Follow @shmsdetroit

"Male and Female He Created Them"

by Dr. Deborah Savage

The absolute equality of men and womenand why they are fundamentally differentis revealed in the "powerful metaphysical content" of the Genesis creation accounts.

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" Genesis 1:27.

Contemporary culture is undeniably characterized by a profound confusion about the nature of the human person and of what constitutes right relationships between men and women. This is due in no small part to the introduction of the birth control pill in 1965, which held out the promise of sex without consequences; its advent created a fissure between the unitive and procreative dimensions of the sexual act and led to decades of misunderstanding concerning the nature of love and the authentic meaning of human sexuality.

Though both women and men have come to regard the use of contraceptives as essential to the exercise of their "freedom," the result has actually been a kind of progressive slavery that has manifested itself in the on-going horror of abortion, the insidious spread of pornography, failed marriages, loneliness, and despair. But the sexual revolution's most significant impact has been the damage it has caused to our understanding of the proper relationship between men and women.

Complementary By Nature

Instead of regarding one another as persons, deserving of love and ordered toward the total gift of self, it is now an acceptable social norm for men and women to view each other merely as objects, to be used as instruments of pleasure and discarded when "used up." Absent from our collective consciousness is a recognition of something that, though unspoken, used to be taken for granted: Men and women are complements of one another, both in the design of their bodies and in their ways of being in the world. It is this theory of "complementarity" that Pope St. John Paul II considers in the teaching that became the Theology of the Body (TOB). In the thought of St. John Paul, this very complementarity, which is both physical and ontologicalin our very nature—is what gives us our mission: to create, not only human families, but human history itself.

Return to the Beginning

The late Holy Father's stated aim in the text of the TOB is to understand the sacramental meaning of the human body. Following Jesus's own instruction to the Pharisees, he returns to the "beginning," to the creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis, deriving from those texts a profound account of the real meaning of human love. And he provides us with the signposts of a theory of the complementarity of man and woman.

The aim of this essay is to provide a sketch of such a theory; it is intended to point more properly toward a theology of complementarity, an investigation that might do much more to aid our culture and our Church than the "theology of women" recently called for by some Church leaders. Relying on the indications left for us by St. John Paul, we will ourselves return to the "beginning" found in Genesis and continue the work he began there.

What Are the Fundamentals?

St. John Paul's theory of complementarity can be contrasted with the many distortions that are found in history and still characterize our own era.

First there was Plato, who argued that women and men are equal but denied any real differences. Next was the gender "polarity" of Aristotle, where men are considered superior to women. Later there came "fractional" complementarity, a theory that suggests that a man and a woman "add up" as it were to one whole human being.

But most destructive are the theories of dualism and materialism. These ideas fracture the union of the body and the soul; the body is merely "matter" and human identity is located in "mind" alone. Such thinking has turned the body into an instrument of pleasure, one's sexual identity as a matter of choice, and led to the conviction that men and women are exactly the same and the body has no meaning at all.

The teaching of the TOB offers the antidote to these distortions by illuminating the true meaning of the body and of human relationship.

St. John Paul's own theory has been termed an "integral complementarity," in which man and woman are whole human beings but with different ways of being in the world. He affirms that their complementarity extends beyond the obvious physical make-up of their bodies to include their very being. The complementarity that characterizes them is not like two plumbing parts that fit together without anything left over; it is characterized by a dynamism that cannot be reduced to functional roles or stereotypes. And it is a reality that can be derived from the Scriptures and discerned in human experience.

Though St. John Paul provides some signposts toward a theory of complementarity in the TOB, since his aims are more directed at revealing the meaning of the body, he leaves some things unsaid. With his thought as a point of departure, I have developed a somewhat more comprehensive account of complementarity. Gender and the differences that characterize man and woman cannot be reduced to a "social construct" or "state of mind." They are profoundly meaningful mysteries that need to be lived out and interpenetrated by the action of grace if we are to realize who we truly are.

Equal In Every Way

St. John Paul grounds his Theology of the Body and his account of complementarity in the first two chapters of Genesis. In the opening pages of the text, the Holy Father points to the two distinct creation accounts found in Genesis 1 and 2 as the place in Scripture where we can derive the meaning of man.

In his second Wednesday General Audience, presented to the public in September 1979, the late Holy Father states that the "powerful metaphysical content" hidden in Genesis 1 has provided "an incontrovertible point of reference and a solid basis for metaphysics, anthropology and ethics." But in Genesis 2, he goes on to say, the depth to be uncovered in this second (though historically earlier) creation account has a different character; it "is above all subjective in nature and thus in some way psychological."

Here we find man in the concrete, as a subject of self-understanding and consciousness; here the account of the creation of man refers to him "especially in the aspect of his subjectivity."

Though the late Holy Father does not fully demonstrate these claims in his text, my own investigation has confirmed that he is right. In fact, when looked at through the lens of the metaphysical anthropology of St. Thomas Aquinas, the first creation account does illuminate the absolute equality of man and woman. Proof of this proposition is beyond the scope of this brief article, but my analysis does lead to the conclusion that these passages reveal that both man and woman are "instantiations"concrete example—of the same substantial form (soul) and therefore are equally possessed of intellect, freedom, and will, and characterized by both receptivity and a capacity for action. The first account tells us that man per se is designed for relationship.

Neither Gender is Normative

While the first creation account establishes that man and woman are equal, the second account reveals what differentiates them. The complementarity that characterizes the nature as such has now been embodied in two concretely existing beings, differentiated by two distinct but related kinds of matter. For Aquinas, gender is thus a type of "accident" (something that inheres in a substance and cannot be understood apart from it), and it is an "inseparable" accident, that is, one that cannot be separated from the composite of body and soul. Gender is not an accident like blue eyes or red hair; these are accidents of matter. Gender is attributable to the totality of the composite; it is a feature of the person. Man as such is a composite substance made of body and soul. And so, though matter is indeed one of the things that differentiates woman from man, since both are constituted by a union of body and soul, woman is, in some essential way, a womanand man is, in some essential way, a man. Neither "woman-ness" nor "man-ness" resides merely in the matter of which persons are made, for both the body and the soul make us what we are. We are man and woman, as St. John Paul states, physically and ontologically.

Thus, the equality of men and women is clear: they are both composite creatures, differentiated by the matter of which they are made. Here we find in Scripture the proof that neither the male nor the female of the species can be considered normative for the species. This means that women do not have to act like men to be considered human, and men do not have to act like women to be considered such. We have two equally human but differentiated ways of being in the world.

A Person Not a Thing

But what of their actual relationship? Here we take Genesis 1 and 2 together. In Genesis 1, the sacred author seems to lay out the particular hierarchical order by which God creates. God begins with the heaven and the earth, then light, then he divides the waters, and so on. He goes on to create swarms of living creatures: birds, monsters, cattle, and things that creep. This activity culminates in the creation of adam, human nature created for relationship. This is clearly a hierarchy that is on its way up, from lower life forms to higher.

In the second account we read at 2:7 that a particular man ('h) is fashioned from the dust of the earth. When, at Genesis 2:18, God sees that man is alone, God forms every creature and brings them to the man to be named. Then God, realizing that none of the creatures correspond to man's own being, and that it is not good for him to be alone, decides it is necessary to make a fitting helper (ezer kekenegdo) for him. He puts him into a deep sleep and forms the woman from the man's rib.

Adam says, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," and as St. John Paul says, in Eve he recognizes another person, a being equal to himself, a someone, not a somethinga someone he can love, to whom he can make of himself a gift and who can reciprocate in kind.

Woman: Pinnacle of Creation

But there are several additional and important points to consider here. First of all, it is only when we come to the making of woman that we see the final significance of the order introduced in the first account and brought to completion in the second. Man is made from the earth (adama) but woman is made from man. Though it has troubled feminists forever, the fact that woman is created second does not make her subservient.

For woman is not created "second"; she is created last. And she is, in fact, made on the way upthe last creature to appear, a creature made, not from earth, but from something that arguably already contains a greater actualization than dust or clay. Man is made from the earth; but woman is made from man.

It is certainly plausible to suggest that she is made of "finer stuff." At a minimum we can say that because of the order suggested by reading the accounts together, woman can be seen as the pinnacle of creation, not as a creature whose place in that order is subservient or somehow less in stature than that of man.

This proposition is reinforced when we consider that the Hebrew word usually translated as "helper" is "ezer" and actually does not mean servant or slave. When this word is used elsewhere in Scripture, it has the connotation of Divine aid. Used here to express helper or partner, it is a word that indicates someone who is most definitely not a slave or even remotely subservienta different word would have been used if that were the intention. Here there is the sense of an equal, a partner, help sent by God.

However, the full text is ezer kekenegdo; kekenegdo is a preposition that means "in front of," "in the sight of," "before" (in the spatial sense). And so, we must recognize that while Eve is not "below" Adam in the order of creation, neither is she above him. She stands in front of him, before him, meeting his gaze as it were and sharing in the responsibility for the preservation of all that precedes them. After all, at Genesis 1:27, both male and female are given the command to subdue the earth and fill it.

Different Missions

The nature of woman in relation to man is finally clear: woman and man are equal, equally possessed of intellect, will and freedom. But they are also, in a sense, equal in their difference, because while both are composites of body and soul, they are each distinguished by the matter of which they are made.

Both are characterized by a capacity for action and receptivity while placed face to face in the order of creation, as complements of each other. Both are equally responsible for filling the earth and subduing it, but somehow tasked with somewhat different missions and a "particular genius" that belongs uniquely to each.

Sex and the Theology of the Body

St. John Paul's fundamental argument in his Theology of the Body is that the body is itself a sacrament, a sign that points to the inner sacred reality of each human person. For the late Holy Father, human sexuality, when expressed in the nuptial mystery of marriage, is the language in which the body speaks, a language that issues forth from the fundamental relationality expressed by the complementary nature of man and woman.

His account reveals that contemporary culture, which on the surface seems to value sex so much, actually does not value sex enough. In the Theology of the Body, the marital act is the fullest expression of human cooperation with God. It not only provides the means by which men and women are able to fully make of themselves a total self-gift; it is the way in which human persons participate in the transmission of existence itself.

What Is the Feminine and the Masculine "Genius"?

St. John Paul II wrote extensively about the so-called "feminine genius," introducing a new element into the Church's teaching on the nature of the gift that woman is to the world. He argues that this "genius" arises from every woman possessing the potential for motherhood, whether that is fulfilled in the physical or spiritual sense, and points to this capacity as the origin of woman's greater sensitivity to the "other," to persons. But another look at Genesis 2 reveals a prior point of departure for an account, not only of the feminine genius but of the masculine genius, as well.

Though man encounters God first and is alone with him in the Garden for some time, man's first contact with reality is of a horizon that otherwise contains only lower creatures, what we might call "things"; this is what leads God to conclude that the man is incomplete and ultimately leads to the building of woman. But man is tasked with naming all the things God brings him; it is in naming them that he takes dominion over them. It is man who, at Genesis 2:15, is put in the garden to "till it," well before the fall puts him at odds with creation. This is his work. And his genius is found here.

But when the woman is brought to him, he knows immediately that she is not an object; she is a person. For, upon encountering her, he says "This at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh." Through his encounter with the woman, God reveals to him the nature of the reciprocal relationship of the gift of self. His own giftthat of caring for and using the goods of creationis to be exercised in service to her authentic good and their mission to have dominion over the earth.

In fact, it is this "genius" that has led to the building up of civilizations and to the flourishing of human families.

But woman's first contact with reality is of a horizon that, from the beginning, includes man, that is, it includes persons. Upon seeing man, woman recognizes another like her, an equal, while the other creatures and things around her appear only on the periphery of her gaze. Thus, in addition to her capacity to conceive and nurture human life, indeed prior to it, woman's place in the order of creation reveals thatfrom the beginningthe horizon of all womankind includes the other.

The genius of woman is found here. While man's first experience of his own existence is of loneliness, woman's initial horizon is different. From the first moment of her own reality, woman sees herself in relation to persons. Woman's genius is to keep constantly before us the fact that the existence of living persons, whether in the womb or outside of it, cannot be forgotten while we engage in the tasks of living. Woman's gift is to remind us that all human activity is to be ordered toward authentic human flourishing.

Dr. Deborah Savage

Dr. Deborah Savage is a member of the faculty at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she teaches philosophy and theology and serves as the director of the Masters in Pastoral Ministry program.

Stay connected with Sacred Heart. Sign up for our monthly newsletter.


Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.