I’ve been thinking a lot about how you determine whether or not something is worth saving/fixing/reforming – whatever.
What got me thinking about this was a book I read called A World Without Women. David Noble, the guy who wrote the book, wanted to examine why science was so inhospitable to women. What he found was that, contrary to our ideas about science and religion being in direct opposition to each other, science grew up within the Catholic Church. And science inherited the Church’s misogyny.
There is this idea that old institutions are simply a reflexion of old-fashioned values or of the culture of their time. Some institutions are just lagging behind a bit. But that idea is often false. Plenty of institutions get more unjust over time. More importantly, as in the case of the Catholic Church, some institutions created themselves in explicit opposition to more egalitarian organizations of their time.
Women were not barred from early Christianity. In fact, they had prominent roles in many of the early Christian sects. Early Christian services were frequently held in homes, where women had considerable influence. Clergy were typically married, their wives involved in the church. Wealthy women were church benefactors. And many early cloisters were double monasteries where men and women, sharing a belief that the soul has no gender, took vows of celibacy and studied together. These double monasteries were often led by an abbess.
The Catholic Church changed all of that. No longer were services held in homes, but the church became the house of god where elaborate, secretive, and exclusive displays of ceremony took place. The Church forbade clergy to marry in order to protect its property and to further distance the clergy from the lay people. Double monasteries were destroyed or emptied of women by Abbots, like Conrad of Marchtal, who made no secret of their contempt:
Recognizing that the wickedness of women is greater than all the other wickedness of the world, and that their is no anger like that of women, and that the poison of asps and dragons is more curable and less dangerous to men than the familiarity of women, [we] have unanimously decreed for the safety of our souls, no less than for that of our bodies and goods, that we will on no account receive any more sisters to the increase of our perdition, but will avoid them like poisonous animals.
Women were piece by piece removed from the life of the church until it became a completely male institution, modeled in large part on the Roman army. Church leaders began to impose hierarchies and rules. They invented and defined heresy. And they defined heresy as woman. Women, they claimed, were responsible for original sin. Women were a corrupting influence. Women were witches. Religious men weren’t just ordered not to marry women. They were ordered not to have any contact with them at all.
In his Institutes Cassian himself warned future monks that ‘where the Devil, with subtle cunning, has insinuated into our hearts the memory of a woman, beginning with our mother, our sisters, or certain pious women, we should as quickly as possible expel these memories for fear that, if we linger on them too long, the tempter may seize the opportunity to lead us unwittingly to think about other women.
So given all of that, given how the Catholic Church was born in hatred of women, how could any woman actually be a part of it? And how could women actually think that there is any possibility of reforming an institution where more than a quarter of the canons are expressly directed against women? It boggles my mind.
That is really the fundamental conservative vs. radical tension, is it not? Even “progressive” conservatives want to save the institution. They think reform can work, no matter how evil the institution, no matter what bloodbath it might have been formed in. But radicals are willing to dying to smash those institutions and start over.
Are all institutions worth saving? If not, how do we decide which ones are? Aren’t we kidding ourselves to think that an institution born to oppress a group of people can be saved? Wouldn’t that apply to genocidal countries as much as misogynist religious institutions?