White Supremacy and Roman Catholic Patriarchy

White supremacy and patriarchy have been built up for centuries, each using and advancing the other as its predicate.

Like the proverbial threads woven in a sweater, white supremacy and patriarchy are intricately and intentionally entangled. Or, to put it in academic terms, I would say that these two forces are dynamic and interdependent, different in important and discrete ways, and at the same time intersectional and mutually effecting. The main point of this essay is to show that, like threads in a sweater, to pull at one strand will unravel the whole.

This symposium is meant to interrogate the Roman Catholic Church’s timid response to anti-black racism and its atrophied attempts to join in the moral call of our time and proclaim: black lives matter. There are many right and good analyses to be done of why this has happened. I do not mean for this essay to be the full diagnosis. Nonetheless, the way I answer this question here is to argue that patriarchy is aided by white supremacy. To look at the ways they have been entangled may illuminate what, as a patriarchal institution, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has at stake in a condemnation of white supremacy.

White supremacy—as this symposium’s essays make clear—is meant to name the ways in which whiteness itself is a condition of power predicated on the violent exclusion from positions of ownership, wealth, rule-making, and protection of those not deemed white enough. Whiteness is not a biological reality. Catholics in America have had a special role in highlighting this fact, as people like myself, those whose Irish, Italian, and Polish ancestors would not have been seen as white enough, passed into whiteness as we have been willing to step into that power that determines itself in violence toward people of color.

I define patriarchy as the essentialist gender binary inscribed on bodies, which makes men out of those deemed dominant, while feminizing those who are dominated. Patriarchy means literally the “rule of the father,” and like the term white supremacy, it is meant to name the ways in which being a man is a position of power predicated on ownership and subjugation of all that is less-than-masculine. With this power, those able to “successfully” perform masculinity have throughout history created the rules which keep them in power, and regulated the conditions of life, and death, for everyone else.  

Gender essentialism has a long history with many cultural manifestations. The modern Roman Catholic articulation of the male/female difference is deeply influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom women are “defective or misbegotten.” Specifically, Aquinas argued that men are active creators who generate reproductive material—sperm—and therefore mirror the creator God. Women, as mere passive soil for sperm, fail in our nature as women to exist in the image of God. Aquinas asks why God should have created women at all: men are so much better at everything, they would make better helpmates for each other. Aquinas answers that by taking on the passivity in reproduction, we allow men to be fully active and therefore like God. It is precisely in being passively dominated that we are able to “help.” The modern Theology of the Body updates Aquinas. It maintains the argument that women are constitutively passive, but changes Aquinas’ argument to say that this passivity is a gift and blessing equal to men’s activity.

This essentialist gender binary, which in the Roman Catholic tradition constructs women as fundamentally passive and men as fundamentally active, has had a deep effect on society outside of Roman Catholicism, and a potent interaction with white supremacy. Black feminist philosophers and womanist theologians have shown for decades how white women and men construct and treat Black people as foils in order to perform this essentialist binary. Theologian Bryan Massingale names this as sexualized racism: “race-based sexual beliefs and stereotypes…used as a pretext or justification for social exclusion, inequality, subjugation, control, denigration, and inferiority.”[1]

Let us look at both Antebellum and contemporary examples. Sexual violence against Black women was expected as a way for white men to perform active masculinity, while preserving white women’s performance of passive femininity. For this, Black women were characterized as promiscuous and libidinous. For example, white “boys” often became “men” by raping Black women, in order to protect and affirm white women’s passivity from white men’s “needed” sexual activity. In an example from an emancipated Black man’s testimony, we learn about a white father who brought his young son “down to the cabin” to show him what to do with a woman; they “both took her [an enslaved Black woman],” he testifies, and “she couldn’t do nothing ‘bout it.” In another example, a “noble mother of Virginia” purchased for her son “three attractive mulatto females, and placed them in a cottage near the family mansion, for the exclusive use of an only son—assigning as the reason why she did it, that it would ‘make Charley steady.’” In both of these examples, white parents expect, even teach, their sons to perform white masculinity with subjugation and dominance. They are taught that the natural objects of that dominance are Black women. This, at the same time, sets the converse standard for white women’s passive sexuality as “pure,” unsullied by the virility of white men.

This is, clearly, the racialized weaponization of the Christian passive/active gender binary.

Just as the racist sexualized image of female Blackness was a foil to white femininity, so too Black men were seen as deviant, hypersexual foils to white men.

The “protection” of white women, and the category of whiteness to which our reproductive bodies are a gate, was – and is – used as a pretext for the torture, terrorization, and murder of hundreds of thousands of Black men. The way Black men and women were seen and treated sexually by whites in white supremacist culture functioned to reinforce the white gender binary, as Patricia Hill Collins writes: “distinct sexual standards for white women and white men reinforced the notion of naturally opposite genders whose sexual needs and preferences diverge based on biological differences.” That is, the racialized and sexualized boundaries reinforced the notion of “biological differences” between men and women, and also between Black and white people.

While papal encyclicals explicitly denounced the slave trade from the fifteenth century onward, the reality in Antebellum America was that the structure of Roman Catholic life functioned to support anti-Black tropes like the ones I’ve outlined above. Theologian M. Shawn Copeland writes that the Catholic Church’s “accommodation to anti-black logics included the establishment of segregated parishes, schools, and in some cases, cemeteries; the denial, exclusion, and prohibition of black bodies from religious vows and from priesthood; and the proscription of black religious expressive culture and spirituality.[2] The Catholic Church also let its rituals and sacraments, like the Eucharist and Baptism, be used to signify and maintain the trafficking and ownership of people under the conditions of chattel slavery. The fact of the papal bulls only highlights the sinfulness of these offenses. Rather than condemn the logics of anti-Blackness, the American Catholic Church reinforced them, reinforcing the weaponization of its own gender binary toward sexual violence and sexualized racial boundaries.

This racialized weaponization of the white Christian gender binary has persisted through today. In the Jim Crow era, rape and sexual violence against Black women was maintained as a tool of terror and as a mark of white masculinity. The hyper-sexualization of Black men and white people’s “fear” of endangering white women’s purity was the frame used to lynch and terrorize Black people. Today, Black women continue to be hypersexualized with stereotypes like the “Jezebel,” and rates of sexual violence against Black women are very high. In the post-civil-rights era of law and order mass incarceration, Black men are seen as “violent young bucks”—whether they are 11 or 50—and their perceived hyper-sexualization and dominance has led to a culture that punishes and takes liberty away from Black men at such high rates that it effects the whole community.

Fr. Bryan Massingale, in an essay entitled, “The Erotic Life of Anti-Blackness,” points to evidence of the continued racialized weaponization of the gender binary in interracial pornography. The reason Massingale turns to pornography is that “it provides an unfiltered access to the deep cultural meanings ascribed to the nonwhite body… by white patriarchal mentality, even when these associations are consciously denied or deemed inadmissible in contemporary public discourse.” This segment of Internet pornography would not be so popular, and the industry so profitable, were it not evidence of “deep and pervasive cultural (mal)formation.”

Producers of a popular form of pornography, writes Massingale, market it specifically to white men. This pornography sexualizes inequality between white men and white women. In it, a Black man will violently rape or degrade a white woman, with a white man watching. What the white man is meant to “get off” on is not the Black man’s arousal—that is incidental—but the dominance over the raped “passive” white woman, which is so complete that he as a white man cannot even accomplish it, only watch and control them both.

This genre also sexualizes the inequality between white men and women of color. Massingale recounts this description of “Ghetto Gaggers” from the website degradingwomen.com (he gives an alert to offensive language which I also emphasize): “Do you prefer seeing ghetto sluts being turned into submissive sistas? If so Ghetto Gaggers is just what the doctor ordered…You’ll see black pornstars being destroyed by white cocks, and left in piles of puke and spit.” Wrenchingly, we hear the echoes of Antebellum rape. Black women characterized as sluts and porn-stars, within pornography, in order to foreground their always-already promiscuity and licentiousness. They are made submissive to the point that they are receptive not only to semen, but to spit and vomit; because semen is viewed an instrument of women’s dominion and shame, it is comparable to vomit and spit. This is the eroticization of white masculinity as dominance, and the portrayal of Black women as the complete objects of that dominance.

While this example focuses on the eroticization of white male dominance over Black women, the performance of white masculinity as sexual dominance and subjugation extends over many racial categories. As Alice Mayall and Diana Russell write, “in pornography, all of the culture’s racist myths become just another turn-on. Asian women are portrayed as pliant dolls; Latin women as sexually voracious but utterly submissive; and black women as dangerous and contemptible sexual animals” All non-white people become objects for the sexualized performance of white masculine dominance from which “pure” white women are protected, unless they are raped by black men. These examples, which lay bare the iterations of Antebellum violence in our contemporary cultural id, show that it is impossible to disentangle the racialized elements from the anti-woman elements.

Gender essentialism preserves power and ownership as the exclusive domain of men.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church benefits greatly from gender essentialism which characterizes men as potent fathers, and women as passive mothers. Historically, it has been unwilling to do much to challenge the racism which has developed to uphold these white gender categories.

Try to imagine what a church that vociferously calls out anti-blackness looks like while preserving its gender essentialism and privileged masculinity. It’s not possible, because anti-blackness functions to support gender essentialism.

I want to imagine a church that stands against racism: that means opposing patriarchy that violently expects people of color to be in a position of sexual availability that marks white masculinity and feminine passivity. I want to imagine a church that destabilizes racial boundaries by destabilizing the patriarchy that utilizes race to construct gender roles. Let’s pull the thread.

Brianne Jacobs is an assistant professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mass.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!

[1] Bryan Massingale, “The Erotic Life of Anti-Blackness: Police Sexual Violation of Black Bodies” in Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics eds., Vincent Lloyd and Andrew Prevot, (Maryknoll, Orbis: 2017), 176.

[2] M. Shawn Copeland, “White Supremacy and Anti-Black Logics in the Making of U. S. Catholicism” in Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, eds., Vincent Lloyd and Andrew Prevot, (Maryknoll, Orbis: 2017).