The difference between the genders, and the mention in my previous post of feminism, make some discussion of the idea of hierarchy inevitable. To that subject I now turn. (I have by no means exhausted even my own amateur thoughts on the subject, but it was getting a bit wall-of-text-y, so I shall continue the subject in my next.)
Catholicism is linked in the minds of most people to the notion of hierarchy. This is one of the major objections people bring against traditional Christianity. That priests should have the power to perform the sacraments while laymen do not, that the Magisterium should have the power to define doctrine while the individual believer does not, that a husband should be the head of his wife, that only males should be eligible for the priesthood -- all of this hierarchy, to most modern secularists and many modern Christians, is intolerable. It's backward, it's chauvinistic, it's undemocratic.
I do not think hierarchy is chauvinistic, though many Christians have in fact been chauvinists, and culpably used the notion of hierarchy as their apron of fig leaves. I do not find the word backward useful: if it means that our ancestors believed it, well, yes, but that does not decide the question of its truth or falsity -- it must be examined on its intellectual merits; and if it means something else then I don't know what. Hierarchy is most certainly undemocratic: given that my own political sympathies lie chiefly with anarchy and monarchy,* that does not deeply trouble me, but let us divert ourselves to that subject for a moment.
There are three reasons for being a democrat (in the sense of believing in rule by the people). One is the optimistic reason, along the lines of Rousseau, that people are so good that if you give them all a say, things will turn out for the best. This, judging from my own observations and knowledge of history, is one of the most extraordinarily silly ideas in any field. Another is the pessimistic reason, that "power corrupts" and no one should be trusted with permanent or unrestricted power over others. There is a great deal in this view. But it does nothing to explain why many monarchies and empires have been, often for long periods of time, stable, happy, and well-governed, whereas democracies, as James Madison pointed out in the Federalist Papers, have on the whole "been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."
The third reason was put best by Chesterton. "The democratic contention is that government ... is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole ... and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly" (Orthodoxy, ch. IV). The idea here is that the goodness or badness of men is irrelevant: that our ideas must proceed from the nature of mankind and not from the character of its individual specimens. It is the idea that every rational creature has, as one of its intrinsic rights, a say in its society as a whole. Democratic rulership is, in this view, not a consequence of individual worth, but an office, held by every person.
Whether this is true about politics or not, the Catholic concept of hierarchy relies on this same distinction. For example, the sacrament of Holy Orders does not confer personal superiority upon the ordinand; it confers an office, a function, which he has neither the right nor the ability to assume for himself; and the power of this office comes through his actions, but it does not come from them.
Likewise, to the extent that there is any hierarchy between the sexes, I believe it can only be approached in this manner. Masculinity and femininity are offices; even if, in the specific context of marriage, the masculine spouse is given the job of headship, it does not follow that men are better than women, and no husband (or gender theorist) has any right to pretend such superiority. The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women was a piece of sexist nonsense and bad commentary,** and other works of the same cast are of the same value. Indeed, if we are going to talk about superiority as opposed to function, since functions are often given to notably unworthy persons, the greatest (simply) human being was and is the Mother of God, a function that by definition could be held only by a woman. If anybody objects to hierarchy because of fears that hierarchy means that men are better or more important than women, then their objection is entirely sound, and a defense of hierarchy consists in showing that it does not involve that misogynistic view -- and, further, of showing that the chauvinistic interpretation of hierarchy is untrue.
But if the distinction between masculine and feminine has to do with office, rather than person, why have it at all? Why not have complete egalitarianism, of function as well as of being, in which women can hold masculine roles and men can hold feminine roles? Well, for one thing, that seems to me rather to spoil the fun of having different things to begin with: everyone could be "It" in a game of tag, but it'd get boring fast. But it also seems to neglect the full import of the archetypes, and of the relational coinherence they possess. The masculine and the feminine are not simply about humanity, as was suggested in the first post of this series. C. S. Lewis addresses something of this in the last installment of the Cosmic Trilogy:
"[S]he had been conceiving this world as 'spiritual' in the negative sense -- as some neutral, or democratic, vacuum where differences disappeared, where sex and sense were not transcended but simply taken away. Now the suspicion dawned on her that there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, sharper, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent. How if this ... were not, as she had supposed, merely a relic of animal life or patriarchal barbarism, but rather the lowest, first, and easiest form of some shocking contact with reality which would have to be repeated -- but in even larger and more disturbing modes -- on the highest levels of all?
"'Yes,' said the Director. 'There is no escape. If it were a virginal rejection of the male, He would allow it. Such souls can bypass the male and go on to meet something far more masculine, higher up, to which they must make a yet deeper surrender. But your trouble has been what the old poets called Daungier. We call it Pride. You are offended by the masculine itself: the loud, irruptive, possessive thing -- the gold lion, the bearded bull ... The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it.'" -- That Hideous Strength, ch. 14, part 5
In other words. Insofar as the masculine office represents that which initiates, that which comes in from an outside, and insofar as the feminine office represents that which receives, that which opens itself to that outside, they are icons of God and humanity, and more particularly of Christ and the Church (as St. Paul makes explicit). The distinction and even, in a specifically marital context, authority that Catholic doctrine recognizes with respect to gender, is preserving a symbolic or ritual lesson about the relationship between God and man: He initiates and we respond; He enters us and we receive Him; He is the Bridegroom, and we -- female and male, as St. John of the Cross understood very well -- are the Bride. This is one of the reasons I have tried to stress the relativity of gender, the fact that it exists in the context of relationship rather than as an abstract absolute. Gender is not a ranking system; it is a mystery play. Our genders, and the sexes that go with them, are the roles we have been cast in by the Director of the play. I suspect (suspect, not assert) that this is why, in the Church and in the family, authority is associated by Scripture and tradition with the masculine. (To avoid red herrings, I shall say here that I see no reason why the state -- which is properly governed by reason and lacks the added data of revelation -- should follow the same pattern; so that excluding women from equal participation in the political process, democratic or otherwise, is not a necessary corollary of this doctrine of hierarchy and is not something I desire.)
This is part of why there can be a simultaneous distinction between masculine and feminine roles, and yet equality between their worth. It should be noted, too, that though the authority of husbands and of priests is thus connected to masculinity as the icon of the divine, the feminine is, in a sense, the higher and more human of the two. The highest activity of mankind is to open itself to God -- to be the feminine to His masculine, speaking metaphorically. It is therefore no coincidence that, as was previously alluded to, the highest created being should be a Woman.
*It sort of makes sense, I swear.
**Though it must be admitted that the title, with its delicious and archaic polysyllables, is fairly entertaining, particularly the now quite obsolete spelling Monstruous.
Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent
Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.