Reconciling equality and difference between women and men in the age of gender? For Catherine Denis, a mother and professor of moral theology, this is the great challenge of today, since the questioning raised by the relevant distinction between sex and gender in the 1950s in the United States. (Reference from FOI magazine)

Catherine DENIS, CNC

An urgent need to reconcile humanity

For me, reconciling equality and difference is the current challenge for anthropological and ethical thinking on men and women and their relationships. This urgent need to reconcile humanity as a gendered entity in all areas where men and women coexist is, in my view, perfectly illustrated by the choice to place the sculpture by Josephina de Vasconcellos in three highly symbolic places, such as the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan, on the remains of the Berlin Wall in Germany and in the heart of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed during the Second World War. 

At the root of contemporary issues around the difference between the sexes lies a question raised by the pertinent distinction between sex and gender, introduced in the 1950s in the United States. Gender studies are now being applied in a wide range of fields, from the hard sciences to the humanities, to examine the cultural interpretation of the differences between men and women, taking into account the influence of sex-differentiated human socialisation and education. They are proving invaluable in supporting those who do not identify with traditional stereotypical interpretations of gender identity and the relationships it seems to imply. But it is also important to recognise that they now challenge everyone in the way they articulate the difference between the sexes and the fundamental equality of human beings in their personal lives and in their relationships.

What distinguishes a man from a woman?

The distinction between sex and gender, which is now inescapable, shows that, paradoxically, sexual difference is both the most obvious and the most difficult to define. It highlights the decisive role played by human interpretation of what distinguishes a man from a woman, calling into question the ready-made interpretations that have been and still are imposed on either sex by both family and social culture. Beyond certain extreme approaches, which denigrate sex by focusing on gender equality, it has to be said that gender studies have opened up a whole new field of questions about the difference between men and women.

This current quest for freedom, even within sexual identity, has the merit of reminding us that the humanity of Man remains, and always will remain, an unresolved question. An opportunity for theological anthropology and ethics, it invites us to revisit what, at the very heart of all human identity, is objectively a matter of biological nature – sex – and what is a matter of subjective, social and cultural reality – gender. The challenge is to re-emphasise the freedom of each human being, both in his or her personal life and in relationships, at the very heart of this subtle articulation between nature and history, between essence and existence. The existential questioning of Psalm 8 therefore resonates with astonishing relevance. “What is human, man or woman, that you should think of them? The daughter/son of human beings, male or female, that you care for them?” The psalmist’s question, brought up to date, encourages us to understand these delicate contemporary issues, not as an insoluble problem, but as a mystery linked to the mystery of God.

A mystery linked to the mystery of God

Throughout the history of the Bible, the reality of humanity as both one and dual is revealed by analogy with the reality of the one and triune God. In the first two accounts of creation, which inaugurate the whole of Scripture, the human being, created male or female in the image of God, is presented as a work of Trinitarian God entrusted to humanity. Recognising God as our Creator implies recognising our sexual identity and that of our neighbour of the other sex as a de facto reality, given by God. But, in line with the history of the covenant, this recognition also implies accepting this gift from God as a task, for ourselves and in our relationship with others. This human responsibility, highlighted in the second account of creation, unfolds in particular around the interpretation of what is similar and what is different between men and women. This is how, from the outset, the ethical issue of a balanced relationship between sex and gender, between resemblance and difference, is established.

Now, in the Old Testament history that follows this creative act, this reality of gendered humanity is revealed in a paradoxical way. Without denying the tensions it implies, the Song of Songs does not hesitate to celebrate it, in and of itself, thus recalling the gift and unconditional promise of the God of the Covenant. By contrast, in the rest of the Old Testament writings, she appears deeply affected by sin. Vigorously denounced by the prophets, this corruption of the relationship between man and woman is based in particular on a disordered interpretation of the difference between the sexes that calls into question their equal dignity. The reality of humanity, as man and woman, is thus presented as a historical reality awaiting salvation, in the love relationship but also in all the situations in which they coexist. It is only in the new relationship between Jesus and his community, described concretely in the Gospels and summarised in chapter five of the epistle to the Ephesians, that the gift and promise of the Triune God is objectively fulfilled. In Jesus Christ, true Man and true man, humanity is defined as a humanity in relationship. In him, through the work of the Spirit, the differentiated relationship between man and woman, in which confrontation and communion are in fact articulated, is revealed as the model for all other human relationships. In this way, the work of the Triune God is revealed, to which each human being must freely and responsibly respond by choosing a differentiated relationship with God and with other human beings, and therefore first and foremost with the human being of the other sex.

Male and female in relationships

In this perspective of an ‘already there’ and a ‘not yet there’ of the accomplishment of God’s work in Man, three anthropological and ethical benchmarks enable us to understand the delicate articulation between sex and gender with a view to reconciling human beings, equal and different. The first benchmark invites every woman and every man to inscribe their being and their existence in a relational history that precedes them. Created by God, every human being is born of a relationship between a man and a woman and has grown up in a human community made up of men and women in relationship.  The second point of reference then leads us to affirm that every human being is and exists as either a man or a woman, depending on his or her sex, while being profoundly free in the way he or she exists as a man or a woman, before God and within the human community. Closely linked to this second reference point is the third, which reminds us that while human beings are either male or female, they are also male and female in relationship, whatever their sexual orientation. True humanity, defined in Jesus Christ as humanity in relationship, invites us to recognise that the humanity of both women and men is fulfilled in the event of encounter, and in particular in the encounter with the human being of the other sex. This reveals the challenge of true reconciliation, at the level of the three reference points mentioned above, so that the mystery of humanity, one and dual, corresponds to the mystery of a Trinitarian God making a covenant with Man.

This article is part of issue 77 of FOI magazine
Women and men: the challenge of peace
June – July – August 2023