My online friend Nate recently stopped by to challenge something I said that appeared anti-Catholic, which I immediately clarified in the post (in parentheses) because I have no desire to appear anti-Catholic. On the other hand, it’s hard – given my general positions and observations – not to appear anti-church. I’m not actually anti-church either, but I reserve my sharpest critiques for the powerful, and for those I most closely identify: I am a man; I am a Christian; I consider myself a member of the church. My nitpicking follows…
Essentially, my argument in that post had been that more-often-than-not, the interests of men consistently occupy the church’s primary focus (not just the Catholic church, but Christianity in general). Women and minorities follow secondarily. I used the Pope’s recent statements about contraception “for male prostitutes” as an example: par for the course.
Nate referenced several articles. Among them, Mary Eberstadt in "The Vindication of Humanae Vitae."
I’ve come to respect Nate’s opinions immensely over the last few years. We used to dialogue a lot here, and at his blog. He’s not online much these days, so I’m looking forward to his thoughts on my response, and while we probably won’t end up agreeing, I’m expecting him to be able to pick apart some of my arguments here. Which is good for me. Hones my thought process. I tend to digest at a gut level, which means my arguments aren’t often effectively structured. I was never good at formal debate.
This is (most of) my response to Nate's critique, where he said (quite respectfully): "this does come off as anti-catholic. Namely the phrase "Interesting, once again, the only concern from the Church is for men:" is a clear indicator--as it is far from accurate--and if it is pure hyperbole, it is certainly incendiary."
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I believe that the Christian institution is first & foremost oriented toward the priorities of men, & this attitude is normalized in much of Christian religious culture. I appreciate Eberstadt's articulation of the issues at hand in "Vindication" because her priorities are clear & she's not inflammatory or defensive, but there is much I disagree with her on.
She mentions the result of widespread contraception leading to "a lessening of respect for women by men." I hardly think that 1950s social behavior toward women was better than current attitudes, although I'll grant attitudes are bad now, & potentially getting worse in post-feminist backlash. That's not birth-control's fault, that's (a) the growing pains of dramatic social change, & (b) retaliation from principalities & powers that are direct beneficiaries of male hegemony. That can be as localized as a threatened husband, or as nebulous as global patriarchy. I'd challenge anyone to find an idealized situation where women were widely "respected" more than they are now (again, that's not a case for today being particularly good). The 1800s? Victorian America? In the past, women had doors held open for them, men stood up when they entered the room, yet they were "revered chattel," silent & powerless in polite society.
Even if contraception did contribute to greater disrespect of women (which I reject), that doesn't mean we take it away, as one of the few protections women have - particularly those sexually obligated in misogynistic, dominated relationships. We deal directly with the root of the problem, which is disrespect.
I know she isn't saying this, but it makes me think of legitimizing "separate but equal" to avoid racist violence. It doesn't deal with the underlying social evil, it just avoids problematic situations. I know, maybe that's a stretch... I agree with Eberstadt that the sexual revolution may have contributed to the weakening of family cohesion, but economics has a large hand in that as well: as the middle class dissolves, it becomes increasingly impossible for most families to survive on a single income. This keeps parents separate from their own children's upbringing - absent parents, even in married households. Eberstadt also uses the contraception discussion to argue against the legitimization of homosexuality, which I have a problem with.
As far as I can see, church heirarchies - Catholic, Orthodox & Protestant alike - are still heavily dominated by masculine power. Culturally, they still isolate & (I believe) systematically delegitimize women, both corporately & in local parishes. This is not surprising, since our canon reflects the exact same vantage: a world of men, writing about the perspective & interests & actions of men. The "presence" of women does nothing to counter this.
Phyllis Trible's 'Texts of Terror' demonstrates this emphatically. Until we learn to contextualize biblical gender roles, we're doomed to keep running in circles around this issue.
Nate, I like you a lot, dude, & we may have to agree to disagree, but I don't think I know more about this issue than you. Certainly not more about Roman Catholicism. I can only take responsibility for my own observation of the world, which I acknowledge is as problematic & stilted as anyone else's. But I honestly did not mean to come across as shocking or incendiary. The more I really look around myself - paying attention to interactions & behaviors - the more aware I am of how problematic our gender dynamics are. I cannot separate those observations from the influence of the church. And all that said, I believe the church has the capacity (& proven ability) to transcend this dysfunction, & to be a redemptive, equalizing entity in the world. I've seen that firsthand, too. I'm just not convinced that's the norm.
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