In my first post, I discussed the roles that charity and stereotypes play in understanding gender. In this post, I will consider the origins of gender and their implications.
We tend to take for granted that Catholic views on gender are fixed and unidimensional. But not so. One important aspect of the Catholic understanding of gender remains undefined, and this is significant for a number of reasons. The question remains for Catholic theology: are souls gendered? According to Aquinas, they are not; according to Edith Stein, they are (hence today’s disagreement on this question between many Catholic Thomists and Catholic phenomenologists). The Church has yet to give a magisterial answer.
Perhaps I should lay out my current answer to this question. Souls, I believe, are not gendered. But human persons are. The human person consists of body and soul, which mutually inform each other and contribute to an integrated personhood. Gender flows from man’s embodied nature, from the realities of man’s embodied being. Apart from the body, gender does not exist. But neither does the human person, since the human person cannot be considered apart from his body.
The embodied nature of the human person helps to explain the origins of stereotypes. In general, male bodies tend to be physically stronger than female bodies. Women’s bodies lend themselves to the nourishment and rearing of children in many ways. It’s not that men inherently are stronger than women or that women are exclusively capable of rearing children (or that they must birth children in order to be fully women). But, in general, men’s and women’s bodies lend themselves more easily to these respective tasks. Gender stereotypes are nothing more than averages, and should generally be treated as averages, rather than as prescriptive expectations.
Some women have bodies capable of great physical strength, and some men find themselves excelling as caretakers. This does not make them at all less men or women. Rather, their bodies and experiences may simply lend themselves more towards these tasks, and may suggest that part of their flourishing as human persons will involve breaking stereotypes in authentic and valuable expressions of their embodied beings.
One implication of arguing that souls are gendered would be the affirmation of the possibility of the transgender experience, where one experiences a discord between one’s embodied gender and one’s “deeper,” esoteric gender. Another might be the inherent nature of what we take as gender stereotypes. Another might be the conclusion that certain intellectual pursuits, such as philosophy or mathematics or art or psychology, are inherently tied to one gender more strongly than the other.
The bodied view of gender, however, suggests that stereotypes exist for a reason, but they shouldn’t be taken any further than actual embodied experience. And it suggests that intellectual pursuits are not done “better” by one gender or the other, though men and women may (and probably do) pursue them differently and complementarily because of gendered difference.
And arguing that gender occurs at the level of the body, which informs the soul and the soul’s activity in the human person, suggests that when discord arises between the esoteric and exoteric on matters of gender, one should prioritize the exoteric and physical. The body is, after all, a gift and an immutable part of our personhood. We can only dissociate from it in an age where we can dissociate from the other given realities of creation. And it makes sense that we would seek to dominate and engineer it for our esoteric imaginings in an age where we seek to do this with nature, and each other. We are not taught to recognize, respect, and hold the tension between our esoteric aspirations and the given realities about us. We want to reject the finitude of the body and, like we do the rest of creation, treat it as an infinitely manipulable object.
The bodied view of gender suggests that coming to an integrated personhood involves a radical affirmation of the goodness and givenness of the body. My body has just as much claim over my personhood as my soul. To reject either body or soul is to reject one’s very personhood, since personhood consists of both. We are our bodies in the same way that we are our souls. We’re both.
In my next post I will consider the ways in which we determine gender.
More in this series: