Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Reader Writes: Genesis, Gender, and an Ethic of Life

Colleen’s posting focuses on the homily Pope Benedict gave this past Sunday at a Mass in Jordan. And she is absolutely right: her critique of that homily dovetails in a remarkable way with my analysis of why the U.S. bishops are failing to convince either their co-religionists or the wider public that the Catholic church really means what it teaches about the value of life.

Colleen notes that Benedict’s homily follows a well-trodden path in speaking of male-female complementarity and the “special” vocation of women. As Colleen notes, Benedict has been emphasizing this theme for some time now: in 2004, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then Cardinal Ratzinger issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.”

That document enunciates the same themes Benedict highlighted this past Sunday: e.g., that women have a “particular dignity, vocation and mission” in church and world, a mission centered on “building peace and fostering love.” Benedict speaks of women 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.”

Benedict bases his theory of male-female complementarity in part on the Genesis creation narratives. But as Colleen notes, Benedict’s understanding of those narratives seems not to be informed by sound exegetical research, since

[w]hat 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.

The Hebrew in which the Genesis creation narratives are written implies that God creates humanity first and foremost. The distinction of human being into gender is a secondary moment in the creation process. The calling to be human—fully human—transcends any biological calling to be male or female.

This is not merely a niggling observation about the need for exegetical accuracy as we interpret the bible. It is a profoundly important observation about what being human is all about, in the mind of the author(s) of the Genesis creation narratives. If we are called by these narratives to live our lives according to some divine purpose implanted in us by virtue of creation, that purpose is first and foremost about being a human being—a human being made in God’s image. It is only secondarily (and tangentially) about being a man or a woman.

In elevating the male-female distinction to the level of God’s divine plan for human beings and arguing that these stories lay down separate biologically-grounded roles for men and women, Benedict and many other Christians today are missing the point: they are turning into an idol something in the text that was not meant to have divine status. They are reading biological imperatives as divine commands, which then translate into commands about gender roles for faithful men and women.

There is no gender definition implied in the original Hebrew: Colleen’s analysis of the story is absolutely correct here. There is no gender definition implied, and to the extent that we now read these stories as stories about male-female complementarity (and separate male-female gender roles), we’re misinterpreting them by imposing on them preoccupations that were not part of the worldview of the authors of the text.

And how does this insight dovetail with what I posted yesterday? In yesterday’s posting, I argued that the U.S. Catholic bishops have failed to convince many of us with their ethic of life, because they ground that ethic in paternalistic example and a paternalistic worldview. I argued that to be convincing about life, the bishops would have to do what seems not to come naturally to them these days: they’d have to act maternal for a change.

They’d have to think like mothers. They’d have to think like what they keep insisting the church is to all of us, a mother. They’d have to start wrapping their arms around the world the way God does in the very first image of God we meet in scripture, in those very same Genesis creation stories, which speak of God creating the world by folding matter under her divine wings and brooding over it until it comes to life.

To convince us about life, the men wearing bright robes while brandishing big croziers need to begin acting like maternal. As I wrote, if the bishops want to be convincing when they talk about life, they need to cultivate the maternal virtues that, as Benedict’s homily last Sunday rightly notes, are central to an profound ethic of life.

They’d need to begin nurturing the young and the weak, healing the sick, tending the earth and making it flourish, creating a safe and welcoming space for others, building a community of homes in which everyone has welcome places throughout the land. They’d need to start doing these things themselves and stop relegating them to some woman somewhere, or any woman anywhere (the paternalistic rhetoric of the magisterium assumes women are objects, generic care-providing things).

That noble-sounding rhetoric of the magisterium re: male-female complementarity and the “particular dignity and vocation” of women is a trap and a cop-out. It’s a trap for women and a cop-out for men. It entraps women because it allows men all over the globe to slough off responsibility to do what women are always expected to do and men need to do: care for the young and the elderly and the weak, cherish the earth and make it flourish, build welcoming homes across the globe, nurse the sick. The paternalistic rhetoric of male-female complementarity is a cop-out for men because it lets men off the hook when such necessary human tasks arise. It allows men to relegate the most significant tasks in the world to some woman somewhere, who is not even respected as she undertakes these tasks, and is regarded as interchangeable with all women in the rhetoric of paternalism.

Benedict's reading of Genesis allows men to be not who they were meant to be—full human beings capable of a wide range of emotions and responsibilities—but less human. Benedict twists Genesis to permit men to become something they were never meant to be, half-human beings with no instinct for care, nurture, tenderness. In being paternal without being maternal, in fulfilling their “God-given” role as real men, men end up being stunted human beings, even as men profess to be the lords and masters of creation under the divine imperative of Genesis.

Human beings who do not aim at being fully developed humans, who combine in their persons and lives male-female tasks, are incapable of effective leadership of communities of care centered on an ethic of respect for life. The bishops cannot and never will obtain buy-in for their life ethic until they begin to show that they themselves take the ethic of life seriously, in all its ramifications. As a start, they could begin to listen, for instance, as mothers listen carefully to their children, to hear the words inside the spoken words, the cries of the speaking heart hidden in the words.

One of the supremely ironic effects of the current papal regime’s call for a purge of gays in the priesthood and in seminaries is that this purge is likely to weed out precisely those men in ministry most competent at modeling the gender-complementarity that should be the goal of any balanced human psyche, and, in particular, of the psyche of any human being in ministry. The church’s current ugly, preposterous attempt to convince us that the only good priest is a manly man—a man modeling a macho, swaggering maleness that demeans women—will eventually starve the priesthood of candidates most gifted for pastoral ministry.

And it will also eventually undermine the church’s teaching about respect for life even more profoundly than it has already been undermined by a generation of bishops who have unthinkingly bought into the rhetoric of gender complementarity with its attendant presuppositions of the male's obligation to dominate and the female's calling to submit. If the bishops ever want to convince us that they really do respect life—all life, from cradle to grave—then they need to drop the act of the domineering papa and the gay-bashing that goes with that act, and act like good mothers for a change.