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The Complementarity of Women and Men: Philosophy, Theology, Psychology & Art (Book Review)

May 23, 2022
By David Talcott

Paul C. Vitz, ed. The Complementarity of Women and Men: Philosophy, Theology, Psychology & Art. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021.

In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II stated that there was a “natural complementarity that exists between man and woman.” That idea was further developed in his sermons which were published as the Theology of the Body. This new collection of essays, edited by Paul Vitz, now comprises the most succinct, up to date, and intellectually robust defense of this idea of Roman Catholic “complementarity.” It is a view that is initially attractive to Complementarians since it begins with this arresting insight: men and women are fundamentally equal, but they are not the same. Vitz writes, “The purpose of this book is to carry out what we see as the urgent task of exploring and elaborating the complementarity of the sexes from both a psychological and a theological point of view” (1). The collection seeks to accomplish this through a range of disciplines, including philosophy, theology, psychology, and art, all from a Roman Catholic perspective. These articles show the way that conservative Roman Catholics can be partners with Evangelicals on social issues, and even some theological issues, but that they have not determined how to fit the biblical idea of headship into their theology of the sexes. As a result, the Catholic complementarity view stands in need of further development.

Complementarians will find much to appreciate about the catholic exploration of these ideas. This collection is uniformly interesting and insightful. The first article is written by UT-Austin philosopher J. Budzisewski, and is a reprint of Chapter 3 of his book The Meaning of Sex. It remains a masterful-yet-accessible article, offering a wide-ranging account of manhood and womanhood in terms of potentialities. A man is a human being with the potential for fatherhood (physical and spiritual) and a woman is a human being with the potential for motherhood (physical and spiritual). These paternal and maternal capacities integrate the distinctive attributes of each sex. Readers not familiar with his previous work will hopefully be inspired to read further.

The second article is from Sister Prudence Allen, author of the magisterial three volume work The Concept of Woman, which traces ideas about women from Greek antiquity down to the present. This article rapidly traces the rise of gender ideology in the twentieth century and the ensuing response by Catholic intellectuals. The chapter reads as a series of mini-biographies, interspersed with commentary and argument, and would serve to quickly familiarize students with key twentieth century figures and ideas in these debates. The key figures and ideas she discusses include: Alfred Kinsey, Margaret Mead, John Money, secular feminism, Marxist feminism, postmodern feminism, Dale O’Leary, Mary Ann Glendon, Marguerite A. Peeters, German phenomenology, Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand, Edith Stein, French personalism, and Pope John Paul II. She also introduces the idea of Aristotelian hylomorphism, that the person is a soul-body unity and not merely a soul trapped in a body. The latter view she calls neo-Platonic, among other things. This soul-body unity means the body is relevant to the personhood of human beings. The body is the concrete realization of the life of the person. The distinction between man and woman is thus thought of as not merely bodily, but as affecting and shaping the whole person.

Deborah Savage’s article examines gender in Genesis 1-2 and argues that Mary and Joseph provide models of femininity and masculinity. She discusses the Hebrew terms adam, ish, and ishshah, concluding “the truths about man revealed by sacred scripture affirms that men and women are both ‘equal’ and different” (106). As Complementarians have done for some time, she notes how the modes of creation correspond to ongoing sex differences. Adam was created first, alone in the garden. His task of working and keeping the garden is a task focused on things, objects. This corresponds to “the well-documented observation that men appear to be more oriented toward things than toward people” (110). Correspondingly, Eve is created from her husband and in a more socially rich world:

since woman comes into existence after man, her first contact with reality is of a horizon that, from the beginning, includes man — that is, it includes persons…she has never lived in a world uninhabited by persons. This exegetical insight seems to provide a starting place in scripture for the equally well-documented phenomenon that women seem more naturally oriented toward persons (111).

She concludes with a provisional account of the “genius of man and woman” and the way in which Joseph and Mary lived this out. The genius of man is “his capacity to know and to use the good of the earth in the service of authentic human flourishing” (117). Likewise, the “genius of woman” is “to remind man that the gift of self can only be made to another person, to keep this fact constantly before us by affirming and expressing what she understands through her own genius: that all human activity must be ordered toward the good of persons” (125).

Her article is subtle, winsome, and regularly insightful. It is a generous treatment of these issues. However, her account has a number of flaws. In her analysis of Joseph, she argues that “fatherly protection” is evidence for her view. However, her earlier analysis did not pay any attention to the assertiveness and power of men, both physical and psychological. Therefore, a discussion of protectiveness is surprising, suggesting there are whole aspects of mature manhood that have gone unexplored.

Further, she waffles when faced with evidence of hierarchy present in the original relationship between Adam and Eve. For example, she agrees that Adam being created prior to Eve establishes “there is an order to creation that places man in the position of primacy,” but rather than consider any hierarchical implications, she instead goes on to argue that Eve “can be seen as the pinnacle of creation, not as a creature whose place in the order is subservient or somehow less in stature than that of Adam” (101, 109). Her concern is to maintain clarity that “Eve is not to be his servant…but someone who can help him to live” (109). Later she notes how Adam names all the creatures, and recognizes that in this “he takes dominion over them” (116). Here she has a perfect opportunity to argue that Adam and Eve are equally human, equally persons, yet with a structural hierarchy from the very beginning. But she doesn’t do that. Her argument could be extended to show how 1) complementarity of person and 2) hierarchy of position are not merely compatible, they are essential to human social life. Just as man is socially united from the beginning, man also is ordered from the beginning.

Elizabeth Liv’s article is the sole article on art, examining the complementarity seen in Michaelangelo’s artwork in the Sistine Chapel. Images of men and women are examined and she argues, perhaps contrary to common opinion, that women are highly honored by the artist. The central image in the chapel is of the creation of Eve, and Liv argues that the artist intended for us to look forward from the first Eve to the second, Mary. Marian ideology is heavy in this chapter, including the idea of her immaculate conception, as it was Deborah Savage’s analysis.

The closing article, by Paul Vitz himself, is the sole article to focus on social science. His article provides a very good overview of the social scientific data about the differences between the sexes. He argues it supports a “Complementary Model” of the sexes, where he “accepts that men and women are often different in important respects” but also “posits that men and women are equal in dignity as well as in moral and social importance” (183). His survey of the data does not break any new ground, but very helpfully summarizes the available studies. Sex differences are broad and pervasive, ranging from physical differences like chromosomes and heart size (women’s hearts are about 2/3 the size of men’s hearts and they beat faster) to the psychological (men are more assertive, risk-taking, and abstract, etc). He acknowledges that each of these differences is based on averages and that there are exceptions and overlaps. Nevertheless, the tendency to emphasize the exceptions is itself unhealthy:

our present culture greatly emphasizes the supposed importance of the exceptions. A consequence of this has been the erosion of understanding and social support for the usual or typical person. One result is that large numbers of people feel confused and even attacked by this overemphasis on the rare cases, the atypical, the unusual (184).

The differences between the sexes are a source of strength. When partnered together they produce a “synergy” whose effect is greater than the mere sum of the parts. The differences “balance and thus complement each other” (213). Neither man nor woman is “better,” they are different and thus uniquely able to support one another, gaining from the other’s strengths and shoring up the other’s weaknesses. Vitz’s article admirably draws out the main theme of the book: the sexes are complementary partners whose distinctive natures should work together for the glory of God and the good of man. Instead of a “battle of the sexes” there is a “collaboration between the sexes” (1).

Vitz’s table of sex differences on page 214 could have benefited from further thinking about how these differences are integrated. For instance, the male distinctives of “assertiveness, risk-taking, and objective/problem solving” seem to integrate under the heading of “agentic,” the term used by Alice Eagly and others for the male orientation toward greater personal agency and activity. Likewise, the female distinctives of “nurturing, emotional responsiveness, focus on persons, and sensitive to others” could be integrated under the heading of “communal,” another term from Eagly and others that describes the female orientation toward personal relationships. In fact, these contrasting strengths seem to fit very well with the idea that men and women are destined for fatherhood and motherhood, on both the physical and spiritual planes. There is more integrative work to be done.

Still, he is to be applauded for plunging forward on an issue where many are hesitant to trod. The authors themselves seem at odds with one another on this issue. Prudence Allen resists entering into details of what male-female complementarity consists in. For example, she laments how Edith Stein “at times accepts stereotyped generalization about femininity and masculinity” (78). However, Vitz’s closing article is a tour-de-force demonstration that many of those stereotypes are not just in our heads, but have clear confirmation in today’s social science research. Allen’s theological concern to maintain her “integral complementarity” in relation to older, hierarchical, ideas from history leads her to neglect clear teachings of contemporary social sciences.

Complementarians should read this book for how it can strengthen our understanding of complementarity. It can be a helpful complement to our own work. But, this book cannot serve as a full introduction to the issue since it fails to seriously grapple with the biblical teaching and sociological evidence of male headship. There is no exegetical analysis of Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, I Timothy 11, I Peter 3, and other passages that teach about the relationship between the sexes. The authors in fact seem to studiously avoid introducing the issue, despite the male-only nature of the Roman Catholic priesthood seeming to demand some explanation. If men and women bring different strengths to every task, why shouldn’t there be female priests to bring their feminine giftings to that task? Any analysis of the sexes that leaves aside hierarchy altogether will remain inevitably vulnerable on that point.

Budziszewski comes closest to acknowledging this reality at the end of his piece, where he considers discussing “that great activity that comes so much more readily to the woman and is slandered under the false name of passivity” (34) and immediately notes that “every last one of us, both man and woman, is feminine with respect to….”. He leaves that sentence unfinished, without explicitly mentioning how all humans are to be submissive to God himself. But, here we see the problem with this truncated presentation of complementarity: it fails to properly image the God who is our maker and our head. “Complementarity without hierarchy,” fails to be true, Biblical complementarity. It grasps the union of persons, but it fails to grasp the order. Man and woman in the union of their life together present an image of God and his people, Christ the bridegroom with the church, His bride. Their union points the way toward our ultimate destiny: “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21).

David Talcott is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The King’s College (NYC). He is an elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Short Hills, NJ, and has a forthcoming book Plato with P&R Publishing.


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