Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Spear and the Distaff, Part Three: The Monstrous Regiment

The difference between the genders, and the mention in my previous post of feminism, make some discussion of the idea of hierarchy inevitable. To that subject I now turn. (I have by no means exhausted even my own amateur thoughts on the subject, but it was getting a bit wall-of-text-y, so I shall continue the subject in my next.)

Catholicism is linked in the minds of most people to the notion of hierarchy. This is one of the major objections people bring against traditional Christianity. That priests should have the power to perform the sacraments while laymen do not, that the Magisterium should have the power to define doctrine while the individual believer does not, that a husband should be the head of his wife, that only males should be eligible for the priesthood -- all of this hierarchy, to most modern secularists and many modern Christians, is intolerable. It's backward, it's chauvinistic, it's undemocratic.

I do not think hierarchy is chauvinistic, though many Christians have in fact been chauvinists, and culpably used the notion of hierarchy as their apron of fig leaves. I do not find the word backward useful: if it means that our ancestors believed it, well, yes, but that does not decide the question of its truth or falsity -- it must be examined on its intellectual merits; and if it means something else then I don't know what. Hierarchy is most certainly undemocratic: given that my own political sympathies lie chiefly with anarchy and monarchy,* that does not deeply trouble me, but let us divert ourselves to that subject for a moment.

There are three reasons for being a democrat (in the sense of believing in rule by the people). One is the optimistic reason, along the lines of Rousseau, that people are so good that if you give them all a say, things will turn out for the best. This, judging from my own observations and knowledge of history, is one of the most extraordinarily silly ideas in any field. Another is the pessimistic reason, that "power corrupts" and no one should be trusted with permanent or unrestricted power over others. There is a great deal in this view. But it does nothing to explain why many monarchies and empires have been, often for long periods of time, stable, happy, and well-governed, whereas democracies, as James Madison pointed out in the Federalist Papers, have on the whole "been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

The third reason was put best by Chesterton. "The democratic contention is that government ... is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole ... and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly" (Orthodoxy, ch. IV). The idea here is that the goodness or badness of men is irrelevant: that our ideas must proceed from the nature of mankind and not from the character of its individual specimens. It is the idea that every rational creature has, as one of its intrinsic rights, a say in its society as a whole. Democratic rulership is, in this view, not a consequence of individual worth, but an office, held by every person.

Whether this is true about politics or not, the Catholic concept of hierarchy relies on this same distinction. For example, the sacrament of Holy Orders does not confer personal superiority upon the ordinand; it confers an office, a function, which he has neither the right nor the ability to assume for himself; and the power of this office comes through his actions, but it does not come from them.

Likewise, to the extent that there is any hierarchy between the sexes, I believe it can only be approached in this manner. Masculinity and femininity are offices; even if, in the specific context of marriage, the masculine spouse is given the job of headship, it does not follow that men are better than women, and no husband (or gender theorist) has any right to pretend such superiority. The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women was a piece of sexist nonsense and bad commentary,** and other works of the same cast are of the same value. Indeed, if we are going to talk about superiority as opposed to function, since functions are often given to notably unworthy persons, the greatest (simply) human being was and is the Mother of God, a function that by definition could be held only by a woman. If anybody objects to hierarchy because of fears that hierarchy means that men are better or more important than women, then their objection is entirely sound, and a defense of hierarchy consists in showing that it does not involve that misogynistic view -- and, further, of showing that the chauvinistic interpretation of hierarchy is untrue.

But if the distinction between masculine and feminine has to do with office, rather than person, why have it at all? Why not have complete egalitarianism, of function as well as of being, in which women can hold masculine roles and men can hold feminine roles? Well, for one thing, that seems to me rather to spoil the fun of having different things to begin with: everyone could be "It" in a game of tag, but it'd get boring fast. But it also seems to neglect the full import of the archetypes, and of the relational coinherence they possess. The masculine and the feminine are not simply about humanity, as was suggested in the first post of this series. C. S. Lewis addresses something of this in the last installment of the Cosmic Trilogy:

"[S]he had been conceiving this world as 'spiritual' in the negative sense -- as some neutral, or democratic, vacuum where differences disappeared, where sex and sense were not transcended but simply taken away. Now the suspicion dawned on her that there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, sharper, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent. How if this ... were not, as she had supposed, merely a relic of animal life or patriarchal barbarism, but rather the lowest, first, and easiest form of some shocking contact with reality which would have to be repeated -- but in even larger and more disturbing modes -- on the highest levels of all?
"'Yes,' said the Director. 'There is no escape. If it were a virginal rejection of the male, He would allow it. Such souls can bypass the male and go on to meet something far more masculine, higher up, to which they must make a yet deeper surrender. But your trouble has been what the old poets called Daungier. We call it Pride. You are offended by the masculine itself: the loud, irruptive, possessive thing -- the gold lion, the bearded bull ... The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it.'" -- That Hideous Strength, ch. 14, part 5

In other words. Insofar as the masculine office represents that which initiates, that which comes in from an outside, and insofar as the feminine office represents that which receives, that which opens itself to that outside, they are icons of God and humanity, and more particularly of Christ and the Church (as St. Paul makes explicit). The distinction and even, in a specifically marital context, authority that Catholic doctrine recognizes with respect to gender, is preserving a symbolic or ritual lesson about the relationship between God and man: He initiates and we respond; He enters us and we receive Him; He is the Bridegroom, and we -- female and male, as St. John of the Cross understood very well -- are the Bride. This is one of the reasons I have tried to stress the relativity of gender, the fact that it exists in the context of relationship rather than as an abstract absolute. Gender is not a ranking system; it is a mystery play. Our genders, and the sexes that go with them, are the roles we have been cast in by the Director of the play. I suspect (suspect, not assert) that this is why, in the Church and in the family, authority is associated by Scripture and tradition with the masculine. (To avoid red herrings, I shall say here that I see no reason why the state -- which is properly governed by reason and lacks the added data of revelation -- should follow the same pattern; so that excluding women from equal participation in the political process, democratic or otherwise, is not a necessary corollary of this doctrine of hierarchy and is not something I desire.)

This is part of why there can be a simultaneous distinction between masculine and feminine roles, and yet equality between their worth. It should be noted, too, that though the authority of husbands and of priests is thus connected to masculinity as the icon of the divine, the feminine is, in a sense, the higher and more human of the two. The highest activity of mankind is to open itself to God -- to be the feminine to His masculine, speaking metaphorically. It is therefore no coincidence that, as was previously alluded to, the highest created being should be a Woman.

*It sort of makes sense, I swear.
**Though it must be admitted that the title, with its delicious and archaic polysyllables, is fairly entertaining, particularly the now quite obsolete spelling Monstruous.


  1. Hi Gabriel,

    In your first post in this series you wrote:

    "The most obvious distinction between the sexes is found in, well, sex. The male enters, acts, infuses from without; the female receives, absorbs, transforms from within. The male contribution to the act of procreation has the character of initiation: the female contribution, that of completion. The male body is built more to protect than to nurture, and the female, more to nurture than to protect. The physical contrast of the sex organs thus suggests something of the contrasted archetypes of gender."

    It is not clear to me whether this arguing inductively from "the facts of life" or rather this passage already interweaves the layers of biology, gender archetype, and theology of divine hierarchy (as indicated in such collocations as "infuses from without" and "transforms from within." There is a judgment that the act of entry and initiation etc. is originary that determines the entire reasoning from sex toward archetype. The continuing claim that male potency holds the originary position reflects the understanding of ancient philosophers (not what is simply evident from the facts of life). I'm sure you're well aware of this. Theology is interpreting biology, not the reverse.

    This, however, is not at all the most pressing question. I think that question, if you'd like to consider it from the "in postmodern (North) America" side of your subtitle, is the space within the theological interpretation of gendered distinction and equality of worth, for persons who are biological female having agency, voice, and, well, initiative. For so long as the office of the archetype they are said to bear places their status in the hierarchy relative to men ( and to God) such that they are receivers, transformers, and completers, is it said that when they do take initiative, and define their own status among themselves and among men, they are somehow encroaching upon, trespassing, violating the office and the archetype?

    The concern here that *I detect* in your writing is that equality expressed in terms of decision, intiative, agency, etc. somehow entails a reduction in diversity, ie. that women who claim status as equal partners are somehow then made abstract. Somehow the mutuality, the fullness of the tensions that sustain creation, begin to fade into noise. I am suspect of that claim.

    It seems to me that if initiative, agency, (and the corresponding responsibility) is attributable to all persons already irrespective of sex, then the concept of equality between genders can be elucidated there, without any concern whatsoever that somehow difference and mutuality between (mothers and father for example) are somehow put into jeopardy.

    How the archetypes are lived out by unique persons in an infinitesimal array of circumstances participates alongside the ability to "enter in" and "go out" from relationships, communities, and institutions, and to tell one's story as one who thus acted, as a witness to others in the universe of stories.

    Peace be with you,


  2. I was attempting to argue inductively. I'm not familiar what the term "originary" in your second paragraph means, and it seems to be important to your point; could you explain it?

    I haven't finished by any means, and I am intending to get to the concerns you raise. It is of great importance to me that hierarchy not be used as a pretext for misogyny. My thoughts are, moreover, amateur and incomplete, and I'm sure I've missed things. However, I don't really see that one aspect of gender versus another constitutes what you describe as the most pressing question, because I see a variety of problems in how our culture approaches gender -- some problems being more prevalent among men and others among women, some more prevalent among conservatives and others among liberals, and so forth. In such a diverse cultural setting, I am leery of singling out any one problematic approach to gender as being the worst, for the simple reason that it makes it easy to ignore the opposite problem, and I am a firm believer in the 'Golden Mean.'

  3. Yes, now that you point it out, "originary" as a word is problematic! It was meant as an adjective for "of the origin," and to articulate a stronger sense than what "original" conveys.

    One is the "original" author of a work in a world of preceding authors and preceding works. The "originary" status of the masculine, on the other hand, is a beginning which shapes and determines the meaning of how the ensuing events are construed: if we say the action begins (truly and solely begins) with the male partner, then of course how we narrate and construe what follows takes reference from that beginning, such that the female partner is the complementary position.

    The field in which the relationships between the partners is construed changes, however, if both partners are thought to have joined together, each of their own initiative, each of their own capacity.

    A couple can say that they "originally" met somewhere, in some circumstances, with some friends and in some good fortune, and the relationship grew from there. But the beginning of their relationship and life together does not have its exclusive origin in the person of the male partner, (as just as the biological source of the child is not in any way traceable solely to the male physiology such that the process of reproduction must be told beginning from that reference point). I hope that helps.


    The second thing about "the most pressing issue" of agency. You are quite right to question an undue emphasis on this. I think I phrased it that way to indicate that an explicit treatment of this topic (in my opinion) serves well to clear the air that one's theory serves the interests of a patriarchy bound to constrain the potential of women.

    Thanks for letting me join in on your thoughts-- I hope you will allow me to continue.

    Peace of Christ

  4. In the interest of clarity, I'd point out that the highest creation is the human nature of Christ, not the Blessed Virgin Mary. She may be the highest "pure creature" but the human nature of Christ is a created nature too.

    This series is interesting. I am unsure if, in speaking of the archetypes of masculine and feminine I would emphasize the "entering/receiving" dynamic so much as the fact that women can get pregnant. The mechanics of intercourse are much less fundamental, it seems to me, than the fact that women can have another person dependent on them physically, living inside their very body, taking sustenance from her breast, etc etc

    It's quite clear, for example, that this is what is at stake in the normalization of abortion. Pregnancy sets women in a different relation to the collective than men vis a vis individuality. A woman's body is, moreso than for a male, "not her own," at least potentially.

    At the same time, I would question exactly how much any of these archetypes have relevance for the individual outside the sphere of sex and reproduction (and, perhaps, the symbolic system of liturgy). It's quite clear that while the archetypes are derived from (or, as you suggest, manifested in) the physical sexes male and female, it's unclear once the archetypes are established why men and women as actual individuals should feel any need to conform to them, as if there has to be some literalist "correspondance of the symbols" for the world to work or for the individual to be fulfilled.

    I'm not sure you are, in fact, arguing that. But some conservatives fighting for preserving gender roles in terms of a broader script of socio-economic positions and personality types certainly are. Of course, it seems, women and men as demographics will always lean, as a group, towards their archetype in those areas more than the other. But for each individual? To me it is questionable how much that need concern us at all, as if "Men be manly, women be womanly!" is any sort of moral concern.