One of the most significant features of Catholic feminism, setting it apart from more conventional secular feminism, is its conviction that there are fundamental differences between men and women that are not simply biological and are not simply socially constructed. This conviction finds expression in a theory of gender identity known as "complementarity," which rejects both the position that there is no significant difference between men and women, and the position that there is a significant difference between men and women that renders men or women naturally and fundamentally unequal. Gender complementarity embraces both significant differentiation and fundamental equality among men and women. (1)
The rich anthropological and philosophical basis of the concept of complementarity has been developed in recent years by Pope John Paul II, (2) as well as Catholic philosophers such as Mary F. Rousseau and Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M. (3) These thinkers see complementarity as revelatory of the Trinitarian nature of God and the fundamentally relational nature of man. (4) The belief that we are all created in the image and likeness of God is the ultimate basis for each human's fundamental equality. (5) That same belief also underlies the conviction that biological gender distinctions have some ontological significance; the differences between the genders reflect different aspects of God revealed to us in our bodily form. But what is revealed to us by these differences is something more than simply the intrinsic value in having multiple representations of personhood to demonstrate the complexity of God. One of the aspects of God that is illuminated by these differences is the aspect of God as a Trinity--as three different persons in relation with one another. (6) We reach our highest potential as human beings when we strive for that aspect of divinity--relationship with others, specifically the relationship that involves giving of oneself to the other: the relationship of love.
Despite its sound theological and philosophical pedigree, the concept of complementarity can trouble a Catholic feminist. The concept can be tricky to apply in different contexts. It underlies many of the Catholic Church's most contentious positions in the "culture wars," including the doctrines that marriage should be limited to monogamous relationships between men and women and that only men can be ordained priests. It is easy to see how the concept could be used to perpetuate historic and outmoded gender stereotypes. Women could be seen as biologically and temperamentally best suited for motherhood to the exclusion of all other vocations. Men could be seen as biologically and temperamentally best suited to father children and then leave them behind in the care of their mothers to forge ahead in leadership roles in industry, politics, and business. To defend complementarity, it is thus necessary to have a robust view of the exact nature of the particular gifts (or genius) of women.
The challenge of giving enough substantive meaning to the term "genius of women" to prevent complementarity from being used either as an instrument of inequality between the genders or as a stumbling block to the acceptance of Church doctrine on issues such as male priesthood is one of the most important and challenging aspects of the charge Pope John Paul II gave to women in Evangelium Vitae: the challenge of articulating a "new feminism." (7) John Paul II began this task in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatera, devoting its central third to a detailed analysis of Jesus Christ's relationships and conversations with the women in his life. (8) Exploring Jesus' encounters with Martha and Mary, with the Samaritan woman at the well, and with the woman caught in adultery, John Paul II demonstrates that Jesus clearly appreciated the genius of women as not merely a capacity for nurturing--as important as that is--but also as an intellectual or emotional talent facilitating their grasp of profound truths of faith. …