Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Patriarchy and symmetry

Hierarchy. (In this case, a temporary, liturgical one.)

I noted in the last post in this series that neo-cons frequently prefer silence about the authority of the husband to outright denial of the teaching. The few brave neo-cons who address the question twist themselves into the most extraordinary knots about it, like this one.

To love IS TO SUBMIT. To love is to make oneself SUBJECT TO ANOTHER. To love is to freely choose to put another above yourself, to literally live for another. Within the context of marriage this dynamic of total self-gift obviously meant to flow in BOTH DIRECTIONS (as the love between God the Father and God the Son, and between Christ and the Church) and is equally expected of men vis-a-vis their wives.

So now Christ submits to the Church? Anyone who can write that, read it again, and not say 'Oh, no, that obviously doesn't work, I'll have to think of another argument'  has crossed some kind of Rubicon of cognitive dissonance.

However, Biblical evidence aside, a rejection of Patriarchy will naturally lead to a conception of marriage which is symmetrical. The change from a Patriarchal conception of marriage to a symmetrical conception is illustrated by the reform of the Rite of Marriage. As Archbishop Bugnini notes in his written account of the process of reform, they took the long and very beautiful Nuptial Blessing and they made it apply to the both parties equally. It had previously focused almost exclusively on the bride. (In the process they made it a lot less beautiful, and of course they couldn't allow anything long, so they chopped it into three parts and made them alternative options A, B, and C.) Similarly, the beautiful ceremony of the giving of gold and silver by the bridegroom to the bride, found in a number of countries including England, had to go. (How could that be made symmetrical? Would she just give them back again?)

In a symmetrical conception of marriage, what is owed by each to the other is the same. So what, if anything, is wrong with this?

The objection from classical theology and indeed classical political theory would be that authority cannot be shared in this way. Someone has to have the last word. There is no question, in a marriage, of resolving disagreements by majority vote, so the suggestion that both husband and wife 'submit to each other' without further qualification is a recipe for endless wrangling. In reality of course, one may turn out to have the upper hand, perhaps the person with less invested in the relationship, and the symmetry will collapse, though not in a good way.

Considerations about how Patriarchy works suggests another objection. The massive and obvious fact about marriage is that it is the wife who is going to be giving birth, if there are children: and the possibility of children is hardly incidental to the project. This burden cannot be shared or taken in turns, and it forces us to say that what the husband should contribute to the marriage cannot be the same. It might be very important, but it will be important in a complementary way, not in an equivalent way. This sets us off down the track of saying that perhaps the husband will typically contribute much more than the wife in terms of provision and protection, using his masculine traits to complement the very different, feminine contribution offered by the wife. The idea of symmetry cannot be sustained, and if we go on to ask who is to have the ultimate authority, and want to make this part of a general understanding of marriage (and not something to be bargained over in each relationship), then considerations of masculine and feminine traits are going to be relevant here as well.

So something to notice is that the idea of symmetry in relationships works best if children are left out of it, or come in only as a rare deviation from normality, like a serious illness. The picture is incompatible with a large family.

It leaves the question, of course, of why it should be the husband and not the wife who has ultimate authority. I'm not sure how good an answer we need to give to this. Perhaps God tossed a coin. I mean, hey, it had to be one or the other. But of course it is connected with a huge number of things which are deeply embedded in human psychology. I have noted before the connection between the trait of what I called being 'masterful', and being attractive, in men. Women prefer male bosses (even more than men do). It is conceivable that some of these things about human psychology could be changed by a profound brain-washing exercise over the whole population, but what would be the point? If it is unfair that husbands have authority over wives, it would be just as unfair that wives have authority over husbands. If Patriarchy fits in with contingent (and perhaps non-contingent) facts about human psychology, that's going to make the situation sit much more happily than some artificially constructed role-reversal.

What I do not want to do is to help myself to the ideas found in many traditions, notably of Classical Paganism and Islam, that women are hysterical, weak, and morally inferior to men. There is no need for such a justification of husbandly authority over wives. It might be ideal if the King or the President is a person of outstanding intelligence and virtue, but his authority does not rest upon that. A person in authority need not be morally or intellectually superior to everyone he (or she) has authority over; he need not even have superior leadership abilities. It is enough that his position is accepted by the community, and that he is reasonably competent. The community needs a leader, and it needs a reliable way of selecting one. In the case of marriage, it is determined, according to the Patriachal view, by Natural Law. No one need feel bad about having a different role in life: it is simply an aspect of the specialisation of roles between the sexes. Personally, I'm glad I'm not the King of anywhere, it sounds exhausting, but we all have burdens assigned to us by Providence and the Natural Law, and the grace of God to fulfill them.

Furthermore, the suggestion that one or other of the sexes is deficient in some way seems silly, suggesting that God made a mistake with one or the other. We may say, rather: men are better at being men than women are, and women are better at being women than men are. Whatever characteristic limitations we may spot in one or the other are connected with the positive characteristics they need to fulfil their roles. How can I be sure? Because otherwise they wouldn't be there. If it true, as we are sometimes told, that women are more likely to go to heaven, that suggests that there is a problem with our education and spirituality. As I have said before on this blog, God did not make one of the sexes as fodder for Hell.

Why, you may be asking, in the traditional liturgy, does the bride get most of the blessings, and the bride get the gift of silver and gold? Because in a certain sense the person in authority is the most important person, and in a certain sense he is not. The bride represents the 'body' of the bridegroom, the community he is called on to govern and serve. Naturally, it is the community, the family, which is the beneficial owner of the wealth, it is the family which should be blessed. The wife is blessed as the family; the husband is blessed in his family.

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  1. Lovely post.
    "Personally, I'm glad I'm not the King of anywhere"
    But... You ARE the Honourable King of Shaw Manor. And a noble and efficacious ruler you are!

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  3. 'The objection from classical theology and indeed classical political theory would be that authority cannot be shared in this way.' In classical political theory there is no polity without authority.

    I don't think you can maintain this position without also stating that men qua men are better at having authority in a family than women are, although of course a given man qua fool may be worse at doing so than his wife. And if men are better qua men at wielding authority in a family, the substantial analogies between a family and a society will mean that at least to some extent or in some respects, men qua men are better at wielding authority in society and the state. This of course would have been taken as obvious for most of human history.

  4. First off, great article Dr. Shaw!

    I like how you also handled the "deficiency" issue. I guess the only reason why it is a hard pill to swallow for many today is that men and women are essentially supposed to be equal. So for them, to say that women aren't equally good at anything men can do is blasphemy.

  5. It seems that not only can "egalitarian" marriages not be decided by majority vote, they often end in favor of the woman. So Patriarchy is replaced by shameless (somehow "equal") Matriachy.

    I can't tell you how many times (even in the conservative, rural/suburban Southeastern U.S.) that people told me the key to marital happiness was doing whatever your wife says. Variations of "Yes, Dear" were the most common piece of advice when I got married, by far. I actually struggle to think of people who said something else.