Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 12, No. 2, February 2016
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Book Review of

Sex Difference in Christian Theology
Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God

Megan K. DeFranza
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015

Luis T. Gutiérrez


Charts a faithful theological middle course through complex sexual issues

How different are men and women? When does it matter to us — or to God? Are male and female the only two options? What about those caught in the middle? In Sex Difference in Christian Theology Megan DeFranza explores such questions in light of the Bible, theology, and science.

Many Christians, entrenched in culture wars over sexual ethics, either ignore the existence of intersex persons or avoid the inherent challenge they bring to the assumption that everybody is born after the pattern of either Adam or Eve. DeFranza argues, from a conservative theological standpoint, that all people are made in the image of God — male, female, and intersex — and that we must listen to and learn from the voices of the intersexed among us. For more information, see the book's website.

This book provides a very comprehensive review of the long and convoluted history of the human understanding about sex and gender issues. It is a history that, until rather recently, remained hidden to most people, buried from view by ancient cultural conditioning whereby most sex/gender issues were not openly discussed. Even in the Christian era, the patriarchal gender binary, an utterly inadequate anthropology manufactured by human hands after the Fall (cf. Genesis 3:16), is part of the huge stone placed at the entrance of the tomb after the crucifixion of Jesus. In many Christian institutions, as in most cultures and religious traditions, this part of the stone has yet to be removed and should be removed soon.

The fundamental questions considered in this book are stated in the preface:

"How do we measure the mysterious distance between a man and a woman? How different are men and women, really? What about those whose bodies and lives tend to bridge and blurr the very distance of difference? How much does it all matter at the end of the day?" (page xiii)

The preface is followed by an introduction to clarify terminology about "male, female, and intersex in the image of God." Part I of the book is a thorough deconstruction of the binary sex model via analysis that is critical of culturally conditioned preconceptions but also conservative of essential Christian beliefs. This is not a book about "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." It is about showing that we need to understand "Adam and Eve" as persons, not just "Adam or Eve" as bodies. Chapter 3, on "historical shifts in theological anthropology," is a very instructive account of "how Christian understandings of sex difference have varied throughout history and across cultures." Part II explores the reconstruction of a Christian theology of sex based on modern advances in anthropology and theology. The fundamental questions posed at the beginning are reconsidered, and some tentative possibilities are outlined, while always remaining grounded in Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of an adequate anthropology:

"Male, female, and intersex persons are all created in the image of God and all called to be conformed to the image of Jesus — the One who has brought God near and made God visible — by the power of the Spirit — the One who remains invisible and uncategorizable as male, female, or intersex. Jesus stands before us not in male perfection but as the true human into whose image we are transformed as we grow in love, in virtue, in faith, in holiness, by the Spirit who fills us, convicts us, breathes life into us, and empowers us for the journey. In all, great mystery remains — mysteries of human nature, mysteries of God, mysteries of sex difference, mysteries of self, mysteries of others — but that just keeps things interesting!" (pages 288-289)

Interesting indeed! In fact, crucial for human wellbeing, bodily and spiritually. A good feature of this book is that it is written in formal but accessible language, with parsimonious recourse to academic theological terminology. It also conveys a refreshing sense of humility that is often absent in theological treatises. Rather than attempting to cover all issues discussed by the author, and the works of all the theologians covered, this review will focus on DeFranza's analysis of the "Adam and/or Eve" issue as articulated by St. John Paul II in his Theology of the Body (TOB). The TOB, focused as it is on the sacramentality of marriage in the Catholic ethos, would seem to support a rigid view of heterosexual complementarity as normative. But my understanding is that the TOB also deconstructs the patriarchal gender binary, even though the sex/gender difference is somewhat overemphasized, and the natural equality of man and woman underemphasized, in the context of discussing male-female complementarity in traditional marriage. In page 159 of her book, DeFranza explicitly mentions this crucial issue:

"According to John Paul II, masculinity and femininity are relational terms. Neither can be understood apart from the other. "Thus, as Gen 2:23 already shows, femininity in some way finds itself before masculinity, while masculinity confirms itself through femininity. Precisely the function of sex [that is, being male and female], which in some way is "constitutive of the person" (not only "an attribute of the person"), shows how deeply man, with all his spiritual solitude, with the uniqueness and unrepeatability proper to the person, is constituted by the body as "he" or "she." Unfortunately, the late pope does not unpack what he means by sex as "constitutive" of the person rather than a mere "attribute." This is regrettable, given the wait he places upon it. What he does unpack is the connection between femininity and motherhood and masculinity and fatherhood."

It should be noted that the quoted "[that is, being male and female]" is actually "[that is, being male or female]" in TOB 10:1. While this innocuous and surely unintended typo is not significant for the author's analysis of the TOB, it is noteworthy that John Paul II, a formidable theologian known for semantic exactitude, consistently uses the "or" conjunction when he refers to "man" as a body and consistently uses the "and" conjunction when he refers to "man" as a person. This pattern is significant because it is not random; it is a consistent pattern throughout the book, and this reviewer cannot find a single counterexample. It is also significant because the TOB is built on the ontological reality that the human person is a body, and is normally male or female because he or she is a body. But surely, the person is more than just a body made of dust; the person is a "living soul" (Genesis 2:7; TOB 14:4). So DeFranza incisively suggests the need for a crucial clarification: if the body is "constitutive" of the person, and the body is normally (albeit not always!) binary, male or female, does it follow that the human person is also binary, male or female?

It is this reviewer's heterodox opinion that the TOB is not so binary as it may seem. A central point of the TOB is that bodiliness and sexuality are not identical realities:

"Bodiliness and sexuality are not simply identical. Although in its normal constitution, the human body carries within itself the signs of sex and is by its nature male or female, the fact that man is a "body" belongs more deeply to the structure of the personal subject than the fact that in his somatic constitution he is also male or female. For this reason, the meaning of "original solitude," which can be referred simply to "man," is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity; the latter is based on masculinity and femininity, which are, as it were, two different "incarnations," that is, two ways in which the same human being, created "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27), "is a body."" Source: TOB 8:1, page 157. See also note 12 in page 158.

This is another much quoted passage: "The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine" (TOB 19:4). So, if the body is male or female, does it follow that God is male or female? Obviously not. What if the body is intersex? Is God intersex? Obviously not. Are persons with an intersex body an image of God? Obviously so. So how are person, body, and sex related? Sex is constitutive of the body, which is constitutive of the person, but being a body-person (or body-soul) existentially precedes sexual differentiation according to the TOB exegesis of Genesis 2:7, 18-23. Sex is constitutive of the created human person because the human person is a body as opposed to a disembodied divine Person; and the body is sexually differentiated to enable unity and procreation (Genesis 2:24), but being a body is more fundamental than being a man or a woman, as manifested by the homogeneity of man and woman in their "whole being" (cf. TOB 8:4).

Creation of the first human person and subsequent sexual differentiation (cf. Genesis 2)

In the TOB, the term "constitutive" refers to the somatic constitution of the body (TOB 9:5, 10:1). Since a human person is a body, every somatic attribute is constitutive of the human person; but just as there is a sex/gender continuum, there is a continuum of human psychosomatic traits, sex being the most profound, others being more superficial such as race, skin color, etc., but none being determinative of the person. What is determinative? The first human person was created by "an act of enlivening matter by the spirit" (TOB 70:7, 72:5). This "animation of the body" is what determines that a body made of dust becomes a body-person, a living soul. So the TOB explicitly recognizes that the "homogeneity of the whole being" of man and woman, made of the same flesh and fully consubstantial in human nature, precedes and transcends all psychosomatic differences, including sex and, of course, gender.

The TOB recognizes that, in biblical language, "flesh" means "human being." The man and the woman are of the same flesh: different physical characteristics, same personhood. Could this be the reason that Jesus refers to his body, his flesh, his blood, but never to his masculinity or any other particularity of his human constitution? We know that Jesus is a divine Person with two natures, divine and human. Would it be right to think that any of his embodied particularities, including his sex/gender, is determinative of a divine Person? Jesus is the Son of Man, but was the Son of God a male before the incarnation? It is significant that Hebrews 10:5, John 6:56, and other New Testament texts about Jesus' self-proclaimed identity, always refer to his body, his flesh, his blood, and of course his divinity, but nothing is said about his masculinity. So, what is the binary significance of Jesus' masculinity for the sacramental economy?

It is insightfully noted in Defranza's book that, in some documents published during recent pontificates, the Vatican has been overemphasizing sex differentiation to the point of "risking ontological difference." Indeed, we are not yet sexually differentiated at the instant of conception, when we become a body-person. Modern biology shows that sexual differentiation starts from a single cell, chromosomally XX by default. Nothing in time and space happens instantaneously; sexual differentiation via inactivation of one X chromosome, usually resulting in a cell with XX (female) or XY (male) chromosomes, may take one trillionth of a second, but the amount of time is takes is greater than zero. So again, being a body-person precedes being male or female, and all humans are made of the same "stuff," as the author concludes. Differences between male, female, and intersex are psychosomatically significant but not ontologically determinative of human personhood. Indeed, we must read the Genesis mythical stories about Adam and Eve with "new eyes," i.e., eyes that read it through a lens unbiased by patriarchal ideology.

Being of the same "stuff" is not only biological. It is also psychological. This is not mentioned in the book, but modern psychology has shown that the patriarchal binary is not tenable psychologically. Just as having only XX or XY chromosomes is not always psychosomatically determinative of maleness or femaleness, there are male and female polarities in every man and every woman; there is a female polarity (anima) in men, and a male polarity (animus) in women, that deeply affect their personalities and interpersonal relations. Thus the absurdity of presuming that men being assertive ("rational-initiator-leaders"), and women being receptive ("intuitive-receiver-followers"), is a normative dichotomy of human sexuality. In fact, allowing the anima to emerge in men, and allowing the animus to emerge in women, is an observable characteristic of integral human development and a sign of spiritual maturity:

"It is the vocation of every Christian, not only of a few elect, to belong to God in love's free surrender and to serve Him. Whether man or woman, whether consecrated or not, each one is called to the imitation of Christ. The further the individual continues on this path, the more Christlike he will become. Christ embodies the ideal of human perfection: in Him all bias and defects are removed, and the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed; therefore, His true followers will be progressively exalted over their natural limitations. That is why we see in holy men a womanly tenderness and a truly maternal solicitude for the souls entrusted to them while in holy women there is manly boldness, proficiency, and determination." Edith Stein (1891-1942), Essays on Woman, Collected Works, Volume II, page 84.

The book goes on to show that humanity is work in progress; "now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known, but we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him..." (1 John 3:2). It is firmly grounded in our faith and hope in the ultimate eschatological communion of God and humanity. However, my understanding is that, even if we stay within the limits of the creation accounts about Adam and Eve before they became progenitors of the human race, the TOB does not support the simplistic binary model of human sexuality as exhausting the mystery of embodied human personhood. The TOB is focused on the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman in monogamous marriage. It does not presume to extend this anthropological reality to sex/gender relations to other contexts, and in fact provides support for the thesis that, even in our currently unfolding "already/not yet" time window, humanity is already male *and* female *and* intersex *and* many other "in betweens," not simply male *or* female.

Understanding that the sex/gender binary is not natural, and that every human being is primarily a body-person regardless of sexual differentiation, should pave the way for recognizing the naturalness of the sex/gender continuum between the male and female poles; a continuum in which intersex and every other possible "in between" are but instantiations of imago Dei, the body making visible what is invisible, and all humans together being, as a community of persons, an image of God as a Trinitarian communion of Persons (the "social/relational" view of the imago Dei). Body language makes this communion visible as "nuptial" (and "spousal" by analogy, but not necessarily sexual) and this nuptial meaning of the body, male and female, is extendable to all the sacraments. While the extensions beyond the marriage covenant still need to be clarified in plain language, it is important to recognize (see, e.g., TOB 33:3) that nuptial analogies, such as Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride, should not be absolutized to the point of reducing the Christ-Church mystery to the patriarchal binary.

The TOB has rescued the Catholic ethos from the obsession with sex as a gift given just for procreation, and has shown that sexual differentiation is actually a gift pursuant to both conjugal love and responsible parenthood, a gift that is both a gift of love and a gift of life. This resonates from beginning to end in the book. In addition, the author shows that every human person, male or female or intersex, is a gift of God with a unique vocation to become a gift for others even if they cannot physically be fathers or mothers. Actually, sexual differentiation is both a gift and a limitation of the human condition; a man cannot be a mother, a woman cannot be a father, we are all limited in many other ways, and the intersex "limitation" can be a liberation for other forms of service, in the world and in the church. Else, a vocation to celibacy "for the sake of the kingdom" (another important theme in the TOB) would be a contradiction of terms.

The implications for integral human development, and for an integral ecology, are breathtakingly positive, but the transition will take a long time due to our testicular sacramental theology. In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, this is for many a visceral issue due to the persisting conflation of patriarchal ideology with revealed truth. But as the patriarchal culture passes away, with many families undeniably evolving from sole male (father) headship to joint male-female (father-mother) headship, the mission of evangelization will increasingly require giving due prominence to the third leg of St. Paul's tripod in Galatians 3:28.

This excellent book, by documenting the historical evolution of ecclesiastical perceptions about intersex persons, and showing that these changing perceptions have much to do with ancient cultural conditioning, and practically nothing to do with revealed truth and the essentials of the Christian faith, provides raw material that should be useful to extend the TOB to all seven sacraments, including Holy Orders. In the Anglican and Protestant churches the process embracing joint male-female headship in ordained ministries is already under way. In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, however, perpetuating the idolatrous male as the only kind of baptized human person that can be ordained to act "in the person of Christ the Head" (in persona Christi Capitis) is an ancient error yet to be corrected; for the Son of God is "eternally begotten," not created, and did not become a body until the incarnation (John 1:14), at which time the concrete totality of human nature was assumed and the Son of God became embodied as the Son of Man, "like us in all things but sin." It then follows that, for the redemption and the sacramental economy, the masculinity of Jesus is as incidental as the color of his eyes.

Any sacramental theology that makes sexuality determinative (rather than just constitutive) of a person, human or divine, is erroneous and is now becoming a tragedy for the entire body of Christ. With patriarchy fading away, the men of the Church may be the ones who increasingly are the most deeply harmed by the absence of female apostolic authority. Men cannot fully develop as human beings as long as they just strive to be "manly." Toward the end of the book, a section on Imago Christi (pp. 282-285) is a treasure of guidance in the midst of current confusion, and fully responsive to the signs of the times. DeFranza's work is very important for Christ and the Church. It is also very important for the future of humanity and the planet because, as Pope Francis has said, "There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology." (Laudato Si' #118)

Transition from a patriarchal ecology to an integral ecology


This book review is informed by my heterodox understanding of the Theology of the Body and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Needless to say, the book's author is not to be blamed for any misunderstanding of official Catholic teaching. For more on the linkages between sex/gender issues and social/ecological justice in this website, see An Adequate Anthropology for the Anthropocene and the Meditations on Man and Woman, Humanity and Nature. Other insightful Christian theologies of human sexuality have been published recently, notably God, Sexuality, and the Self, a systematic theology by Sarah Coakley, Cambridge University Press, 2013, and Of the Same Flesh: Exploring a Theology of Gender, a pastoral theology by Susan Durber, Christian Aid, 2014. We have much to unlearn, and much to learn!

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