Fair Play for Patriarchies

It’s easy to draw parallels between Penn State’s pedophilia scandal and the Church’s. It’s also easy to stretch those parallels too far, or toward the wrong conclusions. This is what Nicholas P. Cafardi does in a piece titled “Patriarchies and the Powerless,” published this past Friday on America Magazine’s In All Things blog. Finding that the conspiratorial behavior of Penn State’s all-male athletic department conforms to a “paradigm of patriarchy,” Cafardi asks, “what is unique about patriarchies” that gives them — including the Church hierarchy — over to corruption. Then he answers his own question:

Patriarchies are the functional equivalent of dictatorships, dressed up as “families,” headed by a father figure who controls all and to whom complete loyalty is owed. In return, the patriarch provides the benefits of advancement and success to those within the patriarchy and protection from those outside. The outside world is made up of “others,” – non-members of the “family,” the team, the hierarchy. Within this patriarchy, the outsider has no rights. In fact, it is the “otherness” of the outsider that helps to give the patriarchy its identity and uniqueness

If Cafardi believes that women could have prevented sex abuse from becoming endemic had they been involved in decision-making at the diocesan level or higher, he’s in good company. In National Catholic Reporter, Charlene Spretnak makes the case even more thoroughly. Because women “routinely experience far more empathy than do most men” according to the best evidence, Spretnak argues, they would have given priority to the victims’ welfare, not the perpetrator’s nor the institution’s.

It’s true that a number of studies have shown women to be more empathic than men. It’s also true that, with female managers outperforming males on “a wide variety of measures,” some observers are claiming their advantage lies in superior relational skills, such as team-building, communicating and managing diversity. Most relevant of all to a situation that pits outsider against insider, women, suggests Age of Empathy author Frans de Waal, empathize un-selectively, whereas men “turn the empathy switch off” outside their circles of family and close friends.

But…let’s not go crazy here. Superior relational skills don’t necessarily translate into an incapacity or intolerance for evil. Before the photos from Abu Ghraib became public, Barbara Ehrenreich subscribed to a “naive feminism,” that assumed women’s entry into politics, the workforce and the army would “bring about a just and peaceful world” all by itself. Noting that three of the abusive soldiers, as well as their commanding officer, were women taught her “a uterus is no substitute for a conscience.”

Of course, even with women, the U.S. Army is at least as patriarchal as Penn State or the Catholic Church. Instead of assimilating, Ehrenreich still believes, women should “say no…when necessary, to the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself.” I wonder — what would she say to abuse and coverups in societies created by women and for women? Canon lawyer and Dominican friar Fr. Tom Doyle reports: “The sexual and physical abuse [of children] by nuns is far more widespread than most people are aware of.” He makes it clear that many women superiors handled allegations as cagily, and in the same self-interested spirit, as any bishop, or for that matter, Joe Paterno. “The religious congregations of women who have been sued have fought the victims with a viciousness that was equal to or exceeded that of many bishops,” Doyle writes. “They have treated those who have brought the mess to their attention with cruelty and disdain.”

It may be that women’s religious orders lack the deep pockets to deal out generous settlements to victims. But “cruelty” and “disdain” are very strong words. As the Cassandra who warned of serial abusers as early as 1985, Doyle may have incentive to say “I told you so” as starkly and as often as possible. But one thing he seems not to have is an axe to grind with apostolic women religious. When Phoenix’s own Sister Margaret MacBride incurred an automatic excommunication for signing off on an abortion, Doyle made a compelling case that the circumstances diminished the sister’s culpability. On the sisters’ reactions to abuse, others have seconded Doyle, if a little more guardedly. In 2009, Frances Kissling noted with surprise in Salon that the LCWR was still refusing to allow victims of sex abuse to address their annual conferences.

Women’s superior empathic powers and relational skills may have a dark side. Researchers don’t believe relational aggression — defined as harming others through their relationships or by diminishing their status — is exclusive to women. But its effectiveness does seem to rely on those faculties that women are said to possess in special abundance. As Finnish psychologist Kaj Bjorkqvist put it, “‘Girls can better understand how other girls feel, so they know better how to harm them.” In accusing leaders of women’s religious orders of “cruelty” and “disdain,” rather than simple duplicity or bureaucratic coldness, which is what bishops tend to catch flak for, could Doyle have been alluding to some grown-up version of the same phenomenon?

Nuns Are Mean Girls — that’s a terrible summing-up. It sounds exactly like the kind of facile flame-throwing Maureen Dowd would stoop to (or rather, the kind she’d stoop to if she weren’t so fond of nuns). As if to give it the lie, the LCWR has advised SNAP’s Daniel Clohessy to tackle the question of abuse by working with individual orders, which sounds, at worst, like garden-variety stonewalling. But as gender caricatures go, it does reality no less justice than Cafardi’s or Spretnak’s. Of everything the Church teaches, the point easiest to prove is the one that reminds us we’re all capable of depravity.

Not wishing to challenge any infallible teachings this week, I’ll skip the pitch for women’s ordination. In general, though, giving women all the room they need to advance through their own merit is a great thing, even in the Church. In diocesan review boards, in universities, in ministries, let ‘em come, by all means. And let them climb.

Just don’t expect them to clean house.

  • Bill

    powerful stuff

    Jason Whitlock made essentially the same point, from a secular perspective. Essentially he said PSU wouldn’t have happened if women were involved because they were incapable of acting the way men did. They would have opened the kimono quickly.

    Honestly, Whitlock and the NCR in their goal to be typically “enlightened” progressives come across as the definition of sexism. It’s a Madonna-whore perception of women, rather than an honest and holistic one. Using anecdotal and/or dubious “scientific evidence” to claim that women cannot be as depraved or as sick as men. Why not? Sure, the means to executing sickness might be different, but in no way are women any less capable of being perverse than men are.

  • Bill

    And what’s funny is a lot of progressives claim that tradition minded folks are the ones who reduce women to the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

    I’ve always felt traditional Catholics and others were the ones who didn’t put women on pedastals.

  • ace

    Good points. Abuse, whether physical, sexual, or psychological by women in authority? Just think of prisons, schools (public and private, whether or not religious), the military, locked mental health or substance abuse facilities, group homes for developmentally disabled, juvenile facilities, domestic employment, sleep away camp, youth clubs…

    Yup, abuse knows no sex or gender… or, even historical period

    I think patriarchies may have higher incidences, but it may also be that the tactics and opportunities are different. Still, what fosters abuse? Closed systems, extreme authoritarianism, secrecy, isolation, opportunity for those disposed…? And, presently and in the future? Corporatism? Punishment of whistle-blowers? A culture where differences are seen as disloyalty? The raising of stakes by extremism of whatever stripe?

  • Bill

    Also I tend to think that abuse from men is rightly considered abhorrent (whether heterosexual, pedophile, homosexual, or ephebophile). But abuse from women could be construed as, say in a woman-woman, woman-girl as an “opening of sexuality” or in a woman-man, woman-boy environment as the male getting lucky.

    It’s all abuse no matter what. It’s just as much rape for a 32 year old woman with a 14 year old boy as it is vice versa.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    ace said it perfectly above: “abuse knows no sex or gender… or, even historical period.” This thinking in terms of patriarchy amd matriarchy and whatever else is silly. I’ve known stubborn, forceful female bosses and and empathetic male bosses. It shows the fallacy of left leaning memes: when it’s convenient there are no gender differences, when it’s inconvenient there are significant gender differences. Can’t have it both ways.

  • Babe Lincoln

    A perfect example: Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Jones’ inner circle was comprised of women. It was women who were making the important decisions and carrying out the atrocities toward the end – when Jones himself was so drugged up that there was no way he could have done it alone. It was women who were injecting cyanide into the mouths of babies. It was his mistress, Carolyn, who would organize and facilitate sexual trysts between Jones and other women (and men) in the Temple. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a woman. Women are just as capable of evil as men. Fascinating stuff. Evil doesn’t discriminate based on gender.

  • Robster

    All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans, I believe). Basically, human beings hate pain, and will do anything to avoid it. Czar Nicholas the Last of Russia reportedly had bad teeth because he was afraid to go to a dentist [so speculated a forensics expert examining his remains]. Large institutions especially hate pain and “for the good of the … country {Watergate}… Church {Pedo scandal, Banco Ambrosiano et al}… football program [Penn State]” will automatically cover up a forthcoming scandal than face the music. So do individuals with “white lies.”
    Hey, is anyone claiming coaching causes pedophilia? Or marriage (Sandusky was a married coach).
    Recall the mean girls of the Bible (e.g., Jezebel, Delilia, etc.). Girls can be mean too!

  • Melody

    Ace said, “…what fosters abuse? Closed systems, extreme authoritarianism, secrecy, isolation, opportunity for those disposed…” I think that is correct, and it doesn’t depend on gender. Recall the biographies of Sts. Bernadette, and Therese of Lisieux. Both had to put up with mother superiors who were bullies, not to mention their fellow nuns who didn’t seem to miss too many opportunities to make their lives miserable. This isn’t on the same level as the sexual abuse scandals; but seems to have been more or less endemic and just part of the background noise of convents and girls’ boarding schools of that time.

  • Cordelia

    I am always so glad to hear this addressed! I think perhaps a hundred and fifty years ago it might have been intellectually possible to hold on to the hope that “if we women had more say in things…” the world would be a better place – but nowadays? Really? After we have spent over half a century up-to-the-elbows in political power, I think the only conclusion possible is that we women have ended up with just as much blood on our hands as the men we sought to replace.

  • Patrick

    They needed a study to prove women are generally more empathetic than men?

  • Thomas R

    I have to say I’m really skeptical women are sex abusers anywhere near as often as men. No evidence I know of supports this. And in every society I know of arrest for violent crime is at least 80% men. Granted women are probably less likely to be arrested when they commit violence because people report less or see them as less of a threat or for that plus additional factors. Still it seems a stretch to me to think that those factors go so far as to make things equal.

    That said I don’t want to elevate women too much as in Ireland, or elsewhere, other things can happen instead. I just don’t think this specific confluence would be likely with women. Instead you’d maybe have a woman coach who seduces a teenage boy than gets him to commit crimes or tries to drive a young girl insane or even burns her with cigarettes. Rape and molestation really are unlikely, not impossible mind you, even if saying that sounds like male-bashing.

    [I find Doyle a credible source. He's no nun-basher, and if at times he seems to see abusers in his soup, well, suspiciousness is one of the occupational hazards of being a cop, which is pretty much how he sees himself. The wagon-circling he claims to have observed among women religious sounds pretty similar to what went on in chanceries. One of the sources Kissling quotes in the Salon article describes her abuse at the hands of a nun. Naturally, it didn't involve penetration, and the sister told her victim that she loved her. That profession sounds distinctively feminine to me, but it made the act no less culpable, and for the victim, no less upsetting.]

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Good piece, Max. Thanks for it.

    The hypocrisy on all sides about the whole thing is what disturbs me most.

  • Robster

    Perhaps peripheral, but I glanced at a certain liberal Catholic web site, in which a column sneers about Pope Gregory the Something or Other, centuries back, trashing Mary Magdalene by first associating her with prostitution. Her name wasn’t cleared until Pope Paul VI. Anyway, I suppose it was meant to be humorous, but it, along with scads of subsequent commentary, rather pathetic. Men hate women, love power, etc., etc., Same old feminist whine, and not a fine one, either. Almost sounds like a stereotype: “You just don’t understand, you big oaf!”

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    I think a flaw of the post is that it assumes that patriarchy is just about gender, when relationships of power are incredibly important to theories of patriarchy.

    From ace:
    “Still, what fosters abuse? Closed systems, extreme authoritarianism, secrecy, isolation, opportunity for those disposed…? And, presently and in the future? Corporatism? Punishment of whistle-blowers? A culture where differences are seen as disloyalty? The raising of stakes by extremism of whatever stripe?”
    I think ace has it right here, and if you look at what he’s saying, you’ll notice that disparities of power are a common element running throughout this list. But the more people who get brought in to share the power, the fewer disparities in power there will be.

    @Manny
    “when it’s convenient there are no gender differences, when it’s inconvenient there are significant gender differences. Can’t have it both ways.”
    We actually can. We don’t deny that there are gender differences, we just deny that those differences are inherent and therefore normative. Gender training starts from birth which makes it deeply ingrained. Parents rock girl babies (or babies they’re told are girls) differently from how they rock boy babies. Parents talk to their girl babies about four times as much (not sure of the exact number) as they do their boy babies. So gender is real, it just isn’t inherent.