Male and Female He Created Them

I have been reflecting a great deal on Eve Tushnet’s excellent article in The Atlantic that many of you have probably, already read (and if you haven’t, by all means, check it out).  I’ve been thinking of her article, in part, because she’s a great writer, but also, because I spent the weekend with my best friend from childhood with whom I remain very close despite the fact that we have many very different views, me being a promoter of the Catholic vision of the person and sexuality and him, being an expert on and professor of queer theory.  Obviously, we have a lot of interesting and vigorous discussions on the nature of the person, sexuality, gender, and our shared Catholic faith.

In light of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about a minor point in Eve’s article referencing her struggles with what she referred to as, “repressive ideas of gender which would leave no room for St. Francis and St. Joan. (n.b., follow the link for her expansion on this point).”

What Does the Church Teach about Men and Women?

I have to say that while I am aware that many people share her opinion of the Church’s vision of men and women, and while I have met many pious Catholics who I think, personally,  have rather retrograde views of masculinity and femininity, I don’t think they got them from an honest reading of the Church’s thinking on the topic.  In fact, my reading of the Church’s teaching on gender strikes me as rather novel and counter-cultural (and when I say that, I don’t just mean counter-secular feminist culture, but also counter-conservative stereotypical culture).

Male and Female He Created THEM.

My understanding of the Church’s view of masculinity and femininity is that maleness and femaleness is not, as many conservative Catholics mistakenly think,  determined by the preferences you have, the work you do, the things you like or the toys you played with as a kid.  The Theology of the Body makes the point that Genesis 1:27 says, “Male and female he created them.”   TOB asserts that this passage does not mean that God created males and females.  Rather, it means that men and women have both masculine and feminine dimensions to their personalities.    Culturally, we may say certain traits (such as nurturance, gentleness, or sociability) are more ”feminine” traits, and that other traits (such as assertiveness, ambition, or competitiveness) are more “masculine” traits, but from a TOB point of view, it would not be reasonable to then say that a woman who was assertive or ambitious was somehow less womanly or a man who was nurturing or gentle was somehow less manly.

The Body Makes Visible That Which is Invisible…

The TOB argues that what differentiates men from women is not traits, preferences, work, or habits, but their bodies and how those bodies allow them to express–in complementary ways–the virtues and qualities that evidence their shared humanity.  The short version is that being made in the image and likeness of God means that God takes all the virtues (i.e., all the qualities that make men and women human) from his own heart and shares them equally with men and women.  BUT he creates men and women’s bodies to be different and complementary to each other so that when they live out those human virtues through the bodies God gave them, they can emphasize different and complementary aspects of those virtues and, by doing so, present a more complete image of that virtue that reflects God’s face to the world.

So What?

Practically speaking, this means two things.

First, it means that men and women can both fully demonstrate all the qualities that make us human.  BUT because of the body (and mind, which is part of the body) God gave us, men and women will display complementary variations on those qualities.  For instance both men and women are called to be fully nurturing as a part of their human nature but he has created men’s and women’s bodies differently.  A woman, for example, is able to nurse her children and thus express nurturance in a particularly profound and intimately embodied fashion.  A man can’t lactate, but he is also required to be fully nurturing if he is to be fully human.  He also expresses his nurturance through his body.  For instance, because of greater upper-body strength, a man can more easily toss his kids in the air (and sometimes, even catch them!).  Likewise, even men who shave have more facial hair than the hairiest woman.  My little one loves to sit on my shoulders and rub my fuzzy face.  She loves when I put my scratchy, tickly chin under her chin and go “phhhhhhhhhhfffffffffffffftttttttt!”

My wife and I must both be fully nurturing to our children, but we express that nurturance differently through the bodies that God gave us.  Our respective efforts to be nurturing feel different to our kids.  The masculine and feminine versions of nurturance are both sufficient on their own, but together, they are a more complete presentation of the virtue of nurturance itself.  When a man and woman are both fully nurturing in their unique and complementary way, they do a better job of making visible the nurturance in God’s own heart.

The same applies to any other quality or virtue.  Catholics have never believed that there is only one way to be a man or a woman, which is why we have saints like St. Joan and St Francis as well as St Therese of Lisieux and St Ignatius.

The second example of the practical significance of all this is that  although both men and women are capable of being fully human and living out the fullness of all the virtues that make them human, men and women’s versions of those respective virtues/qualities are appreciably different and complementary.   A man who is fully nurturing will always nurture differently than a woman would.  Likewise, the most ambitious, assertive woman will still be ambitious and assertive in a way that is, somehow, more feminine than the way a man is ambitious or assertive. That doesn’t mean that one is inferior to other.  They are both perfectly complete, acceptable, efficient, healthy modes of being.  BUT they are substantively different from and complementary to one another.    Even if a man tries to be effeminate, he only ends up coming of as a caricature of femininity and the same for the woman who tries to be masculine.  Men and women can be fully human and live out the complementarity of the virtues that comprise their shared humanity, but they cannot ever be the same even when they try.

The Feminine Genius.

Which brings us to what JPII meant when he wrote about the “feminine genius.”  While I understand where Eve’s coming from (as well as other critics who feel the same) I have never read the Church’s writings on this subject as being patronizing.  (And you might say, “that JUST what a man WOULD say!” but that really would be patronizing).  To my way of thinking, the point of saying that there is a feminine genius is not to say, as Eve suggest (in the second link above),  ”Oh, don’t worry your pretty little heads, ladies, of course you’re special too!”  Rather, it is to say that in contrast to secular feminism which tells the world that only the masculine versions of the various virtues count, that the feminine complement to these same virtues presents a full, dynamic, vigorous, and valuable contribution to the human experience and that women, as well as men, serve their humanity best, not by trying to imitate the other, but by exploring the fullness of their own humanity which is beautifully, powerfully, and more than adequately expressed by the humanity represented in their own gender.

I’m really not sure what is so retrograde about that.  In fact, this view of gender sounds like nothing else I’ve read on the subject.  The Catholic vision of masculinity and femininity, to my way of thinking, goes beyond the too easy stereotypes of  the conservative/historical patriarchal view of gender and stands in opposition to the reaction-formation that is the secular feminist view.  It is a fresh, exciting, and freeing view of the person that presents a mode of being that allows man and woman to both be fully human and completely unique.

For more information on living out this vision of the sexes in your marriage, check out For Better…FOREVER!  or to pass this vision of masculinity and femininity on to your children, pick up a copy of Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Children

Dr. Gregory Popcak


Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • Susanne

    A most excellent explanation. Probably the most direct and comprehensible treatment of the contrast between the Catholic view of sexuality and the two alternatives that I have seen. I am keeping this article to give to people as needed. Thank you!

  • As interesting as this post is, there is one assertion that seems foreign to JPII’s Theology of the Body:

    ****The Theology of the Body makes the point that Genesis 1:27 says, “Male and female he created them.” TOB asserts that this passage does not mean that God created males and females. Rather, it means that men and women have both masculine and feminine dimensions to their personalities.****
    On the contrary to this assertion, JPII asserts directly and clearly that Gen 1:27 means that “God created males and females.”
    And nowhere in JPII’s work do I find mention of any assertion that “men and women have both masculine and feminine dimensions to their personalities” (assuming this suggests that men have “feminine” dimensions and women have “masculine” dimensions, though it’s possible this suggestion is not intended by Popcak). JPII doesn’t use the terms “masculine and feminine” in this context. The footnote for “masculinity and femininity” in the Waldstein TOB translation, btw, states: “Despite their abstract form, these words are used in TOB to signify man and woman in their concrete and visible sexual characteristics.”
    So TOB simply doesn’t address the “traits” aspect of masculinity and femininity apart from bodiliness, but instead squarely focuses on our being created male and being created female. Acknowledging this doesn’t, however, negate the larger points Popcak is making about male-female complementarity; rather, JPII’s approach really reinforces the concepts of reciprocity and complementarity without blurring what is truly “feminine” with what is truly “masculine.”

  • Let me tack on an example of what I mean from TOB (9.1):
    “Following the narrative of Genesis, 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.”

  • John

    Forgive my cynical yawn, but I am getting seriously tired of these kind of articles, no matter how well meant they are. This is a NON-ISSUE! There seems to be a certain trend among some catholic writers – not the author of this article, I hasten to add – that if they write enough articles pushing their new view of sexuality, then things will change. They won’t. No amount of intellectualising will change the basic facts of life and church doctrine: while all humans are to be respected and loved, men and women go together, men/men, women/women don’t. Sexual acts between homosexuals will always be wrong, as are fornication and adultery etc among heterosexuals. All of us, whatever our “orientations” or whatever the new identify label of the moment is, should leave our egos and wishlists at the door of the church when we got to mass. Now move on, there’s nothing to see here!

  • Lee

    As human beings, is there any excuse for confusion as to why we were created man and woman? God has His plan, we just don’t like to buckle under to it!

  • Ignatius Theophorus


  • roberto

    God created male and female and intersexuals. Just open a book in animal and human biology.

  • pnyikos

    Human biology tells of XX and XY and some XYY and XXY and other variations. But is that really what you what you were driving at?

    Biology has nothing to say about the currently fashionable ideas of “gender”, which in turn have nothing to do with XXY, etc.

  • Jean

    “The body makes visible what is invisible”…a parallel to sacramental theology. Could it be that, when the sacraments were ditched by non-Catholics, it paved the way for great difficulties in understanding this truth about male and female?
    Even the Cathoics themselves, with a deficient (poorly catechized) notion of the sacraments, are prone to this.

  • Pilgrim Monk

    John, you leave out one essential ingredient in your rash statement about sexual acts between homosexuals. That essential ingredient is Love. You equate their sexual acts to the sexual acts of “fornication” and “adultery, etc. among heterosexuals”. By their very definitions, “fornication” and “adultery” are purely based on lust (and self-gratification) not love as well as power/control (again) not love. Let us hold space for the fact that sexual union in its most sacred expression is an expression of love between two people. Homosexuals, John, are just as capable of giving and receiving love as are heterosexuals. By the same token, homosexuals are just as prone to devolving into sexual acts that are not based in love (fornication / adultery, etc.) as are heterosexuals.