Communion or Suspicion: Which Way for Woman and Man?

Article excerpt


In recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church has contributed considerable intellectual resources to the subject of intimate, heterosexual relationships. These resources also feature historically unprecedented attention to the question of the identity, roles, and situations of women. Citing only the most significant documents, these resources include the 130 Wednesday audiences of Pope John Paul II on the Theology of the Body between 1978 and 1982. (1) They also include his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem. (2) In 1995, in connection with the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women, Pope John Paul II addressed his Letter to Women. (3) Also in 1994, he issued the comprehensive Letter to Families. (4) In 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in his position as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to all the bishops of the world entitled On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World. (5) Finally, in 2005 Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, the first half of which treated at length the nature of love, beginning with the love between a man and a woman. (6)

Painting with a very broad brush, it can be said that these documents together propose a model for intimate heterosexual relationships between men and women. This model is grounded in an anthropology of woman and man based first and foremost upon the creation of each in God's image and likeness. Consequently, it understands man and woman as radically equal. It also understands their sexual difference to be oriented intrinsically to communion, in mutual service to one another. This is indicated, though not completely constituted, by their biophysical beings. Marriage is the way most human beings will live out this call to communion and service. The man and the woman, and the pair together, also are always subject to Christ. Their relationship is essentially good, but at the same time it suffers a brokenness as a result of original sin. Each sex manifests this brokenness somewhat differently, as well as in relation to the other. Christ's life, death, and Resurrection show humanity the way of love, including the way of triumph over broken love. For each person, and in particular for intimate heterosexual pairs, that way requires "finding oneself by losing oneself." (7)

For the sake of brevity, this Article will call the foregoing the "communion and mutual service model" of intimate, heterosexual relationships. In addition to Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, there are other religious and legal scholars who have endorsed one or more elements of this model--whether drawing upon religious sources or images, (8) or upon the discipline of ethics. (9) Their contributions will be discussed below in Part II.

The development of the communion and mutual service model coincided historically with unprecedented legal changes in laws and practices in the United States, which reduced barriers to cohabitation, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce, and same-sex marriage. Theoretical legal and cultural reflections upon these developments often concluded with calls for sweeping change, both in the private sphere of intimate heterosexual relationships and in the public laws and policies affecting them. Often reacting to past or ongoing situations of oppression, discrimination, or even violence against women, several of these proposals evidenced deep suspicion of men and their capacity for loving relationships. They neglected discussing men's equality or dignity and sometimes despaired of securing men's assistance as a spouse or a parent. Other proposals sought to secure a strict equality of functional outcomes both within and outside of heterosexual relationships. Together, this Article will call the proposals introduced in this paragraph the "suspicion model" of intimate heterosexual relations. This model includes varying proposals, but they all tend toward suspicion regarding males' capacity for good behavior in such relations. …