Angelus Press is about to print Fr. Karl Stehlin’s book The Nature, Dignity, and Mission of Woman. Fr. Stehlin is the Superior of the SSPX’s Autonomous House for Eastern European Countries. You may be familiar with several of his previously published works such as The Immaculata, Our Ideal and Who are You, O Immaculata? We here present this introduction to this forthcoming work.
There comes a time in the life of a young person when he begins to ask himself: “Who am I, really? What distinguishes me from other people, from the things around me?” Usually it is the stress of the first painful experiences of life that causes him to ask further about the meaning of everything: “Why am I the way that I am? Why am I in this situation? Why am I living in precisely this time and at this place?” And at some time or other the moment comes when one gains an awareness of one’s sex, often by confronting the opposite sex and experiencing the difference, indeed, the opposition between the two. Not uncommonly a girl arrives at this question because she feels at a disadvantage compared with the boy and perhaps jealously notices that he is stronger. She notices that out there in public life a man is much less exposed to danger and is much more entitled than a woman. After all, even today he plays the leading role in cultural and political life, and the whole Church is governed by men only. No wonder a girl then experiences the desire to be like a man herself; indeed, she no longer enjoys being a woman at all.
This little book is an attempt to answer these questions which every girl asks herself in the quiet hours of her life. Unfortunately a human being today is often no longer capable of taking the time to grasp things in the depths of their nature. People want immediate solutions for the here and now, which are then offered by the superficial mass media that flatters their pride. Human nature, however, is much deeper than this momentary transient living. The mystery of woman is an eternal value, and one can grasp it only by exploring the depths of its nature.
Now we can look at a human being, man or woman, from different points of view. Woman and her problems are often the subjects of discussion. Scholars identify psychological matters or deal with the historical development of woman’s status in society. They investigate the biological differences between man and woman or scrutinize relations between them from the sociological perspective. All these observations, however correct and important they may be, cannot yield the profound answer to the question of woman and her problems. They see characteristics of woman but not her nature. They see behaviors but do not explain why or for what purpose they belong to women. They observe the rays but not the source of light, the sun from which all light proceeds.
True and ultimately meaningful information about the nature of things can only be given by the One who designed them and called them out of nothingness into being. Only when we see the mystery of woman as God sees her have we discerned the whole truth. And only on the foundation of truth can we construct a true life. If we do not have this foundation, then we are at the mercy of the appearances, the illusion, the deceit and manipulation of demonic powers that are opposed to the order established by God.
If we want to look at things in the light of eternity, however, we run into a problem: how can we perceive eternally true values and timeless realities with our limited intellect? How can we express what is timeless in our language, which is bound up with the dimensions of space and time? For example, how can a human being who loves another express this love to the other? Love, after all, is something timeless and boundless. Everybody knows the answer: we make use of various signs, images, gestures, symbols, and analogies. Thus one gives the beloved a beautiful flower; one extends one’s hand; one kisses him. Through these visible gestures one expresses an invisible reality. If we could not see the symbolic character of such gestures, then they would lose their meaning and would even become nonsensical. Then shaking hands or pressing one’s lips to those of another would be little more than an occasion for spreading pathogens.
Moreover there are things or objects in human existence that have a twofold meaning, in the foreground one that is material, immediately evident, empirical, and useful for everyday life: for example clothing, headgear, candlelight, food, and all the things that are necessary to maintain life. At the same time, however, they have a more profound meaning, a spiritual, invisible, and thus symbolic meaning that defines their deeper nature and expresses the inner life: a candle is not only necessary as a source of light and warmth; it also symbolizes sublime spiritual realities. So does a festive meal insofar as it is an event in community life and a symbol of the ties among members of a family. For a woman, her hair, a veil, and various ways of dressing have a deep, symbolic meaning. Therefore if a human being, especially a woman, becomes aware of the deeper meaning of these things, she will see the world and her own life with completely different eyes. When she eats she will try not just to nourish herself, but also to live in community with her family and friends. When she dresses she will not just protect herself from the cold, but will also express somehow through her clothing her inner riches. The symbolic view of things thus leads her into the depths and allows her to perceive her nature, her dignity, and her mission. Moreover, since all these symbolic things are externally visible, she places these values which are hidden in them not only before her own eyes, but also before those of her fellow human beings, not infrequently performing in this way a great service for them.
But what is true of the symbolic power of various signs, gestures, and things is true for a human being as such. In his visible existence man ceaselessly expresses invisible realities; he himself, as the “image and likeness of God,” is the symbol of invisible divine realities. In particular, masculinity and femininity are profoundly symbolic: they are an expression of eternal, divine realities. To the extent that one understands the symbolic meaning of creatures, one perceives them in their whole depth, in their innermost truth. But in doing so one must never forget that this innermost depth is a realm which infinitely surpasses our ability to comprehend. Even if we can recognize what is true and somehow express it, we see only its externals, which give us some inkling of the ineffable depth before which we stand speechless, like a mountain climber who was plodding the whole time through thick fog and suddenly steps into the sunlight and can look above the clouds at the magnificent peaks.
God created mankind as man and woman. Woman is first and foremost a human being. Prior to any distinction between the sexes, the essence of man and woman is “spirit in flesh”—an immortal soul in a body that is quite uniquely animated by a particular soul, a rational animal. The human being is created by God, in God, and for God as “his image and likeness” (cf. Gen. 1:27). The human intellect is a pale imitation of the all-wise intellect of God; the human will mimics God’s almighty will. The human being is privileged to depict, imitate, re-present and, so to speak, copy in creation what God is in His boundless eternity. As the ray of sunlight somehow faintly depicts the power and beauty of the sun, and as the stream of water reveals the hidden power of the spring, so too the human being should reveal God. That is what St. Paul means when he says that man should be “the praise of the glory of God” (cf. Eph. 1:12), the laudatory revelation of His eternal beauty.
Yet a creature in its limitations can reflect only several of the many aspects of the divine realities. That is why God created human beings in two different sexes: as man, a human being is able to image certain attributes of God, while as woman a human being can image other contrasting attributes: for example, a man images God’s justice; a woman, God’s mercy; and mankind as the union of man and woman, God’s love.
The fact that man is an image of God is evident chiefly in three respects: in reference to man’s origin, in reference to his goal, and in reference to the way that leads to the goal. As far as the origin is concerned, the creation account already gives us a profound insight as to how God created man in His image in one way and how in turn He created woman in another. With reference to the goal, eternal happiness, the teachings of the mystics in particular show us how differently man and woman regard eternal union with God. The way to the goal, the specific mission of man on earth, consists generally in his receiving at every moment from God “life, movement, and being” (cf. Acts 17:28), and furthermore the light of truth, divine graces, and God’s instructions and commandments. If he freely accepts and assimilates these means of salvation and strives to do God’s will, then every day is a stage along the journey home to God, to the eternal goal. Now this return to God, the fulfillment of our mission on earth, again differs for a man and for a woman.
Before we look more closely at the nature of woman on the basis of these fundamental observations, we must state as a matter of principle that in both cases the origin, the goal, and the way are the same. However different the missions of the two may be in their particulars, in general and essentially they have the same nature: man and woman stand as human beings before God, endowed with the same gifts, destined for the same goal. And the fact that a human being belongs to one sex or the other does not determine which of the two will one day rank higher, but rather the degree of his or her fidelity and devotion to God.
These preliminary reflections are so important in order to adjust at the outset the common, all-too-earthly comparisons between the two sexes. In God’s sight man and woman are equal. The person who will be closer to God and more filled with God for all eternity is the one who has loved the most, that is, the one who has best accomplished God’s will. Only during the short preparatory phase of our swiftly-passing earthly pilgrimage is there a hierarchy of sexes according to God’s wise ordinance, namely subordination and authority. God wishes His glory to be represented and imaged in the world in this way.
These considerations also make it clear that the various views of woman are profoundly dependent on a correct understanding of the nature of a human being. If a worldview lacks a reference to God as the final goal, then it can only attribute a this-worldly meaning to man; that is, it cannot regard him as the image and likeness of God, but rather as a monad, the product of chance or an autonomous construct that is its own origin and end. In such a worldview it is logical that everyone strive to be stronger, more powerful, more influential, or at least just as entitled as anyone else. The ideology of women’s liberation is also based on an atheistic view of the world and humanity. It leads to the effort to eliminate the differences between man and woman at every level. Aside from the fact that this leveling is contrary to their nature, the proponents of this worldview should at least take into account the physiological reality that demonstrates down to the smallest detail the immutable difference between the sexes. Indeed, a man can never bring children into the world, and it is just as impossible for a woman to assume the characteristics of a man and vice versa. When this is attempted it necessarily leads to a degenerate or monstrous result. Such ideologies are opposed by the very instinct for self-preservation and ordinary common sense. Therefore let us take as given the fundamental ways in which man and woman differ and allow God to give us the answer to the questions why and for what purpose.
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