Monday, May 11, 2009

Jesus, Gender, And The New Covenant

Pope Benedict is now in Israel where he gave a very moving speech at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial. He was about as straight forward and uncompromising as one can get on the issue of antisemitism and the reality of the Holocaust. Click here for the full text.

I've written before that Benedict can be just brilliant is some areas and then suffer from a total blind spot in other areas. One of his blind spots is on "women's genius". In a sermon given during Sunday's Mass in Jordan, he once again made reference to women's genius. The following is an extract from his homily:

An important aspect of your reflection during this Year of the Family has been the particular dignity, vocation and mission of women in God’s plan. How much the Church in these lands owes to the patient, loving and faithful witness of countless Christian mothers, religious Sisters, teachers, doctors and nurses! How much your society owes to all those women who in different and at times courageous ways have devoted their lives to building peace and fostering love!

From the very first pages of the Bible, we see how man and woman, created in the image of God, are meant to complement one another as stewards of God’s gifts and partners in communicating his gift of life, both physical and spiritual, to our world. Sadly, this God-given dignity and role of women has not always been sufficiently understood and esteemed. The Church, and society as a whole, has come to realize how urgently we need what the late Pope John Paul II called the “prophetic charism” of women (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, 29) as bearers of love, teachers of mercy and artisans of peace, bringing warmth and humanity to a world that all too often judges the value of a person by the cold criteria of usefulness and profit. By its public witness of respect for women, and its defence of the innate dignity of every human person, the Church in the Holy Land can make an important contribution to the advancement of a culture of true humanity and the building of the civilization of love." (So just what exactly is 'men's genius'?)

As usual the message about women is their complimentary ability to serve others through motherhood, teaching, and healing. As usual the justification given for this genius 'for serving others', is the original complementarity between man and woman as described in Genesis.

What Benedict usually leaves out in his references to Genesis is that biblical scholars see the first chapter of Genesis describing the creation of ha adam out of adamha. That is creating an 'earthling' (ha adam), from earth (adamah). There is no gender definition implied in the original Hebrew. It is only after God introduces the 'earthling' to all the other pairs of animals and the 'earthling' names them that ha adam realizes species loneliness. Every other animal is paired.

I suppose one could wonder if God realized that ha adam, as a species, distinct from an individual, was short something, and hence corrected the oversight. In any event we have Adam and Eve in the next chapter, and from then on all things bad blamed on Eve. She distorted her feminine genius by 'helping' Adam disobey God's command.

I read the 2004 letter sent to bishops On The Collaboration of Men and Women in Church and the World written by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. It is essentially a restatement of John Paul's Mulieris Dignitatem, with an additional dig at feminists and homosexuals and a really strong dig at Eve:

"God's decisive words to the woman after the first sin express the kind of relationship which has now been introduced between man and woman: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gn 3:16). It will be a relationship in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other. Indeed the story of humanity is continuously marked by this situation, which recalls the three-fold concupiscence mentioned by Saint John: the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life (cf. 1 Jn 2:16). In this tragic situation, the equality, respect and love that are required in the relationship of man and woman according to God's original plan, are lost." (Interesting he doesn't state which sex lords it over the other.)

This treatment of Genesis blames this whole sexual discord thing on Eve, the woman. Adam being the victim. Actually, Benedict starts this letter out blaming the current discord on secular feminism--the new incarnation of Eve, I guess.
In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary. The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences on a variety of levels. This theory of the human person, intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality.

While the immediate roots of this second tendency are found in the context of reflection on women's roles, its deeper motivation must be sought in the human attempt to be freed from one's biological conditioning. According to this perspective, human nature in itself does not possess characteristics in an absolute manner: all persons can and ought to constitute themselves as they like, since they are free from every predetermination linked to their essential constitution. (The truth is human characteristics spread out over a bell curve continuum. The absolutes, if there actually are any, would be at the very ends of the bell curve and not include many people.)

This perspective has many consequences. Above all it strengthens the idea that the liberation of women entails criticism of Sacred Scripture, which would be seen as handing on a patriarchal conception of God nourished by an essentially male-dominated culture. Second, this tendency would consider as lacking in importance and relevance the fact that the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form. (Bingo!)

I wish Benedict could read these sentences through the eyes of a woman. He might find himself thinking that his objections are all wet and that Sacred Scripture is most certainly patriarchal and a product of a male dominated culture.

Of course, he started the letter out by claiming the Church is an expert in humanity, which I guess means I have to accept the underlying assumption that celibate males can be experts in female humanity, since this letter is almost exclusively about female roles.

I seriously doubt he would ever accept the notion that celibate women can be experts in male humanity, since he never bothered to consult one single female in the writing of this letter. Which leads one to believe the whatever women's genius is, it doesn't include expertise in the humanity of either sex---at least as far as the Church is concerned.

The reason I bother with all of this, is precisely because Benedict is in a part of the world where the rights of women are seriously curtailed, women are still the victims of family pride killings, can be stoned for adultery, contracted in marriage before puberty, and gays are imprisoned and or executed.
Benedict has repeatedly noted that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share the first books of the bible. When he insists on a literal and somewhat erroneous interpretation of Genesis he isn't just promoting his notion of the traditional family, he's also giving tacit support to some of the worst human rights violators in the world, and I'm not just talking the Islamic world.

If you take the time to read his entire letter, you might come away with the same over all impression I did. Benedict's notion of complementarity describes a male essence based in the Old Testament, and a female essence based in the New Testament. One gender rules, judges, creates, and jealously protects, while the other sacrifices, suffers, forgives, heals, and loves.
Perhaps this is precisely why Jesus came as male. Women didn't need a New Covenant. They already embodied it. Pun intended.


  1. This is for me the role that weighs the heaviest-because I am female I am somehow less. "Women can't be ordained because God sent a MAN!"-said by a priest not even half my age!
    And from the pastor,"I told a woman who said to me that she was upset at how women are treated in the Church, "Look at how many ways you can SERVE!
    It is not that I want power or authority, I just want to be treated like an equal. Where did Jesus treat women as other than with the respect due to another child of God?

  2. Coolmom, what kills me is too many clerical males, especially of Benedict's generation, really don't see the inequality.

    How does one claim the church is an expert in humanity when all of it's perspective comes from one sex. This is exactly the equivalent of being a complete expert in slavery because you are an owner of slaves. What makes this an even larger folly, is the owner is incapable of seeing how his own humanity has been compromised and skewed precisely because he views the world of slavery as an owner.

    What your pastor told you is akin to a slave owner telling a slave "look how much freedom I give you as long as you stay on the plantation. What's to complain about?"

  3. I find it hard to believe that Benedict is not aware of the meaning of the Genesis text.

  4. annonymous, so did a lot of other of his own theologians. This letter was not received with a great deal of enthusiasm even amongst Catholic theologians. The Genesis issue was only one of many.

  5. I have found that reading the so called "lost gospels" extremely enlightening in this respect. After reading them, I am clear that they were not "lost", but ignored. Ignored because all of them that I have read so far provided evidence that Jesus ordained women, one even indicated that Mary had a higher position that Peter. Peter in a jealous rage was chastized by Christ. Interesting isnt it that ALL of these were selectively omiited by the male heirarchy of the catholic church when the bible was assembled.

    Interesting, because it very simply means that the catholic church and the catholic faith are all built around a lie. No wonder there is so much turmoil and depravity within the leadership.

  6. Colleen, I really tried to read the entire text in the link and found myself just getting dizzy and utterly annoyed and frustrated in trying to follow this all male "logic" or male reasoning in defining all women. I'm annoyed because Benedict goes back to Genesis, ignores the teachings of Jesus, to prop up his theories, supposedly to logically find some scriptural basis to continue to debase women, divide women in such a way as to make them into an image that truly is a subjective male view that continues to objectify women and pinhole them into being a class of lesser beings.

    Rather than gain an understanding of women, he just goes on and on to continue with the old myths and male reasons to not understand women.

    "How does one claim the church is an expert in humanity when all of its perspective comes from one sex." Good question Colleen, and it does seem that the slave owner wants to convince other male slave owners that he gives them his blessing to continue with an ancient all male view of women.

    Jesus went out of his way to talk to women while the disciples continued to interrupt Jesus with the cultural misunderstandings they had about women. Jesus corrected the men in their flawed views more often than he did women it seems to me. Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well and spoke to her as he did to the men.

    I think too that men are in need more of an understanding of why Jesus did not have any conflict with women, and didn't feel the need to go on and on about their sex. The men demonstrated far more resistance to Jesus than women. Says a lot about God's Will for man to get on the same page as Jesus in their understanding of women instead of promoting Genesis male dominated thinking that men are more superior because Jesus was a man.

    The women showed much more bravery and courage than the men as well as humility. Here is a short list of the women in the New Testament that made a big difference - Mary Magdalen, Jesus' Mother Mary, Martha & Mary, Veronica, the woman with the hemorrhage, the Samaritan woman at the well. The example of these women is in stark contrast to the men who had a terrible time in understanding Jesus, denied Jesus, ran and hid while the women were with Jesus Christ to end of His life and to be the first to see Him Resurrected from the Dead.

    This going back to Genesis to find "answers" seems more like the haggling of men who are too full of pride to see their error.

  7. I think part of Jesus's whole message was to encourage expression of full humanity in both sexes.

    Men are the ones who are trapped in a vision of their human potential which is half formed and truncated. That's why I truly think Jesus came as a male. He needed to show men they could be more than they gave themselves permission to be.