It’s no joke: “Sometimes plates can fly”

Francis Festival Resized

Pope Francis addresses the Festival of Families

As with many others, I’ve been quite caught up in the papal mania of Francis’ visit to the United States, and have found much that is inspiring about both his actions and words.  Yet I am dismayed by comments Francis made at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia, as well as by the audience’s response.

In the midst of his address, Francis acknowledged that some may assume he does not know the realities of family life given his celibate vocation.  In an attempt to show that he does indeed know the struggles of families, he said:

Families have the difficulties, families fight, sometimes plates can fly. Children bring headaches. I won’t speak about mother-in-laws.

Francis clearly intended to make a joke, and a number of people in the audience laughed in response (this segment of his address begins at 13:45).  I am not going to concentrate here on the trope about mothers-in-law, which is a deeply sexist stereotype in itself.  Rather, I am focusing on Francis’ dismissal of the violence of “flying plates.”  Domestic violence is a reality for many families, and flying plates are part of that violence.

It may be tempting to limit our concept of domestic violence to direct physical harm.  Yet experts point out that domestic violence does not necessarily begin with physical harm.  Rather, violence within families includes verbal and emotional violence.  In addition, violence against a family member may not be directly physical, as when one spouse hits or rapes another.  Rather, the threat of direct physical violence is made when walls are punched, furniture is destroyed, and plates fly.

Further, types of violence within relationships often escalate.  Josh Jasper, who presents nationally on violence prevention, writes:

Because certainly we all know that no one wakes up one day and decides out of the blue to knock their fiancée out in an elevator, or to rape their girlfriend or to attack and kill someone.  This abusive behavior starts well before the point in which we are left feeling helpless and without answers.

Ignoring or laughing off the connection between “flying plates” and domestic violence both normalizes violence and serves to silence those who are vulnerable to violence.  In a recent interview, Sonia Manzano, the actress who played Maria on Sesame Street, described her experience of growing up with violence in her family.  Ms. Manzano watched as her mother hid potentially dangerous objects from her father:

She would discreetly put the knives in the oven and I’d say, ‘Why are you putting the knives in the oven, Mom?’ And she’d say, ‘Oh, no reason at all.’ But as a kid, I’m thinking: Are we going to get hurt? Is there a possibility that he’s going to use the knives? So it was all this kind of confusing take on what was going on.

And she joined with her sister in trying to assuage the fear with humor:

I think it was a way of dealing with it. When the furniture would be broken — because my father would throw the chairs around and destroy the coffee table — my sister would say, ‘Look at this, this is great! We’re going to have all new furniture by Monday morning!’ Which we did. It was this complete cycle of violence, hope, violence, hope.


Sonia Manzano with Elmo

While I cannot imagine that Francis intended to make a joke of families who live with domestic violence, I also cannot imagine that his words–or the laughter of his audience–offered these families any sense that the church knows their reality, speaks out against their abuse, or helps them find a path out of danger.  Instead, tacit permission was given for the cycle of violence and hope to continue.

With the Synod on the Family beginning soon, we must recognize that “protecting” the family in both the church and society includes protecting those who are in danger within their families.  This acknowledgement, and the action that must flow from it, means we must perceive the depth and breadth of domestic violence as well as the economic and social factors that contribute to it.  For instance, Ms. Manzano indicates that as an adult she has struggled to understand how poverty and alcoholism intertwined in her father’s life and contributed to his violence against his family.  In a similar vein Mr. Jasper writes:

This stuff starts with boys being socialized to be tough, aggressive, macho, emotionless young men that have little to no opportunities to share their feelings and connect with others.  It starts when we being to objectify young girls and women.

Maybe most importantly, this stuff starts and is reinforced through our maddening and seemingly never-ending silence.

The church must not be silent on domestic violence, and when we speak it should be no joke.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provides resources for responding to domestic violence.  

7 responses to “It’s no joke: “Sometimes plates can fly”

  1. Actually, I believe the Pope made beautiful remarks about the family during the Festival of Families – including and especially the reference to flying plates. His intent was not to make a joke of these incidents but to PREVENT their escalation by remembering the love that brought the family together in the first place. Only that love can bring a family forward out of the darkness of adult temper tantrums. He was pointing out that flying plates are NOT the end of the world, that there is hope for a better tomorrow.

  2. Thanks so much for this. I think the church – especially leaders in the church – need to be reminded of the reality of domestic violence. It is so easy for the closed circle of male clergy to overlook this – or, worse, treat it in a joking way. Thanks, Amanda.

  3. Actually, I don’t think the Pope made light the issue of Domestic Violence. He highlighted some of the various difficulties faced by families which only Love can make the family stronger and more united. I don’t also think that the mother-in-law reference was derogatory. Regards Amanda.

  4. This is just taking the whole thing out of the context in which the pope was speaking. Clearly to any listen who does not have any biased mind, he was just stating the obvious; that families do fight. He was not in anyway endorsing domestic violence. His message was of love in spite of our troubles. I am sure that was very clear to any objective listener.

  5. I appreciate those who have taken time to respond, both to affirm what concerned me in Francis’ remarks and to offer a contrasting interpretation. As I said in the post itself, I do not think that Francis intended to be dismissive of families who experience domestic violence; on the contrary, I agree that he wished to demonstrate his understanding of the realities many families face. There are a number of difficult family realities that the pope could address pastorally. I imagine many people would object if those grave realities were brought up in a joking manner: the death of a parent or child, chronic illness, addiction, divorce, adultery, etc. I think domestic violence—and language that evokes it—should fall into that category as well.

    The language we use is important. In conversations I’ve had elsewhere online since publishing this post, I’ve learned that “flying plates” is an Italian idiom for a fierce argument (marital, though by extension it’s used to describe other arguments as well). Yet idioms don’t come into being on their own. They are drawn from life. If what we’re discussing is the reality of family life, then I think we must acknowledge that what this idiom evokes is all too real: when plates (or anything else) fly, a marital argument has become more than a quarrel, it has become violent. Rather than using this idiom as a joking reference to family arguments, I believe much more pastoral ways exist for Francis to communicate his understanding of the reality of non-violent arguments and for him to underscore love’s role in sustaining family relationships.

  6. Amanda, I really appreciate your article and your response to the previous comments. One thing you have pointed out clearly is the way many people could get the pope wrongly. I am also delighted you have underscored that a better pastoral approach would have lessened this misunderstanding. It is true that flying plates are just a manifestation of a long emotional battle withing the family which needs to be monitored from a pastoral perspective and prevented. You examples are fitting, especially the unending cycle of violence and hope….violence and hope… When it comes to pastoral issues, jokes have often been interpreted as a catalyst of another crisis because the jokes can mean a whole lots of different things. I do agree that all listeners understood at that moment that Pope Francis was joking but this could have heavy repercussions especially in the lives of those who have and continue to live beneath flying plates. Violence is an abnormal part of family life and should be avoided. However, when one feels the urge to get violent, the one should reflect of the primacy of the love that brought them together in the first place. This love, I believe, is that which can lead one to lay his/her life for the family. Jesus Christ teaches us the meaning of laying one’s life for the rest and this is the love that should guide our family values. However, when the evil one strikes and brings in discord, arguments and violence, this should be approached pastorally and in a manner which can restore the family to its originality.
    Thanks once more for highlighting important issues in your article.

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