It is indisputable that our era is marked by unprecedented confusion concerning the nature of man and woman.
There is surely no need to rehearse here the myriad ways in which this confusion has insinuated itself into virtually every aspect of contemporary life. Perhaps we can agree that what we need now is an adequate understanding of what is undoubtedly the fundamental reality at the heart of the human condition: that we are created male and female.1
We are in desperate need of a robust, coherent, and faithful account of man and woman; that we don't already have one at this point in the history of our tradition is an unfortunate lacuna.2
It might have helped humanity resist the madness descending all around us.
But we can take heart from the fact that the Church has undoubtedly asked the right question. The 1987 Synod of Bishops on the Vocation and Mission of the Family put it in the clearest and simplest of terms: Why did God make us male and female? And what are the consequences of that decision?3
And certainly, Pope St. John Paul II has given us a good start on a response to those questions, performing yeoman's labor in laying out some of the terrain that many others now occupy. But the project is far from done.
Given the signs of the times, it is understandable that the late Holy Father would devote most of his attention to questions concerning the nature of woman. Though previous popes have certainly highlighted her importance in both the family and human affairs, Pope John Paul II's writings on women are unprecedented in their scope and beauty. His 1988 Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), was written as a response to the Synod's questions. It is a profound reflection on womanhood, pointing to Mary, the Mother of God, as its highest expression.4
And when, in his 1995 Letter to Women, he introduced a whole new category into the tradition, the so-called "feminine genius," he provided an important point of departure for a deeper investigation into her nature. Woman, declares the Holy Father, embodies a unique capacity to attend to the person, a feature of her call to motherhood, whether physical or spiritual.5
Her genius is grounded in this reality. She sees the person in his or her totality.
Pope St. John Paul's teachings on woman are a great gift to us. He has given us a foothold in the pursuit of an understanding of who she is and what she is for. But in our efforts to grasp the meaning of woman, we seem to have left man behind. And this cannot stand—for neither can be fully grasped without the other.6
Masculinity and femininity presuppose one another.
And so, this begs the next, obvious question: what of man qua male? Is there a corresponding "masculine genius," one that would reflect his own "unique capacity" for ... what? What are men for?
The aim of this essay is to offer a response to that question. It seems that what we need now is an adequate account of the genius of man as man.7
And along the way, we will find it necessary to point also to the genius of woman.
I would like to begin by contrasting two recent portrayals of man's place in the world. Doing so will situate him in his contemporary context and also set the stage for our discussion of what constitutes his genius.
In January 2019, the American Psychological Association published a long-awaited new report—a set of principles meant to govern how psychologists and therapists should approach their work with boys and men. The report included updated and quite specific guidelines for helping men and boys in need of some kind of therapeutic intervention. At the center of the report is the claim that "traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful."8
In other words, the new guidelines defined "traditional masculinity" as a pathological state.9
According to the APA, traditional masculinity is, by definition, toxic.
I am happy to report that the backlash was immediate, eloquent, and blunt. The guidelines were spotted right away for what they so obviously were: "an ideological claim transformed into a clinical treatment recommendation."10
Within days, the authors of the report were forced to back off their claims, issuing a new statement that sought to redefine the terms they themselves had established in the initial report. We didn't really mean "traditional masculinity," they explained, we were just concerned about "extreme behaviors that harm self and others."11
Well then, said one commentator, you should have said so from the start.12
That is not what the APA meant—and everyone knows it. We will return to this in a moment.
By way of contrast, in a remarkable paper published in 2016, scientists describe the findings of a team of archeologists who discovered the remains of an ancient wooly mammoth—a young bull in his prime—in the Siberian Arctic. Their investigation of this event 45,000 years ago revealed that the creature's injuries, both those that caused its death and those inflicted afterwards, could only have been at the hands of men. For only the bones of men were found in the aftermath of the encounter. And it was most certainly a group of men, working together to bring food home to their hungry families—and, in doing so, insure the survival of the human species.13
Masculine competence cannot be reduced to a form of tyranny. [Men are] willing to face danger and perhaps even sacrifice their very lives to ensure the survival of others.
The bravery and skill that these men displayed—and that men have continued to display throughout history—is not driven by brainless instincts, nor is it a part of some historically orchestrated, patriarchal conspiracy to oppress women. It is not, at least in its origin, a conscious attempt to dominate women—or anyone else for that matter. As Jordan Peterson has so aptly said, masculine competence cannot be reduced to a form of tyranny. These men's actions were driven then and still are driven now by a deep if mostly inchoate self-knowledge; the men in our prehistoric vignette understood their place and they accepted it. They were merely doing their job. It was an act of service, both to their families and to their community. They were willing to face danger and perhaps even sacrifice their very lives to ensure the survival of others. Now, as then, such efforts call for gratitude, not ridicule or disdain.
There are countless other examples of the significance of men's place in the world, less dramatic or less public perhaps—the men who stoically awaited their fate while the Titanic sank into the icy waters of the sea, or the astonishing courage on display during the assault on Normandy Beach on D-Day, or the heroism of the first responders in the 9/11 attack, or the way men seem to simply appear during the aftermath of natural disasters. Anyone with eyes to see and a willingness to face the facts knows these things are true. Those that would seek to denigrate so-called traditional masculinity would quite likely be the first to look around for the nearest available man the minute their car had a flat tire, or a brush fire threatened their home, or someone chased them down a dark street in the middle of the night.
Now lest we get too romantic about all this, let me assert that misogyny is not a myth; sexual harassment—and worse—is a reality. New episodes come to light every day. And of course, in the Church, we have the tragedy of sexual abuse on the part of priests to regret. We would be foolish to ignore the fact that men have undeniably brought a measure of the difficulties they face on themselves. History speaks for itself on this score. And none of this means that women cannot be heroic too. They can be and they are.
But such examples illustrate the tragic error at work in the APA guidelines. And it explains the vigorous backlash that ensued. For not only were the APA guidelines patently unscientific; they were blind to the reality of who men actually are and are called to be. What is on display in the scenarios I described above is unquestionably the very same but now much maligned characteristics of "traditional masculinity" condemned by the report. There can be no doubt that they have their origin in something noble—and essential—to man himself.14
They have found expression in every family and in every culture since the beginning of recorded history.15
They are expressions of what it means to be a man, itself ordered toward fatherhood—whether physically or spiritually. Just as woman makes a sacrifice for the child within her—or for those under her care—man sacrifices his body and sometimes his life to provide, protect, and defend those under his. We witness it every day in the presence of fathers in family life and the contributions made by men of all ages to our communities and our homes.
So there most definitely is a masculine genius. But it is not reducible to his physical strength or to the fact he can wield a plow, a sword, or a gun better—any more than woman's is reducible to her body's capacity to nurture children. Their intelligence, their genius, is imbedded deeply in the aquifer of their nature. What is missing is a deeper understanding of what that genius really is and where it originates. And as it turns out, a fresh look at Genesis 2 reveals a point of departure for an account, not only of the feminine genius, but the masculine genius as well.
My argument begins with Genesis 2:15, and the evidence the text recounts—that man is in the Garden alone with God for some period before the appearance of woman, something that has important implications for the place he occupies in the created order and the traditional understanding of man as the head of the household. But aside from this special relationship with the Creator, it can be said that man's first contact with reality is of a horizon that otherwise contains only lower creatures, what we might call "things" (res); this is what leads God to conclude that the man is incomplete and alone, and ultimately leads to the building of woman.
Now man's orientation toward things is clearly a part of God's design. In fact, it may provide a point of departure in Scripture for the well-documented evidence that men seem more naturally oriented toward things than toward persons. Man is tasked with naming all the things God brings him (including woman); it is in naming them that he takes dominion over them.16
It can thus be said that man knows things in ways that woman simply does not. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to argue that Adam must have received a distinct preternatural gift, a special kind of infused knowledge, which made it possible for him to name the goods of creation.17
And it is here that we come to the core of what I propose is man's genius: he learns that he excels at discovering what things are, how they are to be distinguished from one another, and what they are for. This is his gift.
I would argue that it is man's capacity to name things, to determine what can be predicated of something and what cannot—and an ability to arrive at a systematic way of judging the matter—that constitutes the primordial gift that men bring to the tasks of human living.18
Man is actually the only one who gets a specific job. And it is not until woman appears that he grasps his purpose, the telos toward which his efforts are ordered. He is to exercise his strength, his work, his genius in service to her.
It is man who, at Genesis 2:15 and well before the fall puts him at odds with creation, is put in the garden to "till it and to keep it." Man is actually the only one who gets a specific job. This is his work, his mission. And it is not until woman appears that he grasps his purpose, the telos toward which his efforts are ordered. He is to exercise his strength, his work, his genius in service to her. Indeed, as St. Paul famously tells us in Ephesians 5:24, he is to sacrifice his very life for her, in imitation of Christ's love for the Church.
It is manifestly true that man creates outside of himself, he is oriented toward the external, he acts on the world. Indeed, he is made to build things. And his genius originates in his capacity to know and to use the goods of the earth in the service of authentic human flourishing. The masculine inclination toward things and their uses is an aspect of the charism of men and, in many ways, it accounts for the building up of human civilization, has led throughout history to human flourishing, and has made and still makes possible the preservation of families and of culture. The truth is that if it weren't for men, we would still be living in caves, afraid to come out. The proper response to the manifestation of the "genius" of man is not ridicule or resentment—but gratitude—for his dedication to his mission.
Now, in contrast to man and of special significance is the quite legitimate claim that, since woman comes into existence after man, her first contact with reality is of a horizon that, from the beginning, includes man, that is, it includes persons. One can imagine Eve, a person also endowed with reason and free will, who, upon seeing Adam, would recognize another like her, an equal, while the other creatures and things around her appear only on the periphery of her gaze. This exegetical insight seems to provide a starting place in Scripture for the equally well documented phenomenon that women seem more naturally oriented toward persons.19
I know that in Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul argues that the feminine genius is grounded in the fact that all women have the capacity to be mothers—and that this capacity, whether fulfilled in a physical or spiritual sense, orients her toward the other, toward persons. And there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate this claim. But the point is that, in addition to her capacity to conceive and nurture human life, indeed prior to it, woman's place in the order of creation reveals that—from the beginning—the horizon of all womankind includes persons, includes the other. This may explain why girls and women seem to know—from the beginning—that they are meant for relationship—while it takes men a bit longer to look up and realize they are lonely for something they only just realized was missing—and to look for the one who can complete them.
The genius of woman is found here. While man's first experience of his own existence is of loneliness, woman's horizon is different, right from the start. From the first moment of her own reality, woman sees herself in relation to the other. And this capacity—to include the other—is not a lesser quality. It is not something that only unnecessarily complicates things, diverting us from an otherwise clear line of sight to achieving results. Nor does it compromise woman's fundamental intelligence, her competence, her ability to get things done. Woman is fundamentally oriented toward the inner life and her most essential creative act takes place on the inside. Her genius is to keep constantly before us the fact that the existence of living persons, whether in the womb or walking around outside of it, cannot be forgotten while we frantically engage in the tasks of human living. She knows that the standard of excellence is not efficiency—but the well-being of persons. Woman is responsible for reminding us all that all human activity is to be ordered toward authentic human flourishing. This is her mission.
There is so much more to be said. The Genesis accounts have a depth of meaning that seems bottomless. I will offer just one more insight: The Sacred Author of Genesis 2 means for us to understand that man is most certainly the first creature to appear. But this does not mean what is commonly assumed. The Hebraic account of the soul calls for us to understand that woman emerges out of the preexisting unity contained within man. She is not created second and therefore subservient. She is created last and on the way up. Woman, like the icon of womanhood, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is meant to serve as a vessel of the Divine Presence and to carry it into the world. She is ezer, Divine Aid, sent to man to help him to live.20
And so, it is true that man gives woman her place, that without him she would have no place. But corresponding to this truth is another, more profound reality. For without woman, man has no future. She is an eschatological sign of the joy that lies ahead. For it is only with the appearance of woman that human community is formed and enters into human history.
Man and woman need each other, they presuppose each other. And together they are responsible for returning all things to Christ.
1. As Rev. Carter Griffin points out, it is literally impossible to be human without simultaneously being sexed, man or woman; masculinity and femininity presuppose one another. See Carter Griffin, Supernatural Fatherhood Through Priestly Celibacy: Fulfillment in Masculinity, a Thomistic study (Washington: Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, 2011) 52.
2. For a proposal along these lines, see Deborah Savage, "Woman and Man: Nature, Identity, Mission," The Complementarity of Women and Men, ed. Dr. Paul Vitz, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2021), 89–131.
3. Working Document, Synod on "The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World Twenty Years after the Second Vatican Council," 1987. Referenced in Mulieris Dignitatem, 1988, 1.
4. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 5.
5. John Paul II, Letter to Women, 11–13.
6. Mulieris Dignitatem, 22.
7. See John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 50: "The condition that will assure the rightful presence of woman in the Church and in society is a more penetrating and accurate consideration of the anthropological foundation for masculinity and femininity with the intent of clarifying woman's personal identity in relation to man."
8. Stephanie Pappas, "APA issues first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys," 2019, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/ce-corner.
9. The guidelines explain, "Although there are differences in masculinity ideologies, there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence" (p2–3). They later reference "components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness" (p11). "APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men," August 2018, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf. See also R.F. Levant, et al. "The Normative Male Alexithymia Scale: Measurement of a gender-linked syndrome," Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(4), 212–224. doi:10.1037/1524-9126.96.36.199.
10. Erica Comisar, "Masculinity Isn't a Sickness," January 16, 2019, Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/masculinity-isnt-a-sickness-11547682809.
11. The APA's rebuttal has since been taken down, but it can still be found in the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20190117194100/http://division51.net/homepage-slider/twitter-message-not-reflecting-the-guidelines-for-boys-and-men.
12. See David French, "Grown Men Are the Solution, Not the Problem," January 7, 2019, National Review, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/01/psychologists-criticize-traditional-masculinity.
13. I have written about this elsewhere within the context of our relationship to animals. See "Adam's Gift" in Humanum Review, 2016, http://humanumreview.com/articles/adams-gift-man-in-the-order-of-creation.
14. Proof of this will have to wait for now. But as a down-payment, refer to Father Walter Ong's Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981); Father Christian Raab's "In Search of the Masculine Genius" Logos 21, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 83–117.
15. But here's the whole story. Not long after the APA guidelines were published, "research" literature began to surface about the existence of "toxic femininity" as well. And you might be thinking that this phenomenon has been on display for years. Certainly it is easy to conjure up images of angry faces, strident voices—and those abominable pink hats. But that is not what is meant by toxic femininity. In an August 2019 article in Psychology Today, the author quotes a researcher who describes it as (wait for it) "women expressing stereotypically 'feminine' traits such as 'passivity, empathy, sensuality, patience, tenderness, and receptivity ... [which] result in individuals ignoring their mental or physical needs to sustain those around them ... Toxic femininity is when one works to the benefit of others but to the detriment of themselves.'" Though the researcher describes these qualities as toxic, we immediately recognize them as the distinct gifts that—throughout history—and in addition to their fundamentally human capacities—women have brought to the tasks of human living. Clearly, what is under attack is man and woman as they have been given in creation.
16. Though it is from an entirely different tradition, I find it so interesting to consider that one of Lao-Tze's more famous aphorisms is: "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names."
17. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae , Q. 94, a. 3.
18. Professor Anthony Esolen, in an interview with Zenit, admits he doesn't exactly have a theory, but his thinking is very helpful. He adds: "Without this literal 'discernment,' I mean the clear separation of what may be predicated of a thing and what may not, with systematic means for judging the matter, there can be nothing so intricate as law, the government of a city, higher learning, a church—not to mention philosophy and theology."
19. See Steven E. Rhoads, Taking Sex Differences Seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004), 23–24.
20. When, at Genesis 2:18, God says he will make man a "helper," the word in Hebrew is ezer. This term is used elsewhere in Scripture (for example, the Psalms), to connote, not servant or slave, but Divine Aid; woman is help sent to man from above.
Deborah Savage, Ph.D. "The Genius of Man." What We Need Now (June 13, 2023).
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Deborah Savage is Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a recognized scholar of the work of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and has written extensively on several aspects of his thought including his account of the person, his understanding of human work, and his writings on women. For most of the last decade, her primary area of research has been the pursuit of a robust, adequately grounded account of the nature of man and woman, their respective identities, their mission, and their genius—as they find expression in the family, the Church, and the world. The most recent iteration of her theory on man and woman can be found in The Complementarity of Women and Men. Dr. Savage is currently at work on a book entitled Woman and Man.Copyright © 2023 What We Need Now
back to top