The Personalist Project

In Devra's recent post on "Becoming who you are..." She described the fallacious notion that gender is a mere social construct that inhibits self discovery. 

I, too, reject the notion that gender is nothing more than artificial social norms that restrict us from being who we truly are. After all, God created us Man and Woman, two different types of human. Thus, there is a natural distinction between "masculine" and "feminine." Yet, I find myself annoyed whenever the discussion comes up amongst fellow Christians. Not because I don't take the topic seriously, I just don't like the direction the dialogue takes. I've been trying to pinpoint the common missteps taken by earnest individuals when determining the "proper gender roles." I won't enumerate all of them, but there were two that I find most misguided. Hopefully, this will lead to a thoughtful dialogue.

First, I often find universal virtues declared "manly virtues." Some Braveheart/Gladiator/The Patriot fan might say "Gosh, William Wallace/Maximus/Benjamin Martin was a real man! He was strong, fortitudinous, and showed great courage by doing what was right. I wish we had more men like that!" Several years ago, I probably would have agreed with that statement. It seems right. Men who exhibit virtue are more admirable than those who do not. The pitfall here is that it suggests that courage and fortitude are for men because the more you exhibit these virtues, the manlier you are. At least, that's the assumption I see people make. If the fallacy in this argument isn't obvious, consider pregnancy and childbirth. These are indisputably things no man can do, yet they must require considerable fortitude and courage. Does that mean a woman needs to be manly in order to do something only women can do? Men and women are called to be virtuous. No one side can lay claim to a particular set. Perhaps the same virtues are often expressed differently, but they're the same virtues nonetheless.

The second pitfall I've observed is the tendency to focus too much on gender roles, and less on the whole person. Thus, human beings are reduced to a particular role. For example, many men take to heart the role of "protector." There is nothing wrong with this, for it's natural to protect that which is good and dear to us from harm. However, if you emphasize this too much, you run the risk of reducing men to simple protectors and women into things that need protection. I once heard an exchange between two sincere young Catholics. The man offerred to walk the young lady to her car, as it was after dark. She said he didn't have to, to which he asked, "What's the role of the woman?"

She responded "To be subservient"

To which he replied, "No, to let the man die for her."

So, if a woman doesn't let men sacrifice themselves for her, she's not performing her part, and thus not letting the man do his manly duty? If a man doesn't die for a woman, he isn't being a man? I don't object to walking a woman to her car after dark, but there is something inherently dysfunctional in defining gender relations in this manner. For one thing, it limits women to passivity. Did Blessed Teresa of Calcutta wait for men to guard her when she did her work? Of course not, there were good works to be done. It also limits men in their behavior. Consider St. Thomas More. He left his wife and children to an uncertain future so he could be a martyr for the Church. He wasn't going to disobey his conscience, even if it meant he wouldn't be there to protect his family.

I don't have everything squared regarding gender roles, which is why I wanted to initiate a conversation. I just think that, in asserting that there are differences between men and women (which there are), we often assume distinctions that aren't entirely true. These false assumptions can prevent us from seeing the other gender as anything but their gender, when we should see them as a person (albeit without ignoring their gender). I would like to hear other member's thoughts on this subject.

Comments (5)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Aug 30, 2014 9:03am

Ian, I couldn't agree more. I, too, am often irritated and dismayed by the way gender roles are discussed in Christian circles.

I got in a heated online exchaged recently over an article that extolled the male tendency to be domineering.

The author theorized that men need to be dominating, because they need to learn to dominate themselves, viz. their own fallen nature.

Women don't need to conquer our fallen nature. That comes naturally to us.

So, that was an instance of treating something common to all persons as if it's especially applicable to men, which is demeaning to women.

Then, the emphasis on roles very often neglects the individuality of persons, which always exceeds generalizations.

I think the problem becomes serious when we treat a general observation (e.g. "women are better at men than homemaking") as a moral prescripton: "Therefore no woman should work outside the home."

Ian Skemp

#2, Sep 2, 2014 12:50pm

It becomes an even bigger problem when people are driven away from the faith because they assume that good Catholics conform to traditional gender roles. Thus, the woman who decides to have a career, remain single without religious vocation, or marries but keeps her maiden name, feels at odds with Catholicism with no reason to be. 

Additionally, I'm glad you mentioned tendencies. I've heard from women who have been through a disordered purity talk at some point in their lives. While the purity talk for men directly confronts our urges, the talk for women oftentimes consists of "You need to dress modestly so as not to make life hard for your brothers." This would be fine, I suppose, if the talk continued on to address a woman's urges, but it stops there. The assumption seems to be that, since men generally struggle more with lust, that lust is a man's problem and women don't need to worry about it. The generalization is not unfounded, as the sex industry is primarily catered to men for a reason. The problem is treating a generalization like a universal, and an even bigger problem is, as you said, treating a tendency as a moral imperative.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Sep 3, 2014 10:28am

You're right that too much emphasis on "unnecessary things" is hindering our witness.

Normal people—that is people who have grown up in the world, been wounded by the world, etc.—start feeling drawn to the Church, and find themselve bumping up against a depressing and alienating spirit of cultural conformism.

I think this is a major concern of the Pope's. Stop moralizing. Stop judging. Stop trying to manage the way other people live. Just invite them to Jesus and the Church. Let Him heal them. 

Let Him heal us, too, including of our habits of moralizing and judging.

I'm pretty more women would choose to be fulltime homemakers and mothers if we could minimze the moral and ideological pressure and guilt surrounding the issue.

Someone linked an Onion story yesterday with a title "Study shows link between breast-feeding and always knowing what's right for everyone else."

I'm afraid something similar could be said about cultural conservatives generally.

In any case, conformism is radically de-personalizing and anti-personalistic. We're all about the uniqueness of the individual and the priority of the interior.

Ian Skemp

#4, Sep 3, 2014 11:25am

Katie van Schaijik, Sep. 3 at 10:28am

"I think this is a major concern of the Pope's. Stop moralizing. Stop judging. Stop trying to manage the way other people live. Just invite them to Jesus and the Church. Let Him heal them."

Ian Skemp

#5, Sep 3, 2014 11:44am

Hey, no one likes a busybody. I like the idea of invitation. We shouldn't guilt people into coming to the feast; we just need them to know they are welcome and that the food is good.

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