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Complementarity, Differences Have Value

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.

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