On St. Joseph’s femininity

The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.

First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.

It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.

But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy.  In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.

His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:

“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”

 I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa.  Joseph-Joseph . . .  womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:

He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.

But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”

I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.

And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.

Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.

And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.

If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.

But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.

But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.

We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.

Hell if I know what it all means, except that most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. In other context, my sister Abby Tardiff said this (and this was just part of a Facebook comment she dashed off, not some polished work of prose):

[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).

However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.

Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.

It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.

Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.

Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.

I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.

Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.


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35 thoughts on “On St. Joseph’s femininity”

  1. It only took me 9 days to actually read this post. And by gone, I’m surely glad I didn’t give up and close the tab before doing so. Excellent writing, I had some tears to prove it!

  2. Excellent. Instantiations of the cosmic feminine and masculine are the reason a biological “male” can in reality be a woman and a biological female can be a literal man in reality. The terms husband and wife really need to be detached from biolgical gender so that the actual male in a relationship is known as the husband whether he happens to be biologically male or female and the actual female is the wife.

    It should he noted that while may be feminine in relation to God that does not imply that God is masculine. God is just as feminine as She is masculine.

    Gay men are frequently more in tune with God than straight men as a direct result of the receptiveness they experience in their relationships. Most of the abuse suffered by many in the catholic church is the result of straight white men with a perverse addiction to power. Men really need to learn how to be receptive. It’s entirely possible that Joseph wasn’t even attracted to women.

      1. I’m sorry, nothing I’ve written is satire. I believe you are on the right track however and I will now go else where.

  3. ” … insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism”: okay, that part was pretty funny, I have to admit. I imagined reading in the Catechism, “The Catholic Faith forbids making fun of, or writing insultingly about, gay people, particularly in an insanely offensive way.” Pretty funny.

    By the way, what’s the difference between “gay” and “afflicted with same-sex attraction”? Asking for a friend.

    1. This is my commandment: that you mock gay people by affecting an effeminate lisp. Be sure, every single day, to tell gay people that you hate them and that God hates them and that he always will. – Revised Christianist Bible

      1. Precisely, calling someone a sissy by affecting a lisp is unacceptable and is a sign of serious deviancy and abuse.

  4. This article is particularly well done, Simcha! And I would imagine that all the male patisserie workers throughout the world would thank you, as well.

  5. I have no idea why anyone would have a problem with men making gingerbread houses. I mean gingerbread houses for crying out loud? Does everything have to be potentially offensive to people? Sheesh. Whatever.

    As for the brouhaha over “owning women’s body parts” etc. I don’t think that’s what the guy is saying. Joseph and Mary in accepting God’s will made a certain type of sacrifice of themselves and of their marriage ( yes, marriage). Joseph it is thought by many, traditionally, had accepted that Mary had made a vow to remain a virgin and this special circumstance was accepted by Joseph. Joseph’s concern would have been in relation to a break in the covenant in which they “belong” to each other ( not property, since they obviously remain persons) but only in the rightly ordered sense under God, whereby all of the demands of justice remain. In other words there is no right to abuse, injustice,treating people as property, rape etc. Obviously, in a marriage, even when Joseph accepts Mary’s vow ( which demonstrates clearly that he did not view her as property or as body parts) he has the expectation in justice that Mary will not be unfaithful to their covenant. Perhaps that is what Mr Marshall was trying to express, however, he set the usual suspects on a rant about feminism, rape, misogyny, patriarchy, body parts etc. I guess we ought not be surprised.

    1. I didn’t use any of the words “feminism, rape, misogyny, patriarchy, body parts” so I’m unclear on why your comment is on this site, rather than on the sites that were allegedly ranting.

      1. I don’t think you’re unclear. You just don’t like what I’m saying. So fine. You’re commenting about someone else’s twitter feed and all of the reaction, and your own site is part of that. It’s not unclear. And you were definitely talking about body parts, feminism, misogyny etc. as were many of the commenters reacting to the twitter feed.

        Also I think Joseph definitely takes part in the fiat of Mary, in that he also has to accept what has been revealed, even though Mary freely does this on her own, otherwise there would be division within the holy family. Had Joseph not also freely “ratified” and participated in agreement with the fiat of Mary, the mission of bringing Christ into the world would have been significantly changed. He does play a significant role in unity with both Mary and God, and he should not be dissed as if this whole business needn’t have involved him.

        1. Huh, now I’m dissing St. Joseph. You’re really good at reading something I never said and don’t think.

          1. Well, maybe I’m just misunderstanding what you mean by saying he didn’t give anything, consent to anything, chose etc. To me it sounds like he is an afterthought and he had no participation.

            Maybe I should say this, I actually agree with you that the gingerbread house comment was bizarre. And I think, if I’m understanding you, I agree with a number of things in this post. I love St Joseph and feel a need to say how important his role was. I also love Mary, as I’m sure you do, and feel the need to try and understand but also “hash out” if you will, when something doesn’t sound quite right. I actually benefit from “arguing”, sorry if I’m just offending you. I don’t think of their roles as passive, but receptive because their active participation is required.

  6. This was amazing. You have such a gift for making the lofty and theological readable and accessible, thank you so much for sharing that. Your sister’s definition of the feminine was also profound. I’m curious if she had one for the masculine? The one who enters the other…doesn’t seem quite right.
    Also, this Taylor fellow seems like he’d be a hoot at a party….

  7. This outrage should be laid at the feet of women! Who but mothers first had their sons make and decorate gingerbread houses. My 16yo son still enjoys making gingerbread houses and decorating cookies. I can see where someone might think decorating gingerbread houses was puerile or juvenile, but I can’t see why it is effeminate. What about professional bakers? Is it only “masculine” if it makes money? What a truly American attitude. If the seminarians had established a business to sell their gingerbread houses, they’d be hailed as entrepreneurs and could have petitioned the Koch brothers for seed money.

    Karen, it is wrong of you to accuse Fr. Longnecker and Mr. Esolen of hating women. I have seen no evidence of that. Austin Ruse is a loose cannon and dishonest in his reporting, but I don’t know if he hates women. And Fr. Z , I think, only thinks about women only in so far as they pay his bills as part of the traddy and neocon crowd he panders to.

    1. I wonder who prepares the food for these seminarians on a regular daily basis. Or who will prepare their food once they become priests. It seems that most parishes no longer have part-time cooks or housekeepers, so the priests should know how to prepare food, and I don’t think they necessarily have to be bare-bones utilitarians about it. Why not make a nice thing like a gingerbread house?

      (That said, I did see someone claim that the tweet was basically in code and that the seminary in question has supposedly had other problems. But Marshall comes across as ridiculous even if that is true.)

  8. Thank you for this, which gives me language to express a concept I’ve struggled to communicate for years. I am barren and in conversation with other barren women hear pain and questions about the Church’s teaching on conception as the crowning gift of marriage, which as a vocation is intended to image the Trinity. I tried to explain that God set patterns in nature so that humanity could recognize them and understand something about Him in them. But God doesn’t need absolutely everyone to copy the same pattern in order to get His point across. He has a purpose for exceptions to His pattern as well. There is a cosmic meaning beyond specific instantiations.

    This is off the very interesting topic you discuss here, but I had to tell you how helpful this is. I feel empowered to more effectively transmit the peace I feel as a married, childless woman. Thank you.

  9. I read this yesterday about the Catholic war on Catholics, and felt utterly disgusted.

    Who do these people think they are? Big boys and girls who converted to the good side that wear capes with a big “C” on it? If they want to do penance for their randy youth or present dualism, I wish they’d keep it to themselves, and let us go on with the business of trying to be normal Catholics. Normal life is crazy enough, without adding other people’s crazy to it.

    Have they forgotten about Jesus who road into town on the foal of a donkey, and had nowhere to lay his head? Good God, it’s a freak show out there.

    This made me laugh at firsst and then feel sick to my stomach.

    1. Although it makes me very nervous to have that particular person – Bannon – get anywhere near the Church with his incendiary bombs – it seems to me like the Princess is not really insane? She says he has to convert (as unlikely as that may be to happen. ) She says the Pope is doing his level best but doesnt play her favorite hits first – a good way to describe how I feel sometimes. I have never heard of this woman, she seems to be an interesting character. Thanks for the introduction.

      1. Sorry for the typo btw–and yes he rode on a donkey. It wasn’t even a mighty donkey, it was a foal.

        I spent much of my youth around the Catholic Illuminati. They are professional belly achers. The rich ones always have that former playboy/party girl story to make their conversion appear more riveting. When they feed the poor, they do it out of their excess and rarely get uncomfortable.

        So the nineteen y.o. marries a 52 y.o. bi-sexual prince, lives her “Princess T&T” life and then it all comes crashing down. She scrambles to save the family fortune when he dies, leaving her over the hill and with bills. Ah! a conversion! So the princess does a radical 180 and gets religion, but not just *any* religion–of course not! She needs to become the best big “C” Bells and smells Catholic that can be found anywhere!–And now she is trying to get a conservative, Francis-hating school up and running on the grounds of her palace, and pitching it with: “it even has central heating”. She thinks that “he doesn’t play my favorite hits” sounds cute, and demonstrates her generosity for that south of the border, upstart Pope, who can’t say “love your neighbor” without sounding like some country bumpkin. She sighs with contempt, hoping the next Pope can sound a little more proper and to her taste. She likes Bannon’s alt right racism, but he doesn’t quite pass the smell test yet, so she fancies herself his evangelist. All of her favorite Catholic big-wigs that she loves gathering to her bosom (except Pope E. Benedict) are just like her. They can’t see what they have become. The window dressing is getting more tawdry by the day.

        1. Wow. She sounds like a horrible person. She was one of 12 women invited to Hillary Clinton’s birthday party? Dear friend of Pope Benedict? How could such a bad person have such diverse friendships. Money improves the personality I guess? As a rich person it will be very difficult for her to get to heaven. But, should I listen to you, since you “know people like her.” The alarms are ringing as I read. I guess its natural to be cynical, but it doesn’t sound Christian, all that you wrote.

          1. Mea Culpa for the possibly non Christian parts. “Lord that I might see!” This is a time of testing for all of us. That “wise as serpent and gentle as dove” can be hard to navigate.

            Are you inspired by the princess’ vision, or “favorite hits”? The Hillary part, while interesting, makes for a good plot with individuals that have psychopathic possibilities/tendencies. That she was invited to Hilary’s intimate inner circle *does* however lend credence to the fact that the far right and the far left go to such extremes as to end up holding intimate hands. While suspecting it, I always wanted to believe that this theory was too far beyond the pale! I was in denial for some time, and no longer have hope that it is not real. How awful.

            And P.S. yes, I would vote for a smart serpent, to save the country from a voracious anaconda.

            Interesting times we are living in, no?

            1. In reflection I think it was bitterness or cynicism I tasted in your words that made your writing bad to me. We have to guard against that, all of us. I do not consider HRC or BXVI to be vanguards of extreme left or right. But your theory about the extremes joining hands is no doubt true. A goal for them may be to stoke the suspicion that a monster is behind every corner, or every gingerbread house making contest! Of course you may be right, I know nothing of this person except what I looked up on wikipedia. You may know better. Strange times indeed.

  10. I couldn’t read through the whole back and forth.

    You are of course right, as you usually are, and I’m glad that you and others called him out, but I can’t help but feel worried about all of the Catholics out there that not only read Catholic blogs, but are Super Catholics on Facebook and are bombarding regular people, going about their regular day shooting off freaking Catholics TWEETS to make everyone feel even more gross about how gross obsessed Catholic “experts” can be.

    Evil must have a hand in all of this–It’s trying to spiritually batter and exhaust us, until even the very word *Catholic* makes us shudder by association.

    I don’t get that nauseous feeling from Pontifex (I check his tweets on Zenit), nor from Bishop Barron’s daily gospel reflections–they bring peace to the soul.

    1. ‘…most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. ‘ Yes indeed. This resonates with me because while I can never believe that M’ity and F’ity are as boringly silly as some people suggest (pink! blue! bake! shoot!) I am certain that there is some kind of cosmic significance to the division between the sexes that I have never seen explicated, or at any rate never explicated well.

      What do you think of the E.R. Eddison view (sometimes espoused by C.S. Lewis, although I think he knew better) that femininity is ‘of things sinister’, i.e. things that are not eternal, things that will pass away? I cannot believe this to be true, especially since a certain virgin gave birth to a son.

      1. Every definition of masculine and feminine ever written or composed can be summarized as “masculine = good and valuable; feminine = gross and stupid.”

  11. Marshall and his fellow traditionalists, including Austin Ruse, Tony Esolen — especially Tony Esolen — and Fathers Longnecker and Zuhlsdorf really do just hate women. Women bake, so it’s gross when men bake. Anything women do is, to these guys, foully tainted and disgusting and so to be shunned by men. (How men are supposed to endure the horror of being married to something so rotten is never explained all that well. )

    That said, they show in high relief a mistake Simcha is making here: assigning gender to basic human traits. Sometimes humans are creative and active and sometimes humans are receptive and passive. In the traditional schema, however, only women get stuck with being constantly passive and men get all the interesting stuff with creativity and activity. Men’s roles are far more appealing, but also exhausting. Making being creative and interesting a product of chromosomes and hormone receptors reduces the best part of being human and the image of God to being a human male. No one with any sense wants the the female role of being stupid, silent, and passive, but we do need to rest sometimes and recharge. So, humans need both. Quit assigning a gender to a universal trait, and then quit arguing that some activities are gross because women do them .

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