The Complementarity of Men and Women, Across the Religious Spectrum

A review of "Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman", a compilation of speeches from the 2014 Humanum Conference

Those who are concerned about what Pope Francis might say at the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia will take heart when they read Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman. To be released on September 21, this book is a compilation of speeches from the Humanum Conference, which was held in Rome in November 2014 to reflect on the complementarity of the two sexes. Pope Francis himself gave the opening remarks, which included unambiguous comments about the nature of marriage and family, such as “Children have the right to grow up with a father and a mother” (4).

Although speaking on behalf of the Church, the Pope was appealing to all people of good will who bear witness to the importance of marriage – for individuals, families, and societies. Accordingly, the conference included four hundred religious leaders and scholars from many traditions. The book reflects the diversity of the participants, with contributions from Jewish, Muslim, Baptist, Anabaptist, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical perspectives. Reflecting the central theme of the conference, these religions with significant differences come together to form a rich and varied chorus of voices. Nevertheless, the Church, because of the unique insights from her theological inheritance, is rightly the leader and conductor of this discussion.

The aspects of the discussion that are well suited to an interfaith approach derive from the common understanding of marriage as a reality in natural law. The complementarity of men and women and their desire to become one flesh is “written on our hearts” (Rom 2:15). In the words of Anglican theologian N.T. Wright: “Humans know in their bones that this is how we were meant to be” (94). It is a matter of men and women recognizing that truth and having the generosity to act on it. Catholic philosopher Sister Prudence Allen points out that most modern gender ideologies begin with our desires and end with us distorting reality to fit them. Instead, she suggests, we need a “vitalized Thomism” (58) based on a descriptive metaphysics that conforms the mind to reality. In this sense, any religion that postulates a divine “Other” to reckon with as the Creator of reality can agree. Thus, Cardinal Müller summarizes that in this conference, “Religions of the world together recognize that the truth of marriage is something written on the human heart by a loving Creator” (viii).

Because of their theological differences, the unified witness of the religions of the world is based largely on philosophical, biological, sociological, and psychological insights. Using these fields, they are able to build a fairly comprehensive view of how men and women work together with their different geniuses. A recurring theme is that the distinct features of each sex suit them for parenthood: femininity for motherhood, and masculinity for fatherhood. Mothers provide a safe space in which children can grow up with unconditional love and acceptance. Fathers stand at a distance and encourage their children to grow outwardly, with all of the advantages and disadvantages of their position. The physical strength and focused rationality of men, the emotional acuity and generosity of women – all of these are meant for service of others. Anyone who believes that these qualities are intended rather than random can see the beautiful difference and unity of the sexes in marriage as revealed by the light of natural law.

Catholic teaching on marriage may be partially discernible through natural law, but our Faith has the great advantage of divine revelation to illuminate the mystery further. Specifically, we believe in a God who is a Trinity of Persons, marked by the ecstatic and total self-gift of love between the three divine Persons, as the Catechism explains: “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father as the first principle and, by the eternal gift of this to the Son, from the communion of both the Father and the Son” (CCC, 264). This, in turn, is the model for complementary human love in marriage, which contrasts the dualistic framework of the modern “battle of the sexes.”

Furthermore, as Catholics we embrace the profound unity of diverse entities that are brought together by God: God and Israel, Christ and the Church, heaven and earth. Certainly, most Protestant denominations would be willing to join the Church in its rejection of dualism and embrace of divinely mysterious unities. N.T. Wright offers an excellent explanation for how marriage is connected to these divinely inspired unions. He concludes, “Split heaven and earth apart and you will split other things apart as well, including marriage” (95). However, the Catholic faith is the supporter of complementary unions in a special way. While Protestants have often posited “either/or” dilemmas, Catholic theologians have long sought “both/and” solutions. Aquinas himself, bringing together Aristotelian philosophy and Augustinian theology to bear on natural law long before the Reformation, is a classic example.

There are a few places in the book in which the contributions from non-Christian authors do not hang together well with the Catholic view of complementarity. For example, Dr. Kala Archaya writes from a Hindu perspective: “A single man or single woman is not a complete person. They are halves only…” (123). She continues on to explain the concept of Samkhya, the dualism between the Prakrti (female, matter) and Purusa (male, soul). Likewise, Tsui-Ying Sheng writes that in Toaism, women and men are yin and yang, opposites that cannot exist independently, but contain aspects of one other (141). Christians reject this dualism because we believe that man and woman are complete creations, body and soul, two persons who become one in marriage. Therefore, the purpose of coming together in Christian marriage is not simply completion of the self, but facilitating openness to God and begetting new life.

The Catholic contributors to the book are careful to outline what complementarity is and what it is not. Sister Prudence Allen posits four principles of complementarity: “equal dignity, significant difference, synergetic relation, and intergenerational fruition” (50). Pope Francis asserts that this is not to be confused with “the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern” (3). This is an important point that can get lost by those who are eager to avoid the fallacies of gender ideology and end up with an unnecessarily dualistic view of the sexes. In the videos made for the conference, for instance, a husband says that in his marriage, “[He is] the king; she is the prime minister.” This may be a stable and happy arrangement for some (or even most), but marriage is not a one-size-fits-all institution. As Sister Prudence’s definition suggests, in the Catholic view, men and women come together with equal dignity and different qualities, which they give to each other with such love that it begets new life.

The conference was focused largely on complementarity between men and women within the context of marriage. However, as Pope Francis observes, complementarity is a much bigger reality and “to reflect upon ‘complementarity’ is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all creation” (2). Cardinal Müller echoes the idea: “The entire cosmos participates in the unity of one flesh between man and wife” (10). Not included in the book, but featured in the videos, Dr. Peter Kreeft says it the other way around: masculine and feminine are cosmological realities, of which the male and female sexes are particular instantiations. Furthermore, expanding one’s view of complementarity to include the archetypes of masculine and feminine can help one move past the dualistic stereotypes sometimes imposed on maleness and femaleness and get to the heart of this “great mystery” (Eph 5:32).

This book continues discussions of complementarity between men and women, initiated by John Paul II in Theology of the Body and Mulieris Dignitatem. Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis have called for further reflection on the matter. For the Humanum conference, the goal was to bear witness to marriage in a time when it has been deteriorating in the secular world. However, complementarity between men and women in other contexts would also be immensely fruitful material for theologians to explore. For example, since men and women work together in a way that creates a greater whole in a family, one could explore what that means for their interactions in a corporate environment, in political office, or in the Church (respecting, of course, the institution of male priesthood). The study of other complementary realities – Christ and the Church, for example – as they come to bear on the relationship between men and women could also flourish with precise theological scholarship.

Not Just Good, but Beautiful, although occasionally compromising on individual points for the sake of presenting a unified whole, makes a wonderful contribution to the Church in the modern world and sets the stage for more to come. Once again, the Catholic Faith distinguishes itself as a champion in the cause of men, women, and families, in a way that is not just good, but indeed, beautiful.


Not Just Good, but
Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman
Contributors: Pope Francis, Rick Warren, N.T. Wright, Jonathan Sacks, J. C. Arnold, Jacqueline C. Rivers, Wael Farouq, Russell D. Moore, Gerhard Müller, M. Prudence Allen, Tsui-Ying Sheng, Henry B. Eyring, Kala Acharya, Nissho Takeuchi, Ignacio Ibarzabal, Jean Laffitte.
Plough Publishing House, 2015.
Paperback, 174 pages.

About Aurora C. Griffin 9 Articles
Aurora Catherine Griffin attended Harvard University, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in classics in 2014. There she served as president of the Catholic Student Association. She was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where she received a graduate degree in theology. She now lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the Catholic University of America. Visit her online at auroracgriffin.com.