Catholic Complementarianism

Rachel Evans has written a post entitled “Will the real complementarian please stand up?” [For those who don’t know what this is, in brief from wiki: Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in JudaismChristianity, and Islam,[1] that men and women have different but complementaryroles and responsibilities in marriagefamily life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. Contrasting viewpoints maintain either that women and men should share identical authority and responsibilities in marriage, religion and elsewhere (Egalitarianism), or that men and women are of intrinsically different worth (a position usually known as chauvinism, usually male, although female varieties do exist).] In it she talks about how complementarians of all shapes and sizes have criticised her book for various things, including not presenting complementarianism accurately:

The problem with accurately portraying what complementarians believe about “biblical womanhood” is that complementarians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical womanhood.” 

She raises a good question:

So my question for complementarians is this:  What is biblical womanhood and who gets to define it?

My point here is not to discredit a movement for having a diversity of perspectives within it. (I’m a feminist, for heaven’s sake; I get it!My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” complementarians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical manhood and womanhood, complementarians have failed to produce it.  This should call into question the premise that Bible presents us with a single, straightforward blueprint for womanhood and that women who deviate from this blueprint are outside the will of God.

She then goes on to raise a bunch of other questions, mostly relating to what seem to be inconsistent interpretations of the Bible within the complementarian camp. Since the Catholic position is essentially complementarian, I thought I’d set about giving my understanding of the Catholic answers to these questions, which don’t really pose problems for us.

Rachel Held Evans

Before I do so, however, I’d like to make one observation: I thought it was interesting that one could pretty much replace ‘complementarian” with “Christian”, and one would have a pretty good summary of why Catholics take issue with Sola Scriptura. For example, taking my first quote from above:

The problem with accurately portraying what Christians believe about “biblical teaching” is that Christians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical teaching.” 


My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” Christians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical doctrine, Christians have failed to produce it. 

My point is this: this is not primarily a “complementarian” problem. It is a fundamental problem with the Protestant paradigm of Sola Scriptura, which is fissiparous [I’ve been wanting to use that word in a sentence for some time!] of its very nature.

Next: a summary of the Catholic view, in comparison to the Protestant complementarian and egalitarian camps (probably grossly over-simplified and generalised, I apologise):

Protestant egalitarian:  the teachings and example of Jesus point to a new way of healing, equality, and mutual submission within male and female relationships. There is to be no more power struggle, no more “ruling over” one another. I.e., men and women are equal with (almost?) no difference, or at least no difference in roles

Protestant complementarian (according to Rachel): hierarchal gender relationships are God-ordained, so the essence of masculinity is authority, and essence of femininity is submission. Men always lead and women always follow. This sounds like different and not equal, but I’m not sure how many complementarians would profess that men and women are not equal in dignity.

Catholic complementarian: in the middle. Men and women are absolutely equal in dignity, made in the image and likeness of God, while masculinity and femininity each contribute something unique to humanity, with this contribution able to manifest itself in diverse ways.

So! To the questions!

One thing that frustrates me about complementarianism, as it is often expressed, is that it teaches men and women that God has specific expectations regarding gender roles but then fails to consistently or clearly explain exactly what those expectations are.  My hope is that readers will come to the end of the book reminded the Bible—this ancient, diverse, powerful, God-breathed text—is far too complex to be reduced to an adjective, and that womanhood was never meant to be reduced to a list of rules and roles.

But even more frustrating has been a general refusal among complementarian leaders to engage in conversation about what the Bible actually says.  For the past three years, on the blog and in the book, I’ve been asking questions about common complementarian positions on biblical womanhood. For example:

Rachel here links to a previous article of hers in which she fleshes out this idea of the “helper”. Catholics agree wholeheartedly with this understanding of “helper”, understanding that God gave the woman to man precisely to be His divine help or strength. While this certainly implies mutuality, harmony, and equality of dignity, I think she leaves out of the discussion another important word: “fit”.

This particular Hebrew words denotes “completion”, or “fitting in the piece of the puzzle that is lacking”. If you look at one side of a valley, the thing that “fits” or completes it is the other side. Thus woman brings something unique to humankind that was lacking in man, and not only is this thing something “extra”, but in fact is the perfect complement, or completion of humanity.

So, basically, we wouldn’t be trying to say that it refers to a subordinate in Gen. 2.

I don’t really have the time to read everything Rachel has written about the patriarchy (it seems quite a bit), but I suppose it refers primarily to men having authority to teach, and being the heads of their families. For Catholics neither of these are really an issue, as “teaching” in the sense that Paul talks about it is tied to the teaching of our bishops, who can only be men (for reasons completely unrelated to the complementarian debate), and so we have no problem with women lecturing in theology, leading bible studies, etc, which I understand are considered problematic in some Protestant circles. Family headship is something I might get to later…

I think it’s quite obvious that it’s a celebration of the woman who possesses wisdom, and what that might look like in action, and not a specific to-do list for all women in all times. [Well, that one was easy!]

Women can be found in the Catholic Church doing all the things these women did. The one thing I’ll be you won’t find any woman doing in either the Old or New Testaments is offering sacrifice, except through a (male) priest.

In the Catholic world, neither is not taken more seriously, they are taken together. My  friend Laura has what I think is a great post on submission over at Catholic Cravings.

I think that while the head covering injunction is specific in practice, it is not in principle.

The principle behind this was that how a woman wore her hair, until recently, was a symbol of her status. That included her social rank and her marital status. For men, their status was expressed in the kind of hat they wore.

When one comes to Church, social status is irrelevant. All come before God equal. So, how to express this? By having men and women each remove the symbol of their status as appropriate. In accordance with this, women continued to wear veils or hats in the Catholic Church up until about 50 years ago.

At some point, however (I’m being a bit vague because I’m going off my memory and am not certain of specifics), this ceased to be the case: women did their hair just however they pleased, and men, for the most part, stopped wearing hats. This made the wearing of head coverings a bit of a non-issue, although it obviously also coincided with the Vatican II upheavals, which basically meant that what had become a good and valued tradition of the Church was rather thoughtlessly thrown out, simply because it was technically “necessary” anymore. See Laura again for a fun post on this topic.

  • How can 1 Timothy 5 be used to characterize stay-at-home dads as “failures” when the context of those instructions is care for widows?

I’ve never heard this, but such an interpretation does indeed sound off.

No, it’s not the only way to honour God. But I think there is a place for talking about what constitutes the ideal way to organise family life, and once that’s been established, it puts us in a better position to figure out how to live in the non-ideal situations.

It doesn’t square.

This post is already much too long, so I’ll end it there!!

Update: More of Rachel’s questions answered here:



13 thoughts on “Catholic Complementarianism

  1. Laura says:

    Love it! 😀 (And not just because you linked me twice, though that didn’t hurt…) You are absolutely right that this isn’t a question about complementarianism really, but about who gets decide what the Bible says. Her book was one of the books I read early on, which led me to Christian Smith’s book on biblicism and we both know where that led me… 😉 I’d just say that all Protestant complementarians affirm that men and women are completely equal in dignity, but different in their role. There’s differences within that but all – bar a few crazies – believe in gender equality, just not gender sameness. This is fairly representative for Protestant complementarians, I’d say:

  2. Jon says:

    What you say is mostly good, but I do have two quibbles. First, there are major groups of Protestants that don’t believe in Sola Scriptura, including the Anglicans, Methodists, and plenty of Lutherans, so Catholics are hardly the only ones to take issue with Sola Scriptura, even in the West. Second, it might be a bit more accurate to say that egalitarians believe that roles should be assigned based on ability and inclination without reference to gender, often with the assumption that gender differences in things like employment rates are driven much more by social cues than biological gender.

  3. Monica says:

    Hi Jon,
    is that really the case? Do you mean in their “official” confessions? Or in practice? Because I don’t think anyone lives out Sola Scripture successfully in practice.

    And thanks for that definition, its a good one.

    In Christ,

    • I’m not familiar enough with the Methodist’s and Lutheran’s catechisms or confessions to definitely say what their official positions are, but Anglicans don’t have an official confession. For the most part we just point people to our Book of Common Prayer when asked what we believe. (If you’re curious you can browse a number of editions at However, one of the most important theologians in post-Reformation Anglicanism is Richard Hooker who argued for a 3-strand rope approach. The modern simplification, commonly taught to those preparing for confirmation, talks about it as the three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

      Since the Methodists are an 18th century off-shoot of the Anglicans, I suspect they hold a similar view, possibly adding Experience since they sprang from Wesley experiencing a brief moment of grace. (One of Anglicanisms weaknesses at the time was that it was excessively intellectual and frequently elitist.)

  4. Monica says:

    Hmmm. Well it may be the case historically, and perhaps remains so in some churches, but I’ve met very few Anglicans who don’t operate in practice via sola scriptura. (which in fact ends up becoming solo scriptura, unavoidably)
    Again, we come to the question “what is Anglicanism/ Methodism/ etc and who gets to define it?” basically there’s just a really massive, complex spectrum of possible belief combinations, and Protestants fall in various places all the way along it, more highly concentrated in some areas than others. That was a very mathematical/ visual way of describing it, haha.

  5. […] I wrote in response to Rachel Held Evans’ post “Will the real complementarian please stand […]

  6. […] Veritatem has moved her fabulous blog to WordPress! And what a start it’s been! She wrote a fantastic post on Catholic Complementarianism in response to Rachel Held Evans, and so naturally Rachel re-tweeted it to all over her 30,000 […]

  7. […] Veritatem has moved her fabulous blog to WordPress! And what a start it’s been! She wrote a fantastic post on Catholic Complementarianism in response to Rachel Held Evans, and so naturally Rachel re-tweeted it to all over her 30,000 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s