“Is that your wife or your girlfriend?” These words were addressed to my husband a few weeks back as I walked up to a podium, where I was to sit on a panel and give my views on the relationship between the Church and Generation X. The event was a well-attended and well-funded initiative by a well-known organization, celebrating its multi-decade long history of supporting progressive action and vision for the future the Roman Catholic Church. After accolades, awards, and a stirring keynote, I and two others were to address in cross-generational perspective, the needs of changing populations of Catholics.
It was a slightly uncomfortable event for me because I was not sure who my audience was, but I was pretty certain early on in the night that everyone in the room had more or less acquiesced to the same set of ideas, framed in the same ways, and represented by the same heroic champions of women’s ecclesial vocations and same-sex unions. I knew basically what this group was about, but I had not prepared remarks specifically aimed at women’s ordination or homosexuality. I focused on the issues of authority, ambiguity, and ambivalence as historical-situational markers for Gen X (that is, to the extent that I felt that I could say anything collectively about or for Gen X at all), and as a result I was not sure that my words, perhaps misaligned, would really add too much to the evening.
As it turned out, it did not matter what I had prepared to say because I didn’t have a chance to say it. The accolades, awards, and stirring keynote went way too long, and the panel had fewer than fifteen minutes total, including Q & A, to address the perspectives of representatives of three different generations on the status of the Roman Catholic Church. Ah, the best laid plans, right…
So, it felt a little like a bust, but at least at first I thought it was still a nice enough night. The location was a bit of a drive from my house, but it happened that my mom was visiting AND my husband was free. This meant that my mom could watch the kids and William could drive with me – a rare thing for my speaking and even rarer on a random, unplanned weekday. As we were getting ready for bed, as I often do, I asked William to tell me a joke. He hesitated for a moment, and then this exchanged followed:
William: Well, I don’t have a joke, but I have something sort of funny (in an odd funny way) tell you. I wasn’t sure I was going to share this because I didn’t want to ruin your night.
Natalie: Of course, you have to tell me now, you know.
William: Ok, then. When you got up to go to the podium, the keynote speaker [a multi-published, well-known priest, regaled throughout the evening as something between a saint and a prophet] sat down next to me. It was crowded, and our knees were actually touching. To be courteous, I congratulated him on such a nice talk. His response was, “Thanks. Is that your wife or your girlfriend?”
Natalie: Huh? How weird! What did you say? Both, right?
William: No. It was not fitting for me to be playful about you in this circumstance. Or, for that matter, with any man asking about you. I told him you were my wife of fifteen years. He followed by saying, “I like seeing couples hold hands. It makes me horny.”
Natalie: What!!! Are you kidding me?
William: No, not joking. Hand to God, that’s what he said.
Natalie: Are you telling me that guy, that priest, that “prophet,” who just spent all night – including my own prepared-for panel time, talking about women’s rights and our dignity and renouncing male privilege and leveling the church and all that line of BS – that very same guy just told you that he got horny watching us hold hands?
Natalie: As I was walking up to the podium to give a professional talk? No context? Nothing else? Just that?
Natalie: How f**king degrading! Is that degrading? Didn’t that, doesn’t that undermine what he said about women and privilege? Doesn’t that undermine somehow my voice and authority as a speaker at this event, that is, if that guy had left any room for me to deliver my remarks?
William: Yes. It was/is degrading. Yes. It was insulting to you. I didn’t want to ruin your night.
Natalie: How did it make you feel? Wasn’t that an imposition on you? Wasn’t that like an unwanted insertion of himself into your psyche and space and sexual imagination?
William: Yes. It was creepy and aggressive. It was subtle.
Natalie: What did you say?
William: Nothing. I turned away from him, and tried to keep my knees from touching his.
As I thought about it, I went back and forth between laughing and being irate. This priest was maybe just horny and very socially inept. Or, maybe this priest was trying to connect with a non-clerical man on some kind of miscalculated “dude” level, as though he were setting aside his religious prestige to enter into the gravelly, muddy level of common menfolk. Or, maybe this priest was so high on his own rhetoric about equality and dignity and whatever else he said that he was erotically stimulated by his own visionary-ness, and that’s why he talked to my husband like that. Or, maybe he knew he could say something offensive and aggressive with impunity because everyone in the room thought he was a prophet. Appalled by this priest, I have landed on these points:
1) He clearly did not respect me as a speaker at the event. You don’t issue a query about the marital status of a panelist at your own crummy talk, and then tell her husband you are horny watching them before she even has a chance to speak.
2) You don’t give some talk about rejecting clerical privilege and status, just to immediately (and I mean instantly thereafter) impose that very status and privilege on some innocent guy in the audience by telling him you are horny.
3) If, at the moment of the offensive exchange, my husband had stood up and told the attendees what had just been said to him, I am completely certain that he – my husband – would have been seen as the offender and the pariah and not the priest who actually was the offender and the pariah. This is why I knew what was said was very, very wrong.
4) A priest has no business saying that in that context… save it for confession, man!
Some of my colleagues and friends were also at this event and we had an opportunity to chat about it a few days afterward. Knowing that some of them are supporters of this priest, I felt compelled to share my experience so that, in the very least, it could be included in the selection process for keynote speakers at forthcoming events. To my shock and horror, one woman said to me, “Well, it’s actually kind of flattering that he felt that way.” And, thus I learned that ideologues around women’s liberation and sexual dignity can be as ______ as the patriarchs they would replace.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.