The Personalist Project

The term mansplaining was coined following the publication of a book called Men Explain Things to Meby Rebecca Solnit. It captures well the maddening experience many women share of men (not all men, but lots of them) habitually presuming superior knowledge—men coming at them, as it were, not as peers, not with respect, openness and interest in learning, but condescendingly, with a presumption of social and intellectual superiority. "Here is a boon for you: my expertise, freely given to supply your ignorance...You're welcome."

We've gotten much better about this as a society, thanks in part to the popular spread of the clever term. I still come across it occasionally, but there's no question there's less of it on the whole. Men have gotten better about not doing it, and women have gotten better about not putting up with it.

Let me draw out that last point a bit. As with any instance, however big or small, of the master/slave dynamic in human relations, overcoming it involves two distinct moral tasks: one for the "master," another for the "slave." The master has to learn to stand down; the slave has to learn to stand up. 

Each has his task regardless of whether the other proves willing to do hers.

The master ought to humble himself, whether or not his slave demands it. Apart from certain objective (plus limited and conditional) relations, such as that between teacher and student or parent and child or boss and employee, it's always bad and unfitting for a person to adopt a stance of superiority over another. To do so is to operate in the master/slave mode, and hence to thwart the reciprocity that is the sin qua non of authentic interpersonal communion. [Just yesterday, I came across a line from an interview Jorge Bergoglio gave in the days surrounding the consistory that elevated him to Cardinal. He stood out from his fellows for the way he kept a low profile, staying in simple guest rooms, going to and from the Vatican on foot, wearing hand-me-down clerical garb. “In Gospel terms, every elevation implies a descent; you have to abase yourself in order to serve better.”]

Similarly, I propose, every degradation implies an ascent. The "slave" has to learn to assert herself, whether or not her right and call to do so is acknowledged by the "master." When she does, even if she does it badly, she not only cultivates her own dignity, she helps establish the conditions for healthy, fruitful communion. Typically, he won't like it. He'll find fault with her for overreacting or causing needless tension or being rude or rebellious or whatever. He might rebuke her and otherwise pressure her to get back down, so to speak—back to her proper place. But, if he does, he'll be in the wrong, and he'll be intensifying the exigency of her resistance. 

Generally speaking, when it comes to a longstanding master/slave personal or cultural tendency, change starts with the "slave" (who isn't used to taking initiative and may be clumsy or worse about it.) It's a psychological fact of the dynamic that the master is comfortable and attached to his position. He typically thinks it's the way things ought to be. He will tend to think of his basic moral tasks in terms of being a better master—kinder maybe, more patient, more generous with his time, etc. While the slave, on the other hand, gradually grows more pinched, frustrated and restive. She begins to resent, question, and reject as illegitimate the traditional moral tasks assigned to her position: obey, be humble, submissive and docile. 

Eventually, a point of crisis arrives. Something's gotta give. It's a fraught moment, ripe for either fruitfulness or violence, sometimes both.

If the "slave" is thoughtful and courageous at that moment, and takes care to conscientiously aim at the common good, rather than lashing out in revenge, there's hope of renewal. Not a return to the way things were, but a new, better way of being, allowing for fresh grace and vitality. If the "master" refuses to stand down, though, there may be violence anyway, as in the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, or the American Revolution for that matter.

The same is true on the personal level. Think of Nora in A Doll's House. Once her eyes were opened to her state of subjection, her travesty of a marriage collapsed, and there were only two practical possibilities remaining: Her husband would have to learn to stop regarding her as his little doll, his feather-brained subordinate, so their marriage could become a true communion of persons, or they would divorce. What was permanently off the table was a return to the status quo ante.

Similarly, there comes a moment, typically in adolescence, when a child begins to assert his right of self-governance as a person as over and against his parents. It's a delicate, dangerous moment. If the parents respond by doubling down on their natural authoritarian habits, they will frustrate their child's maturing, or they will lose him, or some mix of both.

In my opinion, we are reaching one of these crisis moments in the Church, with respect to relations between the laity and the clergy. As I said in an earlier post, thanks to the sex abuse scandals, the scales have fallen from the eyes of the laity. As a group, we are at least beginning to wake up to the fact of our wretched passivity, dependency and subordination—to the master/slave quality of the clericalist status quo.  [N.B. It's not all of the laity, of course. Most of us are still asleep. Nor is it laity exclusively. Many priests, including—thanks be to God—our present Pope and his two great predecessors, are acutely aware of the problem. Nor do I suggest that that bad dynamic is all that's going on in the Church. Rather, I claim that the good in the Church is infected with and badly hobbled by that spiritual toxin.]

But I'm getting way ahead myself. My original aim was only to offer examples of the clericalist equivalent of mansplaining—priests (not all priests, but lots of them) coming at the laity with condescension, with gratuitous instruction, with a (sometimes discreet, sometimes flagrant) presumption of social and religious superiority. It's constant and it's maddening, and it's not okay, even if it's entirely understandable, given their formation and the habits of centuries. 

I'm deliberate in focussing on small, "innocent" examples here. I'm not talking about priests who violate their vows or seek power for its own sake or consciously lord it over the laity. Rather, I mean to expose a subtle, pervasive pattern—one that reveals a deep disorder in the status quo, and one that afflicts laity and clergy alike, including even the very sincere and devout. Ibsen's play didn't depict a case of blatant spousal abuse, rather he uncovered a toxic dynamic in an apparently happy marriage.

A week or two ago, after morning mass, I asked a young priest what had happened to communion under both species (something I cherish about daily mass at our parish.) He replied that it had been suspended during flu season, but would be back. I said, "Oh good, that's what I was hoping. I miss it when it's gone." Then he threw in in a little catechetical instruction for good measure: "Theologically, you receive both with the host." 

This priest doesn't know that I was a theology major in college, but that's partly my point. He doesn't know me personally at all, but he assumed I would benefit from a little catechetical lesson from him. He does know that I'm about 20 years older than he is and that I'm frequently at daily mass and weekly benediction. He might have noted, too, that I had used the technical phrase "communion under both species," plainly indicating that I'm not a theological ignoramus. But none of those facts had any force against his natural presumption of superiority. He is a priest; I am a layman. Therefore, he is the teacher; I am one of his students.

Here's another and (for me at least) more maddening example. Our pastor has a practice of standing outside the church after Sunday masses, greeting his flock as they exit, saying a light, humorous word to one and all. It's irritatingly superficial and fake-sounding, but I do my best to endure it patiently, because I understand it must be challenging to be a father to a congregation of thousands, and what else is he supposed to do? 

One day, though, in a spirit of sincerity and genuine gratitude, I tried to break through the wall of facetiousness and make a small personal connection. I said, "Thank you for the scholarship that allows you to give us such substantive homilies." He responded by ratcheting up the facetiousness: "Oh, well! Thank you! Wow! I should make you my press secretary!"

He clearly meant it to be complimentary. I guess he assumed I would be flattered by the idea that he finds me verbally deft enough to serve as his public mouthpiece. Maybe he thought that would be a dream job for me? Evidently, it didn't enter his head at that moment that I might prefer to use my rhetorical skills to express my own ideas to the press—that I might even already be someone who thinks and writes and publishes in her own name. 

And—jumping back to mansplaining for a sec—can anyone imagine a priest making such a comment to a 50-something man?

Anyway, I found it galling and depressing, plus completely typical [not of him personally, but of the problem of clericalism]. With far too few exceptions, our priests don't know us (i.e. the laity); they don't defer to us, and they have no idea that they should.

Maybe some readers will judge me hypersensitive, plus arrogant. Go right ahead. It proves my point. It intensifies the exigency of my resistance.

JP II publicly apologized to and thanked the early feminists, who had had to suffer the pain of being deemed "unfeminine" because they stood up for themselves and asserted their equal dignity with men. It's part of the cross of any "slave" who refuses to keep slaving to have those still enmeshed in the dynamic find moral fault with her, especially to find her haughty and arrogant. Blacks of the civil rights era were often deemed "uppity" by Jim Crow whites.

In truth, I am prickly on this point because I am, by temperament and training, plus long personal experience, more attuned to it than most. But I'm an outlier only in the sense of being on the crest of a wave. I am a prophet of sorts, and a canary in the coal mine of the Church. So, I really hope I'm heard when I say this: clericalism will end, and for two reasons:

1) It is opposed to the gospel, 

2) It has become intolerable.

Whether and to what degree its end is fruitful or violent or both is up to us, our generation of Catholics. "I set before you life or death." If we want to avoid violence and establish an ecclesial culture of harmonious and fruitful conjugality between clergy and their congregations, laity will have to learn to come forward, and priests will have to learn to step back. 

Comments (18)

William Pemberton

#1, Mar 24, 2019 11:21am

It was very eye-opening to me to read Peter Brown's "The Rise of Western Christendom". He points to the Frankish period as the crystallization of a set of expectations that have become normative but were not inevitable or universal in Christianity. What happened was the creation of an orthodoxy that restricted the means of salvation. Where was the Christian to find grace? In 1) the Church building, in 2) the written word, and 3) from the priest. This led to the theological marginalization of 1) nature and the cosmos, 2) things and images, and 3) of laypeople. Of course there hosts of exceptions, but this Frankish tension represents a constant pull in Catholic thinking and culture, and the very clericalism, of the "Church expert", you describe (forget "holiness", priests are now just the gnostic initiates into the mystery cult of ecclesiasticalness). I have never heard a Catholic priest say "I don't know" in response to a theological or spiritual question, but have frequently received ridiculous or wrong responses.

It certainly is time for this clericalism to end, but it can only end with an authentic renewal of the priestly charism, which exists "for" the sanctification and sacramental ministration of laypeople, not "for" its own sake.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Mar 24, 2019 12:20pm

Thanks, William. I haven't read that book, but it sounds interesting and worthwhile. Jules pointed me to a review of another book (or could it have been this one?) arguing that the clericalist structure we have inherited is a Constantinian holdover that's been outmoded by modern developments. That makes sense to me. 

To your last point, I agree that we need a renewal of the priestly charism, but I think we also (and even first and foremost) need an awakening of the lay charism.

Just this morning I was listening to an audio version of a biography of Frederick Douglass and was struck by a line (which I paraphrase from memory): "Power won't yield without a demand." 

Task number one, imo, is for fomenting (under grace) a lay demand for reciprocity.

Rhett Segall

#3, Mar 24, 2019 12:38pm

It is exasperating when a person in a profession treats the non-professional as ignorant. It becomes infuriating if their expertise in one area, say education or medicine, prompts them to consider themselves  expertise in other areas. But there are people who do have superiority of knowledge and technology that ought to be respected. The MD does by and large grasp the symptoms significance better than the lay man; the computer expert does know why my computer has ceased to function. He/she does have superiority and therefore authority in that area. It ought to be respected. But, as you say Katie, being a lay person doesn't mean that one is an "ignoramus" or that the expert knows everything. A little humility all around will be most helpful!

William, I think your reference to Brown's book most apropos.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Mar 24, 2019 12:48pm

I want to say more than that, though. It's not enough for the clergy to recognize that though they are experts, we the laity are not necessarily ignorant. They need to stop thinking they are above us. They are not our superiors. 

Similarly, it's not enough for a husband to realize that he shouldn't treat his wife as if she's stupid. Rather, he should realize she is his equal in the relationship.

As I've said often before, equal doesn't mean identical. There are and will remain vital complementary differences between the priestly and lay vocations. But the relationship is reciprocal, not hierarchical, and the clergy have as much to learn from us as we do from them.

William Pemberton

#5, Mar 24, 2019 7:06pm

Katie—I totally agree with you that the laity need to demand the kind of respect that is completely evangelical—"for you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people set apart." The lay Christian is remade through baptism, and is not "lesser" in any way than the ordained priest. Somewhere along the way the notion of "higher and lower" crept in. Culture and canons are against the laity—"all power in the Church comes from the sacrament of orders" an aphorism I can't remember the origin of, but seemed to be a majority theological opinion (I studied canon law about a hundred years ago, it seems). What form would that demand take. 

As to the Constantinian influence: I see the point that bishops took on a sort of "official" role at that time, mediating between imperial authority and ecclesiastical life. Brown documents this in "Power and Persuasion", but the East/West divide was strong very early, and due to both the Arian heresy and the Iconoclastic one, there emerged in the "Constantinian" East a sense that it was the lay people and the monks who were the ones to hold the clergy to account. Not the other way round.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Mar 24, 2019 8:53pm

William, the good news is that theology (not to mention the gospel itself) is prior to Canon Law. And Christian experience is prior to theology. And the present Pope is totally on the case. 

I'm reading two books now that reveal it in practically every paragraph. The Great Reformer and The Mind of Pope Francis: the Intellectual Journey of Jorge Bergoglio. And on this theme, he is in a direct line with his predecessors. There is a close parallel between JP II Theology of the Body and the Theology of the People that shaped Bergoglio's thought and pastoral approach. Both are all about reciprocity, mutual need, mutual openness-to-the-other, and the sterility of the one-up/one-down alternative that's currently stifling the life out of the Church. It's beautiful and thrilling to think what's coming. I'm just hoping it will come without too much rupture and violence. 

Rhett Segall

#7, Mar 24, 2019 9:35pm

1 Tim: 5:17 "Presbyters who preside well deserve double honor, especially those who toil in preaching and teaching." This is to take nothing away from the inherent dignity of our baptism. Dietrich von Hildebrand use to be criticized for allowing his students who were priests to go into class ahead of him; he dismissed criticism of this special courtesy as a lack of reverence. Even though King Saul sinned grievously David would not lay a hand on "God's anointed" affirming that as anointed by God King Saul deserved a special honor. The sacrament of the priesthood in Christian tradition is one of three sacraments that confer an indelible mark of God's calling. This reverence for the ordained priesthood should nurture our reverence for all Christians who indeed share in the priesthood of Christ. 

Paul Rodden

#8, Mar 25, 2019 6:26am

Superb piece! Of course, when saying

Men have gotten better about not doing it, and women have gotten better about not putting up with it.

- it seems to me, the only true way of this decline, is learning and seeing others correctly, as persons, rather than merely desisting from, or curbing, condescending behaviours, thinking it won't creep out, as in your 'both species' example: an experience, I, as a man in his 50s, also experience from priests. That priest probably thought he was all for '*allowing* women/laypeople to participate' in his church.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Mar 25, 2019 8:26am

Rhett, I replied, but it got lost somehow. I'll try again. Sorry for the confusion.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Mar 25, 2019 8:33am

Paul, you're right, lay men will get clericalism from many priests as much as lay women. It's just that women will sometimes also get a kind of mansplaining from them on top of that.

And I agree that overcoming it will involve learning to regard the other as person.

I also think we laity will need to organize ourselves to force change, as in the Civil Rights and Solidarity movements. More on that in future posts.

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Mar 25, 2019 9:53am


St. Paul also said, "slaves, obey your masters" and "women should never speak in church" and "wives, be submissive to your husbands."

The Church has interpreted those as culturally conditioned. We are not to understand them as prescriptive. They have been overcome by a deeper penetration of the mysteries of our faith.

The fact that we owe the priesthood reverence doesn't mean that priests are our superiors, any more than the fact that we owe motherhood reverence means that mothers should be put in charge of society.

Reverence isn't incompatible with reciprocity. 

Rhett Segall

#12, Mar 25, 2019 10:31am

Totally agree, Katie. I do think though, that the priesthood is an archetype that's very deep. Once our high school theology department met with parents to explain what some parents thought was a departure from orthodox Catholic dogma. The cafeteria was totally filled.The theology department, all laity and nuns, were highly educated theologically. After a careful explanation by a member of the department to the parents of what was "going on in the classroom catechetically" one of the parents stood up and, without any reference to the said explanation, simply asked "But what does Father (school chaplain) have to say?"   In other words, the priest, with his direct line to God, knows. Dostoevsky's portrayal of this archetype in "The Grand Inquisitor" is classic. I think the crowds acceptance of the judgment on Jesus by the high priest is very much connected with this phenomena.

In correcting this archetype Catholics have to be careful to avoid going to the opposite pole of anti-clericalism.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Mar 25, 2019 4:15pm

Yes. But we also have to be careful not to be too careful, if you get what I mean. 

If we're too careful, nothing will change, because there are too few willing to speak and act.

"Be not afraid!"

Ian Skemp

#14, Apr 30, 2019 3:16pm


Thank you for putting this in the context of the master/slave dynamic. I don't deny mansplaining, but it's definitely just one expression of that infernal dynamic. It's nowhere near as common as mansplaining, but I've used the terms "momsplaining" and "dadsplaining" to describe situations where someone who is neither my mother nor my father spoke to me in an authoritative manner. It doesn't happen as often as it did in my twenties, but I was sure tired of unsolicited advice on "how to succeed in life" or "what it means to be a man." I'm already a man and I'm doing fine, thank you!

Ian Skemp

#15, Apr 30, 2019 3:17pm

Solutions to the dynamic have been discussed, but I think it's also important to discuss practical methods for preventing it in the first place. I teach for a living and, as you noted, that involves me being in a position of authority over my students. I could easily slip into the "master" mode (I probably have). My lessons are heavily lecture based, but I make a conscious effort to turn that off when class is over. My approach is to talk less and listen more. It's nice. I have more fruitful dialogues with my students and I spend less time giving them answers to questions they never asked. Win-win.

In practice, has anyone else found useful tools to subdue the tendency to be a master or a slave? 

Katie van Schaijik

#16, May 1, 2019 9:38am

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ian. I think solutions vary a lot by situation and case. For instance, there's a difference between a situation where an objective differential obtains, as in parent/child and teacher/student. In such cases, it's good make a point of cultivating that awareness of the deeper truths of the other's subjectivity and equality. So, a student should make a point of "thinking with" with the teacher and testing his words, not being too passive or too docile. A teacher should make a point, as you do, of paying attention to the students as subjects, not just objects of his teaching. 

In cases where there IS no objective differential, when the other ought to be relating to me as peer, not superior, some pushback may be in order. I remember a line in one of Newman's letters about an impertinent chamber maid who had disarranged his papers and instead of being penitent, she was amused at herself. He wrote "I was obliged to snub her." Sometimes a snub is just the thing.

I know a consecrated woman who tells priests that if they want her to address them as "Father Last Name", they will have to address her as "Dame Last Name."

Katie van Schaijik

#17, May 1, 2019 9:48am

The general solution is for the "slave" to cultivate a lively awareness of her own dignity, her rights, her boundaries, and to learn gradually to live and act from and within those. By doing that, she gradually brings the "master" to a relation of love and friendship, though it may well be a messy process.

The "master", on the other hand, has to cultivate in himself a lively sense of the worth and dignity of the other, his needing to live and act "for her" and "with her", as peer and companion, not as superior—as if her job in life is to fulfill his wants, aims and needs. 

Of course practically all of us are by turns both master and slave. Think of the typical case of the man who is obsequious toward his boss, but bullying toward his wife. Or the woman who is overly-submissive toward her husband and overly-authoritarian with her children.

Full human maturity involves learning both sets of skills. The mountains will be made low, and the valleys filled in.

Katie van Schaijik

#18, May 1, 2019 12:09pm

It just occurred to me that the rule against "crosstalk" in 12-step groups is a great example of a social custom that works to counteract master/slave habits.

12-step groups make a point of regularly reminding members that "we don't crosstalk," meaning we don't refer to or comment on what another person shares. Rather, we just listen. "We work on taking responsibility for ourselves rather than giving advice to others."

This is a small discipline that makes a major difference in the group's general culture. That discipline, together with the principles of anonymity and confidentiality, is what makes those rooms "safe places" to share feelings, thoughts and experiences.

I wish Catholic parishes and other communities would adopt it. Since I've been participating in a 12-step program, I've noticed how rank the habit of crosstalk is among Catholics (self included). Share a feeling or thought or opinion with a Catholic, and you are all-to-likely to get some moralistic advice for your pains. It's alienating. And it goes a long way to explaining why the Church is such a turn off to people today. As a community, it comes across at judgmental, moralistic and paternalistic, rather than welcoming, encouraging and consoling. More like the Pharisees than the early Christian communities.

This is a major concern of Pope Francis'.

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