What is the ideal relationship between men and women?

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When I used to serve as a lector during Sunday Mass in Fall River, Mass., that reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was like pulling the short straw. You know the one: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body.”

As a recently married young man at the beginning of the third millennium after the birth of Christ, reading Paul’s instructions for husbands and wives took a great deal of care. I had to read the scripture reverently, of course, but with no hint in my voice that I offered the reading as a reminder for wayward modern women. My imagination may merely be filling in the gaps of silence, but to this day, I seem to hear guffaws from the congregation as the words echo in the church.

In his 1952 classic, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis concludes that the passage really lays the burdens pretty evenly. St. Paul kicks it off with “be subordinate to one another,” after all. Moreover, a Christ-like husband will be defined not by his lordship, but by his sacrifice for his wife and his family. If anything, Lewis concludes, the husband’s dominance is little more than a tie-breaker in the case of disagreement, and a man of his times, Lewis observed that men tend to be a little bit more outward focused.

The “of his times” part is important; our modern ears tend to lose context. In his time, St. Paul wasn’t voicing a reactionary call to send women back into subordination — quite the opposite. He was encouraging a deeper spirituality in our relationships while using those relationships as an illustration of the more theological relationship of the Church to Christ.

Our cultural sensibilities cause us to lose more than just historical context.

When St. Paul’s text came up in the lectionary late this summer, the priest offering Mass turned things around in his homily. He juxtaposed news of the first two women to graduate from Army Ranger School with a court case concerning the alleged rape of a young teen at St. Paul’s preparatory school in New Hampshire, where some say deflowering young girls is a senior tradition. The message of the homily was that women can do anything men can do and are deserving of respect.

That’s not exactly a radical message, these days. In fact, we’re several generations into the repeated narrative that men are the boorish sources of division and violence in the world. Methods of education have arguably switched from favoring the learning style of boys to favoring that of girls, with the proliferation of behavior-altering drugs like Ritalin to bring the boys in line.

It would be fair to wonder whether things have gone too far. In Ephesians, St. Paul instructs husbands to “love their wives as their own bodies.” He continues, “No one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it.” But what if boys and men stop loving their own bodies? It’s one thing to insist that men should respect women to the point of sacrificing themselves because they are the head of the body, as Paul puts it. It’s quite another thing to demand such respect when the overriding sense that men get from their community is that they have no excuse for respecting themselves.

This observation isn’t a woe-are-we exercise in self-pity. Roman Catholics, especially, should be able to see how too-rapid social change can set society’s destructive pendulum swinging. Human beings tend to go too far with these things.

Young women are about one-third more likely than young men to graduate from college, these days. In the long, slow experience of our current employment drop, the nature of the jobs that have been lost have led many to refer to the recession as a “mancession.” Any actuarial table will show that women tend to outlive men.

This topic becomes excruciatingly complex and increasingly sensitive. The first question is what we think the ideal relationship between the sexes should be; next, we can ponder how to get to that state of affairs.

Making broad points from anecdotes in the news can be an iffy practice, but one can’t help but see a warning in other stories recently in the news. On a train in France this past August, a handful of men stopped an armed terrorist, not unlike the small group of men who foiled some of the 9/11 terrorists by storming a hijacked cockpit over Pennsylvania.

The warning comes with contrasting stories. On July 4, a young man — reportedly five-feet, five inches and weighing all of 125 pounds — beat a stranger and then took out a knife to stab him to death. The other passengers backed to either end of the subway car to stay out of it. A few weeks later, a young man killed himself in the parking lot of a Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Kmart after his girlfriend had goaded him toward the act for weeks. “You can’t think about it,” she texted him when he panicked and fled his carbon monoxide-filled truck. “You just have to do it.” He got back in.

A few paragraphs down the page from his uncomfortable statement, St. Paul tells us to “put on the armor of God” so we will be “able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil.” The message is to both men and women, but most of us (as modern as we are) would probably still acknowledge that the two sexes would generally have different ways of answering the call. God created us as men and women, so it’s fair of men to ask what our armor is supposed to look like and what sort of battles it should prepare us to enter.

Yes, men should respect women; that goes without saying. Saying it, however, doesn’t take away our need for a framework of respect for men. The Catholic Church has a rich tradition from which to develop that framework for our times, although doing so may require more than a few uncomfortable public conversations.