Christian patriarchy: The skeleton in our closet

Uyinene Mrwetyana went to the post office to enquire about a parcel. A man offered to help her. He then raped and brutally murdered her. Like an unwanted parcel, he disposed of her body. This horrific event happened in “Women’s Month” ­– meant to highlight and celebrate the contributions women have made to history and contemporary society. Uyinene, like countless other South African women, is ironically highlighted by being murdered.

Then: the platitudes, empty words, empty promises, the calls for stricter laws, men beating their breasts and being told to call out other men, women being told to stand up against gender based violence… blah blah. In two weeks’ time Uyinene – like Leighandre Jegels, Karabo Mokoena, Jade Panayiotou, Anene Booysen, Zanele Khumalo etc – will be another sad memory. This is how it works in South Africa.

So, what should the Church do?

First and foremost we need to break the silence and face up to our own complicity: Christian patriarchy is alive and well. We need to face our skeletons­ – our patriarchal foundations, which have given rise to our patriarchal theology, worldview and practice. Our growing consciousness of the violence of the patriarchal system calls us to reflection and reform.

Christian patriarchy (which includes complementarianism – holding that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities) relies on the strange contradiction that men and women are created for God’s glory equally, yet have different roles. But dig deeper. Men always have headship roles and women support roles. When it comes to the life of the Church, let’s be honest, men hold all the power.

Christian patriarchy is often like a flight of stairs: God is represented by the male leadership of the Church who hold authority over the male leaders of the home, who hold authority over women and children.

Go even deeper. Christian patriarchy underpins the idea that women’s bodies are inherently problematic and seductive (think of the tired arguments of appropriate dress when it comes to Church – notice the dress of women is always debated!). A woman’s worth is assigned by her sexual purity or procreative prowess. A woman is ‘emotional’ and needs a ‘rational’ man to help her think through decisions. He is the ‘head of the house’ and has authority over her and she should submit in all things. And worse: victims of abuse are blamed for their immodest dress etc. 

Patriarchy is (to use the phrase of American theologian Bryan Massingale) a “soul-sickness” in the Church. It is a warping of the human spirit, one that forms men to think they have power over women, that they are superior. Christian patriarchy is a disturbing interior disease.

The Church can lead by initiating honest conversations about our contribution to and responsibility for patriarchy. We need to rethink how we socialise boys and girls in the faith. We need to preach against it. We need a theology and ecclesiology that frees us from bondage, from idolatry.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
B.A. (UNISA) B.D. (Urbaniana) M.Th. (UKZN)

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

r.pollitt@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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2 Comments
  • Miranda Forshaw
    Posted at 21:23h, 06 Sep

    What a well written and utterly appropriate response to the horrors of gender based violence. Minds, values, historicity need to CHANGE.

  • Jeannette
    Posted at 23:18h, 07 Sep

    The Church could lead by ordaining women to the priesthood.