Men, Women, and Spiritual Friendship
In a catechesis address on April 15 at the Vatican, Pope Francis spoke about the difference between men and women. Some who wish to develop a discontinuous narrative of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as traditionalists and Francis as a progressive pope expressed their disappointment at Francis’s statements, as the pontiff warned against the prevalence of gender theory in modern society. “We risk taking a step backward,” Francis stated, and he claimed that “so-called gender theory” “aims to erase sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”
The danger of gender theory, Francis argued, is that it threatens the understanding of men and women as existing in a complementary and reciprocal relationship. With this complementarianism, we can and will lose our understanding of “what it means to be man and woman.”
Before any progressives and modern feminists get upset, Francis and the Catholic Church are not supporting an understanding of gender that holds women as subordinate and inferior. Rather, Francis insisted that, “it is necessary, in fact, not only that women be heard more, but that their voices have a real weight, an authority recognized in society and in the church.”
“The difference [between men and women] is not for opposition or for subordination,” Pope Francis said, “but for communion and procreation, always in the image and likeness of God.”
What does it look like, then, when the difference between men and women is a communion that is in the image and likeness of God? As with many concepts of our faith, we can find concrete and real-life examples of theology in the lives of saints. Many famous saints were actually part of male and female pairs that flourished in the faith for the exact reasons Francis listed: because the complementary gifts of male and female, when brought together, point to God.
Saint Augustine and Saint Monica:
Saint Augustine of Hippo is one of the most influential and beloved theologians in Western Christianity. His writings have strongly influenced Catholics and Protestant beliefs on the Church, salvation, predestination, and free will. However, Saint Augustine would have remained a Manichean academic if not for his mother, Saint Monica. Monica played a significant role, both through prayer and through her actions, in Augustine’s conversion, and throughout the rest of her life, Monica and Augustine developed a deep spiritual friendship that included witnessing mystical visions together.
Throughout his Confessions, Saint Augustine speaks frequently and fondly of his mother and thanks God for the role she played in his life. On her deathbed, Monica told Augustine, “my son, as for myself, I now find no pleasure in this life…My hope in this world is already fulfilled. The one reason why I wanted to stay longer in this life was my desire to see you a Catholic Christian before I die. My God has granted this in a way more than I had hoped.” Upon her death, Augustine lamented, “Now that I had lost the immense support she gave, my soul was wounded, and my life as it were torn to pieces, since my life and hers had become a single thing.”
Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi
Saint Francis and Saint Clare, both of Assisi, were two of the most influential spiritual leaders in 13th century Italy. Saint Francis left behind a life of wealth and revelry to found an order of mendicant preachers (the Franciscans, or the Order of Friars Minor). After hearing Francis preach, Clare also left behind a life of wealth to found a Franciscan community of women who lived a life of apostolic poverty and prayer. While their monastic lifestyles prevented the two from frequently visiting each other, they developed a rich spiritual friendship. Francis cut Clare’s hair and provided her with mendicant robes when she left her family; when Francis received the stigmata, Clare knit him slippers to cover the wounds on his feet.
Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross
Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross were both 16th century mystics who figured prominently in the reform of religious orders during the Catholic Reformation. By the time they met, Saint Teresa had already founded several convents for the Discalced Carmelites throughout Spain, and John wanted to build similar communities for friars. Although John was half of Teresa’s age when they met (he was 25, she was 52), they became the closest of friends. Teresa wrote in a letter that she “had gone here and there looking for the light and finally found it in [John].” Teresa and John flourished in their friendship together and supported each other through hardships such as the Spanish Inquisition and imprisonment. Teresa urged other nuns and priests to form deep and meaningful friendships, for she believed such friendship created lasting spiritual bonds and showed God’s love. She wrote in a letter, “What a wonderful thing it is for two souls to understand each other, for they neither lack something to say, nor grow tired.”
The examples go on throughout the centuries as to how the unique differences of men and women can not only form deep relationships but, as we see in the examples of Monica and Augustine, Francis and Clare, and Teresa and John, have a deep impact on the faith and the life of the Church.