Pope Francis has dedicated two of his Wednesday General Audiences to the topic of men and women, their equal dignity, complementarity and the challenges they and their relationships face today. These two catecheses are set within the broader context of the family that he has been speaking about for several weeks now. However, since the question of how the complementarity of men and women is to be understood is close to my heart, I would like to offer a selection of passages from these two talks, which present a particularly clear and useful perspective.
Two weeks ago, Pope Francis started addressing this question by going back to its first treatment in the Bible, to the first creation account in Genesis, and underlining the joint value of man and woman:1
“As we all know, sexual differences are present in so many forms of life, in the long scale of the living. However, only in man and in woman does it bear in itself the image and likeness of God: the biblical text repeats it a good three times in two verses (Genesis 1:26-27): Man and woman are image and likeness of God! This tells us that not only man in himself is the image of God, not only woman in herself is the image of God, but also that man and woman, as a couple, are the image of God. The difference between man and woman is not for opposition, or for subordination, but for communion and creation, always in the image and likeness of God.”Pope Francis then reflects on gender theory, which he rejects, and to which he offers an alternative, but whose roots he recognizes:
“I wonder [...] if the so-called gender theory is not also an expression of a frustration and of a resignation, which aims to cancel the sexual difference because it no longer knows how to address it. Yes, we risk taking a step backward. The removal of the difference, in fact, is the problem, not the solution. To resolve their problems of relation, man and woman must instead talk more to one another, listen more to one another, know one another more, love one another more. They must relate to one another with respect and cooperate with friendship.”Instead of a denial of differences, the key is respect, communication, friendship and love. However, the present problems are not to be laid equally at the feet of men and women:
“It is without doubt that we must do much more in favor of woman if we want to give back more strength to the reciprocity between men and women. In fact, it is necessary that women not only be more listened to, but that her voice has real weight, a recognized authoritativeness in society and in the Church. The way itself with which Jesus considered women – we read it in the Gospel, it is so! - in a context less favorable than ours, because in those times women were in fact in second place ... and Jesus considered them in a way which gives a powerful light, which enlightens a path that leads far, of which we have only followed a small piece. We have not yet understood in depth what things the feminine genius can give us, which woman can give to society and also to us. Perhaps to see things with other eyes that complements the thoughts of men. It is a path to follow with more creativity and more audacity.”While Pope Francis does not present a solution, he very clearly identifies the problem and sets the challenge of identifying ways that would lead to women having the place in society and the Church that they are due.
In the second catechesis this morning, Pope Francis returns to the question of reciprocity and equal dignity, and he takes the second creation account from Genesis as the starting point:
“[In the second chapter of Genesis] we read that the Lord, after having created heaven and earth, “formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” He is the pinnacle of creation. Then God put man in a most beautiful garden so that he would till and keep it. […] When […] God presents woman to him, man rejoices and recognizes that creature, and only that one, which is part of him: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Finally, there is a reflection of himself, a reciprocity.”While the second creation account establishes a closeness between man and woman, where woman is the “flesh of [man’s] flesh,” and which Pope Francis refers to in the same way in which the creed describes how God the Father and Jesus relate (as being consubstantial), he is quick also to emphasize that woman is created directly by God and not in some way by or through man:
“Woman is not a “replica” of man; she comes directly from the creative gesture of God. The image of the “rib” does not express inferiority or subordination but, on the contrary, that man and woman are of the same substance and are complementary. And the fact that – still in the parable – God formed woman while man slept, stresses in fact that she is in no way creature of man, but of God. And it also suggests something else: To find woman, and we can say to find love in woman, to find woman, man must first dream her and then he finds her.”I particularly like the poetry of Pope Francis speaking about man dreaming woman to then find her and find love in her!
Francis then returns to the challenges facing men and women by reference to suspicion and mistrust and delusions of one’s omnipotence that we are all prone to:
“God’s trust in man and woman, to whom he entrusts the earth, is generous, direct and full. However, it is here where the Evil One introduces in his mind suspicion, incredulity, mistrust and finally disobedience to the commandment that protected them. They fall into that delirium of omnipotence that contaminates everything and destroys harmony. We also feel it within ourselves, so many times, all of us.”From the general, Francis turns to denouncing injustice and violence committed against women as a result of patriarchal excesses, chauvinism and a turning of women into merchandise and a means:
“Sin generates mistrust and division between man and woman. Their relationship is threatened by thousands of ways of dishonesty and submission, of deceitful seduction and humiliating arrogance, even to the most dramatic and violent degrees. History bears their marks. Let us think, for instance, of the negative excesses of patriarchal cultures. Let us think of the many forms of chauvinism where woman is considered to be second class. Let us think of the instrumentalization and merchandising of the female body in current media culture.”Next, he makes a pitch for a revival of an alliance between man and woman, whose absence leads to an uprooting of children from their maternal wombs:
“However, let us also think of the recent epidemic of mistrust, skepticism and even hostility that is spreading in our culture – in particular beginning with an understandable mistrust by women – in relation to an alliance between man and woman that would be able to, at the same time, improve the intimacy of communion and to protect the dignity of difference. If we do not find a jolt of sympathy for this alliance, that leads new generations to repairing mistrust and indifference, children will come into the world ever more uprooted from the maternal womb. The social devaluation of the stable and generative alliance of man and woman is certainly a loss for all. We must reassess marriage and the family!”How so we go about such a reassessment though? Here Francis offers two indications. First, that marriage derives from a self-emptying for the sake of a new, joint journey where the spouses become all for each other (which is precisely the Trinitarian economy):
“And the Bible says a beautiful thing: man finds woman, they find one another, and man must leave something to find her fully. And for this, man will leave his father and his mother to go to her. It is beautiful! This means beginning a journey. Man is all for woman and woman is all for man.”Second - and this should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following last year’s Synod on the Family or even just the Bull of indiction of the coming Jubilee of Mercy - that God is a tender, loving father to all, regardless of their shortcomings and that we too are called to treat others in exactly that same way. And Francis offers a surprising, beautiful reading of the motives behind Adam and Eve leaving Paradise clothed:2
“To care for this alliance of man and woman - even if they are sinners and wounded, confused and humiliated, mistrustful and uncertain - is therefore, for us believers, a challenging and exciting vocation, under present circumstances. The same account of creation and of sin, at its end, gives us a most beautiful icon: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.” It is an image of tenderness to that sinful couple that leaves us with our mouth open: the tenderness of God for man and for woman. It is an image of paternal care of the human couple. God himself takes care of and protects his masterpiece.”
1 Note, that the English quotes from Pope Francis’ catecheses are mostly verbatim from the Zenith translations, except for a few passages that are adjusted based on the Italian original in an attempt of a more literal rendering.
2 Which turns out to be highly consonant with William Blake’s depiction of that scene, shown at the top of this post.