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.

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