Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The survey I wish the Vatican would have conducted... Emotional abuse of women in the Church

Pope Francis speaks of creating a “theology of women.”  I’m not sure what he’s done towards achieving that end other than saying he thinks it’s really important but he has at least said that.  Also under Francis’ leadership, the Vatican conducted a survey about marriage, divorce and birth control.  Since Francis repeatedly says women are a priority, and he seems all "into" surveys, I thought I could suggest another survey for the hierarchy. This survey would only be taken by women and it would be based upon the questions used to identify emotional abuse.

Why should the hierarchy conduct a survey about emotional abuse of women?  Psychologists say that emotional abuse can be as much or even sometimes more damaging than physical abuse because it attacks our self-image and can prevent us from becoming who we were meant to be.  It can allow falsehoods and stereotypes to define us, violating our mind and soul.  It is the raping of one’s psychological core being.  Clearly we want no evidence of this clouding the creation of a “theology of women” lest we create it based upon labeling falsehoods as truths.

Beyond that whole pesky matter of truth, we also have to concern ourselves with the downstream implications of sustained emotional abuse, one of which is “learned helplessness.”  According to Dr. Martin Seligman, learned helplessness arises from a combination of not having control over something and experiencing sustained negative outcomes.  Over time people alter their behaviors based upon altered expectations of themselves due to a perceived sense of powerlessness.  In a nutshell, they just give up and say, “This is just the way things are; I can’t do anything about it.” 

Emotional abuse can contribute to or cause learned helplessness because it creates a false impression of a person’s capabilities, potential and worth.  It is a sustained mechanism to manufacture artificial negative outcomes or create a false impression of limitations. 

If institutional emotional abuse of women does actually exist in the Roman Catholic Church then there is a very high probability that there is institutional learned helplessness amongst women.  If that is the case, then that would skew survey results about emotional abuse because women with learned helplessness would give up and just say, “The way things are is the way things are; it doesn’t matter.”   

I do acknowledge that some ego- and ethnocentric women whose vocations perfectly align with what the hierarchy says a woman's vocation should be will respond that they do not feel emotionally abused.  I respect their opinion but I suspect it is a minority viewpoint.  However, I also suspect many women operate with learned helplessness.

So we either need to eradicate the learned helplessness or factor it into our analysis of survey responses.  Eradicating institutional learned helplessness is a tall order for one little blog article but I will offer some tips based upon some that appeared in a Chicago Tribune article about Dr. Seligman’s work.  The article suggests the following approaches to overcome learned helplessness:

  1. Believe that change is possible.  If you believe change is not possible, you have a terminal case of learned helplessness.
  2. Think big and without limitations.  Things you think are limitations might just be artificial barriers constructed from the bricks of falsehoods fused together via the mortar of emotional abuse.   One way to move beyond artificial limitations is to think of what you might do if you could change the rules, rewrite the rules, or ignore the rules.  After all, rules are human-made and can be changed, so why not unfetter your imagination from the rules?  It might help clarify which rules are worth keeping and which ones need to be changed…which ones are founded upon emotional abuse…which ones are founded on truth.
  3. Get perspective outside of your insulated organization.  This will help you realize what are real versus artificial limitations and also help expand your understanding of the realm of the possible.
  4. Set goals.  Build a roadmap of practical steps that will deconstruct artificial barriers.
  5. Achieve success. This is related to setting goals.  Your roadmap needs to be practical but also in snack-sized chunks so that you can see progress.  Eliminating institutionally constructed artificial barriers is usually a big undertaking and thus takes a long time.  Human nature can get discouraged easily if success takes too long.  However, if goals are set as a series of small steps, then you create a sustained path of small successes that you see leading to ultimate deconstruction of artificial barriers.
  6. View barriers and setbacks as temporary things – as opportunities to innovate and exercise your creativity.  Changing your outlook from that of defeatist to that of healthy skeptic channels your energy into constantly assessing your roadmap and making appropriate adjustments rather than throwing up your hands in defeat at the first sign of difficulty.

With those concepts for overcoming learned helplessness in mind, women could complete this survey to assess the presence or absence of emotional abuse endured by women within the institutional church.  The following survey is modified from a questionnaire I found on  I have taken the liberty of providing responses I would give were this survey actually conducted by the Catholic hierarchy.

Women perform upwards of 80% of church ministry and are more than 50% of regular church goers.  If they feel they suffer institutional emotional abuse at the hands of the hierarchy, they have the power to change things either individually or as a group.  Individually, a woman always has the option to leave the institutional church if organized efforts at change prove too slow or fruitless.  But, if a woman feels the church emotionally abuses her, she has options beyond the shoulder shrugging complying resignation associated with learned helplessness.

What is the extent of emotional abuse towards women in the church? How should it be addressed?  What role do both men and women play in eliminating emotional abuse within the church?

One of the first steps in overcoming abuse is to name it.  So, if doctrine, Canon Law and hierarchical practices are emotionally abusive, let us name them as such so that we can begin to fix them.  Embarking on writing a "theology of women" without doing this will just result in additional emotionally abusive doctrine put into practice and enforced via church law.  It will only serve to scour existing searing wounds with a pumice stone and firmly apply a poultice of salt and gravel via a strangulating tourniquet. In other words, don't expect a lot of healing to result from it.

Before someone with a few favorite priests in mind jumps down my throat, please note that I answer based upon what is in doctrine and Canon Law as well as general behavior trends.  Kudos to those priests who try to treat women with as much dignity as the hierarchy and church processes permit.

P.S. I would recommend conducting a similar survey for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.  The physical and sexual abuses they endured are compounded by the emotional abuses they encounter as they try to heal.  As long as the emotional abuse continues, the church will not move beyond the sexual abuse scandal even if not one more child is sexually assaulted from now until eternity.  I tip my hat to the sexual abuse survivors for teaching the rest of the church how to avoid learned helplessness.

Emotionally Abusive Behavior Pattern

1. Humiliation, degradation, discounting, negating, judging, criticizing
a. Do hierarchy members make fun of women or put them down in front of other people?
Some do.  This occurs via written and spoken language in formal doctrine and informal interactions.
b. Do hierarchy members tease women or use sarcasm as a way to put them down or degrade them?
Some do.  For example: the emerging trend of Men's Clubs and Men's Conferences seem rampant with sexist and misogynistic humor that goes unchecked.
c. When women complain do hierarchy members say that “it was just a joke” and that women are too sensitive?
d. Does the hierarchy tell women that their opinions or feelings are “wrong?”
Regularly via homilies, interpersonal interactions, doctrine and Canon Law.
e. Do hierarchy members regularly ridicule, dismiss, or disregard women's opinions, thoughts, suggestions, and feelings?
Regularly via homilies, interpersonal interactions, doctrine and Canon Law or just outright ignoring them.
2. Domination, control, and shame
a. Does the hierarchy treat women like children?
Regularly via homilies, interpersonal interactions, doctrine and Canon Law or just outright ignoring them.  Women at some point always have at least 2 levels of male hierarchy over them: bishop and pope.  Increasingly in my country clergymen use their positions of power lobbying to wrest control of women's bodies from women.  They believe women incapable of making moral decisions and so try to legislate them via civil law.
b. Does the hierarchy constantly correct or chastise women because their behavior is “inappropriate?”
"Radical feminist nuns", lesbians, women using birth control/hormone therapy, women in troubled pregnancies and women seeking ordination experience this the most.
c. Do women need to "get permission" from a clergyman before making even small decisions?

It depends upon the clergyman in charge but there is no recourse if this is the case.  On some matters, a woman absolutely must get permission from a clergyman.
d. Does the hierarchy control women's spending within the church?
Only if they give money to the church.  But in general, yes, clergymen have ultimate say in how church monies are spent.
e. Does the hierarchy treat women as though they are inferior to them?
This is in doctrine and Canon law. The hierarchy justify this by saying that male or female laypeople are inferior to them.  However, since all ordained people are men, this says women are always, always, always inferior to clergymen.
f. Does the hierarchy make women feel as though the hierarchy is always right?
This is in doctrine and Canon law and reinforced by clergymen's practices.
g. Does the hierarchy remind women of their shortcomings?
Many clergymen's favorite hobby is reminding others of their sins but of late many clergymen especially focus on what they believe are women's sins associated with reproductive health, sexuality and vocational calling.
h. Does the hierarchy belittle women's accomplishments, aspirations, plans or even who they are?
This is in doctrine and daily practice.  The hierarchy seems to believe that by saying women are wonderful but then following that with unfounded belittling statements about women, they revere women.  Many women find this even more belittling than direct belittlement due to its dishonesty.
i. Are women the target of disapproving, dismissive, contemptuous, or condescending looks, comments, or behavior by hierarchy members?
This varies but it is present.
3. Accusing and blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations, and denies own shortcomings
a. Does the hierarchy accuse women of things contrived in their own minds that are untrue?
This varies but it is present in things like the "radical feminism" claims against the nuns.
b. Is the hierarchy unable to laugh at themselves?
But, some can.
c. Are hierarchy members extremely sensitive when it comes to others making fun of them or making any kind of comment that seems to show a lack of respect?
Many hierarchical leaders while inhibiting the religious liberties of others scream "religious liberty."  Thus as a group they demonstrate low tolerance for criticism.  They use attack dogs such as the "Catholic League" to bully their critics.
d. Do hierarchy members have trouble apologizing?
Apologies from clergymen are a near extinct entity.
e. Do hierarchy members make excuses for their behavior or tend to blame others or circumstances for their mistakes?
The woes of the hierarchy and the Church are blamed on secularism, modernism, and all sorts of phantom "isms" except the sexism and clericalism that actually plague the church.
f. Does the hierarchy call women names or label them?
The hierarchy believes some labels they place on women are respectful but many women find them extremely disrespectful.  However frequently labeling women as "bitter", "angry", "feminist", "emotional", or "liberal" is the way clergy justify ignoring women's concerns as though these women's core beings are unreasonable and therefore not worthy of consideration.
g. Does the hierarchy blame women for its problems or unhappiness?

I think the hierarchy blames many things for the Church's woes and unruly women might be a part of that but not necessarily the focus of the hierarchy's blame game.
h. Does the hierarchy continually have “boundary violations” and disrespect women's valid requests?
Increasingly the hierarchy in my country is using its lobbying powers to violate boundaries when it comes to women's bodies.  It wrests control of women's bodies from women and legislates its care.
4. Emotional distancing and the “silent treatment,” isolation, emotional abandonment or neglect
a. Do hierarchy members use pouting, ignoring, withdrawal or withholding attention?
This is one of the hierarchy's primary ways of dealing with women's concerns.
b. Does the hierarchy not want to meet women's basic needs or use shunning, neglect or abandonment as punishment?
The hierarchy doesn't even know what women's basic needs are so cannot meet them.  Rather than treat women as adults and speak to them about their needs, the hierarchy assumes they know best what women need.  However, from many women's viewpoint, they severely miss the mark.
c. Does the hierarchy play the victim to deflect blame onto others instead of taking responsibility for their actions and attitudes?
But this is directed at more than women.  They also blame homosexuals, modernity, secular culture and a host of things other than taking responsibility.
d. Does the hierarchy not notice or care how women feel?
If the hierarchy does notice how women feel, it tells them that they have the "wrong" feelings.
e. Do hierarchy members fail to show empathy or ask questions to gather information about women?
Most do not and institutionally this rarely if ever happens.  The rare occasions it has occurred, the question becomes one of properly synthesizing that information.  It always seems to have to go through a clergyman's filter. 
5. Codependence and enmeshment:
a. Do hierarchy members treat women not as individual people but as an extension of someone else such as their husband or father?
This is written in doctrine and increasingly expressed as part of "natural law."
b. Do hierarchy members disrespect or fail to protect women's personal boundaries?
See comments for 3.h.
c. Do hierarchy members disrespect and disregard women's requests and instead do what they think is best for women?
See comments for 3.h, 4.b, 4.d and 4.e.
d. Does the hierarchy require continual contact with women because they haven’t developed a healthy support network among their own peers?

Actually the opposite is the case.  The hierarchy has such a tightly knit network that many hierarchy members seem to take for granted that 80%+ of church ministry is done by women.