At the November Call To Action meeting, FutureChurch’s Deborah Rose-Milavec gave a presentation on the history and effect of complementarity in the Catholic Church to several hundred CTA participants.  In Complementarity: The Equal but Separate Clause in the Catholic Church, Rose-Milavec drew a comparison to the “Separate but Equal” legal doctrine adopted in 1868 under U.S. constitutional law to Complementarity in the Catholic Church, the theological-anthropological framework developed most fully under John Paul II’s papacy.  

The U.S. “Separate but Equal” doctrine created a legal fiction – one that heralded equality but permitted state and local governments to racially segregate public services and facilities. Using imprisonment and violence, Whites enforced their privileged status.

Complementarity, as designed by Catholic hierarchs, also heralds a similarly fictitious equality, but segregates according to sex, keeping women out of halls of governance and ordained ministry within the Church.  And although it is not enforced through a criminal code as with Jim Crow, it does legitimate violence.  Fr. Shaji George Kochuthara, moral theological from DVK seminary in Bangalore along with fifty Catholic female and male theologians pointed to the brutal truth:  

Church teaching -- while professing the equality of women -- promotes the notion of complementarity assigning fixed roles to women and men . . . and has led to the active/passive paradigm that legitimates violence, such as marital rape, but also emotional, psychological and financial violence that covertly controls women's sexuality.  

Along with Rose-Milavec’s presentation, FutureChurch also sponsored a 3-part teleconference series on the topic with Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., Susan Ross, Ph.D., Todd Salzman, Ph.D., and Michael Lawler, Ph.D.    

Imperatori-Lee gave an overview of the elements of complementarity and described why it is flawed.  First, complementarity is rooted in essentialism -- a biological determinism—the notion that biology is destiny, that the body you are born into pretty much sets the stage for the rest of your life.  This leads to a truncated and limited understanding of sex and gender from both a scientific and a psychological perspective.  The framework reduces the body to sexual function and, finally, complementarity cautions women against excelling in the so-called masculine sphere. Those who try are viewed as somehow non-masculine or un-feminine, or neglectful of their proper place.

Ross discussed complementarity’s relationship to the sacraments.  Complementarity, a rather recent idea, is part of the longer history of a church that has sacramentalized differences in sex.  She argues that the spousal metaphor has been subject to a kind of theological creep into doctrines, and that there are alternative metaphors for valuing our embodiment that don't tie us to a biology-equals-destiny understanding.

Finally, Salzman and Lawler talked about complementarity in papal thought, especially in the thought of Pope Francis who has nuanced and widened John Paul II’s idea.  

All three podcasts are available for download at  You can also view the transcripts of their talks on that page.