Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A note on "feminization"

A couple of times, I have heard or read complaints from individuals that the Catholic Church has become, or is in the process of becoming "feminized". Now while I sympathize in large part with the observations that might lead to this complaint, I feel the need to point something out.

Although it is a political hot-button, I imagine that most people take for granted that, generally, there are diverse virtues and aptitudes toward which men and women commonly gravitate. Even those feminists who are convinced that these differences have no 'essential' or 'natural' pedigree acknowledge that they exist (justly or not). Natural or not, just or not, the significance of these differences have been with us for so long that they have long penetrated deeply into the consciousness, not just of western society, but of humanity.

It's been the trend of Catholic magisterial teaching of the last century to celebrate those differences as revelatory of God's goodness and the magnificence of his creation. John Paul II made this explicit in his "Letter to Women":

"Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the 'masculine' and the 'feminine' that the 'human' finds full realization."

John Paul there speaks of the "Genius of women" and the "feminine genius", and refers readers to Mulieris Dignitatem.

Now, to my point. Let's suppose for the sake of argument that there are distinctively 'feminine' and 'masculine' qualities, the former being traditionally associated with gentleness, kindness, receptivity/openness to others, understanding, motherliness, nurturing, morality, etc., and the latter being strength, courage, abstract intelligence, leadership, focus, industriousness, duty, honor, etc.

(Of course, I take for granted that any validity to this claim does not imply that these qualities are exclusive to one or the other sex, nor that they are the "property" thereof. The characterizations are ceteris paribus, or as far as the case may be).

Now, I think it's important to realize that we do not commonly criticize an individual for having an abundance of virtues 'associated' with a sex not his own. A man who has sufficient "manly" virtues, but is also gentle, kind, and receptive is not "effeminate" but, as C.S. Lewis would say, is rather "chivalrous". A woman who is not only understanding and motherly but also brilliant and industrious is not "butch" but heroic.

Anywhere a person tempts us to employ a pejorative, gender-associated word - effeminate, girly, catty, or pig, brute, and bully - it is scarcely because that person has too many virtues of the wrong kind, but rather that the person lacks the virtues that we would especially expect him or her to have on account of his/her sex.

I think this is an important distinction. If a man is called "effeminate," the implication is not that he has 'feminine' virtues, but that he is deficient in 'masculine' ones (
he may be equally deficient in the feminine virtues). In this respect, the very word "effeminate" is misleading and inappropriate, as it falsely implies an inverse correlation between masculine and feminine virtues.

Some people may say at this stage that this is all good reason to drop all this talk of gender-associated virtues altogether. I disagree. I think that the last century has seen a good development in the rediscovery that the feminine embodies real virtues which need to be cultivated not only by women but by all human beings, and in this respect women will be more often the teachers of men than the reverse.

But a less positive development of the last century has been the widespread prejudice which has developed against the 'masculine' virtues, and the consequent elimination or neglect of them in parishes and Catholic discourse. And this is what I perceive when I hear people complain about the "feminization" of the Church. "Feminization" is not, properly speaking, a bad thing at all; done rightly, it turns barbarians into knights; it is the very stuff of civilization. The problem in the Church is not our fresh development of the collective muscles of kindness and gentleness, but rather the atrophy of virtues of duty, honor, courage, discipline, and the intellectual virtues. Thus I would not say that the Church has become wrongly "feminized", but I would say that it has become emasculated. Perhaps women and men both should mourn this loss.

1 comment:

Matt of C G said...

If we are becoming emasculated you'ld think courage would abound amongst us lay people, but it doesn't.

We've become lax in our duty to God. We no longer feel indebted to him for the beauty given to us in the One Truth (Roman Catholicism). What need have we of the virtue of humility when the pangs of hunger are never felt? What need have we of this 'gateway virtue' when our clothes are always new and we are looked upon with favorable glances?

Why should we courageous when we are so content? Why would we open ourselves to criticism and ridicule when it would comprimise our contentment? The vicar of Christ used to say on the television, "be not afraid..." but what he doesn't understand is that we've got something to loose by doing this. We would have to sweat and put forth effort and be exposed to the world as Catholic! We would loose the ease of living! We can't have that.-- If you think my rant is unjustified know that "we" includes me too.

What do the statistics show about the percentage of American Roman Catholics that actually practice their faith in in relation to the total number of us?