Separate and Unequal – Conscience Magazine

AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF CATHOLIC COMPLEMENTARITY

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.

More: Sheila Briggs, at Conscience Magazine

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