In this Crisis Magazine classic, Evelyn Birge Vitz says that denying theological gender differences actually undercuts male and female dignity.
For Christianity, gender is both important and irrelevant. God creates, Christ redeems, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies men and women alike, along with Jews and Greeks, rich and poor, black and white. But, apart from salvation, gender possesses a special importance in Christianity that cannot be viewed as either accidental or superficial.
Both views flow from the fact that God is understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition as being fundamentally, if mysteriously and non-genitally male. God is "He." True, God is also seen in some sense as transcending gender or at least as containing both male and female principles. Otherwise, he could not create both man and woman "in his image."
But the fact remains that the Lord, the unique "I AM WHO AM," is a Father God, not an androgynous divine entity. Indeed, the entire Trinitarian Godhead is male: Christ is the Son, physically, genitally, as well as ontologically. And the Holy Spirit, though in some respects linked to the Old Testament theme of "Wisdom," has been, since the dawn of Christianity, understood in male terms. The Holy Ghost is not an "it," or a "she," but a third "he," united to the Father and the Son in the intensely loving but non-erotic union of the Trinity.
Human gender is unimportant to the Christian tradition in the sense that all human souls are "feminine" animae in relation to God, the husband and the lover of each soul. In the larger sense, this view derives from the understanding of Israel as not merely God’s chosen people but as his wife. The Old Testament expresses this eloquently. The Song of Songs evokes the deep love, indeed the intense, almost embarrassingly erotic desire of the lover and the beloved, allegorically or symbolically understood to represent God and his people. The prophets, Isaiah in particular, speak sometimes poetically and idealistically of Israel as God’s beloved bride — Jerusalem is "wedded" to the Lord.
The Christian tradition maintained this powerfully gendered concept of the relationship between God and his people as a whole, and between God and the individual persons who constitute his people. At the mystical level, the Church is the Bride of Christ, living only in relation to him, obedient to him: Christ is the head and husband of the Church. Thus, the Fathers of the Church presented the Church as born from the wounded side of Christ, as Eve had been created from Adam’s side: from his rib.
The same relationship is borne out at the individual level. Each of us is called to be responsive to divine love: to the love of the Father, to the inspiring love of the Spirit, and to the love of Christ the Bridegroom of the soul, for all are "brides" of Christ.
If all are female in respect to God, what then is the fundamental importance of gender, of sexual identity, to the Christian tradition — to Christian experience?
We return to the Fatherhood of God, and to the fact that he did not create human beings as androgynous aggregates. Nor did he make five sexes, as some at the United Nations are arguing today. In our secular and neopagan world, there are lots of sexes and lots of sex. What you start out with, or as, doesn’t much matter.
But in the traditional Christian view, as taught in Genesis, God created them male and female, that is, either male or female, one or the other. God found that division into two sexes to be "good," a reality not to be improved upon. Thus, our individual gender, our sexual identity, constitutes a fundamental and God-given part of our creatural identity. Indeed, we will retain our sex even at the Resurrection, when our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies. Our sex is not something we are free to choose for ourselves.
Nor is our sexual identity something that we can "construct," or that society constructs for, or against, us. This is not to deny that different societies organize and deploy sexual identity and sexual roles differently; in this limited sense, gender can be partly a "construct." But our sexual identity is a gift to us from God, no less than our very life, our soul, and our various physical and mental traits.
The fact that not everyone feels comfortable with the sexual identity assigned by God is neither here nor there. Many of us are not especially pleased with the way God made us. If we were in charge, we would make ourselves more gifted athletically or academically or musically, more charming, taller and thinner, and so on. Moreover, sex and gender are at least as fallen as anything else about human beings. Most of us have a hard time living with a wide range of sinful tendencies and have to struggle against the inclination toward sexual perversions, or alcoholism, or depression, or procrastination and laziness, or violent rages. Sexual nature is by no means a special case.
Looking at the New Testament, we may as well begin with the obvious fact that Jesus Christ chose twelve men as his Apostles; these were his original followers and his commissioned emissaries to the entire creation. Presumably, he did not choose them because men are better than women. One of the Twelve was his betrayer, a fact which Jesus knew well in advance. Moreover, no human can ever be as perfectly good as the Blessed Virgin. Mary is honored as the Queen of Heaven, Queen of Angels, Queen of Saints, etc. She is the Queen over and not the Queen among the Apostles. "Goodness," then, is not the issue.
Can it be that Jesus couldn’t choose women because of the low status of women at his time? This argument has always struck me as ridiculous. Or rather, and quite simply, only those who do not believe that Jesus is God can hold such a view. As the punchline to an old joke goes, "A 500-pound gorilla can sleep anywhere he pleases." Well, God made those gorillas. God makes the rules. Are we really to believe that Jesus — God — did not, could not do something he wanted to do — pick women to be Apostles — because he was worried about what people would think?
If he did all these things, it must be because that was precisely what he, as the Son of God — as God himself — intended to do. No other view is even seriously worth consideration. Since women as priestesses were common in other religions of the time, it can hardly have failed to dawn on God that this was a possibility.
It has been charged that, at some point, Christianity got onto the wrong foot about the way in which power is assigned differentially to the sexes. But, in fact, this is the foot on which Christ started his religion. Certain fundamental roles of active leadership, of power in this world, were assigned to men, and not to women.
Paul follows Jesus’s lead in his letter to the Ephesians when he says that wives should obey their husbands and that men should love their wives as Christ loves the Church. All husbands, like the Apostles, represent and embody Christ in the world. And women carry on, and live out, in a special way, the life of the Church. Husbands are to be to their wives as Christ is to his Church. Not merely gender alone but gender authority is therefore divinely instituted.
Should we women be offended? Am I angry that I can’t be pope, and more to the point, that I am not even theoretically papabile? Or, that I cannot be a bishop, and rule over a diocese? That I cannot celebrate the Mass? And, what’s more, that my husband, Paul C. Vitz, was not told to obey me?
But before distributing authority as he saw fit, God had first made men and women. It seems safe to assume that, since he foresaw how he was going to assign power relations on earth, he designed his creatures to find satisfaction in this arrangement. This is not to ignore the effects of the fall, which corrupted human desires and behaviors. But in any event, God made the sexes different, with different gifts, desires, needs. Though we all have our "end" in God, what is natural to one sex is not necessarily natural to the other.
Though Jesus choose men as his disciples, he was extraordinarily good to women. He obviously loved women, as he loved men. He treated the women he met with great tenderness, justice, and mercy. And how those women, those non-Apostles, loved him! One need only think of the "sinful woman" washing his feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair, whose lavish gratitude he defended. Of his kind, tactful, handling of Martha or the woman with the hemorrhage. Of the Samaritan woman at the well, to whom he told the truth about her life, and to whom he promised eternal water. Jesus gave to women the honor of standing at the foot of the Cross, when almost all the men, his chosen Apostles, had denied him and fled. He also gave to these women the glory and the joy of being the first to see him risen from the grave. If you will allow me a bit of Christian irony and paradox, he also gave these same women the honor of his Apostles’ disbelief; in this way, he first shared his cross with them after he had risen.
And what of Mary? God honored women by calling his Mother to a perfection that no one else — and in particular, no man — can achieve. Mary, imitated for centuries by both sexes, has been the very definition, not of worldly power, but of compassionate motherhood, of devoted service, of willing obedience. We are told that, from the depths of her loving heart, she "pleads for sinners." I sometimes think that that is women’s most important function on this planet: like Mary, like the mother who reminded Jesus that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall under the table, like the woman with the unjust judge, like Martha and Mary who wanted their brother Lazarus back, we women are here to love and to plead.
What are the advantages of accepting such a Christian, specifically Catholic, view of gender and its importance? It is worth emphasizing the advantages of such a vision of gender as compared with Protestant views. The original Protestant reformers eliminated, along with many other things, the religious dignity of the female and the feminine: they got rid of the Church, the Bride of Christ. They demoted the Blessed Virgin to an only temporarily-virgin mother of Jesus — a nice lady, to be sure, but nothing extraordinary; no special crown in heaven for her! When they disbanded the Catholic Communion of Saints (all the redeemed being equally both wretches and holy), they sent into exile, along with the male cohort, such great female figures — friends of men and women alike — as Agatha, Agnes, Barbara, several Catherines, Cecilia, Christine, Dorothy, Elizabeth, and on through the saintly alphabet. In the insistence that all should marry, they eliminated the special vocation of consecrated virginity, which had given a special dignity and spiritual authority to nuns and other religious, as brides of Christ. They also attacked the indissolubility of marriage, which has — as even many feminists now recognize — protected women far more than men. Many holy nuns and abbesses have exercised remarkable power in the Church — even in the world — with a spiritual influence extending far beyond the confines of their convent. One thinks of Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila — of their eloquent but forthright letters to popes, kings and emperors; their wide and effective travels; and their unflagging zeal for renewal in the Church.
It is important to stress the fact that no other religion in the world, no branch of Protestantism, nor any secular ideology, has such a tradition. In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy alone do women and feminine principles play so vital and positive a role. In traditional Christianity alone are women praised and prayed to every day by millions of the faithful.
By the time the Reformation was over, the female — and indeed all honor paid specifically to women and femininity — had been expunged from Protestant Christianity. The only important "female" left was the Whore of Babylon. Only males and masculinity were given important roles and glorified. The original result was that men were not only the leaders of churches, they were everything. It is not, of course, that salvation was closed to women, but women had nothing but bit parts and walk-on roles in traditional Protestant society and church.
But there has been a recent development to all this. Since Protestantism had no valued roles to assign to the feminine, as modern secular culture has moved increasingly toward demands for "justice" for women — and away from the roles of wifehood and motherhood — the only apparent solution was to embrace the principle of androgyny. In fact, the attempt has been made to abandon gender identity as having any theological significance at all. Thus, even the traditional Christian sense that we are all feminine souls in the presence of a Divine Husband has almost completely disappeared from Protestantism.
Today, mainstream Protestant women preach and are ordained to the ministry; they hold positions of church leadership. Today only rarely do Protestant women promise to obey their husbands in their marriage vows. Men and women are indeed understood to be, ontologically, alike. And it is hard to believe that the Fatherhood of God, or the Sonship of Christ, or the "-us" endings to Sanctus Spiritus will long survive the modern attack on gender in the Protestant denominations. The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City has a large crucifix with "Christa" on it over the altar. The Holy Spirit is increasingly replaced by the female "Sapientia."
In his On the Development of Christian Doctrine John Henry Newman explained carefully how one can distinguish between development, on the one hand, and corruption, on the other. One of the primary earmarks of genuine development is that it be the continuation and fulfillment of something that existed earlier in Christian tradition. The new "doctrines" on the role of women, and on the concepts of gender and sexuality in general, cannot be seen as the development of an earlier Christian principle. They are novel, and they have their roots in modern secular culture. This is not, then, a genuine "development of Christian doctrine," but the importing, into Christianity, of fundamentally alien ways of thinking.
There are three ways of thinking about gender. The first, androgyny, ends up in nihilism and perversion, by making sex arbitrary and trivial. The second, crude male power over women, is, as we all so clearly see, the result of original sin. The third is what Christianity has always taught: the complementarity of the sexes, in a structure of servant leadership by males. This is not only the tradition of the Church, but it corresponds to our nature. What more can we ask?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Evelyn Birge Vitz is professor of French and affiliated professor of Comparative Literature, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Religious Studies at New York University. This article originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of Crisis Magazine.