Just under a month ago, from 17th to 19th November, the Humanum conference on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman” took place at the Vatican, hosted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There thirty speakers from around the world belonged to various religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity of various kinds, and the talks were wide ranging in the aspects of the family they addressed, reaching far beyond the titular question of complementarity.
In this post I would, however, like to zoom in on things said specifically about complementarity itself (even at the expense of leaving out other, also very interesting content), since that is a topic close to my own heart. The following will therefore be a look at the highlights of what has been said there about how men and women relate, using the hermeneutic of complementarity.1, 2
Right at the start of the symposium, Pope Francis set the scene by rooting complementarity in the words of St. Paul and by panning out to show that it is a profound attribute of God, instead of only a device for thinking about men and women:
“You must admit that “complementarity” does not roll lightly off the tongue! Yet it is a word into which many meanings are compressed. It refers to situations where one of two things adds to, completes, or fulfills a lack in the other. But complementarity is much more than that. Christians find its deepest meaning in the first Letter to the Corinthians where Saint Paul tells us that the Spirit has endowed each of us with different gifts so that-just as the human body’s members work together for the good of the whole-everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each. (cf. 1 Cor. 12). 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.”Having set the scene, Francis then bridges God’s intrinsic harmony and its being the modus operandi of the family, also projecting out its consequences:
“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.”And finally, Francis warns against an oversimplification and a misunderstanding of complementarity, which, I believe, have plagued thinkers both aligned with the Church and opposed to it:
“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.”The sketch presented by Pope Francis was then fleshed out by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose analysis departs from the question of (in)completeness:
“One’s own male or female being is not sufficient to oneself. Each one of us feels needy and lacking in completion. [... W]e do not complete ourselves from our own selves, we are not totally self-sufficient. This simple consideration, clear to all, would suffice to demonstrate the inadequacy of the markedly individualistic trait so characteristic to the modern mentality.”This inbuilt individual self-insufficiency is, Müller argues, positive, since it impels us to go beyond ourselves and since it is in this way that we are in God’s image:
“[I]n the Bible difference is the place of blessing, the exact place where God will make present His action and His image. In this way, we can comprehend that in Scripture, each of the two, Adam and Eve, are measured not only according to their mutual relation but above all from the starting point of their relationship with God. Indeed, in the singularity of each and not only in their union as a couple, we find inscribed the image of the One who has created them. Here, man and woman share the same humanity, the same incarnate condition, and sexual difference does not imply subordination one to the other: “both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image” In this vein, Saint John Paul II said that male and female are as “two incarnations of the same metaphysical solitude before God and the world as two ways of being body and together [hu]man, who complete each other reciprocally.””Next, Müller argues in a surprising twist that the union between man and woman has an unexpected consequence:
“[I]n the book of Genesis the union of man and woman does not lead to a fulfilment, does not close them within themselves, for it is precisely in uniting with each other that they open themselves to the greater presence of God. One might well say that in the very union of the two, man and woman render themselves needier, which makes increase in them the thirst of the mystery in the measure that their radical reference to the Creator God is revealed more clearly. The union sets off, therefore, a dynamic, a movement, as the Song of Songs recounts, in which the lover and beloved are at the same time in continuous search of the other and of God.”Müller then arrives at considering the profound nature of complementarity and underlines it being anything but a polar stereotype:
“It is precisely the presence of God within the union between man and woman that helps us consider the meaning of their complementarity. This cannot be understood in a polar fashion, as if male and female were opposed realities who complete each other perfectly: active and passive, exterior and interior, so as to become a closed unity; rather, it is a matter of different ways of situating themselves in the world so that, when they come together, far from closing themselves in, these open the path towards the world and others, a path that leads above all to the encounter with God.”The reality of children too can be seen from the perspective of incompleteness and of being directed towards God:
“The union of male and female is complementary not in the sense that from it ensues one complete in him or herself, but in the sense that their union demonstrates how both are a mutual help to journey towards the Creator. The way in which this union refers to itself always beyond itself becomes evident in the birth of a child. The union of the two, making themselves “one flesh,” is proven precisely in the one flesh of those generated by that union. Hence, we see confirmed how complementarity also means overabundance, an insurgence of novelty. From the presence of the child comes a light that can help us describe the complementarity of man and woman. The relationship of the parents with the baby, where both open out beyond themselves, is a privileged way to understand the difference between the man and the woman in their role as father and mother. Complementarity is not understood, therefore, when we consider man and woman in an isolated form, but when we consider them in the prospective of the mystery to which their union opens out and, in a concrete way, when we look at male and female in light of the relationship with the child.”Finally, and only after an ample emphasis on the complexity, richness and God-centeredness of complementarity, does Müller speak about male and female characteristics, while again insisting that “male and female are dimensions that interconnect and exchange”:
“One might add that the female aspect is characterized by a constant presence, which accompanies always the child. Indeed, in German, when a woman is pregnant, we say that she “carries a baby beneath her heart” Contemporary philosophy has spoken of the feminine as a dwelling place, as presence that envelops man from the beginning and accompanies him along the way, as singular sensitivity for the person as gift and for his affirmation.In many ways, listening to Cardinal Müller reminds me of an, at first perplexing, but upon further reflection profound quote by the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “The only way to the universal good is that we all become strangers to ourselves.”
On the other hand, the male is characterized, in terms of the child, as the presence of someone “in the distance,”in a distance that attracts, and, therefore, helps in walking the journey of life.
Both male and female are necessary to transmit to the child the presence of the Creator,both as love that envelops and confirms the goodness of existence despite all else, and as a call that from afar invites one to grow. In this way, male and female are dimensions that interconnect and exchange, such that the woman enriches man and man the woman, because one participates in the property of the other and may transmit together to the child being in the image of God.”
Another speaker at the conference whose words shed light on complementarity is Henry B. Eyring, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His words have great beauty and can also be seen as a lived experience of the concepts Müller presented:
“Most remarkable to me has been the fulfillment of the hope I felt the day I met my wife. I have become a better person as I have loved and lived with her. We have been complementary beyond anything I could have imagined. Her capacity to nurture others grew in me as we became one. My capacity to plan, direct, and lead in our family grew in her as we became united in marriage. I realize now that we grew together into one—slowly lifting and shaping each other, year by year. As we absorbed strength from each other, it did not diminish our personal gifts. Our differences combined as if they were designed to create a better whole. Rather than dividing us, our differences bound us together.”Wael Farouq, Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at the Catholic University of Milano, extends the generative role of the male-female relationship to meaning and likens it to linguistic mechanisms:
“We can say that the complementarity of man and woman is an encounter which generates life and meaning not only in terms of children, but life and meaning which is at the heart of every encounter of man and woman in daily living.Finally, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, delivered an extraordinary speech, reflecting on a broad range of issues to do with the family. Focusing in just on the concept and role of complementarity, Sacks too emphasizes the importance of the relationship, of conversation:
The greatest danger the family faces today is its being emptied of all meaning, being turned into something that can be possessed, bought, and sold. [...]
In Arabic, there is no word “to be” or “being” in the absolute. For this reason, one single word has neither meaning or grammatical function, unless it is located in a sentence. You can only understand this verb in relation to the other elements of the sentence. The word in a sentence is like the person in a family: is nothing, unless within a relationship.”
“[T]ruth, beauty, goodness, and life itself, do not exist in any one person or entity but in the “between,” what Martin Buber called Das Zwischenmenschliche, the interpersonal, the counterpoint of speaking and listening, giving and receiving. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature, the vehicle of truth is conversation. In revelation God speaks and asks us to listen. In prayer we speak and ask God to listen. There is never only one voice. In the Bible the prophets argue with God. In the Talmud rabbis argue with one another. In fact I sometimes think the reason God chose the Jewish people was because He loves a good argument.”Sacks then proceeds to revisit the value and purpose of otherness that Müller also emphasized, by providing a close reading of Genesis 3 where he links it to the desire for immortality and to the recognition of equal personhood:
“If we read [Genesis 3:19-21, the end of the story of Adam and Eve] carefully, we see that until now the first man had given his wife a purely generic name. He called her ishah, woman. […] For him she was a type, not a person. [...] What is more he defines her as a derivative of himself: something taken from man. She is not yet for him someone other, a person in her own right. She is merely a kind of reflection of himself.Finally, Sacks presents the consequences of man recognizing in woman a person in her own right, bound to him by love:
As long as the man thought he was immortal, he ultimately needed no one else. But now he knew he was mortal. He would one day die and return to dust. There was only one way in which something of him would live on after his death. That would be if he had a child. But he could not have a child on his own. For that he needed his wife. She alone could give birth. She alone could mitigate his mortality. And not because she was like him but precisely because she was unlike him. At that moment she ceased to be, for him, a type, and became a person in her own right. [...]”
“At that moment, as they were about to leave Eden and face the world as we know it, a place of darkness, Adam gave his wife the first gift of love, a personal name. And at that moment, God responded to them both in love, and made them garments to clothe their nakedness, or as Rabbi Meir put it, “garments of light,” [since] the Hebrew word for “skin” is almost indistinguishable from the Hebrew word for “light.”Looking at the above thoughts in their totality - from Pope Francis’ broad strokes, via their profound elaboration by Cardinal Müller, through the personal witness of President Eyring and the Muslim perspective of Prof. Farouq, and being brought to fruition in the words of Rabbi Sacks - a picture emerges where complementarity is tightly linked to God Himself, more so than to men and women. Instead of having its roots in the differences between the two sexes, complementarity propels one person outside themselves and towards an other, towards a dynamic harmony. Instead of deriving from static differences between two parties, complementarity subsists imperfectly in the interpersonal and is fulfilled in the relationship between our finite selves and the infinite love of God. As such, instead of confining differences to their original owners, complementarity engenders their becoming gifts for the other - a mutual enriching and transfer of all that is good, beautiful and true. And while relationships between men and women are particularly suited for the coming about of complementarity, I believe that complementarity is a principle that acts in all human contact. Each one of us has distinctive contributions to make in our relationships with others, that can engage with what they lack and what they seek on the way to fulfillment, completeness and communion.
And so it has been ever since, that when a man and woman turn to one another in a bond of faithfulness, God robes them in garments of light, and we come as close as we will ever get to God himself, bringing new life into being, turning the prose of biology into the poetry of the human spirit, redeeming the darkness of the world by the radiance of love.”
1For completeness sake, it is worth noting that, in addition to the speakers, whose thoughts on complementarity are covered here in detail, Sister M. Prudence Allen also spoke about it and did so in terms of four aspects of complementarity: equal dignity, significant difference, synergetic relation and intergenerational fruition.
2 Please, note that the following is not the order in which the talks were given.