Prayer over the Offerings for the Assumption

Let this oblation of our devotion ascend unto thee, O Lord: and, at the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary assumed into heaven, may our hearts, enkindled with the fire of thy love, continually yearn after thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Spear and the Distaff, Part Four: Love and Respect

Here is where you can find Parts One, Two, and Three of The Spear and the Distaff. More to come.

But how is this essentially different from patriarchalism -- from the idea that women are not, or should not be, contributors to the grandeur of the human race, but should simply pipe down, take care of their men, and pump out babies? After all, that is basically what the old notion of hierarchy was.

Well, not exactly; but that would divert us into a historical study of gender relations, which, while fascinating and important in its own right, and relevant, is nonetheless a separate topic. Suffice it to say here that the progressivist view of history -- that all human rights were subject to tyranny and brutality in our dark beginnings, and have continually improved and are continuing to do so -- is a result and a cause of extreme ignorance of history. History shows neither continual improvement nor continual decline; it simply wobbles, as we might have expected from something human.

Yet we still have the issue of misogyny to deal with. I don't expect my treatment to be exhaustive -- I have never been a woman, so half the appropriate perspective on the topic is missing; and even if I had, I am only one person, in one generation of one culture. But here it is for what it is worth.

One thing I have repeatedly emphasized is that gender is about relationship. There is a particular kind of relationship appropriate to marriage, and in that case the genders of the parties do determine which role they have been cast in; but the entering into that relationship in the first place is something freely chosen (or at any rate it should be, and, to be a validly sacramental marriage, must be). The woman has as much right to free decision in this regard as the man. And this dynamic is something that governs their relating, not their every endeavor. Marie Curie's pursuit of chemistry was not unfeminine, or a flaunting of hierarchy, nor was her husband unmasculine or remiss by helping her. Nor was St. Catherine gender-bending or insolent in remonstrating with Gregory XI and convincing him to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon; pointing out the truth is not a specially masculine privilege.*

So what does all the talk about initiation and receiving mean, then, if it doesn't apply to life in general? I tend to think that St. Paul was hinting at it in one of his unpopular passages:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it ... So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. ... This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband. -- Ephesians 5.22-25, 28-30, 32-33

The reasoning the apostle gives here is theological. Yet he knew his flocks well, as we can see in the particularity of each letter he wrote -- he was not laying down only general principles, but addressing specific needs of the churches he wrote to. Considering the placidity with which other authors (like Aristotle) wrote about the supposed superiority of men to women and of wives to husbands, St. Paul's instructions to wives look almost perfunctory in historical context, and the fact that he addresses the obligations of husbands (and spends rather more time on those) suggests an attentiveness to the realities of gender relations which we would rather hope for in a bishop.

But that's icing. Looking at the coinherence of gender as an example of the coinherence of reality in the first part of this series, we might consider whether the theological reasoning set forth by St. Paul might tell us something more about gender than simply who has what formal obligations in a marital context. I think that this says something about the psychology and the needs of women and men. I don't think it is too gross a generalization to say that respect is for men what affection is for women: a sort of social currency, the psychic need through which personal interactions are instinctively and even subconsciously measured. Take insults: as a rule, women tend regard them as, well, insulting; but men frequently use them as a sort of roughhousing gesture of fondness -- an implicit statement that the man being spoken to is tough enough to handle the insult. This is of course not universal, with respect to either gender; but I think it significant that the generalization can even be made. The point is that where one gender tends to speak the language of affection, the other tends to speak the language of respect -- which perhaps explains why each can and does take the other to be selfish and irrational.

Yet St. Paul inverts this. He urges wives to respect husbands, and husbands to be affectionate (indeed, more than affectionate) to wives. In other words, he is instructing each spouse to speak the other's emotional language, as it were. Perhaps that is part of why, in the verse immediately preceding this passage, he gives the general command, "Submit to one another in the fear of the Lord."

While the authority spoken of by the apostle is assigned specifically to marriage, the illumination provided into the common functioning of each gender is more broadly useful. Male and female, masculine and feminine, coinhere outside of the specifically sacramental context of marriage, and it never hurts to understand half the human race better. In other words, while the specifically hierarchical application may be limited, one of the functions of marriage may well be to teach us -- whether directly, in the person of our spouse, or through seeing other people's marriages -- how to relate to the half of the human race that we aren't.

And why, then, should initiation and receptivity be spoken of as characteristically masculine and feminine, if it is not always the man's job to initiate and the woman's job to receive, in every relationship? Well, I think full weight should be given to the word characteristically -- I tend to agree with Jung that there are feminine elements in a man and masculine elements in a woman; again, coinherence. But additionally, I have a hunch that there is an internal need for these things in men and in women. A man who cannot open himself up and make himself vulnerable will not be everything he could be, and a woman who is unable to initiate will not be everything she could be; yet such imperfections are common enough, and seem rather to limit a person's happiness and sense of self than to ruin them. But a man who cannot initiate, cannot take risks and responsibilities, is not likely to respect himself (an essential ingredient of masculine self-worth), and it could be argued that he doesn't have a right to. Conversely, a woman who (metaphorically) will receive nothing and no one -- the woman to whom the door held open is a chauvinistic implication that her arms are too weak, rather than a gesture of courtesy -- it is impossible, for me anyway, to imagine such a woman being happy.

*There have been believers who, on the basis of I Corinthians 14.33-35 and I Timothy 2.11-15, have thought precisely that women ought not to make theological contributions to the Church or to rebuke male members. I fully assent to the authority of these Scriptures, and don't think they mean that at all. Because the Greek words for husband and wife are the same as the words for man (as specifically male) and woman, my interpretation (in part) is that St. Paul is guarding against wives embarrassing their husbands in the congregation, which would be damaging to the individual husbands and to the Church's reputation. Whether that interpretation is adequate or not, the idea that women ought not be theologians is, for a Catholic, given the lie by the female Doctors of the Church if nothing else. One can imagine, say, the simultaneously self-deprecating and devastating reply that St. Teresa might have given to those who would try to defend Catholicism by attacking the authoritative declarations of the Church.


  1. I still question why people feel the need to try to make gender into something binding individually.

    For example, you say "There is nothing unwomanly about Catherine of Siena rebuking the Pope" blah blah blah. But I wonder why you feel the need. Would you say there was "nothing unwomanly" about what Joan of Arc did? Because I can assure you, people at the time thought there most assuredly WAS something very unwomanly about it!

    But so what?? Even if we admit that there is a symbolic "masculine" and "feminine" derived from (or manifested in) the male and female physical's unclear why it would be perceived of any sort of moral concern that a man be masculine/manly or a woman be feminine/womanly.

    An archetype can be derived from the group as a whole or in its generic form...without thereby turning around and being binding on each individual.

    I am reminded of the story of Perpetua and Felicity wherein Perpetua is a "made a man" in her dream to fight Satan. There IS something rather "gender bending" about this, but so what? If "manly" is good in some cases (such as in the sense of strength and combat) then why shouldn't a woman be manly in those areas? And if stuff like care and nurturing are more naturally associated with females, why shouldn't men be womanly in those areas?

  2. "The point is that where one gender tends to speak the language of affection, the other tends to speak the language of respect -- which perhaps explains why each can and does take the other to be selfish and irrational."

    Forgive me for narrowing focus to this excerpt....!

    I am hard pressed, however, not to recall every singe female professor in literature and philosophy and languages (let alone the further historical Marie Curie) who made an impression on me, and how much respect was due in each case, and how little "affection" played at all, when what was in play was knowledge, articulation, insight, etc. I spoke the language of respect to them, and I didn't receive the language of affection back in the lecture hall, nor on the comments on my papers, and nor would you or I want to either. The same is due to female colleagues and student peers.

    So what is this "tending to" of women's natural language? Are female leaders in business meetings, in non-govermental civic societies, in labour unions, etc. let alone in the university, speaking, presenting, meeting, deciding etc. in the language of respect against the charateristic grain of femininity? (out of character, etc.)

    Or are they exceptions, as emergent trees over the rainforest canopy, of what is typical? Important exceptions, who should be celebrated and encouraged in the contribution of humanity, to what is generally the natural and archetypal place of female persons?

    How many women were capable of working alongside Marie Curie's, of writing alongside St. Theresa, but were told firmly they were best suited to the fields of life irrigated in the languages of affection. Howevermuch I may emphatically agree with you that history is not an unbroken chain of self-generated human progress but is in fact always ambiguous and beset with darkness: I do not hesitate for a minute to say that an increase in the number of women having the opportunities to follow in Marie Curie's steps pays due respect to talent and capacity where previously it was cut off and denied, and that the women who have fought dearly to follow in the way of Curie deserve respect.

    I'm sorry to harangue you: I do believe your intentions here are the best and honourable, and I pay you respect for the concerted thought you bring to the topic. I would fail to pay you respect, however, if I didn't state the truth that the "tends to speak the language of affection" comment cannot stand the experience of modern female participation in institutional and civic life, of which surely you have benefited from in your experience (and surely you want to pay your female mentors and teachers nothing but the language of respect, like me, considering it an insulting travesty to expect female intellectual mentors to speak in the language of affection, or consider that their most natural linguistic setting.)

    Unless you do think that the increasing numbers of women speaking the language of respect in institutional life is an unnatural or uncharacteristic development...

  3. My apologies to have taken so long to come back to this. Now then.

    @Hojo: It isn't so much that I feel gender is binding individually, or that being masculine or feminine entails specific obligations. It is more that I regard them as definite archetypal realities which are enshrined within us, and which will wreak havoc upon us if they are repressed. Now, it doesn't follow from this that the conventional concepts of masculinity and femininity are correct, and I'm not arguing that they are -- I think they are seriously impoverished. I suppose they may suffice for some people, but not for all (I certainly don't identify with our culture's understanding of masculinity, such as it is). That is one of the reasons I went out of my way to say that such individuals as St. Joan were not unfeminine: because I know that then and, to a lesser extent, now, some people have taken precisely that view, and I wish both to keep it clear that I don't take that view and to argue against that view.

    I'm hesitant to use manliness and femininity in the sense you describe, e.g., in the story about SS. Felicity and Perpetua; I don't think it wrong exactly, but it seems to me to have implications I don't care for -- so, for instance, if we defined courage as a 'masculine' virtue, the implication would seem to be that either women are not courageous, or they become courageous only by distancing themselves from their femininity. The same could be said, say, about male tenderness. (Of the story of SS. Felicity and Perpetua, I wonder whether the dream may not have contained a certain amount of concession to a chauvinistic society -- but there I am speculating.) I don't find this a particularly helpful way of viewing things, and, if I may trust my own experience of trying to integrate masculinity into my sense of self, fissiparating the virtues into gendered categories rather hinders than helps such integration. But more than that, I opine that there is a difference in style between (to keep to one example) masculine and feminine courage; even the Warrior Maiden archetype, though the natural feminine counterpart of the masculine Warrior archetype, has a slightly but perceptibly different feel about her. I don't consider either one better than the other; indeed, I rather like that there is a variety of flavor, as it were -- I find it a much more interesting setup, and, partly for that reason, I also find it a more useful way of thinking about gender.

  4. @trulyandmorestrange: Institutional and civic life were almost the opposite of the context I was thinking of (to the extent that contexts can have opposites). I should have clarified what I meant by 'relationship,' which in retrospect was a remarkably poor choice of word because of its breadth of meaning. I had in mind rather those relationships in which the specifically personal interaction is at the fore: friendships, romances, and family relations. (Even there, the sorts of things I have been talking about would not apply universally, for instance in a mother-son relationship.) I would tend to view institutional interactions, such as the teacher-student dynamic, rather differently, and I tend to doubt that the dynamics of gender would apply -- or at any rate I would tend to expect them to apply differently if, and to the extent that, they did. I don't think at all that the increased presence of women in academic, civic, and comparable fora is a bad thing; I regard it as imparting a needed balance of perspective and process.

    That being said, I don't see anything necessarily insulting about expecting female intellectual mentors to speak the language of affection -- provided, first, that one not expect it in the sense of feeling that they have some sort of obligation to communicate that way, which seems groundless and ridiculous; and, second that one not expect them to do so to the detriment of their intellectual gifts, which would be weird and also ridiculous. One of my favorite professors in college was one of my Greek professors, an extraordinarily motherly and gentle woman with the voice of a kindergarten teacher; if her affectionate style was relevant to her scholarship (and I'm inclined to think it was), it was entirely an advantage. But I would think such assumptions grossly insulting if they were thought to be signs of intellectual inferiority, or if they were maintained as "how women are supposed to behave" in the face of how a given woman actually does behave. If I may appropriate a phrase from our chauvinistic past to rebuke to that sort of chauvinism, one cannot talk that way to a lady. :)