Julie Hanlon Rubio – « Masculinity and sexual abuse in the Church »

4. Undoing gender as a practice of resistance 

As important as the push for accountability and transparency in response to abuse and cover-up are, a complex gender analysis suggests that policy change alone is insufficient. In Undoing Gender, Butler responds to critics who worry that her gender theory does not provide sufficient grounding for social change, arguing that writing disruptive gender theory is a political act, in keeping with feminism’s goal of ‘social transformation of gender relations’.[22] Working toward change entails asking questions about survival (e.g., ‘Whose life is counted as a life? Whose prerogative is it to live?’). Rather than defining new gender norms to aim for, she offers the example of drag shows as political acts, that ‘undo’ gender by ‘showing us how contemporary notions of reality can be questioned, and new modes of reality instituted’.[23]

What would it mean to ‘undo’ masculinity in Catholic responses to clergy sexual abuse? Any sort of ‘undoing’ will require change in individuals and communities, in their understandings of themselves and their desires. In this sense, Pope Francis seems right in his claim that the scandal calls for conversion, and in his call for attention to clericalism. But to see clericalism simply as clergy having power and privilege over lay people misses a crucial piece of the problem. Clericalism can result in ‘dysfunctional human formation that fosters narcissism, elitism, entitlement, arrogance, and a lack of true sense of boundaries’.[24] Seminary training that prepares priests to see themselves as superior is clearly problematic. But can we effectively treat clericalism without exposing future priests to gender theory that can help them see how cultural expectations around masculinity prepare them to enact entitlement, take up space, talk over, claim credit, etc.? Recent studies of effective programming suggest that anti-violence education is insufficient. Instead, men need help in identifying their own efforts at performing masculinity as potentially harmful.[25]

Feminist scholar Sarah Ahmed’s work on the importance of understanding how gender functions in institutional cultures could also be important for gender cannot be ‘undone’ only from the ground up. Ahmed’s figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’ suggests the feminist activist’s role as truth-teller. For Ahmed, the work of feminism is to see the world differently, to ‘venture into secret places of pain, […] unlearning what we have learnt not to notice’. This is disruptive but, ‘We have to do this work if we are to produce critical understandings of how violence, as a relation of force and harm, is directed toward some bodies and not others’, and, I might add, performed by some bodies and not others.[26] In the Church, too, resisting violence must involve both personal and communal wrestling with the complexities of masculinity and critical examination of social structures that make women, children, and teens especially vulnerable. We need to find creative ways of disrupting breaking the hold of toxic masculinity in Catholic institutions.

[22] Butler, Undoing Gender, p. 204.

[23] Butler, Undoing Gender, pp. 205–206, 216–217.

[24] Gerald D. Coleman, ‘Seminary Formation in Light of the Sexual Abuse Crisis’, in Thomas G. Plante and Kathleen L. McChesney (eds), Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade in Crisis, 2002-2012, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011, p. 216.

[25] Ricardo and Barker, Men, Masculinities, pp. 36–38. Efforts to help priests critically reflect on their own gender performance cannot proceed without honesty about sexual orientation. Psychologist T. Plante argues that if 25-40% of priests are gay, while they are no more likely to abuse than other men, because most screeners do not ask about sexual orientation, honest conversations about human formation on sexuality and the subversion of protective in-group behaviors is impossible. Thomas G. Plante, ‘Psychological Screening of Clergy Applicants’, in Thomas G. Plante and Kathleen L. McChesney (eds), Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade in Crisis, 2002-2012, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011, pp. 200–201.

[26] Sara Ahmed, ‘Feminism Hurt/Feminism Hurts’, 21 July 2014.

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