Rethinking the sex crises in Catholicism and Anglicanism

david at virtueonline.org david at virtueonline.org
Fri Jul 30 22:33:57 EDT 2010


Rethinking the sex crises in Catholicism and Anglicanism 
The journalistic commentators on the Roman Catholic sex crises tend to take the view, as I have already mentioned, that celibacy is 'impossible', or virtually so

By Sarah Coakley 
ABC Religion and Ethics 
http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/07/14/2953473.htm 
July 14, 2010

Anyone who has attentively followed the press coverage of the recent sex scandals in the Roman Catholic church in Boston, on the one hand, and of the divisions over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion, on the other, may have become aware of certain pressing contemporary 'cultural contradictions' on matters of sexuality and desire that these two crises enshrine, and to which I wish to draw explicit attention.

It might be objected that even to name these two areas of ecclesial public furore in the same context is already to have committed a dire, and offensive, fallacy of "castigation by lumping" (to quote Jeffrey Stout). For surely the abusive and illegal activities of paedophile Roman Catholic priests must in no wise be conflated with the honest and open vowed relationships of gay Episcopalians, including one of such who is now a bishop?

To this we must reply immediately that of course the difference is ethically crucial - not only in the eyes of the law, but in terms of the unequal power relationships, and the protective shroud of ecclesiastical secrecy, that have marked the Roman Catholic scandal in contrast to the Anglican one.

Yet at the same time one cannot help noticing, simply by reflecting on the strange coincidence of these two, very different, instances of ecclesiastical turmoil over same-sex desire, that a latent "cultural contradiction" of great significance is here made manifest.

There is a deep and pervasive public pessimism, on the one hand, over the very possibility of faithful celibacy, and yet an equally deep insistence that certain forms of sexual desire must at all costs not be enacted. This first cultural contradiction was forcefully, if perhaps unconsciously, expressed by the ex-Jesuit writer Garry Wills.

In his famous New York Times article "The Scourge of Celibacy," from 2002, Wills claimed that "the whole celibacy structure is a house of cards, and honesty about any one problem can make the structure of pretence come toppling down ... Treating paedophilia as a separate problem is impossible, since it thrives by its place in a compromised network of evasion." Wills ends the article triumphantly, declaring that the "real enemy is celibacy."

Yet at the beginning of the same article Wills had inveighed against "the worst aspect" of the crisis, "the victimization of the young" and "the clerical epidemic of ... crimes." In other words, celibacy is regarded as impossible, compromising, and delusive - the whole system smacks of unreality. And yet those who do have unmanageable and illegal desires must be held to account and punished: they must and should be celibate.

Here, then, we detect our first - and most profound - "cultural contradiction": celibacy is impossible, but celibacy must be embraced by some with unacceptable and illegal desires.

Now of course once the familiar liberal-conservative divide is imposed on this first "cultural contradiction," we get a certain diversion from it and an ostensibly much clearer division: the liberals happily condone faithful vowed gay relationships while condemning illegal and abusive paedophile ones, and the conservatives - whether Protestant or Catholic - disavow and ban all of them by appealing to biblical injunctions against sodomy, or by some reference to natural law.

This division however - between pro- and anti-gay, liberals and conservatives - then tends to get most of the public attention in ecclesiastical circles and in the press, thereby diverting us from the underlying - and unsolved - cultural conundrum: How can sexual control be demanded of anyone if celibacy is intrinsically 'impossible'? To this issue we shall shortly return.

A further, and second "cultural contradiction" seems to afflict the treatment of homosexual, versus heterosexual, desire in contemporary popular discussion of the church divisions. For it is a marked feature of both the Roman Catholic and Anglican sex-crises that almost all the press attention is focussed on same-sex relationships, whether paedophile, "ephebophile," or (mature) homosexual. It is as if, by comparison, no crisis at all afflicts the heterosexual world vis-a-vis church life and what we might call the general "economy of desire."

But anyone surveying the cultural and political scene with a dispassionate eye would surely have to come to other conclusions: the general erosion of the instance of life-long marriage in North America and Europe, the rise in divorce rates, and the concomitant upsurge in the number of single-parent families, are all well-known to us in secular discussions, but are by no means absent from church-attending, or indeed Protestant clerical, families.

Only a short time ago, for instance, the clergy of the Diocese of Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts received a mailing calmly announcing that one of their suffragan bishops was undergoing a divorce. One could not but be struck by the air of enforced "normalcy" and psychological adjudication that hung over this letter - no regrets, no confessions, no distress even, and certainly no reference to either bible or Christian tradition: just an insistence that the couple had been "faithful in caring for ... each other" in the past, but were now "clear" about the fact that their marriage was "ending."

Clergy were further informed by their suffragan bishop, in pyschologized language, that "I want to assure you that I am taking care of myself in this period of change." Apart from one reference to an "excellent Spiritual Director" that the bishop had now decided to see, there was no theological reference in her letter at all.

I wish to cast no specific judgments on this case since I have no independent information about it at all, and - even if I did - the matter would surely be morally complex, and demanding of due compassion. But in fact, the news of the ending of this marriage made me much sadder than the letter would seem to warrant. I cite the case only to note an instance of the current culturally-condoned acknowledgement of the impermanence of marriage, even in the ranks of bishops in the Episcopal Church.

Yet my more important, second point here is this: despite the extensive evidences of clerical divorce, and (quite differently) of clerical abuse or philandering - both Catholic and Protestant - in heterosexual encounters or relationships, the more emotive issue of clerical homoerotic desire currently tends to continue to glean much greater public attention in the press and related publications than anything to do with heterosexual sex.

It is as if, suddenly in the early 21st-century, homoeroticism has become sufficiently open to discussion to be publicly - and emotively - dissected in the press (and then either condoned or condemned). And yet it is insufficiently integrated into a general discussion of desire to make comparisons with heterosexual patterns of behaviour a worthy topic of sustained theological reflection.

Yet one might well say, as did David Brooks in 2003, that our age is in a crisis - not so much of homosexuality - but more generally of erotic faithfulness. However, this is scarcely a chic reflection, granted the current prurient obsession with homosexuality, and the accompanying diversion from heterosexual failures.

A third, and final, "cultural contradiction" that I want to propose hovers over the common assumption that celibacy and marriage are somehow opposites: one involving no sex at all, and the other - supposedly - involving as much sex as one or both partners might like at any given time. But this, on reflection, is also a perplexing cultural fantasy that does not stand up to scrutiny.

The evidence provided by Richard Sipe's book, Celibacy in Crisis, is revealing here. Not only does faithful (or what Sipe calls "achieved") celibacy generally involve a greater consciousness of sexual desire and its frustration than a life lived with regular sexual satisfaction. But married sexuality, on the other hand, is rarely as care-free and mutually satisfied as this third "cultural contradiction" might presume.

Indeed a realistic reflection on long and faithful marriages (now almost in the minority) will surely reveal periods of enforced "celibacy" even within marriages: during periods of delicate pregnancy, parturition, illness, physical separation, or impotence, which are simply the lot of the marital "long haul."

And if this is so, then the generally-assumed disjunction between celibacy and marriage will turn out not to be as profound as it seems. Rather, the reflective, faithful celibate and the reflective, faithful married person may have more in common than the unreflective or faithless celibate, or the carelessly happy, or indeed unhappily careless, married person.

Now I shall return fleetingly to these three "cultural contradictions" later, For by then, I trust, we shall have gleaned some resources for addressing them. But for now, we cannot go further without attacking a different sort of cultural presumption head-on: that of the supposed pyschological dangers of celibacy or of any so-called "repressed" sexuality.

Here we may be surprised to discover what Freud himself said on this matter, and to him we shall now turn. Could it be that Freud actually gives us, despite himself, certain back-handed resources for thinking afresh theologically about the nature of "desire"?

Even Richard Sipe - who wishes, despite his sustained expose of clerical failures in celibacy, to defend the estimated 2% of Roman Catholic priests who he thinks do (as he puts it) "achieve" celibacy - argues that this "achievement" is always at the cost of earlier "experimentation" and fumbling, through which the priest must inevitably pass en route to something like mature sexual balance.

Underlying these gloomy figures (Sipe estimates that nearly half of so-called "celibates" are actually not so at any one time) seems to lurk the psychological presumption - often attributed to Freud - that celibacy is unnatural and even harmful. Or, if celibacy is not inherently "unnatural," then it is deemed distinctly "unusual" and even "utopian."'

It may come as some surprise, then, to find that Freud's own views on what he called "sublimation" (or unfulfilled and redirected sexual desire) were not only malleable over time, remaining finally somewhat unclear and inconsistent, but that he moved distinctly away from his early, and purely biological, account of "Eros" (sexual desire) and its power for redirection.

At no time, in fact (as far as I can see), does Freud's position provide a mandate for the view that "sublimation" is harmful - or, at any rate, that it is any more harmful than the psychological repressions we necessarily negotiate all the time, according to Freud.

On the contrary, the later view of Freud is that we all necessarily must be engaged in forms of sublimation, if civilization is to endure, and that celibacy has always been the choice of a minority who interpret this pressure religiously. Indeed, there seems to be in Freud a strand of thought on sublimation that does not involve sexual repression, but rather a more straightforward transference of aggressive energy to a good, 'erotic' end.

Thus, in a striking correspondence of 1933 initiated by Albert Einstein, Freud expressed the astonishingly optimistic view, as war-clouds gathered in Europe, that "Erotism" - the love instinct - could finally triumph over Hate and war and aggression, by means of a sort of direct transference of the energies of hate. As he put it to Einstein, love and hate must always go together, so that one - namely, love - can modify or redirect the energies of the other - hate.

And so, Freud concludes, "complete suppression of man's aggressive tendencies is not in issue; what we try is to divert it into a channel other than that of warfare."

Notice, then, that the concept of "sublimation" that started in Freud's early work as related to mere biological drive, has now become a theory of a positive, and seemingly non-repressive, "rechanneling" of psychic energy.

It is also important to observe that, when Freud speaks specifically about Christian celibacy in his famous book Civilization and Its Discontents, it is not to attack it as such, nor to deride it as psychically dangerous or impossible (though he does say that it is only a "small minority" who are "enabled by their constitution to find happiness, in spite of everything" according to this path). Rather, he says that celibates have managed to direct their love to "all men alike" rather than simply to one chosen sexual "love-object."

It is precisely "religion" that helps them to do this, he admits; and - as we might expect from Freud - this causes him to inject a sneer: it is not that he thinks celibacy is intrinsically damaging, but rather that he has moral objections to the "religious" idea that one should love everyone equally: "A love  that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value ...; and secondly, not all men are worthy of love."

Thus, while celibacy remains both possible, and even undamaging, for the later Freud, he cannot accept its moral goals, and nor can he give it ultimate theological meaning. And therein lies the true rub.

If I have shown, then, that Freud himself - as opposed to the contemporary popular American misunderstanding of him - sees "sublimation" as personally and culturally necessary, and even priestly celibacy as possible, wherein lies the continuing felt resistance to a contemporary theology of desire?

Remember Freud's use of the image of "channelling" in relation to erotic desire. For Freud it provides a means of positive transference of energies. Interestingly, precisely this same image of channelling is used by one of the Christian tradition's greatest and most important theologians.

In the late fourth century Gregory of Nyssa - the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea and one of the great Cappadocian Fathers who forged the "orthodox" doctrine of the Trinity - wrote a remarkable treatise "On Viriginity." This treatise has puzzled readers ever since because, in the fact, Gregory was almost certainly married at the time of his writing of it.

Is his high praise of virginity - a life-style embraced by his admired elder brother, Basil - merely rhetorical, or even ironic? But I would contend that there is nothing ironic or disingenuous about Gregory's adulation of celibacy.

Indeed, what is truly interesting about Gregory's treatise is the image that lies at the heart of the argument. It is the metaphor of the "stream" of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification in relation to God. In this task, Gregory says, both celibates and married people are equally involved as a life-long ascetical exercise ("ascetical," of course, here referring to the practice of disciplining and training one's body, of learning, in other words, self-control).

It might be thought that Gregory intends this intensification of desire towards God as mutually exclusive with a sexually-active life in marriage. But interestingly, he repeats the same metaphor of the stream precisely to explain how sex in marriage can be a "good irrigation" provided it, too, is ordered in relation to God and so made "moderate" in comparison with the intensified and unified stream that desire for God demands.

It is not, then, to suppress passion that Gregory's treatise is written, but actually (as stated by Gregory at the very outset) precisely to "create passion" for "the life according to excellence." And so Gregory lauds virginity, not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests.

It is not sex that is the problem but worldly values. And he sees good, spiritually-productive, marriage as almost on a par with celibacy given its equal potential capacity, when desire is rightly "aimed," to bear the fruits of "service" to others, especially to the poor.

Gregory ends his treatise much with an insistence on the importance of godly human examples from whom one may 'catch the halo', as he puts it, of how rightly to order desire. In other words - and this is surely a point of great spiritual significance for today - rightly-channelled desire, whether married or celibate, is impossible without shining examples to emulate. Such, for Gregory himself, was the inspiriation of his celibate brother Basil - celibacy was ultimately to be 'caught', not 'taught'.

In closing, let me now gather the different strands of this examination and see what lessons it may hold for Anglicanism, and indeed for the church as a whole, today.

As I have tried to demonstrate, Gregory of Nyssa's treatise "On Viriginity" is unique, and puzzling, within the Christian tradition precisely because it is written by a married person and cuts across the usual dividing categories of lay and ordained, married and celibate.

As such, I suggest it not only provides a potential key for a different kind of reading of other forms of ascetic literature, which has commonly been regarded as literature written by monastics for monastics. Gregory, I believe, helps us read such literature against the grain, and across traditional separations (for instance, between married and celibate).

My reading of Gregory also provides us with a powerful counter-argument to Peter Steinfels's insistence that a commitment to celibacy could only now be re-invigorated within contemporary Roman Catholicism at the cost of a high theology of lay and married service. As he puts it in A People Adrift, "If the church wants to restore celibacy to  former status, there is really only one practical way to do it: demote marriage to the second-class standing it once had."

I have attempted to demonstrate, in the spirit of Gregory, that marriage and celibacy ought to be re-thought alongside one another. But I have also tried to suggest - doubtless more contentiously - that heterosexual and homosexual desire ought to be examined together and subjected to the same exacting standards of ascetic transformation through discipline and "right direction."

In this way, I believe, homoerotic desire could potentially be released from its cultural - and biblical - associations with libertinism, promiscuity and disorder. Gregory's vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God - which would then produce spiritual fruits of love and service in a range of other relationships and communal bonds - represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of 'repression' and 'libertinism'.

Paradoxically, my proposal has far more in common with the thinking of the real Freud than does the imaginary Freud of American popular consciousness.

The re-thinking of celibacy and faithful vowed relations (whether heterosexual or homosexual) in an age of instantly commodified desire and massive infidelity is a task of daunting proportions, of which no-one can be very confident of wide-spread success.

But as Gregory himself warns, we cannot believe it unless we see it lived. He writes, "Any theory divorced from living examples ... is like an unbreathing statue." And there, perhaps, lies the true challenge for us today: the counter-cultural production - not of film-stars, sports heroes or faithless royal families - but of erotic "saints" to inspire us.

The conclusion, therefore, to which I have brought us, finally, is that we cannot solve the Anglican crises about "homosexuality" unless we first, all of us, re-imagine theologically the whole project of our human sorting, taming and purifying of desires within the crucible of divine desire. Such is the ascetical long haul set before us, in which faithfulness plays the indispensable role endemic to the demands of the primary love for God.

To re-think the homosexuality crises in this light, I have suggested, would be to re-invest the debate with a theological and spiritual wisdom too long forgotten.

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Sarah Coakley is the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. This is the final part of an edited version of a lecture she presented at United Theological College, Sydney, on 13 July 2010. Her fuller argument about sexuality and desire is in a book entitled The New Asceticism, forthcoming in 2011 from Continuum Books.




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