So there’s this communist dictatorship. The head of state is elected for life — but not by popular vote. Instead, there are officially designated Electors, all of them Party men, who are selected to represent the people and select the leader. Who selects the Electors? The head of state.
All Electors are invariably selected from a particular caste. Generally, they are selected for their loyalty to the Party. Almost all of the leaders are chosen from one of the central districts.
The Central Committee allows only a limited range of free speech within the state. Citizens are strongly cautioned against various forms of thought-crime, and the Party operates schools and universities which are expected to teach Party doctrine to young people. Professors who deviate from the party line are dismissed from their positions.
The private lives of citizens are also highly regulated. Any kind of sexual activity which is not approved by the Party is considered perverse. Citizens as young as eight years old are required to make an annual report to a Party representative in which they admit to any kind of thought-crime or sexual misdemeanor.
Historically, the Party used to torture, confine and execute people for thought crime, but they don’t do that anymore.
Recently, as a result of both internal unrest and external pressure, the Party has agreed that they need to embrace a more open style of leadership. They have committed to greater citizen involvement, and have promised to listen to the voices of the people when deciding policy.
Towards this end, the leaders of the Party have selected certain Representative Citizens who are allowed to observe, and sometimes even offer input, at internal government forums. Representative Citizens are carefully chosen from among the citizen body for their fidelity to the Party’s ideals. They are basically Yes Men.
But even these representatives secretly admit that they have minimal input. After all, they don’t have the ability to decide who is promoted within the Party. They have no influence over the careers of the leaders. So while they are allowed to sit in on committees and sometimes even allowed to speak, they don’t have any real influence.
The Party calls this “dialogue.” It insists that it is “listening” to the concerns of the majority who are systemically excluded from participation in leadership.
Obviously, this is close to the real MO of a lot of authoritarian states. And of course when we’re talking about a Communist government we are all readily and easily able to recognize that nothing resembling “listening” or “dialogue” is actually taking place. If you are only willing to listen to your citizens in so far as they agree with you, you’re not actually willing to listen at all.
We also realize that any talk of equality or reciprocity between the Party and the citizens is pure propaganda if, in fact, Party membership remains a closed game and all decisions are taken through internal party discourses where the vast majority of citizens are not allowed to participate, attend, or even be represented.
It is blatant that the leadership in such a case is primarily interested in maintaining its own power.
The question is, why is this not equally obvious if instead of talking about a Communist country, we are talking about a church?
Listening Without Ears
For years, as a Catholic woman, I was told that my concerns, my life, my reality, my needs were understood because the leadership “listened” to women and to married couples. They were not only qualified to weigh in on the most intimate aspects of my life — they were in fact more qualified than I was.
Women were of course excluded, not just from positions of power and influence but from any position where we could actually describe our experience and make sure that it was being understood by those making decisions about our lives. This, however, was no obstacle to the hierarchy being able to discern the truth about our bodies and our relationships.
You see, the Holy Spirit had given a magical grant of Truth to celibate men that allowed them to peer into the mysteries of our personal lives and to see the hidden realities which we, poor blind creatures, could not discern.
Also, of course, these men listened. Or at least, some of them listened. To some women. Some of the time.
They “listened.” And then they went away behind closed doors where women were not allowed to follow, and they talked among themselves about what would be best for us. And oddly, these conversations always seemed to conclude that although, obviously, our difficulties were great and our experiences valid, none the less the conclusions that they had come to hundreds of years ago before they started listening to women (even a little bit) were still definitely true.
If women complained about this situation it was because we were proud. Arrogant. Disobedient. Selfish. Obsessed with power.
It wasn’t, couldn’t, be because we were being subjected to unjust strictures by men who claimed to “listen” but who did not have ears to hear.
It’s ironic that one of the supposedly immutable “truths” of Catholic doctrine is that you cannot contracept — you have to maintain a complete openness to your spouse, and that openness has to involve a willingness to welcome new life.
Yet the hierarchy is, in fact, deeply closed against any kind of fruitful dialogue with Catholic women. The kind of “listening” that is done by Catholic Bishops and Popes is, to actual dialogue, as looking at porn is to fruitful sex. Women are made into objects of a male theological gaze, our lives are observed for just long enough that the men can get their ideas pumping, and then off they go to a room by themselves to beat out doctrine.
And of course, only women with particularly attractive and flattering perceptions of Catholic sexual teaching are involved in the first place. Women with ugly and challenging experiences or ideas are not welcome at all. We don’t fit the ideal of Womanhood that Catholic theologians and priests like to fantasize about when they are coming up with sexual teachings.
The one time that actual listening happened (when Catholic women were invited to speak about their experiences and the experiences of other women at the Papal Birth Control Commission), it had a remarkable effect: the vast majority of the men sitting in the room had their views transformed. They actually saw what their teachings were doing to women, and instead of having a closed conversation among themselves they opened themselves up to the idea that maybe the truth about women’s sexuality could not be discerned in a sterile environment with no women present.
The Commission recommended something new. A transformative encounter took place, and it gave rise to a new understanding of human life — and understanding that was, for the first time, the result of input from both the female and the male.
Which the hierarchy promptly aborted.
They have been careful, ever since, to make sure that they only “listen” to women from a safe distance, and only to women who are known to toe the party line.
Take Back Our Bodies
The incredible thing is not that the leadership of the Catholic Church behaves this way. Of course they do. They do for the same reason that the leadership of a Soviet country tries to keep all power within the Party. For the same reason that oligarchical systems attempt to thwart and subvert actual democracy. For the same reason that business leaders enjoy listening to model employees talk about how great the boss’s policies have been.
This is just power doing what power does.
What is incredible is that so many women — intelligent women, talented women, virtuous women — get duped into thinking that these men are listening. That they understand. That they care. That they have the first clue about the realities of sex and birth and child-rearing.
That so many women get fooled into thinking that it is “arrogant” for us to make the blatantly reasonable claim that we know more about bodies than men who have made a vow never even to touch them.
And that so many Catholic men, men who are literally terrified of anything that might lead to a loss of their free speech, loss of their democracy, and loss of their freedom, go on telling Catholic women that it is evil for us to claim that it’s unfair for our lives be governed by men who refuse to allow us any meaningful input into the most intimate questions of our existence.