The Fundamental Good of Complementarity

Dr. Helen Alvaré on why understanding the complementary relationship between man and woman is vital to understanding God and true love.

With multiple degrees in theology and law, and experience with a vast spectrum of public forum issues, Professor Helen M. Alvaré is one of the leading Catholic voices in the United States on pro-life issues, marriage and the family, and the role and mission of the laity.

At George Mason University School of Law, Dr. Alvaré teaches Family Law, Law and Religion, and Property Law. She has published on a wide variety of matters concerning marriage, family, parenting, and the First Amendment religion clauses. Outside the classroom, she is a consultant to ABC News on women in the Catholic Church, religion in the public square, and the papacy. Her expertise in these fields has been lauded by the Holy See. Since 2008, she has been a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity at the Vatican. Previously, she served the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the Director of Planning and Information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.

This past November, she served as the Vatican’s media representative for Humanum, a three-day, international, inter-religious colloquium on the complementarity of man and woman, held in Rome and sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and
 the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Although the conference participants returned home long ago now, and other Church-related news is filling the airwaves, the Humanum conference set a course for future intra-ecclesial (and, indeed, extra-ecclesial) discussions about issues at the forefront of today’s culture. The conference hall might have emptied out several weeks ago, but the fruit that will come of this conference is only beginning to ripen.Law professor Helen Alvare from George Mason University in Arlington, Va., speaks June 12, 2014, during the annual spring meeting of the U .S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in New Orleans. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Dr. Alvaré recently spoke to CWR about her experience at the Humanum conference and its impact on future discussions of marriage and family.

CWR: Professor Alvaré, it is a real honor to have this chance to talk about Humanum, the international conference held at the Vatican between November 17-19, 2014. First of all, what was the conference about and what are the planners and participants hoping comes from it?

Dr. Alvaré: The Humanum conference was an attempt to engage the world in a serious consideration of the foundational good that is the relationship between the man and the woman. As I wrote in America, we think we talk about men and woman all the time, but we are usually just peering into their sex lives or talking about their problems with relationship formation or dissolution. The fundamental good of their complementary union is too rarely considered.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the other Vatican offices hosting the conference hope to surface ways of thinking about and expressing this relationship that effectively convey both its natural and divine significance to observers world-wide. The movies and the papers and the video-talks are intended to have a long shelf life.

CWR: Later this year, high-ranking churchmen will once again gather in Rome for the Fourteenth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The theme of their meeting will be the “Vocation and Mission of the Christian Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.” Some of the prelates who chaired sessions of the Humanum conference will be there for that synod. While the Humanum conference was independent of the synodal path, will it help to keep the conversation going?

Dr. Alvaré: I don’t think there is any doubt that—although the Humanum conference was set in motion in November of 2013—its products are highly useful points of reflection for the Synod. Humanum starts with the start of the family—the husband and the wife. It gathers positive proposals from around the world and from 14 different religions about an institution that is both human and divine, facing common human problems worldwide.

It considers the intrinsic goods of parenting, and of kin relations. It considers all of the current, leading problems besetting the family worldwide. It gives special attention to the needs of the poor and of young people, and to the problems of more privileged nations imposing ideological notions about family onto other nations. It contained presentations on mercy (Cardinal Muller) and Eucharist (Bishop Lafitte). It proposed the kind of new language and new images that the Synod is calling on the Church to find. All of this is just part of Humanum’s contribution.

CWR: The Humanum conference’s theme was the complementarity of man and woman. What kind of a principle is sexual complementarity? Is it a theological one, a philosophical one? How does the human person become aware of this principle? And, how does this principle factor into Church teaching about marriage and the family? Isn’t this principle one of the reasons the Church opposes same-sex marriage, for example?

Dr. Alvaré: Sexual complementarity is a fact of nature and it is also part of the theological account of the relationship between the man and the woman in Genesis. It also has an extensive philosophical record. This was a central theme of Humanum—all religions were asked about both the natural and the divine significance, from their perspectives—of a two-sexed humanity, called to a one-flesh union and gifted with the possibility of procreation.

Today, one finds the notion of complementarity a lot outside the family context too, particularly in texts about neurology, psychology, and successful business practices.

I am not a theological authority on all the areas for which complementarity is important in the Church, which is why Sister Prudence Allen (RSM) spoke to our gathering! I would consult her pretty brief speech to get the better answers to your more detailed theological questions.

CWR: As Catholics, our sense of sexual complementarity is tied to Trinitarian doctrine: God is love, a life-giving communion of three divine persons (Father, Son, and Spirit), which perfectly balances unity-in-difference. How do some of the other religious believers who participated in the conference at the Vatican work through the principle of complementarity? What can we learn from them about this principle?

Dr. Alvaré: As to other speakers at the conference, some had an “integral complementarity” (each sex is wholly image of God, and complete in dignity and personhood) while others had a more “fractional” version of it (wholeness is constituted by the two together; they are like halves of a whole). The integral version in Catholicism (again, see Sister Prudence’s paper) allows both for the fact of the wholeness of each person, and their true equality, while recognizing that a basic aspect of a being a human being is being designed to give gifts to each other.

All of this said, there was beautiful testimony from all different perspectives on complementarity to the following effect: the way each sex changes the other and even takes on some of the other’s gifts, but then expresses them in a way particular to the sex of the recipient; the way that each sex can draw out from the other the best…making the man a “better man,” and the woman a “better woman”; the way that the weakness of one sex due to illness or exhaustion, is compensated for by the additional strength of the other when the times call for it; the as-yet-insufficiently-explored “synergy” between the male in female not only regarding procreation, but in many other enterprises.

CWR: As noted, you’ve spent quite a bit of time collaborating with the US bishops on pro-life ministry. But, you’ve also served the Church in many and varied ways since then. How is the Church in the US doing in teaching complementarity to our people? Is it a hidden treasure that many are yet to discover? Why is it important that we propose this principle in our catechesis in the faith?

Dr. Alvaré: Complementarity is often briefly referenced, but not sufficiently “unpacked,” in the Church today…neither its explanatory potential, nor the many questions it raises, nor its risks. We have taken the notion for granted. Now that it is actively denied, or obscured by notions that it doesn’t really matter…it really needs to be taken up again with energy. It is important because in Catholic teaching, understanding the complementary relationship between the man and the woman is key to helping us understand the identity of God, God’s relationship with his people, and how we are to love one another. The Scriptures are so clear about this.

CWR: You’re an attorney with a background in economics and public policy, with expertise in family law. Do laws in the US account for sexual difference, sexual complementarity, and an adequate anthropology of the human person? Or, does our legal culture de-sexualize the human person, reducing “it” to an atomized individual capable of only contractual—and not constitutive —relationships?

Dr. Alvaré: In law, especially family law, complementarity is suspect, or absent. It is increasingly denied—without really ever having explored it. Interestingly, one sees it acknowledged far more often in medical and business settings. In the law of family and elsewhere, it is true that the emphasis is on maximizing the well-being of the adult individual, and much less so the family as a natural unit.

CWR: Today, the socio-political and cultural narrative seems to have switched from debating abortion to debating same-sex marriage. What can we learn from the abortion debate? How do the two debates connect? Is there momentum in our culture toward the Church’s stance on one, both, or neither of these debates?

Dr. Alvaré: The marriage “debate” can learn from the abortion debate that intelligent persistence, and preserving “hope” that the truth has power of its own….eventually will bear fruit.  In the case of both debates, the fundamental realities—that children matter, that in fact adults owe duties to children, and even more fundamentally that life is about the “other” and living in service to the other—are at stake. Marriage today seems to be where abortion was in the late ’80s….filled with a sense that the light is far off. But I hope I know better than to believe that.

CWR: In your various speaking engagements, as in your classroom, you have the opportunity to connect with America’s future lawyers. Are younger lawyers more pro-life and pro-family? What’s your advice to a young Catholic person thinking about law school? Is it important to prepare for law school by studying Christian philosophy and Catholic theology?

Dr. Alvaré: I can’t give a statistically representative answer to the question about where law students are these days. I see many wonderful students, with a heart for justice, and for other people, every year. Most want to make sure that they make room in their lives for marriage and children, and room to give these the priority they deserve.

America is definitely run, in part, by smart lawyers. It makes sense for a person with a sense of mission to society/culture, still, to become [a] lawyer. Any difficult undergraduate major that requires one to write, to analyze, to make distinctions at an abstract level, is a good preparation.

Note: By visiting the Humanum conference’s official website, readers can find the biographies of the program participants and watch videos of their presentations. Additionally, readers can view the conference’s statement of Affirmation there. Background information about the conference is available here.

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.