I've already discussed pretty much everything infallibly defined by the Church about gender. There isn't much -- in fact, the only things that separate the sexes is that men can be priests and women can't, and that each may only marry a spouse of the opposite sex. And while there were isolated saints and catechisms which suggested women should always stay at home, that women were less rational, or that women were an inferior helpmeet of men, there are also writings not on the infallible level suggesting the opposite.
But what if we talk about some of the mystical and theological tradition of the Church about gender? Is there anything we can learn here that could shed some light on what the nature of men and women is?
A recurring thread I've heard discussed in many places is the "mystical parallels" theory. I don't know who came up with it; I've seen it in discussions on the theology of the body, but I haven't seen it in any of what I've read of the theology of the body itself. Certainly a beginning of it is mentioned by St. Paul, when he compares a husband and wife to Christ and the Church. In the past I've shied away from thinking this way, but I feel it's time to face it dead-on and see if I can come up with some answers.
It goes, more or less, like this. God is masculine, and we can think of creation as feminine. Christ is masculine, and we consider the Church to be feminine. A priest is masculine (standing in for Christ), the congregation is feminine (a part of the Church). And a husband, being male, is masculine, while the wife is feminine.
In each of these relationships, the masculine principle is the one who initiates, who begins a process of creation. Then the feminine principle is the one who carries it out, who receives it within herself and brings it to reality. This was what Milton was talking about when he said "Thou O Spirit ... from the first / Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
/ Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad'st it pregnant." It is always the masculine begetting something within the feminine, and the feminine gestating it and bringing it to birth. Of course it's all metaphorical, except in the case of individual couples specifically when they are engaged in procreation.
In fact, it isn't even unique to Christianity. There are many pagan religions that had the same concept: some kind of father god who was identified with the sun or sky, and a mother goddess associated with the earth. In some cases, the male god is the dominant one, in some it's the goddess, and some focus on duality in a roughly equal sense. In some cases the sexual metaphor was taken so far as to be carried out in a "sacred marriage" in which the priest and priestess would be publicly joined together; in others, regular people went and had sex in the fields to guarantee fertility for the coming year.
It doesn't bother me that this isn't at all new. After all, if it's this deep of a reality within the universe, it's no wonder other people have had the same idea. What interests me more is how the dominance of the male god corresponds usually with a male-dominant culture, whereas goddess-dominant religions often were matriarchal.
In Christianity, there is no doubt about which is dominant. In all the spiritual applications of the metaphor, the masculine is greater than the feminine, even though this domination is always in a loving sort of way.
This brings up the question, how far are individual men and women supposed to fit into this metaphor? Aside from procreation, there is no sense in which all relations between the sexes are characterized by male initiation and female receptiveness. Some say there should be -- that even if it isn't going on in a hierarchical sense, of the man making decisions and the wife obeying, that there is some sense in which the man should be the initiator and the woman the responder.
Melinda Selmys said, when I asked her about it, that this is defining the metaphor much too narrowly, and that it is completely possible for a woman to be an initiator while being 100% feminine -- that femininity is a great deal more than can be described as simple receptiveness. She might be right, but if so, the mystical parallel is not all that exact. And that's all right, it doesn't have to be. I know my husband is not entirely like Christ, nor am I a perfect image of the Church.
It's also not impossible to say that the spiritual realities of masculine initiator and feminine receiver might be enacted across gender lines in individual men and women. There are times when a man might partake in the spiritual feminine, and a woman might take part in the spiritual masculine.
That's easily proven in the case of men. Individual men are part of the feminine Church -- it's fair to say that their relationship with God is a submissive, responsive one. In the Mass, the congregation might be symbolizing something spiritually feminine, but about half the members of the congregation are actually male.
I can't come up with any examples in the case of women, though. The "feminine" congregation might be made up of partly men, but the masculine priesthood is exclusively male. There is no room whatsoever for an individual woman to be enacting something spiritually masculine in this case. Is there any case in which she could take part in what is spiritually masculine? I can't think of one.
Complementarian Protestants have no problem with this, because they aren't thinking in terms of duality, but of hierarchy. A man can be submissive with regard to God, but in authority with respect to his wife. The woman is submissive to her husband, but in authority over her children. But Catholicism, as I understand it, doesn't necessarily say this, because it isn't so much about authority at all.
At least, I don't think it should be. But if the gender metaphor isn't about hierarchy, but duality, why is there an unevenness in so many places? Why can men be in the place of the feminine Church, but women can never stand in for Christ? Why is God masculine?
I was told, growing up, that one of the ways humans are in the image of God is that we exist in a community of love, just as the Trinity does. And just as the love between the Father and the Son results in a new person, the Holy Spirit, the love between a husband and wife becomes a new person, the child. But why then are all three persons of the Trinity generally considered to be masculine? Is the feminine not really necessary or eternal?
This does not, in itself, make me unequal. But it would make me feel much better as a woman to know that one of two things were the case: either that the feminine is equal in greatness with the masculine, or that I as an individual woman can have both a masculine and a feminine side and can act at different times in a masculine or a feminine way. Otherwise I am forced to identify myself solely with something lesser, and I don't care for that.
You see why I've avoided this topic for such a long time. I can't see how the mystical view of men and women is at all compatible with equality. It seems if you follow the metaphor strictly, you will wind up saying women may never lead, women may never initiate, and that women's main place is only in nurturing areas. True, the Church doesn't teach infallibly that this is so. But I don't know how the Church's view of gender could develop any further than it has, without developing in a direction I don't much like. What already has been said seems to place us on a course toward teaching women's inferiority -- a course we've been on since the rather sexist patristic and medieval writers. The best the Church can do is refrain from teaching that sort of thing -- I don't see a way that it can teach the opposite without abandoning things we are already infallibly committed to, like the male-only priesthood or the book of Ephesians. Meanwhile in practical terms, the voice of women isn't heard much simply because most Catholics are married, faithful married Catholics usually end up having lots of babies, and in most cases the women are all too busy being pregnant and nursing to contribute very much.
Am I missing something? Or should I just be grateful I am not being forced into lifelong subjugation to a man, because being lesser in some vague metaphysical sense is -- especially in view of human history -- really not so bad?
Or is this just a metaphor stretched waytheheck beyond what St. Paul ever intended?