Gillian Walker. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 2. 2004.
This paper looks at the way sexual teachings and power transactions are interconnected, so that misogyny, homophobia, and a penitential code regulating sexuality enforced through confession provide the scaffolding for a hierarchical system, run by celibate males. It is a system that feminist theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1999) has termed “Kyriarchy” or “the rule of the emperor/master/lord/father/husband over his subordinates” (p. 114). The paper reviews the historical evolution of the Church’s teachings on sex and gender that have not only created the context for the recent pedophilia scandal, but, have pervaded Western thinking about these matters.
The day after Cardinal Law resigned because of the Boston abuse scandal, James Carroll (2002a) wrote an anguished column in the Boston Globe entitled “The Sadness of a Catholic.” Carroll captured the despairing anger that Catholics feel when forced to confront what he called “the neurotic mechanisms of abuse, control and denial that have wrecked lives and poisoned the priesthood.” More painful still, he said, was the realization that the real issue that Catholics denied was the rot at the heart of the institutional Church.
This communion of belief, defined by the most precious hope you possess, has become in some essential way an institutionalization of decadence … Sexual perversion. Power madness. Indifference to civil law. Endemic dishonesty. The narrow claim to theological infallibility as a virus of arrogance.
Benedictine theologian Aelred Graham (1971) wrote that the tragic failure of the reformist council, Vatican II, had occurred because, while the Church tried to repair relations with the outside world, it refused to look within, at the corruption of its own structures.
If the pedophilia scandal exposes the Church’s corrupt administrative structures, it also exposes the larger failure of mandatory celibacy as a viable way of life for the majority of Roman Catholic clergy. It throws into question the complex body of traditional Catholic teaching about sexuality and gender upon which mandatory celibacy is based. Both Carry Wills (2000, 2002) and James Carroll (2002b) have addressed the refusal of the Church to examine “the institutional, theological or dogmatic aspects of Catholicism” (Carroll, 2002, p. 12) when modern scholarship reveals them to have been in error or when history shows them to have caused actual harm. The Church believes that its teachings about sexuality and its right to dictate belief are firmly based in scripture. Ecclesial reform requires an examination of how scripture has been read to legitimatize the control of sexuality (which is linked to misogyny) and to secure structures of male power (and vast wealth).
In antiquity, a Church that was founded on belief in the Incarnation as an act of Divine love, in the unity of spirit and flesh, and in the immanence of God in creation became the proponent both of a profound dualism between the sexual body and pure spirit and of a hierarchical God who controls from above. In antiquity, a Church composed of colonized peoples gradually became identified with the structures and power of an empire. As the embryonic Church developed its rituals, structures of belief, and administration, it internalized both the sexual pessimism and the misogyny of late antique Greco-Roman philosophy and the Empire’s abusive love of power. The foundational scriptures themselves were, and continue to be, subjected to interpretations that conform to the needs of a sex-fearing, authoritarian, patriarchal, hierarchical, rigid, faith-based system. These authorized readings pushed aside Jesus’ original reformist vision of an egalitarian, communal group of believers. Jesus’ vision of community included marginalized peoples: women, the poor, the mad, the outcast. He protested the oppressive practices of wealth, of imperial and ecclesial power and centered his teachings on love, compassion, and the immanence of God’s action on earth.
For the Catholic church, mandatory clerical celibacy has traditionally enhanced institutional authority by investing a male priesthood with an aura of superior virtue and spiritual power. By the same token, it has excluded and subordinated women, who, in ancient traditions, were considered to be theologically, biologically, and psychologically inferior to men. Clergy have been largely sequestered in the rectory, monastery, or Episcopal palace, boundaried sites that both isolate and protect them from the scrutiny of the lay public and create an aura of secrecy, mystery, power. The Curial hierarchy protects the Church’s power and her public persona as the unsullied and sinless Bride of Christ. It sends a message to local clergy that secrecy about the inner workings of the Church is preferable to openness and that public scandal is worse than dishonesty, or even the continued abuse of children. Obedience to that message means that clergy must live a lie about their own sexuality, conceal the abuse of children, and protect known abusers.
Two bodies of theory are important for understanding what Richard Sipe (1995) has called ecclesial “celibate sexual/power structures” as they evolve over time. 1) Foucault’s concept that the uses of sexuality are bound to mechanisms of power and control and 2) anthropologist Mary Douglas’s (1982) exploration of how purity rules operate to construct and enforce the boundaries of socioreligious systems that are then perceived as special and holy.
On Celibacy and the Sexuality of Priests
I spend my summers in a small rural town with an active Catholic population. When my father died, the local priest-a gentle, pious World War II war refugee from an Eastern European country-agreed to keep the ashes in the church for six months until I could bring my family together for a burial service. He covered the ashes with a linen cloth and made sure that there was always a candle burning. When I came to retrieve them and thanked him for the dignity with which he had treated my father’s remains, he said in still broken English that he knew something of grief. His closest friend from seminary days had died the week before. Each summer vacation they had traveled home together. He said brokenly, tears welling up, “I miss him terribly.”
Two years later there was a scandal in our church. The old priest, until then a much-loved pastor, had left his ministry to live with his housekeeper. They could be seen driving together through town, like any ordinary, happy elderly couple, and the windows of their house were lined with statues of the Virgin, Jesus, and assorted Eastern European saints. While I secretly rejoiced at the pastor’s new-found happiness, which I hoped included sexual love, the parish was scandalized and angry and felt betrayed.
The new pastor, an Irishman in his 70s, implied in his sermons that, since our church had been wounded (he deftly refrained from specifying the cause of the wound), his friend the bishop had asked him to postpone his retirement in order to heal our parish and restore the faith. Although his sermons were larded with the familiar insinuations about cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose among the Church’s teachings (read birth control, masturbation, premarital sex), he could be warm and gregarious. He would regale the congregation with tales from his long life in the diocesan ministry and his service as a teacher in high schools and as novice master in the seminary. The parish was cheered by his presence and awed by his closeness to the bishop. But a year later I received a note asking if I would like to contribute to Father’s well-deserved retirement. That was all. The following summer a new priest had taken over, and it was as though his predecessor had never existed. I finally learned what had happened. The Irishman was gravely ill with AIDS.
As a parish we never prayed for those two priests who had served us, nor even wondered as a community about their human suffering-or joy. They simply disappeared. As I reflect on what had happened in my summer parish, it seems to me that the parishioners, perhaps having been chastised for their own sexual peccadilloes, had become like children in a family who don’t dare openly to disobey a parent’s moral code, but who take pleasure in finally having gotten something on the punishing parent. If, however, the laity act in a childlike way toward “father,” the “parent” priest himself is also caught in a crippling, childlike relationship with a powerful, all-male hierarchy whose job is both to regulate his sexuality and to require his thoughts to conform to approved Church teachings (Sipe, 1990, 1993). The reward for the often lonely life of a parish priest is perceived status and power over his congregation; and, until the recent scandal, the system did just about anything to conceal his failings and protect its power.
The recent scandals among the Roman Catholic priesthood have exposed one aspect of the secret sexual world of the clergy to a Catholic laity who forgot or never knew the Church’s long history of illicit clerical sexuality. Earlier scandals involved Papal promiscuity and nepotism, queer and s/m sex, and other sexual escapades in the Vatican and among ordinary clergy in convents and monasteries (Abbot, 1999). Even pedophilia has a venerable history within the Church, as suggested in the writing of fourth century John Cassian who warned the clergy, “Let no one, especially when among young folk, remain alone with another even for a short time or withdraw with him or take him by the hand” (cited in Sipe, 1995, p. 10). And the fourth-century Council of Elvira threatened irrevocable exclusion to bishops, presbyters, and deacons who sexually abused boys. Although the sexual transgressions of Catholic clergy are not necessarily worse than those in other religious or secular institutions, they fascinate the laity and non-Catholic observers because they are in violation of the Catholic clergy’s public commitment to celibacy and to the promulgation of a restrictive sexual moral code.
Although the Church has a history of clerical sexual immorality, the current crisis has been used by Catholic conservatives (Rose, 2002) as an occasion to rail against the loose moral standards of modern culture, as if modernity had corrupted what was once an “innocent” priesthood. Vatican officials have called for investigations into the infiltration of homosexuals into the priesthood, as if to imply that behind every homosexual lurks a potential pedophile. However, the pedophilia crisis marks only the outline of a Catholic sexual volcano. The majority of priests who lapse from celibacy remain heterosexual.
While abuse of male children and teenagers is the scandal of the day, by all accounts the abuse of women and female adolescents by clergy is an even greater problem. These victims have, however, been complicit in keeping this abuse hidden because, in the misogynous culture of the Church, they are frequently shamed into believing themselves to be the seducers (Sipe, 1990, 1995). Indeed the Church turns a blind eye to the fact that many priests in Latin American, South American, and African countries hold women in a state of concubinage. A major problem for the Vatican were it to permit a married clergy would be that tens of thousands of priests worldwide would legitimatize existing partnerships (Wills, 2000). Clearly, mandatory clerical celibacy and the patriarchal Church structures in which it is embedded create conditions in which abuse of power-over children, adolescents, and adults-flourishes as lonely human beings furtively reach out for available sexual and emotional companions.
Much of what we know of the sexual struggles of American priests has been learned from psychologist and ex-priest Richard Sipe, who, since 1960, has interviewed over 1500 active and resigned American Catholic priests in a massive research project on clerical celibacy. Sipe (1995) describes mandatory celibacy as a devil’s pact in which priests trade their promise of celibacy for a
brotherhood of guaranteed employment, respectability, prestige and power … All of the benefits accrue automatically as long as the semblance of celibacy is publicly or officially espoused … Power is conferred and maintained unless public exposure threatens scandal.
But Sipe’s studies show that, whereas 40% of priests are intentionally celibate, only a small percentage, (2%) actually can be said to have arrived at a state of absolute achieved celibacy. The rest show varying degrees of celibate practice ranging from lapsing periodically or chronically (brief sexual encounters) to engaging in long-term sexual relationships with men (10%) and women (20%) (Sipe, 1990, 1995). If masturbation is included in a consideration of priestly celibacy, then 80% of American clergy have violated Church teaching on sexuality. It is logical to assume that the number of clerics who fail to maintain their vows must include an equal percentage of the bishops who are involved in covering up the sexual infractions of priests in their charge. Other studies of sexuality among priests show similar percentages of celibate failure (Sipe, 1995).
Both Sipe (1990, 1995) and Mark Jordan (2000) have written eloquently about the complicity of the hierarchy both in the cover-up of abuse and other clerical violations of the celibacy code. Jordan’s main focus has been on the conflict between official Church teaching on homosexuality and its actual practice in the Church. Both writers agree that, in the past, many young men were encouraged to enter seminaries in their teens and thus were far too young and sexually inexperienced to understand their own sexuality or to know the discipline required to honor a vow of celibacy. Furthermore, as Jordan notes, seminary admissions actually encouraged a lack of sexual experience as a “predictor and safeguard of celibacy. What they didn’t know couldn’t tempt them” (p. 149). In fact, many men Sipe (1990) interviewed sought the refuge of seminary as a way of repressing conflictual homoerotic feelings.
For many seminarians, however, an all-male universe was not the ideal environment for “repressing” homoerotic impulses or for working out confusion about sexuality in general. Instead, many young men had their first sexual experiences or serious love affairs in seminary, where distinctions between abuse by a superior and initiation into an expression of a denied and desired homosexuality were often blurred. Sipe (1990) found, in fact, that some superiors condoned homosexual activity as being less dangerous to celibacy than heterosexual experience. “Once they get the taste of that [heterosexual sex] it is very tough to keep the discipline” (p. 105) one novice master told Sipe.
Official Catholic teachings, embedded in homophobia, declare homosexual orientation to be an objective disorder (Jordan, 2000) leading, as the Pope put it in his 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” inexorably to “an intrinsic moral evil” (i.e., homosexual practice) (Sipe, 1995). As a result, the Church subtly condones gay bashing and depriving gays of their rights (Jordan, 2000).
Within the walls of clerical residences and seminaries, however, gay culture flourishes and is more easily accepted than a priest’s sexual relations with a woman (Jordan, 2000). Seminarians are inoculated against the allure of heterosexual sex by means of a curriculum replete with misogynist readings (easy to find in the Church fathers) and submit to a discipline that isolates them from contact with any women other than their biological mothers and Mary, the Mother of Christ. Even the attachment of a seminarian to his mother can be seductive, according to the patron saint of chastity Aloysius Gonzaga, who, to avoid sexual temptation, “averted his gaze from his mother’s face” (Jordan, 2000, p. 162). Sipe (1995) points out that, even after ordination, clerical culture continues to expose priests to confusing sexual situations. He cites as common practice a young priest coerced by his superior into participating in the superior’s illicit sexual life as witness and go-between. The historical trade-off for complicity and silence has been political advancement or reciprocal concealment of the younger priest’s own sexual infractions, or both (Sipe, 1995).
On the Origins of Clerical Celibacy: Textual (Mis)Readings
Most Catholics have never considered that 20th-century priests have sex lives. Of course, we also believe that Jesus was celibate. Each Sunday, and often at home, we stare at a naked, crucified Jesus, sporting a filmy piece of almost, but not quite, transparent cloth over his genitals. Despite the rawness of that depiction, Jesus’ sexuality is a place of absence. We are taught he was a virgin, celibate, so pure that he had no sexual desire. As such, he provides a model of celibacy for his successor priesthood. Leo Steinberg’s (1983) startling essay on Renaissance painters’ handling of Jesus’ sex organs brought to consciousness what we had been trained not to see.
Normative Christian culture-excepting only this Renaissance interlude-disallows direct reference to the sexual member. The object itself is taboo, incompatible with common decency not to say reverence. In this respect, Christian culture lies at the furthest remove from cultures whose ritual imagery not only acknowledged the phallus, but empowered it to symbolize something beyond itself.
Yet the sexual tensions of Catholicism arise precisely from this mandatory display of the absent/present sexuality both of Jesus and of Mary, the virgin mother replacement for the banished fertility goddesses, of whose fruitful womb we are reminded with every Hail Mary.
For Christians, the absence of the represented organ, suggesting Christ as “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12), or at least as perfectly continent, became central to belief about Jesus’ role. Here, Christ becomes not just a Savior in a general sense, but one who specifically, through his own sexual continence, provides a model of a man perfectly in control of his will. This image contrasts with that of Adam, whose will was bent away from God by his desire for Eve, who drew him into disobedience and toward lustful sex. For Catholics, original sin is causally linked to a will distorted by sexual desire and weakened by male vulnerability.
In Genesis, a God who is both generous and jealous senses Adam’s loneliness and creates for him a companion, Eve. When Adam first sees her, he reveals his vulnerability: “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh … Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife” (Genesis 2:23-24). That passage suggests that need for the mother/wife will motivate Adam to do whatever the seductive Eve suggests even if it means disobeying God. Because Adam shows us the innate weakness of the male will and of his powers of reason in the face of female sexuality, a clergy composed of male celibates insists on veiling women’s body, requires her submission to patriarchal authority, and silences her forceful speech.
The injunction not to see or value male or female sexuality is incorporated into an elaborate penitential code that emphasizes the repression of normal sexual desire. In Sipe’s (1995) terse summary of Catholic sexual doctrine, “Every sexual thought, word, desire, and action outside of marriage is mortally sinful. Every sexual act within marriage not open to conception is mortally sinful. Sexual misbehavior constitutes grave matter in every instance” (p. 7). This system of sexual regulation controls the actual performance of licit and illicit sexual acts, contains prohibitions against abortion and the use of contraceptives, and regulates even the time when a married couple can have sex safe from conception. In addition, it prohibits desirous sexual thoughts and fantasies.
Prohibited erotic desire inevitably emerges, albeit often in strange forms. It may be sublimated in the highly eroticized, mystical experiences recorded in religious texts or portrayed in paintings. Erotic strivings also can be detected in the counter-pleasures of the extreme asceticism of saints or in the zeal for torture of martyrs, who frequently died to preserve their chastity (MacKendrick, 1999). At their most extreme, repressed erotic strivings may emerge in sadomasochistic fantasies saturated with religious imagery, as in the writings of Jean Genet or of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade as a young adolescent was initiated into sex by his licentious clerical uncle and then sent to a harsh Jesuit school that emphasized sexual repression and the voyeuristic humiliations of the penitential process. He came to hate the sexual hypocrisy of the Church, which he believed had shaped his disturbed erotic predilections.
The dangers of sexual repression did not escape the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who toward the end of his life came to believe that the human capacity for joyful erotic love of the other is central to the knowledge of Divine love. He wrote with some anger that the traditional Catholic view of purity degrades matter, stimulates
self hate and loathing for the flesh … degrades and perverts the sexual instinct leading it into forms of expression which, in their sado-masochism and hypocritical selfishness are far more dangerous, much more radically impure than the normal expression of erotic love [Merton, 1969, pp. 114-115].
Catholic privileging of celibacy is usually given a scriptural pedigree maintaining that Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Apostles, after being called, were celibate. While the canonical scriptures do not provide direct evidence for the celibate status of the Holy Family and the Apostles, from the second century onward, the Church has used imaginative scriptural exegesis (conveniently overlooking contradictory evidence) to advertise their stalwart celibacy as a model of Christian virtue.
The Curia, when challenged by the new generation of biblical scholars on the historical origins of its sexual teachings, either produces further textual “proofs” grafted onto already shaky exegetical foundations or summarily mandates belief. Both are practices that, Wills (2000, 2002) maintains, create “structures of deceit.” “Truth was subordinated to ecclesiastical tactics. To maintain an impression that Popes cannot err, Popes deceive-as if distorting truth in the present were not a worse thing than distorting it in the past” (Wills, 2000, p. 7). Earlier errors are covered with new pronouncements that must be swallowed whole by the Faithful, forbidden the right even to discuss or question the teaching’s validity. This distortion of facts in behalf of preserving Church authority and limiting exposure to scandal has been an enduring pattern of ecclesial behavior that has exploded in full force during the recent sexual scandal.
An example of what Wills defines as deceptive ecclesiastical tactics in support of a dubious teaching is seen in the encyclicals of Paul VI and John Paul II claiming that the authorization of mandatory clerical celibacy, the rigid code of sexual morality, and the exclusion of women from the priesthood are to be found in the Gospels and Pauline teachings. For example, Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Celibatus argues that clerical celibacy was mandated by Jesus himself. The argument is based on the following passage in which Jesus, having argued that Moses allowed divorce only because his people were “hardhearted,” continues, “Whoever divorces a wife except for unchastity and marries another commits adultery.” His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given … there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matt. 19:3-12).
To achieve this rationale for mandatory priestly celibacy, the traditional patristic (mis)reading separates “eunuch’s for the kingdom of heaven” from its context and maintains that in this passage Jesus was calling his Apostles to a celibate priesthood. But, in fact the passage in question is not about priestly celibacy at all; rather it constitutes an attempt on Jesus’ part to stem the common practice of husbands casually getting rid of their wives, an oppressive practice that reduced many women to poverty (Wills, 2000). As such, it represents one of Jesus’ many defenses of women’s rights. The dismayed reaction of the disciples, many of whom were married, indicates their realization that, if Jesus denied male believers the right to sex after divorce, they might be forced to think twice before marrying or before casually discarding a disagreeable wife. Furthermore, no serious scholar believes that this passage has anything to do with the requirements of a priesthood, which Jesus never instituted; his followers worshipped in the Temple, which had priests aplenty and married ones at that.
Papal advocates of mandatory priestly celibacy (e.g., Heid, 2000) argue that not only Jesus but also the Apostles (not only the legendary “12” but many missionaries), who often preached as husband-wife teams, were celibate after their calling. This is papal wishful thinking that finds no support in Scripture. In fact, most people are surprised to learn that there is not even scriptural evidence that Jesus himself was celibate (Phipps, 1996). As theologian Robert Goss (1993) suggests, the traditional reading of the Gospels’ constructing Jesus as celibate, without sexual passion, creates a dualism between spirit and body that denigrates sexual love and pleasure. This dualism was characteristic of the Hellenist philosophies of Neoplatonism and Stoicism, which shaped early Christian texts and which viewed males as having superior “rationality, spirituality or authority” and therefore the capacity for continence. Females were viewed as “inferior and associated with the emotions, embodiedness and sensuality” and therefore with the proclivity for seduction (p. 67). These ideas, nursed by the Church throughout its history, still have currency in the gender wars of the 21st century.
Sacerdotalis Celibatus reinforces its shaky argument for the scriptural basis of clerical celibacy by stating that the Apostle Paul favored celibacy for his disciples. Although Paul himself, who in all probability had been married, led a celibate life after his conversion and preferred that others follow his path, he admits that he has no teaching from Jesus on the subject of chastity or virginity. Rather, Paul’s advocacy of continence is related to the belief of his generation of Christian Jews that the end time, or Parousia, was at hand and with it the return of the risen Christ. While Paul believed that sexual involvement would be a distraction from prayerful preparation for the second Coming, he affirmed the prerogative (exousia) of the “apostles” or missionaries for his faith, to marry, as Peter did (Wills, 2000).
If, for Paul, continence was an ideal, he was too practical not to recognize it as an aspect of a rare vocation and not mandatory for worshippers, particularly the Gentile males he wished to attract. On the contrary, it seems as if many of the leaders of the early house churches, named in Paul’s letters, were women who were subject to Augustan marriage laws, which forced them to marry and produce children. As a result of these laws, probably most of Paul’s women disciples were married, some certainly to pagans. Paul’s elaborate discussion of the marriage between pagans and Christians, which left the right of divorce to the pagan rather than the believer, suggests that this was a common issue and that Paul did not want Christian social behavior to appear radical.
In a larger sense, the scriptures, including the Pauline letters, must be understood as androcentric reflections of the patriarchal cultural and gender mores of a Greco-Roman Empire heavily influenced by the misogyny of Neo-Platonism and the passion-control ideals of Stoicism. Jesus was long dead when the Gospel writers, who probably never knew him, compiled the Jesus traditions, interweaving them with mythical and scriptural elements to create the four canonical biographies of Jesus. While one can find in the Gospels traces of a portrait of a teacher who could be radically egalitarian in his relationships with women, for most Christians the influential writings of Paul and the Pauline authors of the pastoral letters cast a heavy and often misogynous shadow over Gospel interpretation. Paul wrote in an era closer to Jesus’ lifetime than that of the gospel authors, although he never met him, and his interests were predominantly theological and administrative rather than biographical. His goal was to reenvision Judaism as a universal religion celebrating Jesus as the Messiah (Boyarin, 1997), and he shaped his teachings to attract Gentile converts.
Initially Paul, as administrator/missionary, relied on women’s devotion and executive abilities to build a wide network of churches. In the early church, women had come to regard their Lord and teacher, Jesus Christ, as having legitimatized their right to play, in his community, a role equal to that of men in prayer, administration, and preaching. As a result, for a brief time, Christianity existed as a radically egalitarian, counter-cultural community, one that defied traditional gender hierarchies. These early traditions of women’s ministry give lie to the contention of the recent papal encyclical Inter Insignores, that clergy must be male because Jesus was male and that, as his representative, a priest must resemble him. That argument replaced the traditional curial rationale: women cannot be ordained because Aristotelian “science” has conclusively demonstrated that the female gender is inferior to the male; and, because Jesus chose to incarnate himself as a “superior” male, the inferior female could not possibly represent him. The recent physical resemblance argument also dodges the ancient belief, inherited from Christianity’s Jewish roots but still present in some churches in this century, that not only were women inferior but that at times of childbirth and menstruation they also were impure and could not enter the sanctuary let alone officiate at a service.
Paul’s project required women’s know-how, and initially he gave women the freedom of public spiritual practice and of leadership of his Churches. Exhilarated by their new roles, Christian women even began to discard traditional head coverings when praying or preaching, as a sign of their liberation from subordination to males. But for Paul, as Schüssler Fiorenza (1988) suggests, loosened hair and loosened tongues connoted women’s orgiastic sexual powers, which might give Christianity a bad reputation among the bourgeois patriarchal Gentile crowd he wished to attract. Paul’s initial enthusiasm for women’s equality quickly diminished as his sweeping ambitions grew for the new Jewish sect. To attract Gentiles, Paul argued against the necessity of literal circumcision, a practice they found repellant. For Jews, circumcision had served as a ritual marker of male separation from the mother and of entrance into the community of the father’s law. Paul, seeing that the empowerment of women, in combination with the elimination of circumcision for Gentile converts, threatened the familiar distinctions supporting kyriarchy, cracked down, using his patriarchal stick to shore up hierarchies of gender and class.
To align Christian mores with those of his target audience, male Gentiles of the patriarchal Imperial Greco-Roman culture, Paul could not afford to violate Greco-Roman codes for male honor and female shame. He enjoined women not only to be veiled but to be silent in churches, “to be subordinate, even as the Law says. If there is anything they desire to know; let them ask their husbands at home. For it is a shame (Aischron) for women to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:43-35). Karen Torjeson (1995) points out that Paul’s word Aischron (shame) referred to sexual indiscretion when it was applied to women. Here we see the roots of the merging of male anxiety about a woman’s speech/power and her sexuality. The speaking woman is the sexually transgressive woman, or, perhaps conversely, the sexually transgressive woman, is bold enough to speak up. In 1 Timothy 2-11-14, written probably by a follower of Paul, the lesson is rammed home:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach and have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
And Paul’s follower, the author of Colossians, thunders, “Wives be subject to your husbands. Children obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord … Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything not only being watched and in order to please them but wholeheartedly fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:18, 20). While he lards his invective with warnings to the kyriarchs to be kind and just to their underlings-”love patriarchalism,” Ruether (1998) calls it-we see how far the Christian sect has come from Jesus’ egalitarian vision of God’s Basilea on earth. For pragmatic Paul and those who followed him, for the good of the Church, women, the poor, and slaves must wait patiently (and in silence) for the erasure of such kyriarchical distinctions in the Parousia to come.
As Church structures became more formal and sought to conform to the structures of traditional religions, Judaism, and the pagan cults where priests were male, an all-male priesthood evolved. Furthermore, beginning with Paul, who prized his Roman citizenship, Christianity as a colonized sect within a ruthless and powerful Empire, admired and mimicked Roman administrative structures, ultimately becoming an efficiently run, colonizing religion, with dreams of universal grandeur. In the first centuries of its existence the Christian Church’s task was to increase its influence by recruiting Gentile men with experience in public life to Church leadership roles, as presbyters and bishops. This project entailed demoting women, in conformity with Greco-Roman gender norms. Even as early as Paul, ideals were sacrificed to make possible and protect avenues of patriarchal power, a habit that extends to the present, when the politics of patriarchy all too often dictate both Church policy and Church morals.
The epistles of Paul and his followers laid the foundation for the explicit and continuous misogyny of the later Church fathers. Emphasis on the dangers of sexuality, and therefore its regulation, became central to the teachings of the early Church fathers, from Tertullian to Origen (ca. 183-254), Jerome (340-420), Ambrose (340-397), and, above all, Augustine (354-430). All of them believed that sensuality, or “voluptas,” was associated with, if not the cause of, man’s fall from paradise in original sin. The writings of the orthodox early Church fathers set the stage for the misogyny that haunts the seminaries of today-Irenaeus: “as the human race was sentenced to death by means of a woman” (Against Heresy 5:19); Clement: “A woman considering what her nature is should be ashamed of it” (Paedegogus 2:23); Tertullian: “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives on even in our times and it is necessary that the guilt should live on also. You are the one who opened the door to the devil … you are the first who deserted the Divine Law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man” (The Apparel of Women 1:2); Jerome: “It is not the harlot or adulteress who is spoken of; but women’s love in general is accused of being forever insatiable; put it out, it bursts into flame; give it plenty it is again in need; it enervates a man’s mind and engrosses all though except for the passion which it feeds” (Against Jovinian 1:28).
For Tertullian and Jerome, sexuality could be controlled by will. The most desirable course of action for Christians was to rectify man’s fallen state by embracing continence, a state of purity, and refraining from any sexual activity. Origen (185-254) took drastic steps to quell his desire for real sex with real women. Taking literally Matthew 19:12, in which Jesus challenges his followers to “become eunuchs” for the heavenly kingdom, (i.e., practice continence if they divorce rather than remarry or fornicate), Origen castrated himself. For Christians, continence, even if the practice of restraint demanded castration, was part and parcel of spiritual transformation.
Ambrose, Augustine’s teacher, believed that sexuality represented a deeply polluting mixing of soul and body, male seed and female blood that did not exist before the fall and that Christians must remedy by sexual abstinence and fasting. As Peter Brown (1988) sums it up: “To avoid sexual intercourse was to avoid an act that involved ‘mixing,’ ‘relaxing,’ ‘becoming unstrung …’ All such subversive joinings must be avoided. Ambrose’s thought on virginity could be summed up in one word: integritas” (p. 355). For Ambrose, as for his successor Augustine, women should be virgins or continent, and clergy should be celibate, because Christian perfection was measured by the “degree of a person’s withdrawal from sexual activity” (p. 359).
If Ambrose preached against the pollution of sexuality, Augustine provided a much more psychologically complex view of the role sexuality played in man’s fallen state. For Augustine, it was not the sexual act itself that occasioned the fall; in fact, for Augustine, Adam and Eve would have enjoyed a sexual relationship in the Garden. Rather, it was their act of disobedience that led to a distortion of the workings of human will, one in which sexual drives escaped conscious control. Brown (1988) writes:
The moment of the fall is for Augustine associated with this experience of loss of control over the desiring body. The uncontrollable elements in sexual desire revealed the workings in the human person of concupiscentia carnis, of a permanent flaw in the soul, which tilted it irrevocably towards the flesh.
What Augustine had done was not only to move sexuality, “merciless concupiscence” (p. 426) to the center of man’s struggle to bend his will to God’s desire. By outlining the frailty of man’s will and the division of the soul in its allegiance between flesh and deity, he also underlined the constantly lurking presence of sexual desire in the dark regions of the soul beyond consciousness itself. Ironically, as Foucault (1978) suggested, Western thought has been permeated by the Augustinian view “that endowed sex with an inexhaustible and polymorphous causal power” and understood the nocturnal emission as representing an unconscious desire that always escaped the control of conscious will (p. 45). Foucault (1977) noted, “In Christian societies, sex has been the central object of examination, surveillance, avowal and transformation into discourse … Since Christianity, the Western World has never ceased saying: To know who you are, know what your sexuality is” (p. 11).
As the role of “priest” and bishop became more defined, the issue of a married clergy became the subject of fierce debate. Early councils, for example, Elvira and Nicea, took up the issue and simultaneously proposed codes regulating sexuality and suggested guidelines for the establishment of administrative authority. Genesis, Gospel, and Pauline texts are spuriously invoked to legitimatize a kyriarchical church (and world) that controls sexuality, maintains women’s inferior position, and insists on heteronormativity. Such an authoritarian system, of course, mimics Imperial Rome, with which Christianity rapidly became identified, losing the traces of Jesus’ original radical, reformist mission. While most councils encouraged clerical celibacy, it was only in the 12th century that the Second Lateran Council settled the issue. From that time onward, the rule of clerical celibacy in the Latin rite was absolute.
Of Power and Purity: Rendering the Body of the Believer Docile
The Catholic Church’s elaborate codes of sexual regulation, together with its rigid hierarchical structure, illustrates Foucault’s (1978) argument that the regulation of the body’s most intimate and secret aspects is intertwined with operations of power and control. The more central sexuality became in Catholic teaching, the more power a sexually pure clergy had over the economy of sin and salvation. As Marina Warner (1983) put it, “For if desire, as natural as breath or as sleep itself, is sinful, then the Christian, like the man in the grip of a usurer, must always run back to the Church, the only source of grace which can give him reprieve” (p. 51).
Foucault, (1978) argued that, as Christianity became a more elaborated administrative system, a merger occurred between its sexual values, largely influenced by Stoicism, and the idea of “pastoral” control of both individual believers and the stateless, roving flock inherited from Judaism. The metaphor of a benevolent but autocratic pastor leading cows and sheep is apt here because believers, like cows or the sheep, must be blindly obedient to the pastor’s rule, and in return for obedience, the pastor uniquely guides them to salvation (p. 122).
Foucault believed that a new form of power came into play here. While Greek and Roman antiquity knew autocratic and imperial power, as manifest in the authority of the civil juridical system that judged and punished public infractions of common laws, Christianity offered the new belief that a pastor could demand of an individual “total, absolute and unconditional obedience.” Through an elaborate system of sexual prohibitions and penalties, the sexual body of a believer could be rendered disciplined, docile, obedient, and easy to govern. Christian humility represents the internalization of obedience to this code (Foucault, 1978).
Christians were expected to turn for discipline to the pastor, and then upward through the chain of authority to the ultimate pastor, Il Papa. Since obedience to pastoral laws supercedes civic law, the expectation that a Christian’s primary loyalty is to Church authority creates a conflict whenever the Church is at odds with civil authorities. A contemporary example is the initial action of the Vatican/Papa in the current sexual abuse scandals when it discouraged Bishops from submitting the names of priests suspected of abuse to the civil authorities for disciplinary action. Christian obedience is reinforced by the pastor’s continuous surveillance and control of his flock through the enforcement of confessional techniques. Foucault wrote that a Christian pastor knows not only the deeds of his flock but also the internal life and the secret thoughts, emotions, fantasies, and desires of each individual soul, which are revealed to him through the process of “exhaustive and permanent confession.” Ecclesiastical surveillance of individual believers increasingly took the form of mandatory confession, enforced by the threat of severe penalties for noncompliance in the afterlife. Jordan (2000) has described the elaborate techniques of sexual surveillance, spying, and secrecy that exist in seminary training. Such surveillance creates conditions of a secret sexuality, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Further, because sexuality is simultaneously scrutinized and forbidden, it becomes intensely erotically charged.
For Foucault (1978), confession always took place within a power relationship where the one who confesses is in a subordinate position to the unspeaking
authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console and reconcile … The technique of interiorization, the technique of taking conscience and the technique of alerting oneself to oneself, with respect to one’s weaknesses, with respect to one’s body, with respect to one’s sexuality, with respect to one’s flesh-is the essential contribution of Christianity to the history of sexuality.
The centrality given to sexuality by Augustine acts as a barometer of the degree to which will can master the disordered impulses of the body. It places sexual thoughts, temptations, and actions at the heart of confessional practice. In the obligatory explorations of the confessional, truth and sex are joined.
The regulation of sexuality became associated not only with Christian self-definition but also with Christianity’s growing sense of itself as better (of higher moral standing) than competing groups. In this sense, early Christianity sought to shore up its authority by presenting itself, in Douglas’s (1982) term, as a purity society. Douglas’s thesis is that social groups can be “likened to the human body; the orifices are to be carefully guarded to prevent unlawful intrusions” (p. viii). She continues: “The symbolism of the body, which gets its power from social life, governs the fundamental attitudes to spirit and matter” (p. xiii) (or one might add, vice versa).
Purity societies are obsessed with protecting the integrity and purity of the body from penetration (pollution) from outside the society, that is, from the penetration or pollution of foreign words or teachings. They also focus on the establishment of sexual regulations and cleansing rituals that either prevent pollution or restore a polluted body to purity. Historically, orthodox belief systems that defined themselves against heretical teachings emerged in the second century simultaneously with teachings regulating sexuality and favoring enkratia. Thus orthodoxy and purity became linked in the minds of Christians.
Early Christian obsession with chastity also coincided with the early persecutions of Christians, supporting Douglas’s thesis that a group under social pressure from the outside will insist on adherence to strict norms of physical self-control as a sign of the conformity of its members. If pagan persecution constituted pressure from outside, for some “orthodox” Church Fathers the proliferation of Christian sects initiated an internal battle to establish the one true and literal interpretation of what they held to be sacred, God inspired, and historically true accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. Treatises on chastity accompanied the evolution of a persisting fundamentalism in scriptural interpretation, which, of course, missed the post-modern point that the Gospel texts were four often contradictory, context-influenced reconstructions of Jesus’ life.
The fundamentalism associated with this early evolution of heresiology is today embodied in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a.k.a. the Office of the Inquisition) headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, whose obsessions are similar to those of the early fundamentalists: a rigidly authoritarian demand for unquestioning adherence to “legitimatized” Church teachings; an inability really to open the Church to an appreciation of the salvific powers of other religions; an obsession with the regulation of sexuality; and a misogyny that prohibits any consideration of the ordination of women. To Cardinal Ratzinger and his boss, the deeply conservative John Paul II, the possibility that the Church might be penetrated by influences from the modern world, including interpretations of Scripture that bring exegesis into conformity with modern historical scholarship, is as frightening as it was to the 19th-century reactionary Pius IX, who wrote a major encyclical condemning modernism. The current pope, John Paul II, like his 19th century predecessor, whom he canonized, is equally obsessed both by papal power to dictate doctrine and enforce belief and by reinstating old-fashioned teachings about sex and gender. Many of these teachings center on his devotion to an idealized Virgin whose chastity provides a role model for all Christians.
The underlying fear of the hierarchy is that opening an honest discourse on celibacy, and on the Church’s teachings on sexuality (which must necessarily lead to a questioning of the Church’s position on women), would reveal and undermine the present system of power relations that undergird the institution and are precariously balanced on problematic reading of scripture and history. But, as long as the Church holds such a fundamental drive as sex to be a sign of intrinsic human sinfulness-rather than being joyfully received as a gift from God that allows us the most intimate, deep, and sacred expression of our loving relationality with another (and, through that experience lending us a perception of Divine love)-then we remain hopelessly divided from ourselves, from each other and from God.
The Church wins a Pyrrhic victory as long as it invokes hierarchical privilege to demand absolute, unquestioning obedience to papal directives and silences holy men who, in good faith, raise the voice of conscience in dissent from teachings that are sexist, homophobic, or oppressive of the poor. The price of control is the betrayal of the radical vision of Jesus, whose life was a “praxis of protest” (Ruether, 1998, p. 279) against “religious and social systems of domination that marginalized the poor and the despised, most notably, women” (p. 276). And, similarly, as long as the Church insists on maintaining kyriarchical structures of governance by invoking scriptural “authorization”—structures that, by their nature, oppress the poor and marginalized groups, including gays and women-Jesus’ communal and inclusive vision is betrayed.
Carroll (2002b) has proposed that real reform demands that the Church face the difficult task of acknowledging that it is a human institution which, like its mythical founding father Peter, can err, acknowledge its errors, and repair wrongs. He writes that
to eliminate existential condescension towards women, religious assumptions about the impurity of sex, not to mention the contempt for Jews that lives not in the hearts of prejudiced Christians but in the heart of “the Church as such”-all that requires fundamental changes in the way history has been written, theology has been taught and Scripture has been interpreted.