Sex and the Human Person: Part III

Sex Differences
Sex Differences
June 25, 2017

An indication that our understanding of masculinity and femininity have become confused is the confusion that surrounds the terminology.  In the last couple of decades, gender ideology has been able to separate the terms gender from sex, suggesting the former is a purely social construct and the latter, purely biological.  Yet, the transgender movement has introduced a bit of a wrinkle into this, implicitly claiming that there is more to gender than simply a socially defined paradigm, but something more self-defining and discovered by private experience.  Indeed, most of us have heard that Facebook got to the point of about 76 options for different genders until they gave up and just provided a custom feature allowing the user to introduce his own.

While there are certainly some aspects of social conditioning that can influence how a male or female lives and understands his gender, it is a false notion to separate even these from one’s sex.  Sex or, perhaps more descriptively, sex difference is at the center of one’s identity as a human person.  In fact, sex difference is not so much an aspect of one’s nature (what we are) the central defining characteristic of our personhood (who we are).  This is implied in the first scriptural creation narrative: the image of God, He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27)


Saint John Paul the Great sees in this passage from the Book of Genesis, the unity of all human beings in one nature--God created him (singular) in the image of God. But immediately the text shows that there is a binary character to this single human nature.  Sex difference as male and female also allow man to image God in a unique from the way he does has human but not unconnected from it.  We are the image of God as being purely human but we also image God as male and female—together.  In his apostolic letter Christifideles laici, St. John Paul links sex difference to God’s plan for each person which “from the beginning” has been indelibly imprinted in the very being of the human person as a woman or as a man.  Sex difference is impressed into the make-up, meaning and deepest workings of the individual.

While the full meaning of sex difference is deeply interior within the psychology, emotions, indeed in the entire mystery of the person, it also has visible manifestations. Therefore, St. John Paul commends the study of the human person and sex difference to the human sciences and theological disciplines to find and clarify the specific gifts of femininity and masculinity. However, he warns that the findings of empirical science will necessarily be partial and cannot change the deepest and immutable realities of the person and his sex which are revealed by God.

Fr. Manfred Hauke in his work, Women in the Priesthood?, shows that masculine and feminine physical characteristics are integrated into almost all aspects of a man's or woman's physical constitution, respectively.  The primary sexual characteristics of men and women (i.e. the genitalia and other aspects of the reproductive system) are obviously oriented toward facilitating sexual intercourse for the purpose of reproduction and in the case of a women, gestating and giving birth.  It is also visibly obvious that these primary characteristics correspond to the theme of interiority for women and exteriority for men.

Referencing German author Philipp Lersch, Hauke says that looking at the physiology of the act of coitus, the woman has the natural role of receiving and assimilating which Lersch calls a centripetal process.  In other words, her physiology directs what comes to her from the “outside inward toward the center of life.”  The man on the other hand, has a centrifugal function in which he directs “from the center of life outward.”  This can be viewed from what he calls the primary sex characteristics.  Hauke goes on to show how secondary sex characteristics, such as skeletal structure, musculature, adipose tissue distribution, epidermal texture, etc. are all organically integrated in accord with these primary sex characteristics.  

Masculine secondary sex characteristics all serve to facilitate the male’s “reaching out into the world and of overcoming and conquering space.”  Female sex characteristics converge in a way in which the woman is more strongly directed toward the inside.  Hauke finds that there is a psycho-somatic integration of these functions which is not limited to physiology.  Hauke studies body dynamics, psychological development, differences in experiencing the world “including religious experience, and differing world visions.  He calls “summary forms”, the terms which generally describe the differences between men and women. These are centrality for women and eccentricity for men.  In every aspect of the human person, secondary sex characteristics are present.  These characteristics can be described in terms of centrality and eccentricity.  

However, like St. John Paul, Balthasar, and Kreeft, Hauke says that these are dominant modes for each sex.  Masculinity and femininity have the features of the opposite sex but they function in a secondary manner.  Even brain studies show an early and marked difference between masculine and feminine brain structure.  Stephen Rhoads in his book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, reports:

Brain research also reveals inherent sex differences. For example, neuroscientists have determined that men have fewer neurons connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This difference may help to explain why women are better at talking about their emotions. (The left brain controls the talking; the right brain controls the emotions.) More important than physical differences between the male and female brains are differences in the way the sexes use their brains and in the effect of their brains’ hormones. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans show that women seem to use more neurons for almost every activity tested. The typical woman’s brain seems to be “networked”, the typical man’s compartmentalized. The woman’s way seems to be better for many verbal tasks and for recovery from strokes, the man’s for spatial tasks (pp. 27-28).

Theological anthropology tells us that our sexual identity is given to us as a gift and is immutable, as either male or female.  We are created this way, it comes through no choice of our own. The sciences offer confirmation, to the extent they are competent, that this Christian anthropology is sound.  While the sex characteristics serve a telos, a purpose, they do it in such a way that the masculine primary and secondary characteristics are eccentric, he initiates and goes outward.  Feminine primary and secondary are integrating and interior.  In the context of the previous post, you can already see how this will come together. The next time we will look at the way in which men and women are not just different, but different in a unifying manner. We will discuss this unity in difference under the theme of complementarity.

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