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Conscience Magazine

Sowing Nonsense and Nurturing Inequality

November 16, 2017

In “Good Girls Don’t,” Miriam Duignan discusses how the exclusion of women from the Catholic decision-making structure, justified by the gender-essentialist idea of “complementarity,” has deleterious effects on the spiritual and physical health of many of the world’s most vulnerable populations. While complementarity makes little theological sense, it has been weaponized as a dangerous tool of spiritual and material oppression.

Gender complementarity posits that to be “naturally” female is to be nurturing, to be “naturally” male is to lead, and the two are mutually exclusive. Real life indicates otherwise. Women “lead” most households around the world, managing financials, multiple complex tasks, and workforces with varying abilities and skill sets, for 12–17 hours a day, for free. A number of male CEOs I know would be rendered hapless at the leadership finesse required to run an effective household.

From the other side of the equation, why can’t a leader be nurturing? Must leaders be devoid of empathy and feeling? Are we not to imitate Christ, in his overabounding love and generosity for the most poor, abandoned and vulnerable? Jesus insists that to love is to lead, and to lead is to love. Again and again, Jesus leads first and often only with love and compassion—which, apparently, are strictly “female” traits, that render us unfit for leadership. Gender complementarity makes no theological, scriptural or practical sense.

During the Spanish Conquest, scholar and priest Ginés de Sepulveda argued that the native peoples of the Americas were “naturally” subhuman, and it was “natural” for the Spaniards to enslave them and commit genocidal atrocities upon them. Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas took the opposing side, asserting that native peoples were just as human and rational as the Spaniards, and forcing them into slavery was a crime. De las Casas’ (emotional, compassionate, shall I say “female”?) style won over royals, and reforms eventually took place, banning encomienda plantations and implementing basic early human rights protections.

I don’t think there’s any argument today about who was morally correct between the two; at the time, however, Spaniards wanted a moral reason to justify exploiting the vulnerable to enhance their own power and profit. The church then, as now, was all too willing to hand it to them.

Despite compelling evidence that providing poor women with access to birth control is the best way to combat poverty around the globe, the Vatican maintains and enforces its ban on contraception—via all the healthcare, education and other aid it supplies. The wealth of the most powerful is contingent upon the exploitation of a vulnerable worker population, frequently female, and all too often a recipient of Catholic healthcare or education. Without her ability to consult with her own God and conscience about when or if to have children, she and her family are often trapped in endless poverty—a continuing supply of subhuman disposable labor, not unlike enslaved native populations in the Americas on the encomiendas 500 years ago.

Chicago, IL