It is a truism vehemently denied that women run the church, whatever flavor or denomination that church may be, and always from the shadows. You can call it the Amen Corner or just refer to who it is that drags the kids to Mass, who shows up for Novenas, fawns on the priest in a bevy of cooing mothers competing to see who can feed him the yummiest goodies, and who mutters disapprovingly until the intimidated miscreant bends to their will and shrinks into conformity with their norms, but it is the same everywhere and in almost every congregation, however constituted. This structure of control does not have to be as overt and obvious as in the period of the Pornocracy, but it is very real and pervasive nevertheless.
A successful clergyman knows he had better stay on the right side of the female side of his congregation or parish and that he is never more than a misstep or two away from serious trouble if he forgets this.
I happened to watch two unrelated movies in rapid succession that turn out to have a common thread. A couple of weeks ago we watched Behind The Candelabra, the biography of Liberace as told by his boy toy Scott Thorson, and then a couple of nights ago, Priest, a story of a closeted gay priest set in a small parish in Liverpool. When his secret gets out, the parish nearly collapses, he attempts suicide and is housed with a venomous old Pharisee who calls him a boil on the body of Christ. (Oh the irony…)
Mother’s (eternal) little man – Liberace’s era was a little before my time, although I did see him now and then on afternoon television aimed at the housewife audience. But he was a big draw for older women. My mother’s aunts thought he was wonderful. They found his kitschy glamor and schmaltzy taste in music amusing but mostly they loved his sweet and gentle persona. He had this unrequited love for Sonja Henning – very poignant of course but more importantly, unrequited. He had this gentle way of playing comfortable old classical hits. No one had any illusions about his sexuality but the key thing was never, ever to say anything rude about it – an honest admission, for instance – about any of that. No one ever had to admit that he was anything but the sexless, perfect Mother’s Little Man.
The parallels with celibate priests working in parishes where matrons are holding everything together may be uncomfortable but they are unavoidable. The kind young priest, so solicitous and sensitive to the needs of his parishioners, and utterly sexless, not drooling after those young slags like all the other, dirty young men – and the more virile he was, the better it all was.
The Gay Mafia – Last week or the week before Pope Francis created a minor stir by referring to the existence in the Church of what was mistranslated as a “gay lobby”. Gay groups in Italy objected, saying that it wasn’t much of a lobby for gay interests at all. It turns out that a more accurate translation was gay cabal. I guess “Mafia” would have opened a whole other can of worms, considering. Andrew Sullivan has written extensively about the whole dynamic in the past. What surprise there was over this was that a pope would come out and be this candid about the issue, not at some sudden emergence of a significant gay presence in the hierarchy. That had been no secret to anyone for ages.
So there’s one parallel right there – no one is fooled as to why none of these sexless men are chasing after women, but no one wants to be aware of it either. The closet is an essential element of this system.
Here’s another – you have men serving a female constituency, or one dominated by females. The idea that these men are really the ones in charge is the Front Man fallacy. It is either shallow and naïve, or it is just disingenuous, but either way it is nonsense, however useful the nonsense and the cover may be.
So when you hear accusations that the Church is male power structure that degrades and oppresses women, that is shallow and naïve too, because what you really have is a power structure of older women with male front men doing their dirty work to repress younger women. And after all, older women are every bit as nasty and vicious towards younger women as older men are towards younger men, and for much the same reason. Of course the Church demonizes female sexuality, the province mostly of young women. Of course it treats their experiences and needs with suspicion and disdain. Cui bono – look whose interest all that is in – and isn’t men.
The entrenched and bitter resistance ot any suggestion allowing women into the priesthood we see in so many churches – Roman, Orthodox, Protestant, whatever – now makes obvious sense. Women priests would disrupt the entire psycho-emotional system.
The difference between the Church and show business in this case is actually a similarity – the powers that be typically get men to do the actual work.
So here are two instances of this system – Liberace and the Church. The system grants plausible deniability to the real power holders, masked behind a façade of a male hierarchy and requires plausible deniability about the men’s actual sexuality and demonizes it in the process. And in both cases any attempt to point out the truth of the situation is met with toxic defensiveness. Just try this argument on a feminist site somewhere if you doubt me.
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