Critiquing a theologian for theologizing in the face of a crisis is a cheap shot and a pre-cooked criticism that lends itself to the use of a disdainful punks with no intention of engaging the subject — but would still like to appear clever by undercutting it. In this sense, I understand why it was a popular critique of Benedict XVI’s recent essay. But I also get the sense that the real reason we are so adverse to theologizing in the face of the sex-abuse crisis is not because we have some pragmatic ace up our sleeve, one that Benedict is avoiding. Rather, theology doesn’t tend to create an enemy or a scapegoat victim — and we are rather fond of our scapegoat victims.
Two figures have been outed as the True Cause of the Crisis. On the Right, the homosexual priest. On the Left, the clericalist priest. Both are witches we have been given cultural clearance to burn. Both distract reformers from their reform by setting them hounding after hypothetical habits smoldering in the clerical breast (attraction to the same sex or a feeling of superiority over the laity, respectively). Vain speculation on whether a priest is wilting and effeminate or a Latin-mumbling jerk shys us away from things like (a) the actual content of their teaching (b) their use of money and (c) the moral worth of their actions — things which, unlike their torturous desires, can be seen, shown and decried if they tend the Church away from her common good.
As tends to be the case with scapegoats, these two images have become cork-boards on which to thumbtack other angry issues. The Right waves around the cutout of a homosexual priest — which seems to signify whatever liberalizing, wishy-washy prelate woke up that morning without the spine to defend Church teaching. The Left sets fire to their own clericalist cutout — which always seems to be in the image of whatever priest was last Very Mean and told them that they weren’t allowed to have birth-control freeze-pops for breakfast.
Benedict does not give a central place to either of these particular, huntable beings as the One True Source of the sex abuse crisis. Rather, he argues that “the power of evil arises from our refusal to love God.” He mentions the difficulty of “homosexual cliques” within seminaries, not as the secret source of the sexual abuse of children (though many writers, with a penchant for being thick, managed to read this meme into the essay) but as part of the general decline of good priestly formation.
Any church leader who has the wherewithal to admit that homosexual in-groups are a problem without arguing that homosexual priests are the real cause of the sex-abuse crisis seems to be riffing in the right key. For it cannot be the case that “homosexuals” cause the problem, as the Church has already stated that the desire to have sex with another man is disordered, but no more a sin than the myriad of disordered desires with which the Christian (and even the seminarian!) is engaged in combat — much to the dour, moralizing disappointment of the libertines who would have me attain true happiness by indulging whatever desires demand my obedience at any given moment. (See Catholic Catechism 2357-2359 for a pitifully short synopsis on Catholic teaching in this regard.)
Nor is it typical for Benedict to speak in these terms. He tends to align with the french philosopher, Michel Foucault. Foucault argued that the move to delineate “the homosexual” as a fixed kind of person, achieved through psychoanalysis, sexology and law, was a part of the larger attempt to produce something that we now call “sexuality.” This new beast, in which heterosexuals and homosexuals are both participants, transformed a traditional concern for the social regulation of genital acts (in accord with concerns for establishing lineage and maintaining familial bonds) into an individual concern for normalcy — that is, for being the right kind of person.
Since this great transformation, there can be no return to the kind of ars erotica that Foucault argued was the practice of the Greeks, in which “the homosexual” never crystalized as an identity or a “species”. Nor could there be a return to Christianity, in which sodomy was a vice that contained a diversity of meanings and a sin that did not create a particular kind of being — outside of the usual manner in which stealing creates a thief until he repents. Rather, it is the characteristic of our age to reduce all acts into manageable kinds of person and all desires, however tenuous, into stable identities which make for easy political and commercial control.
There are problems with Foucault’s analysis, but Benedict seems to get into the swing of it when he argued that Church should not use the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” to refer to people (necessary as such terms may be to “objectively” discuss acts, desires, self-declared identity groups, etc.) as it denigrates their fundamental identity as sons and daughters of God, in which men and women are free from the managerial power of the State and judged on the basis of their acts — their being having already been declared “very good” by the Creator himself: “Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”
It makes sense that, far from a turn to declaring a certain type of priest as the cause of the sex-abuse crisis, Benedict points to the ways in which the creation of in-groups, factions, and “cliques” formed on the basis of these reductive identities helped to create a climate in which the priesthood came to look nothing special, nothing set apart — just another slice of world.
By grouping homosexual cliques who “acted more or less openly” alongside bishops for whom “conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition,” Benedict diffuses our scapegoating impulse and shows that the real problem of having “homosexual cliques which acted more or less openly” within seminaries and throughout the Church is not the existence of homosexual priests per se, but dissent from Church teaching which basically sets prelates over and against the Church, as a tiny elite who have determined for themselves that the tradition need not be followed.
What does this have to do with the sex-abuse crisis? Not, to repeat, that homosexual desire translates itself into the sexual abuse of children with no more than a skip, but that such a position creates a kind of structural deceit, inviting people into a habit of cover-up, whereby what one proclaims as a faction within the hierarchy is distinct from how one presents oneself to the laity, and the whole Church. It is an education in keeping things within a boy’s club. It creates an overall climate in which duplicity is expected.
More must be said, but let the reader understand: The Church’s opposition to homosexual acts does not itself create a climate of dissent and deceit in the priesthood. How could it? Within this framework, you commit a homosexual act, you repent, seek God’s forgiveness, and move on while avoiding the near occasion of sin, like every other uninteresting Christian shuffling through this stupid valley of tears with all its stupid billboards. Rather, the deadlock between these two views — homosexuality as a manageable identity and the Church’s refusal to consider homosexuality as an identity — is the true impasse which creates the homosexual faction as an identity-group over and against the Church.
As far as clericalism goes, Benedict doesn’t address it at all, which is decent of him. Like the spectre of the homosexual priest, the clericalist is usually a stupid scapegoating tactic that either
(a) forces us all to invent some hoary, cassocked nightmare priest who no one has met, simply to have a target to throw rocks at or
(b) casts the blame for the sex-abuse crisis at the feet of the laity who, after all, are equally responsible for treating their priests with undue honor or
(d) insinuates that all priestly superiority to lay people is unjustified, when, being a layman myself, I can confirm that most of the laity are money-grubbers and fornicators whose spiritual desire peaks at longing wistfully for a new iPhone. We could use a healthy back-hand of clericalism in their lives. Also it
(e) plays into the terrible idea that sexual abuse is somehow the provenance of lordly, prideful, despotic priests whom Hollywood hires out to be Very Obviously Bad for the camera, rather than your friendly, very modern, charismatic, sympathetic, rule-bending, personality-cultish priests who want to wrestle and
(f) plays into the silly idea that somehow a homosexual priest could not also be a clericalist priest and vice verse, and
(g) cements a distrust between lay people and their priests, who usually appear standoffish and weird, but not because they’re clericalists who don’t want to hang out with lay people. They’re just standoffish and weird. (Seriously, have you ever met someone who studies theology for seven years and wasn’t standoffish? Come see me after a day of reading Aquinas. I literally stand apart from people and mutter to myself about the theological implications of vegetable androgyny.)
The turn to the theological does not argue that either homosexuality or clericalism is not a problem, nor that in certain areas of the world, it is not a big problem, but it does stop us from scratching that itch to scapegoat that which would declare one particular type as the problem. In fact, horror of horrors, the turn to the theological rather insinuates that we are all responsible for the sex-abuse crisis — that it is our problem.
And here, there is a profound line of continuity between Francis and Benedict, who both understand that the Church is not simply a political institution, a mechanism that can produce good results so long as her gears are in order, her committees handing in reports on time, her lawyers pushing the right buttons, and so forth. The Church requires holy men and women, or it rots, stinks, and festers far worse than any other self-preserving institution covering up sexual abuse in its ranks. Glory be to God who rots our Church more quickly than the rest.
Part 4: The Perversion of the Priesthood, will be finished whenever my Saturnine rage gives way to Jovial feelings and permits an essay that doesn’t cut itself on All That Edge.