In the words of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, “because of her unique structure, the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity’s last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes.” By that, he means the Catholic Church embodies this difference. For those who force the Church into the panorama of earthly institutions, this is, of course, incomprehensible. But for those who follow the incarnation of the Divine Son, the masculinity of the hierarchy and the femininity of the Church arise because of the gendered relation between the masculine initiative of God and the feminine receptiveness of the faithful human being in love.
If we summarily describe the authentically feminine as “receiving in a giving way” and the authentically masculine as “giving in a receiving way” (William May, quoting Robert and Mary Joyce), then we have the key to the fruitful nature of human being both physically and spiritually. In other words, the heart of the difference lies precisely in the fact that “extreme oppositeness of their functions may guarantee the physical and spiritual fruitfulness of human nature.” (von Balthasar) This is a sketch of the ontological nature of human masculinity and human femininity, which is not a cultural or political thing.
Further, we can say with von Balthasar that the masculine involves “the transmission of a vital force that originates outside of itself and leads beyond itself.” This can apply to the incarnate Divine Son, who is masculine. It can apply to the male in a family of male husband and a female wife. It can apply to the clergy in the Catholic Church. How does von Balthasar describe the feminine in terms of being? He says the feminine works at creating, “reserves that are not geared to ‘needs’ and ‘consumption’ . . . but to being, to the background that gives meaning to things, to security, to making a home.” Here is the complementary balance in human being. This understanding of the feminine, however, can apply equally to Mary, the Church, and woman in the family.
There are two principles that the Church has always safeguarded that are increasingly under threat as the world becomes more technological, which has an important and toxic side effect that, for many of us, things have come to mean what we want them to mean rather than what they mean in relation to being itself and to divine revelation. So, for example, “marriage” means anything we may choose to apply the word to. This is antihuman even if the consequences can temporarily be concealed.
In the same antihuman logic, human embryos can become merely the raw materials for experiments. And yet you would think, or at least hope, that after the outrage over the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African-Americans and the experiments on Jews and others in Dachau, among a myriad of other examples, there would be some residue of moral outrage and some of insight about what human being means and how precious and irreplaceable it is. The logic of the human as something sacred and not to be made into a tool of technology is all the better the further that it can be extended. The critique of technological logic, though barely visible at present (notably in Benedict XVI), can go a long way.
What are the two principles? One is that there is – looking at human beings both from good uses of reason and from divine revelation— a profound link between body and spirit. Thomas Aquinas simply formulates it as the body is the expression of the spirit. In this technological age where even human beings are simply made to mean what we want them to mean, von Balthasar says that “nature has descended to the level of mere material, [and] even the spirit itself has become the material for self-manipulation, and being as a whole . . . is overlooked.” Another word for the “whole” is civilization. That, too, is at stake.
The second principle is that there is such a thing as masculinity and femininity that extend from the spiritual to its expression in the physical body. But there is another, deeper level here. John Paul II said in one of his discourses about the body: “As an action of God, creation . . . means not only calling from nothing to existence . . . but according to the first account [in the Book of Genesis], it also signifies gift.”
There is the basic concept of the whole, but there is more: “the concept of giving”— which also finds expression in the relationship between male and female — “ the concept . . . indicates the one who gives and the one who receives the gift, as well as the relation between them.” This insight touches the very being of every man and woman. JPII pointed out that human being is marked by this giving nature so much so that the giving characterizes both the spiritual and the physical — which is only possible between a male human being and a female human being who give themselves unreservedly to each other spiritually and physically for the whole of life.
This is the Catholic understanding of marriage, and it clearly goes deeper and farther, and preserves fully who we truly are, than the rudderless policy debates on the nature of marriage that are now shaking virtually every formerly Christian society.