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Conscience Magazine

Separate and Unequal

By Sheila Briggs August 15, 2017

Gender complementarity has since Pope John Paul II dominated official Roman Catholic discussions about gender and sexuality. It has become the all-purpose explanation for why the church cannot change its teach­ings or practices in these areas. Men and women, we are told, have essential and changeless natures that are permanently different and that prescribe not inter­changeable roles. Gender complemen­tarity encounters skepticism in major Catholic publications, such as America, Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter, as well as more broadly among Roman Catholic theologians and ethi­cists. The fundamental intellectual problem with gender complementarity is that it rests on a circular argument. Gender complementarity is allegedly a fact of nature and therefore the self-ev­ident basis of what the hierarchy has to teach about the “natural” institutions of marriage and family. The church, so the argument goes, is simply following natural law (the moral rules inscribed by nature on human society). Despite the supposed factuality of gender complementarity, it would seem that it can only be authentically recognized in the forms of marriage and family that the church prescribes. In short, gender complementarity supposes a natural law framework of which at the same time it is the foundation. This is an intellectual house of cards that collapses as soon as one asks what evidence, external to the teaching of the church, we have that such facts actually exist in nature! Natural law proclaims that self-evident facts of nature can be recognized not only by faithful Catho­lics but by all human beings. When scientific evidence cannot confirm these facts and when so much of ordi­nary human experience contradicts them, natural law appears to be more an artifice of authority than a narrative of objective reality.

The failure of gender complemen­tarity as an appeal to nature is enough to sink it as the basis of public policy. How­ever, there is a second problem with gender complementarity that reveals an internal malaise in the contemporary Roman Catholic church. The appeal to gender complementarity functions in the church hierarchy as a way of promoting a tenuous consistency in the magisteri­um’s positions over time. The magiste­rium is the teaching office of the church exercised by the bishops and pope in all times and places. It adjudicates what theological and ethical opinions deserve to be elevated to the status of church doc­trine. Who gets to exercise the authority of the magisterium is a little more con­tentious and the relationship of theology to church doctrine a bit more complex than what I have described here. Yet, the basic point is that there is a historically circumscribed process through which the church got to teach what it does. This historical process can be neither acci­dental nor reversible if the church is capable of teaching absolute moral norms. Gender complementarity is therefore an appeal to history. It allows the church today to explain, indeed explain away, inconvenient historical facts.

Foremost, among these inconvenient facts is that for most of Christian history the church embraced gender inequality. So has the magisterium changed its teaching about gender and would that not affect the status of sexual norms as absolute? The answer, the church hierarchy wants to give, invokes the principle of the develop­ment of doctrine. In the nineteenth cen­tury the English convert to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Newman, wanted a church that was a reliable source of truth. Yet, at the same time, he was unwilling to reject a modern historical consciousness that recognizes change even in the world of ideas, including the realm of religious doctrines. The solution was to argue that doctrinal statements by the church were incomplete but not arbi­trary. They were part of an organic pro­cess in which through time the church grew into an ever greater possession of its truth. Seeming contradictions in the teaching of the church, when placed within their proper historical context, would be shown in fact to be different moments in which the church could be seen as moving towards an increasingly fuller understanding of its truth. Roman Catholic theologians by the mid-twen­tieth century eagerly espoused Newman’s idea of the development of doctrine, and it was widely adopted in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The devel­opment of doctrine really does allow you to have your cake and eat it too. You could dispense with magisterial statements that by the middle of the twentieth century struck nearly all Catholics as false, embar­rassing or even immoral. The Second Vat­ican Council and later Pope John Paul II could extol religious freedom as a central Catholic value despite the fact that in the nineteenth century Pope Pius IX had con­demned “liberty of conscience and of wor­ship” in the Syllabus of Errors, quoting his predecessor Pope Gregory XVI! The doc­trine of development sought to integrate these statements into an organic whole analogous to the growth of a vine tree. The deposit of faith given to the church by Jesus Christ was like a vine, and the magisterium was both its branches (the individual statements) and the vintner. As the vine grew, its branches became more abundant. The wise vintner (the church hierarchy in any given historical period) encouraged this growth, but also recog­nized that some branches needed to be pruned for the health of the entire tree.

As a tool to modernize church teaching, the doctrine of development suffered a major crisis—Humanae Vitae. A papal commission, drawing heavily on the prin­ciple of the development of doctrine, had recommended a change in the church teaching. Pope Paul VI in his encyclical quite unexpectedly rejected the majority report of the commission and reaffirmed the ban on contraception because it had been consistently taught by the magiste­rium. This decision highlighted one of the difficulties in the doctrine of devel­opment: how does one dist inguish between the branches and the root of the doctrinal vine? In the succeeding decades gender and sexuality became the terrain on which the tension was expressed between the insistence on absolute ethical norms and the undeniably historical con­text of every magisterial statement. To those who criticize Humanae Vitae and other teachings of the church on gender and sexuality, it seems obvious that these teachings rely on the historical accep­tance of gender inequality by the church. The contemporary hierarchy, however, denies that it is making gender inequality the basis of absolute theological and eth­ical norms. This is a difficult position to defend because earlier magisterial state­ments explicitly grounded their argu­ments in gender inequality and they drew on sources like the theologies of Augus­tine and Thomas Aquinas, for whom gender inequality was unquestioned fact. This is where gender complementarity comes to the rescue as a species of the doctrine of development. The absolute theological and ethical norms are unchanging—no contracept ion, no women priests—but the historical argu­ment from gender is not. Earlier writers may have framed these ethical norms in terms of gender inequality, but under­lying their views was in reality gender complementarity, which in their histor­ical context they misinterpreted as gender inequality. One can therefore safely dis­card the historical mistake of gender inequality because what was really sup­porting the unchanging absolute norm was gender complementarity.

Ingenious as this solution may appear, it is nonetheless an appeal to history. Just as appeals to nature must be tested against the scientific evidence, so must appeals to history pass the scrutiny of historians. As an interpretation of the past, does gender complementarity lead to an accurate description of the histor­ical facts? Does gender complementarity make more intelligible how earlier authors articulated gender or does it smuggle modern assumptions into their writings? I am going to sketch a history of gender in the West which, as we shall see, is not just about women and men and the relations between them. Chronolog­ically, I am going to break down this history into two major periods. The first period stretches from the ancient world of Greece, Rome and early Christianity to the eighteenth century. The second period begins with the sweeping techno­logical, economic, social, cultural and political changes that took place in the eighteenth century and which ushered in the modern world alongside a fundamen­tally new understanding of gender.

There are two salient features of gender in Western culture and society until the eighteenth century. First, men and women share the same human nature. Put bluntly, the ancient and medieval worlds had no conception of essential and distinctive female and male natures; there was no talk of a feminine genius complementing a masculine one. Thomas Laqueur in his celebrated book, Making Sex, described the premodern West as a world “where at least two gen­ders correspond to but one sex, where the boundaries between male and female are of degree and not of kind, and where the reproductive organs are but one sign among many of the body’s place in a cosmic and cultural order that tran­scends biology.” There were certainly several theories of gender in the ancient world, but this was one point of agree­ment among them. Second, the gender difference between men and women was part of the all-encompassing hierarchical order of society and the cosmos. Women and men share the same human nature, but in women it either is or can become defective. In Aristotle’s famous phrase, women are “misbegotten males.” In the hierarchical order, what is inferior was properly made subject to what is supe­rior. So women’s flawed humanity places them under the rule of men. It is, how­ever, of utmost importance to recognize that in antiquity gender difference was only one element within the hierarchical order of all things, and it was by no means the sole determinant of one’s status within the hierarchy. Further­more, biology was not an entirely reliable indicator of gender. Some men exhibited the flaws that were manifestations of female gender while some women dis­played the virtues of the male gender.

Early Christianity responded to the gender theories that it encountered in the ancient Mediterranean of the first century. There were some that were spe­cific to its Jewish background, notably those derived from the two Genesis accounts of creation. However, by the first century most Jews had been long integrated into the Greek culture of the eastern Mediterranean, and it is there­fore not surprising that Jewish and Christian thinking on gender and sexu­ality was in large part not distinctive from their “pagan” neighbors

First-century Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts might serve as a cautionary tale for contemporary Catholic advocates of gender complementarity who also find their gender ideology in Genesis. Instead of gender complementarity, the ancient interpreters found gender hierarchy in of the biblical creation stories. These first-century Jews and Christians had at least the excuse that they lived in an age before the modern historical study of the Bible and hence they did not know that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3 were written centuries apart by two different , unknown authors. Indeed, they believed both were written by Moses, and there­fore they sought to harmonize them, in the course of which they imported their own much later Greco–Roman ideas about gender and hierarchy. The chrono­logically later text of Genesis 1:26–28 (from the 5th century B.C.) recounts that God created humanity, both male and female, in the divine image. First-cen­tury interpreters did not see this as a simultaneous creation of woman and man because they conflated Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis 2 (10–7th century B.C.) has a two-stage creation of humanity in which the first human being is separated into woman and man. Combining the two texts together led to the ancient view that woman was not made directly in the image of God, and we find this view in the Jewish Christian apostle Paul and his Jewish contemporary, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Philo saw, in terms of modern historical exegesis, correctly that Adam of Genesis 2 is not a male proper noun, but a genderless human being. Nevertheless, steeped in Greek philosophy, Philo saw the creation of woman as the introduction of defect into the originally perfect humanity. Mascu­linity for Philo exists before gender. It is the one sex that tragically is undermined and divided when gender rears its ugly, female head. For Philo the creation of woman itself is the beginning of the Fall. For the apostle Paul the emphasis was on the male priority in the hierarchical order of creation. In the notoriously confused and confusing passage of 1 Corinthians 11, demanding that women cover heads during Christian worship, Paul argued that woman was made not directly but only derivatively in the image of God, and gender was part of a hierarchy that ranked both divine and human. Paul described this hierarchy: “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” Combining Genesis 1 and 2, Paul found this hierarchy given at the creation of human beings: “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man cre­ated for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” Paul went on to say that man and woman existed not without the other, but it is far-fetched to see this as an ancient statement of gender com­plementarity, especially because Paul referred in this passage to the reproduc­tive necessity of female existence.

When scientific evidence cannot confirm these facts and when so much of ordi­nary human experience contradicts them, natural law appears to be more an artifice of authority than a narrative of objective reality.

In his reflections, published as The Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II discovered gender complementarity in Genesis, but first-century Christians found there a singular humanity that could overcome gender differentiation. The Pope got it historically wrong when he portrayed Jesus’ statements on mar­riage and divorce in Mark 10 and Mat­thew 19 as reaffirming an essential gender distinction given at creation. Asked whether divorce was permissible, Jesus’ answer: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus, as portrayed by the gospel writers, connected Genesis 1:27 to marriage, and taught that the marriage union of man and woman should not be broken by divorce. This was not a common view in Judaism of the period, but it was not unique. The Qumran com­munity, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and who were contemporaneous with Jesus’ movement, also interpreted Genesis 1:27 in light of marriage, and demanded that men be married only once. Both the Qumran and the early Christian communities were radical, apocalyptic movements that believed that the reign of the God of Israel was about to sweep away the existing world order and restore the original order of creation. Marriage con­tained the two genders of the one sex within one flesh, thus transforming ­gender differentiation into the gendered unity of a singular humanity. The indis­soluble marriage was a sign of the restored creation that members of the Qumran and Christian communities were expected to enact. Because ancient Jewish and Christian authors always read Genesis 1:26–28 as a single text with Genesis 2–3, it was obvious to them from both the original Hebrew as well as the Greek translation that God had created a sin­gular humanity and that gender differ­ence was secondary—and for many of them problematic. In Genesis 1:26 God says , “Let us make humank ind [Hebrew=ādām, Greek=anthrōpos] in our image.” The word ādām is used in Gen­esis 2 to designate the human being before the creation of woman. So to an ancient reader, God’s first creative intent is to make a genderless human being (the Greek anthrōpos is gender neutral). It is only in the following verse that this ādām is specified as male and female: “So God created humankind (ādām/ anthrōpos) in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The ancient reader, assimilating Genesis 1:27 to Genesis 2, understood this as a sequence in creation.

[T]he ancient and medieval worlds had no conception of essential and distinctive female and male natures; there was no talk of a feminine genius complementing a masculine one.

In the Jesus tradition of the gospels of Mark and Matthew, gender unity in marriage restores the unity of the ādām/ anthrōpos, but some Christians sought a more radical solution to the problem of gender. In Galatians 3:27–28 Paul says what we believe is a well-known formula then used by Christians at baptism: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The Yale New Tes­tament scholar Wayne Meeks was first to point out that Genesis and the myth of the first human being as androgynous seems to be behind this text. It has also been claimed that an androgynous primal humanity was behind Jesus’ state­ments in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 pro­hibit ing divorce. Whereas Jesus proposed marriage as the solution to containing gender difference within a singular humanity, Galat ians 3:28 appears to advocate the obliteration of gender to return to the original androg­ynous humanity of Genesis. The “male and female” of Genesis 1:28 is precisely that which no longer exists in Christ (Galatians 3:28 uses the same Greek phrase). This abolition of gender was not—at least directly—a proclamation of gender equality. Baptism constituted the unity and not the equality of Chris­tians. What Galatians 3:28 asserted was that baptism erased gender on an onto­logical level; in Christ there was not any essential distinction (even a secondary one) between women and men—this is precisely contrary to the modern idea of gender complementarity!

You will probably have noticed that distinction between male and female is not the only difference that baptism annuls. Ethnic (Jew/ Greek) and social caste (slave/free) differences are also wiped away in the waters of baptism. In the modern world we think of ethnic and social class differences as pertaining to group identity and social roles, but not as existing on an “ontological” level. We consider people from different ethnic and social backgrounds as possessing, on the most fundamental level, a shared humanity. It is this belief in a common humanity that undergirds modern con­victions that all human beings are equal and therefore endowed with equal rights and entitled to equal treatment under the law. These modern concepts of equality did not exist in antiquity. It was not self-evident that all persons were born equal. One was born into a social and cosmic hierarchy that nature itself insti­tuted. One could not overturn or abolish this natural hierarchy. The most radical response was to cultivate an authentic self, capable of stepping outside the physical constraints of this natural order—for Galatians 3:28 this was the new self of the baptized. Galatians was not making a (modern) distinction between a person’s essential humanity and her or his social role. It was not just eliminating gender roles but obliterating gender itself—and the same applies to ethnicity and social caste. Interestingly, gender functioned as the first but not the only natural differ­ence between human beings. Remove gender from the natural hierarchy of human existence and the other natural divisions between human beings fall away too. Galatians is the mirror opposite to the social theory of Aristotle’s Politics, in which gender mutually reinforced the natural and essential differences between Greek and barbarian, slave and free.

Gender was an indispensable element of how hierarchy was naturalized in the ancient world, but it was only one part of an intricate web of hierarchical relations that were believed to structure all of reality. Hierarchy began within the human self; its primary form was the necessity for the soul to rule over the body. Eventually in Greek philosophy, including with the Stoics who were to influence early Christian theology, the soul became identified with reason and the body with passion, which led to two corresponding human states—active and passive. This interior hierarchy repeated itself in the external world. Aristotle identified Greek free males as “soul” people destined by nature to rule over “body” people: barbarians, women and slaves. Not everyone in the ancient world agreed with Aristotle. Earlier Plato rejected that moral capacity (aretē) dif­fered according to gender and social caste. Plato’s Republic described women of the highest class participating with the male elite in the government of the per­fect state. However, Plato accepted the exclusion of women from the citizenry of his own Athenian city state just as he did slavery as necessary to the func­tioning of ordinary human society. Het­erosexual intercourse reproduced the natural and social hierarchy because in it the man, associated with the rational soul, was active and dominated the pas­sive woman, prone to the passions of the body. But this sexual act of domination was not just about gender, it reflected all hierarchical social relations, especially that of master and slave. The household of husbands and wives, masters and slaves, was not a purely private, domestic space like the modern family. It had eco­nomic, even political, functions, and as such required careful management by its usually male ruler. There is a large body of ancient literature giving advice on household management. Belonging to this are the household codes, found in the New Testament writings of Colos­sians and Ephesians.

The Letter to the Ephesians is popular with contemporary Catholic advocates of gender complementarity. Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body finds in this text a celebration and restatement of the “original marriage” of Genesis creation accounts. Written towards the end of the first century, when apocalyptic expecta­tions of Jesus’ imminent return were sub­siding, Ephesians did not look forward to the restoration of the original creation in a singular humanity, where gender divi­sion had ceased. Instead the two genders were to express their unity within the hierarchical order of the household where wives were subjected to husbands. Although Ephesians was particularly con­cerned with the right relat ionship between husbands and wives, it also has lengthy instructions for the other hierar­chies of the household: parents and chil­dren and masters and slaves. When we look at the household code in Colossians (a letter written earlier than Ephesians, which took it generally as its model) we see that the center of concern was not the submission of wives to husbands but of slaves to masters. In fact, Colossians omitted gender in 3:11, a verse that likely refers to baptism and the unity that the baptized achieve in Christ: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, bar­barian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” Colossians was clear that the erasure of human differ­ences in baptism did not change the hier­archy of the household. Much has been made of the comparison between the relationship of Christ to the church and that of the husband to the wife, for instance, in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem. However, the master–slave relationship also has a theo­logical model and divine prototype. Just as husbands should emulate Christ in their love for their wives (Ephesians 5:25– 30) so should masters imitate in their treatment of slaves the “Master in heaven” (Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1). Reading Colossians and Ephesians, it would make as much sense to speak of complemen­tarity between slave and master as between wife and husband, though the church today has good reason to never wish to do so—in nineteenth-century America there was a complementarity defense of slavery. The supposedly racially inferior slaves should obey their white masters whose guidance they needed. Slaves were viewed as necessarily depen­dent on their masters in ways similar to that of wives on husbands.

Just as appeals to nature must be tested against the scientific evidence, so must appeals to history pass the scrutiny of historians.

Although hierarchy was the model for gender as for all social relations in the ancient world, within this hierarchy there was also gender fluidity and a degree of flexibility in social roles. Unlike modern interpretations, biology did not guarantee masculinity and femininity. In addition, gender was not the sole vector along which social status was to be calculated. Women, especially of the elite, could be masculine in the quality of their souls and men, especially of the lower classes, could harbor a woman inside. Philo of Alexan­dria saw the Fall prefigured in the cre­ation of woman because her making introduced passion into the world. Nev­ertheless, he was quite willing to praise Jewish ascetic women and the Roman Empress Livia because through their devotion to philosophy they had achieved a masculine rationality. A later Christian philosopher in Alexandria, Clement, argued that Christians, both men and women, were through their faith able to free themselves from the passions, and therefore Christian women possessed masculine souls. From the second century onwards, asceticism and especially sexual renunciation came to dominate Christian theology and practices. Although it may surprise us today, Catholic Christians in antiquity were condemned by many other Christian groups for their lax sexual morality—because they permitted mar­riage! Asceticism justified for Christian women a life outside the hierarchical household and marriage, and cemented their claim to spiritual masculinity. Jerome, the great biblical scholar in the fourth century, encouraged the Roman aristocratic women who were his friends and benefactors to take up the ascetic life and avoid marriage. He played with the Latin words for “virgin” (virgo) and “man” (vir), promising that a woman who chose to remain a virgin became a man.

Augustine lived and wrote at the end of the Roman Empire as a member of the educated male elite who, like him, were making the transition to a Christianized culture. After his conversion Augustine gave up his plans to marry because he wished to direct his soul upwards towards God. Sexual desire in marriage was inev­itable and, like all bodily passions, turned one’s attention away from the creator to the creature. Thus sexual activity, even in marriage, even when its intention was procreation, was always tainted with sin, albeit a venial (lesser and pardonable) sin. For him, marriage contained the disrup­tive force of sexual desire within its hier­archical structure. Yet marriage provided social stability because its gender hier­archy fostered a “domestic peace” which mirrored and upheld the natural and social order. As Augustine described it in his treatise On the Good of Marriage, apart from sexual intercourse there could exist a “true union of friendship between the two sexes, with the one governing and the other obeying.”

Aquinas in the medieval period was skeptical of whether women should have any role outside their reproductive one. In the Summa Theologiae he debated the question of whether woman should have been part of the original creation of the world by God. He answered affirma­tively because woman is needed to help man in the work of procreation, but in any other task “man can get help more conveniently from another man than from a woman.” Aquinas’ views on gender and sexuality produced a syn­thesis of Aristotle’s philosophy and Augustine’s theology. Augustine had already explained why God had created defective and inferior things. “As you did not make all things equal,” he wrote in his Confessions, “all things are good in the sense that taken individually they are good, and all things taken together are very good…. I considered the totality. Superior things are self-evidently better than inferior. Yet with a sounder judge­ment I held that all things taken together are better than superior things by them­selves.” For Aquinas this was a con­vincing argument and, even though woman is defective in her humanity and therefore her creation made sin possible, she was still necessary in a hierarchically ordered nature. “If God had removed everything from the world,” Aquinas contends, “in which man has found an occasion of sin, the universe would have remained incomplete.” This is hardly a ringing endorsement of contemporary notions of gender complementarity! Conservative Catholic women, in the book Promise and Challenge, invoke wom­en’s distinctive nature and the feminine genius as reasons for why women cannot be ordained priests, a role that requires man’s nature and masculine genius. However, for Aquinas it was not feminine genius but women’s inherent infe­riority that made their ordination impossible. He concluded, “since it is not possible in the female sex to signify emi­nence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive of Order.”

So how did we move from a world of one sex with two genders and gender hierarchy to a world of two sexes whose gendered identities complement each other? In the eighteenth century a pro­cess of change began which swept away the political and social institutions that had been inherited from the ancient and medieval periods. Driving this transfor­mation were the technological and eco­nomic consequences of the Scientific and Industrial revolutions. The most notable result was the replacement of the pre­modern household with the new separa­tion of workplace from the domestic space. What was left behind was the pri­vate domestic space of the modern family and enclosed within it women (at least those with sufficient family wealth and social status). In her chapter in the third volume of the Cambridge History of Sci­ence, Dorinda Outram has traced how the one-sex theory was eventually aban­doned in the course of the eighteenth century as new concepts of nature replaced ancient and medieval ones. Nature was now viewed as a “uniform mechanical system, governed by unbreakable laws” that made the physical and social differences between women and men “unalterable, discoverable, and predictable as the structures of nature itself.” The secularization of the natural sciences and medicine provided new sources of authority and norms in ques­tions of gender. The philosophers of the Enlightenment embraced science as a secular alternative to the authority of the church. Gender had become a matter of debate already in the sixteenth and sev­enteenth centuries with some voices appealing for gender equality. In this period we also see the philosophical and legal transformation of social appeals to nature. Alongside older views of nature as the source and foundation of a hierar­chical social order, there was a growing body of thought that saw nature as a repository of rights that it endowed equally on all human beings. This new intellectual climate did not arise in a vacuum but in the society already marked with deep inequalities. The thinkers of the Enlightenment were predominantly men of European descent, who might wish social and political equality for themselves but not for those groups who were subordinated to them. So suppos­edly scientific appeals to fixed natures that distinguished groups of human beings from one another became a means of limiting the claim that all persons are born equal and that nature endows all with equal rights.

Gender complementarity emerged as an ideology to restrict equality for women. On the one hand, it acknowl­edged that women and men were equal. On the other hand, it proposed that dif­ferences in male and female natures required that men and women fulfill different social roles and occupy dif­ferent social spaces. Women could not without harm to femininity participate in the public realms of work, politics and education. One even attributed moral superiority to women, but again this moral superiority was too fragile to sur­vive in the public realms. Women were to moralize society by staying at home and educating the children in virtue and repairing the damage done to man’s moral character through his participa­tion in a harsh public world. Gender complementarity also provided a model for other ideologies that wanted to assert human equality but exclude some groups of people from political citizenship and equal participation in economic, social and cultural spheres. Most notably, in American democracy “separate but equal” was used to justify racial segrega­tion. Modern theories of gender and racial difference drew on scientific claims about unalterable gender and racial characters. They lacked the flu­idity of ancient and medieval concepts of gender and ethnic identity because biology really did dictate the essential natures of human beings. Despite the avowal of “separate but equal,” there was always an asymmetry in the roles, resources and opportunities available on the basis of gender and race. Not surpris­ingly, those who had occupied the supe­rior position in premodern social hierarchies gained most.

In a chapter of Feminism, Law, and Religion on the contemporary Catholic theory of complementarity, Elizabeth Schiltz leaps directly from Aquinas to twentieth-century Catholic writers in the philosophical traditions of phenom­enology and personalism. So it may sur­prise some readers that gender complementarity did not originate in the Roman Catholic church. On the con­trary, it was first developed by secular and Protestant thinkers and the Roman Catholic church was a relative latecomer to the celebration of gender complemen­tarity. In the eighteenth century, Goethe’s disdain for Christianity led him to elevate the Eternal Feminine into the image of the divine. Although the feminine in Goethe’s Faust might gain equality in the conception of the divine, he was unwilling to grant equality to women elsewhere and certainly not in the aesthetic sphere which he occu­pied—feminine nature produced trivial literature. In a similar vein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau excluded women from citizen­ship in his democratic state, but he por­trayed the female protagonists of his novel the Nouvelle Héloïse as guardians of a private domestic space essential to male happiness and the cultivation of virtue. In nineteenth-century England, gender complementarity became part of the sec­ular social and cultural improvement program championed by John Ruskin. In Sesame and Lilies he advocated that the feminine virtues of the private sphere needed to be extended into the public realm. In Ruskin’s views we find a par­adox that gender complementarity sets up a dichotomy not only of feminine and masculine identities but also of ethical domains and practices, which proves untenable if the male public realm is to avoid moral disaster. This is a problem that the contemporary contributors to Promise and Challenge face because they want women’s leadership in the Catholic church but not women’s inclusion in the church hierarchy—priestly ordination is incompatible with the feminine genius that needs to be expressed in specifically female modes of leadership.

Protestants first adopted gender com­plementarity into Christian theology and practice. Since the Reformation, Protes­tants had understood themselves as defenders of marriage and the household against the Catholic church’s higher esti­mation of the ascetic lifestyle. They embraced the new moral significance given to the family and to women’s role within it. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the “father of modern theology,” wrote Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incar­nation to explore the theological mean­ings of the private domestic sphere and the gendered identities of Christians within it. At a fictional Christmas Eve party the characters discuss the meaning of Christmas and Christ’s incarnation. Schleiermacher depicted women’s mater­nity as giving them this intuitive and unbroken connection to the divine. One of the women characters says, “[I]n this sense every mother is another Mary. Every mother has a child divine and eternal and devoutly looks out for the stir­rings of the higher spirit within it.” Nine­teenth-century Protestant women demanded that they extend the maternal role into the broader society. They par­ticipated in and founded campaigns for social reform. It was out of these that movements emerged to secure women the vote. Feminism was born out of the struggle to abolish slavery at the Seneca Falls meeting of 1848, and later the largest suffrage movement in the United States was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union founded by Frances Willard.

The Swiss Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, whom Pope Pius XII hailed as the greatest theologian since Aquinas, gave the definitive theological statement of gender complementarity in a couple hundred pages devoted to it in his mas­sive work, the Church Dogmatics. For Barth the man–woman relationship is central to the doctrine of creation because it constitutes humanity as a being that always needs to be in relation­ship with another. It is gender comple­mentarity that forms the divine image in human beings and is how God has created the capacity for relationship to the divine and human others. Barth did not want to limit gender complemen­tarity solely to marriage, and also he did not want to attribute specific roles and attributes to men and women. However, although the roles and attributes of women and men may change according to historical circumstances, Karl Barth believes that there is always a gendered distinction in how women and men exist in any society. Furthermore, he believes that there is always a specific “sequence” in which the man precedes the woman. In Barth’s theology we find a soft version of the gender hierarchy that always limits gender equality in theories of gender complementarity.

Despite the avowal of “separate but equal,” there was always an asymmetry in
the roles, resources and opportunities available on the basis of gender and race.

By 1951 when Barth finished pub­lishing his doctrine of creation, the Roman Catholic Church had caught up and had embraced gender complemen­tarity. Aline Kalbian in Sexing the Church provides an excellent study of the Roman Catholic engagement with gender com­plementarity that began in the late nine­teenth century with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclicals Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae and Rerum Novarum. At this early stage the popes moored gender complemen­tarity to gender hierarchy. This is clear from the most prominent statement of gender complementarity of the early twentieth century. In 1930, Pope Pius IX issued the encyclical Casti Connubii where he explained, “for if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may or to claim herself the chief place in love.” Here and elsewhere he condemned “exagger­ated liberty” that would make men and women equal. Both Pope Pius IX and Leo XIII connected women’s chastity to their subordination. Yet at the same time Pius IX qualified the “primacy” of the husband by acknowledging the wife’s possession of reason, mature judgment, and the ability to exercise her rights in society. In the sixties the publication of Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and the Second Vatican Council took the Roman Catholic Church further to an acceptance of gender equality. Then Humanae Vitae (and offi­cial Catholic teaching since then) quietly dropped the equation of sexual pleasure with sin. The doctrine now allows for a “unitive” purpose of married sexuality alongside the procreative and accepts a modern psychology of the person that sees sexual desire as a healthy constituent of a loving relationship. Nevertheless, one reaffirmed Pius XI’s ban on contracep­tion that was rooted in Augustine’s view that sexual intercourse, but not marriage, could only be morally permissible if solely directed to procreation. Likewise John Paul II wanted, in his extensive interpre­tation of Ephesians in Mulieris Digni­tatem, to discard gender hierarchy as an expression of gender, limited in validity to its own historical context. Nonetheless, behind the historically circumscribed expression of gender hierarchy (or per­haps inside of it) he found a specific form of mutuality that was not restricted by historical context. He replaced hierarchy with “mutual subjection” which then, through the alchemy of gender comple­mentarity, could still dictate specific roles to men and women based on essential feminine and masculine natures.

Yet gender complementarity always implies an asymmetry of gender roles, resources and opportunities. Women get care and nurturing roles, derived from their biological roles as mothers. Men’s roles are not strongly determined by biology but by theological metaphor, tac­itly derived from the gender hierarchy of earlier patriarchal periods. This leads to a circuitous argument in works like Promise and Challenge where women’s feminine genius must not be subsumed within a male “clericalism” that the call for women’s priestly ordination is claimed to promote, while the invocation of theo­logical metaphor alone suffices to demon­strate that clerical office is appropriate to the masculine genius. Contemporary Catholic theories of gender complemen­tarity have two contradictory goals. First, they want to preserve the premodern arguments banning contraception and women’s ordination that the magisterium has inherited from August ine and Aquinas. At the same time, they do not want to acknowledge the gender inequality that is intrinsic to the gender hierarchy implied by the Augustinian and Thomistic frameworks. The hierarchy overlooks that earlier secular, Protestant and pre-Vatican II Catholic uses of gender complementarity were all aimed at restricting gender equality and not at pro­viding a foundation for it. Removing gender hierarchy renders premodern views of sexuality and gender incoherent, and trying to fit gender equality into gender complementarity results in an inconsistent ethics of gender and sexuality that merely pretends there is some organic development of doctrine between Augus­tine and Pope John Paul II.

Sheila Briggs
Sheila Briggs

is an associate professor of religion and gender at the University of Southern California.