In a recent interview granted to The Advocate, an LGBT publication, Bruce Jenner mused, “There’s more to being a woman than hair and makeup…there is so much in life that I need to learn about who I am and be authentic with myself.” He admitted that he was reading up on being a woman, as well as getting tips from step-daughter Kim Kardashian. Although he has spent gads of money, time, and anguish surgically altering his body, it’s rather shocking, and perhaps more than a little insulting to women, that discovering what it means to be a woman comes as an afterthought for Jenner. And his chosen mentors are of doubtful wisdom. One desperately wishes that he would have spent more time seeking wisdom regarding the essence of masculinity and the essence of femininity, and less time seeking sensationalism. Getting at the heart of the matter—what does it mean to be a woman?—requires docility toward the wise, and openness toward Truth.
In this quest for understanding, the first principle must be that Truth exists. Humanity’s role is to seek it, then conform to it; for, far from strangling individuality, “The truth will set you free,” as Jesus himself declares. God created man, “male and female he created them,” in his own image and likeness. Bruce Jenner’s first error was in thinking that his identity could exist in his spirit, apart from his body, thus inserting a conflict which does not, in fact, exist. Human beings are a harmonious union of body and soul. There exists no Manichean conflict in which the spiritual must abhor the material, nor can there be error on the part of God regarding what body one is given. Rather, the immaterial, rational, and immortal soul is what makes a body human, and the body is what makes you you. According to the Scholastics, the body is the principle of individuation—the unique genetic make-up granted to you through a long line of ancestors, born of particular parents, in a particular place, in a particular point of time—and it has an utterly unique and unrepeatable history and future. There is no person exactly like another, and there is no soul that landed in a particular body by mistake, let alone a body with the wrong gender. Fears like this must be utterly laid to rest before any real understanding of masculinity or femininity can be cultivated.
But why are there two different genders in humanity? Keep in mind that God creates nothing out of any necessity, but out of total freedom. Nothing dictated that humanity needed to have two genders, but God chose to create it as such for humanity’s good happiness. “In the sphere of what is ‘human’—of what is humanly personal—‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are distinct, yet at the same time they complete and explain each other,” says John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, better known as Mulieris Dignitatem. Neither of the genders is entirely self-sufficient, but must turn to the other for assistance along the quest for happiness. John Paul II continues, “The fact that man ‘created as man and woman’ is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a ‘unity of the two’ in their common humanity are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life.” This can only mean that God created the two genders because the unity and harmony which ought to exist between two complementary persons of opposite genders leads humanity to know God, and therefore happiness.
Another way to think of this “unity of the two” as John Paul II calls it, is that each gender perceives God in a specific way, and must work together in order to have the most full understanding of God possible. Men and women must lean upon the insights of the other in order to know God. One undoubtedly sees this in holy marriages, but interestingly it can be found among celibate saints as well. Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, in her book The Privilege of Being a Woman, reflects on this reality: “How beautiful is the complementariness of men and women according to the Divine Plan. It is not by accident that Saint Francis of Assisi was best understood by Saint Clare; Saint Francis of Sales by Saint Jeanne Françoise de Chantal; Saint Vincent of Paul by Louise de Marillac…. Man is made for communion and the most perfect form of communion calls for persons who complement each other.” By virtue of being men, male saints perceive God in one way, and by virtue of being women, female saints complement and flesh out that understanding, and vice-versa.
In order to discover some specific insights women contribute, Dr. von Hildebrand’s book offers guileless wisdom. One of the gifts Dr. von Hildebrand discusses is “receptivity,” by which she means that women more naturally recognize dependence upon God. It is no coincidence that little old women are often the last faithful members of a dying parish. She asserts immediately a distinction between passivity and receptivity. “Receptivity involves an alert, awakened, joyful readiness to be fecundated by another person or by a beautiful object. All created persons are essentially receptive because ‘there is nothing that we have not received.’” One must promptly reiterate that both soul and body contribute to the gifts women possess. Physical reality often, if not always, points to a deeper spiritual reality. Alice von Hildebrand asserts as much when she adds, “This is already inscribed in their biological nature: a wife giving herself to her husband accepts joyfully to be fecundated, to receive. Her receptivity is a self-giving.” Hildebrand’s example of spousal love confirms: it cannot be stressed enough how much the body contributes to what it means to be a woman.
Ultimately, however, it is motherhood that truly shapes and defines womankind. Motherhood impacts woman’s relationship to all other persons, and most importantly, her relationship with God. The discussion of what it means to be a woman must center on motherhood. Every little girl is born with the potential to become a mother. “There is a metaphysical bond between womanhood and life,” as Alice von Hildebrand puts it, and further, “The very soul of the woman is meant to be maternal.” Because of the essential union of body and soul, the individual soul receives its identity because of the body. In a woman, this means that her human soul is touched somehow by the potential maternity present in her from the beginning.
This potential for motherhood not only makes new life a possibility, but also reveals woman’s unique likeness to God, and therefore an area in which she can have special insight. John Paul II enlightens: “In God’s eternal plan, woman is the one in whom the order of love in the created world of persons takes first root. The order of love belongs to the intimate life of God himself, the life of the Trinity.” To be a mother means not only the astounding gift of actually bringing a new child into the world, but also witnessing to the love of the mysterious Triune God, who is abundantly generous, good, selfless, and sacrificial. Alice von Hildebrand adds, “The one true God is the God of life: Christ is the life of the soul, and women, who have the sublime mission of giving life, intuitively weave this principle into their daily lives.” The female body disposes the soul of an individual woman toward the truth that every life is good, that every life is meaningful, and that ultimately all life has its source in a Person.
These truths about motherhood are not confined to women who are biological mothers. In fact, Dr. von Hildebrand boldly asserts: “All women, without exception, are called upon to be mothers.” Considering that von Hildebrand herself had no children, she could make no such claim unless she understood that a spiritual motherhood exists to which all women are indeed called. Women who, for whatever reason, whether temporarily or permanently, are not called to be biological mothers, share in this vocation of motherhood in some way, by virtue of being women. In Mulieris Dignitatem John Paul II offers this incredible insight: “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way—precisely by reason of their femininity—and this in a particular way determines their vocation.” Because to be a woman means to be potentially a mother—even when there is no biological motherhood—there is an innate sensitivity to the humanity in others. Thus, all women are called to spiritual maternity. This may manifest itself in works of charity, especial care of one’s relatives, and evangelization in all forms. Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov eloquently expresses spiritual motherhood thus: “The special maternal charism is to give birth to Christ in men’s souls.” What greater honor is there than to nurture into nativity that which gives eternal life?
This contribution to the discussion of femininity remains skeletal—much more could be said on the matter, and on complementary masculinity. But these reflections should lead to a deeper insight regarding the dilemma of transgenderism. Specifically, those like Bruce Jenner should not waste away seeking to become what they cannot be, but should embrace God’s gift of their natural gender. For instance, in his study of How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, Jenner commented: “What I realized, when going through this book, is how my experience is so different than what a normal woman’s would be growing up—that’s obvious. The second chapter was about having your period. O.K.? I will never deal with that.” Having a “different” experience along the road to becoming a woman may seem only an obstacle to Jenner. However, he has truly identified what makes “transgender” a total impossibility. It’s not just a “different” path to self-discovery, it’s an all-out derailing of self-discovery, a literal mutilation of truth. Jesus says in John 4:10, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” If you only knew the gift of God! One ought not to grasp at God’s gifts to others, for not only does that cheapen the thing desired, it shows ingratitude for what one already has—a gift of pure love. It is a privilege to be a woman, as it is a privilege to be a man, because it is a privilege simply to be. You came to be in time, because from out of all eternity God has known you, and from out of all eternity God has loved you. You are called to happiness in sanctity, not sex-change surgery.
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