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 we’d like to highlight two recent pieces by bishops about marriage, both written in May but still eminently relevant.
By Bishop James V. Johnston, Springfield-Cape Girardeau
Excerpts, emphasis added:
“By redefining marriage, putting marriage between a man and a woman on an equal footing with same-sex unions, the state would be saying that the former is no better than the latter. This is fundamentally unjust. It will also likely lead to further tyranny of the state over those institutions which do not subscribe to the new definition, as has already occurred in Canada and Europe. In the US, the Catholic Church has experienced the first wave of this governmental encroachment in several states – being forced out of the charitable work of facilitating adoptions, for example.”
“Is marriage only ‘Who do you love?’ Catholics, most other Christians, and many non-religious people for that matter, believe it is much more. In fact, while love is the goal, and is typically what one would expect of a marriage, strictly speaking, marriage is a reality that exists even in those instances when the spouses may stop feeling love for one another, precisely because it is much more than just ‘Who do you love?’“
Excerpts, emphasis added:
“The institution of marriage is the very cornerstone of our society. We must speak out against all attempts to redefine marriage.”
“Marriage has two fundamental ends or purposes: the good of the spouses and the procreation of children. It is inseparably both unitive and procreative. Same-sex unions cannot qualify as marriages.”
Bishop Rhoades then quotes from the USCCB 2009 pastoral letter on marriage, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, which deals with so-called same-sex “marriage” on pages 21-23.
“Marriage is a unique union, a relationship different from all others. It is the permanent bond between one man and one woman whose two-in-one-flesh communion of persons is an indispensable good at the heart of every family and every society. Same-sex unions are incapable of realizing this specific communion of persons. Therefore, attempting to redefine marriage to include such relationships empties the term of its meaning, for it excludes the essential complementarity between man and woman, treating sexual difference as if it were irrelevant to what marriage is.”
Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, Maine wrote a pastoral letter on marriage on the occasion of World Marriage Day, this past February 12, 2012: “Marriage: Yesterday – Today – Always.” The letter clearly reflects the bishop’s role as teacher (see CCC, nos. 888-892): it lays out the foundations for the Church’s teaching on marriage as found in sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the natural law. It responds to the contemporary challenge of the proposal to redefine marriage but does so in the context of an expansive vision of marriage’s timeless beauty and essential place in society. In sum, Bishop Malone’s letter serves as a timely “mini catechesis” on marriage and a firm but gentle reminder of what society stands to lose if marriage is redefined in the law.
Part One: Introduction
- Goal: “to reflect with you…upon the greatness and the beauty of marriage – as an original gift of the Lord’s creation and, consequently, as a vocation and as the foundational institution of family and society” (p. 1)
- All are called to the vocation of holiness. Within this universal vocation is the call to holy orders, consecrated virginity, and marriage. (p. 2)
- Challenges to marriage: cohabitation, divorce, contraception, and marriage redefinition that rejects the essential place of sexual difference (p. 3-4; see USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan , pp. 17-27).
- Maine law currently defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, a union it describes as “of inestimable value to society” (p. 5).
Part Two: What is Marriage?
- A basic definition: “Marriage is the lifelong exclusive union of one man and one woman – a font of unitive life and love as well as the foundation of a stable family and society” (p. 6).
- Marriage is rooted in creation: “God created marriage in the very same breath as He created the human person” (p. 8).
- Every heart longs for communion; marriage is a unique kind of communion where man and woman “truly become one” (p. 9).
- Sexual difference matters to parenting, that is, to fathering and mothering: “The mother and the father, each in her/his own way, provide a loving space for the child, one by accenting union, the other by accenting distinction” (p. 10).
- “A child is meant to have a mother and a father. Children long for this and it is their right” (p. 10).
- Infertility does not diminish the goodness of a marriage: “The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive and complementary communion of persons. An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute” (p. 12; see Love and Life, p. 14).
- Children are a gift and not something that spouses have a “right” to (p. 12).
Part Three: Marriage and the Natural Law
- Going to the roots: “Even the Church’s teaching about marriage is rooted in something far older and more fundamental than religious doctrine: it is the law of nature which furthers the order of creation and establishes the activities of all creatures” (p. 13).
- About natural law: Natural law is our participation in God’s eternal law (p. 12); natural law shows us what conforms to our human nature (good actions) and what is at variance with our nature (bad actions) (p. 13-14); natural law is immutable, enduring and unchangeable (p. 14); and natural law is “the source from which both civil law and Church law emerge” (p. 15).
- Natural law guides civil law to properly respect and foster the common good; marriage plays a key role in furthering the common good for all people (p. 17-18).
Part Four: Marriage: A Unique Relationship
- “Marriage is a unique union, a relationship different from all others. It is the permanent bond between one man and one woman whose two-in-one-flesh communion of persons is an indispensable good at the heart of every family and every society” (p. 18).
- Marriage is not… “the appearance of a union”… “a partial commitment”… “simply friendship” (p. 19).
- Marriage is… “more than just a loving relationship”… “more than just a committed relationship”… “more than just about access to certain state-sponsored benefits” (p. 20).
- What about benefits for unmarried persons? “The state has various legal means at its disposal to facilitate people’s ability to care for and support each other. We do not need to redefine marriage to accomplish this” (p. 20).
- The place of justice in the marriage debate: “To promote and protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman is itself a matter of justice” (p. 21).
Part Five: Marriage and the Good of Society
- For the good of children: “When we recognize true marriage and support it, we ensure that as many children as possible know and are known by, love and are loved by, the mother and father in the exclusive marital embrace” (p. 22).
- For all of society: “Everyone has a stake in a stable, flourishing, and loving society created and sustained in no small part by marriage between a man and a woman” (p. 22).
A Final Word
- “As your bishop, whose primary responsibility is that of teacher, it is my hope that this document will challenge everyone who reads it to embrace anew the truth, beauty and goodness of marriage as it has always been and always will be” (p. 23).
Read Bishop Malone’s pastoral letter, “Marriage: Yesterday – Today – Always“
“I want to explain the Church’s teaching on marriage when it comes up in conversation…but I just don’t know how!”
Has this thought ever crossed your mind? If so, you’re not alone! Articulating what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about marriage can be difficult, especially in a cultural climate where many of its main tenets are rejected.
One strategy is to return to the sources. That is, become knowledgeable about the Church’s authoritative teaching on marriage, as found in major papal and episcopal documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Frequent consultation of these main sources helps us to become ever more fluent in the “language” of the Church when she speaks about marriage. And when difficult questions come up in conversation or surface in the media, it’s helpful to know where to turn for solid answers.
But where to begin? Below, we offer an introduction to a few of the many important documents about marriage. We encourage you to become acquainted (or perhaps re-acquainted) with the Church’s beautiful and timeless teaching on marriage.
*Note: the following is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Additional sources will be highlighted in future posts.
1. USCCB, Pastoral Letter Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan (2009)
- Why it matters: It’s the most recent document on marriage from the entire body of U.S. bishops, approved in 2009.
- Mini-book, 58 pages long
- Part One: Marriage in the Order of Creation (The Natural Institution of Marriage)
- Part Two: Marriage in the Order of the New Creation (The Sacrament of Matrimony)
- Identifies four “fundamental challenges” to marriage: contraception, same-sex unions, divorce, and cohabitation (pp. 17-27).
- Reflects on marriage as a vocation and offers advice to married couples seeking to grow in virtue (pp. 43-45).
- “For all who seek to find meaning in their marriage will do so when they are open to accepting the transcendent meaning of marriage according to God’s plan” (p. 4).
- “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).
- “The marital vocation is not a private or merely personal affair. Yes, marriage is a deeply personal union and relationship, but it is also for the good of the Church and the entire community” (p. 44).
- Additional Resources:
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (1997)
- Why it matters: The Catechism conveys the essential content of the Catholic faith (including its teaching on marriage) in a complete and summary way. Divided into easy-to-digest paragraphs, the Catechism also provides numerous footnotes for further study.
- Structure and key sections:
- 904 pages, divided into four parts and 2,865 paragraphs
- The sacrament of matrimony: nos. 1601-1606
- See especially “The goods and requirements of conjugal love” – nos. 1643-1654
- Sexual difference: nos. 369-373 and 2331-2336
- The love of husband and wife: nos. 2360-2379
- Offenses against the dignity of marriage: nos. 2380-2391
- “God created man and woman together and willed each for the other” (no. 371).
- “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (no. 1603).
- “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” (no. 2333).
- “Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful” (no. 2366).
- Additional Resources:
3. Bl. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981)
- English title: On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World
- Why it matters: Promulgated in response to the 1980 Synod of Bishops, Familiaris Consortio reads like a “little summa” of the theology of marriage and the family. Its pastoral advice, which touches on a diverse range of topics from women and society to responsible parenthood to mixed marriages to divorce, is grounded on a robust anthropology of the human person and theology of marriage and the family. It calls the family to a simple but profound mission: “Family, become what you are!”
- 86 sections
- Part One: Bright Spots and Shadows for the Family Today
- Part Two: The Plan of God for Marriage and the Family
- Part Three: The Role of the Christian Family
- 1) Forming a Community of Persons
- 2) Serving Life
- 3) Participating in the Development of Society
- 4) Sharing in the Life and Mission of the Church
- Part Four: Pastoral Care of the Family: Stages, Structures, Agents and Situations
- “Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (no. 11).
- “Every act of true love toward a human being bears witness to and perfects the spiritual fecundity of the family, since it is an act of obedience to the deep inner dynamism of love as self-giving to others” (no. 41).
- “The future of the world and of the church passes through the family” (no. 75).
- Additional Resources
- Commentary by Dr. Joseph Atkinson, associate professor of Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family: “A Family Manifesto – How to Read Familiaris Consortio” (originally appeared in Crisis Magazine, Dec. 2001)
4. Bl. John Paul II, Letter to Families (1994)
- Why it matters: Promulgated during the Year of the Family, John Paul II addressed this letter “not to families ‘in the abstract’ but to every particular family in every part of the world” (no. 4). A perfect complement to the longer Familiaris Consortio, Letter to Families invites families to reflect on their identity (especially its likeness to the Triune God) and their mission (building a civilization of love).
- 23 sections
- Part One: The Civilization of Love
- Includes: marital covenant and communion, sincere gift of self, and responsible parenthood
- Part Two: The Bridegroom is with You
- Includes: reflections on the wedding at Cana, the sacrament of marriage, and Mary
- “When a man and woman in marriage mutually give and receive each other in the unity of ‘one flesh,’ the logic of the sincere gift of self becomes a part of their life” (no. 11).
- “Freedom cannot be understood as a license to do absolutely anything: it means a gift of self. Even more: it means an interior discipline of the gift” (no. 14).
- “Families are meant to contribute to the transformation of the earth and the renewal of the world, of creation and of all humanity” (no. 18).
Today’s post is the second in a series about sexual difference.
In Monday’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? (more…)
Pop quiz: What is the “supreme gift” of marriage?
If you answered “children,” ding ding ding ding! Children are the “supreme gift” of marriage and its “ultimate crown” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, nos. 50, 48). Put another way, the procreation of children is one of the two ends, or purposes, of marriage: (more…)
Do a man and a woman really matter for marriage?
Some today might not even think to ask this question. Others might answer a resounding “no” to this question. “What does being a man or being a woman matter?” they might say. “All you need is love…”
But is this true? (more…)