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Why the Difference of Sexes, Part 1

Interview With Theologian Jutta Burggraf

PAMPLONA, Spain, SEPT. 27, 2004 (Zenit) - The difference of the sexes shows that human fullness lies in "being-for-the-other," says German theologian Jutta Burggraf.

"It drives one to come out of oneself, to seek the other, and to rejoice in his or her presence," she says in this interview with us.

A professor of dogmatic theology and ecumenical theology at the University of Navarre, Burggraf spoke about the keys needed to interpret the "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Man and Woman in the Church and in the World," published July 31 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Part 2 of this interview appears on Tuesday.

Q: Why do you think that the letter has been poorly received by much of the media?

Burggraf: Because we are dangerously accustomed to the most dramatic and scandalous events that the media presents to us daily, placed conveniently on the scene to satisfy the unhealthy curiosity of a large public: a husband picks up a weapon and kills his wife in an outburst of anger; another throws his partner out the window; and a third seriously wounds his companion with a knife.

Such scenes can occur in any quiet and peaceful city, where neighbors quickly get together to express their great astonishment and disconcert. And after hearing more or less eloquent laments, move on to other news, with the firm decision that society must protect women more.

In this environment, it is not surprising that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has referred in a special letter both to men and women. It is not its intention to defend feminine dignity alone, as Pope John Paul II did, with great sensibility, 16 years ago in the apostolic letter "Mulieris Dignitatem," a document that caused admiration even in some of the more radical feminist circles.

Today, instead, in addition to pointing out clearly the legitimate rights of woman -- and to being committed to their being defended in all the continents -- it is necessary to speak also of the duties of both sexes.

Said in a more attractive way, the time has come to remind persons about their great mission in this world. They have all been created to be "eagles," able to fly very high toward the sun, and they should not belittle themselves, behaving like "chickens" which do no more than fight constantly to peck at the grain they find on the ground.

Q: Do you see continuity between this letter and "Mulieris Dignitatem"?

Burggraf: Both "Mulieris Dignitatem" as well as the recent letter on collaboration refer to the text of Genesis to point out the great value of the human being.

"Let us make man in our image and likeness," God said at the culminating moment of this creative work.

The creation account gives testimony of an original difference between man and woman: "So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.'"

Q: Some have interpreted this as a supposed subordination of woman.

Burggraf: From this text, one cannot deduce, in any way, that woman is subordinated to man or that she is inferior to him, given that Adam, before the sleep, it makes no reference to man, but to the human person as such.

The author of Genesis does not speak of the sexual difference, but points out that mankind -- man and woman -- is lord of the creation that surrounds it. Woman is also present here; she gives names to the animals, and finds herself alone, without adequate company.

The dream of the solitary Adam expresses the mystery: it is God himself who acts in the creation of the human being; and his plans are far above our own.

In the sacred Scripture, sleep, not rarely, is a time of revelation. Suffice it to recall the dreams of Jacob and Joseph.

And, finally, "after the sleep," the sexual difference appears: Adam and Eve recognize one another as equal and complementary. This is why it can be said that God has created man and woman in a unique mysterious act. There is no right without a left, no up without a down, neither does man exist without woman.

Here one sees clearly that the sexual difference is neither irrelevant nor additional, nor a social product, but stems from the very intention of the Creator.

Q: The letter insists in woman's role to receive the other. You point out that man is also a being for the other. Can you develop this further?

Burggraf: In creating mankind as man and woman, God willed that the human being express himself or herself in two different and complementary ways, equally beautiful and valuable.

Surely, God loves both woman as well as man. He has given both the dignity of reflecting his image, and calls both to fullness.

But, why has he made them different? Procreation cannot be the only reason, as the latter would also be possible in a parthenogenetic or even asexual form, or by other possibilities as those that can be found, in great diversity, in the animal kingdom. These alternative forms are at least imaginable and would give evidence of a certain self-sufficiency.

Human sexuality, on the contrary, means a clear disposition toward the other. It manifests that human fullness lies precisely in the relationship, in being-for-the-other.

It drives one to come out of oneself, to seek the other and to rejoice in his or her presence. It is as the seal of the God of love in the very structure of human nature.

Although each person is loved by God "for himself/herself" and called to an individual fullness, he or she cannot attain it except in communion with others. The person is made to give and receive love. The sexual condition, which has an immense value in itself, expresses this.

Both sexes are called by the same God to act and live together. This is the person's vocation.

One can even affirm that God has not created mankind man and woman so that they will engender new human beings, but, just the opposite, man has the capacity to engender in order to perpetuate the divine image that he himself reflects in his sexual condition.

Sexuality speaks at once of identity and otherness. Man and woman have the same human nature, but they have it in different, reciprocal ways.

Q: The letter takes Genesis as a matrix. What point has exegesis reached on these issues?

Burggraf: According to some older interpretations, Adam goes out to meet Eve, just as God comes to meet humanity. Therefore, man would be active, representing God, and woman passive, representing humanity. To surmount this argument, it is unnecessary to repeat the vulgar feminist protests in this regard.

Suffice it to call on our daily experience to point out that woman is not passive at all. In any case, she is receptive in her femininity, being the image of God just like man. Perfect love consists in giving and receiving, also in divine intimacy.

To be able to receive is also an exigency of love and, for us, it might also be more costly than giving, because it calls for humility. Returning to the relationship between the sexes, it is obvious that it is not only man that gives and woman that receives.

The love to which both are called is expressed in a free and reciprocal self-giving. But the latter is only possible, if the disposition to receive is also mutual.

Thus receptivity, together with self-giving, appears as another constitutive element of communion which, of course, has positive effects in both directions. Because by receiving, one also enriches, strengthens and makes the other happy, given that receptivity in itself is already one of the greatest gifts that can be given to another person.

Thus it can be seen that receptivity also points to an activity, but to an activity that accepts, internalizes, and is at the service of the deepening of the other's action.

Apart from all that, receptivity can only be completely understood by recognizing in it a special way of activity, expression, creativity.

Man tends constitutively to woman, and woman to man. They do not seek an androgynous unity, as suggested by the mythical vision of Aristophanes in the "Banquet," but they do need one another mutually to fully develop their humanity.

Woman is given as "helpmate" to man, and vice versa, which is not equivalent to "slave," nor does it express any contempt. The Psalmist also says to God: "You are my help." Beginning from the primary experience, we know that it is not necessarily about the relationship between just one man and just one woman.

Reciprocity is expressed in many different situations of life, in a polychrome plurality of interpersonal relationships, such as those of maternity, paternity, filiation and fraternity, collegiality and friendship and others, which affect each person contemporaneously. Some point out, therefore, that it is an asymmetric reciprocity.

[Tuesday: Beyond motherhood and fatherhood]

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