At a recent symposium on “The Future of Women Deacons” held at Fordham University, Fr. Bernard Pottier, SJ, made a comment that I found particularly refreshing. He said that when men and women work together in the church it enriches the ministry of both. He said it is not a question of complementarity—“you can do something I can’t do, and I can do something you can’t do.” Rather, the collaboration of women and men creates “a sort of promotion, a dialectical promotion” in which both (male and female) become more fully themselves through their interaction with the other. “I am more a man when I work with women” he said.
He ought to know. In addition to his scholarly research in patristics at the Institut d’Études Théologiques in Brussels, where he teaches, and his service to the universal church as a member of the International Theological Commission, he is also a psychologist who has been in practice with a female colleague for the past fifteen years.
It is perhaps the first time I have heard it proposed in a Catholic setting that women and men have a beneficial effect on one another that is neither confined to the marital relationship nor rooted in biological function. The thought of John Paul II, which has dominated papal teaching on the subject of the sexes, relies heavily on the idea of complementarity. In his “theology of the body,” he draws a straight line from biological differences between men and women to their distinct social roles and even their very being.
“Complementarity” expresses a conviction that many people share: “men and women are different” and this difference is a good thing, a manifestation of the order of creation that must be respected. But what frequently happens in Catholic discussions is that those “differences,” whether real or imagined, end up being defined in such a way that traditional sex roles are reinforced: in order to “protect” woman’s “essential nature” she has to be kept “feminine”—mostly by being celebrated in the domestic sphere.