Thursday, June 3, 2010

Walt Whitman on the Failure of the Institution of the Father, and the Catholic Abuse Crisis: Are Manly Men Really the Solution?

This links to what I posted yesterday about Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and the search for manly men to lead the Catholic church today—a search premised on bias and myth that has dominated the outlook of many Catholics in recent years, as attempts are made to pin the abuse crisis on gay priests.  A persistent subtext in the hagiography of John Paul the Great has been that, as a manly man, he did not countenance clerical sexual abuse of minors.  (And how wrong that subtext has been proven by the Maciel story!)  And that if we could only begin attracting more manly men like him to the priesthood, the abuse situation would be a thing of the past.

I’m troubled by the fit between that subtext, based on bias and myth, and the rhetoric of the violent right-wing extremists who are well-represented in contemporary American culture.  Justine Sharrock tracks this rhetoric at Alternet today, noting that right-wing extremist groups are increasingly using Facebook and other networking sites to organize and gain adherents. 

Networking sites where their belief system is laid bare for anyone to read.

Not surprisingly, fundamental to the belief system of many contemporary right-wing extremist groups in the United States is the belief that manhood itself is under assault right now, and that real men should consider violence as a way of retrieving control of the world they imagine they’re losing.  Sharrock cites tweets of Daniel Knight Hayden, who has been using Twitter to issue calls to his followers to “start the killing now.”

Hayden tweets:

START THE KILLING NOW! I am wiling to be the FIRST DEATH! I Await the police. They will kill me in my home.


After I am killed on the Capitol Steps like REAL man, the rest of you will REMEMBER ME!!!

None of the violence-loving extremists Sharrok quotes are female.  That strikes me as significant.

I know full well that women as well as men belong to these movements.  Scott Roeder, the assassin of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, was abetted by women in the anti-abortion movement who endorse the use of violence against medical personnel providing abortions.

Women are every bit as capable as men are of heinous violence.

Even so, one doesn’t hear right-wing extremist groups in the U.S. right now encouraging their followers to be a real woman, grab a gun, and prepare to shoot.  And it is undeniable that these movements are overwhelmingly dominated by, organized by, and driven by men.  The narrative fueling these movements is decidedly a story of threatened machismo.  It’s about retrieving a presumably waning manhood that is thought to be under assault at this point in American history.

I don’t by any means intend to suggest that this kind of extremist rhetoric links in an overt way to the subtext about finding manly men to solve the abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  Even so, I think that these two streams of rhetoric do intersect, insofar as certain definitions of what it means to be a “real” man control the popular understanding of difficult social problems.  And insofar as the solution to those problems is, predictably, shoring up patriarchy and male domination of women.

I’m thinking of these issues today, as well, since I’m reading Daniel Mark Epstein’s analysis of the ties between Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, Lincoln and Whitman (NY: Random House, 2005).  Epstein’s comparative study is fascinating, and I’ll probably have more to say about it on this blog down the road.

For now, I’m struck by something Whitman told Nellie O’Connor, one of his hosts as he he worked in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War to minister to the needs of wounded soldiers.  (I’m struck all over again, as I read Epstein, by this period of Whitman’s life, in which he spent hours each day bringing food and other gifts to hospitalized soldiers of both sides, writing letters for them, holding their hands, and, yes, in many cases flirting with them.  He was adored by the soldiers to whom he ministered, as well as by the doctors and other staff working in the hospital.

This is one of those still untold stories of the transformative power of gay love in our society, like the love demonstrated by Fr. Mychal Judge—untold, because this love is not acknowledged as love, as the overflowing of self-giving love that originates in a gay heart and in gay affection, but which pours itself out into the world at large in a healing and transformative way that affects many lives other than gay ones.)

Whitman told O’Connor that many of the young men to whom he was ministering—some as young as 17—had run away from home and joined the army to escape the severity of their fathers.  On the basis of what he was hearing from these soldiers, he told O’Connor that he was inclined to think that, while mothers often succeed in being loving and sympathetic, “the institution of the father [is] a failure” (as cited, p. 130).

The institution of the father is a failure: how is it possible to read that observation now—yes, from a gay man pouring himself out in service to wounded men because he loved the company of men—in light of the Catholic clerical abuse crisis and not ask if this is a core insight we need in order to address the roots of the crisis?

We do not need more manly men sporting impressive phallic symbols and strutting their macho stuff through defiant proclamations in the public square.

Instead, we need the recognition that for the Catholic church, the institution of the father is a failure.

There’s the problem we have to address if we expect to survive this crisis.

The graphic is a Matthew Brady photo of Whitman as Whitman headed to D.C. in 1862 to undertake his service to wounded soldiers.