By Fran Ferder
The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s April 18 doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is not aboutdoctrine. It is not primarily about protecting the faith or ensuring an ecclesiology of communion, no matter how many times these terms are woven through the report. It is fundamentally about fear – fear of the loss of power — and the willful use of dominative control to defend that power.
The abundance of religious themes and language do not mask this punitive effort to shore up the crumbling authority of hierarchical leaders. Nor does the document hide the anger that roils beneath the protestations of gratitude and concern. The final report of the LCWR assessment reveals a desperate attempt on the part of some fearful and angry church leaders to protect their turf — to maintain an all-male church leadership, to keep women and laypeople under their authority, and to shield the homophobic-homosexual subculture in the leadership of the Catholic church.
The pattern of using coercive intimidation to control others in one’s household is called domestic abuse. Domestic abuse does not need to involve physical violence — in fact, many abusers never beat their partners. Instead, the threatened person strikes out psychologically to evoke compliance. Public humiliations, corrections, threats, accusations of disloyalty and demands for absolute obedience make up the typical arsenal of the abusive person. In extreme cases, the abuser monitors the actions of the other, keeps a record of his or her transgressions, restricts his or her activities, discredits his or her reputation, takes charge of his or her decisions, and threatens to withdraw support if unquestioned compliance to demands is not maintained.
These abusive acts will sound curiously familiar to anyone who has read the proposed implementations of the Vatican doctrinal assessment.
While females can and do commit domestic abuse, statistically, they do so at much reduced rates, inflict less physical harm and commonly have different motivations than male perpetrators, making domestic abuse primarily a crime against women. Yes, a crime — like child sexual abuse — something many bishops, archbishops and cardinals in the Catholic church failed to take seriously until they were forced to do so by lawsuits and public outcry.
But has transfer of learning taken place? Do they get it? Do they get that they cannot treat women and children as stepping stones to power, privilege and pleasure?
Whether through hits or humiliations, broken bones or broken spirits, threats of bodily harm or warnings of impending excommunication, the goal of abusers is the same: Assert absolute control. Wear the person down until he or she gives in or gives up. Use punishment if he or she dares to claim his or her own authority.
The most dangerous time in a household where domestic abuse is present is right after the person being abused has stood up to the abuser. Have too many members of LCWR claimed their own authority? The classic domestic abuser seeks one thing above all else: obedience to dictates. It is not surprising that obedience is alluded to on every page of the final doctrinal assessment document.
In fact, the mandate for implementation of the results of the doctrinal assessment reads like a how-to manual for the most common form of domestic abuse — no physical violence, just a resolute campaign to rein in those who have dared disobey the master, or, in the case of LCWR, the pope and bishops: “to implement a process of review and conformity to the teachings and discipline of the church, the Holy See” (page 7). Pretty clear.
Mental illness, including personality disorders, compound domestic abuse but are not its primary cause. Domestic abuse is power abuse. In its most prevalent form, it is conscious, coercive conduct by men those believe they have the unconditional right to use forceful tactics to enforce their rules and maintain absolute control over those they deem subject to them.
What kinds of people abuse others? While there is no single profile of the domestic abuser, research has identified characteristics frequently seen among perpetrators of all types. Ironically, there is not much difference between those who use their fists and those who use words alone to demand obedience.
- Abusers believe they are entitled to maintain power and control over those in their households (institutions).
- They may believe they have an obligation to compel obedience for the benefit of the victim and the good of the household (church).
- They do not identify their controlling and hurtful tactics as abusive and are insulted when others perceive them that way.
- Perpetrators tend to perceive all interactions within relationships through a prism of compliance or disobedience.
- Abusers tend to be insecure men who need to establish dominance to feel confident.
The single most conclusive thing we know about domestic abuse is that it is learned behavior. Abusers have gained knowledge of abusive behaviors by seeing them in action, either in their families or in the various cultures to which they belong. This applies to religious cultures where the seminarian is taught early to bow to the wishes of his rector, to obey his bishop and to submit to the cardinal — all of whom kiss the ring of the pope.
All of this bowing, obeying and willful submission programs the brain to normalize hierarchical authority, and in some less secure individuals, to deeply internalize this way of relating and to replicate it.
As in sexual abuse, church leaders who have witnessed domestic abuse in their families or who have experienced such abuse as children may be particularly susceptible to behave abusively themselves. When a fragile ego combines with learned patterns of abuse, the stage is set for domestic abuse.
While abusers do not fit neatly into any particular diagnostic category, their behavior is not considered “normal.”
Psychologically healthy adults do not mandate obedience, forbid dialogue about subjects they do not wish discussed, or use oppressive tactics to gain control over others. Personally secure leaders don’t issue orders to other functioning adults, threatening punitive measures if they are not obeyed.
Often described as having a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality, most abusers can be quite civilized and even charming when they need to be. Their ability to function as CEOs of companies and preside over large corporations does not eliminate them from the pool of the insecure who strike out against those who threaten them. Some male abusers have been found to harbor a secret loathing of females, considering them inferior. Since such attitudes are certainly present in the history of the church (read St. Jerome), it is possible that its influence still inhabits, consciously or the unconsciously, the collective mind of church leaders.
The persistent desire of hierarchical leaders to keep women under their control and out of their sphere of leadership, especially women theologians, suggests that the “Jerome Syndrome” might still be operative.
[Fran Ferder is a Franciscan sister, clinical psychologist, author and professor at Seattle University.]
When President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, he gave our nation a far greater gift than marriage equality for millions of gay and lesbian couples. He spent a lot of time “evolving” on the issue, but in the end the President showed us that he would not give way to terrorists, even those “holy terrorists” on the Christian right who threatened God’s wrath upon this nation if gays and lesbians were given the rights and protections of marriage.
PRINCETON, N.J. — The simple fact was that he had done something wrong, and at the end of a long and revolutionary career it didn’t matter how often he’d been right, how powerful he once was, or what it would mean for his legacy.
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by Soulforce Admin
Photo Credit: Micheal Fontenot
By current George Fox University Student, A.J. Mendoza
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.”
Abraham Lincoln delivered that quote during his first inaugural address in 1861, and it is one of my favorites. He spoke those words to a nation that was just about to descend into a terrible state of conflict. Tension was high, and disagreements ran deep, but he called upon the people he lead to remember those deeper things, and believed that a spirit of reconciliation was needed.
My name is A.J. Mendoza. I’m 21 years old, I’m gay, and my preferred gender pronouns are he, him, and his. I am studying Political Science and History and am going to be a senior at George Fox University.
I believe that the current state of things between the church and the LGBTQ community is similar to a state of war, and unfortunately, war never changes. Each of the “combatants” ends up suffering immensely. Likewise, the “non-combatants” are made to endure various inhumanities. This is my understanding: I see adults on both “sides” fighting it out with each other on the floors of Congress and across picket lines. Meanwhile, children who may just be realizing that they are queer distill out of this conflict a message of “my humanity is being debated” or “I have no hope for a happy future” and decide to end their lives.
My goal during the rest of my time at George Fox, and indeed for the rest of my life, will be to do what I can to end this conflict through a steadfast commitment to non-violence. George Fox University is a Quaker institution; however, the student body is predominantly Baptist. During my first two and a half years here, I found that LGBTQ issues were not spoken of well, if ever. If you were to openly identify as gay, you would face social ostracizing, and good luck trying to find roommates. The qualification you would need to find acceptance would be to say, “I struggle with same-sex attraction.” Another indicator to the health of the dialogue on campus is how many students end up coming out after graduation.
I do not want to say that GFU is the only place that deals with incidents of homophobia; however, unlike other universities, the students who experience it do not see the systems of power (Res Life, Administration) as resources to help them. We have a Lifestyle Agreement that all students must sign, and under the section that speaks to sexual purity, homosexuality is listed as an unacceptable behavior. Under the current policy, even a non-sexual homosexual relationship would be a violation. There are certainly individual professors and pastors on campus who do not agree with the policy, and make themselves privately available to LGBTQ students, but they are not allowed to publically voice their disagreement.
As this year progressed, I felt increasingly called to do something to advance the dialogue and a safe place for LGBTQ students at my school. This idea manifested as a chain email that I originally sent out to 15 people to see if they were interested in starting something, and if they were, to reply and forward the email along to others. We quickly received twenty replies, and when we met for the first time we adopted the name Common Ground. We began meeting at local coffee shop, but we quickly outgrew the space and now two churches in Newberg have opened their doors to us. We have adopted a constitution and have a team of dedicated officers. Currently, we are 80 students strong and are the largest (albeit still unrecognized by ASC) club on campus. An LGBTQA alumni group named OneGeorgeFox and the Metropolitan Community Church in Portland has also offered us their heartfelt support.
We are a diverse group of students; some in the club identify as LGBTQ, many come to the club as straight allies, and some do not know were they stand or even think that homosexuality is a sin. However, all who are in Common Ground believe strongly that the issue is not handled well here, and are firmly committed to sending the message that God loves you, whatever your sexual orientation or gender identity may be. To the students I encounter on campus who are suspect of Common Ground, I wish that even for 10 seconds I could give them my eyes. If they could only see a student, who carries the weight of staying in the closet with them all day on their floors and with their families, come to life and smile during a meeting, they would know why we have to exist.
The LGBTQ students in Common Ground are some of the most courageous people I know. They are taking unprecedented steps in telling their stories and are continuing to stay lovingly engaged with a church that they have every right to be angry at. The straight allies who have come to join the club have also personally moved me. I know that they are not gaining any popularity points by joining Common Ground, and it certainly is not a resume building opportunity. They have made a conscious choice to enter into relationships with people who they may have been told their whole lives are trying to undermine the family. If these are the future leaders of the church, then our youth have many reasons to hold on to hope.
It was a joy for us to meet the Soulforce Equality Riders as they visited GFU. They are needed here to keep maturing the new dialogue, and the power of the stories they shared cannot be denied. Common Ground is committed to continuing to support and serve LGBTQ students and will again seek ASC recognition in the Fall. To my friends at other CCU schools: take heart – even if the resistance seems incredible, I have faith you can begin making it better! Incredible things are happening on our campus; a spirit of reconciliation is beginning to bind up the old wounds and the rift between the two communities will shrink. Surely, the better angels of our nature are at work at GFU.
Without freedom, no one really has a name. –Milton Acorda
When looking back on these early years of the 21st century, we will remember the handful of people who made decisions to act in conscious defiance of the status quo — to say out loud the names and needs of those who have been denied freedom and, in doing so, to break the yoke that denies them liberty.
President Barack Obama joined that handful on May 9, and I am grateful.
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