Catholicism: Masculine and Feminine

One of the great strengths of Catholicism is its delicate balance between the “feminine” and “masculine” elements of religion.

I’m aware that talking about masculine and feminine elements of religion is not the thing to do nowadays.  We are supposed to think of religion as genderless, just as God is genderless; that we are Catholic, not qua male or qua female, but qua human being.

Well, I think that’s baloney.  I grant that philosophers and theologians (Thomas Aquinas, for instance) hold that God, being an immaterial and hence bodiless being, is sex-less.  All the same, Christianity has always used anthropomorphic language when speaking about God: God as male, as Father.  Jesus himself spoke of God as Father.

Our number one prayer begins with the words “Our Father.”  It doesn’t begin with the words “Our gender-less Supreme Being.” And the second person of the divine Trinity is also spoken of as male, the Son.  What’s more, when the Son became incarnate in humanity, this God-human was a male human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

There is a third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who is popularly spoken of as if He, She, or It is without gender.  When most Catholics speak of the Holy Spirit, they deliberately avoid the use of pronouns like “he” or “she,” or “him” or “her.”  Instead of a pronoun, they simply repeat the proper name.

I knew a priest (deceased now) who had a very special devotion to the Holy Spirit. He felt that the Holy Spirit was an almost-forgotten member of the Trinity.  It was as if he felt sorry for the Holy Spirit.  Everybody pays lots of attention to the Father and the Son, but hardly anybody notices the third and equally glorious member of the family.

I remember once being told by this priest that he was disappointed by a new bishop who had been appointed to head our diocese, for in his first conversation with the bishop he was left with the impression that the bishop lacked an adequate appreciation of the Holy Spirit.  I myself suspect the Holy Spirit gets less attention because nobody is quite sure what pronoun to use in connection with Him/Her/It.

In any case, let me re-state my assertion that Catholicism has the right balance between the masculine and feminine elements of religion.

Think of the virtue of chastity, which plays a major role in Christianity, especially Catholicism.  In the pre-Christian world of ancient Rome and Greece, chastity was considered to be a great virtue – but only for women, not for men.  Men, unlike women, were not expected to maintain premarital virginity.

And once married, it was taken for granted that men were free to have occasional sexual relations with their slaves, both male and female; it was one of the incidental “benefits” of slavery.  (Which it also was in the American slave system, although American slave owners much preferred sex with their female slaves to sex with their male slaves.)

Then along came Christianity, which established a single standard of chastity for both men and women – and this was not the lax male standard, it was the strict female standard.


We must also note Catholicism’s tremendous veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus (and, Jesus being divine, she is the mother of God); greatest of all saints; not only a virgin mother, but a lifelong virgin.

A few centuries later monasticism came along, monks and nuns who were not merely chaste but super-chaste, living lives of perpetual virginity.  Ordinary Catholics looked on monks and nuns as first-class Christians, living a life of super-chastity that they themselves could not lead.

In sum, Catholicism feminized itself by giving the basically feminine virtue of chastity a central role in its scheme of values.

Or take the virtue of compassion.  In the pre-Christian world it was believed that women were compassionate by nature; they had tender hearts; they recoiled from suffering, and wished to relieve it.  Men, on the other hand, were expected to be hard.

In the final lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, which was written only a couple of decades prior to the birth of Jesus, Turnus begs for mercy.  But Aeneas remembers that Turnus had slain Pallas, the friend of Aeneas. And because he is a thoroughly virtuous and religious man, Aeneas, in a moment of righteous indignation, drives his sword through the chest of Turnus, sending his soul to the underworld.

If Aeneas, instead of being an ideal Roman, had been an ideal Christian, he would have felt compassion, he would have extended mercy.

Again, by putting compassion and mercy at the center of its moral system Catholicism was feminizing itself.

There was a danger, however, that Catholicism might over-feminize itself, making itself a religion for women only, not a religion for men.  This danger was met by making sure that Catholicism’s ruling class – that is, its clerical class of bishops and priests – was purely male.  This is the “masculine” element in Catholicism, balancing its “feminine” element.

Currently there are three dangers that might upset this balance.

1. The ordination of women to the priesthood.

2. The presence of homosexual men in the priesthood, even those who remain chaste in their conduct despite their same-sex attractions. I’m aware that there are manly gay men; not all are effeminate. There is something decidedly unmanly, however, about even the manliest of gay men, namely that they find men sexually exciting.  That’s a decidedly unmanly thing to do.  It is a feminine thing to be sexually excited by men.

3. A “soft” attitude on the part of Catholics, especially Church leaders, towards unchastity. For this is a way of saying that one of the great feminine elements of Catholicism no longer counts for much. Tolerating unchastity upsets the balance; it makes Catholicism a religion more inhospitable for women.

There are many threats to religion today, of course, but getting the male/female balance wrong may be among the greatest – and most overlooked – of those threats.


*Image: The Virgin of Mercy by Enguerrand Quarton, c. 1452 [Musée Condé, Chantilly, France]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.