Part 12: Natural Complementarity: Should it be Celebrated or Suppressed?

The following is part 12 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

In the previous article of this web series, we laid out some of the evidence for the natural, biologically rooted predispositions that generally characterize men and women. But this gives rise to an obvious and difficult question.

First, if a predisposition to masculinity is natural to men, and a predisposition to femininity is natural to women, why do we see a significant minority of men and women in which this is evidently not the case? Predominantly masculine women and predominantly feminine men are certainly not unknown, and in many other cases there seems to be no principal predisposition one way or the other. Scientifically, about one in 10,000 people even has a genetic defect in which the reproductive organs natural to their sex never develop properly, and/or the hormonal balance proper to their sex is deficient (which can also affect brain wiring). Such persons have a difficult time discerning whether or not they are truly male or female.

In most cases, however, a deficit in the development of masculinity (in males) or femininity (in females) reflects inner wounds from childhood that over-ride their natural, biologically-rooted predispositions. With regard to those who develop same-sex attractions, you can see the case study and scientific evidence for this discussed in chapter 12 of my book for Marian Press, A Bridge of Mercy: Homosexuality and God's Merciful Love (2018). In a nutshell, a possible genetic predisposition to same-sex attraction, combined with an early failure (for whatever reason) to develop a healthy attachment to the same-sex parent, and/or an experience of sexual abuse, and/or an experience of social rejection and ostracism by same-sex peers seem to be the most common factors that lead to homosexuality - and, no doubt, in less serious cases, to simple deficits in the comfortable acceptance and expression of the natural masculinity or femininity proper to their sex. The point is: These predispositions are natural, but not universally manifest, simply because many human beings suffer wounds of various kinds as they grow to maturity (genetic, social, and psychological), wounds which can counter-act the gifts involved in being a male or a female in God's creative plan.

This also serves to remind us that none of the natural predispositions that God gave to men and women now exist in their pure state. Original sin, often enshrined in social structures, can significantly distort both masculinity and femininity: either by suppressing these predispositions altogether (as in today's cultural pressures toward unisex and androgynous identity, dress, and behavior: in extreme form think of Mao's China or the Jewish kibbutz movement), or by exaggerating these traits, turning them into destructive caricatures. In the latter case, masculinity can be transformed into "machismo," in which men confuse their masculinity with a licence to brutality or a will-to-power over others, or with a cold-hearted and exclusively technical approach to life (notice how in literature and films the evil, mad scientist is almost always a man).

Femininity, too, can be socially transformed into a deceptive openness to others that manipulates: the coquette, the seductress, the "smother-mother" whose desperate need to be needed stifles her own family, or just the hyper-emotional female so overwhelmed by sentiment that she cannot seem to transcend the needs or crises of the moment. Clearly "gender" (the male and female sense of identity as we meet it in ourselves and in others) is a mixed bag of natural, God-given predispositions, the corruption of our hearts caused by original and actual sin, and the influences of our given society, for good or for ill - a mixed bag, to be sure.

This means that the natural, God-given complementarity between men and women is sometimes hidden beneath the social and psychological baggage that we carry. It needs to be fostered by society and healed by divine grace. Traditionally, this complementarity was expressed and celebrated in spontaneous, cultural ways, such as the different roles that men and women played in folk-dance, and differences in men's and women's clothing. It was more intentionally fostered by child-rearing practices as well, which traditionally were not exactly the same for boys and girls (again, both for good and for ill; teaching boys that they should never cry, or girls that they should never climb trees was clearly a mistake).

At the Second Vatican Council, the Declaration on Christian Education stressed the different natures of the sexes and encouraged parents and teachers "in the entire educational program" to "make full allowance for the difference of sex and for the particular role that Providence has appointed to each sex in the family and in society."

The naturally complementary bodily, emotional, social and spiritual gifts that God has given to men and women are also one huge reason that they need each other: to "balance each other out," and to some extent to nurture in each other the latent capacity for the gifts of the other. Thus, men are not meant to be merely masculine, nor women solely feminine. Their natural predispositions are a starting point, but we all have a capacity to develop our inner "opposite qualities," in part through healthy interaction and relationships with those of the opposite sex. In his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women, 1988), section 25, Pope St. John Paul II wrote of "the call to interpersonal communion" between men and women expressed in Genesis 2:18-25 (the story of the creation of Eve), and he insisted that this needs to happen not only within marriage, but throughout society, so that "there develops in humanity itself, in accordance with God's will, the integration of what is 'masculine' and 'feminine.'"

Of course, this raises another difficult question. Namely, is the goal of human life to develop a perfectly balanced, androgynous personality, with one's masculine qualities and feminine qualities in perfect equilibrium? Some have attributed this view of human "wholeness" to the great depth-psychologist Carl Jung, but whether or not he would have advocated such an ideal, the Catholic tradition certainly does not. Whatever the developing strength of one's masculine and feminine personality traits may be, the goal of life is to direct them all toward loving God with all one's heart, soul, mind and strength, and one's neighbor as oneself: Our Lord's two great commandments (Mk 12:28-34). Moreover, some Catholic Jungians have argued that as much as possible, it is important for young men and women to develop their natural predispositions to masculinity and femininity first, before making significant efforts to develop their inner opposite qualities. For example, in her book The Woman Sealed in the Tower: A Psychological Approach to Feminine Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1982), Betsy Caprio insisted that young people need to build up their confidence as men and women before launching out into the more uncertain realm of their inner-opposites. Ronda Chervin (in another excellent book: Feminine, Free and Faithful, Franciscan University Press, 1987), summarizes Caprio's perspective for us:

Caprio resolves a problem regarding the feminine and masculine I have often puzzled over in wholeness theory. If women develop [their masculine side] and men [their feminine side], why wouldn't their personalities end up alike? Then it would make no difference whether one was a woman or a man except biologically! Betsy Caprio theorizes, on the contrary, that for a woman to be whole she must develop her feminine side first. The masculine in her must take the form of inner strength and not become an aggressive thrust in the world. Likewise, for men, the masculine must be developed first, with the feminine flourishing within, rather than in an outward form of exaggerated feminine traits ....

If the woman tries to develop her masculine [qualities] first, she is all too likely to fall into the negative masculine [for example, see our discussion of negative forms of masculinity and femininity above]. If the man tries to develop the feminine [qualities] first, he may slip into the negative feminine. (p. 102-103)

Again, natural predispositions to masculinity and femininity are a gift from God, our Creator. But they are meant to be a starting point, not a straightjacket: a foundation from which - confident in who they are - young men and women can then launch out into the wider development of their personalities and gifts.

Traditional Chinese culture illustrated the goal of this process by the image of the yin-yang circle, in which the feminine portion of the circle includes a subsidiary element of the masculine, and the masculine portion a subsidiary element of the feminine, together making up one, harmonious circle of relationship between the sexes.

In short, the goal of humanity is not to erase masculine and feminine complementarity as much as possible for the sake of an androgynous, unisex world - as if God made a big mistake in giving us these distinctive gifts! Rather, the goal is to learn how to dance: to dance in a way that upholds the dignity and distinctive gifts of men and women in God's plan, and yet leads to mutual enrichment and growth.

Next Time: Is the New Catholic Feminism Really Feminist?

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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