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.
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.
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.