4 Ways Men And Women Are Complementary To One Another

by Morals & Values, Sexuality and Chastity

Looking at the two creation stories (Genesis 1:1–2:4 and Genesis 2:4–3:24) together reveals a number of distinct senses in which men and women may be said to be complementary. Both accounts of creation offer strong affirmations of the basic equality of the sexes in their fundamental humanity and in their creation in the image of God.

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does
the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a
figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ,
the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and
His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.

—The Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 22

Men and women together are designated priest stewards of creation by the first creation account, exercising dominion in creation (see Gn 1:26, 28) and finding fulfillment in the Sabbath worship of the seventh day (see Gn 2:1–3). Within this basic equality, these texts also affirm a variety of ways in which men and women might be said to be complementarity to one another.

4 Ways Men And Women Are Complementary To One Another

The first might be called a complementarity of “totality”—the idea articulated in the first creation account that humankind (’āḏām) is only complete as male and female (see Gn 1:27).

A second could be described as “procreative” complementarity—that is, the way in which the bodily differences of male and female
(zāḵār and nəqêḇāh) enable them to receive the blessing of fertility (see Gn 1:28).

A third could be called the complementarity of “alterity”—the way in which the threshold of solitude is crossed by going out from oneself to others. We realize our humanity in fellowship and friendship, and we do so as embodied persons. We become an “I” when we recognize and give ourselves to a “Thou” (see Gn 2:18, 23). To integrate the teaching of the two accounts and to employ the language of Pope St. John Paul II, “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons.”


A fourth could be called “spousal complementarity,” which adds to the previous idea the dimension of the sexually differentiated body and the way in which this makes possible the covenant of marriage. This form of complementarity becomes clear when we consider the wealth of covenantal language and imagery in Genesis 2:21–25.


Reflecting on these texts and the realties to which they point, Catholic philosophers and theologians articulated the idea of complementarity. In her historical research, Sr. Prudence Allen locates the first fully articulated example of the theory (although not the term) in the work of St. Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century. The idea emerged more clearly in the experiential personalism of twentieth-century Catholic converts such as Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand.


From this discussion, the concept made its way into magisterial teaching. One can find the term or equivalents of it in speeches of Popes Ven. Pius XII and St. John XXIII, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and Pope St. Paul VI, and it would be developed further in the long and fruitful pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II.

Complementarity, for John Paul II, pertains to the very existence and self-awareness of the person: The knowledge of man passes through masculinity and femininity, which are, as it were, two incarnations of the same metaphysical solitude before God and the world— two reciprocally completing ways of “being a body” and at the same time of being human—as two complementary dimensions of self-knowledge and self-determination and, at the same time, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body.

His mature position would extend this complementarity to every dimension of the human person: “Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological.”

The Vatican’s position paper for the 1995 Beijing Conference differentiated this reality further, speaking of a “biological, individual, personal, and spiritual complementarity.” In other words, the sexual complementarity of the male and female body points to complementary differences through the whole of the human personality. We do not just differ in our bodies; we differ our souls as well.

The Church teaches that men and women have unique gifts and aptitudes that enable them to come together to create a family and to shape the wider culture. It is these differences that orient men and women toward one another and make them capable of giving themselves to each other in the covenant of marriage.

This article is an excerpt from Unraveling Gender by Dr. John Grabowski. To continue reading, purchase the book here!

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