In a recent interview by America Magazine staff, Pope Francis responded to the women’s ordination question by citing the Marian and Petrine principle, also known as, complementarity or complementarianism.  Based on the written interview, his response went unchallenged. No one found a way to press him on this venerated form of subordination.

Subordination Remanufactured

Complementarity is a relatively modern configuration for the long-held practice of subordinating women.  Complementarity, Vatican style, heralds equality for women and men and yet works vigorously to keep women separate and without equal means to minister, influence, govern, and shape the teachings, laws, policies, and practices of the Catholic Church. It has developed with clear contours that have proven useful for enforcing the status quo in terms of male institutional power and authority.  And it has been mass marketed to Catholics -- as no less than “the new feminism.”

And although it cannot be compared to the violence used to enforce other “separate but equal” doctrines* throughout history, it would also be wrong to suggest that complementarity does not engender violence. Many feminist thinkers have pointed out this obvious fact. For instance, fifty Catholic female and male religious, theologians, and professionals in India met in 2016 and forcefully demonstrated how Catholic complementarity engenders violence against women.

Church teaching -- while professing the equality of women -- promotes the notion of complementarity assigning fixed roles to women and men . . . 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 (Saldanha).  

Complementarity Didn’t Begin with Jesus

Firmly rooted in his Jewish tradition, Jesus’s treatment of women in the Gospels is remarkably free of the sexual complementarity we find in magisterial documents today.  For instance, Jesus explicitly repudiates role restrictions when it comes to Martha and Mary. And Mary Magdalene is his chosen disciple -- the first apostle -- to proclaim his Resurrection.  

Paul, too, clearly understood women to be his equals and his co-workers.  Acts shows that women were evangelizing, prophesying, funding the mission, and heading house churches.  

Still, other New Testament writings endorse women’s subordination and as Christianity grew, male leaders asserted that women were by nature inferior to men and divinely ordained to be subordinate. Tertullian (160 – 220 C.E.) declared that women were the devil’s gateway.  St. Augustine (354 - 430 C.E.) who had the most significant influence on the medieval church teaching asserted that only males truly imaged God and, as such, women were subordinate to men.  Aquinas went beyond Augustine asserting that the female soul was different and of a lesser nature, and, as a result were defective human beings created solely for the purpose of procreation. Thus, churchmen stereotyped and scapegoated women while policing their agency.

Women Sidestepping Subordination

Throughout the history of Christianity, women found ways to overcome the patriarchal constraints placed on their lives.  They built communities where churchmen’s influence and dominance were minimized.   Abbesses gained authority that was never available to women in previous Roman or Germanic societies.They led women’s communities, and in some cases, they led mixed communities of women and men.  In a variety of creative ways women found ways to liberate themselves from male domination.

From the mid nineteenth century on, significant changes within Western society influenced the Church’s teaching on women.  Collapsing colonial empires, emerging democracies and world wars spurred new attention to human rights.  Technological and medical advances freed women from tedious daily tasks and led to better health.  Women’s suffrage movements, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Convention on the Rights of Women in Politics (1952) heralded new visions for women’s dignity, freedom, and rights.  

As newly emerging feminism(s) called traditional male and female roles into question, popes went on the offensive.  They reprimanded women for stepping out of their prescribed roles and warned them that feminist ideals would wreak havoc on their families and home.  Mary, the Mother of God, became the exalted female image of patriarchal perfection. Beginning with Pope Pius IX’s infallible decree on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus, December, 8, 1854), up and through Pope Pius XII’s infallible papal bull on her Assumption into heaven (Munificentissimus Deus, November, 1, 1950) Mary became the pinnacle of patriarchal femininity.  Defined by what Karl Rahner described as her “privileges and prerogatives,” Mary became the Church’s woman.  She was the mother of God without the disordered business involved in women’s bodily sexuality.  And her submissiveness to male authority became a celebrated tenet of faith.

Popes Explicitly Reinforcing Subordination

Within this patriarchal vision of the perfect woman, Pope Pius IX (1846-1876) and Pope Leo XIII (1878 – 1903), although open to correcting social inequities, still saw women as subordinate.  In papal encyclicals, they relied on Augustine’s De Moribus Catholicae Ecclesiae affirming the subordination of women:

Women thou (the Catholic Church) dost subject to their husbands in chaste and faithful obedience, not for the gratifying of their lust, but for bringing forth children, and for having a share in the family concerns. Thou dost set husbands over their wives, not that they may play false to the weaker sex but according to the requirements of sincere affection (Camp, 511).

Pope Pius X (1903-1914) reluctantly accepted some of the goals of feminists such as admitting women into universities but opposed their foray into politics.  His distrust of women was ever present as he coached the Italian bishops to monitor and control women’s voices in all settings.    

Benedict XV (1914-1922) shifted direction on women’s political involvement calling for “women electors everywhere.”  Still, his framework for understanding women’s roles mirrored former popes as he admonished women for taking up occupations outside the home.

Pius XI (1922 – 1939) in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii severely chastised women for their struggle toward equality.  Labeling it an “unnatural equality with men” he projected this step toward “slavery” would lead to their utter demise.

…this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery (if not in appearance, certainly in reality) and become as amongst the pagans the mere instrument of man.

Subordination to Complementarity in the Papal Lexicon

In the 1950’s there was a shift in papal language that reflected the greater equality women were winning.  As women’s rights and equality became increasingly normative in societies, the magisterium began distancing itself from the explicit language of women’s subordination and inferiority and began embracing notions of equality for women, albeit with conditions.  As the language of equality entered the Catholic lexicon with greater frequency, that equality was qualified – taking new form in the concept of complementarity.

In 1956, Pius XII (1939 – 1958) acknowledged equality for women.  But he qualified that equality under the concept of complementarity.  The complementarity framework would be adopted by his successors, fully developed under John Paul II, weaponized by Benedict XVI and embraced in a kinder, gentler form by Francis.  

So we have an absolute equality in personal and fundamental values, but different functions, which are complementary and superbly equivalent, and from them arise the various rights and duties of the one and the other. (The dignity of women (speech), 1956 found in Contra Legem.

In 1962, in speaking to a congress of women, John XXIII employed the language of complementarity as he addressed the issue of equality, but in his seminal 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris he affirmed the growing equality for women while forgoing complementarity to circumscribe it.

. . . the part that women are now playing in political life is everywhere evident. This is a development that is perhaps of swifter growth among Christian nations, but it is also happening extensively, if more slowly, among nations that are heirs to different traditions and imbued with different cultures. Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding, both in domestic and in public life, the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons (41).

Two years later (1965) at the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes affirmed that

. . . every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent (29).

And although Gaudium et Spes, writ large, supports women’s equality and rights, it is also hampered by the vestiges of complementarity, although the word is not specifically used.  It reminds women that they have proper roles “in accordance with their own nature (60).”  

“Women now work in almost all spheres. It is fitting that they are able to assume their proper role in accordance with their own nature (60).”

Although Pope Paul VI was the first to invite women, twenty-three in number, to a Vatican Council as auditors, he also approved the 1976 CDF Declaration Inter Insigniores  -- which asserted women did not image Christ and “the church does not have the authority to permit women to holy orders.”  Its basis?  Complementarity.  

“...equality is in no way identity, for the Church is a differentiated body, in which each individual has his or her role. The roles are distinct, and must not be confused (6).”  

John Paul II, the pope with the second longest papacy in history, exerted the greatest influence over the Church’s teachings on women.  In unprecedented fashion, he sought to shape and restrict the roles of women.  A prolific writer, he penned the modern chapter on complementarity and provided, what for many, is a convincing anthropological and theological framework that advanced the Church’s support for women’s equality in the world as a new fact of faith while exempting the institutional church from being bound to those principles of equality.

In his longest treatise on women, Mulieris Dignitatem, he states that woman has a unique essence, is made for the “order of love”, and can only find her true purpose by giving love to others.  Actual motherhood or spiritual motherhood is the primary and proper vocation for women.  

When John Paul II applies the rules of complementarity to Mary, she is exalted, assigned feminine attributes and roles, and raised as the model for all women.  Mary, the Mother of God is the archetypal woman, the center and summit of God’s plan for salvation. Whatever is said about women’s dignity and vocation must lie within the scope of the assigned Marian dimension, for “her role in the divine plan of salvation ‘sheds light on women’s vocation in the life of the church and society by defining its difference in relation to men.’” (Johnson, 62).  Mary is the model of the full development of women’s vocation, but the result of this questionable exaltation is that it obscures the fact that women are subordinated.

From John Paul II’s writings, we get the Marian and Petrine principles – a framework rooted, in part, in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s sentimentalized theology.  Balthasar, a theologian with a complicated history, had a profound influence on John Paul II’s thought.  Balthasar asserted that the complementary joining of the male and female in marriage symbolized God’s outline for salvation and his plan for the Church.  Christ is the bridegroom, and his bride is the Church.  While the marriage symbolism had multiple meanings, the bridal imagery extended to Mary who, as virgin and mother symbolizes the Church.  God and Christ are masculine.  Mary and the Church are feminine.  And the most profound dimension of salvation is expressed when these two relate as reciprocal -- as complements – as a man and woman in a patriarchal conjugal relationship.  (Johnson, 57).

As Elizabeth Johnson points out, Balthasar’s “Marian symbolism becomes ecclesial symbolism to the erasure of the existence of actual historical women in the church with their spiritual and political agency.”  Mary becomes the abstract woman who is receptive to masculine grace who becomes an idealized spirituality called the church.   The all-male hierarchy governs in the name of the Bridegroom – Christ (Johnson, 57).  

In Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II makes a list of model virtues for women.  Women should strive for the self-offering totality of love; strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; and, the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement.”  And significantly, these idealized virtues are not applied to men.  

In John Paul’s Theology of the Body, Catholic bodies know their place in the hierarchal structure.  The “feminine genius” in Mulieris Dignitatem reinforces patriarchal values by emphasizing motherly qualities like tenderness and patience to women.  Ordinatio Sacerdotalis expresses complementarity’s highest purpose – the exclusion of women from the priesthood.  In his Letter to Women, complementarity – the “new feminism” sought to overcome the secular feminism on display at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.  In his 1998 Motu Proprio, Ad Tuendam Fidem, John Paul II laid down the gauntlet wielding punishments such as excommunication for those who dared to step out of the patriarchal lines.  

Prior to becoming pope, Benedict XVI ratcheted up hierarchical furor over feminism’s influence, gay rights, and reproductive rights.  In The Ratzinger Report (1985) he counsels Catholics to be wary of radical feminists who trivialize sexual specificity. In 2004, he warned about the destructive effects of the “gender agenda” reinforcing Vatican complementarity where ‘man and woman’ have ‘equal dignity as persons’ but that this equal dignity is premised on and manifest in essential and complementary differences, ‘physical, psychological and ontological’ (Ratzinger 2004).  And many of his actions included efforts to punish dissenters.  Most Catholics in the United States will recall his investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for their “radical feminism.”  

Pope Francis has made some important strides in bringing women into greater authority in the Church appointing women to positions that had previously been held by churchmen. There are many examples, including the appointment of the first woman, Sr. Nathalie Becquart, as undersecretary to the Synod of Bishops, a position that breaks new ground as she votes alongside prelates at the 2023 Synod.

And although Francis seems to intuit some of the shortcomings of the Vatican position on women calling for a new theology of woman, he is still deeply moored to complementarity’s basic premise.  His embrace of the Marian and Petrine principle is just one example that demonstrates his loyalty to patriarchal norms.    

Coming full circle back to the America interview, Pope Francis’ response to the question about women’s ordination merited some follow up. What if it had been pointed out that theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson, Maria Clara Bingemer, and others find complementarity and the Marian and Petrine principle in need of renewal for today’s church?  Would he consider a dialogue with such theologians in the spirit of synodality?  

Pope Francis deserves our upmost respect.  In a synodal church, he also deserves to hear our calls for justice, renewal, and reform, especially when it comes to women’s ministry and authority in the Church.



America Magazine Editors.  Exclusive: Pope Francis Discusses Ukraine, U.S. Bishops and More at America Magazine, November 28, 2022.

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* Jim Crow Laws enforced a fictitious “separate but equal” legal doctrine in United States constitutional law  -- which said racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens. Under the doctrine, as long as the facilities provided to each race were equal, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by race.