Questions on Sexuality? Complementarity is the Answer!

Note: This is an adapted portion of a conference session I am presenting this weekend. The session, in its entire context, will be up in the near future.

In the beginning, we were created for love, by love, and in love. How do we know this? It says so, right in the beginning of Genesis!

 …then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed…The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it…Then the Lord God said, “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Linger for a few moments on the last verse: “…this at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Consider first Adam’s words “at last.” If you read the verse correctly, the emphasis is put squarely on these two words: “this AT LAST is bone of my bones…” Up until that moment, as we read, Adam was living in Eden, alone. God knew that this was not good. But God chose to let Adam discover a few things gradually. So first, he gave Adam all of the animals as helpers. Adam came to understand each one—their nature, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and so on—and from that knowledge gave them a name. By naming each creature Adam created a relationship, a way to call on this “other” and interact. Imagine the time and care it took for him to complete this task with every single creature!

Yet as he builds this knowledge of, and relationship with, all creatures, he realizes two important things. For one, he has built up knowledge of himself by the process of knowing and naming other creatures. He knows that, unlike the elephant, he walks on two legs. He knows that, unlike the hawk, he has hands without talons. He has hair, like the gorilla and unlike the rabbit—but not as much hair as the gorilla! Secondly, he realizes that, in some way, he is still alone. He remains separated from all other creation by an unknown quality. He has no helper fit for him. This mysterious being, yet to be found, is meant to help Adam discover the unique quality within himself that he is unable to encounter alone.

Knowing this, the emphasis on Adam’s “at last” makes sense. He is overcome by a profound sense of joy and relief because, finally, there is a creature that truly fits him. AT LAST, he has a being that gives him a sense of completeness. AT LAST, he can be at peace because he is no longer alone.

The last verse also affirms that there are two sides to the human story, with both being necessary for the story to be told in its full beauty and grandeur. This is called the “complementarity” of man as male and female.

Complementarity means forming a balanced whole. Everything in the world functions on this principle. Nature is complementary: land and sea, earth and sky, animals and plants. Our bodies are complementary: ears, eyes, nose, lungs, heart, hands, feet, legs, stomach, liver, nerves, and brain all working together. Even math contains the principle of complementarity in its logic: it means mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Generally, complements are meant to be functional: land is dry and barren without bodies of water feeding it, and when a body part fails, the whole body suffers and cannot function.

The creation story in Genesis recounts the gradual buildup of complementarity in the natural world. Man, who is the last and highest of God’s creation, marks a shift in the dynamics of complementarity. Before man, all of creation had equal dignity. The land was not lord of the sea, the sky was not lord of the earth, and animals were not lords of the plants. But man? Man was created with a unique dignity, designed to govern and care for the earth, the sea, the sky, and every thing in between. And while man is a perfect complement to nature, nature is an imperfect complement to man. This is expressed in Adam’s ability to name every creature, and his simultaneous realization that he is alone in the world. His unique dignity—being made in the image and likeness of God—requires a unique complement.

What do I mean by “man is a perfect complement to nature, but nature is an imperfect complement to man?” In Adam, we see a creature that shares the same functional characteristics as other creatures: working physical parts, a need to feed and hydrate, the ability to reproduce, and a basic, sensory awareness of “others.” Everything that the created world has, Adam also has. This makes him a perfect complement to nature, because Adam’s characteristics bring balance to the whole of creation. On the other hand, nature cannot bring balance to the whole of Adam’s being.

We understand that man is created in God’s image and likeness, and has the purpose of reflecting and imitating the mysterious communion of Persons in the Holy Trinity, but what is it specifically about man that uniquely expresses this reality?

It is in the ability to reason. No other created thing can reason as we do. And reason, used rightly, elevates every aspect of our person. With reason we don’t merely function—we live. We are the only creatures that walk with a spring in our step when we are happy, as if joy could make us fly. We are the only creatures who make sense of the world, and who can give names and meanings to the things we see and feel.

No thing in nature can match man’s ability to reason. This is why woman became the perfect complement to Adam, as his “AT LAST” testifies. Adam wasn’t looking for someone to simply work with, and have sex with, and to eat with. He wanted an “other” who would join him hand-in-hand to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary. Beginning with his self.

But—why female? Why not another male? From what we read in Genesis, Eve seems almost exactly the same as Adam. And the modern world has made great strides in testifying to the fact that there is much more commonality between the sexes than not. Misguided gender stereotypes are rightly being shown false. For example, men aren’t supposed to show emotion. Or girls can’t be good at math. Or that grace and meekness are “feminine” qualities and strength and intelligence are “masculine.” These are human qualities. Everyone, male and female, has the ability to do these things, and be these things.

So what is left to “being female” that complements Adam’s “being male?” The obvious answer is sex; the ability to unite and reproduce. But this answer is reductionist. This answer says that we are God’s creature, not God’s created image and likeness. It explains the way to make humans, but not the ways to be human. It does not tell us how we make the ordinary, extraordinary.

To do that, we need to look again at the impact that the ability to reason has on human nature. Our intellect gives us our less obvious, but more accurate answer to the complementarity of male and female. Earlier, I briefly pointed out that the first two chapters of Genesis present the same creation story using different narrative styles. I made the suggestion that this was done to exemplify the complementarity of man as male and female. Let’s dig into this, and see what we find.

Genesis 1 is very structured. The story follows a chronological pattern: “in the beginning…on the first day…on the second day…” and so forth. We find many sentences are repeated, over and over: God said something, God did something or God “called” something, God found something good, “and there was evening and there was morning, the Nth day.” The descriptions of creation are also noticeably…functional. This thing goes here so it can do that; that thing goes there so it can do that thing.

Genesis 2 takes the very last part of Genesis 1 and gives it context, character, and color. Here’s a perfect example: in Chapter 1 it says, “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.” In Chapter 2, it says, “God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Each version (and the chapters they represent) has a commonality: both explain what is happening. Each also brings a unique quality to the story: one explains how what is happening, is happening, and the other explains why what is happening matters. If you notice, neither version suffers because it doesn’t have one of the unique qualities. Chapter 1 is not lacking as a story because it doesn’t tell us why creation matters. Neither is Chapter 2 lacking because it skimps on the details of how creation progressed. The chapters do not complement each other to correct a deficiency. Each takes the entirety of the other, and elevates it.

We see this same complementarity in Adam and woman. In his solitude Adam names all the creatures, based on his knowledge of them and how they work. The creation of woman completes Adam’s knowledge of his self, and gives it purpose. Both have a commonality (being human), and each brings the unique quality of how and why to the meaning of being human.

Human complementarity means forming a balanced, whole picture of man: what we are, how we are the way we are, and why we matter. And as creatures created in the image and likeness of God, that whole picture includes a semblance of our creator. Male and female, given in the reciprocal gift of self, allows us to imitate and glimpse the most intimate aspect of God: the Father who eternally gives Love, the Son who eternally receives Love, and the Spirit, who is Love itself—that which is given and received forever. This is the front line of evangelization, the first encounter with who God is and who he will be to us, possibly for the rest of our lives.



Teaching the Cardinal Virtues: All Fun, No Fuss

I am currently preparing to speak on two topics at a diocesan conference for the first time, ever! I’m a giddy mess of facts, anecdotes, and random tidbits of far-flung Church teachings that I am organizing as a coherent narrative for my audience. Oh, and one of the two topics is that perennial favorite: Catholic morality.


My talk on morality is centered around conscience formation, and of course the cardinal virtues make an appearance. As I collected my thoughts and random points of doctrine and Scripture, I came up with a fun way to help students of all ages remember the cardinal virtues AND connect them to the 1st Commandment as found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and repeated by Christ in Luke 10:27; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”

To help students remember the cardinal virtues, have them stand up straight with their arms out from their sides (like a cross). Point at each of the following as you explain: prudence is your head, where you reason out what brings you closer to or farther from God. Justice is at your chest, the “seat” of your soul which communicates God’s image and likeness. Fortitude is your feet, for it takes courage to take a step in the right direction. Temperance is your arms, which embrace what is good and push away what is not.

And how does that connect to the first of the Greatest Commandments? Fortitude, the heart: “Lord don’t let my heart fail me now.” Justice, the soul. Temperance, your strength to say “yes” to God and “no” to sin. And prudence, your mind.

What do you think of this little mnemonic? I see it being a fun way to get students of all ages engaged in Scripture, theology and practical morality without it being too heavy or boring, or having it be forgotten in a month. If you try this out, please let me know how it works for you!


Teaching the Concept of Eternity to the Twitter Generation

My catechism lesson for this coming Sunday is an introduction to the Person of the Holy Spirit. This necessarily includes a discussion of the Blessed Trinity and how each Person relates within the whole. Which means big, clunky words. Begetting. Begotten. Procession. Spiration. My students are eleven and twelve, and I’m fairly certain that the extent of their Trinitarian knowledge is sparse: We call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they’re connected somehow. The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity is one of the most mysterious and difficult to grasp fully. It is also the single most important doctrine for understanding anything about everything else. And I have 45 minutes, maximum, to lay a solid foundation for the rest of their Catholic lives. No pressure, though.


I think the most difficult thing to understand about the relationships of the Blessed Trinity and the language used to describe it is that it’s grounded in the concept of eternity. It’s hard for sixth graders to think long term as a general rule, but our entire culture is inculcating a prepubescent fixation on the short-term. Communication technology that gives us instant access to the global community is great. Fast cars are great. Expedited shipping from Amazon is great. It’s all great, but it’s turning mankind into permanent twelve-year-olds. For the average pre-teen, reality is based on the sensual, not the intellectual. Truth comes from what you see, what you feel, what you know through touching. The intellectual reflection that follows sensory input is perfunctory, not because this state is fundamentally stupid but because there is not enough time given over to considering one thing fully before the senses are assaulted by some new stimulus.

up_doug “Squirrel?”

This rapid-fire way of development is universal to this age-range in a human life, but our addictions to Twitter, 24-hour news, and Candy Crush are symptomatic of the fact that somehow, in the crush of human progress, mankind started putting petal to metal before remembering to check if the brakes worked. I think, in this era of individualism and instant-gratification, we have become so conditioned to moving so rapidly that our concept of eternity, and metaphysics in general, can only reach as high as empiricism. And frankly, the tighter man limits the concept of eternity the harder it is to justify and maintain any moral system, let alone that which comprises two-thirds of Church teaching.

Arguments against marriage equality, the incompatibility of the ethical-political system of Libertarianism with Catholicism, opposing the death penalty and assisted suicide, and many other modern ethical issues we Catholics are obligated to defend all stem from the concept of eternity that is rooted in the Blessed Trinity. How, then, do we understand and convey the concept of eternity in the Blessed Trinity to the Twitter Generation? I think I’ll start with St. Augustine…

Give love. Get love. Never stop doing either.


What does a (Catholic) Christian taste like?

I promise you this is not a post about the early Church being accused of cannibalism. Because that’s gross. 

Rather, a number of news headlines caught my attention yesterday that tie in to a question that I’ve frequently discussed with my husband. That question: what makes a Catholic a Catholic? In the first article we have the words of Pope Francis during Sunday’s Angelus. In a nutshell, he cautions us to be in the world but not of the world, or else “the salt will lose it’s flavor”. What is the flavor he speaks of? I bet you are already listing in your head a number of things that give Catholics “flavor”, but bear with me a minute.

The other article I saw yesterday is about an incident in China where a subway full of people flee a foreigner who fainted. A number of reasons were given in defense of the exodus; xenophobia is the one that caught my attention. You see, I’m currently reading a book about the mission of the China Jesuits. It’s fascinating, because the story reads like an adventure novel. Plus, I’m a freak about history. What I didn’t realize is how difficult it was for the Jesuits to set up a stable operation in China. It took them almost 50 years to get rolling, mainly because the Chinese were hard nuts to crack. From what I understand foreigners were only allowed on a limited visitor basis (primarily for trade reasons), and were expelled after trading season concluded. In order to make any connections whatsoever Matteo Ricci first had to become reasonably fluent in the native language; after, the adoption of the literati attire and hair style helped the missionaries blend in. What really got the attention of the Chinese intellectuals was the Jesuits’ commanding knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, and Eastern philosophy. This knowledge gave the Jesuits their in, and they used it to subtly introduce Catholic doctrine. The manner in which the Jesuits employed this integration caused all sorts of controversy, and it plagued them during the entire missionary effort in China. 

I don’t believe that the Chinese people involved in the subway incident acted out of xenophobia any more than those encountered by the Jesuits; I’m pretty sure the answer to both is much more complex. But what gets me is rooted in action: the actions of the fleeing passengers and the actions of the Jesuits in winning the favor of the literati. Obviously the subway passengers are being excoriated for not helping the injured man. The China Jesuits were repeatedly accused of obfuscating Catholic doctrine to make it fit with Eastern philosophy. In other words, the Jesuits were sacrificing Christian flavor to gain Chinese acceptance, and they paid the price for it. 

Let’s go back to that mental list you were making earlier. I can’t read your mind, so I don’t know what exactly you were thinking, but it probably involved actions that transcend the “Christian” label: helping the poor, feeding the hungry. If we go a little more strictly “Christian” we can add bible study, prayer, and communal worship services. I’m sure the list can go on. But what really distinguishes a Catholic? What is our flavor? I think the answer lies in the increasingly frequent exhortation by Pope Francis to “encounter” Christ, to have a deep relationship with Him.

Catholics profess, in the Sacrifice of the Mass, an encounter with the substantial form of Christ. We are not celebrating a memory, but a present, physical reality. And that reality wreaks beautiful havoc on our lives. The New Testament is one story after another about people encountering Jesus and being transformed. Through this encounter (some more physically proximate but all in a state of permanence) human lives are radically altered, and it shows in their actions. The same applies to us. The reality of tasting like a Catholic is as much in the way we think, the way we see, and the way we hear as it is the way we act. Essentially it is in how much we let Christ transform us versus how much we try to fit Christ where we want Him.

Are Catholics inherently better than other Christians at this? Absolutely not. We do have the Sacraments, which are the best aids to transformation in the business, hands down. That being said, there are ecclesial communities that do things in a way that we need to pay closer attention to (and, thankfully we are!). But, as Pope Francis is always pointing out, if you call yourself Christian, it is your encounter with Christ that flavors you. It takes a lot of work, and no small amount of time, but if we give everything we have and are to that encounter–be it in the Sacraments or our everyday moments–we will find ourselves flavored with the saints. And that’s pretty darn tasty.