Many people think that the Church is a “her” because she is essentially receptive.  The idea is that men are “action oriented” while women are better able to intuit a situation and receive better.  Since grace must be received as a gift, Christianity is essentially feminine.  They even liken it to human sexuality wherein the man is “giver” and the woman is “receiver”.  I have heard it said that men even have a hard time because Christianity is a gift received and men are not very receptive, so they need to be more feminine in order to be more Christian.

But the Church is not a “she” because of receptivity.  Outside of receptivity, women have a unique ability to hold relationships together – to bring hearts into union.  St. John Paul II, in a reflection on Mary, pointed out how women have strengths “closely linked to the perseverance of the community in prayer and harmony”…

These traits perfectly express two basic aspects of women’s specific contribution to ecclesial life. Better suited toward outward activity, men need women’s help to be brought back into personal relationships in order to progress towards the union of hearts.

Here we are getting to a better understanding of why the Church is a “she”, and why it is not primarily because of feminine receptivity.  It is the womanly ability to preserve, protect, and draw in unity that is the distinctly feminine aspect of the Church.  In other words, the Church is feminine because she is a communion.  This communion of the Church helps masculinity to direct its energies toward this body, and therefore does not and should not remove the masculinity of men.  As a son comes forth to the world more confident when he has a healthy unity at home, so a Christian man comes out boldly into the world from the strong communion of the Church.

In other words, the communion of the feminine keeps the outward (masculine tending) mission from being so outward as to be divisive to the body.  This is actually the genius of patriarchy.  Patriarchy is not male-dominance, but a harnessing of the masculine genius and directing it toward a family.  Patriarchy takes the vibrant, sometimes dangerous, boldness of men and harnesses it for the good of society, starting in the family.  In fact, when the vibrant, dangerous, bold tendencies of men are not directed toward family life, it can tend towards destruction.

While allowing their masculine gifts to be used, true patriarchy keeps men from untethering from the body they serve.  Thus men should love their wives “as their own body”, as St. Paul famously said in Ephesians 5; and in the reciprocated love of his wife, a man realizes the oneness of family life and is free from the chaos and instability of a life lived for oneself alone.  In other words, patriarchy does not dominate the other, but in fact does the opposite by making the power of masculinity for the other.  This is the full realization of manhood, and without the spouse manhood remains incomplete.

The Church is also especially a “she” because she is the mother through baptism of all believers, and it is to her we come with mouths opened like little babes to receive the nourishing milk of the sacraments.  “Christ truly nourishes us with his body and blood in holy Communion,” Bishop Athanasius Schneider once said, “and, in the patristic era, it was compared to maternal breastfeeding.”  Thus, the Church as a body is essentially motherly because she births (baptizes) and feeds (gives the Eucharist), both of which are the source of our communion.  She’s a she.

This does not mean that the members of the Church are all “she’s”.  The feminine human heart may have a greater skill at intuitive receptivity, but masculinity is not contrary to receptivity.  Also, masculine outward-ness is harnessed for the sake of the body of the Church – the communion – and is thus not suppressed in the “she” of the Church but directed toward serving her.  As a husband can be masculine for the “she” of his wife so Christian men can be masculine for the “she” of the Church.

While we preserve unity in one body and this entails femininity, we are also called to mission, the “action orientation” of masculinity.  As baptized members of the Church, we are “sons in the Son”, masculine, and in Christ have the mission to “go”.

The mission and the action it entails, after all, is received.  Paul was action oriented because he was receptive.  King David was receptive and therefore action oriented in the right way, after God’s own heart, cracking the skull of Goliath and establishing a kingdom that would stretch to eternity through Christ.  Being oriented outward toward mission, toward “going”, is not a deficit in men, provided that they receive those orders to “go” from God and not their own egos or worldly desire for gain.  (I cannot recommend the book The Soul of the Apostolate by Jean-Baptiste Chautard enough for those men for whom action tends to eclipse their receptive prayerfulness).

We men go forth in action and battle because we received the command to do so.  We “go get” the lost sheep because Jesus said we should (Matt. 18:12).  Jesus said to “go baptize” (Matt 28:19).  Even in prayer, which always entails receptivity, we are told to “go” into a room and pray to our Father in secret (Matt. 6:6).  I have known wildly effective men, “doers”, that are powerful in their action and in their prayerful receptivity.   In the saint receptivity and action are integrated and effective in each other.  It is in the dividing of these things that error and sin show themselves.  “Faith without works is dead” (See James 2:14-26).

Thus all Christians share in a certain way in the feminine character of Christianity, but also in the masculine.  We cannot be severed from the body of the Church without falling into the danger of hell, and we cannot neglect our mission to love and convert the world lest we fall into impotence and lukewarmness.

Impotent means to lack the potency, the power that is true to a thing – it is not fulfilling its potential (which has the same root word)And in the case of a father or pastor, their masculinity lends itself to the boldness to protect, defend, and advance the Church and her mission.  To not act with the manliness that this calls for is not “acting feminine” but it is lacking in masculinity.  The feminine of the Church – her desire to maintain the communion – does not lend itself to the idea that maintains a farce of peace at any cost (not disciplining some, firing others or closing bad programs for example) as acting womanly; rather, it is being passive in the face of duty and potential.

Anyone who charges ineffectiveness with effeminacy has perhaps not encountered the extent to which a mother protects and defends her young.  Once I was jumped by a group of older girls (that’s right, I got beat up by a bunch of girls – they were young adults and I was like 8!).  When my mother found out she went up to the park across the street and began – how do I describe it? – whooping anyone she could get close to.  She had to be physically restrained by a friend to end the mayhem.  Mothers do not let their children get harmed, thus a shepherd or father’s failing to expel wolves and correct wayward sheep is not being feminine, but he may be failing in his masculinity.  Sometimes the unity and communion of the body requires the severing or disciplining of members.  Again, femininity is not a lack of masculinity, and masculinity is not a lack of femininity – neither is deficient in itself of the other.  Male and female he created them.

The courage needed in today’s situation requires attention to both the feminine and the masculine aspects of the Church, care for the communion and the mission of the Church, but it does not allow for impotence and passivity.  It is time to go and do what needs to be done.  The boldness and decisive action of men should be welcomed and harnessed for the good of the Church.  You most certainly do not need to be less manly in order to be a saint.

06 02 2016
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  • Fr. Ryan O’Neill

    Love this article! You said what I have tried to say, but much more clearly and succinctly. Brilliant! This is the answer to our gender issues in the world today.

  • David Delaney

    I understand what you are trying to do here and applaud the effort but maybe I could make some important distinctions. I would like to suggest that communion, initiating, active receptivity, masculinity, femininity are all aspects of relationships. In other words, they are not "what" something is but "who" persons are (i.e. the way persons interrelate). The Church is feminine because femininity is a created manifestation of actively receptive love. Femininity is not "what" the Church is but an aspect of its corporate "who". It is the way it relates. God is Father, Son, Divine Spouse not because this is "what" He is but it reflects the structure of His relationship to man. That is, His love is a love of initiating love. The mystics have shown every human soul to be feminine in relation to God because masculinity and femininity reflect the hierarchy of relationship, not a nature (i.e. what something is). As St. John said, it is not that we have loved God but that He has first loved us. We first receive God's love before returning it. This does not, as Fr. Lankeit indicates, that a man act in a way toward others that undermines his masculine identity. We are always masculine or feminine in relation to other human beings and this can never change. Yet it is also true that masculine souls are not "feminine" in relation to God in exactly the same way that women are feminine in relation to men (which is true even though as the mystics almost universally indicate and as St John of the Cross could rightly put it...understood correctly...before God, every soul is feminine). Rather, it is the case that what we experience as masculinity and femininity in human relations is analogous (but not exactly equivalent) in our relationship to God. Understanding masculinity as a relational quality (constituting a "who") rather than a substantial one (constituting a "what") is an important but tricky distinction to make. In this way, one must not understand receptivity, in the context of femininity, as passivity. It is not. It is an actively relating to another in a particular order, first receiving the offer of love and then secondarily, initiating a response of love. In this way, the Church is actively receptive (analogous to our human femininity) because the Church is by definition a communion of love with God in which He is always actively, initiating love and we are actively receiving His love and then returning it. In our relationship to other members of the Church, we relate to them as human masculine and feminine, in accord with the way God created them as masculine or feminine persons. --Keep up the good work!

    • Jason Craig

      Thanks so much for the feedback, I'd like to take it an clarify some of the points. A few thoughts:

      Still, am not convinced that we refer to the individual as receiving in the spirit of femininity, since Christ fully received the Father in the masculine. Many mystics, yes, but my question is still if the individual Christian is a son in the Son, the relation between God and the individual is father and son primarily, which is the main point I wanted to get to, not really why the Church is feminine (but I'm glad I did because this is good!). I cannot say for sure, but in certain studies of understanding masculinity and felinity it seems a uniquely late and Western tradition of the mystics, while the desert fathers (mystics themselves) saw the life of the mystic more masculine in nature - St. Anthony doing battle with demons for example.

      Sorry if I'm rambling, but here is my question. You said:
      "The Church is feminine because femininity is a created manifestation of actively receptive love." Is actively receptive love feminine? Is Christ, in whom we are saved, feminine in his actively receptive love of the Father? If that is not uniquely feminine, but a shared reality of all of creation in some ways, it seems we are back to the Church as body, as communion and bride, as the better understanding.

      Also, the Trinity as Father, Son, and Spirit are not such in relation to man, but in relation to each other.

      Also, I should have cited, but the primary source for this train of thought began with The Church Impotent, and chapter 5 on this issue can be viewed online: http://podles.org/church-impotent.htm

      I hope you come back to discuss, this is really helpful and I am grateful!

  • Bernice

    Thank You! Thank You! This is the best article explaining the femininity of the church. I often questioned how men could be feminine in regard to the church. Pope St. John Paul II is one of my special people. I read a lot of his books regarding the church as feminine.

  • Rafferty

    Wonderful! Especially during a time of Lazy and Depraved individuals!

  • Very Rev. John Lankeit

    The article states: "Anyone who charges ineffectiveness with effeminacy has perhaps not encountered the extent to which a mother protects and defends her young."

    Not to split hairs, but need to split hairs. The appropriate word would be "femininity" here, not "effeminacy". Effeminacy is, indeed, a negative term (when applied to men, and which can't be applied to women) where femininity is something to be honored...in women!

    • Jason Craig

      Thank you Rev. John! I think you are right here. I meant to imply that a man being unmanly (in the negative negative - effeminate) is not actually being feminine (which is positive). Yes, you are exactly right and thank you for your correction. I will see if I can get an edit in the article.