Man, Woman, and the Mission of the Laity

Many of us living through this period of history look on with confusion and concern as we watch while our culture appears to unravel before our very eyes. It is becoming increasingly difficult to gain any traction for our efforts to defend our families and our communities from forces that seem determined to undermine the traditional understanding of the moral life that has governed Western culture for centuries. We find ourselves increasingly marginalized in public discourse about issues that cut to the heart of what it means to be human, let alone Christian. The controversies extend across many fronts, from religious liberty to women’s “rights,” from the breakdown of the family to same-sex unions, from local economic realities to the sometimes dubious benefits of globalization.

As lay Catholics, we rely on our faith in the promises of Christ in the face of this situation, and rightly so. We renew our commitment to prayer and regular reception of the sacraments. We keep our families close and do our best to guard our children from the toxic influence of a ubiquitous media and risky friendships, and fret over the ever more perilous question of where to send them to school. In public places, in our social interactions, and in our workplaces, we explore the meaning of prudence—and of courage as well—as we both guard our lips and hold onto our convictions, finding ourselves called on more and more to try to understand Pope Francis’ fervent appeal for mercy in a broken world. We look to the Church for guidance, to our pastors for words of wisdom, to our closest friends for support.

And this is all as it should be. But though these commitments are essential to our lives as disciples of Christ, in the end, they may not be enough—not for the lay Catholic at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In point of fact, we actually do not have the luxury of ‘looking on in dismay’ while the world loses its way. Our faith must also find expression in an outward orientation that directs our attention and our love toward all human beings, to their needs, their suffering, and to their hopes. The fully Catholic Christian is not only concerned about his own salvation or that of his spouse or his children; he must also be concerned with the souls put in his path by God—and even with the future of the world. For according to the teachings of Christ’s own Church, it is the task of the laity to transform it; it is the mission of the laity to bring the temporal order into conformity with the will of God.

We find this doctrine expressed in the strong and unambiguous words of the Second Vatican Council:

The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven . . . Since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs, it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer. (Lumen Gentium, §30)

This particular commission—to transform the temporal order in light of God’s plan for humanity—is given, not to the priest or deacon, not to the religious sister or brother. It is given—in clear and unequivocal terms—to the lay faithful.

This teaching is reiterated and affirmed by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation on the mission of the laity, Christifideles laici [CL] where he points to the secular world as the place where, above all, the laity receive their call from God. The world “becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ” (CL §15).

According to St. John Paul II, the worldly vocation of the laity is actually unique to them. This mission, he states, “is not only an anthropological and sociological reality, but in a specific way, a theological and ecclesiological reality as well” (CL §15). The lay Catholic serves the Church in important ways by performing roles within the parish, in its various ministries and in its liturgical life, and this active involvement is indeed essential to the Church’s mission. But these acts of service do not represent the layperson’s primary role. What is essential to our task as lay Catholics, what defines the work of the lay Catholic in the world, is our commission to bring Christ into the home, the workplace, the public sphere—not only his message of love and redemption, but his vision of order, truth, and justice. Wherever the Lord has placed us, in whatever capacity, there is the Church – and there is our work.[1] We are not only called to serve within our local Churches; we are primarily called to transform the temporal order—and our work, whatever human or professional competence it calls for, must always be ordered toward returning all things to Christ. This is how we live out our vocation and fulfill our mission.

In his characteristic way, St. John Paul II also puts this teaching into the context of the times: his words are charged with a kind of accelerant, accompanied as they are by a certain force and a palpable sense of urgency. He declares:

A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle. (CL §3)

That is, we no longer have permission to ‘look on in dismay.’ Our own Christian destiny is intimately connected to the transformation of the world.

John Paul II’s instruction to us is a call to confront the current state of affairs head on. Perhaps never before in history has the suffering of humanity been more acute or more apparent, or our mission more crucial or more compelling. His words reveal that some kind of action is clearly demanded. But, assuming we are prepared to accept his challenge, we are nonetheless led to the next obvious question: just exactly what are we to do? How are we to go about this task which, for all practical purposes, appears to be virtually impossible?

And here we come to the aim of this essay. Without a doubt, the unmistakably prophetic voice of St. John Paul II also points us in the direction of a solution, one grounded in the significance and meaning he attributes to the complementarity that characterizes the natural relationship of man and woman. Indeed, he declares that it is this very complementarity that that gives us our mission, declaring that “to this ‘unity of the two’ God has entrusted not only the work of procreation and family life, but the creation of history itself” (Letter to Women, §8; emphasis added).

The passage is found in his Letter to Women [LW]; it is worth considering in its entirety:

After creating man male and female, God says to both: “Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). Not only does he give them the power to procreate as a means of perpetuating the human species throughout time, he also gives them the earth, charging them with the responsible use of its resources. As a rational and free being, man is called to transform the face of the earth. In this task, which is essentially that of culture, man and woman alike share equal responsibility from the start. In their fruitful relationship as husband and wife, in their common task of exercising dominion over the earth, 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 . . . To this “unity of the two” God has entrusted not only the work of procreation and family life, but the creation of history itself. (LW §8, emphasis original)

A moment’s reflection reveals the connection we are seeking. It is discovered when we consider the fact that ‘the laity’ does not refer to some purely abstract concept or an amorphous entity with no concrete identity. It is a reality composed of concretely existing men and women. It is woman and man who together are tasked with the transformation of the world.

The mission given to man and to woman at the moment of their creation is the mission of the laity.

[caption id="attachment_5198" align="alignleft" width="350"] Marc Chagall, Garden of Eden, detail; Photo: Jim Forest; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.[/caption]

Let us pause to spell out the implications of this statement. It may be relatively easy to see the complementarity that exists at the heart of the marital act: our bodies are clearly designed for the physical union that unites husband and wife. But, as John Paul II states repeatedly, the love that binds women and men together is not only expressed through their bodies. In other words, the complementarity that characterizes the spousal relationship is not merely biological or physical; it is an ontological reality as well.[2] That is, it is expressed through the very being of the spouses, in their way of being in the world. Though when given room to breathe, it remains a mystery that defies any attempt to reduce it to rigid roles or functions, the relationship of husband and wife manifests an integral complementarity that finds universal expression in every home and family.

But what is essential to our purposes in this essay—if perhaps less immediately obvious—is the Holy Father’s point that the complementarity expressed in the constituent relationship of woman and man is found not only in the marital act or in the sustaining of families; it is a feature of that relationship in the creation of history itself. That is, it shapes every context—whether social, political, or economic. It characterizes, in fact, the interactions and activities of the entire temporal order that the laity is called to transform. Here I would propose that, if we are to preserve our sanity and recover our culture, the complementarity that characterizes the laity must be understood, fully expressed, and leveraged in all aspects of the life of society. More precisely, the distinct gifts and charisms of both women and men must each find their place in accomplishing our mission. It seems clear that only by a mutual collaboration, governed by a self-conscious recognition of ourselves, not only as human beings but as women and men, and intentionally and intelligently directed toward that transformation, will the mission of the laity—to return all things to Christ—be fulfilled.

Only by a mutual collaboration not only as human beings but as women and men will the mission of the laity be fulfilled.

Well, that seems simple enough—sort of. But here is the difficulty. We have not yet accounted for original sin. Indeed, perhaps it can be said that the contours of the battle waging all around us, the toxicity that characterizes contemporary culture, can be traced to the moment in the garden when the serpent confused us about who we are and what we really desire. Perhaps the root of all our difficulties really does lie in the widespread refusal to recognize the true meaning, not only of what it means to be human, but what it means to have been created as either man or woman. Consider the many elements that comprise our present state of confusion: the nature of sex, contraception, and the scourge of abortion; the tragedy of divorce and the breakdown of the family; the advent of same-sex unions and the rise of gender confusion; the subjugation of women throughout history and into the present day, both real and imagined, that arguably brought about the radical feminist movement and is now translating into a rather fervent men’s rights movement; the ever present violence and war throughout the world, often perpetrated out of a desire for domination, power, and control. Each of these can be said to be manifestations of the confusion that typifies contemporary relationships between men and women. And none of them can be reconciled without reaching for the truth about the nature of woman in relation to man.

Perhaps the root of all our difficulties really does lie in the widespread refusal to recognize the true meaning of what it means to have been created as either man or woman.

Perhaps after all we have not fully grasped the significance the fall—and the moment when the relationship of man and woman was first muddled by sin and muddied by mutual confusion. Perhaps it is this reality that obstructs our vision and prevents our turning to each other in the movement toward our mission on earth. Is it not time to admit that only a firm grasp on womanhood, manhood, and complementarity can help us leverage the gifts we both bring to the tasks of human living and the service of the authentic good? If the mission of the laity is to transform the world and the laity is composed of only men and women, shouldn’t we view this mission as one we can only undertake by leveraging this “diversity yet mutual complementarity” (CL §50)?[3] Is it not manifestly evident that this is why the Creator made us male and female?

In fact, if we are to understand the relationship between the mission of the laity and the mission given to man and woman, it is this precise question that begs to be answered: why did God create us male and female? [4] A full response to this question is beyond the scope of this brief essay. But even just a sketch of what might constitute the masculine and feminine genius can reveal a point of departure for the action urged on all of us by the late Holy Father.[5] Let us follow his lead and return to the beginning, to the first two chapters of Genesis, to see what we can discover about the particular charisms that man and woman bring to their shared task.

But first, let us acknowledge a truth both revealed in Genesis 1 and also accessible to human reason, which provides the scaffolding of any discussion of what differentiates the sexes. And that is that man and woman are manifestly equal. They are both equally human, both in possession of intellect, will, and freedom, both agents in the process of their own becoming, “capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about themselves, with a tendency toward self-realization” (Laborem Exercens, §3). Though an extended proof of this otherwise self-evident reality is beyond our purposes here, we can certainly affirm John Paul II’s own claim that man and woman reflect two equal but differentiated ways of being in the world. In the eyes of the Magisterium, difference does not mean “unequal.” And I believe I can show that a closer look at Genesis 2 reveals the hidden meaning of this differentiation. Since he is first in the order of humanity’s creation, we will begin with what might constitute the genius of man and then turn toward that of woman.

The first point of interest is the notable fact that Adam is (apparently) in the garden alone with God for some period before the appearance of Eve, something that bears further scrutiny in terms of the implications it has for the place man occupies in the created order and the traditional understanding of man as the head of the household. But the claim I would like to make here is that, aside from that special relationship with the Creator, it can be said that Adam’s first contact with reality is of a horizon that otherwise contains only lower creatures, what we might call “things.”[6] It is this fact that leads God to conclude that Adam is alone, and ultimately leads to the building of Eve. The fact that Adam’s initial horizon includes only “things” has significance for the question of what might constitute the “genius” or charism of men, for he names them, and in so doing, takes dominion over them.[7] In fact, it could be said to provide a point of departure in Scripture for the well-documented evidence, affirmed by both science and human experience, that men seem more naturally oriented toward things than toward persons.[8]

But Adam’s orientation toward things does not mean that he is somehow disordered. It is part of God’s design. After all, it was Adam 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. The contemporary dissatisfaction with the tendency of men to attend to things more than to people completely overlooks the fact that the “things” of creation also have ontological status. They may be lower creatures, but they are creatures and, as such, are held in existence by God in much the same way that human persons are. The masculine inclination toward things and their uses is an aspect of the charism of men and, in many ways, it accounts for the building up of human civilization, has led throughout history to human flourishing, and has made and still makes possible the preservation of families and of culture. The proper response to the manifestation of the “genius” of men is not ridicule or resentment, but gratitude.

If we are to understand the relationship between the mission of the laity and the mission given to man and woman, it is this precise question that begs to be answered: why did God create us male and female?

In contrast and of special significance is the quite legitimate claim that, since Eve comes into existence after Adam, her first contact with reality is of a horizon that, from the beginning, includes Adam, that is, it includes persons. One can imagine Eve, a person also endowed with reason and free will who, upon seeing Adam, would also recognize another like her, an equal, while the other creatures and things around her appear only on the periphery of her gaze. This exegetical insight seems to provide a starting place in Scripture for the equally well-documented phenomenon that women seem more naturally oriented toward persons (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, §18).

In Mulieris Dignitatem [MD], John Paul II argues that the feminine genius is grounded in the fact that all women have the capacity to be mothers, and that this capacity—whether fulfilled in a physical or spiritual sense—orients her toward the other, toward persons. I agree with that and I have plenty of evidence to demonstrate it. And in every sense, Eve is certainly the mother of all humankind. But, in addition to her capacity to conceive and nurture human life, indeed prior to it, her place in the order of creation reveals that, from the beginning, the horizon of all womankind includes persons, includes the other. This may explain why girls and women seem to know, from the beginning, that they are meant for relationship, while it takes men a bit longer to look up and realize they are lonely for something they only just realized was missing and to look for the one who can complete them.

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 walking around outside of it, cannot be forgotten while we frantically engage in the tasks of human living. Woman’s gift is to remind us that all human activity is to be ordered toward authentic human flourishing.

Of course, so far all of this is in reference to what John Paul II terms the “State of Original Innocence.” It is a description of what God meant things to be before the fall. Perhaps not surprisingly, the description of its impact on woman and man confirms our theory, for clearly original sin manifests itself very differently in men and women. What had been their charism, their gift, now becomes a source of confusion and struggle. Men now do battle with creation and tend to see everything, including women, as an object to be dominated and conquered. Women now suffer in relationships, desiring love even when they know they are being used as an object, forgetting their true dignity and worth in the process.

[caption id="attachment_5200" align="alignright" width="375"] Jakov Brdar (b. 1949), Adam and Eve (Butcher's Bridge, Ljubljana); Photo: Artem Marchenko; CC-BY-NC-2.0.[/caption]

What we must understand is that the enemy has been confusing the relationships between men and women since the garden. Our contemporary situation is the consequence of centuries of confusion, accelerated by technology and the wide-spread refusal to acknowledge our debt to our Creator. But perhaps it is a bit clearer now what might constitute the complementarity of man and woman and in what their joint mission consists. In his letter on “The Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declares that, in the face of the refusal on the part of the culture to affirm and embrace the differences between men and women, “the Church, enlightened by faith in Jesus Christ, speaks instead of active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of [such differences].”[9]

It is not without irony that we can point out that the Catholic Church may be the only institution on earth ready to affirm man and woman for what they manifestly are—two equal but differentiated ways of being human—and to call them to live out who they are in everything that they do, whether that be in the home, in the public arena, or in the Church. If what the world thirsts for is peace and justice—and clearly it does—then there is no other route than for men and women to share their gifts in the mission given to both.

Christ came to reveal to us the very nature of the gift we are to be toward one another. And the genius of man and of woman are actually supernatural realities that require us to enter into the life of grace and be sustained by it if we are to realize them fully. For it is one thing for a wife to laugh about the fact that she can remember where her husband left his glasses or his keys, or for a man to feel superior when his female colleagues are caught up in what seem to be unimportant details. It is another thing entirely to exercise the virtue of charity in the home or in the workplace—which, let us admit, often requires nothing less than a supernatural act—in order to for both men and women to share in the royal dominion we are called to exercise over the life of the family and the world. If it is our very complementarity that gives us our mission—to create not only human families but human history itself—then nothing less than deep and authentic love for one another will show the way.

Featured Image: Rosario de Velasco (1904–1991), Adam and Eve (1932); photo: Sharon Mollerus; CC-BY-2.0.

[1] John Paul II invokes the thought of Pius XII, who stated: “The Faithful, more precisely the lay faithful, find themselves on the front lines of the Church’s life; for them the Church is the animating principle for human society. Therefore, they in particular, ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the head of all, and of the Bishops in communion with him. These are the Church” (CL §9; emphasis original).

[2] See Mulieris Dignitatem, §11. Ontological (the study of being) is a reference here to John Paul II’s conviction that woman and man are not only differentiated by their bodies but actually reflect two ways of being in the world.

[3] In CL §§49–50, John Paul II echoes the Second Vatican Council in declaring how essential it is that the Church recognize and put into practice all the gifts of men and women, without which her life and mission cannot be realized. He goes on to declare that the only condition that will assure the rightful presence of woman in the Church and in society is a more penetrating and accurate consideration of the “anthropological foundation for masculinity and femininity” (CL §50, emphasis original). The life and mission of the Church and therefore of the laity cannot be pursued without grasping the meaning of the “diversity yet mutual complementarity” (CL §50) that characterizes the constituent relation of man and woman.

[4] Indeed, this is the central question driving John Paul II’s investigation of complementarity articulated in Mulieris Dignitatem.

[5] For a more complete account of my theory, see Deborah Savage, “The Nature of Woman in Relation to Man: Genesis 1 and 2 through the Lens of the Metaphysical Anthropology of Aquinas” in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, vol. 18, no. 1 (Winter 2015), 71–93. Though my theory is grounded in the work of John Paul II, I have attempted a critical development of his project, adding my own insights into both the masculine and feminine genius.

[6] Here I need to highlight the fact that I have a somewhat different interpretation of this passage than that of John Paul II in the Theology of the Body. There he argues that the reference to man at Gen 2:7 is a reference to man in the abstract or collective sense. But my reading of the text and its use of ha-adam to refer “man” in that passage is that it is a reference to a “human being”—in this case, a man. In the Hebrew, adam without the definitive article ha, is man in the collective sense; this term is used only in Genesis 1. But when the definitive article is used, it is a reference to a “human being,” and, according to the narrative that follows, in this case, one who is male.

[7] Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that Adam received an additional preternatural gift, infused knowledge, in order to be able to name all the animals brought before him (cf. Summa Theologiae I, Q. 94, a. 3).

[8] John Paul II refers to this especially in Mulieris Dignitatem §18. Though it will not be possible to include it here, it should also be noted that scientific research regarding what distinguishes men and women supports many of the conclusions found in the work of John Paul II as well as in this essay. See Steven E. Rhoades, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004) 22–26; see also Anne Moir and David Jessel, Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) 68–112.

[9] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World” (2004), §1.


Deborah Savage

Deborah Savage teaches philosophy and theology on faculty at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is also co-founder of the University's interdisciplinary think tank Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture, created in response to St. John Paul II's call for a new and explicitly Christian feminism. Savage worked in the business sector for 25 years before pursuing a doctorate.

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