Monday, April 19, 2010

Patriarchy and Pushback: Nicholas Kristof Hits a Nerve

Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, to which my posting about the Watergate fiasco linked, is getting immediate blowback from Benedict’s loyal laddies, the defensores fidei who have locked arms to resist critiques (e.g., Hans Küng’s) of what’s wrong in the church that drive to the heart of it all—to the center, from which the problems clearly emanate.

The sensitive point on which Kristof touched, and which has the defensores fidei up in arms as a new week begins?   Patriarchy.  The question of gender as a central problematic of the Catholic church at this point in its history.  The question of how male domination and female subordination, enshrined in our teaching and how we do business, are at the very center of the problems we face.

This is all just pubtalk, you see, petty gossip, and stale stereotyping.  Just trading in anachronistic abstractions that have nothing to do with the real history of the church.  Not sober (male) academic theology well-grounded in careful (male), objective (male) study of the texts.  And not responsible (male) journalism done by balanced (male) reporters who listen to all (male) sides of the issue.

Here’s my reading of the blowback:

1. It illustrates, by its ferocity and its immediate reaction, just how neuralgic the critique of gender inequity—and yes, of patriarchy—still remains for the old boys’ network ruling the church and for the old boys’ network defending those rulers.

2. We have a problem, clearly, and the response to Kristof’s analysis illustrates how deep that problem goes.

3. Kristof’s piece raises hackles because it puts our intraecclesial problems right out on Front Street, where the general public can see and talk about them.

4. What the blowback really conveys is the dismay of the defensores fidei at the choice of a significant mainstream media outlet to elevate critical analysis of patriarchy in the Catholic church to the level of popular discourse.

5. The old boys running interference for church leaders have successfully marginalized the significant, absolutely necessary critical discussion of patriarchy in the Catholic church for some time now, when it comes to the mainstream media.  For the first time in a long time, they’re getting a run for their money in the current crisis—and they don’t like this one bit.

6. To be specific: there’s a new opening to the significant, absolutely necessary critical discussion of patriarchy as a root cause of the church’s current crisis, and this brings new voices into the discussion—voices that should have been there all along, but which have been successfully marginalized up to now, to the great detriment of the church.

7.  Those voices—and, in particular, women’s voices—have been treated as incidental to the conversation of the center, to the important conversation by which lasting decisions are made in the church.  They’ve been treated , as mere (feminine) frill and fluff, as (feminine) chit-chat beneath the notice of the sober men who run things in the church (and who run interference for the church).  They’ve been treated, in short, precisely the way the defensores fidei are now treating any critical voices that want to expose the systemic problems emanating from the center of the church: as stale stereotyping, anachronistic (and ill-informed) abstraction, pubtalk, and petty gossip.

8. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, what continues to appall me as a Catholic is the presupposition buried inside this process of marginalization of women’s voices (and of many other significant voices), that we can make people invisible and still call ourselves catholic.  I’m dismayed by the presupposition that we can continue treating women and the powerful, unavoidable, extremely important critique of patriarchy that women theologians and women writers have developed for some years now as if these women and their critique simply do not exist.  As if they do not count.  As if we can go on doing business as though they’re not there, and boasting that our business is catholic.  And orthodox.  And rooted in tradition and in the gospels.

9. Theologian Mary Hunt tried to raise some of these points with America writer Michael Sean Winters last year (and see here).  I don’t think the discussion got very far, because (in my view) there’s a determination at the center to resist the insights of those making the kind of powerful points Mary Hunt makes in the essay to which I’ve just linked.  And there’s a determination to pretend that theologians and others making such points are simply not there—because we’ve decided that they have no place at the table, in the conversations we consider significant for defining Catholic identity at this point in our history.

10. And the entire church is suffering for that decision.  And articles like Kristof’s are a valuable opening to a broader, more catholic conversation.  But the resistance of the defensores fidei to the inclusive conversation that will really get to the heart of the problems from which the church is suffering, and will do the kind of systemic analysis needed to address those problems effectively, is not going to go away anytime soon.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it: our world would be a very different, and a potentially better, place, if the men running things in both church and society expanded their reading lists to include women writers.  Not because women are in and of themselves salvific.  Not because women cannot be every bit as vicious as men when they run things.  But because the patriarchal illusions of the men running things in patriarchal systems are dangerous.  The unchecked assumption that one’s sociologically determined optic is objective and informed when it’s quintessentially conditioned by one’s place in a social network is parochial.  And parochial perspectives lead to parochial decisions that put all of those in parochial institutions at risk, when the perspectives are held by those making decisions on behalf of the rest of us.

P.S. And, strangely enough, just as I hit "publish post" and then head to the front door to open it for my nephew, I find in my mailbox the copy of Carmel McEnroy's Guests in Their Own House: The Women of Vatican II, which I'd recently ordered.  Though I thought I was getting a new copy at the site, this one appears to have been previously appreciated, and has lines helpfully highlighted in yellow.  The one on which my eyes fall as I open the book says that a passage in the Vatican II document Apostolicam actuositatem is, according to Walter Abbott, "one of the few places in all of the council documents where special attention is given to the contribution of women to the mission of the church" (p. 131).

The next ecumenical council--a truly ecumenical one, in which women are at last permitted to be more than guests in their own house--can't happen soon enough.  If the church expects to weather the storm in which it finds itself now, and which won't abate anytime soon . . . .