Action Alert!

Redeeming Relationships

by Sr. Sara Butler


This essay by Sister Sara Butler, an American nun who serves on the International Theological Commission, defending the notion of the complementarity of men and women in the face of various feminist critiques was published by L’Osservatore Romano on May 9, 2014.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano

Publisher & Date

Vatican, May 9, 2014

Pope Francis has spoken several times about the need “to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (e.g., Evangelii Gaudium § 103-104), and to find ways to include women in decision-making roles in different areas of the Church’s life. He is clearly serious about pursuing this. On the other hand, however, he has repeatedly announced that this cannot involve admitting women to the ministerial priesthood. And he is wary of proposals that seem to be inspired by what he calls “a female machismo”. To counter the latter, he calls for a more profound “theology of woman”. He expects women to contribute something distinctively feminine, in fact, something maternal, to the Church’s work and witness in the world. For him, the collaboration of men and women is a value for the Church because the complementarity of the sexes is a value.

Many Catholic women who hope for broader opportunities and admission to decision-making roles also regard the collaboration of men and women in the Church as a value. Not all of them, however, aspire to make a distinctively feminine contribution! Among Catholic feminists and feminist theologians who hope for a “discipleship of equals”, there is a deep suspicion of appeals to sexual complementarity. They are wary of the Pope’s perspective and of his interest in developing “a theology of woman” (cf. Sandra Schneiders’s definition of feminism: “a comprehensive ideology, rooted in women’s experience of sexual oppression, which engages in a critique of patriarchy, embraces an alternative vision for humanity and the earth, and actively seeks to bring this vision to realization.” Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church , rev. ed. [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2004], 10).

This is a curious situation: the Pope expresses his intention to respond to the request Catholic women make, but many among them disagree with his reasons for doing so! And there are others who believe that the Church already has an adequate “theology of woman”, but needs a “theology of man”, that is, of the male human being. How should we understand these reservations?

While few women deny the difference between the sexes, many women in the Anglo-American tradition of liberal feminism reject the theory of sexual complementarity. They object to the idea that physical sex dictates distinctive masculine and feminine personality traits. In other words, they dispute whether sex (a biological fact) gives rise in any necessary way to masculine or feminine “gender” (i.e., the psychosocial aspects of sexual identity). For them, acknowledging the significance of sexual difference leads to “stereotyping”, and that, in turn, leads to unjust discrimination against women, for example, the exclusion of women from social roles, especially in public leadership, that are traditionally carried by men, and their confinement to domestic tasks. The theory they oppose assumes that the personality traits are apportioned between the sexes in a mutually exclusive way, rather than shared, and it assigns the more highly valued traits to men and the less desirable but “complementary” traits to women.

Thus it justifies the hierarchical ordering of the sexes. Finally, it implies that women exist to “complete” men, as if males represent the norm for human beings, whereas women are only their auxiliaries, or, as if each sex possesses only half (or some other fraction) (cf. Prudence Allen, “Integral Sex Complementarity and the Theology of Communion”, Communio 17 (Winter 1990): 523-44). of what it is to be human. On this understanding, feminists believe it is impossible to reconcile the theory of sexual complementarity with genuine equality; on the contrary, it seems to justify a “patriarchal ” order in which women are subordinate to men.

Liberal feminists insist that women be regarded not as members of a class but as individuals, “persons in their own right”, who possess, or are capable of developing, the same traits and capacities as men. Since the designation of personality traits as “feminine” or “masculine” varies widely from one culture and historical era to another, they conclude that sexual identity (gender) is socially constructed rather than something God-given that is objectively rooted in human nature. Some, called “gender feminists”, reject the “binary gender system” altogether! Gender feminists purport to “liberate” women from discrimination based on sex by denying that sexual complementarity has a solid basis in human nature. They dream of a “multi-gendered” society in which human beings would not be limited by their biological sex.

Catholic feminists may not espouse the radical theories of “gender feminism”, but they do tend to favor explanations that minimize the importance of sexual difference for personal identity. They want to have access to decision-making roles that are now reserved to the clergy, but not precisely to contribute “maternity, tenderness, affection, and a mother’s intuition” (Pope Francis, Address to International Union of Superiors General, 8 May 2013).

It is true that until very recently the theory of complementarity provided support for a view of women as the “other”, inferior to men, defined chiefly by their “proper” sexual roles and presumed personality traits, and intended by God to be subordinate to men. In the past 40 years, however, the Magisterium has addressed this several times.

Pope John Paul II responded at length to the feminist critique in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem (1988). On the occasion of the UN International Women’s Year (1995), he issued a “Letter to Women” and gave a series of catecheses defending the dignity and equal rights of women. These were collected as The Genius of Women ( Washington, D C: United States Catholic Conference, 1999). See also the Pope’s “theology of the body” (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans., intro, and index by Michael Waldstein [Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006]).

Papal teaching has clarified and developed the understanding of sex complementarity found in Christian revelation. It is based in the biblical account of the creation of man (male and female) in the image of God. It does not propose a theory based on masculine and feminine personality traits, or assume that these traits belong to men and women in a mutually exclusive way, or that they are hierarchically ordered in favor of men. It does not propose that only men properly exercise social roles in the public sphere, but encourages women to take part as well. It does not assume that the male represents normative humanity, or, that man and woman are humanly incomplete by themselves. Still, the Church teaches that the human person is fulfilled only by making a gift of self (cf. Gaudium et Spes, § 24), a gift concretely expressed in marriage and parenthood. Fatherhood and motherhood, then, are never simply “reproductive specializations” or “social roles”; they are the fruit or fulfillment of God’s plan. This includes “spiritual” fatherhood and motherhood. Because feminist theory ignores the personal relevance of human sexuality to the expression of self-giving love in marriage and procreation, it eliminates the possibility of basing women’s specific contribution on anything other than gender-linked personality traits. And because the two ways of being a body are, in fact, mutually exclusive, they provide the basic parameters within which we exercise our freedom and appropriate our masculine or feminine identity. Sex complementarity, in God’s plan, is not only physical but also psychological, spiritual, and ontological (Letter on Collaboration, § 8).

In the biblical vision, man and woman are made “for each other,” and destined not only to live “side by side” but also to become “one flesh” in a “communion of persons”, a “unity-of-the- two” that mirrors the Trinity. Accordingly, sexuality is a “fundamental component” of the human personality; it reveals the capacity for interpersonal relationships, the capacity to love. This, in turn, reveals the will of God for humanity, for marriage, and for the family. In other words, creation in two sexes belongs to God’s revelation. It is Catholic doctrine, not simply one theory among many (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church , §§ 369-72). To overcome sexism, it is not necessary to eradicate the difference between the sexes, but only to end the opposition between them that results from sin. The relationship between the sexes is “wounded and in need of healing”, but the grace of Christ invites them to conversion and offers healing and wholeness in redeemed relationships. In view of this, the Letter on Collaboration advocates the “active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman” (§ 4). This is evidently what Pope Francis has in mind.

According to St John Paul II, “Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization” (Letter to Women, § 7). In Mulieris dignitatem (§ 30), he identified the “feminine genius” as a woman’s special capacity for paying attention to the person. He suggests that this capacity is grounded in a woman’s bodily constitution and her vocation to be a mother. But what is the “masculine genius”? Pope Francis expects women to make a distinctively feminine contribution, but what constitutes a distinctively masculine contribution? If the magisterium intends to make the case that the complementarity of the sexes is something essentially positive, i.e., that men and women each have some particular contribution to make, this question must be answered. Without attention to this, normative humanity appears to be identified as male, and the female again appears to be the “other” and an auxiliary expression of humanity. This impression can only be corrected by identifying the “masculine genius”. If feminist thinkers contrast the “positive feminine” with the “negative masculine”, the remedy lies in some articulation of the “positive masculine”. If the Church is unable to construct a positive account of maleness and masculinity, no wonder we remain ambivalent about the fatherhood of God, the theological relevance of the Jesus’ maleness, and the Lord’s reservation of the priesthood to men! (cf. John McDade, “The maleness of Jesus”, The Tablet [25 February 1989]: 220-21).

What specific kind of complementarity obtains between men and women, and why should it be beneficial in the life and mission of the Church? There seems to be a consensus on the following. The example of our Lord Jesus Christ, a male, emptying himself in obedience even to death of a cross, and making a complete gift of himself to sinful humankind in loving service, subverts all patriarchal patterns of domination. In him, we see realized the vocation of every person, which is to be fulfilled through making the gift of self, to our neighbor, but ultimately to God. This profoundly counter-cultural example of Christ the Servant is mirrored in the image of Mary, who freely consented to be God’s Handmaid by giving his Son human flesh and companioning him to the Cross. This image of “redeemed” relationships between the sexes is set before us by our faith. It includes the body as the expression of the person, and it affirms creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good”.

Sara Butler – a Sister of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity – first taught theology at Mundelein Seminary (Archdiocese of Chicago, 1989-2003) and then, until 2010, at St Joseph’s Seminary (Archdiocese of New York). She is now back at Mundelein Seminary, where she is professor emeritus of systematic theology. She also has served as theological consultant for the USCCB and member of the International Anglican- Catholic Commission (1991-2004) and of the International Conversation between Catholics and Baptists (2008- 2011), and since 2004 she has been on the International Theological Commission.

© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2014

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