In a city like Rome there is no shortage of glamorous prototypes or chilling reminders of our human condition – on Byzantine apses, in Romanesque side-chapels, even on Renaissance bridges spanning the Tiber we find men and women, saints usually, redeemed and transformed. Sometimes – more darkly and less frequently- we find them distressed and disordered, being shoveled into the pit by devils. ‘Man’, used as the collective here, is a protean race. It is not only that within our same species we can find a pickpocket and a Virgil, but also individually each one of us can be small and great. This is physically so, for we all begin as babies and become, with luck, women and men, but also spiritually where we are all sinners with the potential to be saints. Although ‘protean’ is a possible descriptor for our condition, a better word from the remit of Christian anthropology is ‘eschatological’. We all have the potential to become what we are not yet, or are not fully.[1] The baby has its telos in the woman or the man and the sinner has her telos in the saint. ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’ was Augustine’s neat summary. We are not yet what we shall be.

By contrast to the secular and social scientific discipline of the same name, Christian anthropology understands our human nature not only in terms of what we are, but also of what we are called to be.

Around the main door of Bologna’s Cathedral, the Basilica di S. Petronio, run a series of carved stone tablets: on the left the creation of Adam and of Eve, the temptation of the serpent, expulsion from the garden; on the right the manger, the visit of the shepherds, and of the Magi. This whole magnificent series, executed by Jacopo della Quercia between 1425 and 1438, shows our human history: the first creation on the left of the portal, and our new creation in Christ on the right. But it is to della Quercia’s representation of the creation of Eve that I wish to draw attention.

Adam is soundly asleep on the left, turned away from the centre of the carving where God – clearly the Triune God since He has a triangular halo – is drawing Eve from Adam’s side. It is a very statuesque ‘Eve’. Although not yet risen to her full height, it is clear that when Eve does so she will be exactly the same height as God. Indeed she has the same distinctive aquiline nose as God, the same lips and much the same hair. She has feminine and more youthful versions of God’s eyes and God’s mouth. She is fully in the image of God.

The artist has brought together two Genesis texts – Genesis 1.26-7 (‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion…” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’; and Genesis 2.18-23 where having created the earth, the plants and ‘Hadam’, the earth creature, God sees that it is not good for Hadam to be alone. God then creates the animals and birds and, when Hadam fails to find one amongst them to be his partner, at last ‘woman’ from the man’s side (‘ishshah’ from ‘ish’ in the Hebrew).

Della Quercia’s carving catches the moment before Adam wakes to say ‘this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’. Adam sleeps soundly on while still Eve and her Creator enjoy a quiet, dawn of creation, têtê ä têtê, and God delights in this, his newest creature.

Biblical critics now believe that these variants arise from two different sources that fed into the final text of Genesis and do not spend much time trying to resolve their inconsistencies. It was not so for the Fathers for whom any apparent contradiction had to be resolved.

One might have thought the Fathers with their Biblical conservatism would give priority to the narrative of Genesis 1, if only because it is the first, but overwhelmingly they preferred to discuss the second creation narrative where Eve is made from Adam’s side. Genesis 1.27 is certainly a puzzling text. What can it mean that God created man in His own image, male and female? Early theologians canvassed the idea of a primal androgyny which, or who, was subsequently supplanted by the later creation of two persons of different sexes, but this reading was soon dropped in favour of concentration on the second story.[2] However it was the story of Genesis 2 read in a particular way – a way that fit more clearly with the accepted order of things – man was alone first and God created Eve for him as a companion and a helper

Unlike Genesis 1 where male and female together comprise the ‘imago’, Genesis 2 can be read as saying that Adam on his own was virtually sufficient. Eve/Woman was almost universally thought of as lesser and almost an afterthought. ‘Helper’ was routinely understood by the early theologians as indicating a subordinate- leaping over the fact that elsewhere in Genesis God Himself is described as ‘helper’ using the same Hebrew word.[3]And how could it be any other way, given the position of women in the late antique Hellenistic culture now reading these ancient Jewish texts as their own, Christian texts?

What kind of helper? Augustine famously surmised that for help in the fields another man would have been more useful, and for conversation another man more interesting and this, he concluded leaves procreation as the one thing man cannot do by himself. Man is whole and complete on his own. The woman adds nothing new to the genius of the human race, otherwise complete in itself, except affording it the capacity to reproduce.[4]

It is these pictures of man (the male) as self-sufficient except the ability to reproduce which informs theological anthropology down the modern period. It is, in its way, a kind of egalitarianism in which women bring nothing to the table but reproductive capacity and ‘man’ (here meaning ‘male’) is the default position for humanity. Thus when we speak of ‘man’ we include everyone, except when dealing with matters particular to females like pregnancy, childbirth, and abortion. But this is not simply a matter of language. In Catholic theological anthropology this attitude of sexual monoculture persists right to the texts of Gaudium et Spes and beyond. Sexual difference is largely a matter of indifference, and women are to be treated as ‘men’ except where in certain questions of reproduction or, as already in Gaudium et Spes and in more recent encyclicals, women’s freedom to work, or to marry without force, or to avoid exploitation and so on.

This sexual monoculture is in one sense laudable, for it rests on the conviction that women as well as men are fully in the image of God – a matter which was not uncontested in the early Church. Paul’s puzzling injunction in I Corinthians 11.7: ‘For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God: but woman is the reflection of man’ could be and was read by some as suggesting that women were not fully in the image of God. More to the point, Paul’s comment on veiling had to be reconciled with his statement later in the same letter that ‘The first man (anthropos) was from the earth, a man of dust: the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust: and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven’ (I Corinthians 15.47), and with Colossians 1.15, ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation: for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him.’ [5]

It was these Christological texts that weighed heavily with the early theologians. If Jesus Christ, unquestionably male, is the image of the invisible God, and we will all bear the image of this man of heaven then it seemed reasonable to conclude that women will be resurrected as men. Some Christian theologians said as much.[6] Augustine to his lasting credit said ‘no’ – those who hold the woman’s sex to be a defect or something necessitated only by the Fall are quite wrong. Women will be resurrected as women in heaven, although without inciting lust. In saying this Augustine sought to avoid the inference that woman, on her own, could not be in the image of God. The female sex is not an afterthought to compensate for the disastrous effects of the Fall.

We find ourselves to this very day teetering between two positions that are both compelling but seem at the same time incompatible. We must say that, Christologically speaking women and men cannot be different for ‘all will bear the image of the man of heaven’. But we must also say that sexual difference is not, or should not be a matter of theological indifference. Sexual difference has something to tell us, not just about God, but also about the human being made in the image of God.

The unresolved question then is – where, why and how does sexual difference make a difference? That it does on the ground, and in actual matters of life and death is altogether evident from the findings of the United Nations, Aid agencies and other NGOs over the last two decades. Poverty and its handmaiden, war, effect women, the elderly and children disproportionately. The female morbidity figures outstrip those of men in all but the most affluent countries – not in virtue of infanticide but because where food, education, and medicine are scarce, it is men and male children who get it. It will not do to say that the question of the stature of women must take second place to more pressing concerns like that of world poverty because the poor are, overwhelmingly, women, and their status as ‘the poor’ is not separable from the burdens they bear and the disadvantages they face as women. For now our task is to see what is called for in the realm of theology, and especially Christian – and Catholic – theological anthropology.

One possible strategy is to model the female Christian on Mary, and the males on Christ, but this will not do either Mariologically or Christologically. Mary, as the best Mariology has always emphasised, is the model for all Christians and not just for female ones, and the New Testament’s emphatic insistence that all are called to ‘bear the image of the man of heaven’ must apply to women as well as to men.

It is now forty years since the Catholic Church received the Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the World known as Gaudium et Spes. One of this document’s most striking features then, as now and noted by Cardinal Scola in his introduction to a new printing, is its Christocentric anthropology. It is a vision of man as everywhere related to Jesus Christ. Rereading it now with a view to sexual difference is an interesting experience, especially in the new English translation of the text which studiously avoids inclusive language and uses ‘man’ generically throughout, except when women are being particularly discussed.

The document is visionary in anticipating the changing perceptions by women and of women before feminism had made much of an imprint in any of the Christian churches. Women, per se, are mentioned relatively rarely but come as the document addresses the social tension between men and women (§8), their claim for equality (§9), the sexual traffic in women (§27), their lack in some places of the freedom to choose a spouse (§29), and the dignity of the conjugal pact (§47). Curiously but predictably the document says even less about men (males) because when ‘man’ is the default position it is difficult to distinguish when it is males specifically and when it is human beings in general who are under discussion. Since ‘men’ are everyone, we don’t have much idea what males are about. In the key presentations of its Christological anthropology ‘man’ (homo) is meant to include everyone, so for instance the concluding sentence of the introduction reads ‘’In the light of Christ, the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation the Council means to address itself to everybody, to shed light on the mystery and man and cooperate in finding solutions to the problems of our time.’ (§10) Man is not intended to be alone, it continues. ‘The Dignity of the Human Person’ drives home the point that man is made in the image of God, male and female. ‘The Community of Man’ reinforces the teaching of Christ is the true image (‘All men have a rational soul and are created in God’s image; they share the same nature and origin; redeemed by Christ, they have the same divine vocation an destiny; so it should be more and more recognized that they are essentially equal’ (§28), a line of argument which reaches a crescendo in ‘The Concerns of Man in the World at Large’ where we read,

Only God, who created man in his own image and redeemed him from sin, provides the full answer to these questions through revelation in Christ his Son made man. Whoever follows Christ, the perfect man, himself becomes more of a man. (§41)

This is the logical extension of the Biblical teaching, already called to mind in §21, that Christ ‘became truly one of us, like us in everything except sin’ and that the Christian, whether male or female, is to be ‘conformed to the image of the Son who is the first-born among many brethren (Romans 8.29; Col. 1.18).’

At the heart of this document, and at the heart of New Testament itself, is anthropology in which,

The mystery of man becomes clear only in the mystery of the incarnate Word. Adam, the first man (primus homo), was a type of the future, which is of Christ our Lord. Christ, the new Adam, in revealing the mystery of the Father and his love, makes man fully clear to himself, makes clear his high vocation. (§22)

The unanswered question is ‘does Christ make women fully clear to herself?’ The Latin of the instruction uses the more inclusive homo/homine, but the patterning is upon Adam and Christ, both male. What can it mean for women, for me, to say with Gaudium et Spes and the scriptural witness that ‘Whoever follows Christ, the perfect man, himself becomes more of a man.’ §41 (Quicumque Christum sequitur, Hominem perfectum, et ipse magis homo fit.) Do those aspects in which I am to become perfected or ‘more of a man’ include only those aspects I share with males, like my intellect and my life of virtue, or do they also include my mothering, my loving, my sense of my own embodiment which may differ from that of a man? Is Christ the fulfilment of female ‘men’, as well as male ‘men’, and if so, how? [7]

The text of Gaudium et Spes contrasts strikingly with that of letter ‘On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World’ sent to the Catholic bishops in the summer of 2004. Whereas the former almost elides sexual difference, the latter speaks of sexual difference as ‘belonging ontologically to creation’, an expression which is hard to construe but which fortunately falls short of saying that there is an ‘ontological difference’ between men and women. That would indeed be odd, for one can see an ontological difference between a stone and a tiger, between a planet and a lamb, but it would be an odd stretch to see an ontological difference between a man and a woman, unless one went to whole way and said there was an ontological difference between any two individuals, between George Bush and Nelson Mandela, for instance. That would vacate the phrase of philosophical meaning.

To say that there is an ‘ontological difference’ would be too strong. It would put the 2004 letter at odds, not only with Gaudium et Spes, but with Scripture itself were it to suggest it is impossible for a woman to say that, in all significant senses, Christ is like me in every sense except sin. It is for this reason that we must insist that, Christologically speaking; men and women cannot be different. But is sexual difference of no theological import? Can we return to our tradition of sexual monoculture, of sexual ‘indifference’?

I think not, and perhaps della Quercia’s creation of Eve can hint the way forward. Genesis 1.27, with its suggestion that male and female together are in imago dei has yet to be fully explored. It’s notable that della Quercia’s God is clearly, from his ‘halo’, a triune God. God’s Godself is three in one, unity in difference. Human beings in their createdness mirror this divine procession of love in being more than one, male and female. Christian theology must embrace without contradiction that all human being in imago dei and that women are different from men. This means that women were not made for men any more than men were made for women. The as yet unsung glory of Genesis 1.27-27 is that the fullness of divine life and creativity is reflected by humankind which is male and female, which encompasses if not an ontological, then a primal difference. And this difference is not by default or for pragmatic reasons but by divine plan.

The fecundity of creation in the Genesis narrative comes from difference, the difference of light and dark, of sea and dry land. Fecundity is in the interval. We will never know what Man is until we can say, as Irenaeus obviously intended, ‘the glory of God is woman fully alive.’


[1] This is not a view only to be found in Christian anthropology. It is a central plank, for instance of that of Jean-Paul Sartre. I am indebted to one of my doctoral students, Fr. Stephen Wang, for directing me to the similarities in the anthropologies of Sartre and Aquinas.

[2] See Wayne A Meeks, ‘Image of the Androgyne: some uses of a symbol in earliest Christianity’, History of Religions 13 (1974), pp. 165-208.

[3] Some exegetes have pointed out that reading ‘Eve’ as God’s afterthought goes against the general pattern of the Genesis creation narratives in which the more perfect creatures are those made last – sea and dry land are followed by sun and moon, birds and beasts, man and – finally- woman.

[4] This position should not be read of the text of The City of God as Augustine’s own. Augustine had a positive and nuanced view of women, even when frightened of their effects on him. Monica is the ‘perfect Christian’ of his Confessions. Gregory of Nyssa and others read Genesis as saying that, prior to the introduction of death into the world, Adam and Eve would not need to reproduce and would have been ‘sexless’, acquiring genitalia like the ‘clothing of skins’ only after the Fall. Augustine thought this nonsense. The prelapsarian Adam and Eve would have had genitalia and used them in procreation – but without lust.

[5] See also Romans 8.29-30. In I Corinthians Paul already seems to conflate the Genesis I and Genesis 3 texts, for mention of men and women made in the ‘image’ comes in the former, and the man of dust in the latter.

[6] See Kari Vogt, “ ‘Becoming Male’: One aspect of early Christian anthropology’ ” in Women: Invisible in Church and Society, ed. E.Schüssler Fiorenza and Mary Collins, Concilum , No. 6, 1985. Reprinted in eds. Janet Soskice and Diana Lipton, Feminism and Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 49-62.

[7] The Biblical allusion seems to be to Ephesians 4.13 which reads ‘Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’ (the King James Version retains ‘perfect man’ in translation of andra in the Greek). This article was first delivered at the Pontifical Academy Of Science (PAS) in May 2006, in a conference organized by the PAS and the Templeton Foundation on the theme ‘What is our knowledge of the human being?’ It is also a work in progress in a book the author is finishing for Oxford University Press (2007) entitled, “The Offices of Love”