The Equivocal Sense of ‘Complementarity’

puzzleThe term “complementarity” has been referenced frequently this week on social media and in traditional media as the Vatican hosts an international, interreligious conference bearing the title: “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium.” The aim of the gathering, according to the conference’s website is “to examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society.” And the response has been predictably mixed.

Initial reactions have tended toward one extreme or the other, either extraordinarily enthusiastic or unapologetically critical. My reaction, so far, falls somewhere in between. I’m curious to see what arises from this gathering, interested to know what has been and will continue to be said by this group of invited speakers, all of whom represent diversity in culture and religious tradition, but nevertheless all appear to represent a hegemonic view of the meaning of marriage, the identity of the human person, and the role of biological sex and gender in both of those subjects.

The Social & Vocational Sense of ‘Complementarity’

Yesterday I Tweeted an open question about whether or not a true diversity of scholarly and spiritual views would be represented at this gathering, to which one of my colleagues here at America responded with a reference to a line from Pope Francis’s address to the assembly in which the Pontiff cautioned against thinking of complementarity in terms of a “fixed and static pattern.” To understand the full context of that remark, we must appreciate that in the preceding paragraph Pope Francis quotes St. Paul’s writing on the diversity of charisms in the Church (1 Corinthians 12) and then says: “To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation. This is a big word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, so the Author of harmony achieves this harmony.”

Pope Francis then ties this general sense of complementarity as a vocational or social reality to the aim of the conference; namely, the complementarity of ‘man and woman’ within the context of marriage:

It is fitting that you have gathered here in this international colloquium to explore the complementarity of man and woman. This complementarity is a root of marriage and family. For the family grounded in marriage is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of cooperative living. For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity. At the same time, as we know, families give rise to tensions: between egoism and altruism, reason and passion, immediate desires and long-range goals. But families also provide frameworks for resolving such tensions. This is important. When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.

Why am I quoting this at length? The reason is that “complementarity” is being used in very different ways at different points this week, yet treated as if it was a univocal term.

In the case of Pope Francis’s address to the assembly quoted above, his use of “complementarity” arises from the Pauline charismatic or “spiritual gifts” language that, in context, pertains to the harmony and unity of the ecclesia, which is the Body of Christ. Insofar as every woman and man has been gifted with a particular vocation to be used at the service of church and world, then all people do indeed have “complementary” gifts – each different, but nevertheless important – and should therefore view such bestowals as deserving of equal respect and dignity, regardless of who is a teacher and who speaks in tongues.

The way that Pope Francis appears to be using the term “complementarity” here is in a social or communal setting, one that highlights the call we have from God to use our gifts for the service of others and to seek to work together to build up the harmony that God has intended for all creation from the beginning. Concerning the dynamics of marriage, Pope Francis then applies this to the social implications of work, home life, and individual dignity and respect that relates to husband and wife. Drawing on the social or vocational use of “complementarity,” Pope Francis appears to be suggesting that just because one spouse is a “man” and one spouse is a “woman” doesn’t mean that either should be restricted to some preconceived social or vocational role, a static view illustrated by “women stay at home,” for instance, and “men go to the office.”

In this sense, the social or vocational use of “complementarity” by Pope Francis should signal a positive step forward. Culturally and, in some parts of the world, civilly, women are not recognized as having comparable standing in the eyes of the law, their spouses, or perhaps even God. Pope Francis is calling for a more-capacious sense of the social setting and valuation of individual gifts and responsibilities of all women and men, and this is something about which to rejoice for sure.

However, this is not the only way that “complementarity” is being used this week at the conference. Insofar as the title of the gathering, “complementarity of man and woman,” means this social parity that Pope Francis is alluding to – then I suppose this is perfectly fine. But this is simply not the case.

The Ontological Sense of ‘Complementarity’

The other way that “complementarity” is being used – or, perhaps better put, being presupposed – is ontologically as the foundation for the operative theological anthropology undergirding much, if not all, of the discussion.

As I sought to show in a scholarly article published in the journal Theological Studies last March (“Beyond Essentialism and Complementarity: Toward a Theological Anthropology Rooted in Haecceitas), the traditional theological categories of essentialism and complementarity, which are often presented as intended by God as illustrated in the Book of Genesis, are deeply problematic. Theologians, philosophers, and critical theorists have shown over the years that the ontological presupposition of complementarity – which basically amounts to a metaphysical “separate but equal” stance – is actually a paradigm that necessarily subordinates one biological sex or gender to the other according to a framework of hierarchical dualism. In this sense, there is no true egalitarian view of the human person, but instead a reinscribed ordering of persons.

The operative theological anthropology that grounds the theme of this week’s conference is one that is deeply committed to an ontological view of both gender essentialism and complementarity that goes deeper than Pope Francis’s admirable call for social equality in recognition of our complementary gifts and vocations.

As Joshua McElwee reports in the National Catholic Reporter, the other speakers that followed Pope Francis were defending this ontological sense of “complementarity.”

German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke after the pontiff and focused his remarks on the male and female imagery found in the creation stories of Genesis.

Tying the imagery of the Adam and Eve in the Genesis story to mankind’s relationship with God, Müller stated: “When we forget sexual difference, then it becomes difficult to understand the marriage bond between God and his people.”

Here the discussion is fundamentally one focused on “sexual” and “gender” differences, which concretize certain supposed immutable roles. Like Müller, Sr. M. Prudence Allen, another speaker, criticized the questioning of these ontological presuppositions of complementarity. McElwee reports:

In her remarks, Allen warned against gender and sex ideology, which she said were founded on “deceptive methods.”

Those ideologies, she said, “distort the true equal dignity and difference of women and men.”

“Like a cancerous cell these ideologies grow, often obliterating the true meaning of marriage,” Allen said.

In brief, one of the most pressing problems with this worldview is the equating of an individual’s dignity, value, and human identity with his or her biological sex or gender. Yes, there are differences, but in what is our human dignity grounded?

There are other theological resources in the Christian tradition that do not rely so heavily on the Aristotelian teleology of, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century scientific and philosophical worldview. It is this sort of framework that continues to govern so much of our theological anthropology and subsequent ethics. In the article mentioned above, I propose at least one possible orthodoxy alternative to this grounded in the insights of Blessed John Duns Scotus, a medieval Franciscan theologian and philosopher. But there are also others to consider, including ones more compatible with our increasing knowledge of humanity and the world from natural and social sciences, psychology, and other fields. Many of today’s most pressing theological and pastoral questions are tied to a theological anthropology desperately in need of renewal in light of our Christian theological tradition and the advances in human knowledge of the last several centuries. Some of these questions include the role of women in the church, the meaning of human sexuality, our relationship to the rest of creation, and so on.

While Pope Francis’s call for more social parity in terms of recognizing the complementarity of every person’s vocation, there is still a need to address the deeper ontological subject of complementarity in our theological understanding of the human person. And I don’t think that’s going to happen in Rome this week.

This post has been concurrently posted at America Magazine

2 Responses to “The Equivocal Sense of ‘Complementarity’”

  1. I’m with you in being curious and somewhere in between the two poles of reaction. Though he is saying all the right things about gender roles not being fixed, the use of the word complementarity remains problematic. I keep coming back to his “masculinity in a skirt” quote from the America interview last year, and wondering if that might reveal volumes about his understanding of gender.

  2. Dan, thank you for this thought provoking post. I find myself struggling with this issue, on a very deep level. Your insights are very helpful.

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