I imagine that most Catholic women can think back to a time when we believed that we fell short of some ideal of a Catholic woman.
Maybe this thought solidified into a core belief when an authority figure (a parent, pastor, youth minister, teacher, or even blogger) “confirmed” that who you are is incompatible with the “divinely instituted gender norms” of male authority and female submission.
And I wonder whether narratives about what it means to be a “good Catholic woman” have made you question whether or not you belong in the Church.
Have no doubt: You belong here.
And there is not a singular, neatly defined way to be a good Catholic woman.
The idea that there is a particular standard of biblical womanhood comes in part from a popularly-held Evangelical Christian idea called complementarianism. In an article for The New Yorker, Eliza Griswold summarizes Evangelical complementarianism as, “the concept that, though men and women have equal value in God’s eyes, the Bible ascribes to them different roles at home, in their families, and in the church. The ideology promotes the notions of Biblical manhood and womanhood, conceptions of how proper Christian men and women should comport themselves, which are ostensibly based on scriptural teaching, and tend to encourage women’s submission to men.”
Although tenets of this Evangelical understanding have seeped into some conservative religious circles, the Catholic understanding of complementarity approaches the relationship between man and woman very differently.
At the heart of the Catholic understanding of complementarity is the understanding of the person as a gift. Every person is a gift from God, first, to herself or himself. The fact that you exist in this very moment means that you are a gift given by God.
Once we see ourselves in this way, we hopefully realize that we have countless opportunities to make a sincere gift of ourselves to others: our clients at work, the students we teach, and even our hairstylist or sister. Recognizing this about ourselves also comes with the responsibility to receive and respect everyone else as a gift. Gifts cannot be taken, they must be freely given and graciously received.
St. John Paul II writes that, if we look to the very beginning of our shared story, we see that “Woman is given to man so that he can understand himself, and reciprocally man is given to woman for the same end. They are to mutually affirm each other’s humanity, awed by its dual richness.” Being a gift means that a person (woman or man) can only come to truly understand herself when she is presented with another person to whom she can give herself. In God’s plan for creation, men and women share in a relationship that John Paul II refers to as “the unity of the two.” This is a relationship between two equals, different people who ought to affirm and enrich each other’s lives.
So, what does complementarity mean for us as Catholic women trying to find our place in the Church?
In every place in the Church, there ought to be mutual recognition of woman’s and man’s equal dignity, unique giftedness, and shared responsibility.
This means that we can boldly and unapologetically offer our unique perspectives in our sphere of influence, especially to the men in that sphere, trusting that we reflect God in ways that are needed for the flourishing of all.
We can affirm our brothers, calling each of them on to recognize himself as a gift, and to receive every other person as a gift.
We can advocate for women’s voices to be heard in “traditionally male” professions and spaces because we know that we have an equal share in the responsibility to do good.
We can go forward in confidence, knowing that at the core of our identity we are a gift to be affirmed, freely given, and graciously received.
When we openly recognize both the equality and difference we have with our brothers in Christ, we are free to collaborate as God intended and enrich the lives of those around us.