Friday, November 15, 2013

Vive La Différence!: The Complementarity of the Sexes

Yesterday I attended a lecture sponsored by The Wheatley Institution.  The speaker, Helen Alvaré, delivered an eloquent message of such profound insight and lasting import that she nearly persuaded me to convert to Catholicism.  Hyperbole aside, she certainly convinced me that there is much more to explore in the relationship between Mormonism and Catholicism.  She also made it very clear that the complementarity of the sexes is a truth worth articulating, and a topic worth discussing.

Mrs. Alvaré entitled here remarks Equal Partners: The Salience of Roles in Marriage and Family.  She took as her main texts (in addition to multiple scholarly works) Pope John Paul II's 1988 apostolic letter MULIERIS DIGNITATEM: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women and a verse of scripture from the Apostle Paul concerning Christ: "who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phillipians 2:6Mrs. Alvaré proceeded to delineate commonalities between the Catholic understanding of the family and the understanding of the family as set forth in The Family: A Proclamation to the World.  As a backdrop (and sharp contrast) to this comparison, Mrs. Alvaré laid out a summary of secular feminism over the last 50 years since the sexual revolution.  The result was a scintillating statement, not only on the complementarity of the sexes, but also on the very nature and meaning of love.

As Mrs. Alvaré correctly indicated, society often tends to place high value on power and public achievement (not to mention prominence and possessions) as opposed to service and the home.  She outlined some of the common adjectives that have been used to describe differences between male and female characteristics, words such as active vs. passive, hierarchical vs. relational, and strong vs. weakShe noted that much of this modern terminology, even the word "roles," has been taintedMrs. Alvaré also demonstrated that modern feminism has created a separation between sex and marriage, and sex and babies.  This separation has occurred in part as a result of the emphasis placed on erasing differences between males and females, and the attempt to favor autonomy and individual sexual expression above relationships and the family. 

The question that she posed at the beginning of her lecture was "Are there really important differences between men and women?"  The question may seem banal, but the strident claims of some feminists has made it necessary to respond to such questions.  Mrs. Alvaré provided ample statistics and anecdotes to support her thesis that men and women have complementary natures and that this complementarity is necessary for the kind of success that matters, namely, the capacity to live and love well.  In fact, one of the definitions that she gave for what it means to love is the ability to "capacitate who the other was meant to be."  

As beings created in the image of God, both males and females have unique gifts to offer each other.  Mrs. Alvaré explained that part of the feminine genius is the natural ability to teach the husband not to lord over her, but to enable him to give his unique gifts to his wife and his children.  The feminine genius includes a relational instinct and a capacity for collaboration, as well as the attributes alluded to in Mulieris dignitatem and The Family: A Proclamation to the World.  Mrs. Alvaré lamented that not enough has been done to articulate the genius of men (a project that I would happily allow women of her caliber to advance), but she did suggest six points of action to foster healthy relationships between the sexes: 1. eschew tainted vocabulary such as "roles" in order to employ terms such as male and female "capacities" and "fields of action" 2. understand the gifts that men and women have to offer each other 3. reject the idea that silencing religion and denying differences between the sexes is the path to caring for women, helping the poor and vulnerable, or aiding children 4. enable women to actively advocate for religious freedom and to have their voices heard in the public square 5. emphasize the fact that, on the whole, women want to be married and to bare and rear children, and 6. remember that women are excellent communicators.

Mrs. Alvaré's lecture was illuminating, edifying and instructive.  She called for a renewed understanding of the complementarity of the sexes, inviting her audience to eliminate gender mistrust by focusing on the questions "What do women admire about men?" and "What do men admire about women?"  She invited the younger generations to lead a conversation about complementarity and to foster a correct understanding of love that will counteract the contamination of a culture that produces rants against both men and women.  In summary, Helen Alvaré may well be at the forefront of a revolution in the understanding of complementarity between the sexes, if not at the forefront of a revolution in the very understanding of the meaning of love.  Vive La Différence!

What do you think?  Are there differences between the sexes?  What do women admire about men?  What do men admire about women?  Discuss.

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