So much of the discussion surrounding LGBT issues is in some ways part of a larger discussion in the Church about gender in general. So it is instructive sometimes to take a step back and look at the larger questions about gender.
The topic of gender in the church was put into the spotlight earlier this week when Pope Francis stated that he understood that Pope John Paul II’s ban on women’s ordination was a final statement on the matter. In response to that declaration, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, New York, penned a blog post on America magazine’s website entitled “It’s Not a Complement: The Pitfalls of a Gendered Theology of the Church.”
Imperatori-Lee uses as her starting point the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who heavily influenced Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Her aim is to look not just at gender roles for individual persons, but at how the concept of gender influences the structure of the Church as a whole. Key to this idea is Balthasar’s distinction between what he calls the “Petrine” and the “Marian” dimensions of the Church (relating, respectively to St. Peter and Mary, the Blessed Mother):
“For Balthasar, the Petrine dimension centers on leadership and initiative, while the Marian dimension has more to do with receptivity and fruitfulness—and these distinctions are rooted in the biological distinctions of men and women. In fact, he takes the difference in sexual organs between men and women as the basis for many of the characteristics of his complementarian view of humanity, and by extension, of the church. Coupled with the spousal metaphor (the church as the ‘bride’ to Christ), this complementarity also casts the laity in the Marian role and the clergy and hierarchy in the Petrine office. This is potentially problematic, as it rests on the passivity and submission of the ‘Marian’ principle (the laity) to the Petrine (the clergy).”
One problem with this kind of thinking is that it puts the gender metaphor at the center of how the Church is imagined. Imperatori-Lee states:
“Of course, our tradition is replete with gendered language for God, and with complementarian understandings of God and humanity. But this is not the only way in which the church has been imagined. Theologians, citing Scripture, have called the church a ‘Mystical Body,’ ‘the People of God’ and ‘the Sacrament of Salvation.’ “
A main reason that this kind of thinking is damaging, she points out, is that it is not based on good science. Here is one area where Imperatori-Lee’s argument is especially helpful to LGBT concerns. She states:
“Science has revealed that a person’s sexual biology is far more intricate than the sex organs that are visible on a person’s body. Genes and hormones coursing through the bloodstream affect the development and expression of a person’s ‘biological’ sex. Some women and men have three chromosomes (XXY); others have female sex organs but, on balance, more male sex hormone than female sex hormone. All of this is to say that human biology is infinitely more complex than the ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ statements from new parents (or their doctors or midwives) might lead us to believe. Scientifically, even biologically, there are many factors that contribute to ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness.’ Any claim that there are only two kinds of humans, male and female, is simplistic. Similarly, even if ‘femaleness’ is biologically anchored, what counts as ‘feminine’ is culturally constructed and varies through time and place. For one community, femininity might mean being shy and retiring; for another, a person who is proudly beautiful and wears makeup and attention-getting clothing might be viewed as very feminine.”
Science is not the only area that contradicts Balthasar’s kind of thinking. The writer also points out that sociological knowledge shows this type of thinking to be deficient:
Sociopolitically, rigid complementarity cheats both men and women of their full humanity. To assume that women make up for what men lack, or vice versa, reifies stereotypes of masculinity and femininity by dictating the relative strengths and weaknesses that people are to have if they are true to their genders. This ideology proceeds as if all men and all women were alike, instead of the variety of persons we meet daily. Our human experience contradicts the assertion that all men are aggressive or that all women are overly emotional. As the mother of two sons, I can attest that each human is different from the other in interests, abilities and talents and that my boys are more different than alike—and they came from the same gene pool and have the same upbringing! We can also affirm, from our experience with others, that not all men and women fit into this complementary mold, and that human relationships are infinitely more complex than ‘she makes up for what I lack.’ At the very least, human relationships are based in reciprocities that change over time.”
The issues that Imperatori-Lee raises about using the male-female binary metaphor to describe church structure and governance are also clearly at the heart of the way Catholicism looks at LGBT issues. Instead of looking at individuals, who have unique gifts, identities, attractions, the Church tries to mold all individuals to fit into this male/female category, and then base a whole lot of ethical considerations based on that artificial construct. It makes one wonder why that male/female category holds such importance? Of course, one answer is that by maintaining it, the Church also maintains a system of male power. But, I wonder if there are other reasons, too.
The reason I’m interested in finding answers to this dilemma is because, as Imperatori-Lee points out, the male/female image rules so much in our Church. She concludes hear essay:
“Pope Francis may or may not have ruled out the possibility of seeing women priests in the Catholic Church on the plane from Sweden this week. But in reaffirming the Marian and Petrine construct of the church, he (intentionally or not) sent a message about the people of God that truncates our imaginations and limits our possibilities for full human flourishing. And that’s a bigger issue than who stands at the foot of the altar.”
If you have any ideas on this matter, please share them in the “Comments” section of this post.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 11, 2016