The upcoming Vatican colloquium on the complementarity of man and woman: this is an attempt (in line with the latest conservative strategy to combat same-sex marriage) to elevate to iconic status, across religious groups,
1. The notion that the biological differences of males and females are at the center of religious life and thought, a core message of religious groups to the world today; and
2. The idea that the biological differences of males and females constitute predictions, prescriptions for the lives of men and women, from which men and women diverge to their peril and the peril of the world.
Underneath all of this is, of course, the need of the Roman Catholic church, in particular, to keep women in a designated place, one from which women have been escaping with alacrity in the modern period — with alacrity, since, when we leave any prison door open a crack, the imprisoned will naturally seek to leave their prisons. The Vatican colloquium signals the intent, too, of Catholic officials at the highest level of the church to make common cause with anti-women's-rights (and, therefore, anti-gay-rights) groups in other religious bodies around the world.
This strategy has been crafted by the U.S. religious right, by the people pouring millions of dollars into places like Africa and Russia in order to elicit naked hostility towards those who are gay. This strategy has been crafted by people intent on exporting raw American-style homophobia to other parts of the world, in order to create a firewall against gay (and women's) rights in the developed sectors of the planet.
What we are asked to believe — what the leaders of the Catholic church are now asking us to believe — is that there is a natural and inbuilt difference between men and women, an ontological difference, that prescribes different roles for men and women. And to rebel against this natural and inbuilt difference in any way is to rebel against God's plan for the world . . . .
This idea wants to point to common sense to reinforce itself. It wants to pretend that common-sense views throughout history of how men are and should be, and how women are and should be, have always and uniformly recognized that men have had one role to play in the world, and women an alternative and complementary role to play. Roles dictated by biology in the crudest sense possible . . . .
What this appeal to a pretend common sense elides (and deliberately so) are the many other common-sensical notions that once appeared equally obvious to people at various points in history, which human communities have deliberately discarded with good reason:
1. White Europeans and North Americans once thought that the darker-skinned races were made dark-skinned by nature (and by the God who designed nature and set things up this way) in order to suit them for manual labor in the sun, labor to which light-skinned people were ill-suited due to their complexions.
2. It was once stoutly maintained that there are men's jobs and women's jobs, and women have been made emotional, supportive, and nurturing in order to teach, care for children, and nurse, but not to be scientists, doctors, soldiers, or political or business leaders, etc.
3. Nineteenth-century anti-Irish propaganda in England and North America routinely depicted the Irish with apelike visages and postures, to underscore the belief of those at the top of the social scale that the Irish were made to be subjugated and exploited, and that the Great Hunger was their own feckless fault, because they lacked the intellectual and cultural resources to provide for themselves in a time of want.
4. As George Orwell notes in his Road to Wigan Pier, the upper classes in England (among whom he was brought up) maintained for centuries that lower-class people had been designed by nature and nature's God to occupy lower places in the social scale, to work for the benefit of those on top, because they have duller minds and feelings less fine than those who run things.
These ideas once appeared just as powerful, just as common-sensical, as the idea that top leaders of the Catholic church now want to present to us as undeniably common-sensical and powerful and so who in his or her right mind would dare to disagree with it: that men are made one way, women the other, and everything imaginable depends on keeping each in his/her place. Everything imaginable depends on keeping women in their place, since, if we're honest, that's the engendering center of this "powerful" "idea" . . . .
And isn't it interesting that this illicit attempt to elevate the biological differences between males and females to the very top of the canon of religious beliefs in world religions — to the very core of what religions should proclaim to the world today — has come along only after women began to claim rights in many cultures of the world? And after gay folks began to claim the right to civil marriage?
Isn't it also interesting that Mormon leaders have been invited to cement their alliance with the top leaders of the Catholic church at the upcoming conference on male-female complementarity, a conference defending "traditional" ideas of marriage, when the top leaders of the LDS church have just publicly admitted that their founder Joseph Smith had between 30 and 40 wives, several of them married to other men, one of them a 14-year-old girl when he married her?
I mentioned this story here a number of days ago. It was flashed around the world by the mainstream media yesterday, with articles in the New York Times and The Guardian. This story makes the alliance between the top leaders of the Catholic church and the Mormon church to defend "traditional" marriage, marriage as it has always been, male-female complementarity, appear a little . . . . strange . . . doesn't it?
Is it really all about defending male-female complementarity and traditional marriage? Or is it really all about continuing to attack and denigrate those who are gay and to keep women in their place?
Finally, isn't it interesting that when libertarian thinkers like Andrew Sullivan argue that men are just men, after all, driven by testosterone and given to telling dirty jokes, displaying their macho prowess at gyms, drinking and demonstrating their male bona fides by shooting the shit about sports, those same libertarian thinkers never note the flip side of this biological-essentialist argument about who men are and who women are: namely, that it can equally be argued that women should be kept in their places due to their hormones? Which make them weepy, emotional, and irrational, prone to strange fits and bizarre turns . . . . Unfit to run things . . . .
Isn't it interesting that Andrew Sullivan appears not to know men who don't fit his stereotype of "the" male — men who wouldn't be caught dead doing the gym thing (or who don't have money and leisure to do the gym thing), and who are actively repulsed by the droning on about beer and football and sexual conquest that constitute, he wants us to believe, the facticity of being male? Because testosterone.
Maybe these biological-essentialist arguments that have done so much for so long to justify the domination of the world by straight men (and gay hangers-on whose power derives from their connection to powerful straight men) should find their way to the dustbin of history along with the Irish-as-apes depictions, or the 18th- and 19th-century evolutionary diagrams produced by white-skinned people that showed white-skinned people at the top of the evolutionary scale and dark-skinned people at the bottom.
Unfortunately, if the men running the Catholic church have their way, though, these arguments about who men are and are meant to be and who women are and are meant to be aren't about to be critiqued and discarded by faithful Catholics. Quite the opposite. In the upcoming Vatican colloquium, we see the continued deliberate intent, driven by conservative American interest groups, to keep on rebranding the Catholic church as a boys' club for privileged heterosexual males.
This is not a strategy for the flourishing of a redemptive and catholic church.