"The Church is run by men who only want to keep women barefoot and pregnant." We've all heard similar comments. Indeed, there seems to be no avoiding conversations which revolve around gender: women "priests"; inclusive language; and so on. While many Catholics may know an initial defense of such disputes, is there another, perhaps deeper, apologetic of the Catholic teaching that gender makes a difference? Allow me to suggest some ways gender might play in understanding some broader aspects of Church teaching.
The Catholic Church is nearly alone in standing against modern notions of "gender equity." But from this can one conclude that the Church must view women and men as unequal? Not at all! Indeed, the Church views male and female as equal, just not in the narrow sense that society does. But let us back up for a minute to see the issue more clearly.
Modern society has placed a litmus test upon the way in which we relate to one another: this test is basically one of function. The secular criteria of functionality has become commonplace in the way our society thinks of equality and, if this is so, then we must probably conclude that the Church is archaic and sexist. But, in the eyes of the Church, equality between men and women is based on something much more important than mere function.
The Image of God
In the beginning, Adam was alone in his humanity and he knew something was missing. God also knew this and said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" (Gen. 2:18). What we see here is that Adam did not enjoy the full range of his human capacity for relationships with creation as it was. As a human, he needed something else to be complete. The "other" that gave him the full meaning of relationship was Eve. Thus, they are created for and ordered to one another.
An important note we must make about the creation narrative is that Adam was not referred to as "male" until there was a female to contrast with his maleness. As Pope John Paul II shows us, prior to Eve, Adam is just "man" in the sense that is used to define all of humanity; that is, mankind as a whole in which gender is not even considered. Adam only takes on the masculinity that is part of his nature after Eve is created and she can then provide the femininity that is needed to give masculinity its meaning. In other words, without female, there is no male. God created this distinction between male and female and it is consequently a divinely instituted distinction.
Different, Yet Equal
What happened next in the Garden of Eden is what we have come to know as marriage. "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Here, the dynamic of the relationship between man and woman changes. Now we not only have man and woman in the narrative, but we have husband and wife. This brings on a real change in both the relationship of Adam and Eve, and in Adam and Eve themselves. The two become one. They complement each other in the differences that they bear by their natures. But the two are not interchangeable. The woman cannot be husband and the man cannot be wife. To complete each other, they first must realize that in their differences, they find what the other needs to be complete. Exactly the opposite happens in modern thought when, attempting to make man and woman equal, it ends up making them the same, thus denying precisely that which truly makes us equal, our reflection of the divine.
It is now becoming clearer why the Church has a view which seems to be in conflict with society — it is. According to a function-based definition of equality, the roles that a woman once had are now open for men to fulfill, and vice-versa. We each are capable of doing what everyone else "does" regardless of our nature. This then justifies ideas such as women priests, because a woman can do anything that a man can do as a priest (proclaim the Gospel, wear vestments, give homilies, run parishes, and so on). But, as we have seen, this way of thinking about humanity is a denial of the purpose in which God created us — male and female. If we are able to be whatever we want, just by willing it, this becomes a refutation of what God intends each of us to be.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Functional equality is never a true equality; in truth it negates what makes us equal. We are all made with different gifts and if function defines equality, then we will never be truly equal. Why? The example of a person born with mental and physical limitations will help us understand the problem. If we define equality based on what such a person does, then they can never be truly equal to those who are not disabled, because of their limitations. This false equality also devalues the most vulnerable in our society — the sick, the infant in the womb, the elderly, etc. Furthermore, if we seek to understand equality between male and female, then we must go beyond what we do to find who we are.
True equality between male and female is found in our creation in the image and likeness of God. This sacramental view of human gender and equality is a sign of the divine nature of God (Father, Son and Spirit), which is in each of us since our creation. Just as the mystery of the Trinity is incomplete with only one divine person, so our human nature is incomplete without the other gender. The high dignity of God which we reflect in our being, rather than our doing, is a true equality we can only see once we understand that the human nature we all share transcends function. When we view gender in this way, we find what ultimately makes us truly equal — our human nature raised beyond mere function up to the heights of the divine.