Friday, February 19, 2016
Is Patriarchy oppressive?
This series now has its own label: to access the full set, click here.
In this post I am going to address three questions.
What is Patriarchy?
Is is taught by the Church?
Is it oppressive?
I am going to define Patriarchy narrowly, as the view that within marriage the husband has authority over the wife, with certain limitations, and the wife the right of the support of the husband (ie he cannot chuck her out to starve in the snow). I want to use this narrow definition because it relates to references in Scripture, and also because in the Christian tradition it can legitimately take a wide range of specific forms in different social, economic, and cultural circumstances.
It fits in with a conception of marriage which is founded on the free consent of both parties, is indissoluble, and gives both parties the right to a common life - 'of bed and table' - and a duty of openness to life.
Although compatible with a range of cultural expressions, this definition is specifically Christian: it excludes some of the practices and attitudes found in Classical paganism and Islam, for example. I suppose I need to point out also that it is compatible with female ownership of property, participation in the workforce, and education. Indeed, these three things are normal in Christian societies, even if what married women have and do is not typically the same as what married men have and do. But I'm not going to write a blog post about married women's property or the history of female education; if you doubt me on this just think about Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Margery Kempe, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, etc. etc.. As for married women doing paid work, this was a victim of the Industrial Revolution, not of grim-faced Christian misogynists.
The next question is whether it is the teaching of the Church. The answer is obviously 'yes'. Here is the New Testament.
Colossians 3:18 'Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.'1 Corinthians 11:3 'But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.'
1 Corinthians 11:7-10 'A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.'
Ephesians 5:22 'Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.'
1 Timothy 2:12 'But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.'
1 Peter 3:1 'Likewise, ye wives, [be] in subjection to your own husbands.'
1 Peter 3:5 'For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands.'
Titus: 2:3-5 'Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.'
These are matched by verses expressing the (rather less controversial) flip side of the relationship, the husband's obligation to 'love', 'reverence', and sacrifice himself for his wife; the reminder that both need the other and both come come from God; and so on.
There is plenty to say about these verses which I am not going to say here. What is important for this post is that, whatever else they may be about, they say that husbands have authority over their wives, and they say this clearly and repeatedly. This Biblical teaching passes unimpeded into the writings of the Fathers of the Church, who are in complete unanimity about the basic picture, and from there into the teaching of the Church in general. It can be found in every Catholic textbook of theology up to the 1960s (here's one from 1906), and there is no serious controvery about it until the 20th century. It is not denied, for example, by classical Protestantism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
Scriptural teaching of such clarity would alone be enough to show that this is the irreformable teaching of the Church. The unanimity of the Fathers would alone be enough to show that. The universal consensus of Popes and theologians up to the 1960s would be enough to show it. Taking these three sources together, the case is triply overwhelming. There is not the shadow of a case for denying it. If the Church could be wrong about this, she could be wrong about anything. To deny this teaching is effectively to deny that the Church is capable of setting out any teaching with authority. If Feminism or 'modern conditions' or anything else has 'shown' that the teaching is wrong, then it has ipso facto shown that the Catholic Church is an elaborate fraud. And in point of fact, no serious magisterial attempt has been made since the 1960s to deny the teaching; it has simply been passed over in silence, with our attention being drawn to other teachings and other biblical texts.
The Catechism (1616) illustrates this beautifully. It quotes Ephesians 5:25: 'Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her,' somehow forgetting to quote the immediately preceding verses, 22-24, which gives the corresponding admonition to wives:
'Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.'
But does the Catechism actually deny the teaching? No.
(The implicit proposal that men undertake Christ-like love and self-sacrifice, without their wives giving them the respect and obedience which that Christ-like role necessarily entails, is exactly what I was discussing in the last post in this series. It takes having ones cake and eating it to a remarkable extreme.)
The final question is whether Patriarchy is oppressive. I have two arguments that it is not.
First, Patriarchy is a form of authority, of one person over another. Authority is not intrinsically oppressive - only Anarchists think it is, and this is a very marginal political opinion. Authority can be abused, but those in authority can equally be the victims of injustice perpetrated by those under authority, if the latter behave unreasonably, making the job of the person in authority unnecessarily difficult, burdensome, or impossible. The question is whether the structure of authority in this case is justified.
The justification of political authority is a notorious problem of political philosophy, but the most popular solution is an analogy with the clearly just kind of authority gained by A over B when B freely and explicitly agrees to do what A says, in some sphere, for example in a contract of employment. This 'consent' theory is hard to apply to the authority of the state because there is no clear point at which people consent to the state, nor is there any action or form of words understood by the state and by the population as indicating consent. But turning to the case of authority within marriage, we have a perfect example of consent, by adults who know what they are doing, and are understood to be consenting by everyone involved and by the general public when they do so.
Everything which can be said about people giving consent not having any real choice because of the lack of alternatives, applies far more worryingly to many contracts of employment, and more worryingly still to consent to the state, than it does to marriage. If any kind of authority is justified by consent, the Patriarchal authority of husband over wife is justified.
This is certainly the case when a marriage takes place in a Patriarchal society where the ground-rules are understood by everyone. It is also very clearly the case in a Christian marriage today where the couple have thought about the issue and agree with the teaching of the Church. If Patriarchy is not oppressive in these two cases, the Feminist critique has collapsed, because the Feminist claim is that Patriarchy is intrinsically oppressive. If it is only oppressive if women aren't warned about it before they tie the knot - well, we can fix that easily enough.
As a matter of fact, Sacramental Theology tells us that those getting married under various misapprehensions about the nature of marriage are still obliged by the correct rules, because (unless their state of mind explicitly excludes this) they are taken to be seeking marriage as it is, and not marriage as they imagine it to be. (This is a way marriage differs from a contract of employment.)
My second argument goes to the heart of the Feminist critique, which I take to be this: that is a Patriarchal marriage, wives are deprived of autonomy, the chance to use their initiative and creativity, and so forth. My response is that: far from implying a loss of these things, Christian Patriarchal marriage makes the wife's exercise of these faculties essential.
This is because Patriarchy creates a hierarchy, and while the husband has the ultimate authority, the wife is the second-in-command. In relation to children, and also in relation to the management of the household, the wife exercises authority, makes decisions, practices creativity and so on in that capacity. As a matter of historical fact, Christian wives have run their households, governed their children, and made important financial decisions affecting the family, whenever husbands are absent; since they can do it then, they tend to continue to do these things in large measure when the husband is not absent. The absence of the patriarch can be every working day; it can be weeks or months when he is on business or at war; and it can become a permanent state of affairs, if he dies. (As Shakespeare illustrates, the same situation can also come about in the case of an adult heiress like Portia, or Olivia in Twelth Night.)
The authority of the widow, which is such a striking feature of medieval and early modern society (see Chaucer's Cressida for an extended illustration), is not a contradiction or counter-example of Christian patriarchy, it is a consequence of it. With the death of the husband, the widow becomes the head of the household, and when voting was done by heads of households, women could, in these cases, vote. Yes, women were not deemed incapable of exercising the dispassionate rationality necessary to voting by Medieval Catholic Patriarchs, but by Anglican Victorians more influenced, I fancy, by Plato than by St Paul, who excluded women from the vote in the Great Reform Act of 1832. It hardly needs to be pointed out that, although in the Middle Ages the ability to fight was a necessary attribute of a king, it was this pattern of thought about women using authority in the absence of a man which led in time to the acceptance of female monarchs.
Importantly, the authority of wives in the absence of the husband is something which is not tolerated in the same way by Classical paganism or by Islam.
I would summarise the argument in this way. Everyone on earth is under authority, usually the authority of several different people at once in different respects. As a structure of authority, Patriarchal marriage is unique in the degree to which the wife is able to choose who is to have a authority over her, and also in the degree to which she shares in that authority. The symbol or attribute of the housewife is not a chain - chaining her to the sink, perhaps - but a bunch of keys. She enjoys the complete trust of her husband, and has the keys to his house and strong-box. In Dickens' David Copperfield, the confiscation of Clara Copperfield's keys by her sister-in-law Miss Murdstone represents the stripping away of her wifely prerogatives.
Patriarchy is not about exploitation or oppression, but a specialisation of roles and shared responsibility. The ultimate authority of the husband is the flip-side of his commitment to the relationship and family; it is also the source and guarantee of the authority exercised by the wife.
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