The importance of complementarity at the upcoming synod

This article appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

It appears that the concept of complementarity will be front and center at the Synod of Bishops this October. In a nutshell, it means that two people or things complement each other and somehow belong together. The obvious example is one man and one woman in marriage.

NCR has juxtaposed two important articles on the topic that highlight the issue for us. The one article, by Jamie Manson, speaks of how we need to move beyond the concept in our understanding of marriage and sexuality. The second article, by Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman, suggests that Pope Francis has already begun to do that though many may argue whether he has gone far enough.

According to Lawler and Salzman, Pope Francis has added four nuances to his understanding of complementarity. The first comes from St. Paul’s notion of the variety of gifts that each Christian possesses. Francis acknowledges and affirms the “Spirit created varieties of human relationships with God, neighbor and self.” A second nuance is in understanding complementarity as a dynamic and evolving notion suggesting that roles and relations of the two sexes are not a fixed static pattern.

Francis’ third nuance brings ecology into the understanding of marital relationships. Ecology here includes relations between human groups and the social patterns they create. Marriage is placed within the context of the surrounding milieu. Social sins such as poverty, racism and homophobia are examples that restrict the full impact of complementarity. Finally, Francis places marriage in the context of the anthropological reality surrounding it. The history of the family and the reality of the current social facts of single parent families, same-sex couples, etc. must be brought into the equation.

There is much to be mined in this exploration of an expanded complementarity, but Manson suggests the need to simply go beyond the notion of complementarity altogether. She points out how frequently Francis employs “one man, one woman” rhetoric. Francis seems unable to see “the sacramental life of God in the… unconditional love that dwells in so many same-sex relationships.”

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Manson sees complementarity as the problem. Men and women have been designed to complement each other and therefore, same-sex couples, true women’s equality, and a female priesthood are out. Her words are powerful as she says that it is necessary to “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.”

While I am pleased that Pope Francis is trying to expand his notion of complementarity, I believe that Manson has it right. At a minimum, the effort to deal with the nuances of complementarity in order to produce an understanding that would include changes in thinking about same-sex couples and female priests could take a century or two. That is often the timeline of the church, but I think we can do better.

To me the whole notion of complementarity is just another example of how the church boxes itself into a logic that flies in the face of reality and practical situations. Once you have bought into a particular construct you are no longer able to respond to facts that may appear in front of you. The concept of natural law is one example. On the issue of birth control the church is stymied by adherence to a philosophical stance that makes it impossible to address issues that actually affect people.

We all complement each other in various ways. A serious person often connects with a more fun loving partner. A talkative individual may find it helpful to have a more silent partner. Numerous examples could be provided. These connections can and do occur between a man and a woman or between two members of the same sex. It seems, at the very least, unnecessary that a model of complementarity needs to be seen as a plan ordained by God for time immemorial. Why should this be so?

Reproduction of course remains an issue. Yet it doesn’t seem like we are in any danger of having the earth fail to repopulate itself. Why couldn’t God have ordained that for a select minority love and intimacy would flow in a different direction? In fact, it seems God has ordained exactly that. 


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