Commentary: The Relationship Between Men and Women
One Thanks to the Other, for the Other
Part II of the Letter On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World [from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] re-examines the Sacred Scriptures with the intention of recalling, in the light of Revelation, the "Basic elements of the biblical vision of the human person", as the very title of the section says. Numbers 5 to 12 offer a reinterpretation and a commentary on certain key texts of the Old and New Testaments that make it possible to shed light on:
- the basic, inalienable features of humanity, created as male and female and as such, qualified as "very good" (cf. Gn 1:31);
- the drama of this relationship which in our present history is marked by sin, alienated from its original truth and goodness, and therefore awaits the healing which it needs;
- the way that Christ, in saving humanity, intervenes to heal this fundamental relationship, restoring it to its original truth, that is, to the eternal thought of God.
Three preliminary observations
1. The order of the texts explained follows the treatment of this topic by Sacred Scripture in its canonical form, all the way from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. An important truth thus finds implicit confirmation: Revelation undoubtedly opens humanity to the knowledge of God, of his project of love in history and of the Face of the Father made manifest in the Son.
This same Word of God, however, simultaneously teaches man knowledge of his own identity, of the nature of his dignity and likewise of the conditions required for an authentic human life.
Thus, every time he speaks, God reveals at the same time who he is and who man is. Christian anthropology finds in this a primary, crucial characteristic: self-knowledge by means of reason and experience acquired with their strength alone does not suffice for men and women. If they desire true self-knowledge, they need to receive from God the secret of their deepest identity.
2. The analysis in this section also reveals that in the Sacred Scriptures the difference between the sexes is in no way a marginal reality or even a provisional topic doomed by the end of history to have been superseded.
On the contrary, on the one hand, this reality is present from the very beginning in the creation texts: this is concomitant with the Creator's act from which humanity emerges.
On the other hand, this reality is represented at the end of history in the future vision of humanity transfigured in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Furthermore, during the course of time and history, the distinction between man and woman is located at the centre of the salvific work by which God comes to visit his own through his Son, who becomes flesh in male form through the welcoming of a woman, Mary, daughter of Zion, in whom humanity finds the perfection of its relationship with God.
One especially understands from this fact how the statement of St. Paul, "there is neither male nor female" (Gal 3:28), cannot be interpreted as an affirmation of an abolition, in Christ, of the sexes, because this difference was willed and ordered by God in the very act in which he called humanity into existence (cf. n. 12).
Instead, in Jesus, who shares his holiness with those the Father entrusted to him, the rivalries and violence that threaten to downplay the rapport between man and woman are overcome, and it becomes possible to live in harmony, serenity and happiness.
3. At this point, it is necessary to recall the important contribution that this Scriptural journey owes to John Paul II's elaboration on the question of the person and to his anthropology of the couple, as well as a theology of marriage directed towards the renewed understanding of the body and relationships — a theme often treated by this Supreme Pontiff.
As a result, the second part of the present Document continually places great emphasis on the Sacred Scriptures and the analyses done by John Paul II in the Post-Synodal Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem and in the Letter to Families, just as in his Catecheses on marriage or "body language".
This series of teachings bears witness to an undeniable progress in the understanding of the content of Revelation, in an anthropological context that gets to the heart of the mystery of salvation. It thus comes about, according to the thought of Gregory the Great, that "the text grows with its reader", from the moment in which the latter allows charity to work in him and permits the Spirit to awaken in him the depths of God and of his very own existence.
Specific themes addressed
1. Humanity, an ontologically relational reality
The Document begins in n. 5 with the enunciation of the key principle of Christian anthropology, continually taken up and commented upon by the Church of the West (St. Irenaeus, St. Augustine) as well as by the East (St. Gregory of Nyssa): humanity is created "in the image and likeness of God" (Gn 1:27).
Such an affirmation, however, is connected to the reference to the difference between the sexes, as one reads in Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them". In this manner God creates by distinguishing, by making differentiated realities emerge from chaos.
The "distinction" is especially the presupposition and the condition of the relationship, which is at the foundation of human life conceived through sharing between persons.
From birth, therefore, every human being is marked by the difference of sexes and is called to live this difference in a just way.
We are thus very far from an exploitation of indistinct or confused relationships, which the Bible recognizes as sterile and deadly. It is precisely in the face-to-face experience with the other, near and at the same time different, that the human being discovers personal identity and actualizes in oneself something of the image of God, who is found within the person.
In an age when so-called ideal relationships abound which tend to confuse the sexes and in which anthropological concepts are set forth that would like to completely blot out the difference between the sexes, one can truly understand how important and precious the Biblical text is.
In an age, furthermore, in which there is talk of competition between the sexes or of a re-conquest of power as the remedy to injustice, the Word of God restores to man and woman their true identity; one cannot stand without the other, and each one exists by means of the other and for the other.
2. The meaning of sexuality
What has been affirmed above is decisive for a judgment on human sexuality.
In nn. 6 and 8 of the Document, which provide a treatment of this issue, the analysis of John Paul II on the spousal nature of the human body takes on particular importance. The body, in fact, is marked by a difference that makes it masculine or feminine and which invites one to relate according to the respective expressive manners, which are not only physical but also psychological and spiritual.
This means that sexuality's anthropological dimension is increased to a theological dimension, which pertains to humanity's relational existence and which is therefore also in rapport with the image of God, the love present within every man and woman.
3. When the relationship with the other deteriorates
One is to begin from this perspective situated under the sign of "very good" in which the drama described in Genesis 3 is considered, but only in a subsequent moment. The connection between the deterioration of the rapport between humanity and God — through disobedience to the divine prohibition — and the deterioration of the rapport between man and woman is clear and evident.
There is a sort of reciprocal implication between the man doubtful towards God and the refusal to recognize himself as a creature before the Creator, on the one hand, and on the other, the difficulty of living the difference between the sexes that characterizes humanity in its relational nature.
Therefore, considering the divine image, of which the human bears the impression, one perceives the subsequent danger that this situation carries with it: the fact that the manifestation of the Face of God through those whom he has created in his image and likeness becomes problematic.
Precisely for this reason one understands how even this vary marital relationship is immediately involved in Christ's Redemption when he reconciles humanity to its Creator and causes it to merge in its own filial relationship with the Father (cf. n.11).
4. The Covenant at the centre of Revelation
The same logic explains that the story of Israel and God's revelation of himself to his people are expressed in terms of a Covenant, with an allusion to the marital covenant. Prophetic literature fully illustrates this reality by treating the relationship between God and Israel as a relationship between husband and wife, with its risks, dramas and possibilities of recuperating the newness of an ever mere faithful love (cf. n. 9).
The Book of Hosea, above all, teaches Israel to decipher its story as a spiritual drama comparable to a marital relationship put to the test of infidelity. As such, the hope and promise of salvation in turn express themselves in nuptial terms, as the Books of Hosea and Isaiah bear witness.
The Prophet Isaiah can evoke the mystery of salvation that God prepares by associating the oracles of the Servant to the oracles of Zion, joining the masculine and the feminine with an approach that will be clarified only at the manifestation of Jesus, the Messiah, Son of the Virgin Mary.
Finally, the Song of Songs, which associates how much the human element exists and how much more the divine element exists, according to traditional Church interpretation, establishes the completed expression of the Covenant where the relations between God and humanity are re-established, as well as the relations that are at the base of the human couple and of human love.
The Document underscores the fact that in this mystery of salvation, human experience is contemporaneously recovered, assumed and overcome by the divine reality.
Nonetheless, here it is not a simple metaphor that can be abandoned and substituted with another equivalent one Sacred Scripture invites us to recognize the very profound affinity between the Covenant and the covenant of man and woman. Everything occurs as if Revelation needed to express itself, to make itself truly known, to pass through this central reality of human life.
5. The new creation in Christ
The New Testament develops aim brings to fulfilment the Revelation of God's nuptial begun in the Old Testament (cf. n. 10).
Jesus, the beloved Son of the Father, assumes in his masculinity the word of the prophets concerning the love of God, the Husband, and explains the importance of this word, beyond every expectation, through the gift of his own life on the Cross.
The Gospel of John, particularly in its initial recounting of the wedding of Cana and the Passion, speaks of the Messianic wedding that inaugurates and actualizes the New Covenant.
The question of the couple and of fidelity to the marital relationship again becomes current, thanks especially to the newness of this Covenant.
Thus, in Chapter 19 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus appeals to the previous arrangement of the "beginning" in order to stigmatize the act of writing up a bill of divorce, indicating in this way the newness of a time in which men and women can be, in Christ and thanks to him, witnesses of a fidelity stronger than sin.
And thus is announced the grace that makes all things new, especially the human heart, which receives from Christ the capacity to love as God himself loves (cf. n. 11).
The relationship between man and woman more than ever appears essential in God's plan and in the life of humanity. Far from desiring to abolish or supersede it, Christ introduces this relationship in a condition of justice that is destined to flourish in eternity.
The conclusion of the Book of Revelation, where the Bride and the Spirit invoke the coming of the Bridegroom, attests that the eternity prepared by God for those who love him is inseparable from the difference between man and woman, even though such a difference is called to be transformed from the time that will no longer be lived in a way marked by death and thus by generation.
In this regard, the consecrated celibate person is not at all disqualified in comparison to the married state. Even the unmarried person is included in the distinction between man and woman and in their relationship, even if in a manner other than the married life.
This same celibate person must be able to live as a figure and promise of the heavenly Jerusalem, where this foundational difference will receive the fullness of truth through God's glory and humanity's happiness. Male and female thus belong ontologically to creation (cf. n. 12).
6. The identity of the woman
This rereading of the Sacred Scriptures through a lens that values the man-woman relationship offers a precious, clarifying contribution, especially on the very identity of woman. And thus, the end of Genesis, which defines her as the ezer of man, is accompanied by a brief commentary (cf. n. 6).
Contrary to a hasty and superficial understanding of the text, it here recognizes in the woman, whom God presents to man in the second chapter of Genesis, much more than a simple aid destined to alleviate his earthly labours. The meaning of the word ezer goes well beyond that, since in the Bible the same term — as n. 5 of the Document reminds us — is applied to God in his relationship with humanity, as a vital help.
The same n. 6 cross-references the statement of St. Paul in I Cor 11:9: "Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man". In the light of Revelation, it is clear that this expression is not intended to confine women to a state of submission and alienation.
On the contrary, it is an invitation to recognize in the female's being, defined in this manner, a reflection of the very essence of God, who makes himself known as someone who is "for human beings" and reveals himself as an unfathomable mystery in the distinction and communion of the three persons of the Trinity.
Lastly, n. 10 refers to the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians in order to invite every baptized person to recognize in the love lived within the Christian couple, the "mystery" of the marital love of Christ for the Church.
Human life thus finds truth and clarity in its double polarity of masculine and feminine, beyond the defeats and violence experienced by men and women, as well as beyond the ambiguities of certain currents of contemporary thought.
Men and women have the calling to live, one thanks to the other, and one for the other. Each is called to recognize in the other the dignity that comes to him or her from the Creator.
Each is invited to meet and receive the other in "collaboration", which finds its completion in "communion", that is, by participating in charity, which is the very essence of God revealed as Holy Trinity.
This new view — of being renewed by the Spirit who makes all things new and who converts hearts — is the good news that the Christian faith brings to today's men and woman who are awaiting truth and happiness.
Anne-Marie Pelletier, born in 1946, taught general linguistics and comparative literature at the University of Paris X, then Marne-la-Vallee, as well as theology of marriage at the Catholic Institute of Paris. She has for some years taught sacred scriptures and biblical hermeneutics at the Notre Dame faculty of the seminary of Paris. Since 2013 she has held the role of professor of biblical teaching at the European Institute of Science of Religions (IESR). Her research extends to Judaism and Christianity at the College des Bernardins, and the monastic world. She has published widely: notable works in the field of hermeneutics and biblical exegesis are “Lectures du Cantique des Cantiques. De l'enigme du sens aux figures du lecteur”, “Lectures bibliques. Aux sources de la culture occidentale”, “D'age en age les Ecritures. La Bible et l'hermeneutique contemporaine”, and “Le livre d'Isaie, l'histoire au prisme de la prophetie”. With regard to the question of women in Christianity, she has written two books: “Le christianisme et les femmes. Vingt siecles d'histoire”, and “Le signe de la femme”. “Pelletier is therefore a most distinguished figure in contemporary French Catholicism”, commented Cardinal Ruini, “who unites deserved scientific prestige and a great and versatile cultural liveliness with an authentic dedication to causes of the highest importance for Christian witness in society”.
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