To have a truly just church, Pope Francis must move beyond complementarity

by Jamie Manson

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Pope Francis seems to be saying a lot about women lately. Headlines declaring his call for the church to hear the voices of women and his call for equal pay could be spotted in both the religious and secular press during the last two weeks of April.

What wasn't talked about much in the media, however, was the context in which those headline-making statements were made.

Francis spent the latter half of last month dedicating his general audience talks to the family. He began in mid-April with a speech on the difference and complementarity between men and women. That talk served as the foundation for two more speeches he gave the following week about the sacrament of marriage.

While the mainstream press was busy cherry-picking seemingly woman-affirming quotes from these pontifical addresses, those of us who endeavored to read the fuller stories behind each speech (like the reports from NCR's Joshua J. McElwee and Catholic News Service's Carol Glatz) quickly realized that in each talk, Francis was also saying quite a bit about same-sex marriage.

None of Francis' statements were direct pronouncements on same-sex marriage, of course. If they had been, members of the mainstream media might have actually picked up on them. But what the pope said indirectly about marriage equality spoke volumes.

Witness, for example, NCR's report on Francis' call for equal pay for women. In the course of his report, McElwee also notes that Francis said the following in his talk that day:

Saying that men and women are God's "masterwork," the pope said Jesus "begins his miracles with this masterwork, in a marriage, in a wedding feast: a man and a woman."

"Like this, Jesus teaches us that the masterwork of society is the family: the man and woman that love each other," he said. "This is the masterwork!"

Anyone who reads Francis' speeches regularly knows that he frequently employs "one man, one woman" marriage rhetoric. Many journalists seem too busy searching for headline-grabbing progressive pearls to take much notice of this. But as we head toward the synod on the family, it would be wise to begin taking note of just how strongly the pope privileges heterosexual marriage and excludes the possibility of same-sex marriage.

Francis' rhetoric is important because it plays right into the hand of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who is facing public backlash for his morality clauses for employees of the San Francisco archdiocese's Catholic schools.

It also emboldens culture-warrior bishops like Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Both Lori and Kurtz spoke last week at the March for Marriage in Washington, D.C.

While Francis is pushing for justice in the workplace through equal pay, he is adding fuel to the unjust firings and witch hunts of LGBT employees of Catholic institutions who choose to be married.

Francis continued his speech with a lament over the lack of desire for marriage commitment, especially among young adults. He seems to believe that because of the prevalence of divorce, "many young people are led to renounce the ... irrevocable bond of a lasting family."

"I believe that we must reflect with great seriousness on why many young people 'do not feel like' getting married," Francis said. "There is this culture of the provisional -- all is provisional, it looks like there is nothing definitive."

The irony here, of course, is that marriage has probably never been as popular as it is among the LGBT community. It seems as popular among young adults as it is among same-sex couples who have been together for decades. All of them want equal protection under the law, and many also want marriage as a sign of the religious or spiritual depth of their commitment.

Countless same-sex couples really do "feel like" getting married. Many have been stopped because of a campaign that has been well-staffed and well-funded by Catholic leaders and donors. And many LGBT people who work for Catholic institutions find that their longing for marriage threatens to undermine their vocations as lay ministers, teachers, or nonprofit leaders.

How sad that church leaders refuse to see that same-sex couples have as much potential to be visible signs of God's "masterwork" as heterosexual relationships.

Saddest of all is that Pope Francis, who clearly sees the radiant face of God in the homeless, in the disfigured, in the prisoner, and in Earth's environment, cannot see the sacramental life of God in the devotion, sacrifice, faithfulness and unconditional love that dwells in so many same-sex relationships.

What keeps Pope Francis from seeing same-sex relationships in this way, of course, is his understanding of complementarity; that is, the idea that God designed men and women to complement each other and that our biological differences are evidence that God intends different roles and purposes for the sexes.

Complementarity is also used by the hierarchy to defend its opposition to women's ordination. So while Francis fights for equal pay for women in one breath, in the next breath, he extols the virtues of an idea that reinforces women's inequality inside the church's walls.

Though many see the struggle for women's equality and the struggle for LGBT inclusion in the church as separate issues, the truth is that neither women nor LGBT people will achieve justice in this church until the notion of complementarity is dismantled.

The path to undoing these injustices will be long and arduous, especially since our very popular pope has proven to be one of complementarity's greatest champions. Some of our finest Catholic thinkers, like Elizabeth Johnson, Charles Curran, Margaret Farley, and many other scholars, have laid the theological and ethical framework for rethinking complementarity.

But in addition to evolving intellectually, church leaders must also transform their sacramental vision. They must have the courage and humility to see that God can be as fully present in the relationships of same-sex couples as God can be in opposite-sex couples and that God can be as sacramentally present through the body of a woman priest as God can be sacramentally present in the body of a male priest.

Our church leaders must, in essence, stop telling God where God can and cannot be. They must admit that they cannot control how God can and cannot work through God's own people and where God's sacramental life can and cannot emerge. Only then will we have a church that moves beyond the limits of complementarity and into a new life as a true reflection of the justice of God. 

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's column, "Grace on the Margins," is posted to Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: Pitfalls and potential for marriage: To have a truly just church, move beyond complementarity.

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