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Sexual difference: Why does it matter?

So far in our series on sexual difference, we have 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 CCC, 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 CCC, 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.


8 responses to “Sexual difference: Why does it matter?”

  1. Peter Tobias says:

    The text makes a good case for the holiness of the relation of a man and a woman. It does not show, however, that a sexual relation between two men or between two woman would be bad. Some people are poled in a way that they do not feel attracted by the opposite sex but their own. I do not want to deny them the possibility to develop a loving, sexual relationship, although I would prefer to call it differently than “marriage”. If constitutional marriage amendments prohibit “civil unions”, I have to work against them, for the love of my homosexual friends.

    • Samuel Roeble says:

      By and large, I see that the conclusion of this post has to do with “friendship”. At its core, friendship is meant to call mutual friends on to higher levels of virtue–according to Thomas Aquinas. This includes the virtue of chastity.
      Just as married couples should call each other on to conjugal chastity, so should all single friends (including those with SSA) call each other on to chastity.
      By supporting a same-sex union, I would not be calling my friends on to chastity–I would be doing the extreme opposite…seeking to legally justify their unchastity.

  2. Samuel Roeble says:

    At the heart of why society is pushing for “gay marriage” and “re-defining” marriage is, in my belief, JPII’s fearful warning that chastity has been lost. Chastity has been lost both inside and outside of marriage today, especially with the widespread use of contraceptives.
    So, at the heart of a push for “gay marriage” is the argument, “heterosexual couples’ unchaste impulses are allowable and justified, so, why can’t homosexual impulses be treated the same”.
    Sexual intercourse has been treated irresponsibly across the board. In reality, sexual intercourse is for the bonding of a married man and woman, and for their reproduction. Until we capture the virtue of chastity as the ideal, including conjugal chastity (which is the type of chastity that married couples practice in the context of Natural Family Planning), we will continue to see offenses against marriage and against what it means to be different as men and women.
    In a nutshell: “gay marriage” should not be allowed because it gravely offends chastity. Likewise, married couples should witness to conjugal chastity, so as to teach people the true meaning of sexual intercourse within marriage.

  3. Paul says:


    Yes to the wonderful defense of Marriage of man/woman. Yes to all that JPII wrote in Theology of the body.
    Medically or psycologically – how do we explain a man or woman being drawn to their own kind? How do you explain that biological event? True to scripture God created them ‘male and female’ but when they are born without that attraction to their opposite.

    • Samuel Roeble says:

      The cause of SSA (same sex attraction) is not my concern–the Church has no official stance on it either. What the Church does highly recommend is that someone with SSA not act on his/her same sex attraction because it offends chastity. That’s my point.
      To state it positively, someone with SSA has the freedom to love in a chaste way–that is, true to his/her sexuality as a man or a woman, but by not engaging in sexual activity. The same goes for unmarried heterosexual individuals, which is also my point. Either way, if you aren’t married to someone of the opposite sex, then you should be abstaining from sexual activity. And, even if you are married to someone of the opposite sex, then you should be practicing conjugal chastity–that is, abstaining from sexual activity outside of sexual intercourse with your spouse.

      • Samuel Roeble says:

        Anthony Buono, a prominent Catholic speaker on dating relationships/courtship and marriage agrees with my conclusions, as seen in his blog:

        • Samuel Roeble says:

          In light of what has taken place in the United States in the last few months with the HHS Mandate and mentionings of “re-defining” marriage, I believe this message of Sacramental marriage and chastity to be very prophetic! Namely, that the USCCB is “on the side of truth” as Cardinal Dolan put it, and anybody who is with them in word and deed can trust in the Holy Spirit’s authority in Church Tradition.
          Sinner that I am, I am grateful for the grace to recognize Apostolic Succession and to understand the Apostle’s teaching.
          It’s been stated before, and I’ll say again, the Catholic Church in America is finally taking a stance on key issues that pertain to our religious liberty. That means that I can continue to worship God in freedom, to raise my family with NFP and Catholic teaching on sexual morality, and lastly, trust that the Bishops have my back and I am not alone! Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

  4. Chima says:

    What a lovely video! I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one berfoe It really touched me. It is such a blessing to know that in this day and age there are still a large number of youth striving to live our Heavenly Father’s commandments. And it’s fantastic that your children are so interested in this subject, too! Take care,Chantelle

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