This piece – together with essays by Rick Warren, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, N.T. Wright, and others – appears in Plough’s new book, Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman. The book includes sixteen presentations from a November 2014 interreligious colloquium held in Rome.
I would like to begin by sharing with you a reflection on the title of your colloquium. “Complementarity” is a precious word, with multiple meanings. It can refer to situations where one of two things adds to, completes, or fulfills a lack in the other. But complementarity is much more than that. Christians find its deepest meaning in the First Letter to the Corinthians, where Saint Paul tells us that the Spirit has endowed each of us with different gifts so that – just as the human body’s members work together for the good of the whole – everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each (1 Cor. 12). To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all creation. This is the key word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, because the Holy Spirit, who is the Author of harmony, achieves this harmony.
For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can begin to “breathe” values and ideals, as well to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity.
It is fitting that you have gathered here in this international colloquium to explore the complementarity of man and woman. This complementarity is at the root of marriage and family, which is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of living together. For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can begin to “breathe” values and ideals, as well to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity. At the same time, as we know, families are places of tensions: between egoism and altruism, reason and passion, immediate desires and long-range goals. But families also provide frameworks for resolving such tensions. This is important. When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children – his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.
In our day, marriage and the family are in crisis. We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children, and the elderly. It is always they who suffer the most in this crisis.
... Social environments, like natural environments, need protection.
The crisis in the family has produced a crisis of human ecology, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection. And although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well, slower in our culture, and also in our Catholic Church. It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology and advance it.
It is necessary first to promote the fundamental pillars that govern a nation: its nonmaterial goods. The family is the foundation of coexistence and a guarantee against social fragmentation. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity. That is why I stressed in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that the contribution of marriage to society is “indispensable”; that it “transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple” (n. 66). And that is why I am grateful to you for your colloquium’s emphasis on the benefits that marriage can provide to children, the spouses themselves, and to society.
In these days, as you embark on a reflection on the beauty of complementarity between man and woman in marriage, I urge you to lift up yet another truth about marriage: that permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity, and fruitful love responds to the deepest longings of the human heart. Let us bear in mind especially the young people, who represent our future. It is important that they do not give themselves over to the poisonous mentality of the temporary, but rather be revolutionaries with the courage to seek true and lasting love, going against the common pattern.
With regard to this I want to say one thing: Let us not fall into the trap of being qualified by ideological concepts. Family is an anthropological fact – a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it with concepts of an ideological nature that are relevant only in a single moment of history and then pass by. We can’t speak today of a conservative notion of family or a progressive notion of family. Family is family! It can’t be qualified by ideological notions. Family has a strength in and of itself.
May this colloquium be an inspiration to all who seek to support and strengthen the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental, and beautiful good for persons, families, communities, and whole societies.