How the Gender Binary Affects So Much of Catholic Thinking

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.

Natalie Imperatori-Lee

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


10 replies
  1. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    Gender binarism in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) issues foundationally from their respective scriptures, particularly from the anthropomorphic creation accounts. But these accounts themselves issue from a patriarchal and hetero-normative world view; they are self-evidently not a dictation by God.

    Until these religions revise (or, as with Judaism and Christianity at least, further revise) traditional notions of divine inspiration and inerrancy in Scripture, and distance themselves from a still- obvious tendency to be overly literal in its interpretation, gender binarism as religious ideology will continue to limit teaching on (among other things) sexual ethics and priestly sacramental theology.

      • Anomos Atopos
        Anomos Atopos says:

        I genuinely don’t mean to sound like I’m trolling, but what does it mean to be Christian to you?

        I ask because I recall all the apostolic and second-century Fathers having a very strong emphasis on the rule of faith, that what it means to be Christian is to abide by a common confession of the Christian faith. Obviously, obedience to Scripture reseverves a prominent role in that rule of faith. Given that, I’m confused about how you can, on the one hand, say that Scripture needs to be reformed or seen as not inspired by God and, on the other hand, argue that Arianism is incompatible with Christianity, or perhaps if not argue, then simply hold that the Church infallibly declared such position. In addition, if you don’t accept the Church’s teaching on Arianism (or any other condemned heresy for that matter), what’s too far? What is one belief that qualifies someone as a non-Christian?

      • Wilhelm Wonka
        Wilhelm Wonka says:

        Hello, AA.

        I’ve just stumbled upon your comment, literally.

        What does it mean to be Christian? Apart from the obvious (that Jesus was/is the son of God …the mashiach…), it means acceptance of truth, in all its hues, whether or not these are palatable.

  2. comcomedar
    comcomedar says:

    The thing is, power IS at the heart of it. Or rather the current uncomfortable balance of power between progressists and conservatives.

    The main argument for prohibitting female ordination is exactly the gendered theology of the Church. If they dared to say genders are not binary the argument against female priests would fall down.

    And the thing is, allowing women to be ordained would destroy the current balance of power. A lot of women want to be priests, feel the call, have vocation… but the Church has always neglected it, so let’s be certain most of ordained women would lean against the conservative part of the church.

    So it would stop the current fake tie, and I’m afraid that the clergy overall doesn’t want to change that status quo. And thus ANY kind of theology or theory or discovery that dares to pose a treat to the status quo by showing how gender and sexuality are not binary at all is now intelligently deemed as an ”Ideological Colonization” and as a ”Danger to the Family”… Sadly people fall down for that, and in doing so they are defending a status quo full of nonsense.

    I for one would love for change to happen… but I doubt it will happen soon.

  3. Lyn G. Brakeman
    Lyn G. Brakeman says:

    Gendered theological language is problematic in all religions. My concern is for the language itself and what consistent masculinization means, not only for human relations but for the image of God. I am an Episcopal priest, and my concern is theological and liturgical. How are we forming people’s souls with our words about God and Christ?. We are constricting and distorting,the image of divinity itself with our words. My recent memoir God Is Not A Boy’s Name. Becoming Woman, Becoming Priest, published by Wipf and Stock imprint Cascade Books, makes the case through my narrative that Christianity, all religions really, ought to work together to create a just and loving language for humanity and divinity.

  4. Thomas DiMattia
    Thomas DiMattia says:

    We learned in the seminary that you could take just one rider from the New Testament and hold to his writings only, you end up becoming a heretic of some sort. The same is true if you fallow a Saint so closely you brush aside any valid challenges to what that Saint might have said. Maybe if a scholarly work on that has been written, then we can tackle the bigger issue of how much human Jesus really was. Seeing Jesus in cultural context makes us realize that the statement “We can’t have women priests because Jesus only had males as apostles” shows incredible ignorance.


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