Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Scriptural Fisticuffs over the Meaning of Masculinity

There's been a bit of a dust-up at Radical Catholic Mom over the question of what constitutes masculinity (HHT: Regular Guy). One interesting thing to observe about this whole discussion is that while the original question was about masculinity, there has been really no mention of what this would mean for a priest (unless I missed it in the fog of verbal war), which is an instructive example of the interplay between service by the "head" and submission by the "body."

As for the "battle of the sexes" that ensued, there's plenty of fouls for uncharitability that merit a flag, and it seems to me that there really isn't a ton of disagreement in the main other than RCM seems to be hung up the notion that equality means a certain sameness in behaviorial outcome, rather than "an equal foothing" that is ordered to specific roles for husband and wife. As I was digging through the comments, I contemplated adding my own two cents until I found a couple of gems from Melanie Bettinelli of The Wine Dark Sea that is consistent with an earlier take of mine, but is crafted much better (nearly in their entirety):
We chose Ephesians 5 as the epistle for our wedding and I have never had a problem with understanding my husband as the head of our household or with the idea of wifely obedience. In part this is because I understand these things within the full context of the passage which calls the husband to imitate Christ while it calls the wife to imitate his Bride, the Church. Like you said, we are called to mutual submission and I trust my husband not to be a tyrant.

It seems to me like your major objection is to the word "obey". But obedience and submission do not equal dictatorial domination. The thing is there is complete obedience in the trinitarian Godhead.... Christ became obedient unto death.

It seems to me like you are using (and rejecting) a feminist's definition of those terms (obedience and leadership) rather than the Church's definitions and thus are talking past the points made by the several gentlemen in this discussion.

The lack of communication in this discussion really I would guess stems not from a difference in people's actions in their relationships but in a difference in the words people are using to describe those actions, not with the facts of leadership and of obedience but with an understanding of what true Christian leadership and obedience looks like. Hint: they look radically different in a Christian marriage with mutual submission than they do in a secular context.

When the pope refers to the passage about slavery, he is not giving himself license to say that St. Paul's words about submission and obey are wrong he is saying that we must understand and define these terms in light of Christ, in light of the cross, and in light of the resurrection.

We cannot understand the role of the woman to be merely that of Eve who is told that she will long for her husband and be dominated by him. Rather we understand it as something higher. The model for Christian marriage is that of the marriage between Christ and the Church. Mary, not Eve, is our human exemplar of the perfect bride.

In mutual submission, in the union in which both become one flesh, each must give up themselves to the other for that unity. And the wife's submission leads her husband to be able to submit himself more fully to Christ while the husband's role leads the wife to be able to follow more perfectly the voice of love. She is never called to submit to something sinful or wrong, or even dictatorial but to submit in loving union which seeks the higher good of both spouses.

The husband does-- he must-- take a leadership role; but as you say happens in your household he never dictates to his wife arbitrarily but always lovingly considers her desires, her needs, her feelings, even her whims. he consults with her and makes her a full partner in every decision that is made. A true leader is one who leads by love, by example. Christ didn't go around barking orders (though he did frequently tell people to stop sinning) he led his Church by dying for her.

The husband is called to lead, not in situation A or B because situation A or B are defined as the sorts of categories in which the husband always leads, but he is called to lead in a union which seeks the holiness of both. His first concern as a leader should always be for his wife and then for his children, he puts himself last, the perfect servant.

The sticking point seems to be in how to apply these ideas of leadership and of obedience. What do they look like in practice? Well, they're going to look different in each family, aren't they. And above all it takes prudence and prayer, as does every aspect of Christian life.

It isn't a matter of who is in charge of the finances or who is in charge when there is a fire or earthquake, or who is in charge of the home or of making the money or any of these things. Those are fluid, those can change depending on who is stronger at being able to manage those things, whichever person God has made stronger and more capable of handling them.

If I am better with money, then my husband, if he is a true leader, will allow me to pay the bills and balance the checkbook. If he is not here in an emergency, of course he knows I will do the sensible things. But if, on the other hand, he is here, then you can be sure I'm sending him down to bash the burglar's in the brains while I run to the nursery to protect the children. That falls in line with our natural abilities and proclivities.

I think of my husband as head of our domestic church and head of our household. And yet I can't think of any time when he's ordered me to do anything. My submission comes to mind more in terms of loving service to him, death to self, trying to suppress my internal selfish grumblings, to remember the sacrifices he makes for me. For example, if I want help with the dishes I ask for his help and I thank him afterwards for his service. Likewise, he thanks me for doing my ordinary household tasks like laundry and cooking and tending to our daughter's needs.

I think the honor and obedience I owe to my husband as head of our household come fairly easily to me. It mostly consists in respecting his wishes, not treating him as another child but as a grown man. I don't nag but I do respect his forgetfulness and try to remind him gently when he forgets something he's promised to do for me, remembering that I'm not his boss but his bride. It means I try to frequently acknowledge my appreciation of the sacrifices he makes in going to work everyday and all the other things he does both big and small. It isn't hard and yet at some moments it's the hardest thing I've ever done because it involves a death to self and overcoming my own selfishness and pettiness.
She goes on:

I do think there is a difference in the roles which men and women play. Though we are both following Christ and both mutually submitting to each other out of love, and thus equal in our self-donation, there are differences in how we will relate in a family. I think in that way "obedience" might be more appropriate when used of the feminine and "death to self" in terms of the masculine vocation in marriage. I'm still trying to tease out for myself why it sounds wrong to use the word "obedience" to describe the husband's relationship to his wife but not vice versa.

I thought this passage (from this article) came closer than I could to explaining the fine points:

"The fact that the context of the passage is one of mutual submission among believers indicates that Christian spouses should manifest this same reciprocity in their own relationship. It does not, however, eliminate their differences as male and female or necessarily deny the existence of particular roles which flow from this. Yet the content of these roles is invested with radically different meaning through the call directed to husbands to "love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her" (5:25). The use of the verb paredoken ("handed over") imbues the love mandated here with a paschal quality, recalling the sacrificial love manifested on the cross (c.f. Gal. 2:20). Hence the husband being kephale ("head") of his wife is given a new meaning in the light of faith. As Ben Witherington observes: "The husband becomes the chief servant, like Christ, and the wife an example of one who responds with loving submission as the Church does in relation to Christ."

The servant leadership exercised in self-giving love on the part of husbands is not wholly different from the voluntary subordination enjoined on wives insofar as both describe a form of mutual deference -- putting the needs and desires of the other ahead of oneself -- in language that will be intelligible within a specific cultural horizon. Yet the text transposes this horizon into a distinctly theological milieu, at once pneumatological, ecclesiological, and Christological. The pattern of life of the redeemed household is a specific form of discipleship which manifests the "one flesh" unity of Christ, the New Adam, and his Bride, the Church, in the New Creation (c.f. 5:31-32). Hence while still utilizing some of the language and ideas of the culture from which it emerged, the text seeks to transform the patriarchal household from within."

I think for me it comes down to this: a body can have only one head. So in a marriage the husband is the head and the wife is the heart. Both are equally important, remove either and the body receives a fatal blow; but they are different. They have different strengths and different weaknesses and I think authority and leadership are more masculine strengths while feminine strengths tend to be empathy and communication. This is in respect to broad roles, individuals' aptitudes may of course differ considerably.

I guess it's not surprising to me that men will emphasize their leadership in the family in this sort of discussion. I think it necessary to a healthy masculine psyche to be a leader. And our society seems determined to make men and masculinity into dirty words, so it is even understandable when they are overemphasized. It's a reaction to the feminisation of society which denies that it is good when men are strong and capable and exercise leadership. I know inmny discussions with my husband he has lamented the lack of strong models of masculine leadership in the Church. We have forgotten how to encourage men to be leaders in their domestic churches. Often men think of religion as women's stuff precisely because they don't see how the Church promotes their need for leadership.

The Church's innovation has been to show that this leadership is one of a servant in the model of Christ, who submits himself out of love. It is good to point this out in the context of mutual submission as JPII does, but I don't see Paul [Regular Guy] denying that truth in his posts, just reacting strongly perhaps not so much to you as to the lack of discussion about what men need to discuss, which is their need to step up and be leaders.


  1. The Church's innovation has been to show that this leadership is one of a servant in the model of Christ, who submits himself out of love. It is good to point this out in the context of mutual submission as JPII does, but I don't see Paul [Regular Guy] denying that truth in his posts, just reacting strongly perhaps not so much to you as to the lack of discussion about what men need to discuss, which is their need to step up and be leaders.

    It's nice to see that someone understood what I was trying to say. Though in fact, I was reacting to RCM, and not to any "lack of discussion".

    Of course, the reason I was on that topic was that RCM asked for opinions on that topic.

    Then she turned around and claimed I was simply wrong, and not up on the newest, latest current Catholic teachings.

    Frankly, it seemed a bit of a set-up to me, so I bailed on the conversation. I wondered why her original post had gone a week without a comment. Perhaps she's done this sort of thing before, and others more familiar with her blog knew better. So do I, now.

    It's nice to see that something sensible was posted there later.

  2. I just stumbled across this and am flattered to have been quoted so extensively. Thank you.

    I think I know better now where RCM was coming from at the time and due to her personal situation, which I am not at liberty to discuss, I think it very understandable that she was struggling with this issue. Some men do lose the right to be head of their household and authority that is abused should not be submitted to. When men fail in their most basic duties to serve and protect those whom God has put in their charge, then it is right and just that they be disobeyed. God have mercy on them and on us all.



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