Monday, September 29, 2014

Catholics and concepts of patriarchy

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.


John InEastTX said...

Patriarchy sounds like way too much work.

Fortunately, I'm in a lovely and loving egalitarian-complementarian marriage (oh, all right - civil marriage if you are going to be all technical about it) which suits us both just fine.

Pat said...

I'm very curious why you think a husband should get to be the spiritual head of the family, but not otherwise the head of the family. Who's the head of the family in other matters? Or are those matters to be decided by each married couple? And if so, why not include spiritual headship with the rest of it? Very curious.

L. said...

"...ideally the father should be leading that journey."

This works very well, for some families, but why insist that it's ideal for all?

Some families do best led by the mother, or co-led by both parents. Why set these families up as examples of second-best, less than "ideal?"

Why do what the patriarchy extremists are doing -- i.e., claim to know what's "ideal" for all families? I agree that their world view is skewed and toxic for women, but I would also reject a very mild version of patriarchy that insists the men ought to step up and be in charge or else they're "failing."

Elizabeth said...

Sounds like some RC's again believing they are more Catholic than the Pope.

The testimony of women who leave Quiverfull makes it sound truly awful and demeaning. They characterize leaving as "escape."

Like John in EastTX, I am happy to live in a civil marriage of equals. We are true life partners. No bosses here, just loving friends.


Red Cardigan said...

Pat, the idea behind spiritual headship is not that men are somehow naturally better at spiritually leading the family than women but that when fathers play this role some really good things happen. For instance, there are all sorts of studies that show that when mom goes to church alone with the kids, the kids are more likely to fall away as adults than when both mom & dad are there. There are also studies that show the benefits to the man himself and to the marriage when he takes this leadership to heart.

Is it important for the man to be the one to pay the bills, make the big decisions alone, etc.? Not really. When men did that sort of thing in the past they were operating under a whole lot of different cultural realities, including lesser education for women and certain things requiring the kind of physical strength only some women (not all that many, even) possess.

Unfortunately in the present the idea that the man should be the sole leader of the family not only ignores the individual families where this is not always a good idea (e.g., families where the wife studied accounting and the husband can’t add aren’t really served well if dad must handle all the money) but also creates some really abusive situations, as in some of the horror stories coming from various branches of Protestant fundamentalism.

Red Cardigan said...

L., I’m speaking about the family’s spiritual journey toward holiness and ultimately Heaven. As I said to Pat, above, there are valid reasons why children respond to having their fathers lead them in prayer and church and so forth, and there are reasons why this sort of thing can be good for a marriage too.

Sure, there are some families where the father won’t be at all able to lead the family’s spiritual journey, but this is often because he’s a non-believer or a non-practicing member of a religion, which is not an ideal situation from a Christian point of view.

LarryD said...

Did Thad approve this post? LOL

Red Cardigan said...

Larry, LOL! :)

That’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy about the pro-patriarchy crowd. In their minds, despite the complexity of modern life, the husband *should* micromanage all the wife’s decisions outside of her “proper sphere.” So, she doesn’t have to call and bug him at work about laundry or cooking, which is her proper work, but if she wants to buy something or write blog posts or attend a parish women’s conference or spend the afternoon at a library or coffee shop with a friend, she can only do so with his express permission.

Leaving aside the fact that most husbands would go crazy to get phone calls all day long like this (e.g., “Oh, hi, honey, sorry to bother you at work, but is it okay if my friend Mary and I meet at the coffee shop this afternoon so she can give me that baby blanket I bought from her? And can I write a check for the blanket? And may I spend some of my allowance on a cup of coffee?” etc.) there is the reality that this really is treating a woman like a child who must “check in” with parents before doing pretty much anything. Most couples I know prefer to consult each other on the big stuff and reach mutual and amicable decisions while respecting each other’s judgment on the small stuff, which is not patriarchy at all, but is consistent with human dignity.

Pat said...

Red, thanks for the reply and I'm not trying to argue, but your reply still doesn't explain why the husband, as opposed to the wife, should be the spiritual head of the family.

You and I agree that his gender doesn't militate in favor of paying the bills or doing the marketing or disciplining the children, but why does his gender militate in favor of him being the spiritual leader?

L. said...

I think it makes perfect sense that children would feel more attached to a religion if both parents fully participated in it -- and I would bet that these children would have a lower rate of falling away than those who attended with only a dad, not just only a mom. In other words, I think it's the fact that family is together on the same spiritual page, not necessarily led by one parent or the other, that makes the difference.

Every marriage is different because every human being is unique. I've seen cases where shy, mild men were happy to do whatever their extroverted wives suggested they do, including family prayer and Church activities, and this seemed to work well for their families. I've also seen some Catholic marriages that are truly equal partnerships. My point is not that men shouldn't be spiritual leaders -- this traditional model is indeed best for many families -- but that there are other ways to do it that work just as well, for different families.

(And I'm not holding up my own family as an example, because I'm a thoroughly secular Catholic and my partner isn't even Christian. We do like ourselves the way we are, but we probably won't win any "spiritual ideal" awards from anyone.)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I'm agnostic about whether men have a special role in spiritual leadership of the family, but it strikes me that this is another case of, what is a good way to structure civil society is not necessarily the best way to structure either a church or a family. There is no coherent theory about why or how they should all be exactly alike.

Not only does it not follow that because we have equal rights, politically, therefore, we should have perfect and absolute equality in all social formations... It also does not follow that because men have a specific spiritual role, therefore they should be in charge of all things in the mundane life of their wives and children.

Similarly, just because women vote does not ipso facto means that they must be priests. I'm agnostic about that one too, but its not beyond the pale that there may be a sound spiritual or liturgical reason for a distinction based on sex.

There is also a tendency for young boys to accept the supervision of a father, or a male role model, more than a mother, or a female authority. This isn't all or nothing, and it doesn't apply exactly to each and every male juvenile, but it is a significant factor. There may be some ways in which female children respond better to paternal authority, again, not always, and not in the same way as boys.