Read part one here.
Gender, Virtue, and Gendered Virtues
How we express (and to what extent) traditionally feminine or masculine traits varies greatly among individuals. All human beings, regardless of gender, should strive to practice all of the “feminine” and “masculine” virtues, cultivating those that do not come as naturally. In his Letter to Women and encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II describes a new feminism that highlights some attributes of the feminine genius:
St. John Paul II does not outline attributes of the masculine genius as explicitly, although Dr. Deborah Savage (a FemCatholic Conference speaker) is one scholar who often writes and speaks on the subject. One might suggest the following as attributes of the masculine genius, which also complement the feminine genius:
- Emphasis on the community
- Fortitude and objectivity
Although we may be tempted to categorize things and people in order to understand them, we would sell ourselves short if we exclusively lived and pursued only those aspects or virtues typically associated with our gender. Let us consider Jesus and Mary as examples. Though Jesus is a man and embodies traditionally masculine attributes, we can see a beautiful marriage of his masculinity with aspects of the feminine genius: Christ was fully present to each person He encountered and met their unique needs (emphasis on the person). He wept with Mary and Martha, was moved with pity for people who suffered, and felt deeply and touched tenderly (empathy and sensitivity). And let us not forget how He freely received his Passion and Cross, as well as received all who came to Him (receptivity).
[W]e would sell ourselves short if we exclusively lived and pursued only those aspects or virtues typically associated with our gender.
Likewise, Mary demonstrates virtues of both the feminine and masculine geniuses. She is one of the only people at the foot of the Cross when her Son was crucified, after all of the male disciples, except John, left and hid out of fear (fortitude). Her fiat at the Annunciation is a bold and confident affirmation of God’s invitation to her, unencumbered by doubt as she resolved to carry the child that God would place in her womb (objectivity).
Jesus and Mary show us that, as we grow in holiness, we can and should demonstrate virtuous aspects of both the feminine and masculine genius. Though we may find some easier to practice than others, virtues are not gendered. Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) emphasized that attributes of the feminine genius are human values that are not exclusive to women:
“It is appropriate however to recall that the feminine values mentioned here are above all human values: the human condition of man and woman created in the image of God is one and indivisible. It is only because women are more immediately attuned to these values that they are the reminder and the privileged sign of such values.” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World)
This leads me to ask: is it less holy for a woman to be a leader or provider? Is it less holy for a man to be sensitive or modest? Is it less holy that my female friend proposed to her boyfriend and that he joyfully accepted? Is it sinful for a woman to work while her husband is a stay-at-home dad? Is it less holy for a man to be a fashion designer or for a woman to be a firefighter?
Much of the opposition to feminist arguments against gender roles rests on the assertion that, without them, men become confused as to what their role is. When women “take their roles,” what is left for men? Frankly, this sounds to me like shirking responsibility. There are always roles to take in the vineyard of the Lord, as well as different ways that each of us is called to help build up the Kingdom of God. Whether women or men have traditionally performed a certain role does not mean that it cannot be shared by both. At the end of the day, all roles need to be filled, whoever gets them done.
It is true that there are certain biological roles that can only be filled by a man or woman (e.g. producing semen or breast milk). This does not mean, however, that the roles that can be shared must be assigned exclusively to one gender. Again, this is why individual gifts are crucial: God purposely creates each of us, giving us distinct gifts in addition to our generativity.
As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ is the One we must look to in discerning our purpose in this life. If we cultivate contemplative practices that help us hear God’s voice, we can be led toward becoming our most authentic self, the man or woman God created us to be. Let us remember that our vocation is not a point at which we arrive, but rather the process by which we become holier and draw closer to God. A person’s vocation, crafted by God, cannot be reduced to the rigid gender roles created by society. Each man and woman must cultivate a prayer life and relationship with God that help them discern how God invites them to use their unique abilities, talents, and personality.
Using Our Whole, Unique Self to Serve God
To take this from the abstract realm and into the personal, I would like to give a concrete example of what I mean and share a bit about myself.
I am pursuing a music career. I mostly write music that is not well-suited to worship or the liturgy, but rather would land most comfortably in the indie-pop genre. My songs seem to touch others’ lives, evoke emotions, and lift people up. I also lead worship music at my parish for our youth Mass. I hope that my voice helps people center themselves spiritually and that our music points to the Divine Mystery of God at Mass. These are things that I feel called to do, using the gifts that God gives me, but could be done by anyone called to a similar vocation, whether male or female.
I also work full-time as the Director of Youth Ministry. I oversee the Confirmation and youth ministry programs for both high school and middle school students. Additionally, I supervise all our adult and peer leaders, teams made up of both men and women. This places me in a position of instruction and leadership, typically considered as a masculine quality. Do I lead the same way a man would? I don’t know, perhaps that depends on the man. Do I feel God has given me, Jessica Gerhardt, abilities and strengths and talents to do my job well? Yes, and I continue to do this ministry in response to the Holy Spirit’s invitations. It fills my heart to touch the lives of teens, helping them to grow closer to the God who loves them and encouraging them to embrace their truest selves: God-in-them.
How do I know that the Spirit led me here? Well, I cannot know with absolute certainty, but I do my best to cultivate a rich spiritual life and be faithful to God’s voice as He shows me each step along the way.
Do I also have procreative capabilities, a sex drive, and a uterus? Yes. Will I one day allow those parts of myself to be used in service of God’s kingdom? I hope so, but ultimately that is up to God. Right now, I do what I can with what God puts in front of me today. I am an expressive, ENFP, 2w1 youth minister, ukuleleist-singer-songwriter, and FemCatholic Contributor - and those are only some of the attributes that describe me.
I do what I can with what God puts in front of me today.
If God allows a man who uniquely complements all of these aspects of myself (with my strengths, weaknesses, and quirks) to enter my life and calls us to help each other grow through marriage, then that would be awesome! But that does not mean that I am not in my vocation (to love and serve God) each day, using my “me”-ness to help build up the Kingdom here and now. And in the meantime, God has put many friends and family members in my life whose unique qualities and abilities complement mine as well. Who I am and what I offer complement the work and abilities of countless others. Right now, exactly as I am, I am one whole person who is one small part of the Imago Dei.
The more we embrace our whole, unique self each day, the less we will have to worry about conforming to someone else’s idea of generalized roles. We have excellent role models in Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and the saints; God is so generous. Trust that God will show you how you are called to play a particular and complementary role in His Creation.