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Gender, Power, Privilege: Unavoidable Impolite Questions about the Catholic Conversation in the Public Square

In a posting I made earlier this morning about the compromise the Obama administration has offered the U.S. Catholic bishops re: contraceptive coverage, I ended by noting Joan Walsh’s outstanding analysis of what has taken place in the intra-Catholic debate lately. I noted that Joan Walsh sees a new maturity in what has been a tribalistic American Catholicism whose public voice has been almost exclusively dominated by men.  She notes that, in recent debates about the contraceptive guidelines, the voices of women–Catholic women included–are beginning to be heard with new force.  

This is something I’ve been thinking about myself in the past several days, and though my thoughts are still inchoate, I want to offer them to readers in their still undeveloped state–with the hope that I might  polish these thoughts with feedback from you.  Here’s what’s keeps occurring to me as I’ve followed the intra-Catholic discussion of the HHS guidelines:

When I started teaching and writing about ethics in a university context, the field of ethical theory began to open up in a significant and specific way just as I entered the classroom as a full-time teacher in the first part of the 1980s.  It did so with Carol Gilligan’s publication of In a Different Voice, in which she argues that there are noticeable differences in how males and females approach complicated moral issues and resolve them.  There are differences in how males and females develop moral awareness and conscience, Gilligan maintains.

I read everything Gilligan and her collaborators wrote at the time–and the considerable body of literature spawned by this groundbreaking analysis of moral development.  It was impossible not to read this literature, since every introductory ethics text I used in my fundamental moral theology courses began to include sections on Gilligan’s work and the contributions of the new field of feminist ethical theory to ethics in general–as these texts should have done so, since the work of Gilligan and others in this area was an exciting and significant contribution to theories of moral development at the time.

Gilligan notes that when you give a group of boys and a group of girls the same moral problem to solve, you often find there are noticeable differences in the way in which the two groups approach the problem.  Whereas boys tend to look for moral principles, line them up in a hierarchical arrangement and isolate the principle that appears to rule over all other principles, and then apply them dispassionately to the problem at hand, girls look first and foremost, she proposes, to the relational dimension of the problem under consideration.  How will this or that solution affect the people involved in this situation?

I remember one specific case she cites, which had to do with asking groups of children to think through the moral quandary of being asked by their mother to go to the store and buy cigarettes for her.  The moral case assumes that they children find smoking undesirable and don’t want their mother’s health to be harmed by it.  As well as I recall, Gilligan found that groups of boys tended to look this moral quandary primarily through the lens of principle–”Smoking is wrong and we can’t support our mother in doing what’s wrong”–while groups of girls tended to ask, “How will she feel if we refuse to buy the cigarettes?  How will that affect her?”

This literature (some details of which are now hazy in my mind, and which I haven’t followed so carefully in recent years) has been on my mind as I look at how Catholic spokespersons who claim to speak for all all of us have been representing us lately in debates about contraception and religious freedom in the public square.  Like Joan Walsh, I’ve been struck by the overweeningly male voice of “the” Catholic contribution to this discussion, when an issue that is, after all, all about women’s health needs and women’s rights, is under consideration.

Further: I’ve been struck by how quickly almost every single Catholic man discussing these issues has, to a man and regardless of where he fits on the political spectrum, been quick to maintain with absolute certainty that the issue has nothing in the least to do with contraception.  Which is to say: it’s not in the least about real women and real women’s lives.

It’s about about abstract principle that has to be considered in isolation from the effects of that principle on real people’s lives, if we expect to make unbiased moral decisions.  It’s about the cut-and-dried principle of religious freedom, which must be prioritized in the discussion because principles fall into a hierarchical arrangement, and if we violate the first principle,  where would we be with any principles at all?  And if we let ourselves think about the real-life, real-people implications of these decisions, then how can we be true to principles and maintain objectivity?  Real people and real lives muddy the discussion of abstract principles, which must occurs at the level of dispassionate reason if it expects to remain untainted by bias.

I’ve been struck by the contrast between this approach to the issues in the public Catholic discussion in recent weeks, and the approach of Catholic women, insofar as the public square has been willing to admit their voices at all.  Voices that want to talk about the effects of these issues on the lives of women, on women’s health needs.  Insofar as women have been admitted to the discussion at all, they’ve tended to talk  honestly about who takes contraceptives and why they take contraceptives.  They’ve tended to ask about who will be affected by all these abstract principles if they’re applied this way or that, and how these real people will be affected.

While, to all intents and purposes, the big male Catholic talking heads discussing the issue of religious freedom might never even have even heard of contraception or women and their health or children and their needs.  Or so the discussion implies, since, remember, it’s all about abstract principle, and which principle should be allowed to dominate over all other principles.  It’s about keeping the conversation pure and objective and reasonable precisely by ruling out the mess that enters moral discussion when we let real people (women and children above all!) into our important moral conversations.

But isn’t it interesting to discover, when one does any kind of honest sociological profiling of the people making these claims on behalf of all Catholics in the public square, that they themselves have a clearly  and easily discernible human face?  They’re not very hard to profile at all.

To a man, they’re almost without exception white heterosexual (or heterosexual posturing) males.  In the name of excluding messy human self-interest from their disinterested abstract moral discussion, in the name of keeping the discussion reasonable and highly principled, they’ve implicitly ruled out of the conversation all voices except the voices of white heterosexual and heterosexual posturing men.

Which leads one to wonder, doesn’t it, just what principle these white presumably straight men are defending in these discussions.  What are the Catholic men who keep going to bat for the all-male club of bishops (who are presumed to be heterosexual even when they’re not) who are overwhelmingly white really fighting for as they fight these glorious battles to preserve “religious freedom”?

To me, and I suspect to an increasing number of people whose eyes are now wide open, the big male talking heads who claim to speak for all of us Catholics in the public square are really fighting for their own power and privilege.  They’re fighting to keep their little club pure and elite–a country club for privileged white heterosexual or heterosexual-presenting males, in which women’s voices are always de facto muted or excluded.  Since look what happens when a woman like Elizabeth Johnson dares just to exist, let alone to gain academic credentials to have a voice in the conversation and to publish books talking about the old boys’ most abstract, dispassionate principle of all–God.

They do everything in their power not only to shut her out of the conversation, but to bloody her and her reputation.  Or look what happens to a Margaret McBride when she uses her hard-earned expertise to voice a reasonable, conscientious moral opinion on a hospital ethics committee that agrees with her–but her bishop disagrees?  She’s bloodied, her reputation is smeared, and she’s excommunicated.  She’s quite literally ruled out of the conversation and informed she’s not Catholic.

Our conversation, not yours.  That’s the underlying message, over and over, of the privileged Catholic male voices that continue to represent themselves as the voices of all of us Catholics in the public square.  In a church of far richer diversity and far greater moral insight drawn from the experiences of many believers–and not just white males.

That’s how I’ve come to see the Catholic conversation in the public square, as it unmasks itself and its key players all over again in recent weeks.  It’s not an inclusive conversation, and it doesn’t intend to be an inclusive conversation.  It’s, in the final analysis, all about men.  Even when it’s really about women

And it’s also to an overwhelming extent about white men.  Who manage to pass themselves off as heterosexual in the public personae they present to the public square, even if they’re not heterosexual, since being/appearing straight is another key qualification if one expects to have a voice speaking for all of us Catholics in public discussions of the sort currently underway.

That’s how I’ve come to see things.  And I may be unable to see them otherwise, since, from junior high school forward, every psychological profile test or vocational aptitude test I took in school had a little hidden key at the bottom of the page, I now discover years later as I look back at these tests carefully, which scored me as leaning in either a “male” or a “female” direction in my attitudes and aptitudes.

And I consistently swung female–intuitive, interested in “women’s” issues like how X will be affected if we choose to do Y.  And I fear I remain pretty much locked into that way of looking at the world now, since it seems to be built into me, even when I can reason and abstract and objectify with the best of the old boys, when I choose to do so

(Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 11 Feb. 2012.)

The graphic is one of many photos available online of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meetings.  This one happens to be from November 2010.

2 Responses

  1. I love your posts, Bill. So insightful and not dumbed down at all. Keep up the thoughtful analysis and the crusade. You give me so much to think about!

  2. Erin, thanks so much. Very glad the posts are worth reading.

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