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Tuesday, April 12, 2011


In the recent discussion of Fr. Roy Bourgeois and women's ordination, one thing I saw mentioned often in comments was the concept of "complementarianism" - the belief, usually religious, that men and women have different but complementary roles. You can find this in the catechism, and of course in JP2's Mulieris Dignitatem. Another term for this idea is difference feminism, the belief that men and women are ontologically different versions of the human being ....

The metaphysical foundation of this theory was developed by Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein, and later by Personalists like Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain. More recently, the theory was espoused by Pope John Paul II as a foundation for a new feminism. (see JP2's letter to women)

I find complementarianism and all its euphemisms to be wrongheaded, a ploy to justify inequality. I prefer equality feminism and Christian Egalitarianism (among those listed as Christian Egalitarians are NT Wright and Ben Witherington).

This reminded me of a lecture by Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook, about gender difference. Here's a quote from the lecture ...

"[W]hat we know in behavioral and social science is that on every available, every measurable trait, attitude, behavior, women and men are far more similar than they are different. That is what every social and behavioral scientist knows. There may be some small mean differences, but the real story in gender is that the variations among men, and the variations among women, are much greater than any small difference that you might find in mean scores between women and men .... There's something in our culture, something in where we are, who we are, that wants desperately to believe that there is some fundamental, irreducible difference between women and men. Now my argument to you tonight is not only that men and women are more similar than we are different on every available measurable trait, attitude, and behavior, but in fact we are also more similar than we are different politically - that is, there is no war between the sexes, no battle between the sexes, that in fact men and women can and should be allies .. the very things that women have identified that they need to live the lives they say they want to live are the things that we men also need to live the lives that we say we want to live."


Blogger Jeff said...

Oh, I think the ontological differences between men and women are very large indeed, but I don't think those differences have anything to do with qualification for ministry.

The sexes are complementary, yes, but it looks to me like this term of "complementarianism" is being used as an excuse for patriarchy.

2:33 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

What do you think are the ontological differences?

4:15 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Hey, a Stony Brook prof! Too bad we can't buy any books for him!

I'm not sure what "ontological" differences mean. And the definition of "complementarism" at Wikipedia does sound like a justification for inequality, as you said. But I do think there are differences. There are evolutuionary differences, for example: females protecting their young vs. male animals fighting over females. And why does my wife need a washer and dryer?! I could live in a squalid flat with very little, but she keeps me relatively civilized.

"on every available, every measurable trait, attitude, behavior, women and men are far more similar than they are different"

Not sure what that means. What "measurable traits"? I'd like to know more what those "traits" are that seem so obvious to him. Anybody who comes from a different background - class, gender, ethnicity, religion, culture, geographic region, etc. seems to have different experiences and different world views. Why would women and men be any different? As humans we certainly share similarities, but that doesn't mean we are all the same.

BTW, what do you think of the NFL lockout?

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Victor said...

About forty-eight year ago or so, for whatever reasons, I use to go around telling my friends that I came from Pluto and that my girl friends were all from Venus. It was all done in fun back then but now I could probably start a small book trying to explain that my soul and/or spirit were responsible for those thoughts.

As far as girls and boys of or relating to the argument for the existence of God holding that the existence of the concept of God entails the existence of God,well I'll just sum that UP by saying that without true love of a woman and man since Adam and Eve, our first parents being guided by God's Love, I believe that the split of each woman and men, the % of what they keep thinking will greatly continue to be exagerated as different.

Does that make any sense?

God Bless Peace

7:16 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I haven't listened to the whole lecture - maybe he goes into more detail about those traits/behaviors. But I think he does admit there are differences, but just means that they pale in comparison to the similarities.

For every man who doesn't care about child rearing and every woman who doesn't care about football, I don't doubt you could find exceptions. And as he says, the variation within the group can be as wide or more than the difference between the two groups - like men who actually hate sports or just don't give a damn.

But like you I don't know what "ontological difference" means. The differences you mention, like sexual behavior, seem like differences that only have to do with making sure that humans survive on earth .... that they'll have sex, raise offspring, hunt for food. But is ontological difference a kind of difference that would persist even after death, in the afterlife, in the eyes of God? If so, I don't think those differences would have to do with eartly survival mechanisms.

7:41 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Victor,

Yes, I think so :)

8:22 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...


I wasn't sure what "ontological" meant either, so I looked it up. As best as I can tell, it means the "science of being," so if it means, "just the way things are by virtue of the way they are," I would say, yes, that the sexes are different.

Do you find the suggestion that men and women are different by nature to be offensive? To say different is not necessarily to say unequal. Is the implication of inequality what bothers you?

What do I think the differences are? It's hard to know where to begin... We have different hormones in our systems and our brains are actually not wired the same. If we are different from the neck down, why would it be difficult to believe that we are different from the neck up?

I'd say it's self evident that men and women differ, for example, in our needs and in our approaches with regard to work, play, communication, confrontation, aggression, cohabitation, and sex.

Bear in mind, I realize we are speaking in terms of generalities here, but just by way of example, I'd say that women are more comfortable with multi-tasking than men usually are, they tend to be more verbal, listen more closely, and have better emotional awareness. By that I mean, they are better able to pick up verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate the moods of others. They can be aggressive, but not in the overtly physical ways that men are.

I think these things are more hard-wired than cultural or environmental. I'd find it hard to believe that in the areas listed above, that "the variations among men, and the variations among women, are much greater than any small difference that you might find in mean scores between women and men." I'd be more inclined to believe that I'd be closer to just about any random man than to most women.

3:06 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


What bothers me about saying that men and women are different "ontologically" is that I think that is meant as men and women are different kinds of beings, and different in the eyes of God. I think we are both people, with different sexual characteristics yes but still basically "people" and the same in the eyes of God,

I do of course think we are different in body and in some ways our minds too. But I think these differences don't make that much difference :) For instance, the brains of teenagers have been shown to be pretty different from the brains of adults, but we don't think a teenage boy is "ontologically" different from adult males. The brains of some people who have been abused as kids have been shown to be different from the brains of people who had good childhoods, but we don't think of them as ontologically different beings. Some people are born hermaphrodites - are they ontologically different from men and women?

I think people tend to concentrate on the differences between men and women to the exclusion of the similarities. Maybe that makes them feel like they're in control of things - they've catagorized people into managable groups with defined characteristics and methodology for how to deal with those individuals. But nature isn't that domesticated, living beings aren't that pachageable.

In nature, there are male and female cats, for instance. They're different but we don't think of them as ontologically different. There are species, like clown fish, that can change their gender - do they change their ontological being then too? And what about when we're dead and in the afterlife (saying there is one) - will we still have sexual characteristics? Will we still be different kinds of beings? I don't think so, despite what Augustine thought.

Sorry - too much coffee :)

7:12 PM  
Blogger Denny said...

My wife Joan, who works in the field of child sexual abuse, among other areas, is fond of quoting a study on the difference in the "hard wiring" of men and women, partly by our genes and partly by millenia of conditioning/selection. Basically, for men we're hardwired for "Food and sex, food and sex." For women, it's "Save the baby."

Well. I don't always believe everything Joan quotes to me, but that sounded pretty interesting, so I thought I'd throw it out there.

Crystal, I thought your arguments were pretty good. I was prepared to pretty much agree with Jeff, because it matched my experience; but you took it to a wider place.

12:10 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


I do agree with Joan that there are basic differences. But not all members of the groups exhibit them and I think the things we have in common outweigh the differences - no one usually spends much time noticing all the similarities - they're pretty overwhelming.

Even cats, for instance. I remember how one of my cats, Spot, was very interested in playing, in catching bugs, in watching birds, etc., but one of my other cats couldn't care less. Then I read an article about cat brains - some are more "atavistic" than others, some are more set on the cat version of "food and sex" and "save the baby" :) and some are not. Maybe it's the same for us.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

But Deac! You should take Joan's word for it on this one, especially considering what her area of professional expertise is and what yours is. :)

Now, I know there has been the odd "Pam Smart" or "Mary Kay Letourneau" kind of schoolteachers out there who've been caught messing with her young male students. It makes for sensationalized news when it happens, but suppose all of our clergy were female instead of male... Does anyone think the sexual abuse crisis would have ever reached the level that it did?

As for me personally, I keep trying to stress that difference, referred to as "ontological" or otherwise, should not mean unequal.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Sorry, messed up my grammar with a little last-minute rewrite there...

2:26 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


But *why* do you keep trying to stress the differences?

3:52 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Because it wouldn't be anywhere near as much fun if we were the same!

Vive le difference!

5:35 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Ha :) I think "Vive le sameness!" I guess the guys I tend to find attractive are the ones who think the same way I do.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bit shocked at Jeff's argument that separate does not necesarrily mean unequal. Maybe in a very few cases that may be right. Of course such an argument is exactly what the Supreme Court found fallacious in Brown V.Board of Education case.

And what does "just the way things are by virtue of what they are" mean?

Quite obviously the Church regards men as superior to women. Paul

11:56 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yes, I thought of that "separate but equal" thing too.

3:07 PM  

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