Coming to Terms: Patriarchy, Matriarchy or Simply Humanity?

by Catherine Fournier

"What a great picture!" the woman exclaimed. Our town's office supply store seems to be a meeting place for people 'editorial.' "We're doing a Mother's Day issue of our local interest magazine - can we use this?"

"This" was our latest family photo. Taken at Thanksgiving, it showed my husband and myself and our six children smiling against the golden leaves and grasses of my in-law's country property. "Since it's a Mother's Day thing" the woman continued, "We'll just erase your husband out of the picture, we can do that easily on the computer."

Some might dismiss this as an insignificant incident, a casually made (but not so casually received!) comment. But its very insignificance seems to me to be an indication of a deeper significance. This tiny joking comment indicates larger acceptances and assumptions about family, men, women and society that is significant.

I would not be the mother of six large, headstrong, intelligent children without my husband. He would not be a father without me. (God chose not to create these children without us.) In this we are equally indispensable, equally involved, equal yet different. Our presence (and absence - a motherless family conjures a different image than a fatherless one) affects the family differently.

Is my husband the patriarch of our family and the extended family to come? Yes. Am I its matriarch? Yes. These terms, despite modern unfavorable connotations, simply mean male head of the family, clan or tribe and female head of the family, clan or tribe. They are not even mutually exclusive or antagonistic - there can be a matriarch and patriarch at the same time. Each simply have equal authority with different responsibility. And before anyone wants to remark that the family oriented role of chatelaine is less significant or powerful than the socially oriented economic and political role of fathers, let me remind them that armies run on their stomachs and children are the retirement plan of many cultures, including our own.

Matriarchy and patriarchy then, are extensions of the intimate personal role of mother and father. In their plainest sense, the roles are the consequence of biology and human nature, the way we are made.

It's only when we get to patriarchy's secondary dictionary definition that we hear that it is "an institution or organization in which power is held by and transferred through males." Interestingly there is no corresponding secondary definition of matriarchy. It is this retention and transference of power that raises the modern ire and gives rise to so much dissention, discussion, protest, and destruction.

As an aside, I'd like to question just which should be judged as more or less fair. To my mind, a matriarchy would be a lot less democratic and forgiving than our current patriarchies. Women are simultaneously nurturing and protective of their own offspring, slightly less protective of other children, and coldly pragmatic about threats to either. Within the family, fathers are the 'court of final appeal' for a reason, a reason reflective of the fact that God is our loving and merciful Father.

A second incident illustrates the context of much of this discussion, a context that I think misses the ultimate point, and perpetuates the chaos. During a visit to my sister's, my brother-in-law, a successful, intelligent, kind and personable man, a 'former' Catholic, asked what I was working on. I told him (sucker for trouble, I know) and described the idea I was working out - that the implications of exclusion in the terms patriarchy and matriarchy are both misleading and detrimental to productive discussion of either. They cannot be either/or terms, human nature and biology don't allow it.

"Dave" immediately leapt (literally - his posture changed) to an attack of the all male priesthood. Of course, I did my feeble best to defend the Church, and of course we came away from the discussion with little learned or changed on either side. It was only later that I realized what had happened. We both got diverted. To defend or attack the male priesthood, or the Dead White European Male repository of classic literature, or the reputed bias of criminal law towards men as examples of patriarchy is to be diverted away from the true disagreement, and to never resolve it.

*If there is anyone 'out there' who can prove to me that their logical apologetics alone has changed the mind of someone originally opposed to the concept of the male priesthood I'd like to hear from you - I'd love to be corrected on this one. But I think the repeated continuing failure of this discussion/dissention to change anyone's mind illustrates the underlying dislocation between the positions.

The true disagreement is between a sexual view of mankind and an asexual view. One recognizes that humans are sexual beings. We reproduce by combining our genetic material into unique combinations and then expend time and resources protecting our offspring until they reach their own sexual maturity. This position also recognizes (with minor cultural variations) that this human arrangement has been Created by God and reflects His person. It welcomes and honors the different roles of mothers and fathers, matriarchs and patriarchs.

The other position attempts to hold an asexual view, proposing that reproduction and the roles of mothers and fathers are irrelevant to societal organization, suggesting instead that the struggle for personal power is society's driving force. Steadfastly denying the divine organization of the universe, it rejects countless generations of human history and wisdom and insists that the limits imposed by biology are arbitrary fabrications. Since they all still have navels, it seems a hollow assertion.

Therefore to say (and be very indignant while saying it) that "to attack patriarchy is to attack the Fatherhood of God, the Trinity and the very structure of our faith" also misses the point. Yes, of course they are attacking and denying God. We all knew that. Whether they are 'ordaining' women, creating feminist literature curricula, or rewriting the legal system, they are trying to get rid of their belly buttons and the God Who put it there.

But they are not simply attacking God. (Atheism we can cope with.) Since men as fathers are indispensable to motherhood, and women as mothers are indispensable to fatherhood, attacks on patriarchy attack women and matriarchy as well. It becomes obvious that they are not actually attacking a perceived societal misdistribution of power, they are attacking humanity itself, themselves included.

Everything relates back to this fundamental disagreement. Are we sexual, or asexual? Is there a God, or not? Is there a hierarchical structure to the universe or not? Is there such a thing as human nature, natural law, sin or not? Is power an obligation or a tool? Is human dignity related to power, or to God?

The current chaos in our churches certainly arises out of this fundamental disagreement, but to argue it at the level of 'patriarchal ordinations' is to lose before you begin. Statements like "the equal dignity of women can only be fully recognized within the church through ordination of women" are inarguable, you lose however you answer. It's like asking "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

I shouldn't have answered "Dave's" challenges about the power of the Vatican and the priesthood, I should have insisted that we continue to discuss whether or not, and in what ways matriarchy and patriarchy were complementary rather than antagonistic. I should have asked, "I believe that God is my Father - you don't. Why not? Why do you think there is no God? What do you dislike about having or being a father? Do you think mothers and fathers fulfill different roles for their children? Why? What are they? Don't you think those differences have implications in society?"

I also should have recognized that he may have sincerely been searching for a resolution to the apparent inequality in the Church, having been misled into thinking about it on those terms just as I was, just as, I believe, many are. It would have been a very different discussion. It might have ended sooner, but I am sure we both would have learned something, about patriarchy, matriarchy and ultimately about humanity.

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