Mary Beth Bonacci wrote a marvelous piece recently in the Denver Catholic titled, “On Toxic Masculinity.” It seems that in the current #MeToo climate, normal masculinity is routinely equated with being a racist, misogynist, or even rapist. But Bonacci bravely stands up for manhood. She notes, “I don’t believe masculinity is ‘toxic’. Masculinity is raw material, just as femininity is. Men can use their gifts for good or evil, just as women can. (But try using the term ‘toxic femininity’ in polite company and see what happens.) For millennia, the goal of society has been to channel those instincts, not to suppress them… But there seems to be a movement to neutralize masculinity entirely.” Rather than subscribe to some prescribed gender ideology, namely that men are basically rotten and women are always good, Bonacci rightly places the responsibility for actions on the individual, not on one’s gender. She reminds us that stereotypes are overly broad generalizations containing some small grains of truth that tend to be conflated to absurd proportions. But one thing is undeniable: men and women are cut from very different cloth, and with good reason.
Watching Peter Jackson’s poignant documentary on World War I, “They Will Not Grow Old,” I was reminded that male attitudes and behavior are little changed over the past 100 years, indeed the past 1,000 years. Men are generally the physically stronger sex but weaker morally. It is women who have historically provided the real moral strength in any society. But after 1918 the moral attitudes of women began to change in the West. Legal emancipation and the vote opened up a whole new sense of self sufficiency which, ever so gradually, morphed into today’s radical feminism. As a result female identity and the notion of what constitutes acceptable morality has shifted radically to the left. Author Donna Steichen has characterized radical feminists as women unhappy with who they are; unhappy with who God made them. “The truth is that feminists don’t like women, they don’t want to become women… most disapprove of gender entirely. Viewing existence through the distorting lens of self-pity, they are enraged with the limitations of incarnational reality.” (Steichen, Ungodly Rage, Ignatius, 1991)
But what exactly is at the heart of this wrathful brand of feminism which so distorts the very nature and gifts of womanhood? I suggest that we must go back to the Garden of Eden to understand the source of today’s feminist rage. And it all stems from a betrayal of intimacy, in other words, infidelity. When God created Adam and Eve, placing them in the garden in idyllic happiness, He entrusted to them certain secrets. Now the significance of a secret is that it represents a bond of trust. God shared the intimacy of his very self with these first humans, revealing himself to them as to no other creature. He imprinted his very nature on their being as Genesis tells us, “In the Divine image He created them, male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27) Moreover, He entrusted them with overseeing the garden. He infused knowledge directly into their minds and made a secret compact with them. It was this: they would remain happy and contented in their paradise so long as they abided by one simple command ─ avoid eating the fruit of a particular tree. This was their arrangement with God and they alone knew which tree it was that they were forbidden to partake.
Now the devil watched all this with great interest and suspected that something was up. He was not privy to the exact nature of God’s secret covenant with the humans so he decided to find out. After observing them for some time he reasoned that the woman would be easier to approach because of her gregarious and inquisitive nature. Disguising himself as a serpent, which Genesis relates was the most cunning of animals, he looked for some innocuous opening to catch her off guard. He engaged her one day in an apparently friendly conversation. “Did God say you may not eat of any tree in the garden?” This was only a lure since the devil knew full well that this was not the case. He had observed their eating habits for some time but they seemed to avoid one particular part of the garden. Eve felt a twitch of smug condescension, the “I know something you don’t know” feeling. Her sense of superiority made it imperative to let this creature know just how much smarter and better informed she really was.
It was her fatal mistake to underestimate the serpent, however. Though Genesis does not relate exact conversational details the devil likely responded with some rejoinder like, “Really? I don’t believe you have any important secrets. Prove it to me.” The challenge to her credibility was too insulting to ignore altogether. Eve must have responded impetuously in so many words, “You really know nothing about it. God said we can eat anything in the garden.” As a careless afterthought she added, “It is only the fruit of one little tree that he forbade us to eat ─ that tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
The devil had wormed the vital secret out of Eve. He now understood the nature of the compact God had made with them. Armed with this vital bit of information he slyly countered, “So what happens if you were, just perchance, to eat of that particular tree. I mean, how is God even going to know? He doesn’t seem to be around anywhere.” Cornered by the cunning serpent, Eve should have simply walked away from its obnoxious line of questioning but her ego was by now at stake. She wasn’t going to lose face to some presumptuous reptile. She foolishly explained that God had warned that if they ate that particular fruit they would surely die. The devil suddenly had the card he needed to spring his trap. Death! What did this simple woman know about death, something completely foreign to both Adam and Eve? As far as she knew it was hardly more than some fable. The wily serpent now played his trump card, the Big Lie. “No, you surely will not die! You will instead become like gods yourselves, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5)
Eve’s greatest moment of decision had now arrived. The gauntlet had been thrown down. A challenge was squarely on the table before her. Who was really telling the truth here, an invisible God nowhere to be found or this flesh and blood serpent, so confident and assured as it stared directly into her mesmerized eyes? Her feminine curiosity was by now fully inflamed. What if God was just trying to hold her down, to limit her opportunities out of selfish jealousy? Why settle for some remote garden when the opportunity to live like gods was there for the plucking? It seemed so unfair for God to place some arbitrary glass ceiling over her head, trying to keep her down. Opportunity ought to be seized before it slips away.
She walked over to the tree and gazed at its fruit. It was definitely tantalizing, and what was to be lost in taking one little bite anyway? The risk appeared to be minimal while the potential for reward was unlimited. But first she would ask Adam what he thought. She plucked a piece of fruit and took it to him. Adam frowned, knowing full well that he was responsible for Eve’s welfare. He shook his head gravely but after a minute or two of cajoling she convinced him that there was little risk in, “just trying a small piece; after all they were only sampling, not really eating.” Nervous, but fatally curious himself, Adam suppressed his better judgment and acquiesced to her request. It was such a small infraction, and besides how was God to know?
The results of their little experiment proved to be disastrous as they would soon discover. But where did the fault really lie? While it was Eve who was initially lured into betraying God’s secret, Adam had the greater share of responsibility. Adam’s explicit charge had been to protect his mate from evil and harm. He not only failed in this obligation but then redoubled his sin when confronted by God. “The woman gave it to me, so I ate it.” Adam not only collaborated in the initial betrayal of God, he then immediately betrayed Eve as well when questioned. By cruelly blaming her to excuse himself when the chips were down, Adam psychologically abandoned Eve when she most needed his support. Eve could never again trust Adam implicitly because of this betrayal. That first sin not only broke the relationship between God and man but between men and women as well. The greater rupture was with God, but male/female relationships were deeply wounded from the first moment when Adam faint-heartedly excused himself by blaming his God-given partner.
After Adam, betrayal became a new dynamic in human relations, too often expressed as male infidelity. In the past 50 years however, fed by a sterile contraceptive culture, that current of infidelity has become a widespread contagion among women as well, and that is something new. It stems from woman’s inability to trust, not only man, but in a loving God who directs our lives. Sexual liberation has not been very liberating after all, for men or for women. The consequent insecurity it breeds engenders various sexual disorders, gender dysphoria, even transgenderism. After all, human intimacies reflect our intimacy with God, but if that primary relationship withers, so inevitably will our human relationships wither as well. Radical feminism is just another manifestation of that tragic loss of intimate trust and confidence, whether in a spouse or in God’s ultimate plan for one’s life.
The root cause of radical feminism can be traced to a primal fear of abandonment, going back to Eve. “Your yearning shall be for your husband, but he shall lord it over thee.” (Gen 3:16) The modern day face of sinful Adam can be seen in the millions of children being raised without fathers, and the modern day face of sinful Eve in those other millions being killed in the womb by their own mothers. And both evils are forms of abandonment or the consequence of abandonment. We live in a society of abandoned children, abandoned spouses, abandoned lovers. The result is a fear of any meaningful intimacy, whether human or Divine. Too many people today want to experience sexual intimacy without being tied down by those bonds of trust and fidelity which are needed to secure any successful relationship. But it is women who must first demand trust, fidelity, and permanence as a pre-condition to sexual intimacy (does that sound something like marriage?), and it is here where radical feminism has utterly failed women and, by extension, their children.
Men are morally the weaker sex it is true, and too often vulgar, aggressive, and demanding but the problem is not simply hormonal. It stems from a real spiritual deficit in our society. Given good influences and positive motivations from strong, moral women men can be molded into good fathers and true gentlemen. Unfortunately, a whole generation or more of young adults have never heard that message due, in part, to a chorus of angry feminist rhetoric that has all but buried any common-sense wisdom in today’s Western culture. Of course, that accumulated wisdom traditionally went hand in hand with maintaining a healthy relationship with God ─ and there is the rub. Feminists don’t want God in the bedroom. But if He isn’t invited into those most intimate moments of our lives, then it would stand to reason that He has no place anywhere else in them. If we shut him out of the bedroom, we have effectively shut him out of our life altogether, thereby betraying his secret trust, not unlike Adam and Eve in the garden.
Modern feminism has evolved into the politics of resentment vocally directed against males in general, but its more implicit target is God himself. The intimacy of marriage is meant to be a sign of the intimacy that God wants to share with each and every person. He wants to renew the covenant that was shattered by sin in the garden, but in an even more profound way than that experienced by Adam and Eve. In order to heal that breach of the first covenant He gave the world a New Adam and a New Eve who, like the first, entered into this world sinless. Unlike our first parents, however, this new Adam and Eve willingly ratified his new covenant through their perfect acts of obedience, thereby restoring mankind to an intimate relationship with its Creator. The marriage bond between God and his people was thus joyously renewed. Of course the devil was infuriated by this and redoubled his efforts to sow envy and resentment. His quarrel after all is with God and unwary men and women risk becoming pawns in his game of revenge. He thereby encourages men to view women as objects and women to refuse forgiveness or constantly nurse grudges. But there is one woman with the power to defeat him. She shines forth as the perfect model of true feminism for every age.
Mary is the counter-type to Eve. Her humble submission ─ “I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word,” ─ nullifies Eve’s proud ambition to “be like gods.” She thus restores an intimate bond of trust with her God. Mary becomes the New Eve, responding to Eve’s disobedience with her own perfect obedience. She enters into that sublime relationship with God which brings forth the incarnation of a New Adam, Jesus Christ. Despite this high honor, her only boast is in her own lowliness. She lived a life of total obscurity. With unswerving faith she launched Christ’s public ministry at Cana. “Do whatever he tells you,” are the final recorded utterances of Mary. She never again speaks in the Scriptures, even after her Son’s glorious Resurrection. She recedes into background making way for Peter, Paul, the apostles, and other disciples to carry out their great missionary careers.
Henceforth the Mother of the Lord will remain silent. It was by talking out of turn that the old Eve led mankind astray and so it is in her solemn silence that the New Eve leads mankind back into fruitful communion with God. Hers is the most perfect and salutary kind of feminism. It is the only feminism that can succeed in raising all women to their rightful glory (by raising children rather than raising consciousness). Mary heals the ancient wound inflicted by Eve on her daughters. Mary is God’s own feminist ideal ─ and the model par excellence for all true feminists.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.