An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


Prudence Allen, RSM on Complementarity

Posted Feb. 28, 2016 by DOM No comments yet
A newly married couple hold rosaries in their hands as they leave Pope Francis' general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-AUDIENCE-POWER Feb. 24, 2016.

A newly married couple hold rosaries in their hands as they leave Pope Francis’ general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Feb. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-AUDIENCE-POWER Feb. 24, 2016.

For the final February reflection on complementarity, MUR looks to Sr. Prudence Allen’s article, “Man-Woman Complementarity: The Catholic Inspiration” for insight. Allen is one of the most influential Catholic theologians in this particular area, and this article focuses on the historical development of the concept of integral complementarity which was mentioned last week.

Integral complementarity holds together the two elements of identity (equal dignity) and difference when it comes to the sexes. Allen writes, “When one of the two fundamental principles of gender relation—equal dignity and significant difference—is missing from the respective identities of man and woman, the balance of a complementarity disappears into either a polarity or unisex theory.”[i] Balance is a key word to keep in mind whenever the issue of complementarity arises.

Allen reviews briefly the historical development of theories on gender and sexual difference, pointing out that “fractional complementarity” (such as Plato’s idea of two “halves”) easily leads to stereotypes of what a man or a woman should do or is capable of, usually placing men in a superior position. On the other hand, ideologies like Marxism reject any acknowledgment of difference in preference of a unisex approach. Radical feminism seems to go in both directions at various times, taking a more fractional view in order to place women above men, or looking to abolish (forcibly, if necessary) any difference between the sexes.

To look at a Catholic understanding, Allen turns to Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Dietrich von Hildebrand. Stein sees that the bodily difference between male and female is but a fraction of the whole picture, and that the true difference is metaphysical, since “Matter serves form, not the reverse.”[ii] Pointing out that a woman is created in such a way as to support life from within while a man does so in a detached form leads, Stein believes, to a fundamentally different experience of the world. She sees this as a woman being inwardly receptive and more personal and holistic in her thinking while a man is more outwardly focused and compartmentalized in his thinking. Allen notes that Stein’s thought has some weaknesses as to particular characteristics of masculinity and femininity, but she made a large contribution. Von Hildebrand emphasizes, like Stein, the metaphysical dimension of complementarity. Both man and woman are complete persons, in no way incomplete if they are not married, for example. When a man and a woman come together, though, “the effect is synergetic” and something new happens. Allen describes this with the formula 1+1à3.[iii]  It is worth noting that this is not limited to the gift of a child (as wonderful as that is!) but applies in all areas where collaboration results in something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The rest of Allen’s article (which I encourage you to read in full) is a survey of the excellent and unparalleled contributions of Pope St. John Paul II to this field of knowledge. His work deepened complementarity to the ontological level—in other words, he saw the difference between man and woman at the level of being, at the very center of their existence.

In conclusion, Allen writes that while the world and secular society vacillate between the two poles of polarity and sameness, the Catholic faith steps in to offer an integrated view in which man and woman are called together to “transform the world through a new evangelization of cooperation and interpenetrating work.”[iv]

[i] Prudence Allen, RSM, “Man-Woman Complementarity: The Catholic Inspiration” in Logos 9:3 (Summer 2006), p. 87.
[ii] Ibid, p. 93.
[iii] Ibid, p. 95.
[iv] Ibid, p. 105.


Complementarity, Differences Have Value

Posted Feb. 21, 2016 by DOM No comments yet

Nowadays, statements about sexual difference are never without controversy. Science is always conducted by human beings, none of whom can be completely objective, and everyone’s experience necessarily comes into play when this topic is discussed. We can all find exceptions to every so-called “rule” about what men or women are good at, or are like.

You may remember the dust-up in 2005, when Harvard University President Larry Summers made remarks about the fewer number of women in the “hard sciences,” such as physics. He suggested that some of this disproportion may be due to an innate difference in male and female mathematical ability. He was made to apologize for his statement, which had been perceived as highly controversial and demeaning to women. Without delving into this particular issue, we should consider whether differences like this must be regarded as negative, if they do exist. Perhaps the fact that a statement about difference is taken to be negative by so many reveals a deep cultural bias toward particular skills or aptitudes, such as higher mathematics, which, more often than not, are skills that are typically associated with men rather than women.

Where is the outcry when someone points out the innate difference between men and women when it comes to multitasking? As a rule (which always admits exceptions), women are much more naturally skilled at it; they (or “we,” since the writer is a woman) can keep track of many things at the same time. Why is that skill seen as any less important than an aptitude for higher mathematics?

This strange value scale is also tied to the way that caregivers of all kinds tend to be less valued than other positions in the workforce, despite being possibly the most important for the overall health of the community. Think of stay-at-home parents, teachers, nurses, or social service providers. Should people who fulfill those roles really be considered less important or valuable than others?

Instead of these negative ways of viewing sexual differences, let’s look at how the Church treats them. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that being made in the image of God and called to the gift of self “applies to every human being, whether woman or man, who live it out in accordance with the special qualities proper to each.”[i] A man giving himself necessarily looks and is experienced differently from a woman giving herself. This is not only on the bodily level in sexual union, but before that, through their spiritual exchange and contributions to those around them. In fact, according to St. Edith Stein, the soul has “priority” in the difference of the sexes—in other words, the soul is masculine or feminine and that is why the body is, not the other way around, since the soul is the “form” of the body.[ii] It is sexual difference that allows persons to give themselves away, whether that is in marriage or virginity, and this is not only positive but also a source of new life (as Peter and Katie talk about in Made for Life).

Next week, we’ll get more into this “integral complementarity” model which seems to be the best fit for the work of Pope St. John Paul II in the area of sexual difference, and is expounded by Prudence Allen and a number of other theologians.

[i] Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 7.

[ii] For more detailed explanation of Stein’s philosophy, and others, please see Prudence Allen, RSM, “Man-Woman Complementarity: The Catholic Inspiration” in Logos 9:3, Summer 2006.



Complementarity in Philosophy and Social Commentary

Posted Feb. 14, 2016 by DOM No comments yet

GKC meme truismsComplementarity in Philosophy and Social Commentary

This post is by no means exhaustive, or even representative, of all the thinking about male-female complementarity that has been done in the field of philosophy. It is simply a sample of ideas on the topic that may prove helpful.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) talks about complementarity in terms of the division of labor in the family. He writes about the friendship of husband and wife in Nicomachean Ethics (Book VIII, Chapter xii). Noting that the home is “prior and more necessary” than the political world, Aristotle asserts that work is divided between the two in order to provide for one another. He also argues that children, the common good of the couple, are what bind them together. Aquinas (1225-1274) points out that man and woman united in marriage are meant to be educators for their children, not only procreators (Question XLIX, second article).

Social commentator G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote an essay entitled “The Equality of Sexlessness” in which he joked that, “When all are sexless, there will be equality. There will be no women and no men. There will be but fraternity, free and equal. The only consoling thought it that it will endure but for one generation.”[i] In his writing, he continually affirms the importance of domestic life for all of society, since it shapes the future generations, and he points out that children “require to be taught not so much anything as everything.”[ii] This, he says, is why women are such incredible multi-taskers and “janes of all trades.”

Christian theologian Gilbert Meilaender (b. 1946) penned an essay on male-female friendship arguing that friendship between persons of different sexes is always qualitatively different from same-sex friendship. Basing some of his reflections on the aforementioned Nicomachean Ethics, Meilaender says that friends enjoy sharing in activities together, knowing that another person likes the same things they like. “The friend must be ‘another,’” he writes, “but not entirely ‘an-other,’” as with someone of the opposite sex. They understand each other differently. This is observable through common experience. “I know exactly how you feel,” is more likely to be said truly to someone of the same sex. Meilaender postulates that conversation always changes, even if the topic does not, when a person of the opposite sex joins in. (This is supported by the popular book genre that promises to help readers interpret the other sex’s speech, such as You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation). Miscommunication between the sexes is also a ripe field for the scope of comedy, as seen in this fictional conversation by Dave Barry.

There seems to be general agreement in the world today that there are differences between the sexes, and that they are a result of both nature and nurture; there’s disagreement mostly about how different, and what those differences may imply. Next week we will go a little deeper into the possible meaning behind these differences.

[i] G.K. Chesterton, “The Equality of Sexlessness,” Brave New Family (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990) p. 101.

[ii] G.K. Chesterton, “The Emancipation of Domesticity,” Brave New Family, p. 112.




FAQ Series: Isn’t that Discrimination?

Posted Feb. 10, 2016 by DOM 5 comments


In the last of the 5-week series, MUR is going over the FAQ #10 in Section 3: But isn’t it unjust discrimination to not allow two men (or two women) to marry?

The word “discrimination” is most often used to speak of the unjust treatment of persons based on race, sex, age, or disability. Indeed that has become the first definition of the word today, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (and others). We are taught from a young age that it is wrong to discriminate and that we should always seek to be inclusive and aware of our biases or prejudices. While unjust discrimination is still a serious problem in the U.S., the question of redefining marriage is unrelated to it.

Like most words, discrimination has multiple meanings. Marriage law always contains a certain type of discrimination because it makes distinctions. The second definition of discrimination is: “the ability to understand that one thing is different from another thing.”[i] That certainly describes noting the distinction between marriage and any other type of sexual relationship. There is a difference, and this difference is worthy of recognition by everyone, including the government. Acknowledging the real and essential differences between types of sexual relationships is not discriminatory.

It is not discrimination if a person who cannot swim is rejected for a position as a lifeguard or swim instructor. It is not discrimination when a man who cannot lift 25 pounds is not hired as a piano mover. And it is not discrimination when a man is not permitted to play in a women’s tennis tournament. In the same way, noting that two men or two women cannot be the procreative, comprehensive union that marriage is, is not (unjust) discrimination.

Only a man and a woman are capable of sexual activity that may yield children. The government has a strong interest in protecting the right of those children to a mother and a father and in reducing the likelihood that those children will become wards of the state. The civil law of marriage (until recently) served both these interests by legally bonding adult couples to any children they may create, and to each other.

On the other hand, the sexual activity of two persons of the same sex never yields children, so the government does not have a very compelling interest in getting involved. The government does not care who your best friend is; you don’t need a license for friendship or cohabitation. It would be eminently reasonable, and in no way unjust, for law to distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.

Likewise, it is reasonable that a professional serving a customer can distinguish between activities that express approval for same-sex sexual behavior and those that do not. The cases discussed in the next section deal with people who happily served each of their customers, with no thought to the person’s “private” life, until they were asked to do something directly celebrating their sexual relationship. These people simply declined to celebrate what they consider to be immoral behavior.

[i] “Discrimination.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (accessed February 3, 2016).


What Complementarity Is and Is Not

Posted Feb. 7, 2016 by DOM 2 comments

For the month of February, MUR will explore the concept of the complementarity of the sexes.

Complementarity is a word that comes up a lot when talking about marriage and trying to explain the Church’s teaching on it. Unfortunately, it sometimes has negative connotations, some of which can be downright offensive to either sex.

Today as we kick off Complementarity February (an MUR original), we are going to start with what complementarity is NOT.

It is not “You complete me,” a la Jerry Maguire.

It is not Plato’s conception of “two halves of the same soul” who were split apart by jealous gods (see The Symposium).

And finally, it is not even, “He’s helpless in the kitchen and she’s helpless with the car.”

Instead, complementarity is the awesome fact that everything Martha does, as a human being, she does as a woman. Everything Bob does, as a human being, he does as a man. Martha and Bob are different, and we thank God for that. When Martha and Bob fall in love, there is an vitality there that derives from their fundamental sexual difference.

I have never met a married couple who said, “Yeah, we’re basically the same.” Even when they share interests, philosophies, goals, skills, and ideas, a man and a woman in love always come up to an “otherness” that will never go away. He will never think the same way she does about X, Y, or Z. She will never react the same way he does to A, B, or C. Part of that is due to sexual difference. Complementarity means that a man finds in a woman, and vice versa, a whole person who experiences the world in a completely different way that is equally valid.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote: masculinity and femininity are “two reciprocally completing ways of ‘being a body’ and at the same time of being human—… two complementary dimensions of self-knowledge and self-determination and, at the same time, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body.”[i] He means that being human means being a body-soul unity, a person with not only intelligence, will, emotions, and a soul but also a body that requires food, drink, sleep, exercise, and even to go to the bathroom. There are two ways of being a human person—a male way and a female way. These are not biological deterministic concepts because they are about the whole person, body and soul together.

When men and women are together — whether they are married or whether they are simply friends, co-workers, or acquaintances — there is something “creative” about their collaboration, as long as they are open to the others’ uniqueness. Neither should dismiss the other’s perspective, but neither can they fully enter into it. Pope Francis pointed out that these days we don’t always know how to handle this difference. He said, “For example, I ask myself, if the so-called gender theory is not, at the same time, an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it. Yes, we risk taking a step backwards. The removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution.”[ii]

For too long, men and women defined their differences by what they were “able to do,” which both overemphasized and, at the same time, minimized the truth — the truth that men and women in many ways can do the same things, but they will not do them the same way.

In conclusion, here is a section from Mulieris Dignitatem, in which Pope St. John Paul II gave a list of female saints to consider: “Monica, the mother of Augustine, Macrina, Olga of Kiev, Matilda of Tuscany, Hedwig of Silesia, Jadwiga of Cracow, Elizabeth of Thuringia, Birgitta of Sweden, Joan of Arc, Rose of Lima, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Mary Ward” (no. 27). It would be difficult to find a more diverse group of women. As a parallel list for men, how about Joseph, husband of Mary, Ignatius of Loyola, John Vianney, Maximilian Kolbe, Padre Pio, Pier Giorgio Frassati, Martin de Porres, Francis and King Louis IX. God created us all to be saints, and none of us will be exactly like anyone else. The equality-in-difference of the saints shows us that men and women will always be masculine or feminine, and even more so when they are who God called them to be.

[i] John Paul II, Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), p. 166. See also USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan (2009), pp. 9-11.

[ii] Pope Francis, “On Man and Woman” General Audience, April 15, 2015).



FAQ Series: What about infertility?

Posted Feb. 3, 2016 by DOM No comments yet

FAQ-4-memeIn this fourth of the 5-week series, MUR is going over the FAQ #3 in Section 2: What’s the difference between a husband and wife who can’t have children, and two persons of the same sex, who also can’t have children?

This is a great question and one that requires a bit of patience to find a satisfying answer. The soundbite answer is: A man and a woman, united in the sexual act, is always and only the type of act that can result in the conception of a child.

As the MUR FAQ puts it, even when a husband and wife do not in fact conceive a child (due to infertility, age, and so on), their sexual acts are still the kind of acts by which children are naturally conceived. In contrast, two persons of the same sex may be perfectly healthy, but will never be able to enter a one-flesh communion and thus unite in such a way that a child is conceived.

On the human level, the marriage between a man and a woman, regardless of whether they have children, is deeply affected by the relationship of each of them has to their parents. You see, every child has a mother and a father, and then grows up, and to some extent bases his (or her) understanding of marriage and relationships on what he saw between his own parents.

Let’s flip the question around a bit: if marriage is supposedly about children, then why allow couples who cannot procreate to be married?

Well, first of all, we never said that marriage is only about children. We’ll come back to that later.

Setting aside the privacy issues and the horrifying idea of the government being allowed to peek into health records before issuing marriage licenses, hopefully the answer is still pretty clear: because a man and woman, no matter what, can share the whole of their lives with each other, uniting bodies, hearts, minds and souls. The community benefits from every witness of fidelity and love between a husband and a wife. Children in their extended families and neighborhoods can see in them a picture of love, of what is possible, even if their own parents are not together. They may choose to open their marriage to children through adoption, foster care, or other more temporary arrangements, or they may choose to serve in any number of different ways. They are still complements to one another.

A quick philosophy lesson before the next question: An accident means a trait or a quality that something has, that is not always or necessarily there. For example, color is often an accident; an apple doesn’t have to be red to be an apple. The essence, on the other hand, is what makes something be what it is. It’s not an apple if it’s a pear, even if the pear is red.

So here’s the question: Is the impossibility of conceiving a child an accident in the couple, or connected essentially to their relationship?

A man and a man, or a woman and a woman, cannot become parents together, by definition, by essence. Their infertility is a result of the nature of human beings, not to an accident of infertility in one or the other (or both).

Does that help?