Friday, April 16, 2010

Overcoming Boys'-Club Mentality as Precondition for Healing of Catholic Church: Two Recent Newsweek Essays

In my posting earlier today enumerating ten life lessons I’m having to relearn in the middle of the current crisis in the Catholic church, I noted that members of boys’ clubs almost inevitably lock arms when crisis threatens their club and defend the club against all perceived threats—using any and all weapons at hand.  I also noted that the clerical system of the Catholic church is a boys’ club and fosters a boys’-club mentality.   And that even boys’ clubs that posture as holy are capable of using unholy weapons to defend their club when they feel the club threatened.

I’d like to talk more about this briefly now as I highlight two recent Newsweek articles that address the abuse crisis from the standpoint of gender.  The first is Lisa Miller’s “A Woman’s Place Is in the Church.”

Miller argues that one root cause of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church (and, above all, of its cover-up) is the insularity of male-exclusive clubs.  As she notes,

Studies show what we intuitively know: without checks and balances, insular groups of men do bad things. History professor Nicholas Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, says studies suggest that 70 to 90 percent of gang rapes on college campuses are committed by men in fraternities. Obviously, he adds, important differences exist between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and college frats—"fraternity men are encouraged to have sex with lots of women. Clearly priests are not." But in both cases, "men are encouraged to believe that they are in positions of power for a reason…I do think if the hierarchy of the Catholic Church doesn't discipline these people because they are concerned about reputation, they create a space where those [abusing children] are led to believe that whatever they do is OK."

The insularity of the clerical boys’ club in the Catholic church links to reactionary defensiveness, to the building of walls and the impulse to keep threatening outsiders at a distance:

The problem—bluntly put—is that the bishops and cardinals who manage the institutional church live behind guarded walls in a pre-Enlightenment world. Within their enclave, they remain largely untouched by the democratic revolutions in France and America. On questions of morality, they hold the group—in this case, the church—above the individual and regard modernity as a threat.

One of the most woeful effects of building the defensive walls that keep the all-male club intact is the exclusion of women, whose voices are essential to the healing of the church at this time of crisis:

By keeping modernity at bay, though, the men who run the Catholic Church have willfully ignored one of the great achievements of the modern age: the integration of women in the workforce and public life.  . . . But in the Roman Catholic corporation, the senior executives live and work, as they have for a thousand years, eschewing not just marriage, but intimacy with women and professional relationships with women—not to mention any chance to familiarize themselves with the earthy, primal messiness of families and children. Indeed, it seems the further a priest moves beyond the parish, the more likely he is to value conformity and order above the chaos of real life.

And this exclusion has led, Pat Wingert and Barbara Kantrowitz note in an article entitled “What about the Girls?” to a process by which female victims of abusive clerics have been made invisible.  This is a process about which I have already blogged at length, and I won’t repeat myself here—or the argument of Wingert and Kantrowitz, which in several key respects echoes my own analysis. 

I do urge readers to read this article and Miller’s, as well.  I’m convinced that we won’t have healing in the Catholic church until women’s voices count—seriously count, from the top down.  To borrow the crossroads/crisis metaphor from my two previous postings today, if we are to choose a new path that does not replicate old dysfunctions, one of the key signposts on that path must now be full inclusion of women in the governance of the Catholic church.

We may choose to ignore the question of gender here if we wish, but I believe that we do so at our peril, if it’s authentic resolution of this crisis and real healing that we’re seeking.  We may scoff at gender analysis as mere fluff and not sober (male), objective (male), unbiased (male), non-emotional (male), facts-driven (male) analysis.

If we do so, we do so at great risk, since it is intuitively obvious, as Miller notes, that without checks and balances, insular groups of men—boys’ clubs—all too frequently do bad things.  Much of the behavior we’ve seen in recent weeks attempting to deny the roots of the problem, to shield the old boys at the top of the structure, to distort data blatantly and to lie blatantly, to scapegoat minorities already susceptible to scorn and violence, to shout down critics and bully and bait: this is typical, expected, reactionary-defensive behavior of a boys’ club.

And it’s not surprising to me to find that a huge majority of those engaging in this behavior in defense of the all-male clerical club are men—men who have a great deal invested, whether they recognize it or not, in the maintenance of patriarchal ways of thinking and doing business, even when they are not clerics or perhaps not even Catholics.  For such males, the Catholic church represents something extremely significant at a symbolic level: a bastion, an all-male club that has successfully kept women out despite the movement of modernity to full inclusion of women that has forced almost all other boys-only clubs to open their doors to women. 

Boys banded together in groups that feel under siege, groups for which there are not outside checks and balances: such boys’ clubs are, indeed, capable of abominable behavior.  Though women are not in and of themselves intrinsically salvific, either individually or in groups (I know: I’ve worked for a female boss who is the most frighteningly abusive sociopath I’ve ever met), women and their inclusion in the Catholic boys’ club are extremely important to the path the church needs to choose now, as a necessary balance to the unchecked power of the male-exclusive clerical club. 

As many observers are now pointing out—and they are clearly correct—we would not be where we are in the Catholic church at present, if women’s voices had counted up to now.