Over the weekend I engaged briefly in a Facebook discussion with another Catholic female blogger about the concept of patriarchy.
She’s for it. She said that patriarchy is God’s will for everyone. She didn’t give me a definition and says a definition is unnecessary, but she also insisted that since patriarchy is present throughout Scripture and Church teaching it is clearly something Catholics should embrace. She also referred to a book called Why Men Rule (which I am unfamiliar with) as sort of “proving” that only patriarchal societies work, and all others are doomed to failure. Oh, and she says that Christian feminism is nonexistent because feminism is based on Marxist theories which are incompatible with Christianity (she couldn’t explain the early feminists who wanted women to be able to vote and own property and who were active before Marxism really got going in the West, but apparently that’s not important somehow).
Naturally, I find these ideas less than compelling.
As a Catholic, I think that married men--husbands and fathers--do indeed exercise a spiritual headship over the family. This headship is based on the idea that the family is journeying together toward holiness, that each member is called to help in that journey and that ideally the father should be leading that journey. That leadership should include setting an example for the whole family of Mass attendance, prayer, and following the teachings of the Church in his life; working alongside his wife to fulfill the important role of being the children’s first teachers in the faith; teaching his children (and in a special and important way, his sons) to respect and honor their mother and to give her the same lawful and diligent obedience they give him; and taking responsibility for the family’s well-being according to the best of his abilities and talents.
In Casti Connubii Pope Pius XI points out a couple of important things in this regard: one, that none of this means the husband gets to act like an autocratic dictator who treats his wife as if she is a child, and two, that in the cases, sadly not as rare as they should be, where the husband is failing to lead, the wife not only may but must do so in his place, and until (hopefully) he returns to a sense of duty and responsibility for his family.
Unfortunately, I get the feeling that some of my fellow Catholics (not this person necessarily, as I was unable to determine from our conversation) are not thinking at all of the spiritual leadership of the family when they speak positively about patriarchy, or wish for a return to it. Rather, they are thinking of various ways in which societies were ordered in the past, and believing that our present societal ills could be fixed more or less instantly if we returned to some past era where men were in charge and women were more or less invisible. And some of the Catholics who want this (which never ceases to surprise me) are women themselves.
Why would it not necessarily be a good thing for patriarchy to return? First, it’s absolutely essential to define what one means by patriarchy. I know, for instance, that what the Quiverfull Patriarchy Protestants mean by patriarchy is the absolute authority of the husband over the family, an authority which he retains over his sons at least until they move out of the family home (with his permission) and over his daughters, forever, until or unless they exchange his authority for that of a husband (again, with his permission, or even by his express command). In this sort of patriarchy the wife is not treated like an adult human being but like a child who is always in danger of becoming rebellious, and the children are also not treated with the full dignity they deserve--they, too, are treated like infants or toddlers well into their adult years in terms of having any ability to make their own decisions.
When people point admiringly to the patriarchy exhibited by ancient Rome, they are forgetting that at times in ancient Rome the paterfamilias literally had the power of life and death over his children. Or, if the patriarchy of Jane Austen’s England seems attractive, recall that it was not uncommon in those days for a husband to require his wife to ask for even such trifling amounts of money as she needed to purchase personal items, or to demand, quite angrily, an explanation from her in the event that the household expenses exceeded the sum of money he had allowed her for those expenses (even if he, himself, was in debt due to gambling and the money and jewelry he was lavishing on his latest mistress).
So I don’t think I can approve of a Catholic push to “restore patriarchy” without knowing what, exactly, my fellow Catholics want to restore, and why. I have a suspicion that some Catholics believe that restoring patriarchy along the lines of some past society or other will solve every societal problem we currently have as if by magic, but that kind of magical thinking is unwarranted. It is not as though when men ruled men didn’t sin, after all; no amount of insisting that men call all the shots all the time both in their own homes and in the world will erase the effects of Original Sin.
There are excellent reasons for those of us who have received the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to encourage and foster our husbands’ spiritual headship of our families and to assist, from our rightful places at their sides, in the progress of our families on our journeys to holiness. There are not such excellent reasons to make an idol out of some secular concept of patriarchy and pour one’s efforts into agitating for the reestablishment of such a thing. There may even be good reasons not to do so at all.