Complementary Vocations of Men and Women
of Woman in the Church,
Bouyer, translated by Marilyn Teichert,
published by the Ignatius Press, San
1979 and reproduced here with the usual permissions.
All this might appear at first glance to be pure speculationvain babbling about the invisible, the unutterable. In fact, as it is with all Biblical revelations when contemplated, these glimpses of heaven only lead us through faith into the heavenly realm when we come to discern with a higher vision of realitynot less but more realistic for being thus transfiguredthe true sense of earthly things. These glimpses project a light on masculinity and femininity, on the relationship between them, on the division and nonetheless the equality of the sexes, a light which alone permits us to go beyond the simple surface of one of the most mysterious realities of our daily experienceindeed, of our very experience of our own being in relation to the world and to one another
Marriage (the stable union of man and woman) undeniably acquired its dignity and full meaning only after having been consecrated in Biblical revelation by its incorporation into the relationship God willed between man, in all his reality, and himself In the same way it was necessary for us to have been borne to these heights in order to understand the whole meaning of the communal life of man and woman. From that source flow the ministries, the services which, although transcending them both, they must nevertheless perform for one another as together they become the servants of the only true God and of the plan of love which concerns them in their native relationship to each other.
We have here a supreme example of this saving, regenerative faculty of the divine Word. In restoring to human things all their meaning and purity in order to elevate them to God, it clarifies and confirms them, and at the same time opens up in them unexpected perspectives, surpassing all our hopeseverything which man, reflecting on his own experience, could surmise as most true and most profound about himself.
It would seem that, after all we have said here, we might easily summarize what we can see more clearly about human nature by virtue of this supernatural illumination. But obviously the implications and consequences of this insight into mans nature are inexhaustible, and we cannot attempt here to envisage them in all their fullness.
Nevertheless, we will content ourselves with saying that man, the male, insofar as he is such, is defined by the following paradox: he essentially represents that which goes beyond him, which he is incapable of being in and of himself, in which he cannot even take part except by his participation through grace in the sonship of the only eternal Son, who himself represents the Father from whom he proceeds and from whom all things proceed: God in the inexhaustible vitality of his absolute transcendence. But, once again, on the natural plane, man is able to be a father only in a very partial and ephemeral way, while on the supernatural plane he can represent divine fatherhood only through his dependence on the unique image of the Father which is the only begotten Son.
Woman, on the contrary, simply represents the creature in its highest vocation, by which it is conjoined with God himself in his creation and even in his fatherhood. She is, potentially, in her virginity, all that she represents, and she becomes it effectively in her motherhood when she gives it reality within herself For motherhood is the consummate association of the whole created beingthe most intimate and efficacious conceivablewith that which one might call the very soul of divinity: the vivifying power, the fruitfulness of the Spirit. In motherhood she can attain to the most perfect assimilation possible of the created into the uncreated: the divine sonship by participation, in the consummation of the created Bride by her union with the divine Bridegroom. It is this which will be realized in fullness at the end of time, in the Church, as a universal echo of that which has been accomplished perfectly in the course of time in the virginal motherhood of Marya truly divine motherhood. Yet it is this which every woman, insofar as she is a woman and if she lives up to her vocation to womanhood, approximates on the natural level and accomplishes on the supernatural level in accepting, like Mary, Gods entire plan for her. What has just been said bears explanation, or, more simply, clarification, yet we might say that in it lies the crux of our whole problem. Created being, and particularly created personality, presents not only a vestige, but a veritable image of the uncreated in the freedom which it achieves. This is most clearly evidenced in the human personality, in which the material is assumed by the spiritual, which reciprocally not only conditions but defines it. And this freedom in the created personality is not simply passivity, i.e., sheer possible consent, given or refused, to a being received from without. In living out his proper existence on the simple natural level amidst all the possibilities open to him, and even more on the supernatural level, where he participates in the life of God as it is in God himself, man exercises real, positive activity, proper in the truest sense of the word to him who initiates it, even though it will always be secondary in relation to divine creative activity.
But is this ever manifested or realized better than when it is not only a matter of effectively being or becoming all it is in ones power to be, but beyond that, of associating oneself with the very activity, proper to the divine Being alone, of bringing into existence beings other than oneself? Man is fully himself only when he thus participates as far as he is able in the activity of creating. Certainly, he never becomes an autonomous creator by means of this participation, but he is then an authentic procreator, not only in the sense of representing or transmitting creative activity, but by being associatedor rather by being allowed or invited to associate himselfwith it.
Here again, however, we repeat that among all the modes of activity of which man (homo) is capable, the fullness and perfection of this activity of procreation can only be attained in woman, insofar as she is defined by her capacity for motherhood which, in her virginal state, is in itself unlimited. The supreme manifestation of this is the virginal motherhood of Mary, the divine motherhood, where humanity gave birth to Gods own Son through the person of the woman par excellence, the integrity of whose virginity was thereby consecrated.
Man, the male, on the contrary, though he may appear more directly associated with this divine creative activity and fruitfulness because he is capable of being a father, never exercises, even on the natural level, any more than a momentary, radically incomplete paternity. He is its bearer or transmitter much more than its cause. The realization or completion of paternity, in fact, always operates outside himself, in the womb of the woman, whereas the source, by which fatherhood defines itself, remains beyond him, in God alone, man being in this aspect simply a channel.
This is even more evident in the mans supernatural participation in divine fatherhood, where he never plays more than a representative role. All the spiritual sons which a man of God may more or less legitimately claim, have in reality, as Jesus reminded us, no other true father but him from whom all fatherhood takes its name.
On the other hand, the Church is true mother to them all, and, within the Church, the Virgin most eminently. But the soul of every woman in the state of grace takes part in this motherhood, each one to an extent known to God alone. The souls of males are, of course, involved here too, but not at all by virtue of their masculinity, rather by virtue of the feminine element they bear within themselves. For, as the myth of androgyny suggests, and as modern science has verified, masculinity and femininity are inseparable in each human individual, although the masculinity or femininity proper to each individual results not from a simple predominance, which would only be quantitative, but rather from a polarization which makes everything which relates to one of the two characters gravitate around the other. But only in woman does the character of creaturely activity appear in its full purity; only in her is this activity entirely genuine, proper and truly personal, althoughor better, precisely becauseit is a derivative activity, manifesting itself as such.
The whole physiological being of woman, as opposed to that of the male, verifies this. And remembering that the soul of man is simply the substantial form of his body, we must expect that his physical being will reveal and define his metaphysical being itself.
In all the activities proper to him, and therefore in his sexual activity, man the male (and, of course, woman as well) reveals himself in and by his self-actualization. But it is both his greatness and his weakness that he realizes himself only thus, outside himself: only by detaching himself from that which he procreates. And where he reveals himself, in many respects he does so only by consenting to forget himself. One might, to that extent, hold that the male does not possess his own consciousness, for his consciousness is completely outward-directed, ad extra. What clearly proves this is that while it struggles to turn back upon itself, to grasp itself, inevitably it does so only by falling into a subjectivism where it loses itself in losing all reality.
In woman, on the contrary, these oppositions hardly exist; insofar as she is woman, they have no point of entry. The being in relation to which she reveals herself best, surrendering herself to the greatest extent, is not in fact a being who becomes separate and alien to her. It is a being whom she carries within herself, whom she nourishes from herself, in which she grows and completes herself by reproducing herself. We have already indicated that it is, of course, necessary in order for womans motherhood to achieve its goal that she also consent to a separation, to becoming autonomous of the being she has produced. For her there is a rupture, an inescapable separation which a man cannot experience. The consent to this separate existence of her children is much more difficult for her to accept by virtue of her very nature than it is for the man, on whom it hardly makes an impact: he is not even completely aware of it, since for him the process is simply a matter of course.
By virtue of this fact, the mothers consent to the birth is not only much more meritorious, but much more effectively gift-like. The result will be twofold: to the exact extent to which he has become truly himself, the child will freely, but all the more really, begin, by virtue of this gift, to experience himself as always dependent, not only on the materiality or the bodily existence of his mother, but on that which is the most spiritual in her: her own freedom, intimately associated to the act of creation in that gift where she surpasses herself in another. Likewise for the mother, despite this separation, or indeed from the very fact of her freely giving the consent she had to give: the gift given, because it is a gift, becomes more truly hers, but in a purer and higher sense which the male is incapable of achieving by himself. In the human creature, however, it is this that approximates most closely its own relation to the Creator: we are never so close to God as when we are completely ourselves, being his children in his only Son, and as St. John says, not only being called sons, but being sons in all truth.
The result of this is something which belongs so exclusively to feminine sensibility and to the very intelligence of woman that men, males, will never completely comprehend nor, ordinarily, even begin to grasp it exactly. It is what they mean when they say that women are incapable of objectivity, of a disinterested knowledge of things apart from themselves. It is quite true in a sense, but not in the way in which it is usually interpreted. For there is precisely this difference between the male and female intelligence: that the former is perpetually tossed between an objectivity which always risks becoming rigid and lifeless in detaching itself from the spirit, and a subjectivity fascinated by the abyss of subjectivism: a subject absorbing itself in a self which can never grasp itself except indirectly. Woman, on the contrary (even if she does not always realize it, and in fact rarely realizes it in a completely satisfying way), instinctively escapes this dichotomy because of her natural constitution. She is natively adapted to empathy, to that sympathy with the object which is not conceivable except in a subject such as only the feminine subject is, for whom the object does not appear from the outset as exterior. For, once again, everything in the feminine being is dominated by the constitution which makes her capable of carrying and forming another being originating in her owna thing totally unknown and very difficult for a man to imagine or conceive of, since he is radically unsuited to all experience of this order.
The masculine being can therefore be said to be essentially intermediary, and by this fact indefinitely polymorphous, but also fundamentally unstable. The feminine being, on the contrary, represents, in the realm of the created, the goal, the achievement, the totality. From this proceeds a unity which can relapse into amorphousness in the woman who lives unreflectively, lets herself go, as they say. But in the woman who is in possession of herself, while giving herself without reserve, this becomes the organic unity of all reconciliations, or simply conciliations, and more profoundly, the unity of a perfection found not in some voluntary limitation, but in a fullness which liberates both herself and others.
This is the true meaning of the widely misunderstood words of St. Paul that man is the head of woman as Christ is the head of the Church. (1) This does not signify submission, even less degradation of woman before man. We can only understand the true meaning of it by enunciating the reciprocal truth: as Christ completes his corporeality only in humanity as a whole, by the universal expansion of the Church, man truly assumes a body, a body totally human, only by and in woman. Although the male has necessarily to go beyond himself to realize himself, his body is only an instrument of contact which transmits what comes from a source higher than he. It is in the female body alone that the seeds are meant to germinate, nourished by the substance of the woman herself, to grow of her and in her and to mature there. This is translated to the spiritual level (which is by no means to say the disincarnate level) by the fact that the being of woman is the only being, on the level of the created world, where presence to self and presence to the world, presence of the world in its entirety, can become one. Man, the male, never finds himself except by a process of discovery blemished by narcissism, and, except by and in woman, he never meets the world in an encounter which is real communion rather than a simple confrontation. The world is never real for the male except by symbiosis with woman. It is, moreover, by that alone that man attains the consciousness of himself which is not a solipsistic absorption, but the discovery of this identity as participation in the divine image.
On the other hand, woman needs the stimulation, the productive restlessness which only a relationship with man can give her, for lack of which the riches of the human unconscious, which resides most properly in her, will never reach the level of her voluntary consciousness, any more than man would be able to nourish his own consciousness, so quickly exhausted although never sated, if not in a fruitful relationship with woman.
In this relationship, such as it can and should be, woman reveals herself for man as more than the companion he dreams of, more than the complement he needs: she is revealed as the only place where he becomes himself by being completely human, and so the only place where, experiencing his total reality, he gains access to totally real being. It follows, then, that it may be said without hesitation that man needs woman in order to encounter God. The male, in the final analysis, is borne up by the total Presence, the divine Presence, as if drawn from beyond himself. But God is fully united with him only when he achieves harmony with the entire cosmos, and woman is not only the indispensable instrument,but the predestined locus for this encounter.
This is the problem which lies unobserved behind a tedious discussion which has divided moral theologians of the past generation: is the procreation of children the only primary end of marriage, or should the mutual fulfilment of the spouses, as they put it, also be recognized as another, more than secondary end? The question is, in fact, meaningless. To persist as they have in attempting to resolve the question one way or the other can lead to nothing but the complete dissolution of the Christian (and human) view of marriage which we are witnessing today.
The truth is that, according to the point of view one adopts, woman can be considered as achieving her fulfilment either as spouse or as mother. But the two roles presuppose and inform one another, although their respective fulfilments are situated on different levels. This is why either suppositionwhether of procreation (even one which is spiritual as well as material) pursued independently of the union of the spouses, or of union pursued independently of procreationis equally unreal, and in fact devoid of meaning. It is in common procreation as such that the spouses are fulfilled as spouses by one another. Conversely, procreation which did not proceed from a genuine spousal relationship already achieved in each other would not be truly procreation, but would rather be reduced to a totally dehumanized act of physical generation.
In the same way, to take a new paradox, the eschatological vision of the marriage of the Lamb makes the role of Spouse appear to us as ultimate, in the consummation of the union of the Womanand, in her, all humanity, all creationwith the heavenly Bridegroom. Howeverand here the reality of created freedom, its participation in creation, and even its own creation, is affirmedshe becomes the spouse only in her virginity, finally restored(2) despite a whole history of sin which is progressively assumed, recapitulated and converted into the history of salvation. This occurs at the completion of the cosmic event of giving birth, where St. Paul shows us the whole of creation echoing the ineffable groanings of the Spirit and itself groaning from a painful and apparently unachievable act of parturition.(3) The birth will come, in fact, only with the Parousia of the Spouse, who will come like a thief in the night when he is no longer expected. But it is precisely because of this long period of expectant maternity, so laboriously accomplished, that redeemed humanity will appear on the last day as the Spouse, chosen from the beginning and restored forever to an unalterable virginity.
Thus, we are finally in a position to discover the integral meaning of feminine virginity, and at the same time to understand how, in Mary, this virginity was consummated without being tainted by the fact of her motherhood of grace, her divine motherhood, whereas in the Church at the end of time this motherhood by grace will be consummated in the restored virginity of the morning of creation when the sons of the dawn sang with a single voice.(4)
In order to arrive at this meaning of virginity, we must begin by understanding how and why it applies to womanly virginity alonethe only virginity on the level of creation which truly merits this name. Teilhard de Chardin once let slip the unfortunate remark that physical virginity, in and of itself, was of no particular value. Etienne Gilsons pertinent criticism,(5),has pointed out the naivete of this remark in its very masculine sufficiency. It is particularly astonishing, we might add, coming from a man who has so insisted on the spirituality of matter! In fact, if there is any place where it can be seen that the spiritualin man in general and in woman in particularis not separate from the physical, the corporeal, it is certainly here. Both as man and as woman, the human being is capable of becoming all things insofar as he has intelligence, an intelligence by its nature incarnate. But here we must repeat that the objectifying intelligence of man (vir) corresponds to a type of activity which directs him immediately outward and has this effect only by making him go out of himself. For woman, on the contrary, the essentially empathetic knowledge which we have tried to describe corresponds to a mode of activity proper to her which is carried on most fruitfully not outside but within herself. And this encompasses in each woman what is perhaps the most profound center of her mystery: the whole of created human reality with all its inexhaustible richness, but first of all in its organic unity, is initially present in the microcosm of her body as a shadowy perception which awakens her spirit.
The encounter with man is doubtless necessary to actualize and make explicit in detail this limitless potentiality. But, as this encounter takes on an inevitable aspect of investment, intrusion and breakage, its effect would no less inevitably entail not only a fragmentation, but an impoverishing reduction where the latent infinity which woman bears within herself gives way to a fragmentary finitude, and where her femininity is exhausted without ever being able to reveal itself completely. Only the betrothal of the divine Word with human nature in the womb of Mary, producing the very Son of God made flesh, realized this infinitude, and it therefore follows that the divine motherhood of the Virgin, far from staining her virginity, consecrated it. Even more marvelously, the consummated marriage of all humanity with divinity in the eschatological Church, by bringing about for all humanity and in all creation this realization of infinity in finite totality, will regenerate the virginity of creation in the consummation of the motherhood of grace.
All the preceding is clearly only a rough, very imperfect and sketchily drawn outline of the perspectives which the Biblical revelation of the Christian mystery par excellence (the mystery of Christ and the Church, of man and woman before God and in God) opens up for the essential mystery of femininity. Surely much more could be said about this theme, and doubtless much could be improved upon in this first sketch we have traced. But, imperfect as it is, it seems that it can still lead us to some important reflections which are the necessary prelude to any examination of the particular ministrieswhether of men or of women and of the cooperation to be hoped for among them.
If the preceding has any meaning, it is that only by and in woman does humanity become complete. Certainly, in order for that completion to come about, it is necessary that there be revealed to humanity one among us of whom man, the male, is, as it were, the already-prepared sign, in the predestined Head of humanity which is Christthe perfect man, the heavenly man, the eternal manbecause he is the Son of the divine Father and his only perfect image. But, reciprocally, if human nature finds its essential and its supernatural perfection only in the humanity of Christ, the male prototype of all masculinity, the human person finds initial unsurpassable perfection in a woman: the Virgin Mother Mary. And all human persons, in their common salvation, will not attain their own proper perfection until they converge at the end of time in the ultimate personality of the eschatological Spouse, the Church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven.(6)She shall not have given them birth in grace, in the course of the history of salvation, except to appear herself at the end of timeor rather beyond all historyin the glorious virginity of the Betrothed of the Lamb, descended from heaven, from the right hand of God...
But the end of time is, in a sense, also our beginning. For it will be the recapitulation, accomplished in Christ, of all our history, of which St. Paul writes and which St. Irenaeus illustrates so well.(7) This presence a retro of the Word becoming incarnate is a presence which moves man, the male, toward a truth which only takes form ahead of him little by little under his eyes, because at the root of his being it is already obscurely present and urging him forward. And this presence is revealed only in woman. This truth is present in her from the very outset in a form of consciousness which is uniquely hers, but which is neither the unconscious (which a man cannot try to grasp within himself without being submerged in it) nor the excessive consciousness which he pursues outside himself like a mirage and which escapes his grasp or condemns those who attain it to die of abstraction. The feminine consciousness of humanity is a glimpsein the bright darkness in which Christian faith is at homeof that prenatal, virginal reality of divine Wisdom as it actually exists only in the womb of God, but as having become all of creation, completed, saved and transfigured at humanitys final parturition of itself and of the whole world with itself, which is our history redeemed, recapitulated and consummated by the divine Incarnation.
This is why woman seems to be naturally religious while man must become soand, a still more difficult thing, remain so by a constant effort of pursuit or indeed to regain lost ground. A rabbi recently explained to me, with humor not devoid of meaning, that the Jewish law prescribes religious obligations for men, while it does not impose anything definite on women, and he observed that, far from supposing some superiority on the part of man, it implies quite the contrary: that he would not serve God if God did not take the trouble to recall him constantly to the task, while woman does not need anyone to tell her to do these things.
This, to be sure, does not imply any automatic merit for woman; for her as for man the value comes in the personalization of her gifts. For her this orientation toward the religious is an initial gift, intuitively perceived or sensed, but which demands a free acceptance. For man it is a gift to acquire, the motive of the activity which pushes him to go out of himself. But self-complacency, a typically feminine temptation, like superficial activism, a temptation no less typical of men, has its price. All the false mystical experiences, all the doubtful ecstasies which are ultimately only egoistic enstasies, make women their favorite prey and find in them all the fertile soil they need to prosper and proliferate. On the other hand, one might ask oneself whether the true mystical experiences, which owe to man (recall St. John of the Cross) the unbending critical verification of their authenticity, would ever have retained his attention, or even have become part of his experience, without the intervention of woman.
Simply think how many men there are who owe the first awakening of their spiritual life, and indeed its decisive maturation, above all to a mother, a sister, a fiancee or a wife. And one might ask oneself if those whose individual history appears to contain nothing of this sort (and they are rare) would have experienced this awakening or growth without all that the anonymous heritage of innumerable women has contributed to human tradition, to the life of the intellect and the heart, without which this tradition would not be what it is.
It is not without meaning that Greek rationalism, and the final impasse it reached in the emptiest kind of skepticism, was the product of the intelligence of a society which had made itself almost exclusively masculine. Nor is it chance that the unrealized promises of Platos Symposium, which were only revived by Plotinus for a single hour of ecstasy without future, were put by Plato himself in the mouth of Diotima, just as it is in the conversation at Ostia that they live again, finally immortalized for Augustine, that is to say, in the wake of a mother opening heaven for her son simply by being transported there herself.
In the same way, our technocratic world, where God appears to be dead, but where it is really man who is outliving himself, is typically a world where rationali.e., masculine intelligence, dominates almost exclusively and, as an inevitable result, has relegated feminine intuition to the level of sub-human, blind instincts. Those who, like Jung, believe that modern man will not rediscover his soul until he reintegrates the anima with the animus are not wrong on this point.
On the other hand, as a typical example, among many others, we must recall that in the fourteenth century, when the scholastic intelligence seemed to be similarly enervated, it was the impulse of contemplative nuns which led Eckhardt and his Dominican disciples who would not have otherwise escaped being rationalists inebriated with abstractionback to the humble rediscovery of the light of mysticism beneath the cloud of unknowing.
Here again, the existence of a faculty does not necessarily entail its good usage, and it is clear that the Montanuses have their Priscillas, just as John of the Cross his Teresa or Francis de Sales his Jeanne de Chantal. The fact remains that for men no spirituality, good or bad, seems to go beyond pious impulse or avoid being dried up in systems if a feminine presence or influence does not intervene. Even the religious geniuses who may seern to us the most masculine Evagrius Ponticus or Newman, for example by their own admission would have stopped short of the religious, or been diverted, either toward sensuality or rationalism, without their encounters with Melanie or Mary at the decisive moment.
Historians of Buddhism are openly astonished to find that the figure of Buddha, where it has ceased to appear as a pure expression of totally negative spirituality and has become the expression of the loving compassion of the saint (which goes far beyond the condescension of the sage), has been transmuted into the feminine figure of Kwanin. If they had gone a little more outside their limited frame of reference they might have spared themselves this astonishment!
It is well known that Gottfried Arnold constructed a whole history of Christian spirituality on this theme. He unwittingly caricatured his discovery by confusing the revitalizing mystical resources of faith with a relapse into simple sentimentalism; but even in doing this, we see that it was by a very masculine sort of confusion that he discredited the thesis of his own work. The work itself nonetheless retains a very real value: the male never finds or rediscovers the trace of God without some feminine contribution, even if it be also true, on the other hand, that the sources where woman seems to need and await menlike the Samaritan woman who awaited Jesus at Jacobs well always risk being lostindeed, she risks being lostin the sands of dream or sensuality if he does not appear in time, or does not dare to reveal himself to her.
For, to make a final point, it is incontestable that this instinctive piety of woman has its counterpart in man. If there is a natural religion, it belongs to her. But among fallen humanity all natural religions tend of themselves toward magical or idolatrous paganism, and many times both together. It is mans part to purify those sources he is incapable of bringing forth on his own. Again, without what we call supernatural faith, lacking the constructive criticism of natural religion which only revelation can offer, tempted by himself to confuse purity with puritanism, man will purify the wellsprings woman reveals to him only by evaporating them.
1. Ephesians 5:23.
2. II Corinthians 11:2.
3. Romans 8:22.
4. Job 38:7.
5. E. Gilson, Les Tribulations de Sophie (1957) 96.
6. Hebrews 12:23.
7. Cf. Ephesians 1:10 and Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, III, 16, sec. 6 in particular.
This website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.
The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.
You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.
Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.
The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.