s point and agree that difference is necessary for love, we might be tempted to think that sexual difference is just one of many differences between persons, such as race, height, or taste in music. What is unique about sexual difference, compared to other possible differences?
Taking bodily life seriously
First, the reality is that being human means being a man or a woman, embodied as male or female. (Even the difficult situations of those born with ambiguous genitalia are the exceptions that prove the rule. An intersex or hermaphroditic condition is not a new gender, but a combination of male and female characteristics.) Taking sexual difference seriously allows us to take the body seriously. It allows us to treat the body as an integral part of our identities, instead of a cage or shell. We are men or women both body and soul. We don’t just have a body—we are our bodies. (See the Catechism, nos. 362-368 on the human person as a unity of body and soul.)
Distinguishing in order to unite
Second, sexual difference is unique because it is inherently referential. Unlike other differences between individuals (height, ethnicity, etc.), which do not require the presence of an “other” to be understood, the bodily reality of a man is only fully understood in light of the bodily reality of a woman. Recall the point in part three of this series: the generic “Adam” is first referred to as “male – ˈiš” when he encounters Eve, the first “woman – ˈiššāh” (see Gen 2:18-25).
But the uniqueness of sexual difference doesn’t end there. The “referential” difference between man and woman does not simply distinguish between the two; it also serves as the foundation of their unity. Or, more accurately, sexual difference distinguishes in order to unite. Only because a man and a woman are sexually different are they capable of forming a complete union of body-persons; if they were the same, no such union would be possible.
In fact, the sexually-differentiated body reveals that man and woman are fundamentally “for” each other. As Bl. John Paul II explained, “The body, which expresses femininity ‘for’ masculinity and, vice versa, masculinity ‘for’ femininity, manifests the reciprocity and the communion of persons” (TOB, 14.4; see also Catechism, no. 371). Being male or female is not simply a matter of biology or anatomy; it is a witness to the call to love and communion that is inscribed within man and woman’s identity as body-and-soul (see FC, no. 11).
Open to the gift of the child
A third reason why sexual difference is unique is because it – and only it – makes two persons capable of welcoming a new child into the world. The “supreme gift” of the child (see GS, no. 50) depends on the sexual difference between father and mother. The spouses’ capacity for procreation, in turn, ensures that their sexual love does not become egotistic, an enclosed circle. The unity of spouses, wrote John Paul II, “rather than closing them up in themselves, opens them up towards a new life, towards a new person” (LF, no. 8).
The difference is the difference
To sum up: Difference is necessary for love; if all were one, love would be impossible. Love requires recognition of the “other” as “other.” But while there are many differences between persons, sexual difference – the difference of man to woman and woman to man – is a unique kind of difference. It is irreducible and primordial, fundamental to human nature and every human experience. In particular, it is the avenue toward full personal-bodily communion between a man and woman, and thus is necessary for a couple to experience the superabundant fruitfulness of conceiving a child. Both of these capacities – for union and for children – matter for marriage. In fact, they are essential for marriage. This helps us to understand why sexual difference – the difference of man to woman and woman to man – is an essential aspect of marriage. Without it, marriage is impossible.
This is the fifth post in our series about sexual difference.
- Common misconceptions about sexual difference (part one and part two)
- Sexual difference in Scripture and the Catechism
- Useful phrase #1: asymmetrical reciprocity
Sexual Difference & “Dual Unity”
In this post, we’ll look at a second helpful way of understanding sexual difference, one that is found in Pope John Paul II’s teachings on the theology of the body, where the Holy Father speaks of “double unity” or “dual unity.” Reflecting on the creation narratives of Genesis, John Paul II writes,
“We observed that the ‘definitive’ creation of man consists in the creation of the unity of two beings. Their unity denotes above all the identity of human nature; duality, on the other hand, shows what, on the basis of this identity, constitutes the masculinity and femininity of created man” (TOB, sec. 9.1, emphasis original).
“Unity,” then, refers to the common humanity and dignity that both men and women have – one humanity, participated in by both. In Eve, Adam finds another creature who, like himself, finds no “suitable partner” among the animals (Gen 2:20). He finds another creature created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). And so, as John Paul II writes, “Joy for the other human being, for the second ‘I,’ dominates in the words the man (male) speaks on seeing the woman (female)” (TOB, sec. 8.4).
Yet although man and woman are united in a common humanity, they are irreducibly different. As John Paul II puts it, “Man, whom God created ‘male and female,’ bears the divine image impressed in the body ‘from the beginning’; man and woman constitute, so to speak, two diverse ways of ‘being a body’ that are proper to human nature in the unity of this image” (TOB, sec. 13.2). The “duality” of human nature is precisely the sexual difference, masculinity and femininity.
For John Paul II, the “unity in the flesh” that takes place in the sexual encounter between man and woman has its foundation in their “unity in humanity”:
“When they unite with each other (in the conjugal act) so closely so as to become ‘one flesh,’ man and woman rediscover every time and in a special way the mystery of creation, thus returning to the union in humanity (‘flesh from my flesh and bone from my bones’) that allows them to recognize each other reciprocally and to call each other by name, as they did the first time” (TOB, sec. 10.2).
It is only because of man and woman’s unity-in-difference (two sexes within a shared humanity) that they are able to come together in the fruitful union of marriage. Without a shared humanity, this encounter would not be personal; and without being different sexes, this union “in the flesh” could not take place at all. For Pope John Paul II, the sexual difference is fundamentally “a reciprocal ‘for’ that can and must…serve the building of the unity ‘of communion’ in their reciprocal relations” (TOB, 41.4).
Next: Why Does Sexual Difference Matter?
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 Parts 4 and 5, we will examine two phrases – “asymmetrical reciprocity” and “double unity” – that, despite being mouthfuls, are incredibly helpful in illuminating sexual difference.
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, bold added). 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.
Next: Another way to talk about sexual difference – “double unity”
Today’s post is the third in a series about sexual difference, in honor of National Marriage Week.
- Is sexual difference a wound or a societal construct? (Shedding light on popular claims, part one)
- Is sexual difference a chasm or just “gender roles”? (Shedding light on popular claims, part two)
In this post, we will examine Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on the subject of sexual difference.
Jesus takes us back to the “beginning”
Both sections of the Catechism that discuss sexual difference (CCC, nos. 369-373 and nos. 2331-2336) are called “Male and Female He Created Them.” Indeed, they both guide us back to the creation accounts in Genesis (Gen 1:1-2:4 and 2:5-25). It is here, in Sacred Scripture, that we see the sexual difference of man to woman and woman to man for what it really is, an essential good arising from creation itself. The Church’s teaching on sexual difference takes its cue from Jesus, who, when questioned by the Pharisees about marriage and divorce, referred his listeners back to the “beginning”: “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’…” (Matt 19:4). 
The book of Genesis gives us not one, but two accounts of the creation story. The first (Gen 1:1-2:4) has a distinct rhythm (“Then God said…And so it happened…And it was good”), a clear progression of events, and the crucial anthropological verse: “God created man in his image…” (1:27). The second account (Gen 2:5-25) has a very different feel. Here, we get a glimpse of the interior life of the first humans, and we are allowed a window into the first encounter between Adam and Eve. Taken together, the two accounts illuminate different aspects of the human condition. According to John Paul II, “When we compare the two accounts, we reach the conviction that this subjectivity [in the second account] corresponds to the objective reality of man created ‘in the image of God’” (TOB, sec. 3:1).
What does the “beginning” reveal to us about sexual difference?
- Sexual difference is willed by God as something good: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them…God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Gen 1:27, 31). Contrary to the myths of Aristophanes and Pandora (see this earlier post), sexual difference is not a wound or a lack, but is a blessing given to men and women by their Creator. The difficulties that sadly befall the relationship between the sexes are not part of God’s original plan, but are some of many tragic consequences of the Fall (see Gen 3:1-19).
- Men and women share an equal dignity and equal intimacy with God: “Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God” (CCC, no. 2334; quoting MD, no.6). This point is said beautifully in the story of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib (Gen 2:18-25). The original Hebrew uniquely captures the significance, as Fr. José Granados and Carl Anderson explain:
“Most of us probably interpret the account of Eve’s creation of how a male human being named ‘Adam’ got himself a wife. The picture changes somewhat when we learn that the name ‘Adam’ is actually a play on the Hebrew word for earth: hā’adāmāh. For, as John Paul II points out, it’s only after the woman is created that the Bible first uses the Hebrew word for man in the sense of ‘male’: ˈiš. When Eve appears on the scene, a new vocabulary suddenly emerges along with her: The text shifts from hā’adāmāh, which emphasizes man’s connection with the earth, to ‘is, which it then immediately pairs with the word for ‘woman’: ˈiššāh.” [ii]
They conclude, “Far from degrading women to an inferior status, then, the story of Adam’s rib actually underscores that Adam and Eve, male and female, are identical in their dignity and their common humanity” [iii]. Both Adam and Eve come directly from the hand of the Creator. As the Catechism puts it, “Man discovers woman as another ‘I,’ sharing the same humanity” (CCC, no. 371).
- Sexual difference reveals that men and women are created for communion with each other. When God created Eve and brought her to Adam, he cried out joyfully, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). The author of Genesis connects Adam’s exuberant cry to the institution of marriage: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen 2:24). Centuries later, Jesus quotes this verse in response to the Pharisees’ question about divorce, and he adds, “So they [husband and wife] are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6).
Sexual difference, present as a blessing from the very beginning of creation, is therefore the necessary foundation of marriage. Indeed, as the Second Vatican Council stated, the companionship between man and woman is nothing less than “the primary form of interpersonal communion” (GS, no. 12). As the Catechism says,
“Man and woman were made ‘for each other’ – not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be ‘helpmate’ to the other, for they are equal as persons (‘bone of my bones…’) and complementary as masculine and feminine” (CCC, no. 372).
Sexual difference, inscribed in each person’s body, reveals to us a fundamental truth about human nature: we are not meant to be solitary creatures. Instead, we are created for communion with others, a communion uniquely witnessed by the free, total, and fruitful gift of self exchanged between husband and wife for a lifetime.
Next: Two Phrases about Sexual Difference to Put in Your Back Pocket
 See Bl. John Paul II’s reflections on these words of Jesus, as well as on the creation accounts in Genesis, in the first section of his audiences on the theology of the body: TOB, nos. 1-23.
[ii] Carl Anderson and Fr. Jose Granados, Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (New York: Doubleday, 2009): p. 45.
Today’s post is the second in a series about sexual difference.
In Thursday’s post, we shed light on two popular (but misleading) claims about sexual difference: that it is a wound or curse, and that it is a societal construct. In this post, we’ll look at two more popular ideas about sexual difference.
Is sexual difference an unbridgeable chasm?
If sexual difference is something more than a societal construct, are we obliged to think that men and women exist on opposite sides of the great Gender Divide chasm – or even on different planets? John Gray’s 1992 book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus popularized this view and offered numerous translation devices for Martians and Venutians who wanted to progress from intergalactic gridlock to a tentative truce.
But, as we’ll see in the next few posts, sexual difference is not an unbridgeable chasm – if what is meant by that is that men and women occupy completely separate, parallel universes. Instead, as Mary Healy titled her book on the theology of the body, “Men and Women Are From Eden.” The fact that men and women share a common humanity gives them an abiding source of communion, a shared “difference” in comparison to the rest of the world. [i] Even further, sexual difference itself is the avenue toward the unique communion of persons found in marriage. This difference is the basis for the fruitful complementarity and collaboration between men and women.
Is sexual difference simply another way of saying “gender roles”?
Some may fear that the notion of sexual difference is really just archaic gender roles in disguise. Assertions like “All women are x” or “All men are y” suggest that an individual person can be summed up simply by his or her maleness or femaleness. You’re a man, so you must like football; you’re a woman, so you must be a chocoholic. Feminists and others roundly criticize this line of thinking, noting it as stereotyping or reducing personal complexities into gender-specific traits.
But sexual difference is much more than gender roles. Masculinity and femininity are neither just a matter of anatomy nor just a matter of different functions in the home and society (although they have something to do with both). Sexual difference has first to do with one’s identity as a man or as a woman. Maleness or femaleness reaches to the very core of one’s identity, shaping one’s personality “from the inside out.” The bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter on marriage put it beautifully: “Male and female are distinct bodily ways of being human, of being open to God and to one another – two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love” (p. 10).
Reducing sexual difference to a matter of rigid “function” ignores the depth of one’s sexual identity. A man may nurture, but he nurtures as a man; a woman may provide, but she provides as a woman. There may be biological or historical reasons for tasks that were typically assigned to men and women, but it’s important not to confuse sexual difference with these tasks (or think that masculinity or femininity is first a matter of doing; it is first a matter of being).
Onward and upward
The next post will take a look at what Scripture and the Catechism say to us about sexual difference. Also, for more on sexual difference and complementarity, check out the video Made for Each Other and companion materials (Viewer’s Guide and Resource Booklet).
Next: Sexual Difference: Back to the BeginningTOB, 5.6). This solitude is both a lack (“It is not good that the man should be alone” – Gen. 2:18) and a confirmation of man’s unique identity as a self-conscious, self-determining subject who is capable of “a unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God himself” (TOB 6.2; see also 6.1).
John Paul II is clear that the experience of “original solitude” is shared by both man and woman. It is, in fact, the very foundation of their unity: “The communion of persons could form itself only on the basis of a ‘double solitude’ of the man and the woman, or as an encounter in their ‘distinction’ from the world of living beings (animalia)” (TOB, 9.2).
Today begins National Marriage Week 2013, which will last until Valentine’s Day, February 14. To complement the good work being done pastorally for marriages by the USCCB initiative For Your Marriage, we will be re-running a series that examines in depth the meaning of sexual difference and its importance to marriage. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, “The sexual difference that distinguishes the male from the female body is not a mere biological factor but has a far deeper significance.” We will reflect on that “deeper significance” in this series of posts, seeking to discover the meaning inscribed in the human body and to understand marriage more deeply.
Sexual Difference Post #1: Shedding Light on Popular Claims (Part 1)
First, let’s clear the pathway, so to speak, by thinking about popular notions about sexual difference and where they fail to capture the full truth.
Is sexual difference a wound or a curse?
The idea of sexual difference as a wound has ancient roots. In the myth of Aristophanes, as recorded by Plato in the Symposium, the world was originally inhabited by androgynous creatures (a combination of man and woman). These four-legged, four-armed beings mounted a failed rebellion against the gods. For their punishment, Zeus split each of them in half, fashioning what we now know to be individual men and women. Previously united as one dual-gendered person, these new sexually-differentiated creatures were doomed to wander the world, searching for their “other half.” Sexual difference, here, is a wound, a punishment, and a scar on humankind’s originally unified existence.
The ancient myth of Pandora also alludes to sexual difference as something negative. Pandora is the first woman, and she is as beautiful as a goddess. But along with her beauty, she brought to men her infamous box. When curiosity overcame her, she opened the box and released every sort of evil, sickness, and disaster upon the earth.
Modern life seems to echo these stories. One only has to watch a few episodes of daytime Court TV or the soaps to see the myriad wounds and pain that men and women inflict on each other: domestic abuse, cheating, shouting matches, and so on. It might seem tempting to say that sexual difference is a wound, and the world would be a better place without it!
But this is not the whole story or even the truth of the matter. As the book of Genesis makes clear, sexual difference is good and a gift from God. In Genesis 1:27, we read, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” And later, “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (1:31). (Note that only here, after the creation of man and woman, the pinnacle of creation, does God find his work not just good but very good.)
It is only after the Fall that problems between the sexes begin. With the first sin, shame, mistrust, accusation and distance enter into Adam and Eve’s relationship (see Gen 3:1-13). As John Paul II puts it, “Instead of being ‘together with the other’…man becomes an object for man: the female for the male and vice versa” (TOB, 32.4). How often have these words been lived out since the dawn of creation! And yet animosity between the sexes is not part of sexual difference, but rather a result of sin.
Is sexual difference a construct of society?
A second common idea about sexual difference is that the differences between men and women are socially constructed.[i] In other words, sexual difference and gender traits are what we – society – make them to be, and thus are infinitely malleable – and effectively meaningless (if not oppressive). It is claimed that, with the proper upbringing, a child could be raised as a boy, or as a girl, or as neither until “he” is old enough to decide for “himself.” (Gendered pronouns are a heated topic in the gender-as-social-construct arena.) As Anne Fausto-Sterling puts it, labeling someone as male or female is a “social decision.”[ii]
But is sexual difference just what we make it? Are gender-specific traits caused entirely by nurture, with no contribution from nature? While the interplay of biology and rearing make it difficult to parse out the precise source of a person’s personality and behavior, there is something more at the root of one’s sexual identity than the dictate of society (see Catechism, nos. 2331-2336: “‘God created man in his own image…male and female he created them’” – no. 2331; “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” – no. 2333).
Consider the sad story of Bruce/Brenda/David Reimer.[iii] Or consider the testimonies of mothers who, despite making “Herculean efforts” to raise “gender-neutral” children, come to the realization that their daughters will only wear “a dress and tights,” and their sons are obsessed with toy guns, which are officially banned from the household. As one mother relates, her son “quickly learned that Tinker Toys make wonderful guns, and one of his male friends found that even waffles could be used to shoot his dad at breakfast.”[iv] These stories suggest that sexual difference does, after all, have something to do with a person’s body, and that society has less influence on one’s authentic sexual identity than is sometimes assumed.
Next: Two more popular claims about sexual difference, and why they’re problematic
[i] See, for example, Judith Lorber, Paradoxes of Gender (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994) and “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (May 12, 2008) at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/#GenSocCon.
[ii] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 3.
[iii] For the complete account of David Reimer’s story, see John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (New York: Perennial, 2001). See also John Colapinto, “What were the real reasons behind David Reimer’s suicide?” Slate (June 3, 2004)
[iv] See Steven E. Rhoads, Taking Sex Difference Seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004), pp. 22-25.
About the Sexual Difference Series:
What is sexual difference? What is it not? And why does it matter? This series of posts will attempt to answer these questions, in order to shed light on a crucial – but often misunderstood – aspect of marriage: sexual difference. Sexual difference, man to woman and woman to man, is essential for marriage. The posts in this series will by no means say all there is to say about this rich topic, but hopefully they will provide a jumping-off point for further reflection and discussion.
Pope Benedict XVI continues to speak and preach about marriage, giving us ample wise words to reflect on. Today’s Pope Quote comes from a recent papal address (January 19, 2013) given to the participants in the plenary meeting of the pontifical council Cor Unum. In this address, the Holy Father lays out two visions of the human person, and of what brings happiness. In doing so, he shows how intimately connected marriage is with what it means to be human, particularly man’s social nature.
Pope Benedict XVI: “The Christian vision of man is, in fact, a great ‘yes’ to the dignity of persons called to an intimate filial communion of humility and faithfulness. The human being is not a self-sufficient individual nor an anonymous element in the group. Rather he is a unique and unrepeatable person, intrinsically ordered to relationships and sociability. Thus the Church reaffirms her great ‘yes’ to the dignity and beauty of marriage as an expression of the faithful and generous bond between man and woman, and her no to ‘gender’ philosophies, because the reciprocity between male and female is an expression of the beauty of nature willed by the Creator.”
– Address (January 19, 2013), emphasis added
On December 21, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the Roman Curia on the occasion of their annual Christmas greetings. His address was something of a year-in-review, looking at key moments from 2012. One such key moment was the World Meeting of Families in Milian from May 30 to June 3, which the Pope said showed that “despite all impressions to the contrary, the family is still strong and vibrant today.” And yet serious challenges remain, challenges that threaten the family “to its very foundations.” Today’s Sunday Pope Quote is actually a collection of quotes drawn from the Holy Father’s Dec. 21 reflections on the family and the human person. Here he goes to the heart of the cultural crisis of marriage and the family: ultimately it is a question of who the human person is and whether the given reality of being created male and female is to be accepted…or rejected.
“The question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human.”
“Only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.”
“The attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question.”
“According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.”
“Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.”
“The child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. … From being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain.”
“When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defense of the family is about man himself.”
Note: Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reading through the Viewer’s Guide for the video “Made for Each Other.” In the video, married couple Josh and Carrie reflect on the meaning of sexual difference. Each section of the Viewer’s Guide takes a quote from either Josh or Carrie and fleshes it out. The goal of the Viewer’s Guide is to help you, the reader, become more confident in promoting and defending the meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
In part 5, we’ll see why sexual difference is more than anatomy, and we we’ll talk about the spousal meaning of the body and the role of science.
“It’s not just about biology…”
Returning to sexual difference, Josh makes an important point. The difference between a man and a woman is not just an insignificant biological fact. [i] “We’re wired differently,” as Josh says. Biology is important, but the body and the person are not reducible to biology. Sexual difference involves the whole person, body and soul.
Furthermore, as Pope John Paul II taught, the body has a “spousal meaning.” [ii] The body, in its masculinity or femininity, reveals that we are persons who are made to be a gift to others and to be received as a gift by others. This spousal meaning of the body speaks an essential truth relevant to all people, not only those called to marriage. It also indicates what was said above, that the body is more than just a biological reality. The body reveals the person. We’re not souls trapped in bodies. We’re “body-persons.” We don’t just have a body. We are our bodies in a real sense. Our bodies are fundamental to who we are. The body of a man and the body of a woman are distinct, personal realities.
A husband and a wife have unique and personal gifts that they offer to each other. Not only do they give each other their physical bodies, but they give their distinct persons to each other, as man and woman, in and through their bodies, in and through their sexual difference. Their bodies speak a unique language of love, reserved specifically for marriage. Neither biology nor culture alone can explain this. It has to do with the nature of the human person as a unity of body and soul, created as man and woman. [iii]
That being said, it is a curious phenomenon of our time that, while the natural sciences have advanced in so many areas, including in the study of the human person, an appreciation and application of these sciences in relation to sexual difference and human sexuality in general is often lacking in our contemporary society. Why is this? It’s a worthy question to consider. For example, when it comes to food and diet these days, we do not hear things like “eat whatever and however much you want because there won’t be any consequences (or we’ll handle the consequences as they come).” Medically and scientifically speaking, no one buys that.
But what about the body and sex? Our culture’s prevailing philosophy seems to deny that there are powerful consequences to sex. Even when faced with the facts of such consequences, the dominant philosophy continues to say “do whatever you want with your body and we’ll deal with the consequences as they come—in fact, we’ll do whatever it takes to let you do anything to your body…” Sounds like a disconnect here and a lack of medical and scientific rigor. And what about sexual difference? While some play down the reality of sexual difference or limit it to the difference between female and male anatomy, sciences such as neurobiology, gynecology, evolutionary psychology, endocrinology, histology, and reproductive physiology—to name a few—point to the intricate, unique and complementary physiologies of women and men. Sexual difference is more than a surface difference in human anatomy, and attempts to explain sexual difference as a socially constructed reality are lacking in rigor. The body/person dualism of today (i.e., which holds that the body is separable from the person and that we can therefore do whatever we want to with our bodies) is neither realistic nor scientific. All of this is to say that while sexual difference is more than a biological fact, biology and the related sciences can be of great help in appreciating the unique gifts of men and women.
Today, on the Sunday dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, here are two Pope Quotes that reflect on the connection between Trinitarian theology and anthropology, that is, between who God is (three Persons, one God) and who man is (created in God’s image).
Bl. John Paul II: “Being a person in the image and likeness of God thus also involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other ‘I’. This is a prelude to the definitive self-revelation of the Triune God: a living unity in the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 7
Pope Benedict XVI: “In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II wished to deepen the fundamental anthropological truths of man and woman, the equality of their dignity and the unity of both, the well-rooted and profound diversity between the masculine and the feminine and their vocation to reciprocity and complementarity, to collaboration and to communion (cf. n. 6). This “uni-duality” of man and woman is based on the foundation of the dignity of every person created in the image and likeness of God, who “male and female he created them” (Gn 1: 27), avoiding an indistinct uniformity and a dull and impoverishing equality as much as an irreconcilable and conflictual difference (cf. John Paul II, Letter to Women, n. 8).
“This dual unity brings with it, inscribed in body and soul, the relationship with the other, love for the other, interpersonal communion that implies “that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion” (Mulieris dignitatem, n. 7). Therefore, when men and women demand to be autonomous and totally self-sufficient, they run the risk of being closed in a self-reliance that considers ignoring every natural, social or religious bond as an expression of freedom, but which, in fact, reduces them to an oppressive solitude. To promote and sustain the real advancement of women and men one cannot fail to take this reality into account.”
Today’s Sunday Pope Quote is from the collection of addresses by Bl. Pope John Paul II known popularly as the “theology of the body.” In this brief quote, the Holy Father is concluding his exegesis on Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19:3-8. He’s calling attention to a phrase used by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and re-emphasizing its importance.
Bl. John Paul II: “In the answer to the Pharisees, Christ laid out before his interlocutors also this ‘integral vision of man,’ without which no adequate answer can be given to the questions connected with marriage and procreation. Precisely this integral vision of man must be built from the ‘beginning.’
“This point is valid for the contemporary mentality just as it was, though in a different way, for Christ’s interlocutors. We are, in fact, the children of an age in which, due to the development of various disciplines, this integral vision of man can easily be rejected and replaced by many partial conceptions that dwell on one or another aspect of the compositum humanum but do not reach man’s integrum or leave it outside their field of vision.”
Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (sec. 23.3)
About this series:
Every Sunday, the Marriage: Unique for a Reason blog will feature a short quote from either our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, or our late Holy Father, Bl. John Paul II (or occasionally another pope). These two men have given the world an immense treasury of wisdom about marriage, love, and the meaning of the human person, all of which are topics integral to the Church’s witness today. Their words are well worth reflecting on, as we have much to learn from these wise successors of St. Peter.
Today is the fourth day of National Marriage Week. On Tuesday, we reflected on what makes marriage unique, different from any other relationship on earth. Today the topic is more focused: why does sexual difference matter for marriage? In other words, why is marriage the union of one man and one woman?
What is sexual difference?
1) The call to accept one’s sexual identity as a man or as a woman
As we did before, let’s begin with the human person, with an authentic anthropology. Crucial here is the fact that to exist as a human person means to be embodied. (When was the last time you met someone without a body?) Echoing Bl. John Paul II’s terminology, we can say that the body “reveals” man and is “an expression of the person” (TOB, 9.4 and 27.3). In other words, encountering a living human body means at the same time encountering a human person. The body is not just a shell or a conduit for one’s “real” self but is intimately and inseparably united with one’s identity, one’s “I”.
Further, to exist as a human person means to exist as a man or as a woman. The human body is fundamentally a gendered reality, not a gender-less (androgynous) one. And because the body is a deeply personal reality and not just a biological fact, being a man or being a woman is not just a matter of anatomical features or “the shape of my skin.” Instead, one’s sexual identity – as a man or as a woman – affects a person at every level of his or her existence (biologically, psychologically, genetically, and so forth). As the Catechism puts it, “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul… Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” (CCC, nos. 2332 and 2333, emphasis in original).
2) An irreducible and dynamic difference
What does sexual identity have to do with sexual difference? Simply this: when we speak of sexual difference, we mean both the existence of two distinct sexual identities (man or woman) and the built-in mutual relationship between them. In other words, sexual difference has to do with the irreducible and dynamic difference of man to woman and woman to man.
Why “irreducible”? Because sexual difference is primordial, basic, and unique. It is fundamental to human experience and reality. Unlike other differences between people, sexual difference undergirds everything that we are as human persons, male or female. Sexual difference cuts across geographic, ethnic, and other differences, being in fact more basic than these other differences.
Why “dynamic”? Because sexual difference distinguishes in order to unite. In fact, sexual difference is precisely what enables communion between man and woman to exist at all. (More on this soon.)
Put another way, sexual difference is a mutually referential kind of difference – we know woman fully only by knowing man, and know man fully only by knowing woman. The differences between them do not just set them apart but hint at something more, at a call to communion between them. This call to communion inscribed in man and woman is part of what Bl. John Paul II had in mind when he wrote the following:
“The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator” (VS, no. 48).
Sexual difference, then, far from being merely a biological or anatomical fact, communicates a wealth of truth about the human person! If we have the eyes to see, as Bl. John Paul II urges us to, we’ll see in the human person’s identity as man and woman the “anticipatory signs” of the “gift of self,” or, using the language of the Catechism, we’ll see the call to love, which is the “fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (CCC, no. 1604).
Sexual difference and marriage
We are now well-poised to understand what sexual difference has to do with marriage. As a recap of Tuesday’s post, marriage is a unique relationship that has a number of essential characteristics (without which marriage wouldn’t be marriage):
- Marriage is total (gift of self)
- Marriage is faithful and exclusive (a truthful gift)
- Marriage is forever (the gift of one’s future)
- Marriage is life-giving (the gift of one’s fertility)
Sexual difference matters here: it is the ground (the foundation) of the capacity of husband and wife to exchange a mutual, total gift of their entire selves, a gift precisely at the center of what marriage is. Without sexual difference, this gift would not be possible. Put more specifically: the love between husband and wife involves a free, total, and faithful gift of self that not only expresses love but also opens the spouses to receive the gift of a child. No other human interaction on earth is like this!
Sexual difference, then, is not an optional “add-on” to an already existing entity called “marriage” (much like you might choose to add sprinkles to your ice cream – or not). Instead, sexual difference is at the very heart of what marriage is. It’s what capacitates man and woman to give themselves completely to each other as husband and wife. Sexual difference matters for marriage.
Interested in learning more? Check out the DVD “Made for Each Other,” its Viewer’s Guide and Resource Booklet, and all of the Sexual Difference FAQs. Also see the previous blog series on sexual difference.
 Even in circumstances when a person expresses ambiguous genitalia or departs from the XX/XY genetic standard, the anomaly is recognized precisely due to its discordance with healthy, normal presentation as male or female.
February 7 through 14 is National Marriage Week, a collaborative effort to strengthen marriages and emphasize the benefits of marriage to husbands, wives, children, and society. It’s an appropriate time to think again about what makes marriage unique. What sets it apart from any other relationship on earth? In an age when many of us have experienced the wounds that come from broken marriages and families, and when unfortunate confusion about the meaning of marriage abounds, we are called to witness to a truth and a hope much deeper and much more real than we often see on TV or hear on the news. One way to assist us in this witness is to return to the basics and reflect once more on the unique, irreplaceable beauty of marriage.
Men and Women Matter: Let’s Start with the Human Person
Anthropology – the study of the human person – is an indispensable starting point for thinking about marriage. After all, marriage has to do with persons; it is a personal relationship. We must ask, “What does it mean to be a human person, as a man or as a woman?” Fundamentally, three points are important:
- Imago Dei: Human persons, male and female, are created in the image and likeness of God; every human person has inviolable dignity and worth.
- Vocation to love: Because “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8), human persons, as male and female created in God’s image, are given the vocation, and the responsibility, to love (see CCC, no. 1604 and FC, no. 11).
- Male and female: The body (masculine or feminine) is not an afterthought but is essential to the identity of the human person created in the image of God.
Where does marriage fit into this? Well, the Catechism tells us that “the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, no. 1603). In other words, marriage comes into existence at the same moment that man and woman are created. Marriage is a particularly significant way that men and women can live out their vocation to love (see FC, no. 11).
Gift and Promise: Essential characteristics of marriage
Keeping in mind the nature of the human person – created male and female and called to the vocation of love – let’s now talk about the essential characteristics of marriage. As with any work of defining terms, it’s important to identify those things that make marriage unique, different from any other type of relationship. Yes, there are characteristics marriage shares in common with other relationships between people (for example, affection, longevity, shared interests, and so on). But marriage is a unique bond. If we were to explain to a visitor from Mars what makes marriage different from other relationships, what would we say?
The following list identifies those properties without which marriage wouldn’t be marriage – just like without peanuts, peanut butter wouldn’t be the same thing. We’re talking about essential characteristics – those things that are part of marriage’s very essence.
Marriage is total (gift of self)
Pope Paul VI describes beautifully what is meant by the totality of marriage in Humanae Vitae:
“It is a love which is total – that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself” (HV, no. 9).
The totality of marriage, then, refers to the immensity of the gift husband and wife give to each other – a gift not just of time, or money, or possessions, but a gift of their very selves. This gift is total because husband and wife hold absolutely nothing back from each other. As we’ll see, the “totality of the gift” helps illuminate the other characteristics of marriage.
Marriage is faithful and exclusive (a truthful gift)
Precisely because the gift of one’s self exchanged in marriage is total, it can only be given to one person at a time! (Picture the parody of a man saying to woman after woman, “I’m all yours!” “And yours!” “And yours!”) The totality of the gift demands exclusivity.
As the Catechism puts it,
“By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. This is the consequences of the gift of themselves which they make to each other. Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice’” (CCC, no. 1647).
Marriage is forever (the gift of one’s future)
Contained within the gift of self that one gives in marriage is the gift of one’s future—the promise. Again, how could the gift be total if a time limit were placed on it? As Bl. Pope John Paul II said, a total self-gift must include “the temporal dimension”:
“If the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally” (FC, no. 11).
But how can anyone promise their future to another person…today? Here we see the awesome beauty of a vow: in one moment, on one day, husband and wife promise each other every moment, every day that is to come. The vow they exchange on their wedding day “takes up” every future moment, freeing husband and wife to know that they are entirely given to each other – forever.
Marriage is life-giving (the gift of one’s fertility)
We read in the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children” (GS, no. 50). One way to understand this is to think that in giving themselves completely and unreservedly to each other in marriage, husband and wife give each other the gift of their fertility. In fact, the capacity to procreate new life is inscribed in the very nature of man and woman and in their coming together as “one flesh.”
As Bl. John Paul II explains, “the conjugal act ‘means’ not only love, but also potential fruitfulness” (TOB, no. 123.6). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that a child will – or should – be conceived in every marital act. What it does mean is that the love expressed by husband and wife is of its very nature both unitive and procreative: “one as well as the other [meaning] belong to the innermost truth of the conjugal act” (TOB, no. 123.6). To pledge everything to one’s spouse includes pledging the possibility of becoming a mother or a father together.
Next: What are the bishops doing to promote and protect marriage?
Bl. John Paul II: “Man cannot exist ‘alone’ (cf. Gen 2:18); he can exist only as a ‘unity of the two’, and therefore in relation to another human person. It is a question here of a mutual relationship: man to woman and woman to man. Being a person in the image and likeness of God thus involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other ‘I’. This is a prelude to the definitive self-revelation of the Triune God: a living unity in the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“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.”
1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 7
About this series:
Every Sunday, the Marriage: Unique for a Reason blog will feature a short quote from either our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, or our late Holy Father, Bl. John Paul II (or occasionally another pope). These two men have given the world an immense treasury of wisdom about marriage, love, and the meaning of the human person, all of which are topics integral to the Church’s witness today. Their words are well worth reflecting on, as we have much to learn from these wise successors of St. Peter.