Men and Women. Diversity and mutual complementarity



Contemporary culture is challenging the most vital aspects of the existence of the human being, in ways that go so far as to overturn our understanding of human nature, and particularly of human sexual identity and relations between the sexes. This is a distortion that is inevitably impacting on the future of the human race. In a climate of aggressive “pansexualism”, and with disastrous results, contemporary culture is proposing and imposing models for sexual identity and relations between the sexes that are not only superficial and reductive, but often disfigured and self-destructive. 


The two-day Seminar on “Women and men: diversity and mutual complementarity” which was organised in the Vatican by the Pontifical Council for the Laity on 30-31 January 2004 took stock of this cultural environment, in a thorough debate on the nature of the sexual identity of the human person and the relationship between man and woman. This was not the first time that the Pontifical Council for the Laity had addressed this issue. It had earlier convened an International Conference in 1996 on “A renewed commitment of all for the good of the world’s women”, the proceedings of which have been published in The Logic of Self-giving. The regular revisiting of this issue by our Pontifical Council is in response to the pressing demand to examine it in greater depth made in Christifideles Laici, its magna charta in every sense of the term, in which the Pope said that “The condition that will assure the rightful presence of woman in the Church and in society is a more penetrating and accurate consideration of the anthropological foundation for masculinity and femininity with the intent of clarifying woman’s personal identity in relation to man, that is, a diversity yet mutual complementarity, not only as it concerns roles to be held and functions to be performed, but also, and more deeply, as it concerns her make-up and meaning as a person". 


The Synod Fathers have deeply felt this requirement, maintaining that ‘the anthropological and theological foundations for resolving questions about the true significance and dignity of each sex require deeper study’”. This passage in the apostolic exhortation provides us with an important methodological blueprint that should not be underestimated. For it is only by arguing on solid anthropological and theological bases that we can fully grasp the meaning of what it is to be a woman or a man, and the dignity that stems from this. We must therefore begin at the roots, from the very structure of the human person who never exists as a neutral being, but always as a sexed being. John Paul II wrote that “Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological.


It is only through the duality of the “masculine” and the “feminine” that the “human” finds full realisation”. The Holy Father is not speaking here in the abstract, but is affirming a reality with far-reaching and very real implications for the lives of every person. It has been rightly said that we are born male and female, but become men and women. How, then, can we help our contemporaries to experience this reality fully, responsibly and maturely? This is the challenge we have to take up. Our intention was to conduct a wide-ranging reflection within the framework of the socio-cultural changes that are taking place today. 


The first part of the seminar was devoted specifically to this analysis, focussing on the cultural and the human aspects – but above all the significance – of the changes occurring in customs and morality, and the dominant trends in this sphere. Our purpose was to take stock of, and seek to understand, the direction in which men and women are moving at the dawn of the millennium. In that part of the seminar, we heard from Lucetta Scaraffia, lecturer in Contemporary History at the “La Sapienza” University in Rome; Vincent Aucante, Director of the “San Luigi dei Francesi” Cultural Centre in Rome; the journalist Karna Swanson, and Manfred Lütz, member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. What emerged from their papers, in which they highlighted the limitations and inadequacies of the positions adopted by a feminism which is now adrift, revealed the need for a reaffirmation of the anthropological and theological bases of the “male” and the “female” identities, and examined specific ways of living according to the specific features of each, with particular attention to fatherhood. Since the issues of dignity, participation in social life and equality between the sexes have now become an integral part of certain strategies being implemented at the international level by various different organisations – including the United Nations and its agencies, and numerous non-governmental organisations – we had to spell out the socio-cultural framework looking carefully at what is happening in these extremely important fora. Let us not forget that the recommendations and resolutions passed at international conferences become tools that are used to bring powerful pressure to bear on the law-makers in all the member states of the United Nations. It is at this level that the value of the voice of the Holy See, which is too often “a voice crying in the wilderness”, can be appreciated, but a voice which must not be silenced. We addressed all these questions in the second part of the Seminar. Most Reverend Diarmuid Martin, Coadjutor Archbishop of Dublin, gave us an interesting first-hand account based on his 20-year experience of working on behalf of the Holy See in these organisations. His paper, and the one given by Marguerite Peeters, the Director General of the Institute for the Dynamics of Intercultural Dialogue, emphasised the way in which the deconstruction of the traditional value system was set in motion by the United Nations conferences organised in the 1990s, particularly at Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995). 


By disseminating the idea that everything can be constructed and deconstructed according to values that are in vogue at any given moment in time, these strategies set out to establish a new international ethos based on individualism, which makes it difficult to pass an objective judgement on the rights and duties of the person towards self and towards others. The third – central – phase was dedicated to examining the Magisterium of the Church regarding the dual unity of the human person. Maria Teresa Garutti Bellenzier and Most Reverend Carlo Caffarra, the Archbishop of Bologna, offered a well-documented reflection on the part played by women in the history of salvation, in order to bring out the deepest truths about the feminine. On this same topic, John Paul II provided an extremely important contribution by opening up new and fascinating prospects for theological and philosophical reflection on the human body (the theology of the body), marriage and the family.


From the Preface by Archbishop Stanisław Ryłko,

President of the Pontifical Council for Laity


Men and Women: Diversity and Mutual Complementarity, Seminar, 30-31 January 2004 (€10). Available in English and Italian only.


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On 1 September 2016 the

Pontifical Council for the Laity
ceased its activities.
Its responsibilities and duties
have been taken over by the
Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.