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Cardinal Mueller’s Address at Colloquium on Man-Woman Complementarity

“The difference between man and woman, both in the union of love and the generation of life, concerns God’s presence in the world”

Here is the address given Monday by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the colloquim underway in the Vatican on the complementarity of man and woman. The cardinal’s address was titled “Complementarity of Man and Woman Helps Us Understand the Divine Mystery.” The CDF is sponsoring the colloquium.

* * *

Most Holy Father,

            Your Eminences and Your Excellencies,

Brothers and Sisters,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the start of this important meeting, I would like to offer a cordial welcome to each and every one of you. We are gathered to consider more deeply the theme of the complementarity between man and woman.

Each of us, reflecting on his or her human condition, perceives how one’s own humanity cannot be exhausted in oneself. One’s own male or female being is not sufficient to oneself. Each one of us feels needy and lacking in completion. This fact, indelible in human nature, reveals our radical dependence: we do not complete ourselves from our own selves, we are not totally self-sufficient. 

This simple consideration, clear to all, would suffice to demonstrate the inadequacy of the markedly individualistic trait so characteristic to the modern mentality. Yet in the roots of our “I,” there is inscribed a natural tension, opposed to such a mentality, which is unfortunately now diffused in many parts of the world.

Our meeting takes as its point of departure this elementary consideration, opening it to the mystery of God. It gives rise to the question: what import does the complementarity between man and woman have for the relationship between the human person and God? It is this question that each of our cultural and religious traditions is invited to engage.

From the Bible an opening of prospective

In the Judeo-Christian prospective, this theme is quite relevant and emerges immediately in the reading and interpretation found in Tradition on the basis of some basic and essential biblical texts.

I begin with a passage from the Book of Proverbs, a collection of wisdom sayings of Israel: “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden” (Prov 30,18-19).

Here, proposed for our consideration, is a mystery of wisdom, which is relevant to the desire of all religions: to understand how God manifests Himself in the world. The text offers three enigmas: the way of the eagle in the sky, the snake on the rock, the ship on the waters. To these three is added a fourth, according to a paradigm which, in wisdom literature, represents the synthesis and fullness of the other three: “the way of a man with a maiden.” It is well known that wisdom literature speaks of God, not directly, but from the point of view of his presence and action on the created.  

The first three enigmas gather all spheres of the cosmos: air, earth, water – in their movement from God and towards God. In this way, they bring to mind the first chapter of Genesis, which recounts the creation of all the elements of the cosmos and of all beings, following the temporal rhythm of the week towards the Sabbath rest in God. This account culminates in the creation of man and woman, inviting us in this way to consider the fourth enigma “the way of man with a maiden,” as the fullness of all ways with which the Creator makes Himself present in the created and propels it towards Him. In this sense, if the first account of creation finishes precisely on the Sabbath as the day of the covenant (Gen 2, 2-3), the second account finds its fulfilment in the appearance of man and woman, symbol of the great covenant between God and Israel (cfr. Gen 2, 22-24).[1]

What then – in the light of this – is the meaning of the expression “the way of man with a maiden”? According to some, it may refer to the path by which a man joins himself to a woman, to the conjugal union: the entire cosmos participates in the unity of one flesh between husband and wife, assumed in the body of the spouses, and opens itself in love towards the presence and action of God. The expression may also signify the path by which man and woman come out of themselves, that is to say birth as the marvellous locus for the presence of the Creator, who blesses His creature.[2]

Hence, we may conclude that the difference between man and woman, both in the union of love and the generation of life, concerns God’s presence in the world, which every man is called to discover in order to find a solid and lasting foundation and destiny for our life.   

The Difference between man and woman as essential element

to understand the human being and his journey towards God

These thoughts may assist us in the question which will be at the heart of our reflections during this gathering: in what way does God make Himself present in the complementarity between man and woman? The response will be useful not only to draw closer to the divine mystery, but it shall open us also to a deeper understanding of the human person.

The presence of God appears in the first place in the way in which God models the body of man and woman. The Bible speaks of God as the artisan who shapes every person in the mother’s womb (cfr. Jer 1,5; Ps 139,13). Faith in the Creator is linked to this initial experience: in the body, there exists a primordial language, a gift that enables us to receive and communicate love. The human body, in its sexual difference, is not a chance product of blind evolution or an anonymous determination of elements.

What is it that speaks to us of this difference contained in body language?  This has attracted the attention of all cultures. For example, the myth of the man Androgyny, which Plato speaks about in his Symposium,[3] is well known. By divine punishment, original man – a spherical being, and, at the same time, male and female, was divided in two in a way that each part remains in constant search of the other, in a continuous movement, thus blocking any representation of a threat to the gods.

The myth of Androgyny teaches us – just like the Bible in its account of Genesis – that sexual difference is not only diversity, in the same way that peoples and their customs are diverse, and does not merely signify a variegated plurality. Indeed, in itself plurality does not include the need of the other to understand itself, even if diversity may nevertheless be enriching. Rather, in sexual difference – and this is essential – each of the two can only understand him or herself in light of the other: the male needs the female to be understood, and the same is true for the female. For this reason, the Bible puts Adam and Eve one before the other (cfr. Gen 2,18). Difference thereby imbues in man and woman the knowledge that something is lacking in them, that they cannot find their fulfilment in themselves: each “only in communion with the opposite sex can become ‘complete'”, as Benedict XVI wrote in the Encyclical Deus caritas est (n. 11).     

Hence, a different interpretation of this lack may be noted in the myth of Androgyny and the Bible. Whereas in the first case, sexual difference is viewed as a punishment that weakens man in order that he cannot draw near to the gods, thus becoming a fall of man from the almost divine level to impotent slavery, in the Bible difference is the place of blessing, the exact place where God will make present His action and His image.

In this way, we can comprehend that, while in the myth of Androgyny man and woman are two halves of a human being, in Scripture, each of the two, Adam and Eve, are measured not only according to their mutual relation but above all from the starting point of their relationship with God. Indeed, in the singularity of each and not only in their union as a couple, we find inscribed the image of the One who has created them. Here, man and woman share the same humanity, the same incarnate condition, and sexual difference does not imply subordination one to the other: “both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image“(Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 6). In this vein, Saint John Paul II said that male and female are as “two incarnations of the same metaphysical solitude before God and the world – as two ways of being body and together man, who complete each other reciprocally.”[4]

It is important to underline also another dissimilarity between the platonic account and that of Scripture: whereas in the former, man and woman, when they unite, become a full and self-satisfied being, in the book of Genesis the union of man and woman does not lead to a fulfilment, does not close them within themselves, for it is precisely in uniting with each other that they open themselves to the greater presence of God. One might well say that in the very union of the two, man and woman render themselves needier, which makes increase in them the thirst of the mystery in the measure that their radical reference to the Creator God is revealed more clearly. The union sets off, therefore, a dynamic, a movement, as the Song of Songs recounts, in which the lover and beloved are at the same time in continuous search of the other and of God. Saint Augustine expressed this with magnificent words: “He created the one out of the other, setting a sign also of the power of the union in the side, whence she was drawn, was formed. For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk.”[5] For the Doctor from Hippo, this goal is none other than God Himself.

It is precisely the presence of God within the union between man and woman that helps us consider the meaning of their complementarity. This cannot be understood in a polar fashion, as if male and female were opposed realities who complete each other perfectly (active and passive, exterior and interior, etc.) so as to become a closed unity; rather, it is a matter of different ways of situating themselves in the world so that, when they come together, far from closing themselves in, these open the path towards the world and others, a path that leads above all to the encounter with God. The union of male and female is complementary not in the sense that from it ensues one complete in him or herself, but in the sense that their union demonstrates how both are a mutual help to journey towards the Creator.

The complementarity between man and woman

in light of the mutual relationship with the child

The way in which this union refers to itself always beyond itself becomes evident in the birth of a child. The union of the two, making themselves “one flesh,” is proven precisely in the one flesh of those generated by that union. Hence, we see confirmed how complementarity also means overabundance, an insurgence of novelty.

From the presence of the child comes a light that can help us describe the complementarity of man and woman. The relationship of the parents with the baby, where both open out beyond themselves, is a privileged way to understand the difference between the man and the woman in their role as father and mother. Complementarity is not understood, therefore, when we consider man and woman in an isolated form, but when we consider them in the prospective of the mystery to which their union opens out and, in a concrete way, when we look at male and female in light of the relationship with the child.

One might add that the female aspect is characterized by a constant presence, which accompanies always the child. Indeed, in German, when a woman is pregnant, we say that she “carries a baby beneath her heart” (“dass sie ein Kind unter dem Herzen trägt”). Contemporary philosophy has spoken of the feminine as a dwelling place, as presence that envelops man from the beginning and accompanies him along the way, as singular sensitivity for the person as gift and for his affirmation.[6] On the other hand, the male is characterized, in terms of the child, as the presence of someone “in the distance,” in a distance that attracts, and, therefore, helps in walking the journey of life.[7] Both male and female are necessary to transmit to the child the presence of the Creator, both as love that envelops and confirms the goodness of existence despite all else, and as a call that from afar invites one to grow. In this way, male and female are dimensions that interconnect and exchange, such that the woman enriches man and man the woman, because one participates in the property of the other and may transmit together to the child being in the image of God.      

From what we have said above, there emerges an important consequence: the first place where sexual difference appears in the life of the persons is exactly in the experience of offspring. Our origin, our first place of contact with the mystery, is revealed in the union of our parents from which comes life. Male and female make visible for each child who comes into the world, in a sacramental way, the presence of the Creator. The good of this difference, the perception of male and female, is the essential grammar to educate the child as a person open to the mystery of God.

For this reason, when sexual difference is not integrated in one’s life – a task that is carried out always laboriously and requires effort and time in the openness to others – it is impossible to clarify and accept one’s own identity, it is impossible to find the path of life. This opens up a terrain for the merciful action of the Church, and of all religions, towards persons who have been injured.

The complementarity of man and woman, from this point of view, contains an essential social role; we are dealing with a common good that society is called to protect so as to promote the common good. Without being able to enumerate every aspect of this richness, we may say that sexual difference is a good for society insofar as it guarantees the dignity of the person who is born, who will never be – when generated within the conjugal union – the product of the isolated wish of an individual, but the fruit, always overflowing, of a spousal love that opens itself to the mystery. Complementarity becomes essential in the generation and upbringing of the child and, hence, in the journey of society through time, in the essential link that exists through all generations.

Conclusion: reflecting on complementarity,

an essential task for the religious person

The complementarity of man and woman, therefore, carries with itself a great treasure of humanity, because it enables persons to be defined in their deepest nature by a relationship of love, and to give this bond a generative relationship that welcomes the gift of a new person. In this way, it helps us understand the divine mystery that reveals itself therein and which Jesus confirmed, speaking of the union between a man and woman as “that which God has united” (Mt 19,6).

We can understand then, precisely why God chose the difference between man and woman to manifest His love story with the People of Israel. When the richness of sexual difference is not welcomed, it is impossible to understand the fidelity of God as spouse, who continually forgives Israel of her infidelities. We can also understand why Christ assumed this language of male and female – transforming it in line with the virginal novelty of His life – to express the fullness of charity. Without this language, without the experience of the goodness of sexual difference, it would be impossible to grasp the work of God, His love for us, and the way in which He loves us and uses mercy towards us. Precisely on the basis of the relationships that are born around “one flesh” of man and woman, God reveals His mercy, comparing it to the Father who forgives the son (cfr. Hos 11,1-8; Lk 15,11-24), to the mother who does not abandon him (cfr. Is 49,14-15), and the spouse who welcomes again the unfaithful wife (cfr. Hos 2,20; Jn 8,1-10).

The task of this meeting will be to explore the richness of sexual difference, its goodness, its character as gift, its openness to life, the path that opens up to God. As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, writes in His Encyclical Lumen fidei: “The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan” (Lumen fidei, n. 52).

[Text provided by colloquium]

On the NET:

On the Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman: http://www.humanum.it

[1] Cfr. J. Ratzinger, “Zur Theologie der Ehe”, in Theologische Quartalschrift 149 (1969) 53-74, 56.

[2] Cfr. L. Alonso Schökel, “Texto y comentario”, in L. Alonso Schökel – J. Vílchez, Proverbios, Madrid 1984, 518; cf. C. Granados, “El camino del hombre por la mujer. El matrimonio en el Antiguo Testamento”, Verbo divino, Salamanca 2014, 171-184.

[3] Cfr. Platone, “Simposio”, in Id., Tutti gli scritti, a cura di G. Reale, Bompiani, Milano 2008,189c – 193e, p. 499-503.

[4] Cfr. Giovanni Paolo II, L’amore umano nel piano divino, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Roma 2009, cat. X, p. 131.

[5] De bono coni. I, 1.

[6] Cfr. H. B. Gerl-Falkovitz, “Die neun Frauen, oder: Gibt es noch ein Frauenbild? Zum Wandel des Geschlechtsverständnisses der westlichen Gesellschaften in der Moderne”, in G.L. Müller (ed.), Frauen in der Kirche : Eigensein und Mitverantwortung, Echter, Würzburg 1999; J. Marías, La mujer y su sombra, Alianza Editorial, Madrid 1987; C. Gilligan, In a different voice : psychological theory and women’s development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) – London 1982; E. Lévinas, Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’extériorité, Kluwer Academic, Paris 1990.

[7] Cfr. G. Marcel, “Le voeu createur comme essence de la paternite”, en Homo viator: prolégomènes à une métaphysique de l’espérance, Aubier, Paris 1963, 135-170; A. Vergote – A. Tamayo, The Parental Figures and the Representation of God : A Psychological and Cross-cultural Study, Mouton, Leuven – The Hague 1980; C. Risé, Il padre: l’assente inaccettabile, San Paolo, Milano 2003.

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