Men & Women: equal but different—Vive la differénce!

By John Mallon

The Sooner Catholic, June 5, 1994,

The Lord will give you the bread you need, and the water for which you thirst. No longer will your Teacher hide himself, but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher, while from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: “This is the way; walk in it,” when you would turn to the right or to the left. And you will consider unclean your silver-plated idols and your gold-covered images; You shall throw them away like filthy rags to which you say, “Begone!”

—Isaiah 30:20-22

What are our idols? Sometimes our idols are ideological. How quick we are to run to the left or to the right. But the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” while useful in political discourse, have little meaning in the spiritual realm. The real question that concerns the Christian is whether or not we are obedient to the Lord. Are we ready to pause and listen to that voice from behind that tells us “This is the way walk in it,” when we are about to launch off into our own views of what the Church should be? Catholics believe Christ speaks through the Magisterium of the Church.

A recent case in point involves two related controversial decisions by the Holy See. (1) The allowance of female altar servers, and (2) a definitive Magisterial statement that the ministerial priesthood is reserved for men alone.

There is no shortage of armchair theologians who seem to get their ecclesiology from secular sound bites more than from prayer and serious study of Church teachings. I have no doubt we shall be hearing much from them in the coming weeks. But it is not our job to change the Church, but to be changed by Her, through God’s grace.

Such people frequently attempt to apply contemporary and limited political constructs to the Eternal Word with no sense of the transcendence, beauty, or majesty appropriate to things divine. We forego the light of God’s glory for our own theological smoke-filled rooms.

For example, The unique vocations of men and women in God’s plan reveal a breathtaking beauty when we merely scratch the surface in prayer. Our secular society, blind to this, seeks to reduce this mystery to mere job descriptions, which must be absolutely parallel. This mindset locates equality in the ability to do the same tasks.

Contemporary culture assesses and reduces the worth of human beings to what we do rather than what we are: God’s children made in His image and likeness. Men and women are equal but not the same. Man and woman together are the image and likeness of God. God is a family: the Holy Trinity. From the love between the Father and the Son proceeds the Holy Spirit. Human love,

8from which proceeds children, images this. Human dignity springs from this and is irrevocable. To violate it is sin.

Ironically, the ideology of feminism, rather than exploring the unique gifts of womanhood, has used a male standard to measure equality. All women must do men’s tasks in order to be “equal.” The Church locates human dignity in our identity as God’s children. The slightest glance at the construction of the body indicates that men and women are different, with different capabilities and faculties. In God’s plan, Eve did not bring duplication to Adam, but complimentarity. Genuine love seeks this complimentarity in the interest of union, not competition and envy towards division. The Church says, “Vive la différence!”

I recently heard a woman argue that the Church considered her less than human, because she could not be ordained. This is nonsense. Is a woman less human because she is biologically incapable of being a father or husband? Is a man diminished in dignity because he is incapable of being a mother or a wife? A child knows the difference between them and needs them both.

These same beautiful and interdependent differences have their counterparts in the supernatural and metaphysical realm. Marriage symbolizes the relationship of Christ to His Church. Maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary, but have meaning—glorious meaning. Space does not permit exploring that here but for more on the subject, I recommend C. S. Lewis’ two brilliant novels, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, and Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Man and Woman; (Sophia Press). Closer to home, read Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women).

The spiritual life is a courtship, a dance. The Church is the Bride of Christ the Bridegroom. Priesthood is a role of service, not worldly power, and a role of husbanding, and fatherly nurturance. A priest at the altar, through the power of the Holy Spirit in Holy Orders, brings the supernatural divine life of Christ to His Bride, the Church, as a husband brings natural human life to his wife in the sacrament of their love.

The male priesthood belongs not to the realm of politics and worldly power, but to the realm of service, self-sacrifice, and the laying down of his life for others. (See Ephesians 5: 25-33.) Hardly the agenda of radical feminism.

But ordained priesthood is only one of infinite ways to serve God. It is a mistake to think all the “power” in the Church lies in the hands of the hierarchical apostolate. There is great power in any soul freely surrendered to the Holy Spirit. And there is plenty to be done by anyone sincerely seeking to serve God.

The consummation of love, be it in natural life or the supernatural life is union—not the divisiveness of calling for “rights.” Real love presupposes justice, and does not seek “independence” but union. “Love seeks not itself” (See 1 Cor.13:5.) 

As Christians in the supernatural order we have only one right: gratitude to God for His own sake. Let us also have gratitude for the gift of distinctive maleness and femaleness. Vive la differénce.