Reconceptualizing Feminine “Complementarity” by Appealing to Female War Reporters

Cathleen Kaveny, professor in the law school and the theology department at Notre Dame, has an important article up at America Magazine, in which she reflects on the Catholic Church and its effort to define “feminism.” Kaveny, in her typically moderate, rational, and sensitive way explores the varieties of ways in which the word “feminist” is used and the manifold ways in which the Church both is and is not what it claims.

On the one hand, if we take “feminism” to be a general affirmation of the well-being and the dignity of women, the Catholic Church is most definitely “feminist”:

It has done an enormous amount of good for women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in precarious circumstances throughout the world. To take only one example, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Gender & Women runs programs around the world that help women organize into cooperatives for the production and marketing of goods; it also provides shelters for basic needs, educational programs in literacy and training in business knowledge and empowerment.

However, despite the many ways in which the Church works to advance the flourishing of women, it is often subject to criticism from both secular and religious feminists who claim the Church takes two steps back for every step forward in its refusal to sanction the use of contraception (and more controversially, soften its restriction on abortion in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother). Kaveny does a good job portraying the limbo-like status many Catholic women find themselves in affirming both the progressive nature of the way the Church views women and way in which the Church still has miles to go in truly affirming the dignity and equality of women:

Catholic women can sometimes find themselves caught in the middle, loving their church and their faith but dispirited by occasional statements that suggest that the Vatican views them as disordered or defiled simply because they are women. Last July the Vatican caused a public relations firestorm after its announcement of two grave crimes under canon law: sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the attempt to ordain a woman. Even women who support the church’s restriction of the priesthood to males winced at the decision to group these two acts in the same document.

In order to advance a more rigorous analysis of feminism and Catholicism, Kaveny suggests three areas of focus: equality and difference, nature and nurture, and complementarity and collaboration. It is really the last area–the issue of complementarity–where the most work needs to be done in light of John Paul II’s distinctive for of feminism, re-affirmed by Benedict XVI:

With women flooding the educational system, men find themselves competing with them for advancement and academic honors. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, expressed concern about such competition between men and women and called instead for a collaborative relationship between the sexes (“On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” 2004).

His view is this: The basis of a collaborative relationship is the recognition of the complementary gifts and skills of men and women. Women in particular should not aim to emulate the strengths of men but should instead nurture their own distinct gifts. Complementarity is most clearly visible in the roles that men and women play in marriage and family life but should be visible in other contexts as well. One of the hallmarks of John Paul II-style feminism, in fact, is an effort to define the “feminine genius” in all spheres of women’s existence in terms of the virtues of motherhood.

For their part, many other feminists are worried about the call to complementarity, not necessarily because they are opposed to the idea that both men and women bring some distinct and important gifts to human society but because of the way that idea tends to work out in practice. In fact, they fear it undermines collaboration, because it tends to promote separation and practical inequality.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth explicated male-female complementarity in terms of A and B—one need not be a psychic to guess which sex is which. The way the concept of complementarity works in geometry also reveals the potential problem: Two angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees, so a complementary angle is all and only that which the primary angle is not. Analogously, if one begins with a man, then a woman must be all and only that which a man is not—her role is to fill in the gaps. If complementarity is taken too far, then, it does not facilitate collaboration but rather fosters entirely separate spheres of interest and specialization.

The concept of complementarity rightly affirms the importance—and unique demands—of motherhood on women. But how does it account for the gifts, ambitions and concerns that men and women have in common, even in parenting? For men and women to strive for excellence—together—in the many areas and interests they share ought not to be considered a destructive form of competition. The common pursuit of excellence, or virtue, is a key element of the classical definition of friendship.

The question of complementarity and collaboration has come up recently in regards to another question: the role of women reporters in war zones. In an important article in this weekend’s NYTimes, Kim Barker argues that, despite the dangers of sexual assault and physical violence, women can cover war time reporting just as well as men, if they have the courage. Not only can women do the same job men can, they also provide a necessary angle to war-time reporting not accessible to their male counterparts.

More important, they also do a pretty good job of covering what it’s like to live in a war, not just die in one. Without female correspondents in war zones, the experiences of women there may be only a rumor.

Look at the articles about women who set themselves on fire in Afghanistan to protest their arranged marriages, or about girls being maimed by fundamentalists, about child marriage in India, about rape in Congo and Haiti. Female journalists often tell those stories in the most compelling ways, because abused women are sometimes more comfortable talking to them. And those stories are at least as important as accounts of battles.

Kim Barker seems to provide a challenging alternative to the sort of complementarity Kaveny is addressing, without throwing out the issue of complementarity all-together.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II’s encyclical on the dignity of women, JPII wrote that women should employ their “feminine genius” in building a culture of life. This “genius” includes the feminine characteristics of receptivity, generosity, sensitivity, and maternity. Is it not possible that all of these characteristics make women powerful and important war-time reporters? Receptivity in their ability to grasp the unique experiences of women in war-torn areas or in uprisings like the ones going on now in Egypt and Bahrain; sensitivity in her ability to see beyond the material to the heart of the matter, to report not just on the events but on the spiritual and emotional movements underlying these events; generosity in her ability and willingness to sacrifice herself and her body for the sake of truth; maternity in her ability to see and hear also the children in a given place, and weave their stories also into the final story she tells as a reporter.

Like many women, everdaythomist has problems with the ways in which the concepts like “complementarity” and other aspects of John Paul II’s feminism have been used, but I think these concepts gain at least new rhetorical force when put in dialogue with the sort of secular feminism that Kim Barker offers in her argument for the important and unique role of female war-time reporters. Complementarity offers us a way of seeing these female reporters as offering a unique perspective not so easily offered by their male counterparts, thus justifying their work on grounds not so much of equality, but on difference. This is important, I think, because if women reporters are offering the same perspective as their male colleagues, it seems too easy for an editor to pull all women reporters out of war zones by appealing to the dangers of their job and the ability of men to do their tasks without the same risks.

In practice, I think putting JPII’s notion of complementarity in dialogue with Kim Barker’s secular feminism effectively serves to help bridge the divide between Catholicism and feminism that Kaveny is trying to encourage. It offers us a way of keeping the concept of complementarity without keeping some of the rather unfortunate ways this concept has been put in practice to keep women from doing the sorts of things that men do.


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