Saturday, December 06, 2014

The Complementarity of the sexes: embarassing but indispensible


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Nuptial Blessing: much of it given to the Bride alone. Complementarity, not symmetry.
The complementarity of the sexes is is beautifully illustrated by men taking their hats off, and women putting hats or mantillas on, in church: there is a difference between them. This is the basic point of the Position Paper on Headcovings which I've introduced on Rorate Caeli and discussed on this blog yesterday. This symbolic role, however, is part of the reason why liberals don't like the practice: they don't want to hear about complentarity. They want 'gender' to be a social construct, which ought to be a personal choice, and irrelevant to what one does in life.

Now, people have begun to notice that same-sex marriage is very difficult to resist if you accept contraception. Accept that sex, and indeed marriage, needn't have any connection with procreation, and it becomes impossible to explain what is wrong with homosexual sex, and homosexual marriage. The resistance of Evangelical Christians to SSM is, therefore, very difficult to maintain. Well, we have resisted that concession, so perhaps we are ok.
But a similar problem arises with sexual complementarity: if marriage is not based on differences between the sexes, then why should it be limited to people of different sex? Right, say the Catholic apologists, let's wheel out the doctrine of sexual complementarity to deal with this. You can read all about it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the section on homosexuality (2357; cf 2333).

But the problem is this. Catholic apologists actually find the issue of complementarity very embarrassing. They realise it is necessary as a reply to homosexual activism, but they are desperate to say as little about it as possible. The very same Catechism of the Catholic Church which uses it against homosexuals, does not even mention it in discussing marriage. (Here's the section: search it yourself.)

There is more. Pope St John Paul II understood that sexual complementarity was absolutely necessary as part of the explanation for why we can't have women priests. He said lots of nice (and true) things about women in Mulieris dignitatem. But what he doesn't say much about men. Ok, Mulieris dignitatm is about women. But won't anyone say anything about men? If men and women are different, and we have all this stuff to say about women being 'spousal' and representing the bride-Church, what are we going to say about men?

The horrible, horrible truth, which Catholic apologists would apparently rather be flayed alive than admit, is that the thing which is complementary to the spousal Church is the authority of Christ the Bridegroom.

Priests, most obviously, represent Christ, they act in persona Christi, in their liturgical and sacramental and pastoral functions. Women represent the bride-Church, so to speak, the congregation. But as St Paul makes explicit, and as the apologists desperately need, yet desperately fear, to acknowledge, this complementarity is not limited to the role of clerical men vis-a-vis a feminised laity. The relationship between the clergy and the congregation is mirrored in the relationship within marriage between the sexes. The authority of the priest over the congregation is paralleled by (those of a nervous disposition look away now) the authority of the husband over the family.

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Is this teaching of Scripture, all of the Fathers, and, obviously, of the Catholic Church, reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? You must be joking! Can you imagine a Catholic bishop today, or a mainstream Catholic theologian, allowing this irreformable teaching to be dragged out of him? Neither can I. But silence about it is, in fact, a huge problem.

It creates the impression that in the Church all authority is clerical authority: clericalism.

It creates the impression that talk about the special dignity of women is just a sop to the ladies to compensate them for not being allowed priestly ordination, and doesn't flow from a coherent view of the roles of the sexes with which we are actually comfortable.

It creates the impression that the Church has nothing nice to say about men: reading some apologists, one is tempted to say that men are just second-class women, and should become as like women as possible if they want to become holy.

These are some of the reasons Catholic apologists have a hard time dealing with modern issues. They have tied themselves into knots to avoid saying certain unsayable things; the things they think they can still say, however, don't make very much sense on their own.

It is also among the reasons why the current generation of Catholic leaders and apologists have failed Catholic men, so few of whom can be found in the typical congregation.

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41 comments:

  1. I hesitate to say this, but haven't you yourself shied away from the true issue a little, when you write:

    'The authority of the priest over the congregation is paralleled by (those of a nervous disposition look away now) the authority of the husband over the family.'

    That is, I think what you (probably unconsciously) avoid saying is: ' The authority of the priest over the congregation is paralleled by (those of a nervous disposition look away now) the authority of the husband over his wife.'

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    1. Ben - the authority of the husband extends beyond his wife to his family. Or that's my reading of that phrase in any event, which of course is in accordance with St Paul.

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  2. I don't disagree with any of the theological content of your post, but personally I've never heard any apologists shy away from the subject of complementarity whether discussing same-sex marriage or women priests.

    Your post is essentially dealing with the headship aspect of complementarity which I've never heard anyone deny, or attempt to avoid, not even those dreaded 'neocons' at Catholic Answers, which I used to listen to a lot back in the day.

    Evangelicals don't deny the concept of headship, in my experience, they emphasise it a lot, however they express it in terms of difference as opposed to complementarity. In fact many Evangelicals and Baptists reject the concept altogether, believing that the marriage is entirely based on headship. "Nothing about complementarity in the Bible".

    But as far as apologists go, I've never heard anyone shy away from the concept of headship in discussing the issue of women priests, nor avoid the parallel between the authority of the priest and the husband over his family, in fact I've witnessed some fairly heated discussions about this amongst friends on this topic.

    From my perspective, while I absolutely am not embarrassed by the concept of headship and adhere to aspects of this in my own life, the difficulty comes when asked to discuss the issue of women priests in a brief media slot. One is already working against a hostile assumption of the Catholic Church as being deeply misogynistic institution, therefore with only a limited amount of airtime, there isn't time to go into the nuances or complex explanations as to why headship isn't a deeply offensive concept and given that the aim of any media slot (excluding specific Catholic or Christian media where the interviewer usually possess a high level of theological literacy) is to present the Church's case in an attractive manner (while not negating truths), it's a judgement call on the day as to whether or not to big up headship, or other aspects of how the Church perceives female vocations.



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  3. I am not "of a nervous disposition" but I do not want authority over my wife. Why would I want to make another adult subject to my authority when we can work much more effectively as a partnership? To assert authority over my wife is to deny her intelligence and the validity of her opinions. There is a danger in assuming authority that arrogance creeps in. Additionally surely the assumption of such authority often leads to resentment in the wife?

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    1. Agree entirely Slyvester but Ephesians goes both ways. It isn't an untempered authority.

      It also assumes a model which isn't often economically feasible today where the man works and provides and the woman looks after the home and family where she has authority - hence the extension over the family.

      But like papal authority, male authority is based on service.

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    2. We may not want to exercise authority, but that is not really the point. The question is whether that is part of God's plan for marriage.

      What we do know is that if we are to follow Christ, we must practice obedience; and in order to allow others to practice obedience, some must exercise authority.

      These are not fashionable or popular ideas: but fashion and popularity are not the right criteria for discerning how we should live.

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    3. As CS Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, it's difficult to have a democracy with just two people. If you have a disagreement, somebody has to agree to back down. That is where the authority of the husband is necessary.

      You can argue it should be the wife who has the final say, or the couple could take it in turns, but the Bible provides a pattern of male primacy.

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    4. Agreed Matthew.

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    5. "Why would I want to make another adult subject to my authority when we can work much more effectively as a partnership?"

      There is nothing in the idea of "authority" which forbids mutual cooperation on many or even most issues -- unless you are conflating "authority" with "authoritarianism," the error typical of liberals.

      That you choose to exercise your husbandly authority in a democratic manner may be prudent and wise, but it does not mean you are not exercising authority.

      "To assert authority over my wife is to deny her intelligence and the validity of her opinions."

      Again, nonsense, unless you are conflating "authority" and "authoritarianism." Authority has nothing to do with intellect. Whether a particular police officer is a member of MENSA or a mouth-breather, I am obliged to follow his instructions when he pulls me over.

      "There is a danger in assuming authority that arrogance creeps in."

      Anything that exists can be perverted, literally anything; that's all evil is, after all, the lack of some perfection. Abusus non tollit usum.

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  4. I think the issue is more fundamental than the headship of man in marriage. This headship derives from the fact that God has ordained a patriarchal order to human society and a man's vocation is to mediate the Fatherhood of God. It is precisely God's Fatherhood which gives all fatherhood its name (cf Eph 5) and from which all families derive the meaning of their existence.

    The "embarrassing" factor which nobody is prepared to defend is patriarchy. The attack on the priesthood, the attack on the Mass, the attack on marriage, the attack on authority, the attack on sexuality, the attack on men and the family can all be traced back to this fundamental attack on fatherhood - the desire to destroy patriarchy. We should not be surprised by this, however, because the essential fact about God's self-revelation in Christ is that He fully revealed God's eternal Fatherhood - and the devil detests it.

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    1. Deacon Augustine - probably all of us need to be clearer by what we mean by patriarchy which has some negative connotations.

      One of the things that St John Paul II was trying to work out in TOB is male/female relationships in a fallen world with the burden of concupiscence. This is why he kept repeatedly harking back to Genesis and what we were given in the very beginning, before the Fall.

      It's tempting to harken back to the God-given patriarchal model in a world where we increasingly see the traditional family discarded and undermined, but what we have to bear in mind (and what the feminists push back against) is that not all aspects of patriarchy as expressed in previous societies, were positive.

      One example being the notion that it is neither necessary nor desirable that women should be educated.

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    2. "all of us need to be clearer by what we mean by patriarchy which has some negative connotations."

      I don't accept that patriarchy has any negative connotations. I believe that people choose to ascribe negative connotations to it though, and that has been at the heart of the feminist attack on men and masculinity from the beginning.

      Society is now reaping the fruit of this attack on patriarchy in the effeminized, ineffectual, feckless and irresponsible men it is producing.

      I do agree that there have been abuses of power by men as there have been abuses in all areas of life due to the concupiscence of fallen human nature. However, the true model of patriarchy is given for us in the Word of God, where as you rightly say, the leadership in patriarchy is meant to be one of service. A man is meant to love his wife as Christ loved the Church - being ready to lay down his life for her and their family.

      Woman is called to be "under" (sub) "the mission" (missio) of the man and actually allow him to love her as Christ loved His Church. When woman refuses to let man love her as he is called to do, his purpose in life is frustrated and he becomes the useless article which is all too apparent in the society in which we live. Today's emasculated man becomes the absent husband and father of tomorrow. Society can't have it both ways: either it encourages men to be men as God intended, or it ends up with feckless nothings.

      I do not believe that there is anything inherent in patriarchy that means that women should not be educated. If a man loves a woman as God intended, he will want her to aspire to her full potential as a daughter of God.

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    3. Well explained, Deacon Augustine.

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  6. Curious. My experience, on this side of the Atlantic, of complementarity has been reverse. I first learned of it through Ephesians 5 while I was a freshman in college from my brother who had learned of it in a Catholic Bible study. I find much agreement on it from various protestants as well- the man in sacrificial authority after the image of Christ over his bride who is in the image of the Church.

    I find greater reluctance and embarrassment for people to approach the issue of priestly authority. When instructing protestants who wish to join the Church, many are open and receptive to marital complementarity but bulk at ecclesial authority.

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    1. Fr., to aid the latter, can I recommend to you Scott Hahn's scripture study on the Letter to the Hebrews? He does an excellent job of showing how the concepts of priesthood and fatherhood are practically synonymous - starting with the primitive priesthood of the patriarchs, its replacement by the Levitical priesthood, and then its restoration by Christ as a priest of the order of Melkizedek.

      In short, priestly authority and fatherly authority derive from and are one and the same thing. As a recovering protestant myself, I often find that derivation from first principles according to the scriptures goes down well with my former brethren.

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    2. I'll take that recommendation, thanks!

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  7. Whenever that passage about wives being subject to their husbands was read at Mass my husband always used to give me a nudge and a big grin would appear on his face!

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    1. I always thought you were a man, Pelerin!!!

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  8. There are not many women on here who are arguing that they should be subject to their husbands. I would be interested to get a female perspective. My wife and I compromise which works very well.

    Additionally how far does this authority go? Should my wife be subject to my every wish? Does that not imply that I am superior to her? God created us all as equals.

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    1. On meditating on the fifth Glorious Mystery, I am often struck by how it ends: 'He went home and was subject to them.' I do not think that implies that Our Lord was inferior to Our Lady or St Joseph; but that it teaches us something profound about the human family.

      I should not think that St Joseph found it easy to be the head - the authority - in a family consisting of the Sinless Virgin and God Made Man - but it was his role, and I am sure that he carried it out with courage and love.


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    2. Erratum: I meant fifth Joyful Mystery, of course...

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    3. Sylvester: your concept of authority seems to be nothing more than tyranny. But the two things are not synonymous. Furthermore, although the wife owes obedience to her husband, strict injunctions are laid on her husband too. He must be prepared, for example, to sacrifice his life for his wife. And, of course, a wife would have no obligation to obey an unjust command.

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    4. One is always obliged to obey authority in the relevant sphere. So I am obliged to obey a police officer when he tells me to step out of the vehicle, I am obliged to obey the priest when he tells me to do this or that as a penance, etc. I do not have to pray the rosary on a police officer's orders, nor may Father order me to surrender property he suspects was stolen.

      Similarly a wife is obliged to obey her husband in matters related to the good of the family.

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  9. Think Matthew sums it up. When there is substantial disagreement (admittedly rare) we reach a compromise.

    On the few occasions where we cannot agree, then his judgement prevails (which means I can't be blamed if it all goes pear-shaped) ;-)

    In those few instances you grit your teeth, pray, get through it and trust in God and His providence, which we are all called to do.

    It's all a matter of balance, ideally one party should not be riding roughshod over another and making them unhappy but Christian wives ought to be aware of this concept of headship and be prepared to yield if necessary. Which in my experience makes for a happier marriage. No-one wants either a hen-pecked husband nor should men be emmasculated. It goes against the natural order.

    We chose the Ephesians passage at our wedding, so I can hardly claim ignorance :-)

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  10. Forgot to mention that headship, exercised corrector is not authoritarian, with one party subject to the irrational whims of the other or used as an instrument for personal gratification.

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  11. My wife tried to exercise the practice at great detriment to our marriage. She became resentful and I grew frustrated at her not speaking her mind. It resulted in a lot of arguments. We have found working as a partnership to be much better.

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    1. Exercising authority doesn't mean taking no notice of the people under you! And being subject to authority doesn't mean never expressing an opinion. You could have exercised your authority to give your wife what she wanted.

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  12. I always have the last word in my household.

    Usually "Yes, darling".

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    1. I recognise that here, too. But I console (or kid) myself that it is where I have delegated authority for a particular area (domestic issues, finance, child-rearing and other trivial issues) to my wife. The serious issues (which wine to drink with dinner, for example) I retain, and exercise due authority over...

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    2. You know, I was reading through all these interesting posts but my underlying conviction was telling me most posts were just far too serious and more than a little removed from reality. After all, in our marriages, we don’t (well, we didn’t anyway) sit down with an agenda laid out for every important question needing an answer, to be followed by a competitive debate. Your introduction of a dash of humour is just the ticket, Thank you. And the same goes for a normal, happy marriage too, I’d say.

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  13. Modern people can't conceive of authority as being anything other than oppressive. The liberal dogma that 'good' means 'what I want' implies that any authority whatsoever is bad.

    But the Catholic teaching (of which most Catholics are ignorant) is that a human being's good is essentially fixed and unchangeable, and often runs contrary to his desires (thanks to the Fall). He needs to be helped to reach this good by those in authority over him.

    Therefore authority, properly exercised, is for the good of those under one's charge, and is even an act of love towards them. Similarly, to fail to exercise authority is to fail to love those under one's charge.

    Our Lord, of course, does both perfectly. There's no conflict between the two.

    I think it all comes to metaphysics. If you think (as Catholics should) that reality is fundamentally hierarchical -- that hierarchy is as real a feature of reality as, say, water, and that this can be demonstrated to be true -- then you will expect to see this reflected in human relationships. You will expect a husband to exercise authority, and see him as failing to fulfil his duties when he does not.

    If, on the other hand, you see reality as basically flat (as you will if you're a materialist, or influenced by materialism), then even if you're a faithful Christian you will often think of the husband's authority as a necessary evil. It can perhaps be exercised to avoid conflict or to decide a vote, but no more than that. Most would not see it as the inherently good, proper and loving thing that it is.

    Catholic apologists have made their arguments thoroughly incoherent by ignoring metaphysics and rejecting Thomism. They've tried to make their arguments attractive (nothing wrong with that in itself) at the cost of coherence. We're going to keep losing the arguments, and the politics, and the souls, until we realise this.

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    1. Excellently explained.

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  14. The way I understand St Paul's teaching to husbands is that they have to love their wives as their own bodies and to lay down their lives/ sacrifice for them. Now if a husband is truly living this command he would be putting the needs and desires of his wife before is own. Is that not the heart of sacrifice. Now if my husband spent his life ensuring that my needs were met before his own than it is no great hardship to be under his authority as it would only be ordered towards my own good anyhow. As St Paul begins the teaching with the command to give way to one another.
    St Paul also states we must submit to secular law and somehow no one thinks this is oppressive.

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  15. A few thoughts, from a Protestant who is mostly agreed with the post above:

    1. In Scripture, the primarily command to husbands isn’t to exercise authority over their wives and families, but to love them. This, I believe, is worthy of note.

    2. Men, whatever they do or don’t do, naturally occupy the position from which father-like authority is symbolized. Women can have their own distinct form of ‘authority’, but father-like authority has a more pronounced character of its own. While a ‘matriarchy’ would rest principally upon the ‘authority’ that belongs to the immediacy of the mother-child bond, ‘patriarchy’ rests primarily upon the authority that belongs to the father-figure, who stands over against his family in a way that the mother cannot (since the family union is formed in and through her body). The relationship between the father figure and his family is not the immediate bodily one of the mother, but a relationship established by law and covenant commitment. The father stands over against others and thus can symbolize authority that lays claim upon us from beyond and without our immediate intimate bonds.

    3. Following on from the previous point, I don’t believe that the scriptural emphasis when it comes to the authority of husbands is upon their actions, but upon their persons. Men can symbolize authority for much the same sorts of reasons as women can symbolize the most intimate bonds of the family. The man is an authority figure, but not because he throws his weight or will around. He just is. As an authority figure he is called to stand for that reality in a loving and faithful manner, symbolizing and embodying the founding spiritual norms of the household in a way that builds up and strengthens all within it. When men forget that they naturally symbolize authority, they can fall into the trap of thinking that they must become authority figures through domineering leadership, which isn’t healthy for anyone.

    4. Where men drop out or embrace passivity, women don’t start to exercise authority instead. Rather, a culture’s sense of any authority over against it starts to dissipate. I have discussed this dynamic in terms of the priesthood here.

    5. Finally, authority, exercised properly, is ‘authorizing’ and ‘empowering’. The husband and father’s authority exists for the good of his wife and family and he should exercise it in a way that empowers and strengthens them as God’s servant. This is one reason why I am a little wary of focusing upon the husband’s authority as one over his wife and family. There are senses in which this is the case. However, the husband’s authority is primarily one for his wife and family, one that exists to give them a surer footing and wider influence in the world. This isn’t a zero sum game. The weight of the husband’s authority shouldn’t really be one placed upon his wife and children, but one put behind them.

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    1. This is very interesting indeed, thanks for the comment. I'll read your post.

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  16. Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful responses to this post.

    The only thing I'd like to add is that women in the ancient world were generally engaged in work with a clear monetary value; they were not like the 1950s housewives of legend. Under Roman law they could own property, for example, and often did. Cf. the mulier fortis of Proverbs buying a field and selling her embroidery to merchants for money.

    Economic circumstances have very little to do with the issue of headship.

    I'd take back what I said about this doctrine not being stated clearly today if it had not been airbrushed out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the reformed Marriage Service and Nuptial Blessing, or if it made an appearance in the post-conciliar magisterium. The more typical approach, sadly, is to deny that there is a problem with feminism from a Catholic perspective.

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  17. Lynda - no I have never been a man! Although we seem to read and comment on the same blogs you must have missed it when I make the odd comment re mantillas!

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  18. I suppose I have also been guilty of trying to make women out to be more than they are in an attempt to convince men and women that we (women) degrade ourselves by behaving in the way many of us (being promiscuous, immodest, masculine, aborting our children...).

    Personally, I am comfortable with allowing men to be the leaders and to have authority, but I am not used to it because so few men seem to take the lead, so I forget that I don't have to always do it myself!

    I would love to read more on this subject if you would be willing to write about it.

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  19. I start from the standpoint that men and women are equal insofar as they are fully responsible for their own actions both in marriage and in life. To me that means they can and should perform any role they are suited to. There are plenty of women with a talent for leadership or headship and, heaven knows, lots of men with no such talents.

    I think the idea of the Church being the bride of Christ is a beautiful one, with its connotations of fidelity, love and so forth. But it is an analogy and by no means exact. Husbands are not Christ and we should not be exercising authority over our wives. The simple reason you don't hear bishops promoting it is it's a distortion and a terrible idea.

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