The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2020 - 10:34:12

The clericalist version of mansplaining

Katie van Schaijik, Mar 24, 2019

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.