The Pope, Man & Woman
Mary Shivanandan


"Be Not Afraid." These were the first words John Paul II spoke in St. Peter's Square after his election in 1979. The pope has followed this frequent admonition of Christ to his disciples. When others warned him that he should not go to the Holy Land because of the political situation or to Greece because of the opposition of the orthodox patriarchs the pope listened but went anyway and confounded his critics. Responding to his own question in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, "Of what should we not be afraid?" he replies, "We should not fear the truth about ourselves?" The pope is referring here to the truth about our sinfulness but we are afraid of more than that now. We are afraid of the very truth about ourselves as men and women. Here too, the pope has not hesitated to tackle the thorny question, what does it means to be a man and a woman.

Masculinity and femininity as a "problem" was not a central focus of the pope's pre-papal writings. In his plays he depicts the different attitudes and sufferings of men and women as husband, wife, mother and father but in his philosophical writings primary attention is given to analyzing the person and his acts. In Love and Responsibility, he merely notes different ways in which the man and woman respond to the marital act. In the sexual relationship he views the woman as more prone to sentimentality while the man is tempted by physical sexual values. In discussing "Intersubjectivity by Participation" in the last chapter of The Acting Person he refers to the fact that "mutual complementariness is in a way an intrinsic element in the very nature of participation but does not relate it to masculinity and femininity.

It was in the Wednesday Catecheses begun in 1979 before the Synod on the Family and continued until 1984 that he gave his most extensive treatment of the nature of man and woman and their union. He has given a privileged place to the creation texts of Genesis because it was Christ, himself who referred the Pharisees back to "the beginning" in his reply to their question about divorce. (Mt. 19, Mark 10). It is highly significant that he treats the nature of man and woman only in a theological framework. Without the transcendental dimension, which goes beyond the physical and psychological yet incorporates them, the identity and differentiation of the sexes come to be viewed as little more than a biological fact, which is not even immutable in our technological culture.

In the brief time we have today I want to focus on the implications of this transcendental dimension, both its absence and its presence for understanding man and woman and their relations. Before looking at the Pope's anthropology I shall briefly examine some contemporary views. My main focus will be on subjectivity and identity because women have been vigorously asserting their subjectivity in the face of a culture that purportedly denies them true agency. It is also a topic on which the pope has much to say.

Contemporary Views
Paradoxically at the same time women are claiming their subjectivity, there is a general trend in philosophy to deconstruct the individual and empty the self of any real substance. In the introduction to Identity and Social Change the editor comments: "No less than a 'veritable discursive exploration' . . .has occurred in recent years around questions of self, subjectivity, agency and multiple identities. These issues have been taken up by scholars of a wide variety, as well as by self-help writers, psychiatrists, business consultants, social movement activists, and many others. They are central to a host of current discussions dealing with such topics as the body, gender, ethnicity, therapy, citizenship, nationalism, education, postmodernism, multiculturalism, and ethics". The contributors to Identity and Social Change hail from different disciplines but all operate "within a theoretical framework of identity as socially constituted." (my Italics)

The most interesting contribution to the book is the final chapter, "Deception and Despair: Ironic Self-Identity in Modern Society." The author, Harvey Ferguson, regards the "problem" of identity as the central feature of modern society and linked especially to the rise of capitalism. The world became for many in his view "nothing but an objectification of the ego." He traces its beginnings to the late middle ages when objects began to be distinguished by their position "in space and time, rather than in terms of a differing 'essence' linked to their unchanging place within the Chain of Being." In other words participation in God's being, which St. Augustine posited for all of creation is now denied. The sense of this universal presence in all things gave way to "an inward and personal sense of self-certainty" expressed by Descartes', "Cogito ergo sum."

One result was the collapse of hierarchy and difference both by the objectification of modern science and by Descartes' asserting human reason as the final and only assurance of truth. But the isolation of subjectivity within the individual created an insuperable gap between object and subject. Beyond lies the "incommunicability of inwardness." Ferguson concludes that "every life relation becomes tinged with the irony of despair" the despair of not being able to communicate with another. He refers to the blurring of all distinctions in the postmodern world. Individuals are free either to choose an inner personal identity or to abandon the pursuit of inwardness altogether. With such fluidity, he says the world of appearances, the world of glamour, exercises a fascination over us and mocks our feeble efforts to assert a personal identity.

In February 1984 Stanford University held a conference entitled "Reconstructing Individualism." Contributor, Niklas Luhman represents perhaps the most extreme view. With regard to our modern era, Luhman notes that the "subject" is again fashionable in sociological circles as a counter to behaviorism, survey research and systems theory. But he categorically states that we should "drop the term 'subject,'" altogether. Kant's transcendental solution of an other-world status for self-referential consciousness, Luhman finds completely untenable. His solution is to regard the individual as simply an autopoietic system that reproduces itself. "There is no individuality ab extra, only self-referential individuality," and there are many types of autopoietic systems, from cells to societies. "Conscious systems," he asserts, have no exceptional status. "This is not to deny that we are all human" he says, "But to want to be human has no scientific basis. It amounts to sheer dilettantism."

The flight from the human is paralleled by the feminists' flight from woman. As Simone de Beauvoir states, femininity no longer exists since there are no longer exist fixed entities with determined characteristics. "But if we reject the "eternal feminine" she asks what is woman? The problem is that woman has always been defined as the Other in relation to man who is the "Subject," the "Absolute." Woman as Other is always "less" as an object to the subject.

As a conscious being, woman is more than an object and that sets up a reciprocal claim. De Beauvoir asks why this reciprocity has not been recognized? For the bond women have with men is different from that of any other oppressed group. "The couple," she acknowledges, "are a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together." And with surprising insight (since this is a Trinitarian view) she suggests that this reciprocity might have facilitated the liberation of women. Instead she charges that religion, law and science have subordinated women either because it is God's will or it is advantageous to society.

Other French feminists are more radical. While acknowledging a basic biological difference, they reject any arguments of difference based on nature, or the shape of the sex organs. To claim the right to difference is to claim the right to be oppressed. The overriding claim is to be autonomous. Women want access to the neuter and the general, not to be men but to destroy the idea of both man and woman. The words, "love, abnegation, devotedness" they attribute to the "faked languge of scorn." They conclude "There is no essence. . . .no woman, no femininity, no eternal feminine."

This is the postmodern backdrop for the pope's discourse on man and woman, the deconstruction of humanity by sociologists and philosophers and the deconstruction of woman by feminist scholars. What survives is a truncated human being, deprived of any sexual difference except the basic biological (and even that is not immutable) and cut off from all intrinsic relationality either with God or another human person.

As a philosopher, John Paul II is an existentialist personalist, so that he draws on the long history of the Christian concept of the person. Developing within the context of dialogue, the person is more than an isolated individual. Relationship is now seen to be central to personhood. John Paul II brought this philosophical study of the person to his reflections on man and woman made in the image in God. If the feminists, especially, would take the time to study John Paul II's theological anthropology they would find most of their deepest concerns addressed. Men, too, would find both their humanity and masculinity affirmed, paradoxically through a process not of domination but of self-gift.

Let us take the concept of "original solitude," which the pope draws from Genesis 2:18. "It is not good that man should be alone." When Adam is given the task of naming the animals, he discovers his superiority over them as well as his aloneness. His self knowledge, says John Paul II, develops at the same time as his knowledge of the world. He also becomes aware that he alone can till the ground and both discoveries are made on the basis of his body. "The body expresses the person." (Oct. 31, 1979). Furthermore he is given the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. In this way, says the pope, he becomes a "partner of the Absolute," a subject of the covenant. (Oct. 24, 1979). But his identity is not yet complete. He experiences a lack and that indicates man is by nature open to relationship; he is not a self-enclosed autonomous individual. The creation of Eve was necessary for Adam to discover who he is as a male person and it is only together with Eve that they image God. Neither Adam, nor Eve alone completely image God but both together. They image God more as a communion of persons. (Oct. 7, 1979) "Man becomes the image of God not so much in original solitude as in the moment of communion. He is in fact right from the 'beginning' not only an image in which there is reflected the solitude of a Person who rules the world but also, and essentially, an image of an inscrutable divine communion of persons." ( Nov. 14, 1979)

The creation of Eve from Adam's side, while he is in a deep sleep almost of non-being, signifies that Eve is made of the same human substance as Adam. She has all the characteristics possessed by Adam in original solitude: a unique relationship with God intellect and will, and dominion over the world. The pope describes them as a "double solitude." They differ only in being different bodily manifestations of the same humanity. (Nov. 14, 1979)

Adam and Eve were created for unity, a unity that affirms everything they are in original solitude. Adam first receives Eve from the hand of God. This receptivity and recognition of the woman as gift and not as a possession are at the basis of their reciprocity. The woman must always be received as a "disinterested" gift for her own sake. The original nakedness of Genesis 2: 25 is a witness to the fullness of the gift each was to the other. Adam's exclamation, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," the pope interprets first of all as a sister relation. It is the level of the woman as a personal subject. It is always the deepest level of their communion and grounds their one-flesh union.

The biblical text calls Adam 'ish and Eve 'ishah for the first time after the creation of Eve because it is only in the encounter with the woman that he is confirmed in his masculine identity. Far from diminishing the subjectivity of Adam and Eve, sexual difference manifests it in a more complete way. When Eve conceives and they become parents, they have a new knowledge of themselves and a fuller consciousness of their humanity.

Original nakedness and original shame are two key concepts the pope draws from the Genesis text. Original shame he calls a "boundary" experience, because its reference point is original innocence while its actuality is the historical state of sin after the Fall. (Dec. 19, 1979). Phenomenology has given the pope a way to access lived experience, and he asserts that we can draw theological conclusions from such experience. Through the experience of shame man and woman are aware of something lost; intimations of a state before the Fall when they had what he calls the "peace of the interior gaze" in each other's presence, a total acceptance of each other as personal subjects. It signals a continuity between the two states, which Christ confirms in his words to the Pharisees. (Jan. 2, 1980).

This emphasis on the original state of innocence rather than the historical state of concupiscence is of vital significance in the pope's anthropology. It is a refusal to view the oppression of one sex by the other as inevitable. It is not what man and woman are called to. On the contrary the masculinity and femininity of Adam and Eve are a sign of their destiny to participate in divine Trinitarian communion. With the grace of original innocence they could actually begin to participate in that communion.

Even after the Fall their one-flesh union in marriage was a privileged symbol of God's covenant with his people. The pope speaks of the prophetism of the body. Just as the prophets speak of the people's worship of idols as adultery and fidelity to God's word as conjugal fidelity, so too the body speaks a language of either fidelity or infidelity. (Jan. 26, 1983)But it was not until the Incarnation and Redemption by Christ that the distorted relations between man and woman could be healed. It is only by recognizing this that the distortions of gender and the abuses of sexual responsibility that mark our age can be addressed.

A key passage for the pope is Matthew 5:27-28 in which Christ says: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The passage applies to all men but especially to the husband, says John Paul II, because lust reduces the woman to an object instead of a subject. Because of original sin, woman is always in danger of being treated as an object of lust. Chastity, including marital chastity, enables man--and woman--to place their sexual urge at the service of the person and of love. Chastity, he says, in Love and Responsibility is essential to the person. It both requires effort and is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is only within the context of the redemptive love of Christ that man and woman can live again what he calls the "freedom of the gift." Fearless as he is, the pope plunges right into the text of Ephesians 5:21-33, a text some pastors will not even read from the pulpit. In "Letter to Families," John Paul II calls it a "summa, in some sense, of .the teaching about God and man which was brought to fulfillment in Christ." Exegesis of the text reveals that Verse 5: 21 "Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ" is key. In the Greek text, the word for submission is not repeated as in the English translation. "Wives be submissive to your husbands. . . The exhortation leads into the difference ways man and woman are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ The pope stresses both in the Wednesday Catechesis and in Mulieris Dignitatem that just as Christ gave up himself for the Church the husband is called to love first and to give himself up for his wife. The mutual submission the pope describes as "an experiencing of love." ( Sept. 1, 1982). The man loves first in order for the woman to love in return. The Greek verb used in the middle voice for submit is used elsewhere in the bible to describe Christ's submission to the Father.

In the analogy of marriage to Christ's union with the Church, both the man and the woman are on the side of the Church. Femininity represents the fundamental receptivity of all humanity to God. It is this primary receptivity to God, that grounds and determines any relations between the sexes. In original solitude Adam received Eve as a gift from God. They both received their humanity itself from God and their primary responsibility for themselves and one another is always due to God. Naturally speaking (or so it seems to me) it is with good reason in Ephesians 5 that it is the husband who is urged to give himself up for the wife and not vice versa. Since the Fall the woman is only too ready to give up her integrity, her subjectivity because of her "urge" for her husband. It is the case in many instances of abortion. The man on the other hand either withholds himself or seeks to dominate the woman.

The pope, like so many before him, holds up Mary as the model for woman. The two aspects he highlights the most are her motherhood, which is traditional and her subjectivity, which is new and in some ways revolutionary. In Mulieris dignitatem, he writes: "Through her response of faith Mary exercises her free will and thus fully shares with her personal and feminine "I" in the event of the incarnation. With her fiat she becomes the authentic subject of that union with God which was realized in the mystery of the incarnation of the Word". Likewise he makes reference to the woman's subjectivity, notably in nos. 6, 13 and 14.

But her subjectivity is marked by " a special openness to the new person." (no. 18) The dignity of the woman must always be measured by the order of love. It was only with Eve's creation that the conditions for love were established so that from the beginning the woman is called to love and to be loved. She can only find herself by loving and being loved. That is true of the man also but the woman has a special kind of prophetism because of her femininity. And it is linked in a special way to motherhood.

Rethinking feminism
That is perhaps where the pope differs most strongly from radical feminism. Motherhood, physical or spiritual, is an intrinsic dimension of woman's subjectivity. The pope has called for a new feminism, which takes full account of woman's contribution to the public square within the context of the priority of motherhood. Some secular feminists are now rethinking woman and motherhood. Silvia Vegetti Finzi notes that "the woman/mother-figure suffered a kind of historical shipwreck and was destined to disappear along with economic underdevelopment." Women, she asserts, are "now working on a historical, psychological and political rehabilitation of natural motherhood." She continues: "our reproductive distinctiveness is too great and rich to be reduced to an option for self-realization or turned into a sublimated availability."

A feminist historian traces the two strands of feminism, the individualist and the relational, which stressses woman's unique role as mother. She calls on feminists to "re-appropriate the relational part of our intellectual heritage . . . to reclaim the power of difference as women define it . . . .to reweave it once again with the appeal to the principle of human freedom that underlines the individualist tradition."

It seems to me that is precisely what John Paul II is doing. But he is also doing much more. He is placing masculinity and femininity in a Trinitarian context.. His guide has always been Gaudium et Spes no. 24 "The Lord Jesus, when praying to the Father, 'that they may all be one . . .even as we are one (Jn. 17:21-22), had opened up new horizons closed to human reason by implying that there is a certain parallel between the union existing among the divine persons and the union of the sons of God in truth and love. It follows then; that if man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself". Masculininity and femininity, the pope maintains, are ontological categories that reflect the very being of the Trinity. As Angelo Scola says, reflecting on the pope's thought as well as on von Balthasar's and others', the whole of creation is nuptial.

John Paul II describes the tasks of man and woman as their humanity, their masculinity and femininity and the communion, the communion of love and total self gift. They image in their very flesh divine trinitarian communion. The indissolubility of Christian marriage flows from and images Christ's union with the Church, which is, itself, a participation in divine Trinitarian communion. All of this places great responsibilities on both men and women; on man to image the initiating, self-giving love of the Father for the Son, God for his people and Christ for his Church; and on woman to receive this love and offer herself in return in the full integrity of her being. Although such communion will not be fully achieved in this life, it is both our task and our ultimate destiny.

'This paper was delivered at the August 2001 symposium on Pope John Paul II, held at the Catholic Chaplaincy of Oxford University at the end of the Plater College Summer School. The paper will be published as part of the Chaplaincy's 'Occasional Papers' series. Address: The Old Palace, Rose Place, St Aldate's, Oxford .'