Lexie answers another question

I asked Lexie, an occasional contributor to this blog the following question:


Lexie, I am interested in your views on the currently popular complementarian approach to understanding men and women in the church. Can this approach be reconciled with older concepts of hierarchy and male superiority? If not, what is the way ahead for Catholic men and women?
Below is her response, which readers may find of interest:
At face value, complementarianism sounds well and good, but I have two core issues with it: 1) It isn’t holistic and contains inherent contradictions; and 2) In practice, it becomes a vehicle for feminism.
1)  So, what do I mean when I say it isn’t holistic?  Well, advocates of complementarianism always suggest that in certain areas, the ‘male purview’ so to speak, men have the final word… but not elsewhere.  But if the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church there should be no limit to his purview.  How can a woman submit to a man’s authority in the home and the Church but trample all over him in the public arena?  To take a fairly recent historical example, how can Prince Philip have authority over his wife when she has insisted on him publicly kneeling to her and taking an oath of allegiance?  To illustrate, Prince Philip once said “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba. I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.  And how can we reconcile that God created Adam first and then Eve with this idea of men and women complementing each other?  Surely God created Eve to complement Adam, He didnt create them both at the same time as ‘two sides of the same coin’.
2) The idea of husbands and wives leading complementary lives is appealing to our modern equality-obsessed mindsets, but in practice every time male authority is mentioned it is hastily qualified with some reminder that the husband is required to sacrifice himself for his wife as Christ did for the Church.  Sometimes it even involves a romanticised chivalric ideal that makes men responsible for women morally.  While this may sound old-fashioned, it’s highly selective.  It has become a vehicle for Christian versions of feminism as well as feminist victimhood.  There is a horrible smugness behind the incessant gloating that men must love sacrificially, but this shift in emphasis has been hijacked so as to flip the hierarchical order of God-man-wife to God-woman-husband.  Sure, a man must be willing to lay down his life for his wife and family, but he shouldn’t be offering himself as a sacrifice to her – that is idolatry. God comes first.  In practice, every time a man puts his foot down the woman can complain that he isn’t loving her properly.  Sacrifice requires surrender and submission.  So complementarianism ends up being a meaningless idea.  If husbands and wives are surrendering to each other, there is no real authority, and that is completely at odds with Catholic tradition, not to mention real life.  Complementarianists like to picture it as give-and-take, but in a society where there is so much pressure for ‘equality’ (including laws requiring it) what it adds up to is men bending over backwards to prove they’re not male chauvinists (and women lapping it up).
Furthermore, we used to talk about a mother’s sacrificial love, but this new (sometimes chivalric) emphasis on male sacrifice puts women on a pedestal, leading to a view of the sexes in which men are belittled and women can do no wrong.  I know this is just my take on things, but I honestly believe that in the effort to compromise with egalitarians (and not admit that we have a hierarchical relationship) complementarianists have so emphasised sacrifice that women have developed a “what do you owe me?” attitude.  We constantly hear the phrase “you deserve better” and it’s almost always applied to women (usually in relation to men), and I think this idea that a husband is required to sacrifice himself is at the heart of this entitlement mentality.  (Obviously, this originates from outside, from feminism, but complementarianism justifies this mentality for Catholic women who don’t like to think of themselves as hard core feminists).
To be honest, I am not optimistic about the way ahead for Catholic men and women.  Even if Catholic men and women wanted to embrace a hierarchical view (which I believe they should), society makes it rather difficult to implement.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with a wife working in the public sphere, too often women earn more than their husbands or cherish career ambitions that are at odds with his authority.  But the first step is to mend marriages as they stand, and that will require women to give up their autonomy and men to take up the slack, so to speak.  And it comes down to the way we think.  I’ve heard even the most devoted Catholic wives speak of threatening to leave their husbands (during an argument, for example), and that indicates to me that their thinking is wrong.  They’re still thinking autonomously, rather than being willing to sacrifice what they want to the needs of the family as determined by the head.  And in this way, women simply aren’t being submissive.  They aren’t being complementary to the authority of the husband after all.  And I think this has all come about because being complementary to each other ultimately devolves to being egalitarian.  It’s just egalitarianism with a few exceptions in a dangerous disguise.  
In short, the complementarian mindset is too preoccupied with equality.  If we continue to think of a husband and wife as equal but playing different roles we are not only deceiving ourselves but also denying the fundamental premise of male headship.  A king always outranks a queen (which is why queens such as Victoria and Elizabeth II denied their husbands the title) and so too a husband always outranks his wife.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t place her at his right hand where she is honoured, but it does mean he is superior in rank.  If there is one social custom that exemplifies how things have changed for the worse, it is the way commoners no longer use the title Mrs correctly.  Mrs is a title that a woman derives from her husband (and which she has no right to use without a husband).  Used correctly (and illustrated beautifully in Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’), the title Mrs tells us a woman’s exact social status, and that status is that she is married to Mr X.  Her name is Mary Smith, but her title is Mrs John Smith.  For a woman to call herself Mrs Mary Smith tells us she is divorced and that she is no longer under her husband’s authority.  This may seem a small thing, but until women see themselves as deriving their status from their husband and show themselves amenable to male authority I don’t think much is going to change for the better.
[JOD: My comment. I think that speaks for itself. Complementarism sounds fine, but in practice it seems to be a way for wives – and husbands – to shuffle away from their respective roles in the hierarchy.
And, on a purely personal note, noting poor old Prince Philip’s situation: Gentlemen, never kneel to a woman. No, not even when you are proposing to her.]

8 responses to this post.

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post.


  2. […] recent posts the concept of the complementary nature of the sexes is discussed. It is probably fair to say that this is the most mainstream view of the proper […]


  3. Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 15, 2016 at 7:34 am

    A comment I left at another blog on the “mutual submission” theology:



  4. […] habit of married women using their husband’s full name in their formal title (as discussed in a recent post here by Lexie) is that of the writer Mrs Aeneas […]


  5. Posted by Zeta on May 28, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Regarding poor Prince Phillip, if I recall correctly when Kate took he vows at the wedding the phrase “to obey” was purposely left out. And she is not in the Royal line he is. A crazy worlde. O mores O tempores.


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