Another Theology of the Body, Part VII--Complementarity: Useful Concept?

As we speak, the Vatican is finishing up a conference on the concept of complementarity between men and women.  Complementarity is a buzz word that is used often, especially in Evangelical circles, to contrast a "Christian" view of gender relationships with the view of gender that is present in Western culture (which the Vatican has taken to referring to as "gender ideology").  "Complementarity" emphasizes the fact that men and women are different, and that these differences need to be respected and incorporated into our understanding of gender and sexuality.

It is an incontrovertible biological fact that men and women are different.  Indeed, my last post was all about how the physical differences between men and women need to be a basis for theological reflection.  It is an equally incontrovertible fact that men and women have much in common, and are more similar than they are different--we are obviously not different species.  And, if you believe in a Creator God, then you must accept the idea that these similarities and differences are part of the divine plan.  So, on that 1000 foot level, the existence of the concept of "complementarity" is hard to dispute.

But, like everything else, the devil is in the details.  The problem with complementarity is that it is often very hard to tell exactly what any particular person means when they talk about "complementarity."  Are we simply talking about the biological differences, most of which deal directly with reproduction?  Or are we talking about some broader idea that men and women are fundamentally different in other areas--personality, work, etc.?  The concept is amorphous enough to be harnessed to any number of ideological wagons.

The basic confusion regarding complementarity can be seen in Pope Francis's opening address to the conference.  The Pope starts by referencing Paul's famous exhortation to the Corinthians that "there are many gifts, but the same Spirit that gives them."  (1 Cor. 12:4-6).  He then follows it up with a warning:

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. 

So, rather than some binary understanding of "Men" and "Women," the Pope seems to be pointing toward a more pluralistic and diverse understanding of individual relationships.  Different pairings will have different ways of expressing their own particular situation, and we shouldn't try to force everyone into a pre-determined pattern of gender relationships (at least, that's the implication).  That's pretty uncontroversial, but it is also a truism--different couples have different relationships.  I am not aware of anyone advocating for the idea that the roles of the parties in a relationship should be exactly the same, regardless of the individual's particular talents and gifts.

The fundamental problem is that you have to make gender complementarity prescriptive (i.e., men should do X and women should do Y) in order for it to mean anything.  "Biblical womanhood" does a great deal of work in defining how men and women should relate to one another, at the cost of pathologizing any divergence from stereotypical gender norms (even obviously beneficial divergences, such as the nurturing father).  The Pope seems to reject this line of thought and accepts that there are different, valid ways that a couple can structure their lives.  But once you concede that, it is not clear to me at all what complementarity actually means, other than tired observations of gender stereotypes.

Anyway, he then pivots sharply to the assertion that the family is in crisis, and that this crisis leads to a host of catastrophes (including, in something of a stretch, the "ecological crisis").  I've talked before about my skepticism that the family is in some sort of unique crisis, so I will not repeat that here. The real question, though, is what does this crisis have to do with complementarity?  To that end, he deploys a new-ish talking point that "[c]hildren have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity." (Cardinal Muller says the same thing in a later address).  Presumably, unidentified folks--"gender ideologists," I suppose, whatever that means--are promoting the idea that children don't need to grow up in a family with a mother and father, and this is the cause of the crisis.

This talking point is a straw-man.  I am aware of no one who asserts that it is inherently a bad thing for children to be raised by a mother and a father.  In addition, no one is advocating taking children out of stable, happy two-parent, mixed gender family homes and having them raised by a single mother, or a gay couple, or the Borg Collective.  Questions involving children raised by single parents or gay parents presume there is no happy and willing mother and father combo to raise these children.  So, to truly compare apples to apples, we have to take all of the good two parent mixed gender families out the equation, and compare bad or non-existent two parent families to good gay families.  To make complementarity have any relevance to this  discussion, you must assert that "one male parent and one female parent together is better than only one parent, or two parents of the same gender, regardless of the other attributes of the parents."

This is obviously nonsensical.  Take for example the recent news that Charles Manson is getting married.  A strict reading of the complementarian concept would assert that he and his new wife are definitionally better parents than, say, a lesbian couple who are both child psychologists.  Not even the most ardent anti-gay crusader can possibly assert this with a straight face.  And if you can't, then you must concede that (at best) this complementarity of the couple idea is one factor among a sea of other factors that determine whether a family can be successfully founded on that couple.  How much of a factor is complementarity (or its absence)?  It's likely impossible to quantify, but these studies suggest that gay parents do just fine.  I think we can be confident that "have the same gender" does not approach balancing the scale with "psychopathic murderer," to return to the Manson example.

As an aside, I must also put on my lawyer hat for a moment and say that the idea that children have a "right" to a mother and a father is a very problematic and foolish notion.  To say that someone has a "right" to something is to say they have a entitlement to something that is enforceable against other folks in society, usually through the power of the law and the State.  When I say I have a "right to vote," that means that, should some government official attempt to prevent me from voting, I have the ability to use the courts (and, ultimately, the police/military if people ignore the courts--see the South in the 1960s) to force that governmental official to allow me to vote.

Thus, to say that a child has a "right" to be raised by a mother and a father means that the child has some recourse to enforce that right.  How would that work?  If a child is born to a single mother, does he or she have the ability to force his or her mother to marry someone in order to vindicate his or her "right" to be raised by a father?  Or, for that matter, does this mean that if one spouse dies, the living spouse is obligated to remarry in order to safeguard his or her children's "right" to the other gendered-parent?  And is the state going to enforce this?  How? ("Sorry, random dude off the street, you must marry this single mother you've never met and help raise her son.  He has a right to a father, you know.")  This is so clearly unworkable that it can't possibly be what they mean.

So, we are left with the question of whether complementarity is a useful concept.  If we are talking strictly about biological differences between the sexes, and the things that flow directly from those biological differences, then I think it the idea may have some legs.  But the moment you step out of the strict confines of biology and wade into the waters of things like gender roles, as well as essentialist ideas about parenting, then I think the concept stops being useful (and, dare I say it, starts to be a "gender ideology"?)  Unfortunately, it seems like the well has been sufficiently poisoned that the term may have to be retired.   As demonstrated by this conference in Rome.


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