An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

What Complementarity Is and Is Not

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).

2 responses to “What Complementarity Is and Is Not”

  1. G Zeus says:

    So will the church be open to this “creative complimentarity” when it comes to women in the priesthood? Wouldn’t they, according to your essay, bring a different perspective to the congregation?

    • DOM says:

      Thanks for your good question! It would really require a much fuller answer than I can give here, but briefly I would point out that the ministerial priesthood, which is reserved to men, is a function that was given by Christ to only his male apostles. This is clear in the Gospels, and since we also know from Scripture that Mary supersedes the apostles in holiness, and that Mary Magdalene and Martha were certainly considered by the Lord to be close friends, we can certainly wonder why they were not chosen to be “priests”. This makes us ask the question of whether there is something more than function about the priesthood. In other words, is it a way of being that is distinctly male? An easy analogy is parenthood. Women are mothers and men are fathers. They both “parent,” but they cannot be the other kind of parent.
      If you’re interested, there’s a number of articles by women theologians on complementarity compiled in the book Promise and Challenge, which I’ll be going into more in the coming weeks.

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