The Battle Over the Sexes: Catholic Perspectives on the Gender Debate

In debates over gender we see competing views of the human person—what it means to be human—in stark contrast.

Quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine.

(“A small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions.”)

– St. Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia

By now, most people have heard the common saying, “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” popularized by the book by John Gray in the 1990s. That God created men and women with equal human dignity but distinct and complementary natures is a perennial teaching of the Catholic Church, but today’s society is becoming increasingly untethered from this eternal truth, leading to great confusion over the relationship between the sexes and a misguided politics that threatens to undermine civilization. As Catholics, what should we know about this debate, and what resources are available to keep us grounded in reality? Are men and women really from different planets?

Battling metaphors

To answer these questions I want to focus on the provocative writings of Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade, a feminist sexologist who promotes radical gender equality at her influential blog “Sociological Images.” Her views are representative of a strand of gender theory that is widespread both in academia and popular culture. (As an aside, maybe I should mention that Prof. Wade and I were classmates in the sociology graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 2000s.)

Contrary to John Gray, in her popular and academic writing Prof. Wade advances the notion that “men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota”—in other words, sex differences are mostly a social construction and are not grounded in significant biological differentiation. This new metaphor has its origins in the work of Kathryn Dindia, a professor of communications, who has written:

Men and women are not from different planets or different cultures, and they do not speak different languages. Men and women are from the same planet, the same culture; they communicate by using the same language. Indeed, the empirical research indicates that the average man is not that much different from the average woman. For many communicative, social psychological, and psychological variables, sex differences are small, and approximately 85% of men and women overlap in their scores on these variables. Men are not from Mars, women are not from Venus. The metaphor that more accurately represents the differences between men and women is that men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.

Competing visions of human nature

What is the implication of this notion, which I will call “the Dakotas metaphor”? Simply put, the implication is that if men and women are basically the same, there is no justification for any sex-based differentiation in society. In other words, men and women should be treated perfectly equally. This raises the question: are men and women really so indistinguishable?

As Robert R. Reilly told Catholic World Report, today’s gender debate shows that there are two fundamentally opposed views of reality duking it out in the culture. Starting from different understandings of human nature, they end up at completely different conclusions about sex differences. The first view, consistent with Catholic teaching, is that all things have an inherent nature that makes them what they are. Reilly explains:

In other words, things have inbuilt purposes. We don’t get to make them up; it is what makes them what they are in reality. They are a given. Reality exists without our permission. When we discover what something is for according to its Nature, our job is to conform ourselves to its purposes—including to the purposes we have according to our human Nature. According to Aristotle, this is how we achieve happiness—through virtuous actions.

The second view is that “things are nothing in themselves, but only what we make them to be according to our wills and desires. We no longer have to conform ourselves to reality, but can conform reality to ourselves. … Therefore, we can make everything, including ourselves, anything that we wish and that we have the power to do. This is the modern project.”

According to Prof. Wade, lack of biological differentiation, or “dimorphism,” between human males and females means that we are basically interchangeable. There is no human nature, which means we can structure social institutions, such as the family, schools, the tax code, and the Constitution, with the intention of engineering a new society that levels all inequalities. The differences we observe today are the products of outdated traditions and dysfunctional cultural conventions—they are “social constructs.” Thus, if we would stop focusing on our differences, and instead manipulate social conditions to eliminate inequality, we can eliminate gender discrimination and other injustices.

The Dakotas Perspective

Prof. Wade asserts that the biological is the social, in the sense that the social environment impacts biological development, and concepts of “male” and “female” are social constructions. She admits that there is some inescapable materiality to the human body, but we should not think of it as deterministic. Our humanity—our bodies, our ideas, our behavior—are determined by our social surroundings, and so there is practically no given meaning or significance to our biology. The body could perhaps be thought of as the wooden frame holding the (practically blank) writing slate of the mind—the so-called Enlightenment’s infamous tabula rasa.

In a popular article titled “Sex Shocker! Men and Women Aren’t that Different,” Prof. Wade laments that Americans “obsess over gender differences”:

But we’re not that different. We’re just not that kind of species. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it. We face a great deal of pressure to be different. We live in a world in which “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” is a household phrase and a publishing empire. Despite these influences, scholars find either no difference or only very small differences on 78% of traits, abilities, interests, attitudes, and behaviors. …

I call for a more reasoned conversation. “Opposite sexes” is obviously a misnomer. The phrase suggests that men and women are fundamentally dissimilar, with contrasting strengths and weaknesses. In fact, if we have to choose between arguing that we are exactly the same and totally different, we have to go with the former. We are much more alike than we are different. Instead of plowing forward with the differences debate, I’d like to see us give more ink to our similarities and spend more energy appreciating just how much we have in common.

While giving lip service to biological realities by acknowledging that hormones, brain structure, body morphology, and genes may distinguish men from women, Prof. Wade minimizes physical difference and emphasizes social construction. In an academic article, she claims that “it makes no sense to talk about ‘human nature.’” We can become whatever we want to be: “The idea that some features of our biology are overwhelmingly immutable, difficult or impossible to change, is no longer a tenable position. … This is not to say that research into the biological bases of gender is useless, but to point out that we are mistaken if we think that such research is going to offer us a bright, bold line between the two categories. In other words, we should not expect to find clear cut sex differences in our biologies, even if some differences exist.” She continues:

Perhaps the most important thing to understand when approaching contemporary research on sex differences and similarities is that men and women are overwhelmingly alike. When we consider the full range of biological adaptations to sexual reproduction, humans are not particularly sexually dimorphic. Some species show dramatic differences between males and females in appearance; we do not. Moreover, because we are not particularly dimorphic in appearance, we should expect significant overlap in our abilities and interests, considering that morphological sexual dimorphism correlates with divisions of labor.

What is especially sinister, in the view of Prof. Wade and activists like her, is the way that elites use sexual dimorphism to rationalize unequal treatment of the sexes (i.e., the oppression of women). The rejection of dimorphism is intended to undermine the claim that men and women are different, and thereby effect a revolution against a system that treats men and women differently: 

If we can show that biology is neither the source of inequality nor neutral in its effects but is, instead, harnessed by the forces of inequality and exploited by the powerful to their own advantage, then oppression is not just an abstract force—whether ideological, economic, or structural—but one that imposes cognitive limitations, manipulates our chemistries, and activates or suppresses our genetic potential. What is new here is not the observation that bodies have been interpreted in ways that serve the interests of elites—of this we have long been aware…—but that the oppression goes far beyond interpretation; it violates our bodily boundaries in something more akin to occupation. When control of our societies are [sic] in the hands of the few, so are our bodies.

The view that men and women have given differences is anathema for Prof. Wade, for it leads to oppression. The widespread internalization of the idea of sexual difference has insidious effects on our personal relationships. She writes on her blog, “Heterosexuality in the U.S. is gendered: women are expected to attract, men are supposed to be attracted. Men want, women want to be wanted.  Metaphorically, this is a predator/prey type relationship.”

In fact, in another popular article, Prof. Wade explicitly states that the goal of minimizing or denying sexual differences is to eradicate injustice:

Generally speaking, men and women today live extraordinarily similar lives. We grow up together, go to the same schools, and have the same jobs. Outside of dating—for some of us—and making babies, gender really isn’t that important in our real, actual, daily lives. … But if there were no gender difference, there couldn’t be gender inequality; one group can’t be widely believed to be superior to the other unless there’s an Other.

Affirming the gender binary also makes everyone who doesn’t fit into it invisible or problematic. This is, essentially, all of us. Obviously it’s a big problem for people who don’t identify as male or female or for those whose bodies don’t conform to their identity, but it’s a problem for the rest of us, too. Almost every single one of us takes significant steps every day to try to fit into this binary: what we eat, whether and how we exercise, what we wear, what we put on our faces, how we move and talk. All these things are gendered and when we do them in gendered ways we are forcing ourselves to conform to the binary.

The Catholic response

While Prof. Wade’s concern for the mistreatment of women is praiseworthy, her attempt to fight injustice through ideologically motivated research and public commentary comes at the expense of the truth. Like her, faithful Catholics call for the just treatment of women within families and society at large, and for the promotion of human rights in general. The object of Catholic social teaching is a “civilization of love.” But, unlike her, they do so based upon an accurate understanding of human nature and the purpose of life. It is easy to see that relationships between men and women are often fraught with conflict, exploitation, and misunderstanding—but this has its roots in the corruption of our nature through sin, and is not due simply to imperfect social structures.

Prof. Wade is right that men and women share many basic physical and mental traits, not to mention equal dignity as human beings. But the sexes are different in important ways due to human nature. God created men and women complementary to each other. In numerous writings, Pope St. John Paul II explains that the truth and goodness of sexual difference is stamped by God right into our physical bodies. Contrary to the assertions of Prof. Wade, Prof. Mary Healy says the human body is not an “empty signifier,” but its morphology contains meaning within itself. In other words, the differences in male and female bodies reveal our complementary natures. We need each other. This is the starting point for learning the truth of male-female relations.

But the relationship between men and women is not reducible, as Prof. Wade suggests, to just our physical appearance. It must be understood at a deeper ontological level. Rather than necessarily resulting in competition or conflict because of our disparate strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging the distinction between men and women is the first step toward living out healthy, meaningful relationships and for personal flourishing—and ultimately, the giving and receiving of love. To try to deny the real differences between the sexes is to deny human nature, and to try to remake our sexuality according to human notions of justice or utility can only have negative consequences for individuals and society. Here we see the competing views of the human person—what it means to be human—in stark contrast. This is a debate over human nature, or perhaps even more fundamentally, whether something that can be called human nature even exists.

There is a great deal of scientific literature documenting significant biological differences between the sexes (see for example the books of Simon Baron-Cohen, Michael Gurian, Steven Rhoads, Leonard Sax, and Lewis Wolpert), but rather than engaging the debates over biochemistry and physiology I want to focus on what this discussion means for our understanding of anthropology—i.e., the philosophical and theological question of what it means to be human. Anyone with eyes can see that men and women are different, and not just in terms of secondary sex characteristics or women’s unique ability to bear children. Even more profoundly, we can ask: how should we understand these differences, and what do they mean for our culture and public policy?

The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that continues to defend a traditional view of male-female relations. This is one reason the Church draws the ire of academics and prominent politicians and cultural figures who share Prof. Wade’s views. But rather than seeking to impose patriarchal oppression, as is so often suggested in the media, the Church’s teachings on human sexuality are remarkably sensitive and nuanced. There is a rich body of literature available to the faithful that explains and defends traditional Christian views on sex roles and gender, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, and many papal encyclicals and other magisterial documents issued through the ages.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2333-2335) teaches:

Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out. … Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way.

In Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Pope St. John Paul II lays out “the truth about the equality of man and woman.” He writes, “One must speak of an essential ‘equality,’ since both of them—the woman as much as the man—are created in the image and likeness of God. … The fact of being a man or a woman involves no limitation here … This unity does not cancel out diversity” (16). He also warns against false notions of “women’s liberation”:

In the name of liberation from male “domination,” women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine “originality.” There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not “reach fulfillment,” but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness. … The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her “fulfillment” as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the “image and likeness of God” that is specifically hers. (10)

In his Letter to Women (1995), the Pope talks about how to “achieve real equality” for women in social life. Such effort must be grounded in the truth that “woman complements man, just as man complements woman: men and women are complementary. Womanhood expresses the ‘human’ as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way. … 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” (7).

In contrast to Prof. Wade, the Pope does not see men and women by nature locked in a bitter struggle, or occupying predator-prey roles: “…woman and man are marked neither by a static and undifferentiated equality nor by an irreconcilable and inexorably conflictual difference. Their most natural relationship, which corresponds to the plan of God, is the ‘unity of the two,’ a relational ‘uni-duality,’ which enables each to experience their interpersonal and reciprocal relationship as a gift which enriches and which confers responsibility” (8).

According to Pope St. John Paul II in his Letter to Families (1994), women will be “liberated,” and the common good served, only when men and women make their equal but distinct contributions to family and community life, based on the unique gifts of masculinity and femininity endowed by God from the beginning. The Church has continued to develop its teaching on the reality of complementarity. Sister Prudence Allen, RSM, is an authority in this area, and has written a helpful introduction here. Prof. Helen Alvaré recently discussed with Catholic World Report the “Humanum” conference on complementarity sponsored by the Vatican in autumn 2014.

Catholic experts react to dimorphism metaphors

There are Catholics active in academia and the culture who seek to explain and draw attention to the Church’s teachings on sexuality and complementarity. I asked some leading experts for their opinions about the Dakotas analogy to get a sense of how contemporary Catholics approach the gender debate and respond to this particular metaphor. Here are some of their answers.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., founder and president of the Ruth Institute, replies:

Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. We are the same species. The Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus franchise has been wildly popular because it is a reaction to a peculiar form of feminism which has become the establishment view of feminism. I describe it this way: “Men and women are identical, except women are better.” This view in some form or fashion has been promoted ad nauseam by the elites of American culture. Ordinary people are reacting to the obvious falsity of this view by giving their support to books like Men are From Mars.

Gabriele Kuby, author of the book The Global Sexual Revolution: The Destruction of Freedom in the Name of Freedom, writes:

A good metaphor should communicate the essence of some piece of reality in a way that transcends rational thought and appeals to the depth of intuitive perception. Jesus is the master in this field. The metaphor “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota” has no resonance in me. The sentence intends to convey that the differences between men and women are negligible. Can anyone distinguish people from North and South Dakota on first sight? Probably not.

The difference between man and woman can be recognized by every human being on this planet by looking at others and by looking at themselves. If an individual is uncertain or discontent with his or her gender, it is a severe identity disorder, listed on the official [medical] diagnosis list ICD-10. Some of the differences between man and woman are genetic, others are social and changeable by historic and cultural factors. Whether a researcher is more interested in the aspects which are common to the human being or in the aspects which differ between man and woman on the biological, neurophysical, hormonal, psychological, social level seems to be highly determined by the degree of adaption of the researcher to the mainstream. Maturation of the human being can be described as overcoming self-centeredness by moving into fatherhood and motherhood.

It is difficult to find a metaphor for man and woman. We are faced with the paradox that each of us is a complete human being, yet “the other” is opposite us, attracting us because he/she is different and complementary to us. I see man and woman as two poles with a different charge that creates the dynamic of life.

Dr. Mary Healy, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, responds:

First, my reaction to Dindia’s analogy is that it’s a good deal more accurate than the Mars-Venus analogy. It is sometimes forgotten by those seeking to emphasize male-female differences that men and women are members of the same species, possessing the same human nature created in the image of God, having similar hopes and dreams and fears and loves and sorrows. On the other hand, there is often an ideological agenda among those who seek to eradicate the very real differences between the sexes, which is very often linked to a denial of the gift of femininity, even among those with a “feminist” agenda.

I don’t think the “from different places” approach is all that helpful no matter how proximate the places are, even if it were “men are from East Main St., women from West Main St.” Men and women have the same origin. They are different but complementary, not only physically but emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. In a very real way, a man can understand a woman better than another woman, and a woman can understand a man better than other men—at least when they are united in spousal union—because men and women were created for each other. Dietrich von Hildebrand makes this point in Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love.

In fact, in her book Men and Women are From Eden, Dr. Healy elaborates on the question of what metaphor best describes the male-female relationship. She writes, “Popular wisdom tells us that ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.’ This humorous maxim does seem to be borne out by experience. Deep in every human heart is inscribed the desire to love and be loved in an intimate, lasting relationship. … The secret of man and woman is found not on different planets but in the biblical account of the first couple, created by God and placed in the garden of Paradise at the dawn of human history. Men and women are from Eden!”

Jason Evert, a popular author and public speaker from the Chastity Project and Catholic Answers, offers this insight:

Overall, I think that Prof. Wade is correct that we’re more similar than dissimilar, when viewed from a purely biological perspective: we all have 10 fingers and 10 toes, and much of the same anatomical features. For example, my wife and I certainly look more alike than elephant seal couples. Fair enough. I think it’s fair to concede that point, especially in order to build a bridge for dialogue.

However, the real question is this: Is there more to the human person than what can be viewed externally? If we view the human person merely as a collection of body parts, then we’re beginning our research with an inadequate anthropology. This methodology could be compared to someone who expects a ruler and a scale to determine the similarities and differences between a laptop computer and a pizza box. If the tools of measurement are insufficient, the data gathered might be accurate, but the conclusions drawn from the data would be incomplete.

I think it is healthy for people to celebrate gender differences, without having to “obsess” over them, as [Prof. Wade] states. So, instead of speaking of the “opposite” sex, perhaps a more precise term would be the “complementary sex.”

In regards to my opinion on Dindia’s metaphor for the relationship between men and women, she may be playing a bit loose with the facts when she says that sex differences are small for “many” variables. Indeed that’s true, but what about all the variables in which the sex differences are large? Just ask any couple who has been married (or divorced) if they think men and women are basically the same, and you’ll find very few who would agree.

If Dindia thinks that men and women are like North and South Dakota (which is essentially one land mass, separated arbitrarily by a state line imposed by a government, eons after its creation), then this would seem to be imprecise. I think the best indicator of our differences and similarities is not to compare us to different planets or states, but to look at our bodies. This gives us an indication of what we have in common, and what makes us uniquely male and female persons.

Mary Shivanandan, S.T.D., retired professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, comments:

Because man’s ultimate origin and destiny as a unity of body and soul are beyond this earth, there can be no true analogy from the material world of the unity in difference of human masculinity and femininity. Both analogies, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and “men are from North Dakota, women from South Dakota” are inadequate. The latter does have the advantage of emphasizing their common substance but minimizes the difference. The differences between North and South Dakota are geographical and material, not ontological, which does not allow for fecundity. If the two states unite into the one state of Dakota, they would not produce a third, distinct, and separate entity while still remaining North and South Dakota. Although Venus and Mars are planets, so that there is a recognition that the difference is beyond this earth, the implication is that they have nothing in common ontologically. Once again they cannot unite and produce a third both similar and different without partial or complete destruction.

As Angelo Cardinal Scola says, the love, sexual difference, and procreation of human masculinity and femininity are an analogy of Trinitarian relations, where there is unity of substance and three persons. The three Persons are not autonomous individuals but substantive relations. The Father is eternal generation, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit is the fecund love between Father and Son. Men and women share the same human substance, but as different bodily manifestations they are ordered to one another. Masculinity makes no sense without the existence of the feminine. Because of their unity in difference they can produce a third equal to and like themselves but different and open to the infinite.

Elsewhere, Dr. Shivanandan has explained that gender is central to Christian anthropology and is not just a social construction. Citing Pope St. John Paul II’s exegesis of Genesis, she states, “‘It is not good that man should be alone.’ So, God creates Eve out of Adam’s rib, which indicates she shares the same humanity, the same attributes of being a person… . Yet Eve is different. Eve is a different manifestation of the same humanity. And that difference is not just superficial but belongs to her very way of being a person. … In any giving and receiving of love, the integrity of the person must be preserved. This means that the man can never dominate the woman or use her for his own selfish ends. He must always receive her in her femininity as a gift from the hand of God, just as he received his own being from God. Only in this way can man and woman enjoy the fullness of communion and image divine Trinitarian union. The difference, which can never be overcome but only shared, must always be honored. It is this communion of complete self-giving that constitutes original happiness.”

The question of what it means to be male and female is increasingly important today, as the traditional view is being swept away and public figures are ushering in a new gender regime with policies like public unisex bathrooms and the creation of rights for “transgender” persons and other so-called sexual minorities, as the culture affirms the “fluidity” of sexual identity, and as the courts redefine the meaning of marriage. We are living in an era when accusations of bigotry and lawsuits alleging human rights violations are brought against individuals and institutions that affirm natural sexual differences. It has even been proposed that the English language should change to accommodate “gender non-conformists”: gendered pronouns should be eliminated as discriminatory. (Many who advocate this language revolution are part of the so-called “Preferred Gender Pronoun” movement.)

In response to the Dakotas metaphor, Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist who has written extensively on childhood development and sex differences, told me, “I am particularly appalled by analogies of the form ‘Men are from X, women are from Y.’ Such crudities are suitable for bloggers or pundits, perhaps. But scholars should strive to be accurate rather than cute.” And, when it comes to assessing the use by Prof. Dindia and Prof. Wade of the Dakotas metaphor, his may be the most appropriate conclusion: their metaphor is a simplistic, misleading caricature of the nuanced and complex ways men and women relate with each other within families and communities, as they contribute their distinct gifts and participate in unique ways.

Nevertheless, such metaphors can have a powerful effect on how people think about identity and relationships, and therefore can influence personal attitudes and behavior as well as the ways issues are discussed in the cultural and political arenas. Therefore, it is important to articulate a Catholic response to the erroneous but popular notions of male-female differences we encounter daily on the Internet, on TV, in workplace conversations, and classrooms.

The implications of the debate over male-female relations are vast. The opposing views explored here reveal a culture riven by mutually exclusive understandings of human nature. It is from this basic starting point—a mistaken view of human nature—in which the errors of modern society have their origin, and spread to influence decision-making on the most important issues of our day, ranging from marriage to abortion to reproductive technology to assisted suicide and euthanasia. What does it mean to be human? As St. Thomas Aquinas said, if we get the starting point wrong, we will go in the wrong direction and may ultimately arrive at fatal conclusions.

About Benjamin J. Vail 7 Articles
Dr. Benjamin J. Vail, OFS is an American Secular Franciscan living with his family in Brno, Czech Republic. He has studied sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oslo (Norway), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Masaryk University (Czech Republic).