Complementarity and Reciprocity Between Women and Men (July 9, 1995)
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. Tomorrow my Letter to Women will be published. In it I have wished to address all the women in the world, directly and almost confidentially, to express to them the Church's esteem and gratitude and at the same time to propose once again the main lines of the gospel message concerning them.
Today, continuing the topic I began a few Sundays ago, I wish particularly to reflect on the complementarity and reciprocity which mark the relationship between the persons of the two sexes.
In the biblical account of creation, we read that after creating man God took pity on his loneliness and decided to give him a suitable partner (Gn 2:18). But no creature was able to fill this void. Only when the woman taken from his own body was presented to him, could the man express his deep and joyful amazement, recognizing her as "flesh of [his] flesh and bone of [his] bones" (Gn 2:23).
In the vivid symbolism of this narrative, the difference between the sexes is interpreted in a deeply unitive key; it is, in fact, a question of the one human being who exists in two distinct and complementary forms: the "male" and the "female." Precisely because the woman is different from the man, nevertheless putting herself at the same level, she can really be his "helper." On the other hand, the help is anything but unilateral: the woman is "a helper" for the man, just as the man is a "helper" for the woman!
2. This complementarity and reciprocity emerges in every context of coexistence. "In the 'unity of the two,'" I wrote in my apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, "man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist 'side by side' or 'together,' but they are also called to exist mutually 'one for the other'" (no. 7).
The most intense expression of this reciprocity is found in the spousal encounter in which the man and the woman live a relationship which is strongly marked by biological complementarity, but which at the same time goes far beyond biology. Sexuality in fact reaches the deep structures of the human being, and the nuptial encounter, far from being reduced to the satisfaction of a blind instinct, becomes a language through which the deep union of the two persons, male and female, is expressed. They give themselves to one another and in this intimacy, precisely to express the total and definitive communion of their persons, they make themselves at the same time the responsible coworkers of God in the gift of life.
3. We ask the Blessed Virgin to help us to be aware of the beauty of God's plan. In the special mission entrusted to her, Mary brought all her feminine richness, first to the family of Nazareth and later to the first community of believers. May the men and women of our time learn from her the joy of being fully themselves, establishing mutual relations of respectful and genuine love.
"Only when the woman taken from his own body was presented to him, could the man express his deep and joyful amazement, recognizing her as 'flesh of [his] flesh and bone of [his] bones'" (Gn 2:23).
There is always so much to learn in this creation account. Fr. Philippe, founder of the Community of St. John, has written a great deal on how this act of creating woman reveals the complementarity between man and woman. With man, he says, God uses the gestures of an artist, a potter, fashioning man from the clay of the earth; but with woman, he uses the gesture of a surgeon, extracting her from Adam's side. With just these two simple images of potter and surgeon, we can already deduce the strengths that each has and how it does indeed complement the other.
He goes on to say that, "From man, God fashions the body of woman. According to Scripture therefore, woman's sensitivity is more acute than man's. Indeed, man comes from earth,whereas woman is drawn from man's body. Woman's body is therefore qualitatively superior" (Wherever He Goes, p. 84). And so it would have to be, as bearer and nurturer of life.