I’ll admit it: at one point, I was confused about the Catholic sexual ethics of infertility. On one occasion, I was having coffee with a secular friend who asked me all kinds of questions about what married couples could and could not do, Josephite marriages, the difference between infertility and impotency, and even bizarre hypotheticals like “what if one of the spouses developed a disease that made having sex fatal for six months?!” While I can’t promise that this post will answer that last question, hopefully it will make the Church’s teachings on impotence and infertility a bit clearer.
The Catholic Church teaches that those who are impotent—that is, those who are incapable of having sexual intercourse—cannot marry. (I know, to the modern ear, like my friend, this might sound odd and even harsh). Because procreation and unity are the two natural ends of marriage, and because both of these ends are fulfilled in the sexual embrace, it follows that the sexually impotent cannot marry. As per the Code of Canon Law No. 1084, §1: “Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature.” By “antecedent” and “perpetual,” it is meant that one cannot be impotent either before marriage (antecedent) or permanently during marriage (perpetual); this means that one is considered impotent if they cannot have intercourse at all or if they cannot have intercourse specifically with his or her spouse.
It is important, however, to clarify what being impotent does not mean. Impotence is not infertility. While impotence means the inability to have sex, infertility means the inability to conceive children. Thus, impotence and sterility/infertility are not the same. The Church does not consider infertility as an impediment to marriage, and married couples who suffer from infertility have marriages just as natural and valid as those who are able to conceive children.
But one might object: how can an infertile couple fulfill the procreative end of marriage if they cannot conceive children? In answer to this question, the Church maintains that a couple can be infertile but nonetheless remain open to life. How can this be, knowing that their marital embrace will not result in conceiving a child? If we remember back to our earliest posts on the meaning of nature, we established that human beings possess a distinct human nature, one impulse of which is an inclination to procreate. Like all mammals, human beings are endowed with the complimentary sex organs in order to carry out this task. These sex organs have an end or a purpose: to facilitate procreation.
Sometimes, there is a defect in the sex organs that makes the fulfilling of this end impossible: if the sex organs are constructed such that a man and a woman cannot properly unite, then this would be a case of impotence. However, sometimes the impediment is not due to the functionality of the sex organs, but due to other factors that make conception impossible. In other words, if a couple is capable of having intercourse, then they are still capable of using their sex organs for their natural purpose, even if they know that the procreative end of the sex organs cannot be achieved.
We encounter these kinds of scenarios in our day-to-day lives all the time. For instance, it does not betray the natural end of the digestive organs to eat one when is not hungry. I can enjoy a piece of cake even if I know it won’t nourish me because eating in general is the natural function of my digestive system. The fact that my body is not nourished by the cake does not mean I have done something wrong. However, imagine now that I eat an inordinately large portion of cake for the express purpose of purging it later. This would be an abuse of my digestive organs, if I intentionally used my organs for a purpose contrary to their nature.
In this way, couples who affirm the natural end of the sex organs while struggling with infertility are nonetheless open to life despite for some reason not being able to have children. They do nothing to make intercourse sterile but give themselves to each other as they are. By having intercourse, the couple affirms the natural end of procreation in itself. They affirm that the sexual embrace between husband and wife is naturally designed for the procreation of children. We can think about it this way: an infertile couple may know with almost complete certainty that they will not conceive a child. But the infertile couple is still open to life in the sense that if, against all odds, sexual intercourse did lead to conception, the married couple would be open to this new life. Why? Because this is what sexual intercourse was designed to do.
This is also the same logic behind Natural Family Planning. Unlike the couple suffering with infertility, a married couple may decide that a certain time is not practical for conceiving a child, so they reserve intercourse to the infertile time when conception is unlikely. However, the married couple is still open to life in the sense that if they were to conceive a child during this time, they would nonetheless be open to children. They do nothing to sterilize an act of intercourse by abstaining from sex at that time.
Again, couples that struggle with infertility are no less open to life than couples who have no problem conceiving, and their marriages are no less valid or fruitful. As St. Pope John Paul II said in a message to infertile couples in a 1982 homily, “You are no less loved by God; your love for each other is complete and fruitful when it is open to others, to the needs of the apostolate, to the needs of the poor, to the needs of orphans, to the needs of the world.”
In our next post, we will continue to discuss infertility and the licit methods for treating it. We will see that some methods of treating infertility, even certain technological ones, are perfectly licit, while others are gravely immoral.
 By the way, this comment is merely a logical distinction. It in no way affirms that people ought to have sexual intercourse before/outside of marriage.
 The same logic is behind Josephite marriages (an extremely rare example). If a married couple decides (together!) that they are called to abstain from intercourse, this does not render their marriage invalid, since they are still capable of having intercourse and are thus open to life. The Josephite couple recognizes and affirms the natural end of the sexual embrace, and it is still an integral part of their marriage even if they are not actively trying to conceive children
 Pope John Paul II, “Homily at the Mass for Families During the Apostolic Pilgrimage to Nigeria, Benin, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea” (Rome, 13 February 1982) http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1982/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19820213_onitsha-nigeria.html
About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
The complementarity of men and women does not mean that men and women are half-people walking around looking for their other half (sorry, Plato). This episode explores complementarity with stories from Andy Lichtenwalner, Deborah Savage, Joseph Capizzi, Pat and Elisa Fleming from Verdant View farm.
NOTE: I have just learned that the Flemings’ barn, which housed their 60 cows, burned down last week. Please pray for them.
And here are more clips from MUR videos about this theme:
The final section we are going to discuss from Made for Each Other has to do with what is traditionally called the two “ends” (or purposes, reasons for existing) of marriage. The Church teaches that because marriage is the total gift of one spouse’s life to the other, it entails both the gift of love and the gift of children. Marriage is the gift for life and the gift of life. It’s unique and irreplaceable—the fundamental institution for life.
The Church affirms that the love of husband and wife is a great good in and of itself, even if they do not receive the gift of a child. Human marriage is a foreshadowing of the marriage between Christ and his Church and sacramental marriage participates in and shows forth this love (see Eph 5:28-33).
Marriage lived in truth is an indispensable model of communion for the world and an affirmation that life is good. The love of husband and wife reminds us all that no one is an isolated individual, that we need one another at the most fundamental level. This love is meant to be the context for welcoming, forming, and educating new life. This is why marriage, as a personal relationship, has always been recognized to have great, public significance. The love of spouses, the responsibilities of mothers and fathers, and the rights of children—all are tied to the unique truth of marriage and its protection and promotion.
The Church will never waver in her teaching that marriage is the lifelong union of a woman and a man, open to life. From the beginning, man and woman are made for each other. There is nothing else like it.
- How is marriage the “gift for life” and the “gift of life”?
- The public proposal to “redefine” marriage to include persons of the same sex is fairly recent. How is it connected to a larger confusion around the meaning of the person and sex?
- How is this meaning inseparable from the truth of marriage as the union of one man and one woman?
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Mt 19:5)
In this section of Made for Each Other, Josh and Carrie explore what sexual difference may look like in a given couple. Men and women are, as Carrie puts it, “different in ways that will always matter.” Biology is important, but the body and the person are not reducible to biology. Sexual difference involves the whole person, body and soul.
The body reveals the person. We’re not souls trapped in bodies. We’re “body-persons.” We don’t just have a body. We are our bodies. (We even have words for people who are without one or the other—a corpse is a body that is missing a soul; a ghost is (perhaps) a soul missing a body.) The body of a man and the body of a woman are distinct, personal realities. In addition, as Pope St. John Paul II taught, these bodies have a “spousal meaning.”[i] The body, in its masculinity or femininity, reveals that we are persons who are made to be a gift to others and to be received as a gift by others.
Every human person shares the same nature (human) and the same dignity, made in the image of God. Our sexual identity as a man or a woman is the way in which that humanity is manifested. This identity is meant to be acknowledged and accepted as a gift from God.[ii] It has significance for all the various ways we relate to others: we are a daughter or a son, a sister or a brother, a mother or a father.
While some play down the reality of sexual difference or limit it to the differences between female and male anatomy, sciences such as neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, endocrinology, histology, and reproductive physiology—to name a few—point to the intricate, unique, and complementary physiologies of women and men. We may have conversations differently; take risks differently; form and process relationships differently; respond to threats differently. These differences do not imply that one sex is superior to the other. Men and women are just different. Admitting this does not diminish either sex but serves to enhance the possibility of their unity in love.
Of course, men and women differ among themselves, as well as differing from each other. Sex differences in each and every trait need not be present in each and every individual woman or man. But the way a trait is lived out will always be distinct, whichever person, man or woman, is exhibiting it. For example, the way that St. Joan of Arc was a soldier was not the same as a man’s way.
Our gender, which can be distinguished but not separated from our sex, is a fundamental “given” in our lives. Male and female are two different ways of being human, body and soul.
- What does it mean to say that “the body reveals the person”?
- How do equality and difference go together when speaking of man and woman? How does complementarity depend upon difference?
 See Amoris Laetitia, no. 56.
[i] See TOB, 13:1–16:2. See also Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, no. 37, and Veritatis Splendor, no. 15.
[ii] See CCC, nos. 2332-2333.
In our second clip from Made for Each Other, Carrie ends with the comment, “Our sexual difference doesn’t compete; it complements.” Sexual unity and the coming-to-be of babies depend on the difference between man and woman. The husband gives his whole self (body, mind, heart, soul) to his wife; the wife gives her whole self to her husband. This happens in a particularly clear and dramatic way when the gift of the body is offered in marital intercourse. The spouses give themselves and receive each other in and through their difference. As Josh says, “every natural process of the body” can be done by oneself—“everything but making love and having children,” which depends upon the other person being different. Sexual difference is the avenue towards real union, a union that is also open to life.
Sexual difference concerns the whole person, as Carrie points out. Only through this difference can a man and a woman give themselves fully and love each other as spouses. This isn’t unjust discrimination; it’s an actual distinction, a matter of reality. Sexual intercourse in marriage is a way of communicating, it is a language spoken face-to-face. Part of the essential grammar of this language is sexual difference. Without it, marriage can’t be spoken of.[i]
Men and women are equal and different. Difference is a great and necessary good. “It’s constructive,” as Josh says. Sexual difference is what enables a man and a woman to form a unique bond for life, a union that is deeper than friendship and lasts until death. A husband gives to his wife what only a husband can give. Likewise, a wife gives to her husband what only a wife can give. And together, they give the world new life!
- Do you think sexual difference is understood and appreciated today? Why or why not?
- How can we help others reflect on the importance of sexual difference and complementarity?
[i] This is also why sex outside of marriage doesn’t make any sense. Sex itself speaks a language of total commitment and gift—faithful and indissoluble love. That’s the language of marriage. Sex outside of marriage always says something that is untrue. It’s pretending. Real love depends on truth, and truth depends on love (see Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Caritas in Veritate [Washington, DC: USCCB, 2009], nos. 1-9).
In this segment of the video, Josh and Carrie discuss the way that marriage is not like being roommates who live together, but separately. Man and woman are made for each other in a way that is absolutely unique. We see this through their sexual difference, even if we just look to the human body as male or female. A man’s body does not make sense by itself, nor does a woman’s; only together is it possible to get the whole picture of humanity. At a deeper level, as Josh says in the video, there is also a longing of the one for the other. There are always and only two ways of being human: we cannot be the other, so we want to be with the other.
We are made for union and communion, to be in relation with others.[i] In Genesis, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gn 2:18). God’s solution to man’s isolation is not to create another identical man. Rather, He creates a woman from the man’s side and gives the two to each other in the first marriage. “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mt 19:5; cf. Gn 2:24).
The two become one flesh in the physical act of sexual intercourse, in which the bodies of the man and woman cooperate in an act which may bring about the procreation of another human being. As Eve says, “I have produced a male child with the help of the LORD”(Gn 4:1). There is only one “combination” of human bodies that can produce new life: a man and a woman. If you accept the idea that human life has special value, then you should also accept that the (one and only) natural action that can bring this life into existence is, by that fact, unique in its power and importance to the world.
The truth of the human person, created male and female, and the truth of what marriage is, are not only concerns of religion or religious people—they are truths that affect everyone.
- Why is it important to society that marriage be based on sexual difference?
- Why is the fact of our being created male and female not simply a tool for the survival of the species?
 Even in those rare cases of atypical genetic or physical development, the fundamental question is whether the person is male or female. There are only “X” and “Y” chromosomes, there is no “other” sex. In such cases, we rely on natural science that can help determine biological sex. This knowledge will help the person to understand his or her sexual identity.
[i] See CCC, nos. 45, 371-372, 1603-1604, and 1877-1879.
Archbishop Chaput, Chairman-Elect for the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the USCCB, gave the Tocqueville Lecture at the University of Notre Dame on September 15th, 2016. The full text is available here. The middle section, reprinted here, examines the importance of a true understanding of human sexuality:
So, what does any of this have to do with sex, family and the liberty of the Church? I’ll answer the question this way.
I’ve been a priest for 46 years. During that time I’ve heard something more than 12,000 personal confessions and done hundreds of spiritual direction sessions. That’s a lot of listening. When you spend several thousand hours of your life, as most priests do, hearing the failures and hurts in people’s lives – men who beat their wives; women who cheat on their husbands; the addicts to porn or alcohol or drugs; the thieves, the hopeless, the self-satisfied and the self-hating – you get a pretty good picture of the world as it really is, and its effect on the human soul. The confessional is more real than any reality show because nobody’s watching. It’s just you, God and the penitents, and the suffering they bring with them.
As a priest, what’s most striking to me about the last five decades is the huge spike in people – both men and women — confessing promiscuity, infidelity, sexual violence and sexual confusion as an ordinary part of life, and the massive role of pornography in wrecking marriages, families and even the vocations of clergy and religious.
In a sense, this shouldn’t surprise. Sex is powerful. Sex is attractive. Sex is a basic appetite and instinct. Our sexuality is tied intimately to who we are; how we search for love and happiness; how we defeat the pervasive loneliness in life; and, for most people, how we claim some little bit of permanence in the world and its story by having children. The reason Pope Francis so forcefully rejects “gender theory” is not just because it lacks scientific support — though it certainly has that problem. Gender theory is a kind of metaphysics that subverts the very nature of sexuality by denying the male-female complementarity encoded into our bodies. In doing that, it attacks a basic building block of human identity and meaning — and by extension, the foundation of human social organization.
But let’s get back to the confessional. Listening to people’s sexual sins in the Sacrament of Penance is hardly new news. But the scope, the novelty, the violence and the compulsiveness of the sins are. And remember that people only come to Confession when they already have some sense of right and wrong; when they already understand, at least dimly, that they need to change their lives and seek God’s mercy.
That word “mercy” is worth examining. Mercy is one of the defining and most beautiful qualities of God. Pope Francis rightly calls us to incarnate it in our own lives this year. Unfortunately, it’s also a word we can easily misuse to avoid the hard work of moral reasoning and judgment. Mercy means nothing – it’s just an exercise in sentimentality – without clarity about moral truth.
We can’t show mercy to someone who owes us nothing; someone who’s done nothing wrong. Mercy implies a pre-existing act of injustice that must be corrected. And satisfying justice requires a framework of higher truth about human meaning and behavior. It requires an understanding of truth that establishes some things as good and others as evil; some things as life-giving and others that are destructive.
Here’s why that’s important. The truth about our sexuality is that infidelity, promiscuity, sexual confusion and mass pornography create human wreckage. Multiply that wreckage by tens of millions of persons over five decades. Then compound it with media nonsense about the innocence of casual sex and the “happy” children of friendly divorces. What you get is what we have now: a dysfunctional culture of frustrated and wounded people increasingly incapable of permanent commitments, self-sacrifice and sustained intimacy, and unwilling to face the reality of their own problems.
This has political consequences. People unwilling to rule their appetites will inevitably be ruled by them — and eventually, they’ll be ruled by someone else. People too weak to sustain faithful relationships are also too weak to be free. Sooner or later they surrender themselves to a state that compensates for their narcissism and immaturity with its own forms of social control.
People too worried or self-focused to welcome new life, to bear and raise children in a loving family, and to form them in virtue and moral character, are writing themselves out of the human story. They’re extinguishing their own future. This is what makes the resistance of so many millennials to having children so troubling.
The future belongs to people who believe in something beyond themselves, and who live and sacrifice accordingly. It belongs to people who think and hope inter-generationally. If you want a portrait of what I mean, consider this: The most common name given to newborn male babies in London for the past four years in a row is Muhammad. This, in the city of Thomas More.
Weak and selfish individuals make weak and selfish marriages. Weak and selfish marriages make broken families. And broken families continue and spread the cycle of dysfunction. They do it by creating more and more wounded individuals. A vast amount of social data shows that children from broken families are much more likely to live in poverty, to be poorly educated, and to have more emotional and physical health issues than children from intact families. In other words, when healthy marriages and families decline, the social costs rise.
The family is where children discover how to be human. It’s where they learn how to respect and love other people; where they see their parents sacrificing for the common good of the household; and where they discover their place in a family story larger than themselves. Raising children is beautiful but also hard work. It’s a task for unselfish, devoted parents. And parents need the friendship and support of other likeminded parents. It takes parents to raise a child, not a legion of professional experts, as helpful as they can sometimes be.
Only a mother and father can provide the intimacy of maternal and paternal love. Many single parents do a heroic job of raising good children, and they deserve our admiration and praise. But only a mother and father can offer the unique kind of human love rooted in flesh and blood; the kind that comes from mutual submission and self-giving; the kind that comes from the complementarity of sexual difference.
No parents do this perfectly. Some fail badly. Too often the nature of modern American life helps and encourages them to fail. But in trying, parents pass along to the next generation an absolutely basic truth. It’s the truth that things like love, faith, trust, patience, understanding, tenderness, fidelity and courage really do matter, and they provide the foundation for a fully human life.
Of course some of the worst pressures on family life come from outside the home. They come in the form of unemployment, low pay, crime, poor housing, chronic illness and bad schools.
These are vitally important issues with real human consequences. And in Catholic thought, government has a role to play in easing such problems – but not if a government works from a crippled idea of who man is, what marriage is, and what a family is. And not if a government deliberately shapes its policies to interfere with and control the mediating institutions in civil society that already serve the public well. Yet this could arguably describe many of the current administration’s actions over the past seven years.
The counterweight to intrusive government is a populace of mature citizens who push back and defend the autonomy of their civil space. The problem with a consumer economy though – as Christopher Lasch saw nearly 40 years ago — is that it creates and relies on dependent, self-absorbed consumers. It needs and breeds what Lasch called a “culture of narcissism,” forgetful of the past, addicted to the present and disinterested in the future. And it’s hard to argue with the evidence. In his inaugural speech of 1961, John F. Kennedy could still tell Americans, quite confidently, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Today I wonder how many of us might find his words not only naïve and annoying, but an inversion of priorities.
If we want strong families, we need strong men and women to create and sustain them with maturity and love. And as a family of families, the Church is no different. The Church is strong when her families and individual sons and daughters are strong; when they believe what she teaches, and then witness her message with courage and zeal.
She’s weak when her people are too tepid or comfortable, too eager to “fit in” or frankly too afraid of public disapproval, to see the world as it really is. The Church is “ours” only in the sense that we belong to her as our mother and teacher in the family of God. The Church does not belong to us. We belong to her. And the Church in turn belongs to Jesus Christ who guarantees her freedom whether Caesar likes it or not.
The Church is free even in the worst persecution. She’s free even when many of her children desert her. She’s free because God does exist, and the Church depends not on numbers or resources but on her fidelity to God’s Word. But her practical liberty — her credibility and effectiveness, here and now, in our wider society — depends on us. So we should turn to that issue in the time remaining.
by Archbishop William E. Lori
(This article was originally posted at The Catholic Review.
A few weeks ago, I attended a symposium on the efforts of the church to address the deep and longstanding problems in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. Various speakers told how the church is helping to address these problems. I am proud of all that our Catholic hospitals, schools, parishes and social service agencies are doing to address major needs in many areas of the city.
The heads of these Catholic service agencies were impressive. However, the most important comments of the day were made by a group of students from a local Catholic high school. These five young men spoke about growing up in neighborhoods rife with violence, drugs, high unemployment and abandoned row houses. They told how, with the help of Catholic schools, they were pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. You could tell that these young men were seeking to fulfill their God-given potential in a future full of hope.
One person in the audience asked, “What does it mean to have a male role model in your life?” One of the young men, intent on pursuing a career in financial services, answered, “It would have been ‘magical’ to have a dad who was engaged.” Another said that having a dad and mom would have made “a huge difference” for him and for his brothers and sisters. Still another said, “Having a man to look up to makes you think you can succeed.” Still others told us they had found male role models and mentors at their school and said how grateful they were to them.
These young men were speaking from their experience – much of it very difficult. They conveyed a sense of awareness that by God’s grace they’ve been pulled from the brink; that they are among the most fortunate. Key to their good fortune is a father or a father figure.
What is true of these young men from inner-city Baltimore is true of all young people. As children grow toward adulthood, their fathers play – or should play – a crucial role in their development. Absent a father, young people at least need to have a father figure whose virtue and wisdom in some way reflects the wisdom and love of God the Father. Yet it is not only inner-city fathers that tend to be missing-in-action. Fatherly absence cuts across all socio-economic lines.
Fathers help their children to be open to the challenges of the wider world while demonstrating the goodness of an authentically masculine love and concern for his wife and for his family. As mothers and fathers love each other and their children in distinct yet complementary ways, children learn how men and women should relate to one another – with deep respect for each other’s dignity and worth. And research shows that when a father practices his faith, his children are far more likely to grow up to be practicing Catholics.
Throughout my own life, I have been blessed by a loving father. My dad, a veteran of World War II, a man who worked hard all his life to provide for his family, taught us more by example than by word about the meaning of love. And his love and concern for his sons continues to this very day. Just recently my older brother died and I saw once again how deeply my father loves us.
As we celebrate Father’s Day this month, let us celebrate the role of our dads in building the domestic church, working hand in hand with their wives in making our homes places of prayer, learning, virtue and service, and in handing on the faith to the next generation.
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]
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.
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.
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).