On St. Joseph’s femininity

The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.
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First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.

It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.
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But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy.  In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.
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His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:

“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”
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 I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa.  Joseph-Joseph . . .  womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:

He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.
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But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”
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I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.
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And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.
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Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.
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And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.
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If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.
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But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.
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But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
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It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
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And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.
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We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.
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Hell if I know what it all means, except that most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. In other context, my sister Abby Tardiff said this (and this was just part of a Facebook comment she dashed off, not some polished work of prose):
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[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).

However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.

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Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.
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It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.
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Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.
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Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.
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I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.
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Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.

 

Would a female priesthood disrupt sex abuse?

Let’s just let women be priests.

Right? These damn men can’t keep their hands to themselves, whether they’re straight or gay or pedophiles or ephebophiles or married or allegedly celibate, so the hell with them. Let’s just let women have some power for once, and put a screeching halt to all the abuse, all the lies, all the cover-ups.

I keep hearing this argument, and now I’m going to respond.

First, one more time, with feeling: female Catholic priests are an ontological impossibility, and the Church could not ordain women even if it wanted to, any more than it could ordain butterfly as dragonflies. We like butterflies. But they are not dragonflies, and dragonflies are not butterflies. So it’s not going to happen. The Church is not going to start ordaining women priests.

But if somehow it were possible to do — or if, say, the pope decided to appoint women cardinals, which is theoretically possible — would the presence and influence and oversight of women be the clean sweep we’re looking for? Just clean out all that nasty male sexual aggression, perversion, and abuse and replace it with clean, honest, feminine integrity?

I’ve asked myself this sincerely, and I keep coming back to two words: Dottie Sandusky.

Dottie Sandusky has been married to her husband Jerry for over 50 years, and she still stands by her man. She had no idea what was going on in the basement of her own home, in the shower, in the bedroom, in the locker room, in that marriage, in that man’s heart, for decade after decade after decade, as she shared a life with him. She could have blown the whistle any time, but she didn’t. She says she didn’t know.

But if she didn’t know, it’s because she dedicated her life to not knowing. And so have countless other women who’ve come into contact with countless Jerry Sanduskys, in sports, in education, in medicine, and in the Church. He couldn’t have done what he did if she wasn’t willing to do what she did, which was nothing.

We need to stop indulging in the kind of magical thinking that says, “Women just being women will fix everything.” Let’s look at a few non-magical facts:

Women do abuse. When women do have authority over people with less power, they do abuse them. Sexual abuse by women, whether against men, against other women, or against children, is far more widespread than most people realize. Men and boys are less likely than women and girls to report being sexually abused; and pop culture still halfway thinks it’s funny or kinky when, for instance, a female teacher has a sexual “relationship” with a male student. But it’s still statutory rape even when the adult is female, and it’s still predatory; and it does happen in the Church, when women do have power over vulnerable people.

Women are just as capable of cruelty and abuse as men. They are perhaps less inclined to use sex, specifically, as a weapon, but they do wield what weapons they have. If women were priests and bishops and cardinals and seminary rectors and had the respect, authority, and invulnerability that goes along with those roles, the kind of abuse might look different, but there’s no evidence to suggest there would be less abuse. If women had the power that bishops have, women would abuse that power, because women are human.

As Leticia Adams says:

Rape and sexual abuse of children have nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual gratification. The goal is not sex, the goal is power, control and to destroy another human being.

Hunger for power and control, and the desire to destroy. Those are not male desires; those are human desires.

But the second part of the answer is: Whoever the perpetrator is, abuse doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. The decades or centuries of abuse that we’re continuing to uncover today could never have happened without the silence and complicity of women.

There were women everywhere — everywhere –who knew what Larry Nasser was doing to all those girls. He could not have gotten away with his abuse for all those years without the complicity and silence of dozens or maybe hundreds of women who chose not to say anything, who put pressure on girls to doubt themselves and blame themselves for what happened to them.

You might say that women do report abuse, and are less likely to be believed, because they are women. Maybe? But there were also a good number of men blowing the whistle on abusive priests, and they went just as unheard. Meanwhile, the savagery with which women turn on other female whistleblowers is breathtaking. I have seen it myself.

Why do women allow abuse to happen? Same reasons as men do:

They can’t think beyond the false dichotomy of “likable person who does a lot of good” and “ravening monster.” Sometimes an abuser is both. Sometimes a man runs charities, helps people, is kind, and is a true friend and support to many . . .  and also rapes people. This phenomenon is magnified a hundredfold if the abuser is a priest, and his accomplishments have some spiritual weight. The congregation can point to how he’s invigorated the parish, how well he understands scripture, how reverent his liturgy is, how stirring his sermons, how well the school is doing, how many babies he baptizes every year, and tell themselves, “If he were truly a bad man, would he be doing all these good and holy things?” We aren’t comfortable with acknowledging that the same person can do some very good things and also some very bad things. It disrupts our understanding of how well we know people and how well we can know ourselves, so we reject the possibility of contradictions, and instead opt for blind loyalty.

They know about it, but they blame the victim. For a variety of reasons, they don’t want to acknowledge that the abuser is an abuser, so they shift the blame to the victim. We saw this with Fr. Groschel; we saw this with . . . lord, you know where we saw it. Everywhere. My friend who was raped at gunpoint heard two women wondering what she had been wearing at the time. It makes us feel less vulnerable if we can figure out some way the victims brought it on themselves.

They know about it, but they keep quiet because they love the Church. They think it would hurt the Church if it went public even more than it hurts the victim to be abused. You know what I think about that.

And sometimes, they just don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to put their own jobs at stake. They don’t want to disrupt the familiar. They don’t want to interrupt the flow of goodies that come their way, so they learn to live with the status quo. They don’t want to threaten their own security, and so they tell themselves whatever they need to tell themselves. They slowly and steadily put more and more of their conscience to death, until they simply don’t care about other people.

When I first started to realize the depth of corruption in the Church, I told myself that I needed to be willing to follow the story wherever it goes. As a faithful Catholic female advocate for victims of sexual aggression, I cannot be content to give the easy answers. I want to say,  “It’s the traddies’ fault!” or “It’s the fault of the sexual revolution!” or, most enticingly, “It’s men’s fault!” Those frigging men. Right?

But that doesn’t answer it. It’s just another red herring. It’s not the evil of maleness that is the problem. It’s the evilness of humanity. It’s the weakness and corruptibility of human nature. We don’t need more women on the inside. We need more clear-thinking, courageous women and men on the outside, willing and able to see clearly and speak loudly, and, most importantly, capable of bringing the guilty to justice.

Thrusting more women into existing power structures won’t disrupt anything. It’ll just give more women the opportunity to become complicit.

 

 

 

Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.