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Marianne Heimbach-Steins {*}

Man and Woman have the same Dignity
and are Equal

Man as Image of God and Gender Relation
in a Christian Perspective


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 7/2007, pp 32-34
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Preliminary Remark

In the Christian perspective the question of gender relations has different dimensions. There are directly at least three aspects in the theological respect.

  • Anthropological-theologically: man as God's creature - man as image of God - dignity
  • ethically: rights - expectations to gender roles - distribution of responsibilities between men and women in society and church
  • ecclesiologically: gender specific distribution of responsibilities and structure of offices in the church.

In my lecture I will mainly concentrate on the first two areas. The third, which in some respects is closely connected to the second, can only be treated in passing here. As I understand the task assigned to me, it is about introducing shaping lines of the Christian tradition - in church doctrine and theology. Therefore, I concentrate on following by the example of Gen 1-3 the reception of fundamental biblical statements about gender relations and then outlining, by the example of the tradition of the church's social teachings, the continued effect of the powerful tradition lines in church teachings of the 20th century. It goes without saying that so only - but in no way arbitrary - parts of the Christian, respectively - for the modern age - of the Catholic thought about gender relation can be represented.


Biblical Foundations and Theological Traditions of Interpretation

The recourse to the first three chapters of the Bible (Gen 1-3) is fundamental for the theological-anthropological basic outlook on the gender relation. Up to the beginnings of the historical-critical research the first human couple was regarded as the prototype for all men and women in the history of the Christian image of man. In so far also the long and very intensive history of effects under the sign of a patriarchal social order and way of thinking is central for the reconstruction of the Christian conception of the gender relation. Decisive for the main stream of the tradition of interpretation is the way how the relevant statements on man and woman created in likeness to God, on Eve created in the second place as "help" for Adam, and on the Fall of Man are assigned. First I portray some basic lines with the help of important trends of the medieval history of theology.

Today the fundamental statement about the creation of both sexes after God's image in Gen 1, 26 is seen by us as anchor of equality resp. of the equal dignity of man and woman. But the theology of the Middle Ages asserted here a lasting differentiation. So you can refer to Thomas Aquinas, who is quoted by many theologians of later centuries as authority, as representative for the mainstream of interpretation that distinguished two elements in man's likeness to God: The ability of the human spirit to recognize and love God have both, man and woman in the same way; that's why in terms of divine grace no difference can be made between the sexes. But the ability to represent God is only ascribed to man (what inter alia is of decisive importance for the theology of the church office). Various restrictions imposed on women are then connected with that view of a reduced likeness to God, e.g. the prohibition to teach theology. Although the medieval church law - in concrete terms the Decretum Gratiani of the 12th century - entirely denies that women have the imago Dei, there have time and again also been contributions of women - e.g. in the theology of the 13th century - that described Eva, resp. the female sex with all the characteristics of the likeness to God.

Many great theologians of the Middle Ages assume that already in the original state of Paradise a "natural", resp. in the creation order embodied subordination of the woman under the man existed. They justify that with the different nature of their creation - while the man was directly made by God, the woman's existence is derived from the man, because she has been created "out of Adam's rib". Due to his first-creation, to the man is described a priority regarding his likeness to God, to which the woman as created from the man's rib was only indirectly entitled and in a reduced way. Accordingly, the biblical statement about the woman as "help" of the man is so read that the helper appropriate to man, who is the remedy against the "not good" state of loneliness, becomes a subordinate assistant



whom he exclusively needs for the procreation and rearing of offspring, and who is in every other respect inferior to him - as the second-created and first-tempted (cf. Gen 3). That view is reinforced by the reception of the Aristotelian biological idea according to which the woman has in the procreation of new life only a passive receiving role. The classification of the sexes in the dualisms active - passive, mind - body, etc. nourished by that idea, remained effective far beyond the antique, medieval biological theories and was still moulding the essentialist anthropology of neo-scholasticism in the early 20th century.

But that the text can also be interpreted differently has not been discovered only just in the late 20th century by a critical Bible interpretation that was also inspired by the feminist theology. Already the high Middle Ages know examples of a different interpretation that keeps to the equal dignity of women. The theology of women turns the hierarchical relation of the sexes into a polarity where the respective special gifts of man and woman are emphasized; both were related to and depended on each other. A famous example is Hildegard of Bingen (12th century). She sees the physical strength, which befits the man because of his creation out of soil, in a harmonious relation to the milder strength of the woman, which comes from Eve's origin from Adam's already living and animated body. Not the opposites 'strong - weak', 'dominant - controlled' determine with her the relation of the sexes but the polarity of greater force (majoris fortitudinis) and softer strength (mollioris roboris).

According to the dominant tradition of interpretation the man as first-created has priority, whereas for the woman as first-tempted and seductress of the man is intended a negative priority. A significant influence far beyond the theology of the Church Fathers and the Middle Ages got the view held by Augustine in his Genesis commentary: namely that the man with his greater force of reason had certainly not believed the snake; the only reason why he had sinned was that he did not want to give up his wife for lost, who had - because of her lower rational capability - not recognized that man could never be like God. The man's breaking of the commandment is so reduced to a "peccadillo", the man is relieved, but the woman severely incriminated. The theology of the 12th century even reinforces that gap by connecting Eve's misconduct with the vice of pride. The image of the woman is to a large extent defined: Eve is the seductress, the sinner who has caused the expulsion from Paradise and the destruction of mankind. Female counter-traditions that hold at least the equality of the sexes in sin, but in some developments also Eve's absolution from the original sin, could not assert themselves. The snake that tempted the human couple to eat the fruit of the tree has in many pictures the face of Eve.

The counter-image to the woman as seductress and destroyer of mankind is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who by her participation in the work of salvation re-establishes the pure / immaculate image of the woman. So the as anti-types understood biblical female figures Eve and Mary represent from the outset - from the theology of the Church Fathers and the Middle Ages up to the modern era - an ambivalent image of the woman, and that explains at least to some extent that the deep scepticism - of the church doctrine and of a theology predominantly written by male authors and authorities - against "the woman" was accompanied by statements that elevate the woman - not only Mary as a singular phenomenon - as it were, into heaven and expect from her the salvation of a world that is threatened by male actions and a male potential of destruction.

A short summing-up shows the following picture: Gen 2 is read - in the main line of the tradition of interpretation shaped by a patriarchal viewpoint - in the light of Gen 3, and Gen 1 in the light of Gen 2. Thus no longer the statement about the equal dignity of both sexes (founded in their likeness to God) is the sign, but the perception of the woman as destroyer, to whom therefore is due only a subordinate position, and who as the second-created does only indirectly participate in the dignity of the man's likeness to God.

The newer positions of the teaching authority of the church and the main lines of modern theology have made some corrections in that picture. On the one hand the newer Biblical studies much contributed to the fact that the equal dignity of both sexes could be rediscovered as authoritative fundamental statement of the Bible; on the other hand the awareness has grown that certain trends of the traditional interpretation mirror mainly a male viewpoint, which for its part has been formulated under the sign of a patriarchal social system, a hierarchical church structure and an male-centred scientific culture. Hence the church doctrine on gender anthropology has in some respects become more cautious, but the sign of the patriarchal order is still visible. I want to set forth that in the following section on the basis of a cursory survey of the relevant positions of the Church's social doctrine.


Documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church in the 20th Century: Gender Roles and Gender Specific Distribution of Responsibilities

The issues of women's rights and gender relations are in the Church's social teachings of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century no separate issues but are only mentioned in connection with wage-labour and family. The perception is moulded by an anthropology that is shaped by dualistic and hierarchical patterns of thought; based on the just outlined elements of the theological tradition it assumes a quite specific view of the character resp. nature of women. The corresponding knowledge of the nature of the man is in a tradition in which only men hold the teaching authority [Definitionsmacht] not specifically outlined, because it is the "normal" or obvious: The hierarchical gap inhering in the traditional model of gender relations becomes already apparent in a language that time and again emphasizes the "special nature", a "characteristic" of the woman, and legitimates so the normative definition of the gender roles. Marriage and motherhood in the order of the patriarchal family, i.e. the private room of the house is defined as the area of the woman's life and responsibility corresponding to the nature of the woman, whereas the public is the area of the man's life and responsibility.

In the earlier documents of the church teaching authority on social issues "the woman" is- corresponding to those definitions - exclusively seen in the roles befitting to her, but not as a subject of social activity and moral decision. That women make a living outside the house is seen in the context of the church standards as stopgap in the case of missing or insufficient earnings of the father of the family, as a stopgap that must by all means be avoided (see the repeatedly propagated model of the family wage, which presupposes the male breadwinner). Employment of women, in particular of the wife and mother (only in texts after the Second World War also the single woman is - in view of the changing social circumstances - taken into consideration) is regarded as fundamentally harmful competition to the "domestic tasks, including child rearing and arranging the "home", which are the responsibility of the loyal wife in subordination to the - economically and legally - total responsibility and authority of the husband and father of the family. Under those conditions every aspiration for emancipation was regarded as sinful rebellion against the natural and God-given order. Admittedly, employment and public-political commitment of women are under Pope Pius XII ( in 1958) approved in narrow borders - namely for unmarried women and by safeguarding the "womanly", in particular the characteristics of the mother - what was almost unavoidable in the historical context of the immediate post-war period. That model is evidently shaped by the viewpoint of men whose experience and judgement is determined by a system of bourgeois norms of the then society and by the consistently implemented exclusion of women from power and influence by means of the church structure.

Only in the context of far-reaching changes in the theological method and, connected with it the opening of the church's teaching authority to the modern world in the time of the Second Vatican Council, a new approach regarding the issue of women's rights gains recognition. In the context of the appreciation and recognition of human rights by Pope John XXIII women are for the first time noticed not only as role bearers in a patriarchal social system but as subject of social activity: "Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons." (Encyclical Letter Pacem in terris, 41 [1963]).

In connection with the fundamental renewal of the theology on marriage by the Council the recognition of the subject status of women has also an effect on the way of looking at gender relations in marriage and family under the leitmotiv of partnership (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 1965). Accordingly then in the following years the issue of women's human rights is taken up on various occasions: whether it is e.g. the participation in wage-labour without discrimination or the condemnation of sexual violence. But the traces of the patriarchal, hierarchical thinking did nevertheless not disappear from the church way of speech. The tension between the pattern of human rights and the pattern of a patriarchal, male-centred viewpoint becomes almost a sign of Pope John Paul's II announcements. More clearly than his predecessor he demands the human rights of women and tirelessly evokes the same dignity of woman and man, but at the same time supports an idealized image of the woman, in particular of the mother, which catches up with all essentialist and biologist guidelines of the tradition.

New and changing perspectives are especially articulated in such texts in the formulation of which women with their own social and religious experiences were involved in one way or another. Here the "issue of women's rights" becomes an "issue of the sexes", i.e. the paternalistic perspective of speaking about women is broken; the man's conception of himself and male roles become the topic of reflection. The discovery that irreversible changes in woman's conception of herself and in her social place have also repercussions on the male part of society is no longer fended off by verdicts justified by natural law but is explicitly brought up and discussed. Language too is changing; it becomes - though not consistently - inclusive.

The remaining ambivalences in the church's conception of 'the woman', connected with the restrictions on the participation of women, which are regarded as normative in the church's teachings, illustrate a fundamental problem that has especially to do with the hierarchical structure of the institution church. From the outset the woman in the Christian community has been taken seriously as addressee of the Church's message: she has access to baptism and the Lord's Supper, she is naturally incorporated into the community of those who believe in Christ, in the 'Body of Christ', and participates in the reality of Salvation. In this respect she is on equal footing with the man. The Second Vatican Council expresses that in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium with reference to the famous words of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Galatians: "There is in Christ and in the church no inequality because of race and ethnicity, social position or gender [...] (cf. Gal 3, 28). Nevertheless, in the Catholic Church as institution the equality of the sexes is out of the question. There remains an obvious tension between the unity and equality of both sexes in Christ (in the sense of Gal 3, 27fl: 'There is neither man nor woman in Christ') and the ranking and standing of women in the structure of the church.


Approaches of Systematization: Models of Assignment of Man and Woman in the Church Doctrine

The relation of the sexes is traditionally thought as a relation of precedence / subordination, the higher position is assigned to the man.



That hierarchy is justified in the above mentioned patriarchal, male-centred traditions of interpretation, inter alia of the first chapters of Genesis, resp. in the assumption of a "natural" or metaphysical inferiority of the woman, which finds expression in her subordination under the man. Admittedly, such a view was in the history of Christianity often only formulated in a toned down way, in so far as the equality of the woman in the order of grace was recognized by many theologians; today it is usually no longer explicitly held, but nevertheless traces of it still remained. Hierarchizations of the gender relation work with dualisms (strong - weak; spirit - matter, etc.) and connect with the attribution of different characteristics (natures) to man and woman the precedence or subordination, from which various normative roles and expectations with regard to the woman's behaviour are derived.

In a similar way as the hierarchy- or subordination model also polarity models work with the dualistic comparison of the characteristics (nature) of the sexes. But they throw their weight behind a complementary completion of the sexes and therefore they emphasize the equality together with the difference. Hence one can, admittedly, say that the polarity models historically have promoted the awareness of the equality, so far as in them the strong emphasis on hierarchy is taken back and an own irreplaceable contribution of women to the success in the social field is assumed, but here too the meaning of the different nature of the woman is connected with certain standardizing expectations regarding the loyalty to her "nature": The special emphasis on the mother role, to which other female life plans cannot simply be equal alternatives (but only additions that can be tolerated under certain circumstances) is to be mentioned here, and also the expectation - e.g. in the final message of the Council Fathers directed to women -, that they - in view of a world endangered by the male frenzy for technique - were destined for the rescue of civilization. Such ideas, which sometimes seem to elevate the image of the woman to an angel-like being, are in an unmistakable tension to the fact that the subject status of women in society has been very hesitantly recognized.

A guarantee of a development in this direction is the model of partnership, which can be found in the church texts since the Second Vatican Council and shows first approaches that also the role of the man is seen anew - for example in the performance of the father role in the family - not only as an authority figure but as co-educator of children. On the other hand the gradual recognition of an independent social role of women (mothers too) beyond of family tasks corresponds to that. Though just in this respect in most texts it remains clear until today that both, the individual possibilities for women to choose gainful employment in addition to the tasks of a mother and the social and political measures to make possible various options for women are ultimately judged by comparison with the tasks of a mother; the development of the female personality remains placed - more or less explicitly - under the expectation that marriage and motherhood have priority.



The theological and anthropological foundation of the view of the gender relation is laid with the biblical statement that man and woman are created in likeness to God. In it lies for all times the demand to recognize the same dignity of both sexes. In this regard the church can rightly claim for itself that it made with its anthropological tradition an important contribution to the appreciation and the "liberation" of women. Though the dominant patriarchal tradition of interpretation has nevertheless assumed for a long time a priority of the man. Already in the Middle Ages theological traditions that were well-disposed towards women raised objections to the hierarchical subordination of the woman under the man as first-created, hence to man's immediate likeness to God.

The tradition line of the church's teachings and the mainstream of the theological reflection on the gender relations are coined by a patriarchal pattern of gender relations; nevertheless we can note - in relation to the social changes in the gender relation - a change in the stated view on and in thinking about the relation between man and woman. Moreover, there has always been a variety of interpretations justified with the help of Bible quotations; the theology of women (resp. a theology well-disposed towards women) was not able to assert itself for the longest period of church history and theology or it was forced away at the edges of an increasingly academical theology (spirituality, mysticism).

By far the most stated views of the church's teaching authority have "the woman" in her relation to the man but not the relations between the sexes as topic of consideration. In it becomes clear that one looks from a male perspective at "the woman" who - as the "different being" - has to be determined. In this respect the "being" or the "nature" of the woman became a prominent topic of church doctrine and theological discussions, whereas about "the man" was hardly explicitly written. The relation of the sexes as such is then also less the subject of reflection than the question which assignments of roles and tasks were more corresponding to the nature of women and which not.

Many religious texts of the modern age articulate a deep-seated scepticism about tendencies to women's emancipation in society. One sees in them an ignorance of the woman's "natural being" and especially a threat to the mother role. This concern shows through even when the equal participation of women in employment is generally recognized. Until today specific concern is given to the justification of the exclusion of women from the church office; sometimes it is accompanied by the suspicion of an inadmissible claim to power on the part of women. In it becomes apparent that the attitude of the church teaching authority towards gender anthropological questions is de facto not considered separated from the system of the church office structure (reserved for men).

The by the teaching authority recently clearly expressed scepticism about gender research, which is made out only in a general way, is also to be seen in that horizon. It is (mis) understood as general relativizing or denying of gender differences. But a thorough examination of the different approaches of gender research has hardly taken place so far, although in the scientific theology approaches to a constructive, critical reception of those postmodern impulses of gender research are developed.

Even with regard to that it remains a desideratum to develop a theological anthropology of the sexes at the height of the current state of the respective scientific research (sociology, psychology etc.). It fails so far - at least in writings of the church teaching authority - because one holds on to an essentialist concept of nature with which certain assumptions about the "nature" of the woman (or genders) are directly connected with normative expectations of their social roles.


    {*} Prof. Dr. Marianne Heimbach-Steins is professor of Christian social doctrine and general religious sociology at the University of Bamberg


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