Part 11: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 11 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

In the previous article of this web series, I quoted Pope St. John Paul II on the importance of making "a renewed commitment to the Gospel vision" regarding the dignity of women. Clearly, by "the Gospel vision," he did not mean exactly the same thing as the vision of liberal, secular egalitarianism. The New Feminism that he called for, while it certainly holds that men and women are of equal value as children of God, does not mean that they are interchangeable in every respect. In fact, according to St. John Paul II, male and female are "naturally different, yet complementary ways of being fully and equally human." These differences are biologically rooted, to be sure, but given the profound and intimate unity between the body, the emotions, and the immaterial soul in each and every person, their significance rises to the very heights of the spiritual vocations that God gave to men and women.

First of all, there are the obvious genetic differences between the sexes. Manfred Hauke writes:

Hereditary factors [ordinarily] determine that every human being is either a male or a female. There is no single cell in the human body that is not sexually imprinted .... For males there are two different chromosomes, termed X and Y, while for females the two are the same, XX .... Genetic membership of one of the sexes, determined by chromosomes, then serves as the basis for further differentiations. Between the fifth and eighth week of pregnancy, the rudimentary reproductive gland develops into ovaries, in the case of the XX cells, or testes, in the case of the XY cells. ... Certain hormones that are brought into play by the genes contribute to this process .... Due to the differences in distribution of these hormones, the sex characteristics of men and women can be more or less strongly developed. ... If there is an extra X or Y chromosome, the corresponding male or female qualities are developed in a particularly one-sided way. (Women in the Priesthood? , p. 85-86)

Rooted in biology, but not limited to it, a male's experience of being human is naturally quite different from that of a female. First of all, there are the distinctive influences of male hormones such as testosterone on a man's sense of well-being, giving the male a natural drive toward assertiveness and outward action and a predisposition toward taking the initiative and asserting his will. Perhaps equally important, and often overlooked in discussion of these matters, is a young man's developing capacity for a sense of detachment from his own body. In my own life, I remember that at the age of 47, I suddenly realised that I had not shed any significant amount of my own blood for almost 30 years! Needless to say, this kind of experience of being human is certainly not the same as a woman's. There is an innate tendency in men, therefore, toward detached, abstract, rational thinking about human life and the universe. Indeed, men seem to be so naturally predisposed to taking the initiative and rational detachment that it makes these qualities quintessentially "masculine." For example, notice how in the Genesis story Adam, before the creation of Eve, is engaged in fairly typical masculine tasks: analyzing, categorizing, and ruling over all the animals by "naming" them. Although he discovers that in doing so in his solitude, he is left deeply unfulfilled, with an underlying loneliness that his "work" alone cannot seem to cure (Gen 2:19-20).

Obviously, woman has a fundamentally different experience of being. First of all, she sheds her blood every month in menstruation, giving her a greater appreciation than man for the earthbound realities of human existence. This is reinforced when a woman becomes a mother: providing life for a child in her own womb, giving birth to that child from her own pain and labor, and nurturing and feeding that new human life from her own body. None of these profound experiences of human embodiment and interdependence can be fully shared by a man. This unique appreciation for the embodied and dependent realities of human life, and this unique capacity to make room for others as persons, gives women natural predispositions to be responsive to others, and compassionate toward the human condition, making these qualities quintessentially "feminine."

The conjugal act itself is expressive of this deep complementarity between the sexes. The woman gives herself bodily to her husband by opening herself to receive; bodily, she is receptive (not to be confused with "passive"), literally making room for the other, and in this way giving her femininity to her husband, whose sexual act is masculine, an outward action, giving himself to her in sexual intercourse.

Research on the human brain also tends to confirm a complementarian understanding of the natural differences between men and women. Philosopher Laura Garcia writes:

It turns out, in fact, that differences between males and females are inscribed in our very brains. For example, females have more neurons connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and women's brains are more "networked." Women use both sides of the brain regardless of the task in which they are engaged. Men instead, are able to focus on some tasks with one side of the brain alone, oblivious to (for instance) emotional cues in the environment. ("Authentic Freedom and Equality in Difference" in Erika Bachioci, ed. Women, Sex and the Church, p.23)

One has to treat the evidence for male-female brain differences with caution, of course, because scientists now know that the structure of the human brain is not completely hardwired from infancy; to some extent it can be rewired by social stimuli, by repeated behavior and chosen attitudes. Nevertheless, the differences in brain structure and activity between men and women are so prevalent and pronounced that they obviously reflect the constants of "nature" as much, if not more than the variations of "nurture." Besides, many social and environmental factors (such as the experience of motherhood) tend to reinforce rather than counteract this inherited brain wiring. Genevieve Kinecke sums up the matter this way: In the realm of biology, great advances have been made in the study of the human brain. Interestingly, while men's brains are slightly larger than women's, women have more dentritic connections between both the brain cells, and the two hemispheres of the brain. Women have a strong capacity to transfer data from one side of the brain to the other, leading them to use both sides in an integrated way, while men operate more from the left side .... It is the increased ability to access this right lobe that makes women distinct from men in the way they think. The right side of the brain holds the key to many areas where women seem to have an edge: for example, recognizing faces, reading facial expressions, picking up social cues, discerning objects by touch, nonverbal memory ... a sense of direction, the sense of smell, and the overall integration of information.

Women's brains have also been shown to have a larger limbic area, the seat of emotion. Women tend to have a greater ability to feel emotion, and their enhanced language skills allow them to express it. They have a greater ability to bond with other persons, especially through their capacity to interpret nonverbal signs and signals. Throughout history, women have been the primary caregivers for children.

Whatever the individual deviations are from these norms, medical studies have proven that the brains of men and women are different and cause them to have different overall strengths and weaknesses. We have to conclude that men and women are "wired" differently, and that God planned it that way for his purposes (Kinecke, The Authentic Catholic Woman, p. 71-72).

In general, there is plenty of empirical evidence for deep-seated, natural differences in dispositions between women and men. One of the most exhaustive compilations of the research in this regard (with a bibliography alone that runs nearly 70 pages) was put together by Stephen Rhoads at the University of Virginia (see his book Taking Sex Differences Seriously, 2004). His work was largely corroborated by a study in the Journal of Personality in 2008, in which an international research team compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. In all of the countries studied, women tended to be more risk-averse, cooperative, nurturing, and emotionally expressive, while men were more risk-taking, competitive, and emotionally subdued.

Moreover, these natural predispositions are often reflected in the life choices and priorities that are typical of men and women, even in western countries today where access to most professions and types of work is now wide open to both sexes. Thus, as Christina Hoff Sommers puts it:

These realities are reflected not only in women's preference for part-time work, but also in their predominance in the caring professions. Even today, when hardline egalitarian feminism is dominant in education, the media and the women's movement, women continue to far outnumber men in fields like nursing, social work, pediatrics, veterinary medicine, and early childhood education. Meanwhile men ... continue to far outnumber women in the saving and rescuing vocations of policeman, fire-fighter, and soldier. ... Among New York's celebrated vocational schools, Fashion Industry High is 98 percent female; Automotive High is 3 percent female. (Freedom Feminism, p. 59-60 and 98)

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Next Time: Natural Complementarity: Should it Be Celebrated or Suppressed?

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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