In our discussion on Natural Law Milliganp raised the question, perhaps not seriously, of whether there were differences in application where women are concerned. I thought it would be interesting to look at the basis for such differences, and invite you to see if you can answer Milliganp’s question.
We must go back to origins. The story of Adam and Eve is useful because it looks at Creation while our nature was not yet fallen. The picture is clear: Eve was produced out of Adam and she was to be the companion of the man, and a help to him. Thus, important though her rôle would be, it was essentially secondary – Eve was made for Adam, not the other way about. Nor indeed, even in this unfallen state, did she resist the Serpent’s scam. She fell for the old “that’s the very reason…” ploy – in which the objection itself is turned into the reason why she should change her mind. She appears to have been a trifle susceptible to oleaginous serpentine charm. But she retained charm enough herself to induce Adam to join her.
At this point they both fell, and their fallen state was to be full of damage and misery. It is here that the serious Natural Law theologian makes an important distinction. Before the Fall, it operated to perfection: after the Fall, it had to be applied to a very different situation. A simple example is given by the various sexual rules which the Church teaches nowadays. The rules would not have existed before the Fall because mankind would have controlled its sexual and reproductive faculty strictly according to right reason. These applications of the Law to fallen nature are held to be the “secondary” precepts.
Among the outcomes of the Fall is painful childbirth and, more immediately relevant to our question, a destiny to be ruled by the man. Before, they would have worked in shared harmony, now there is tension and subjection.
I will just mention here that Eve’s part in all this has often been a reason for condemning woman. You may have seen Renaissance pictures in which Serpent is given the head of a woman. And the tendency to hold women responsible for tempting men into lustful activity is long established, and potent to this day.
After the origins we look at structure. Moral theology uses this as God’s statement about lawful behaviour as written in his Creation (as present before the Fall). Regarded as sexual beings, we see a dramatic difference between the two. Where the reproductive organs of men appear as appendages, a woman’s body is simply built around them. Not only does she have breasts for lactation but the major features of her interior pelvis are tuned to reproduction. And, some may argue, rather inadequately tuned since they incorporate a physical and psychological cycle which plays an important and continual part in a woman’s life. The term of this cycle is (or used to be) called “the curse”. Though I have heard it called “the blessing” by some Catholic women in the past.
Are we to infer that a woman has an obligation under Natural Law to produce children? No, she may rightly have a vocation to avoid her body’s most outstanding characteristics. But it would be paradoxical if she did not recognise that such a calling was the exception, justified by a higher vocation, and would be carried out using the strengths of her maternal psychology. But once she has children, their natural care during their dependency would arguably be obligatory in the ordinary course of events. Circumstances might oblige her to use proxies for her children’s care, but this would not be ideal.
It is ironic that female characteristics, such as bosom, waist and hips, are seen nowadays as attractions in their own right, rather than as signs of childbearing potential – although these appear to act as a bait to the male at an unconscious level.
Once we move away from Scripture and biological structure we encounter real difficulties. While we can make generalisations about how the psychology of women differs from that of men, we know that the differences are not clear cut. Individuals vary over a wide span and there will always be numerous instances which challenge broad assumptions. However brain structure can give us at least a clue. It would seem that the male brain has greater connectivity within the same hemisphere – which is efficient for relating cognition to action. Women have greater connectivity across the hemispheres – linking analysis and intuition.
Here, it would seem, there is a relationship between brain structure and rôle. Men are best fitted to the single concentrated task like hunting or its modern equivalent. Women are broader in their skills, adapted to multitasking, and at home with the emotional life. So men are best fitted for external challenges while women are fitted for family care and careers suited to their wider range of skills.
It would be folly for me to attempt to extract from this picture elements of the Natural Law which apply to women and not to men. I may indeed be tarred and feathered for the account I have given. But please be free to comment on whether my analysis gives us clues to the fitting female life.