Friday, July 15, 2011

Conservative Catholic and Evangelical Preoccupation with Gender, and Ironic Subversion of Gender-Based Orthodoxies

Jim McCrea has forwarded a group of his e-friends an interesting essay by a blogger who calls herself Pentimento, and who writes at the Vox Nova site about the sola skirtura controversy now swirling around in certain Catholic circles.  (And who knew?  Who knew that a half century after Vatican II called us to creative dialectic engagement with secular culture, the portentous issue on some American Catholic plates AD 2011 would be to assure that Catholic women wear the kind of skirts Our Blessed Mother used to wear?

Well, Steve and I have come to know about all of this, obliquely, since, as I've noted in previous postings, some of his über-orthodox siblings are intent on assuring that the women and girls in their families are perpetually skirted, that they remain sola skirtura, because God made men to be men and women to be women.  And Our Blessed Mother has shown us that being a real woman requires having one's head covered in church and one's nether regions well-swathed at all times by a skirt that modestly disguises the female form.

If you're interested in the sola skirtura controversy, Pentimento's posting provides links to several blogs on which this discussion is now being carried out.  And they're fascinating, indeed.)

I say that Pentimento writes about the sola skirtura controversy, but her essay is about much more than that.  It's about the perils of dating (heterosexual, bien entendu) in the orthodox-traditionalist Catholic subcultures of New York City.  It's about the way in which cultural definitions of masculinity have wounded the "essential masculinity" of orthodox and traditionalist Catholic men, thus deforming their search for mates and frustrating orthodox/traditional Catholic women seeking a sound mate.

And it's about the utopianism of the theology of the body, which meets the woundedness of orthodox or traditionalist Catholic men with fantasies of a return to Eden that ironically compound rather than fix male wounds.  Pentimento writes,

But I wonder sometimes if TOB, like male obsession with female modesty, presents a sort of utopianism to orthodox Catholic men — an antidote to the dystopias of pornography, to be sure, but no more realistic.  We are all essentially wounded, and sex, whether contracted within a sacramental marriage or not, is not the cure.  The only hope we have for healing is in our capacity to love the unlovable, and to be able to love each other as who and where we are.   And who and where we are is, at bottom, broken and disabled by sin.  The ontological substance of masculinity is not the ability to oppose and negate, but the willingness to serve and protect, while the ontological substance of femininity is not the willingness to shun pants, but the ability to nurture goodness and to reveal beauty.

In her search for a Catholic man grounded in essential masculinity (in the essential masculinity of serving and protecting his woman and children), Pentimento has met a bevy of men, she tells us prior to this passage, who have cobbled together countercultural Catholic definitions of what it means to be a man in a culture that wounds manhood--countercultural Catholic definitions that are deliberately backwards-looking.  And so she has encountered orthodox and traditionalist Catholic men in New York City who sport images of the male from "Mitteleuropa before World War I, or fin-de-siècle Paris, or New York in the Gilded Age."

But not from today.  Not from our own time and place, the time and place where, according to Vatican II, we're called to relate to the surrounding culture in the church's perennial task of transforming culture through positive engagement with the cultural forces shaping life in the present.

There is, Pentimento argues, an Edenic cast to the thinking of orthodox-traditionalist Catholics in the U.S. at present, one which seeks for some idyllic moment in the past on which to fix our models of maleness and femaleness--a moment to freeze in time, one to which to return as we seek to be faithful Catholic men and women in the 21st century.  The moment in time when men were real men, essential men, and women were real women, essential women.

The moment, in other words, when women wore skirts just like the modest, all-draping ones Our Blessed Lady wore, and when men were manly protectors of their families just like, well, I'm not entirely sure Jesus fits in here.  Like the knights and warriors of the Middle Ages, perhaps?

This discussion of essential masculinity and femininity, and the imperative need for Catholics to return to these in a culture that has, we're told, wounded both men and women, comes at a fascinating moment when a very similar discussion is taking place in the right-trending branches of American evangelicalism with which right-trending American Catholicism is now irretrievably interwoven.  In the past week, the self-consciously manly-man pastor of the influential Mars Hill megachurch in Seattle, Mark Driscoll, raised some evangelical hackles by asking for feedback on his Facebook page from readers who have encountered "effeminate anatomically male worship leader[s]."

Driscoll has a history of raising hackles through similar hyper-macho attacks on gay men and on the feminine, insofar as the feminine is outside male control.  He is also part of a cadre of evangelical pastors for whom retrieving the ostensibly marginalized manly within American Christianity is a solution to the church's growing obsolescence in American culture.  He's part of a group of evangelical pastors who would go so far as to argue that American churches need to offer men the opportunity for manly sports (for manly sporting events that would exclude women participants and viewers) in order to prove that men belong in church.  And that, by God, men rule!

Since God made men to be men and women to be women--God made us to be essentially male and essentially female--and what has gone wrong with the church in the last half century has everything to do with the abandonment of essential masculinity and essential femininity.  It has to do with the abandonment of skirts by women, and their pretension to take their pants-wearing uppity selves right up to the altar and claim the right to preside there.  And it has to do with the abandonment of male control by those women, since men are made to control and protect (and to claim that they're "serving" precisely by controlling and protecting!).

As the Religion Dispatches article by Elizabeth Drescher to which I've just linked notes, one of the most interesting responses to Driscoll's latest attempt to stir the always simmering pot of homophobia in some American evangelical circles has come from Tony Jones at his Theoblogy site.  Jones used to be a friend of Driscoll's, and while he continues to share some of the essential man-essential woman analysis that fuels Driscoll's homophobia, it doesn't escape Jones' attention that there's a distinct, well, homoerotic subtext to the manly-man sports now being promoted by homophobic evangelical church leaders, in an attempt to remasculinize American Christianity.

And I find it fascinating that Jones and Pentimento end up in a similar place with their analysis--in a place that sees the strong, pronounced irony of the way in which the quest for essential manliness and femininity often subverts the very values it proclaims to enshrine.  Manly-men sports can be vehicles for the very homoeroticism they're designed to diss and drive out of our culture.

And the theology of the body can end up being a kind of soft-core porn version of the very pornography that, in the thinking of adherents of TOB, is right at the heart of the rot in essential masculinity today.  Scroll through blogsites maintained by younger orthodox-traditionalist Catholic men touting the virtues of TOB today, if you doubt me, and tell me, if you have the courage to do so after looking at the images on those sites, that they don't flirt with soft-core porn. All in the name of Jesus, of course, and of the essential manliness and essential femaleness that God His Father created and imposed on the world, ad saecula saeculorum.

The mind-boggling quest for fixes for essential masculinity and essential femininity that strongly drives some sectors of American Christianity today has pushed those sectors of the churches into strange places, indeed.  It has pushed some evangelical churches dominated by homophobic hyper-macho pastors who attack gay men to sponsor sporting events that are embarrassingly homoerotic for anyone with eyes to see. It has pushed religious groups underwriting "ex-gay" therapy clinics to make bold claims of having cleansed the gay out of gay men, even when those making the bold claims ping the gaydar of everyone listening to their claims about curing the gays.

And it has pushed some Catholic men who imagine their manhood is wounded by our culture's preoccupation with pornography, and who want to retrieve their essential manhood through orthodox theology and practice, to adopt a quasi-pornographic theology that views women as, essentially, child-bearing machines designed to pleasure men.  And designed to keep their mouths shut except when spoken to by the men who own serve and protect them.

For my money, it might be better to dispense altogether with the silly quest for essentialist, time-and-culture-transcending definitions of masculinity and femininity, and to admit that gender is in key respects a social construct, one that changes according to time and place and social definition.  It might be better, all things considered, to admit that biological maleness and biological femaleness aren't meant to be determinants of what men persons and women persons can become, essentially, in their personal lives that build on and transcend the biological determinants from which their personal lives stem.

But, then, who am I to to challenge such powerful currents in the thinking of many American Christians today?  I'm pretty much a nobody in the larger scheme of things that determines what counts and what doesn't count.  And I belong to a church whose leaders attack the very idea of gender as a social construct.  I belong to a church ruled by men who order women to put skirts back on while the men issuing these diktats are clad in gorgeous scarlet silk gowns trimmed with fabulous lace.

And so what do I know, really, when all is said and done, from Adam and Eve?  Or about the ironic subversion of symbols of orthodoxy by those symbols themselves?

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