Tuesday, September 23, 2014

One reason why we need a theology of women

I read this last week, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head:
Whenever I talk about my escape from the Quiverfull movement, Christians immediately dismiss my experience by saying, “Your problem was not with Jesus or Christianity. Your problem was that you were following an extreme, legalistic cult. Let me tell you about my personal relationship with Jesus.” It can be extremely frustrating. I was in a close, personal relationship with Jesus for over 25 years. But rather than telling you about the beginning of my relationship with this man, I am going to spare you the long story and skip straight to the break up.
The end of my life as a “Bride of Christ” came after a visit to Bright Horizons, which is the local domestic violence shelter in my hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. I went there for help in filing a restraining order against my husband, whose emotional and mental abuse against me and my children had escalated to the point that I was in the midst of a complete mental and physical breakdown. He had taken 6 of our 7 children to a town three hours from our home and was preventing me from having any contact with them unless I agreed to his terms for our “reconciliation.” [...]
Coercion and threats … “No,” I told Deb, “he never threatened me.” I *willinging* went along with all the harsh demands of the Quiverfull lifestyle, and in many instances, I was the one who pushed patriarchy and headship ON HIM. Why would I do that?
Because I believed our family had an ENEMY who was determined to steal, kill, and destroy our souls, and the souls of our children, for all eternity! Our only protection from spiritual disaster, was within that one little secret spot of safety which Corrie ten Boom called, “The Hiding Place.” “The Hiding Place” isn’t any physical location … instead, it is a very specific, very narrow position … directly in the center of God’s will. There, and only there, we could safely trust in God’s protection.
He never had to raise his voice to keep me and the children in our place. And when he did raise his voice, well that was “speaking the truth in love.” When he constantly criticized and complained about all the ways in which the children and I failed to live up to God’s perfect standards, he was “hating the sin, but loving the sinner.” He didn’t have to brandish a weapon in order to control our every action, indeed even our thoughts and feelings. All he had to do was fulfill his God-appointed role of Patriarch; to love us as Christ loves the church.
A lot of people seemed to read this and then go exactly where this woman, Vyckie Garrison, said they would: they told her she was following a false branch of Christianity, with a demonstrably false Christ at the center of it all, and that was the real problem here.  I believe that is true--but at the same time, it isn’t the whole truth.
The whole truth includes the uncomfortable reality that for a far-too-long period, Christians of all sorts, including some Catholics, had no real problem projecting a similar view of marriage and especially women and of their role in married life upon the women in their churches.  It wasn’t too hard to find Scripture references and bits out of history to support the idea that women really were inferior to men and that their salvation depended on their humble subservience to the appropriate male authority, whether that authority was her father, her husband, or her spiritual leader.
If anything, the Catholic Church offered a slight glimpse of a reality that didn’t include this exact paradigm, because a religious sister or nun was subject to her Mother Superior.  This didn’t mean that her father confessor and/or the priest who said Mass at the convent didn’t have authority, too, but it did mean that the idea that women couldn’t run things without male dominance was going to fall a little flat (especially in parishes where a convent of active sisters assisted in the rectory and school and, truth be told, pretty much ran things in many places).
What frustrates me is that there are Catholic men out there today who would say that Mrs. Garrison’s problem was just feminism, plain and simple, and that her inability to accept her husband’s headship over the family was clearly the cause of all the tension and angst in the relationship, not that her church’s idea of a husband’s headship goes far beyond what the Catholic Church teaches.  I’ve quoted this before, but as Pope Pius XI wrote in Casti Connubii:
27. This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband's every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.
28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family. But the structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact .
The kind of subjection demanded by the Quiverfull patriarchs is at odds with this idea of the true hierarchy of the family, especially in the sense that the wife is not to be treated by a minor, that she is not required to obey every request her husband makes, and that the real liberty which truly belongs to her should not be denied nor taken away.  But this Catholic understanding of the hierarchy of the family is also under attack from two sides in our own culture: from secular feminism, which views the very idea of even this sort of mutual respect and understanding with suspicion, and from what I called “Internet Catholic Masculinism,” which, sadly, exists in the real world as well.

One reason why I think that we really do need a theology of women in the Church is precisely so that these sorts of teachings from the past can be combined with more recent encyclicals in order to illustrate to the patriarchal, Quiverfull, and similar movements within Christianity that the idea that this way of viewing the relationship between men and women, with men the perpetual adult in the relationship and women the grown-up child who must always fight her “rebellious" spirit and her desire to have a say in things as if that desire is wrong somehow, is in fact not consistent with true Christianity.  It’s easy to tell women in the Quiverfull movement that the real abuses many of them have endured were not particularly Christian.  It’s harder, though, when some of the men in our own parishes assume that what the Quiverfulls believe--all of it--is really a more traditional and more appropriate way to view women, and that women who object are not actually thinking with the Church, when, in fact, we are.


Lady Jane said...

It's really nice to see a Catholic blogger talk about this sort of thing. I think there have been more Catholics falling pray to this sort of attitude lately and it isn't good. Thank you!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

There are two ways to handle religious authority. One is, I need to change my life to conform to what God expects of me. The other is, here is this wonderful weapon to make those around me conform to my personal vision and wishes and even comfort. Its obvious which one the Quiverfull philosophy adheres to.