Home Page  

Deborah Savage Home Page

Man and Woman He Created Them:
Sharing Vocations in the Home and in the World

A Talk by Dr Deborah Savage

Holy Spirit Catholic Church

March 22, 2009

Good evening. It is such an honor to have been invited to speak with you tonight about a topic that, in my judgment – and not to put to fine a point on it –  is absolutely critical in grasping how we might go about recovering our culture, how we might work together to rescue it quite literally from the jaws of death.  Since the moment Eve was tempted and then invited Adam to join her, the serpent has been at work in history, obscuring the fundamental complementarity that characterizes authentic relationships between man and woman  - and confusing the nature not only of our shared vocations but of our shared responsibility.  It seems so clear to me that we need to get this straight - and quickly - before we lose another generation of young men and women to the culture of death. We have a little girl, Maddie, whom we adopted as a newborn 6.5 years ago now – and the way I look at it is that we have a little less than 7 years before she is 13 – and I am on a mission to get this cleared up before then. 

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I usually talk about John Paul II’s insights into the nature of the feminine genius. Heard about that? No? He first writes about it in 1988 in an encyclical entitled Mulieris Dignitatem – On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. And then again in a shorter Letter to Women in 1995 on the eve of the Beijing conference on women.

But I bet I can guess that whether or not you have heard it expressed this way, whether or not you realized before tonight that John Paul’s teaching on women is an official part of the Church’s magisterium, you probably know about the feminine genius already. Anyone with a mom knows about it. Anyone who is a mom knows about it. Indeed, we all know about it. Anyway, I am usually in front of a group of women and we have a great time. We share a common experience, a sort of secret joke, and I have lots of good and really very funny examples – and some that are not so funny – of how this feminine genius plays out in both family and professional life. Some of them you will hear tonight, especially since I left Andrew at home so I can speak freely.

But when Jeanne invited me to speak to you tonight I realized that I have become a bit uncomfortable with that, as true and as fun as it is.  Tonight I will argue, along with JPII, and the Church’s own teaching, that the feminine genius is a reality, but it exists in a context – and that context is what he calls “complementarity” – the equally concrete reality that - though men and women share the same human nature and share equally in the life of grace – that our embodiment as male or female reflects a difference that is not only physical and psychological but “ontological” – in other words, we are both equally and naturally graced AND ALSO distinct from each other in our very being.  Just as there is an obvious complementarity in our physical makeup – there is also a perhaps sometimes mysterious but nonetheless real and significant complementarity in the way that we ARE, in our very essences and in relation to each other.

The Church teaches that the unity that arises from the relationship of a man and a woman is found not only in the marital act and our natural capacity to create life. She argues that this uni-duality is a mission and that God has entrusted to man and woman, not only the work of procreation and family life, but the creation of history itself.  We really cannot speak about the feminine genius apart from the genius of men. And I think if we could truly understand the significance of complementarity, our homes – or at least my home - might be more peaceful – but we also would see the way in which we must work together for the sake of humankind.

The research tells us that the single most important influence in a young girl’s life is her Father. And I see her Father’s influence in Maddie’s fearless willingness to tackle new challenges, to encounter new people, to play and to work hard. From her father she will learn virtue, and to respect herself, to affirm her own personhood because he does. From her father she will learn the value of a dollar and the importance of keeping a promise. She will learn that men are reliable – that they give of themselves every day for the good of their families. She will learn that men pray to God, look with awe and adoration at the Crucified Christ, go to confession, seek forgiveness. When Maddie grows up, if she decides that marriage is her calling, she will look for a man like her Daddy and may she settle for nothing less.

In part because of the work I do – but also because Maddie goes to Nativity Catholic School, she has a natural love and trust of priests. It doesn’t matter whether it is a seminarian or Deacon Steve – or Monsignor Callaghan – she calls them Father. The last gathering we were at at the seminary, from across the room I saw her with Monsignor, making him and the group he was with laugh and holding his hand, sort of swinging it. I thought oops, better go rescue him, but it was fine. Think of the daughter or the son who respects their Father, counts on them, wants to be like them, and then think of how that love gets reflected in their feelings for the Church, for the priesthood, for the treasure of our faith.

No, the genius of women cannot be understood apart from the genius of men, and as we will see, this God-given quality is meant to be put into the service of the family and of our community. It is not intended to make us into women obsessed with our power, but into servants whose only wish is put our gifts at the service of the kingdom.

Now I only have about an hour so we are going to have to keep this somewhat simple. With the help of three passages from the first 2 chapters of the Book of Genesis, passages that are foundational in JPII’s own work, we are going to consider first the biblical origin of this idea of complementarity and how that is illuminated by its expression in John Paul’s understanding of the feminine genius – though we won’t leave it at that – Then we will think a bit about how it manifests in our work together both in the home and in the world.

But first, the undercurrent of all of these reflections is what John Paul refers to as the Law of the Gift, truly the organizing principle of his entire body of work, the conviction that man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.  Readers of JPII know that the most frequently cited passage found in his work are the texts from #22 and 24 of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral…from the Second Vatican Council: that Jesus Christ revealed not only the love of the Father, but also reveals us to ourselves. Man is made in the image of a God who is in his very nature a relationship of three persons eternally engaged in a perpetual act of self-gift to each other - a Trinity of Persons who perfectly give and perfectly receive throughout eternity – and that therefore man cannot fully find himself except through the sincere gift of self. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope he points out that authentic human relationships are characterized by the encounter of the “I and the thou.” And that it is this I-thou relationship that is a fundamental dimension of human existence: genuine human existence is always coexistence.  What we are seeking to understand more clearly tonight is if and how that coexistence can be more fully realized by grasping the significance of the complementarity of men and women as they create history together.

Ok - You may have heard of a very popular book published several years ago called Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – it is a clever title and the book offers some interesting psychological insights into different communication styles. But the implication is that we are in fact from different planets, different species so to speak forever burdened by the obtuseness of the other…And perhaps we would all be willing to admit that sometimes it does seem that way. But here is another version. Here is the Catholic version. JPII would most certainly agree with the title of a book written by Catholic philosopher Dr. Mary Healy. Men and Women are not from Mars or Venus: NO, he might say, MEN AND WOMEN ARE FROM EDEN.

John Paul would say that “if we want to discover the real meaning of man and woman and the reasons why we relate to one another as we do then we must probe not only our psychological makeup or our typical behaviors but, more importantly, what God has revealed about our ultimate origins.” (Healy, 1-2)  And that is what JPII in fact, does. He considers anew the account of the creation of man and woman and their mandate, found as I said, in Genesis 1-3.

We will return to John Paul’s insights in a moment – but I am going to begin with an example.

Andrew and I will be married 20 years on April 1. But I remember our marriage prep almost as if it were yesterday. Fr. John Levoir (now Bishop Levoir) helped us with our marriage preparation and also married us. It had all happened rather fast. We knew each other for several years but only had our first official date on August 3 and he asked me to marry him on Sept 17 and then we planned to be married the following April. It was no small thing for either of us: I was 36, Andrew was 40. Neither of us had ever been married before. Our families were ecstatic. But time was short and there was a lot to do. I was trying to do my part to get things underway but I just could not get him to cooperate something I tried very hard to do without getting too bossy. I did not want to create the wrong impression!

One night at a marriage prep session, sort of out of desperation, I asked Father Levoir what is the woman supposed to do to get the man to do what she knows needs to be done without being a nag. Father Levoir’s answer surprised both of us: He said: well, you have to remember that the woman sees the big picture and her job is to maintain the life of the family…I guess I expected him to say you know – the man is in charge, etc. – but no. I sort of looked at Andrew…I think Andrew was more surprised than I was and being the good Catholic man that he is, I mean if a priest says it…At this point I can say that he remembers Fr. Levoir’s remark when it is convenient. 

But this may provide a more personal context for what John Paul II is onto here and something concrete to keep in mind as we take a closer look at his theory. I know this is not a theology course and I know that our main interest is to see how this cashes out in the home and in the world. So I will try to make short work of it - but let’s turn briefly to our first passage from Genesis, the first of two creation accounts, at Genesis 1:26.

Here God says he will make man (adam) in his image and so “God created man (adam) in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” We know from this passage that this reveals that we have a special relationship to God that is unlike that of any other creature. Only the human being is a person, only the human person was made for his own sake, only the human person has reason and free will. Only a human being can know the truth and freely act in accord with it.

But one of John Paul’s most profound insights is to illuminate what he says is actually the main point of this account: that man AS MALE AND FEMALE is made in the image of God. In Genesis 1, it does not say that God created us in his image as generic human beings but as male and female, a phrase that believe it or not has pretty much been taken for granted for about 3000 years. The significance of this line, says the Holy Father, is that it reveals that the body matters.

Our very embodiment as either male or female – that is, our sexual complementarity – reveals something significant about us and thus about God. He points out that in all of creation, only the human body is the expression of a person, an image of the very personhood of God; and the body is an outward sign that reveals the inner person, a visible sign of an inner reality, that is, our bodies are sacramental, sacraments that express our personhood and reveal that we are created for relationship. And this idea of complementarity is immediately visible in the shape our bodies take as male and female; it is this that makes it possible for the two to become one flesh, for the gift of self to be offered and accepted and received in its totality – at least when the conditions prevail that reflect God’s complete vision and intention of sexual union.

Now this is the place to consider at least the origin and meaning of the feminine genius; we will come back to it again in a few moments.  But the significance of embodiment as male and female is also the starting place for understanding the feminine genius.  And I bring this in, not because women are better than men, or geniuses exactly. But because we have to start somewhere and frankly, John Paul concentrated primarily on this aspect of the uni-duality we are seeking to understand.  We will come to the genius of men shortly.

In any case, according to John Paul II, the complementarity we seek to understand begins with the recognition that only women can give life. The feminine genius is grounded in the undeniable fact that all women possess both the physical and psychic capacity to be mothers and – here is the punch, so to speak - as a consequence are more likely and more capable than men of paying attention to another person. But, John Paul says, this attitude is not a feature only of those who are mothers or of those who plan to be mothers in the physical sense.  It is true of women, because every woman possesses this unique capacity in the depths of her being, this capacity for love, for being a gift to others, no matter what form it takes. Motherhood can also be according to the Spirit" (cf. Rom 8:4). And, he says, virginity does not deprive a woman of these natural capacities and prerogatives.  Nonetheless, actual motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The Holy Father says: The unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings - not only towards her own child, but every human being – and profoundly marks the woman's personality.   

Now we know there are people who will argue that this is just cultural conditioning and we will return to that in a moment. But just for now, did you know that scientists have discovered in their observation of infants that baby girls are vastly more likely to look at people’s faces, especially the mother’s than are little boys – who tend to look more at objects?

We don’t have time to go into this deeply but John Paul points to Mary as the icon of the feminine genius - for in her we find it in its perfected state – and her fiat reveals the free act of a fully active subject whose yes to God gave women for ever after an exalted place in the history of salvation.  He argues that in Mary we find what “signifies the fullness of the perfection of what is characteristic of woman, of what is feminine.” She is “full of grace,” but this fullness does not cast nature aside or negate it. On the contrary, it perfects and ennobles it. She is not an inert and passive object to which something is merely done, an accidental means through which something is accomplished. She is a fully “authentic subject” whose “I” participates in the union affected by God’s action on her (Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 4). That is, she is a person who recognizes fully that in saying “yes” to God, she also engages in a profoundly personal act of self-determination. Mary is actively receptive, a full actor in the unfolding drama of salvation. She represents the “culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women” because she appropriates her role consciously and intentionally. 

The complementarity of men and women can only be fully manifest when all of us come to see that the origin of the dignity and vocation of women is found in this capacity to be mothers – this does not mean that all they are called to do in life is to change dirty diapers and clean the house, as we will see in a moment – but what it does reveal is that in the depths of her being, along with this capacity to bear life, every woman has an intelligence that issues from this reality – she sees the other and naturally turns toward him, includes the reality of the person in her deliberations. One of the most frequent lessons I learned  when working in the corporate world was to not be afraid to be the one person in the room who argued for a large enough vision that included the actual experience of the persons we were about to impact in our decisions.  I know now that I gave up too easily too often, intimidated by the men around me who thought that my concerns were just the overly sensitive, unnecessarily emotional, unforgivingly process-oriented – sometime strident – expressions of the female of the species. This is what needs to be recognized.

In Evangelium Vitae 99 John Paul says: in transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a new feminism which rejects the temptation of imitating models of male domination in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.” He goes on, I address to women this urgent appeal: “Reconcile people with life” You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife but which ought to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship.”  This is why the Compendium on the social teaching of the church says and  I quote: the feminine genius is needed in all aspects of society and therefore the presence of women in the workplace must be guaranteed.

On the other hand - I remember about two weeks after we brought Maddie home, Andrew had agreed to care for her for awhile while I took a little nap. I got up after awhile and walked into the kitchen. In our kitchen we have a little butcher block island and very hard tile floors – and on the butcher block island I found little Maddie, laying on her back looking up at the ceiling. No sign of Andrew. I had to go look for him and when I found him, I will let you guess what I said. But, he said – she can’t even roll over yet. Nothing happened. But it could have.

Fast forward six months. Maddie on the ladder. Nothing happened, but it could have. Maddie and her bike helmet. But nothing happened. But it could have. A friend says if children only had daddies, many more of them wouldn’t make it to the first grade; if children only had mommies, they would be worried, fearful, risk-averse stunted little beings.

I see her Father’s influence in Maddie’s fearless willingness to tackle new challenges, to encounter new people, to play and to work hard. From her father she will learn virtue, and to respect herself, to affirm her own personhood because he does. From her father she will learn the value of a dollar and the importance of keeping a promise. She will learn that men are reliable – that they give of themselves every day for the good of their families.

We have seen that John Paul argues that clearly God meant something specific when he created both male and female. And contrary to what the radical feminists might say, John Paul and the Church are most definitely NOT arguing that women are supposed to be meek, passive bystanders in the drama of life. No – we are at the center of it. And further he argues that our capacity for an active receptivity to others is exactly what is needed in order to insure that life is more human for all. Women have a role to play both in the home and in the world.  Men may need to learn more respect for the insights of the women in their lives, but they must not stop being men. We need them for their heroic strength, their courage, - which is not just physical. We need their vision, their virtue. There is nothing more manly than a virtuous man, and nothing is more needed now than a man who knows who he is and is not afraid to be one…We need to help each other to become that most excellent person God had in mind when he created us – male or female.

Let us continue with our reflection on Genesis - In Genesis 2, the sacred author describes man being made from the dust of the earth, then naming the animals and so on. Then God, realizing that none of the creatures correspond to Adam’s own being, and that it is not good for Adam to be alone, decides it is necessary to make a “suitable helper” (in some translations) “suitable partner” (in other translations) – in the best the Jewish Tanak - a fitting helper for him – then puts him into a deep sleep and forms the woman from Adam’s rib.  Adam says “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” for he recognizes another person, a being equal to himself, a someone, not a something – a someone he can love, to whom he can make of himself a gift and who can reciprocate in kind. 

Now – just to put a lingering concern to rest – the Hebrew for helper here “ezer” does not mean what some feminists fear – servant or slave. In fact, the word used to express helper or partner is a word that is used to indicate someone who is most definitely NOT a slave or even remotely subservient – there is the sense of an equal, a partner. Eve is not to be his cook, laundress or scullery maid, his slave – a different word would have been used if that were the intention – but someone who can help him to live… Even more to the point, in the act of creating Eve from Adam’s rib, we see that she is made of the very same nature as he is. If anything, she is higher in the scheme of things – for after all keep in mind that Adam was made from merely dust.

Time for another example.  Andrew and I spent our wedding night at a hotel but I did not want to go back to my own house for one minute after we were married and so once all the family left the next day, I spent the second night with Andrew at his house where we planned to live.  We woke up Monday morning and Andrew started to get ready for work. Within minutes I heard what is now a fairly familiar cry: Where are my socks? My response was immediate as I tried to help. And then after a few moments of worry, I said, hey wait a minute. How do I know, I have only been here one night…I looked at him to see if he was serious – and do you know, I believe he actually was… Over the years I have come to understand that though I am in charge of the socks – and to believe with all my heart that some of them end up in a gigantic collective sock bag in the sky – and though I seem to have this mysterious capacity to remember where he left his shoes, or talk on the phone while feeding the dog, getting the dishes done and Maddie into the bathtub, or to remember that it is library day and to slip Maddie’s library book into her backpack, or to know exactly when Maddie needs a hug not a push – the examples can be multiplied indefinitely – think about what happens in your own homes - it is not because I am Andrew’s servant – unless you mean it in the way Christ means it, of course – any more than Andrew’s uncanny ability to remember that it is time to change the oil in the car, or to fix the bathroom sink, or to know the precise moment when he needs to assure me that everything is going to be all right or – that Maddie needs a push, not a hug – means that he is mine. What it means is that we are both called to put our gifts at the service of our marriage and our home.  And so is he. In fact, let me just point out that the first line of that controversial passage from Ephesians 5 21– 33 – you know the passage – it’s the one that everyone winces at these days and I think sometimes we skip part of it during the readings at Mass – the one that says wives be submissive to your husbands? The passage starts by saying that we are both to be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Now again the more suspicious among us may say – oh that is just a matter of conditioning. Your mom did that sort of thing and so you do as well. That is just the prison women live in. A self described radical feminist of a certain persuasion said to me one day without my even bringing these examples up: Why should I be responsible or better equipped for knowing where your socks are just because I have a womb? 

So, let’s consider something even more telling perhaps because it is most definitely not embedded in western culture and its traditions. Something a world away – and certainly not funny. Women in Africa. Aid workers will only give the relief supplies to the women because they take it back to their villages. The men sell them on the black market.

These examples are telling but aren’t these just funny or sad anecdotes about the different roles women and men play – but without real significance or any deeper meaning than what can be explained through reference to circumstance or culture? Or do they provide insight into the actual nature, the personhood of men and women? I can say with certainty that, were he here right now, John Paul would say  but of course, it is to be expected that women would be more likely to take the relief supplies back to the village. They are mothers or potential mothers. They are born to care for the world.

I remember at a certain point in one of our “rare” arguments, Andrew said to me “well you know, I am the King around here” And I said right back at him – “that is quite all right, honey, because I am the Queen.”  This is my sense of how these differences play out – they are actually a reflection of the kingly office of Christ - which is said to manifest in a kind of sovereignty over ourselves – by our baptism, we become a kind of royal priesthood and the husband and wife are to be sovereigns of the family, each responsible for the kingdom and the castle. Like true royalty – both the king and the queen are to be kind and graceful, competent yet patient, leaders, yes, but not despots. The husband keeps his eye on the horizon, protects the borders, makes the castle safe from intruders and insures the prosperity of the kingdom. The wife is to insure there is peace in the home, that all is in order, that harmony reigns – at least once the children are put to bed…No less a saint than St. John Chrysostom wrote in the first part of the 4th century that what St. Paul meant in that passage from Ephesians was absolutely intended to create harmony, which he says if it prevails in the home, leads to great benefits for both the family and the state. It is almost a political, a social arrangement, one that, though has its origin in the order of creation, is not a comment on the ontological status of women.

Now there remains but one last passage for us to consider as we try to understand what John Paul and the Church are calling us to and we will have to do it very briefly – At Genesis 1:28, Adam and Eve hear these words: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” This passage is understood in the tradition as the call to work – the call to get busy…Here is a sort of trick question for you. Do these passages come before or after the fall?

That is right, they come before. So what? Well, once again JPII spells out the implications of an otherwise dormant passage from Genesis. He points out in his Encyclical on human work, that this means that work cannot be seen then as a punishment for sin but is a natural part of our human condition. In fact, John Paul tells us that the only conclusion we can draw from this account is that – and here is a familiar phrase - work is in fact a fundamental dimension of human existence; it is an integral part of the mystery of creation itself.  I like to tell my students that if they were thinking that heaven is a place where we sit around in lawn chairs drinking our favorite adult beverage, to think again. It looks like there is work to be done in paradise.

Now, I do not have time to develop his whole argument so you will just have to take my word for it for tonight. But he argues that through our work we reflect the creative activity of God and that this creativity is directed not only toward the external results of our work, but also in the process of working, we create ourselves, we become more of a human being. Through our work, we achieve fulfillment  - we become who we are meant to be through the work that we do. Now for JPII work means not just what we do for pay, but anything we consider work: serving a meal, diapering a baby, mowing a lawn, as well as going to the office or factory or farm. It includes the labor of mothers, of fathers in the home – of volunteers serving soup to the homeless – of laborers in a factory – of restaurant workers – of students – of teachers. Work is not to be the act of an automaton, a mere functionary but, at least potentially, in the language of our tradition, it is an act of a person and its value comes not from its objective result, but from the fact that the one doing it is a person who, by virtue of his or her very humanity, is called to be a person in the fullest sense of that word. 

Why does this matter here, tonight? Because according to John Paul II we become the man or the woman God had in mind when he created us through two fundamental dimensions of human existence: through self-donation, through the act of self-gift that is meant to be a reciprocal exchange between men and women, not only in the marital act but in the human relationships that constitute authentic coexistence. And through our work, our work together for the kingdom.  The man may keep us focused on what needs to be done; but the woman must keep us focused on who it is for. And all must remember that the Law of the Gift only has meaning when the exchange is between persons.  We cannot really make a gift of ourselves to a bottom line, a meal, a report – because there is no reciprocity.  The Law of the Gift points to a reciprocal relationship – a mutual self-giving. 

In closing, I would point your attention to something Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, says constitutes the Church – the Church he says, is above all a place of reconciliation, of forgiveness. I say that if this is true of the universal church, if it is true of particular churches, then it is particularly true of the domestic church.  There are days when we do not understand each other; there are days when we hurt each other, whether intentionally or not.  But true complementarity in a Christian household will only find its fulfillment when both the husband and the wife are ready to forgive and to ask for forgiveness – and to show their children the way to authentic personhood in Christ.

I thank you.

Copyright ©; Dr Deborah Savage 2009

Version: 14th April 2010

Home Page  

Deborah Savage Home Page