Monday, August 28, 2006

Equality and inequality of the sexes in Catholicism

My late night muse admittedly looks a great deal more attractive when I am half-asleep and waging a battle with the effects of an ill-advised half-cup of coffee than it does in the morning. By midday, a brilliant theological breakthrough is exposed as a common and relatively prosaic rehash of established tradition. But that night, I was mentally wrestling with the competing claims of feminism and Catholicism, and my thoughts were traversing entirely new territory for me--territory that could amount to my placing myself even more firmly outside of the mainstream thought patterns of my upbringing. It was like a mini-conversion; it felt just like the phenomenon described by William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" - of the uniting of a divided subconscious. But it was a conversion regarding an issue of narrow, if also great importance.

Feminism is an intense concern of mine; almost, if not quite as strong as my concern for the right understanding of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus. My obsession with both of these issues has a common root: a deeply ingrained egalitarianism that will not allow my conscience to rest unless I believe the God I worship does not, sub specie aeternis, afflict his children with undue, meaningless, or random ill fates. This is not to say that I believe God is unjust unless people get a perceptibly equal lot on this earth; one of the wonderful things I have learned about Catholic theology is that we understand how miserably unequal all of our conditions are--to say nothing of the unequal graces we are given! So, both visibly and invisibly, we have tremendous reasons not to judge, nor to take credit for our good works, nor to presume our own fidelity to the end.

The basic hope of a Christian egalitarian such as myself is that, mysteriously beneath the insanity and chaos in the world, there is a divine egalitarianism at work. I reject supralapsarian predestination as abominable--the notion that God, before time, according to his inscrutable will, elected who would be saved; and the rest be damned. That God would birth a creature whom he wished to burn forever makes any theodicy which respects the natural mind and conscience impossible. The hardened Augstinian argument is that, because of Original Sin, there is no injustice if even infants are left to be damned, because ultimately all deserve death. If God saved only one among us all, we should accord him infinite mercy. Yet even granting this, there is an injustice which results from the supralapsarian scenario: deception. As long as God's will regarding the saved and the damned is absolutely "inscrutible," giving the appearance of randomness and caprice and unfreedom to our miserable lives' eternal destinies, then God is made the liar when he says, through the Apostle,

"God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it" (1 Corinthians 10:13),

...or that God "wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4).

Unless we follow Origen or Meister Eckhart and believe that souls existed before their birth, such that they had something to be judged for beyond the Original Sin (from which God has acted to save the whole human race according to their finite freedom), the supralapsarian scenario makes a mockery of the very idea of religion. We could all mutiny against God, go to Hell, and it would all have been his inscrutible agency from before time was born. Perhaps Prometheus was right all along, and his everliving corpse hangs as a futile testimony to the cruelty of the gods.

The reason for this lengthy prologue to a discussion about equality of the sexes is that, just as we have no control over the majority of the historical circumstances that might place us within, or out of, saving Catholic faith, so also our sex is an irresistably given fact. We are thrown back onto our maleness or femaleness, helplessly participating in the mystery of gender which has been so long a part of nature. On the face of things it seems preposterous, again from a standpoint of justice, that one sex is due more status than another on biological grounds that, if not random (owing to providence), are at least mysterious.

So, for dutiful students of the school of modernity, Paul's letter to the Ephesians looks immediately mistaken.

"Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

"Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. 'For this reason a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.'

"This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband" (Eph 5:21-33).

Actual exegetes fumble with excuses for Paul to save their own credibility--such as that the above text is really only about the church, not relationships between men and women; or that Paul hadn't yet realized that everything he said applies in the reverse as well, etc. I doubt that hardly a single Christian child ever finishes grade school without seeing this embarrassing text (or the even more shameful one he wrote to the Corinthians!); and no educator, upon discovering that child with said text, will pass up the opportunity to instruct how "things are different now."

Things are different now, and principally for the better. But the historicist exegesis of Paul's seeming chauvanistic expectations has become so deeply ingrained in our consciousness, that we will hold to it even after our seminaries teach us that historicism is not the infallible 'voice of reason' it vogues to be. Paul's injunction of wives to obedience conjures so many images of spousal abuse awareness programs we watched in our classrooms that the very terms 'obedience' and 'abuse' become inextricably intertwined. We are trained from kindergarten that power corrupts, and so all categories of power, authority, patriarchy; or vice-versa, submission, obedience, and surrender have been systematically stripped out of all language pertaining to the family. We are shown stereotypical depictions of black pimps acting toward their prostitutes with a comedic-yet-tragic mixture of paternal lusty affection and humiliating commercial disregard. This depiction ironically combines a presumption of egalitarian moralism (which makes it 'outrageous' and hence funny), and a vicarious fulfillment of what is widely regarded and encouraged to be a male fantasy--to be a "pimp". More on that fantasy later.

My generation has been led quietly into a new kind of binary thinking. There are exactly two alternatives for the relationship between a man and a woman: a geometrical equality centered around the minimally limited mutual autonomy of each spouse, or else spousal abuse, i.e., marriage as institutional rape. The emphasis on equality of the sexes has become so strong that the possibility of greater intimacy via difference has been erased from the ideological landscape. However, it does pop up from time to time in the winking wisdom of pop culture--such as the Saturday Night Live parody of eHarmony.com called "meHarmony.com;" the implicit critique is that the website confuses compatibility with sameness, and leaves clients looking for the best mirror to look at themselves in.

However, equality remains the watchword for marriage and other male-female interactions, and it is not a word which is receptive to modifiers, qualifications, nuances, or a plurality of forms. George Orwell taught us in Animal Farm that those in power would attempt to hoodwink the masses with brilliant-seeming nuances of equality. "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," quoth Napolean's amendment to the revolution's founding principle. "Separate but equal," the catch phrase behind segregated schools, became a splendid example of human naivette and the untouchable quality of egalitarianism. If equality is not absolute, it is a lie.

Of course, there is no shortage of Christian communities that follow Paul's epistle to the letter, eschewing all of the talk of equality.

**On hiatus until I feel like coming back to this topic**

3 comments:

Matt of C G said...

Hey Jeff, it's Matt from Casa Grande. Your doppelganger! Save the bum leg, the weaker vernacular muscles, and the overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of melanin and sex appeal! Tee hee.

"suffer unto me the little children" ,He said. So here I go...

Let me start off by saying this post is the most lucid, concise, well-articulated and eloquent damn' piece of writin' I've had the pleasure of reading on this subject. (Not that I've done much reading of any kind, mind you.)

Hey, I've got a couple of questions for you:

When did the scism occur between Roman Catholics and the purported traditional catholics and why? Also, at what moment did the Virgin Mary become a christian? Was it at the Annunciation when she was given her eternal vocation? Was it at His birth when her vocation was realized in the face of her baby boy? Or was it when she cast off her matriachal clout that is afforded every good Jewess in favor of her son's will by telling the servants to, " do whatever 'he' tells you..."? Or am I way off?

Feel free to disseminate with all the "five dollar words" you can muster. (You're all the justification I need to be an addict of websters online dictionary! Ha ha.)

Matt of C G said...

I forgot to put an "h" in schism. Well sit! Guess I just gotta suffer the indignity of being known as an ignorant fool.

Matt of C G said...

Awe hell, I forgot an "h" again!