Pope Francis, Complementarity, and US Politics by Gina Messina-Dysert

Gina Messina-Dysert profileA theology of complementarity, referred to by Pope Francis as an “anthropological fact,” has had  a strong influence on American politics.  According to the Vatican teaching, women and men have distinct but complementary roles, meaning that women’s value is found in the home as wife and mother and men are responsible for providing for the family.  Such a teaching is highly problematic in that it demeans women’s value and places women on the underside of dualism.

As a woman with an ongoing struggle with infertility, I find it troubling that my church sees my value as less because my womb is barren. Likewise, do women have less value if they choose a career over motherhood?  What if they choose not to marry?  There are also clear implications for single parents, LGBTQ parents, and so on.  In addition, societal norms make clear that women’s work in the home is not valued as the work of men in society.  Likewise, it is damaging to men in that it refuses to acknowledge the critical role men play in the household, in the lives of their children, and their responsibilities to be partners and co-parents.

The idea of complementarity upheld by Pope Francis greatly contributes to economic injustice for women.  The Vatican’s refusal to value women’s roles outside the home influences US social policy on women’s issues. The continued struggle to close the pay gap, implement paid parental leave, and create viable options for childcare and early childhood education are directly connected to complementarity. If women are supposed to remain in the home and be wives and mothers, then there is no need to address any of these issues. How can we possibly have women in leadership roles if they are supposed to be at home cooking dinner and caring for children? And so, when women do pursue careers the social attitude is that women do not belong. Such an idea is even more problematic for women of color who suffer a lower pay rate – $.64 on the dollar for African American women and $.54 for Latina women. Furthermore, many have have been forced to work outside of the home as a result of economic and racial injustice.  In this secular nation, Christian values dominate our political debates and perpetuate the idea that women are subordinate to men. And to be frank, these are community issues that impact men as well as women; yet they have been deemed women’s issues as a result of the manifestation of theological teachings.

As republicans focus on defunding Planned Parenthood, ending marriage equality, protecting religious freedom, and claiming issues like parental leave are not federal issues, women continue to be relegated to second class status. In a time of turmoil and multiple threats to the progression of our nation, there is greater concern for regulating women’s bodies than guns.

Pope Francis has been praised for his commitment to the poor; yet he has been unable to make the connection between poverty and the women’s issues that exist as a result of complementarity.   Likewise, the Church’s stance on reproductive justice continues to perpetuate the very issues that the pope seeks to address.  As Sr. Joan Chittister points out:

I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

No doubt, his lack of relationships with women is a major contributing factor to his ignorance when it comes to such issues – by the way, which could be easily fixed by embracing women’s ordination. And so, as Pope Francis has become an international figure deemed a savior to the people, these disconnects fuel ongoing US political debates that keep women in a marginalized position and continue a cycle of poverty and oppression.

Pope Francis has called for a “Year of Mercy” in which he has stated that if a woman confesses having an abortion, she will be forgiven.  Many have praised the pope for taking such a step towards healing; yet, I can’t help but think, “how judgmental and irresponsible.”  Without knowing a woman’s circumstance, her decision making process, her doctor’s concerns, etc., why should one be told to repent? To deny women the right to reproductive justice is to deny women the ability to make decisions about their physical, emotional, and financial health – and we see this play out in the US as a result of the influence of complementarity in our political system. So, in this “Year of Mercy,” I wonder will the Vatican confess its sins against women, LGBTQ persons, and others it has marginalized?

comingspring 2016Portions of this article are excerpts from If Jesus Ran for President coming from the Far Press in Spring, 2016.

Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She writes for The Huffington Post, has authored multiple publications and is the co-editor of the highly acclaimed Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay. Messina-Dysert is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the world. Messina-Dysert is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @FemTheologian, Facebook, and her website ginamessinadysert.com.

Categories: Catholic Church, Politics, Reproductive Justice, Social Justice, Vatican, Violence Against Women

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13 replies

  1. Very well said. It has always struck me how the ideology of complementarity is deployed by the most patriarchal systems, and a lot of women fall for it. True complementarity would not be hierarchical, and it would not trap humans in set roles that conflict with their real talents and inclinations.


    • I was thinking the same thing, too. Complementarity is not just a Catholic thing, it is alive and kicking in all monotheistic traditions.


    • Also very well said, Max. I found the video especially chilling at the end when the child is given a gun. And it’s all in the name of Jesus, who had nothing to say about sex, but lots to say about violence/killing/relationships. The book looks like it’s much needed right now.


  2. The Amy Schumer video is priceless.

    Of course the pope would insist that his view of complementarity does not “mean” that women have to stay in the home, but that is the “cash value” of his view. He would state that we can work outside the home, as long as we are motivated by caring for others (especially males) and not by any desire to become independent of male power and control. hee hee. Yeah right.


  3. The Amy Schumer video on birth control is indeed priceless as Carol says. I noticed that Amy was taller or equal in height to almost all of the men she meets, except the pharmacist — interesting the power he has over her.

    I think women, in our time, need to open up somewhat more to bisexuality. Sex between women can be crazy wonderful, and absolutely harmless, no birth control needed. I probably shouldn’t say that openly, but still, why not, if it can heal and liberate. It’s not just about sex, of course, it’s about love, but if you find the right person, fantastic.


  4. An extraordinarily balanced point of view and an excellent quote by Sr. Joan Chittister. We really need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

    In my opinion. Pro-life must take our environment, population and standard of living in account, not only freedom of creating misery for children through overpopulation, starvation and criminal war. I am sure the priest Thomas Robert Malthus would agree with you.

    Do not worry if the church sees your value as less because your womb is barren! In these days of overpopulation it can, in fact, instead be seen as blessing from God since overpopulation is destroying the creation of God as we speak.

    Jane Goodall said:
    “It’s our population growth that underlies just about every single one of the problems that we’ve inflicted on the planet. If there were just a few of us, then the nasty things we do wouldn’t really matter and Mother Nature would take care of it — but there are so many of us.”

    I believe that you who have such a high level of morality and understanding should be a teacher.

    I do believe you as a feminist would be most welcome and most helpful within Bernie Sanders ranks. Do help him! It seems like he could be one of the few who did not sell his soul. Barbara Lee is also a nice woman.

    Hillary and most republicans, however, I would not trust. I believe they are all sell outs. The exception is Paul Craig Roberts. Too bad he is not running for president.


  5. I am glad that the liberal hoohah about his pope is finally dying down. It’s unsettling how quickly liberals will abandon feminism and LGBTQ people for a lemming-like devotion to a good PR campaign.


  6. Thank you for this very interesting essay, Gina. The”Year of Mercy” does sound indeed more like a year of judgement to me, but I admit I’m not Catholic. I wonder how Catholics at FAR understand it, it sounds so out-dated, as though the ideas were more from 1950’s maybe than the 21st century.


  7. Love the video!

    Seems the Pope must be ignorant not only of women but of economics. There was only a very brief period in modern history when (some) women worked only inside the home. That arrangement (setting aside other questions about it) is available to only a very few families. Most women have no choice about whether or not to work outside as well as inside the home. As for this year of mercy, leaving aside the question of whether or not forgiveness is even necessary for abortion (I suppose it is accd to RC teaching) since when could anyone seeking forgiveness for any reason be denied forgiveness, a basic tenet of Christianity? Who died and made the pope god?


  8. One of my clients, a gay man from New York, came out to Los Angeles early in Pope Francis’ reign and took me to lunch. As we discussed the new pope, my client told me the pope wasn’t nearly as “liberal” as ignorant people like me were saying. The pope was, and still is, part of the kingdom of the Vatican. Yes, it’s good that he’s valued the poor, but he’s still clueless about women. The philosophy of complimentarity proves this. It’s said there was once a female pope. Is it time for another one?.

    Gina, thanks for writing this solid and wise blog and explaining complimentarity so clearly. But how on earth do we get conservative politicians and church fathers around the world to read and understand??


  9. Yes, I think most people are so disgusted with the church’s prejudice against the idea of women priests, that no philosophy of equality can have any true meaning in terms of Church teaching. It’s not new ideas that are needed but one very important action, that is, simply ordain women, and from that beginning, all else will evolve in an inclusive direction, and open the church doors again to so many people, like myself, who have left.


  10. Just another reason to ponder staying or leaving a tradition/organization/”family” that doesn’t value “you” as you actually are and not as they perceive you or your body to be!


  11. ” According to the Vatican teaching, women and men have distinct but complementary roles, meaning that women’s value is found in the home as wife and mother and men are responsible for providing for the family. Such a teaching is highly problematic in that it demeans women’s value and places women on the underside of dualism.”

    Sadly, even in religious traditions with strong theologies of non-dualism, such as my own Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, these dualistic social roles became so entrenched as to become self-fulfilling prophecies!


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