Does father know best?

Patriarchy is coalescing around two pillars of the establishment: fundamentalist religion and conservative economics

By Joanna Manning

Male dominance within the Catholic Church affects the politics of fertility, of population, and a series of gender relationships. This patriarchal world view, which is hierarchical, assumes the inequality of gender, race, and class.

There is a deep dualism within the heart that has ancient religious and philosophical sources. From the Persian religion of Zoroaster, it passed into Manichaeism, which was a sect that taught the separate cosmic origin and mutually hostile manifestation of the forces of good and evil. From Manichaeism, it passed into the writings of the first century bishop, Augustine of Hippo. He was one of the most influential "fathers of the church." Although he renounced Manichaeism, much of his later thought bears traces of its influence. In the twilight of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Christendom, Augustine fused the concept of competing forces of good and evil with another very powerful philosophical influence, neo-Platonic Greek philosophy, with its identification of the good with the spiritual, the transcendent, the absolute that goes beyond human reaching, yet which can be reached by the mind. So the good becomes identified with the rational and the abstract, and by inference with its manifestation in males.

The association of those two ancient philosophical movements had enormous influence on the development of crusading and on the colonizing empires of medieval and mercantile Europe. It also underlies Western philosophical, legal, medical, scientific, and educational disciplines, with their emphasis on the superiority of the rational and technological, and their distrust of the emotional, the sexual, the natural, and by inference, the feminine. Psychology, philosophy, religion, and history, all were moved in parallel ways by these notions.

Moreover, Western history was informed by an apocalyptic understanding of the Jewish and Christian scriptures-that time progresses in a linear direction towards an ultimate goal. There will be a consummation at the end of time. In religious circles this is sometimes viewed as the spiritual Armageddon, the final cosmic battle where good will finally triumph over evil. Sometimes it has been manifested in the idea that it is the destiny of the Christian church to triumph over the dark forces of Satan or of paganism, or in our modern day, over atheistic Communism. Or it might manifest itself in the destiny of the white, Christian, male-dominated races to conquer and civilize the dark and unenlightened savages of North and South America, Africa, or Asia.

There is a parallel in an Enlightenment or Newtonian view of the universe as a great machine that is subject to rational human quantification and analysis. There was a faith in the wedding of science to technology, which would harness the resources of nature to put an end to scarcity and human suffering. Medicine and technology have equated a religious paradise with the secular gratification of material wants and the enjoyment of optimum physical wellbeing; these are now the objectives of our consumer-oriented society.

In both the religious and the secular world views, certain assumptions are given:

  1. The subservient and unpaid role of women is determined by divinely-ordained laws of biology, or by the demand of the market.
  2. The religious, political, and economic dominance of the Christian, Northern, white, and increasingly affluent races over the non-Christian, colonized races in the South is also divinely ordained.
  3. The Father-God is transcendent over the rest of creation and man, as the image of God is over nature. In economic terms the storehouse of nature is regarded as resources put there for the material satisfaction of the human species.

Today these three assumptions have emerged as precisely the pivots around which the competing world views are emerging. The dominant patterns of power and patriarchy are being increasingly challenged by these three related, historical, religious, and cultural forces:

  1. feminism, with its renewed appreciation of women;
  2. the demand for social justice among previously colonized races, particularly aboriginals and blacks; and
  3. the environmental movement.

In response, patriarchy is coalescing around two pillars of the establishment: fundamentalist religion and conservative economics. Catholic fundamentalism, in particular, working with conservative economics, is harming the lives of women, the lives of the poor, and our approach to the earth. I believe that reactionary forces of religion and economics are among the most serious threats to the realization of peace on earth.

Many Catholics ask me, "Why don't you just leave the Church? It's all going to break down anyway, so why bother with what's going on in Rome or in the Archbishop's office in Toronto?"

But I have been deeply nurtured by mystical and prophetic elements of Catholicism, while on the other side, I just cannot deny what I am hearing with my own ears and reading about the lives of women.

For example, the present obsession of the pope and the clergy with the letter of the law on contraception is posing a serious threat to world health, and particularly the health of women The ban on artificial contraception, although it was inherent in the Church's teaching on marriage in earlier centuries, was really only articulated in the writings of Pius XI in the 1930s, in reaction to the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church, which accepted contraception within marriage. In 1968, Pope Paul VI rejected the report of a commission set up by John XXIII that recommended a change in church teaching. He uses only one argument for the ban on contraception-the theological concept of natural law.

The idea of natural law is based on the anthropology and biology of Greek and Roman science. This passed into the writings of another very influential Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who stressed the separation between the supernatural and transcendent on the one hand and the natural, human, and material on the other. Natural law assumptions regard the created world as set up by the creator to operate according to a set of laws that are intrinsic to each species. These laws are accessible to human reason without revelation of the church, but since human beings fell into sin at the dawn of time, their reason is now clouded by sinful passion. According to this theory, people don't always perceive the laws that the creator put there, so the supernatural world has to intervene to correct this, and it does so through the teachings of the church.

Catholic teaching on the natural regulation of human fertility is based on an early Stoic Roman observation of the behavior of animals that concluded that female animals only accept the males sexually when in heat. Since this sexual activity is always reproductive, the Stoic said that sex is inseparably connected with fertility. This limited scientific observation became and remains the basis of papal teaching on the inseparability of sexuality and reproduction. According to the law of nature, the only permissible way of regulating births depends on the natural rhythms of fertile and infertile periods of the woman's menstrual cycle.

A struggle is taking place as the global church seeks to shake off centuries of patriarchal rule by a small group of celibate male clerks. What actually happens to women throughout the globe? The U.N. report, Women: The Challenge of the Year 2000, presents a stark picture of the deterioration in the health and lives of women and children. Two of the most patriarchal power structures in the world today-the Catholic Church and the government of the United States-have brought fundamentalism to bear on world issues, with a return to traditional or "family values." The Republican government withdrew support for planned parenthood overseas and slashed domestic support services for women and the poor.

The key to the destiny of earth lies with the health and education of women. A prerequisite of this is women's ability to control their own fertility. The UNICEF report states that the responsible planning of births is one of the most effective and least expensive ways of improving the quality of life on earth, both now and in the future, and one of the greatest mistakes of our time is the failure to recognize this potential. In part, an awareness of the full benefits obtainable from the responsible planning of families has been hidden from the public view by the clouds of controversy which have hung over this issue. Family planning could save the lives of perhaps one-quarter to one-third of the 500,000 women who now die every year from causes related to pregnancy and giving birth.

There is a collusion between the church, the patriarchal legal system, the social services, and the police. There is a parallel between the Father-Knows-Best pattern of power in religion and the Father-Knows-Best pattern of patriarchal economics and politics. Now economic power relationships, although cloaked in the rhetoric of democracy, are based on a hierarchical system of global market values and of gender values. The overall position of women declined during the 1980s. As the U.N. report puts it, the economic crisis of the 1980s and the structural adjustment programs adopted by devoloping countries under the auspices of international financial institutions abruptly slowed down and in some instances actually reversed the steady progress for women of preceding decades. Preexisting inequalities suffered by women worsened during the economic crisis and women suffered disproportionately from the cuts in education. Rapid population growth also contributed to the rise in the number of illiterate women, a trend that is expected to continue into the 21st century.

There will never be lasting peace in our world unless we change the deepseated roots of patriarchy. Attitudes, laws, theologies, and structures of division that are based on gender, race, or class, must be confronted, whatever the cost. The war that we wage within, in our most intimate gender relationships, is the pattern for a whole series of adversarial relationships, and these have become the norm of human behavior.

Joanna Manning is a Toronto high school teacher active in justice issues inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1993

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1993, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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