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Can you name one gender-specific parenting attribute? Me neither.

Peel away the fluffy platitudes behind the ‘complementarity’ of men and women in marriage and you’ll find a troublesome ideology.

Peter Ferguson

DURING THE MARRIAGE equality debate the No side has mainly focused on children and the role of parenthood in lieu of discussing marriage. The group Mothers and Fathers Matter (MAFM) was established in order to emphasis this. However, when we peel away the fluffy platitudes proffered we reveal an insidious ideology which has had dire consequences, especially here in Ireland.

‘No’ campaigners often talk about the complementarity of men and women in marriage, or the yin and yang as Breda O’Brien put it. It is the belief that children are best raised by a male and a female as both have unique aspects which are beneficial for children. It is why MAFM and the Iona Institute want there to be a preference for married heterosexual couples in adoption law, instead of the current approach, which gives adoption professionals the freedom to choose whatever is in the best interest of the child.

Separate and equal?

Complementarity is, though, a religious theology found in the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It is the view that men and women have separate but equal roles in certain social functions. But just as “separate but equal” didn’t work out well when it came to race, so too has it failed when it comes to the sexes. Separate but equal, in reality, materialised as separate and inferior. Complementarianism is why women are given a mere supporting role in the hierarchy of the Abrahamic religions.

But complementarianism isn’t restricted to the religious orders. Catholicism, for instance, which has wielded undue influence in Ireland for over a century, has held the belief that women should be confined to domestic duties and motherhood for some time. Several Popes published Encyclicals reaffirming that a woman’s role should not extend past the household.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII stated in the Rerum Novarum “a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family”. This was reiterated by Pope Pius XI in 1931 “mothers will above all devote their work to the home and the things connected with it.” The Church held this position until when it final acquiesced 1981 in the Laborem Exercens, but only to an extent “Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother.”

We have seen first-hand in Ireland how damaging this theology was. For decades Irish governance took their marching orders from the Church, and so Catholic social teaching became ingrained into the Irish psyche and Irish law. Women were relegated to the role of second class citizens. We even had a marriage bar which meant married women had to leave public service or bank jobs when they got married as they had to fulfil their complementary “separate but equal” role of wife, mother, and housewife. This continued until 1973. Women’s domestic “complementary” role is still enshrined in the Constitution to this day “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

Can you name one gender-specific parenting attribute?

Although the language of complementarianism has changed, it has simply shifted from negative stereotyping to a more positive sounding form. But it is still false stereotyping. Now this repackaged sexist ideology is being used in order to attack marriage equality. Whenever there is a debate on marriage equality complementarity is often cited. MAFM spokesperson Kate Bopp recently said women feel conflicted when they return to work as they instinctively know the child is better off in their care – mirroring Catholic theological thought that a woman’s role is motherhood.

The Catechism of the Church states, in the same section that calls homosexuals intrinsically disordered, “they [homosexuals] are contrary to natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved”.

As we can see in the Catechism the idea of complementarity and opposition to homosexuality are inherently linked in Catholic thought. Breda O’Brien referenced complementarity as the reason why she thinks gay couples should not even have sex.

‘No’ campaigners will claim the idea that men and women having unique parenting characteristics does not hinge on theology, but it simply makes common sense. However, this argument falls apart when you ask a very basic question: name one gender-specific parenting attribute? Is one gender more compassionate, loving, caring, or better suited to raising children than the other?

So far this question has gone unanswered and I have asked numerous No campaigners including some from MAFM and the Iona Institute. Ben Conroy of the Iona Institute admitted his belief in the complementarity of sexes has only a metaphysical basis, acknowledging he has no evidential foundation for his belief.

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Providing stability and love are the most important aspects to parenting

Not only have the No side been unable to evidence their claim that men and women have unique parenting characteristics but there is plenty of evidence to show that this isn’t the case. There is more than enough evidence that shows same-sex parents are just as capable of raising children as heterosexual parents. Because, as some will be shocked to learn, stability and love are more important to children than the genitalia of their parents.

The idea of necessary, essential gender roles cannot be separated from this damaging theology that has robbed so many Irish people of their full potential. Who knows what the nation could have accomplished had we not devoted such energies to telling half the population that they are necessarily less?

When we tell women – against all evidence and reason – that their lot in life is to nurture, care and parent we necessarily place barriers ahead of those who wish to lead, invent or otherwise escape the confines imposed on them by male clergy.

Now the same theological argument is being applied to same-sex couples. Telling them they can’t marry nor should they be allowed to parent children because they lack opposing genitalia.

The No side are simply trying to smear lipstick on a gender conforming pig. To represent a theology that has been very damaging as rational opposition. While trotting it out they are also trying to conceal the other painted theological swine that made homosexuality illegal in this country and continues to cause irreparable harm to the nation’s LBGT people.

The opposition to marriage equality is entirely religious. No matter how the theological justifications are rebranded, they should be recognised for what they are and for what they have done to Irish citizens.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at SkepticInk.com. Twitter @humanisticus.

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