May 28, 2013 by lucieromarin
Yes, there really are people in the world for whom chaperoning is still an issue!
Well, I’ll say at the outset that I’m normally very pro-boundaries. Boundaries are our friends; they really are. Emotional boundaries are just as valuable as physical boundaries, and you don’t have to commit a mortal sin in order to mess up your life. A stalker you never see does not become less creepy just because he’s not touching you. A friendship that becomes possessive soon stops being a friendship. There’s an emotional intimacy appropriate to husband and wife that can ruin any kind of relationship, or even a vocation, if it’s enjoyed outside of marriage, while the persons involved delude themselves about being ‘just good friends’ or ‘spiritual friends’.
Chaperoning, to a limited degree, can be a way of respecting those boundaries. It can also be an unexpected source of strength. There’s a sort of adolescent cheerleader feminism that talks as though all girls should be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that if a girl feels uncomfortable about a guy’s interest in her, or if she feels unequal to the task of fending off an assailant in a dark alley, then she’s the one at fault – a real girl fears nothing, ever etc etc But to demand this is unfair; it refuses to let people grow at an individual pace, and refuses them every person’s natural right to ask for help if help is what they’d like. So, it’s often good to find oneself in a subculture in which a young woman can ask for a bit of backup without having to fear that she’ll be held in contempt for requesting it.
However. There’s also this. Once, a married friend was placed opposite a retreatant at a novitiate table while I was placed on her right. Presumably she was thought less likely to ruin the guy’s vocation than I was if she sat five centimetres closer to him than I did. I’ve known priests who felt compelled to take two female chaperones with them when they made their visits to the female poor and housebound, in case anyone gossiped about their relationship with the chaperone (you know, because they were alone in the car together! This is really considered significant in our subculture; if you’re interested, more here.) Once, I had the front door of a religious house opened by a Novice Master, who stood there with a grinning novice at his side; with his Superior present, the Novice Master felt that opening the front door to a woman unchaperoned could be…what? A sign that he was having an affair? A sign that he wished he could have an affair? Or a sign that a pious gossip might make something of a transaction of groceries, and that he needed simply to protect us all from said gossip? I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly certain it was the latter. I had to be treated as a threat, not because they really believed I was one, but because they were afraid of the minds of those who might be willing to believe it.
There are three problems with this kind of chaperoning:
1) It’s based on fear. Who is this unspecified individual whose suspicious thoughts determine everyone’s behaviour? Why can she not be disciplined? If you act as though their habit of automatically assuming the worst is indeed a healthy way to think, then you train everyone in that habit; you train everyone to say, “But what will such-and-such think?” instead of training everyone to say, “Who cares what such-and-such thinks? She’s nuts.” I’ll grant you, I’ve never been in charge of a parish, but surely it’s better to discipline the troublemakers than it is to treat your helpers as though you agree with said troublemakers?
2) It’s also naive. Yes, persons who believes themselves incapable of falling into a state of unhealthy attachment to another person are kidding themselves. That’s why we have boundaries of all kinds, and not just with priests. However, it’s equally naive to think that just because you’ve ringed some overworked clergyman with restrictions based upon a fear of gossip or the certitude that he’ll lose his vocation if he talks to a woman for two minutes, that you’ve protected anyone’s virtue. Seriously, who thinks that people committing adultery commit it by leaving groceries at a doorstep? Surely the great, sad lesson of some recent tragedies is that a priest can be surrounded by a legion of chaperones, associates, followers… and all he needs in order to keep a mistress and children is that his closest associates remain willing to keep silence about his sins.
3) It also assumes that single women are more vulnerable or predatory than married women. But this isn’t true. A seminarian-friend once told me of a talk given to his class. It was about how to deal with blacktrackers. It began with the Rector reading aloud a letter he’d received that week from a married woman in their congregation, blatantly inviting him over for shenanigans, “…because my husband is away.”
The priest-as-boyfriend issue is real, and I’ve written about it elsewhere, but it doesn’t exist for want of chaperones. Whether a person is emotionally unstable or predatory is not related to his or her state in life but to his or her happiness. The same holds true of the habit of judging others – what pious gossip ever possessed deep interior peace? And what person filled with happiness went around assuming the worst about others?
4) It also assumes that no one is mature. We chaperone teenagers because they’re still working on self-control. To chaperone men and women in their thirties and forties implies that they have not yet learned how to manage the desire for intimacy. Why else should they need the same watching as they did when they were children? But if this is so, they probably shouldn’t have been allowed to marry or become priests! (Nor should they be allowed to become teachers, or to work in offices staffed by both men and women!)
Well, our priests’ lives are miserable enough; they don’t really need me ranting away about how insulting it is to be treated as a threat. And gossip is powerful; it can destroy people’s lives. How do you fight a poisoned tongue? I can see why a man might give in to the fear of the thing before it’s even happened, and it’s easy for me to criticise other people’s management skills, when I’m never going to be tested in that way myself. Still, in my imaginary perfect world, the innocent would not be expected to behave as though they were guilty, simply to prevent the evil-minded from accusing them of being so.