Monday, August 23, 2010

The Catholic Church's New Brand: Keeping Men Men and Women Women

As a new work week begins, I want to lift these observations from my Saturday piece on John Allen's interview with Daniele Sauvage of the Africa Family Life federation.  I'd like to make a few more remarks about Sauvage's statements to John Allen.

As my posting on Saturday noted, John Allen recently interviewed Daniele Sauvage for National Catholic Reporter, after Sauvage had spoken to the he Catholic bishops of Africa at their latest Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).  Allen notes that Sauvage views "Western concepts" such as "reproductive health" and "gender ideology" as "virulent ideological poisons" being injected into the bloodstream of traditional African culture by Western special interests groups.

And here’s what I want to reemphasize.  Sauvage told Allen in the interview that
Africans are deeply rooted in their families and in the importance of the family. Women are happy to be women and men are happy to be men, so the idea of 'complementarity' comes naturally for them.
Women are happy to be women and men are happy to be men, so the idea of 'complementarity' comes naturally for them: if anyone doubts that, in my many postings on the theology of the body and gender complementarity, I have overstated my case about the fundamental implications of this theology, here you have it.  In black and white.

From the mouth of an influential spokesperson for the theology of the body who has access to the top levels of pastoral leadership in the Catholic churches of Africa.  What we stand for as Catholics, Sauvage's statement strongly suggests, is this: Women must be happy to be women and men must be happy to be men.

In the final analysis, that's what it's all about.  In the view of such spokespersons for "traditional" or "orthodox" Catholicism, this is what the entire, rich, complex Catholic tradition boils down to: keep men men, and women women.  This is the meaning of the gospels, the primary, most significant thrust of scripture and tradition, the most important thing the church can say to the world today: Men, be men!  Women, be women!

As if the global movements for women's liberation and the liberation of LGBT persons from oppression portend the abolition of gender itself.  As if, in Western societies that have moved significantly down the road of human rights for women and LGBT persons, governments and citizens are intent on abolishing gender.

As if men are no longer men in Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Austria, France, Canada, and other developed nations of the world.  As if women are no longer recognizable as women in these developed countries.

At its core, the theological concept of gender complementarity, as employed by both Catholic and evangelical groups determined to make continents like Africa a battleground for Western culture wars, is deeply antithetical to the liberation of women and of LGBT persons.  Those using the male-female complementarity idea as the central, most salient idea of the entire Christian tradition to "protect" traditional African cultural norms are doing so to attack women who seek liberation from oppression in both the developing sectors of the globe, and in developed nations.  Just as they are attacking gay persons and their mobilization against oppression around the world . . . . 

Attached to the notion of gender complementarity as the center of the gospel, and to the insistence that scripture and tradition are all about defining men and women and keeping the categories neat and unmixed, are also maleficent presuppositions about contraception designed to restrict the access of women to birth control and to condemn the use of condoms even to prevent the spread of AIDS.  A critique of the use of artificial contraceptives and condoms (and attempts to make these as unavailable as possible) is part and parcel of the agenda of keeping men men and women women in the developing nations of the world.

This agenda has little or nothing to do with defending and promoting traditional African values, despite the claims of the Eurocentric groups promoting the ideology of keeping men men and women women in Africa.  It is an agenda that originates in and is fueled by Western preoccupations--by the determination of right-leaning ideological groups in Europe and North America to erode the progress that both women and LGBT persons have made in their movements to secure human rights in the 20th and 21st century.

These are ugly currents within Christianity today, those preoccupied with keeping men men and women women--as if that imperative is the very heart of God's message to us in scripture and tradition.  It should be scandalous in the extreme to Catholics to find their religious tradition formulated in this reductionistic way that makes gender everything, and which undercuts the legitimate aspirations of marginalized groups of human beings to liberation from oppression.

It should be scandalous in the extreme to Catholics to see that their church is coming to be known around the world for this and this alone: the church in which men remain men and women remain women.  The church in which men continue to claim the divine right to dominate women, and in which women continue to be asked to subordinate themselves to male power and control as the central thrust of their discipleship of Jesus.

The fact that the mindless reduction of scripture and tradition to the gender-complementarity imperative appears not to trouble large number of Catholics today certainly does scandalize me.