The Sad Loss of Gender

(Ivan Illich)

The social philosopher Ivan Illich is author of numerous books, including The Deschooling of Society, Medical Nemesis and Gender. In the following comments, excerpted from a long conversation which took place at the McCormick Seminary in Chicago, Illich reviews some of the themes of Gender.

We have lost, irretrievably, a way of being human. And although there still remains, in our flesh almost, the vague presence of something which has been, I do not see how such an ephemera can be passed on to our children. Standing beyond the edge of an extraordinarily rich and varied epoch, we must now face the sad loss of gender. The epilogue of the industrial age and its chimeras may be read in this loss.

At the end of the 20th century, the modern myth of sexual equality has finally triumphed completely over the complementarity of gender, in which the plurality of cultures – distinct ways of living, dying and suffering – was rooted. The reign of vernacular gender marked a profoundly different mode of existence than what prevails under what I call the regime of economic sex. They are male/female dualities of a very different kind: Economic sex is the duality of one plus one, creating a coupling of exactly the same kind; gender is the duality of two parts that make a whole which is unique, novel, nonduplicable.

By “economic sex” I mean the duality that stretches toward the illusory goal of economic, political, legal and social equality. Male and female are neutered economic agents, stripped of any quality other than the functions of consumer and worker.

By “complementary gender” I mean the eminently local and time-bound duality that sets off men and women under circumstances that prevent them from saying, doing, desiring, or perceiving “the same thing.” Together they create a whole which cannot be reduced to the sum of equal, merely interchangeable parts; a whole made of two hands, each of a different nature.

Gender implies a complementarity within the world that is fundamental and closes the world in on “us,” however ambiguous or fragile this closure might be. The domains of activity inside that closure – be it child rearing, cooking, sewing, plowing, the use of a hammer or a pot – have a dignity and meaning, often ritually expressed or mythologically represented, and valued solely by its contribution to the subsistence of a community.

Before industrial times, no culture lacked a gender dividing line in the use of tools, although no two cultures drew that line in exactly the same way. In many pockets of rural Europe today, tools still smell of gender. In Styria, for example, men’s sickle’s are clean- edged for cutting; women’s sickle’s are indented and curved, made for the gathering of stalks. Animals are also tied to gender. In one area of the upper Danube, women feed cows but never the draught animals. Farther east, women milk cows that belong to the homestead, while the herd in the pastures is milked by men.

In short, each activity is embedded in a circumscribed whole. How that embeddedness is articulated defines the novel way of life of a community, what I call the “art of living” or “art of suffering” and what is commonly referred to as culture. No one is the same, or does the same thing. Men and women complement each other; nothing which is necessary for their life in society can be done by their hand alone. Discrimination has no meaning in this context.

The Origins of Discrimination

Once gender is disembedded from the commons, and ways of doing things are transformed into scarcity-based exchanges or tasks of production meted out as the exchange of labor for pay, discrimination arises. Of everything economics measures, women get less.

Clearly, the rise of market relations, the penetration of capitalism, monetarization and commodity dependence accelerated the abolition of gender.

I believe, however, that the demise of gender preceded the rise of capitalism, dating to the middle of the 12th century in Europe. It was in the first marriage contract that we find the origins of the notion of male/female equality in the idea of bonding equal parts in a contractual couple. Before men and woman took the marriage Oath before God, swearing had been completely prohibited by the Church. Henceforth, God became the cement, the witness of a bond between two individuals broken out of the community as abstract, legal entities.

This mechanization of the “thou” of the other gender ended the self-imposed limits of community and opened up the possibility of unlimited inter-marriage. Hence, the limited size of community, once imposed by gender, dissolved and the concreteness of the “we” disappeared.

That transition, in my view, was the key anthropological root of the birth of a new kind of conceptualization of human activity: society and culture as a “system” with interchangeable and substitutable parts. Also arising out of this transition was an abstract notion of the global “we,” disembedded from any concrete reality and seeking the fulfillment of “needs” made scarce by a limitless domain of possibility.

By the end of the 20th century, “systems” thinking has gone so far that the main demand of the global “we” is the equal provision of the universally standard requirements for average survival – which in its most advanced stage means biocracy: the management of human life from sperm to worm, from conception to organ harvest. All that was disembedded from a way of being in the limited community must now be managed, with the result that everyone is assigned the same way of living.

It has occurred to me that besides the thesis of Ivan Illich that the experience and therefore consciousness of gender has been lost because of the rise of the machine since the 17-18th c., there is a deeper and more difficult cause of the loss of gender. And that is the loss of the experience and therefore consciousness of being man as male, and woman as female, and that is the loss of the  experience of living the sacrifice of the Mass in the street.   

The reasons that occur to me are in the profundity of epistemology. That is, The only way I know reality is to know myself as “real.” And I know myself as “real” only if I experience myself in the act of going out of myself, Not by thinking about myself, but by experiencing myself acting as in convering from myself. I think I am embedded in the epistemology of Joseph Ratzinger if I speak of conversion of self to God or to other. This is solidly Ratzinger as in “Behold the Pierced One” (Thesis III) as well as John Paul II in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in the chapter “Proof, Is It Still Valid?”

In short, the only being I know to be real is myself in the act of experiencing myself, not thinking, but acting as in conversion away from self. That is, the only “I” I experience is myself in this self-transcendence . This is the only being I experience, because only I can exercise my own freedom. And, when I do, I know it. No one else can exercise it.


I short handed an article of Ratzinger entitled, “What the Church Believes” with my own: “The What of Faith is the “I” of the Believer” – and I think it reports his mind correctly.

(taking a break)

    John Cavidini, Mary Healey and  Thomas Weinandy write that the people today who are looking for a mo re vibrant  liturgy and “meaningful” Mass are looking for something that they have been taught to look for from the spirit and theology of Vaticah II, but not  finding it in the Novus Ordo  Mass. They are looking for tha Mass as the Action of the total Person of Jesus Christ in the complete gift of Himself  in obedience to death. But they have not been formed to live the spirit of the Mass as the actionof Christ Himself in ordinary, daily work. 

They do not come to the Mass with the spirit of giving themselves to God in the service of the others. They come, and they watch, or they pray devotionally. But they are not players. They don’t have skin in the game. They want the real thing. The know that they have been called since the Council to be active participators in the Mass. But they have not been able to hear the clear call to sanctity in the street, and therefore to live it then with the vieiw to living it in the street. The reality is that I don’t know where to find this except in the reality of living the two sharings of the priesthood of Christ in Opus Dei.

The two sharings in the one priesthood of Christ was not to be found in the Theology of the Mass of Trent Hence, Pope Francis suppressed the pre-Vatican II liturgiy. He wrote in “Desiderio Desiderare” #61: “For this reason we cannot go back to that ritual form which the Council fathers, cum Petro et sub Petro, felt the need to reform, approving, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and following their conscience as pastors, the principles from which was born the reform. The holy pontiffs St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, approving the reformed liturgical books ex decreto Sacrosancti Œcumenici Concilii Vaticani II, have guaranteed the fidelity of the reform of the Council. For this reason I wrote Traditionis custodes, so that the Church may lift up, in the variety of so many languages, one and the same prayer capable of expressing her unity. [23]“.

    D.  Pedro Rogrguez writes: in “Opus Dei in the Church:” “So, what we find in Opue Dei, different yet complementing one another, are the two ecclesial forms of participating in Christ’s priesthood. We find both the ‘substantial’’ priority of Opus Dei’s lay faiful, at whose service is the priestly ministry, and the ‘functional’ priority of the sacred ministry, in whose head (the prelate) resides the sacra potestas that governs the prelature. The clergy’s ‘functional’ priority was described by the founder when he said that the ministerial priesthood ‘impregnates with its spirit our personal life and all our apostolic work.’ Opus Dei’s Statues put it more technically: ‘Under the prelate’s authority, the clergy, by by means of their priestly ministry, enliven and inform all of Opus Dei.’ But if these terms – inform, enliven  – point to a ‘functional priority , they also clearly manifest the ‘substantial priority’  (my emphasis) of Opus Dei’s lay faithful. Graphically, the founder told the Work’s priests that their task is to be a ‘carpet’ for others. He wrote: ‘In Opus Dei we’re all equal. There’s only a practical difference: priests are more bound to place their hearts on the floor like a carpet, so that their brothers and sisters may tread softly.”And may I add, that the prototype/paradigm of the layman is the Virgin Mary. She is the examplar par excellence to the layman as common priest (as in Baptism) who is to be served, affimed and loved by the hierarchical priest in the sacrament of Orders.

     So, what has happened? The Church has been clericaliized by not giving priority to the laity as priestly male and female. That women cannot be hierarchical priests does not jeopardize their being priests of Jesus Christ by Baptism, with the substantial priority of the Virgin over all others. And by being clericalized in favor of the male as priest, the universal perception of gender has been damaged.

Consider this:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s