The Priestly Phallus: A Study in Iconography

Mary Gordon. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 1. 2004.

My head has ached and spun with the words, words, words, spoken and written about pedophile priests. Why should I add to them? What could I say that would be either truthful or helpful? I have no special training. No expertise. I can present neither data nor theory. Only perhaps this: the observations of a novelist, a woman brought up in an environment in which priests were a strong and pervasive presence. I can speak as someone who at one point in her life left the Catholic Church in outrage and disgust, then, after 25 years, came back to it in a search for the combination of historical and formal beauty and a lived commitment to social justice whose source is the heated regions of the heart rather than the cooler zones of reason. It is not easy to continue a relationship with an institution that more often disgusts and outrages than supports me. As Flannery O’Connor said, turning on their heads the traditional terms of martyrdom, Catholics must suffer much more from the Church than for it.

I speak, then, as a woman, a feminist, an artist, a critical left-wing Catholic; someone whose inner life was formed and enriched and vexed by priests; someone infuriated by the current hypocrisy of the hierarchy in relation to the recent cases of pedophilia; but, as a novelist and former analysand, someone curious and concerned about the inner landscape inhabited by these priests, known as predators, but who must also be something else, some things else, than that. This is not to say that I share the Vatican’s or the bishop’s protectionism: only that, both by biographical accident and by professional habit of mine, I am interested in the caves dug out behind the battlescarred terrain.

I would like to begin by suggesting that the question of pedophile priests is a question that centers on a particular species of maleness. Priestly maleness. A maleness rarefied, attenuated, isolated, set apart, and therefore, in its singularity, a useful object for understanding maleness in its more ordinarily imbedded manifestations. The two requirements for the priesthood are baptism and maleness: one a visible sign, one an invisible one. The most important sign of maleness is the phallus. And what is the nature of the priestly phallus? If we understand that, apart from urination, the function of the phallus is sexual activity, what is the nature of a phallus for a male who must vow to suppress his sexual nature, who must act out a maleness in which sexual arousal is only a problem to be overcome and penetration is forbidden?

One of the paradoxes in the lore of the priesthood is that a candidate had to be physically examined to insure that he was genitally whole: a castrato would not be eligible for ordination, nor would a hermaphrodite. Nor, it goes without saying, would a woman. It is required that genital expression in a potential priest must be something to be given up, not something never within reach. For a priest, then, maleness has to be legible. The conundrum is this: male sexual identity is the sine qua non for the priesthood; at the same time, a man’s sexual identity must remain symbolic, abstract, potential. But there is the symbolic phallus and the literal penis between the literal legs. And these two are not-as priests have learned to their anguish-the same.

If the phallus is the hidden sign of the priesthood, a priest’s hands are the visible one. In the ceremony of ordination, the seminarian, about to be allowed, through ritual, into the priesthood, has his hands bound, then anointed. The hands must be intact and whole in order for the priest to perform the consecration of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In the lore: if a priest undergoes an accident and his middle finger or thumb is missing or amputated, he is no longer allowed to consecrate the host. A bishop has to give the mutilated priest a dispensation-that is to say, special permission-for the priest to be allowed to say Mass.

When I was growing up, if there was a priest visiting in a house, a white linen towel had to be left for him in the bathroom so that he could dry his hands on it. He was not supposed to dry his hands on an ordinary towel, or on a towel a nonpriest had used. His hands were fetishized. The official word for it was consecrated. Made sacred. His hands, and by metonymic extension, his whole being, was made sacred, and in turn he could make sacred. He, and he alone, could turn ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The doctrine of Transubstantiation requires that Catholics believe that this transformation is not symbolic but actual, that the substance of bread and wine becomes the substance of Christ.

So the priest possessed extraordinary power, a power that belonged only to him as a priest. He had the power not only to transform but also to forgive sin or to refuse to forgive it. This kind of sacred power was invested in him only by ordination. Whal is the nature of this power? What do we mean by sacred? We mean, of course, set apart, placed out of the ordinary, in the category of the divine. A priest’s hands were God’s; his penis was nobody’s. Not even his own. This combination of the divine and the denied, the supervalued and the delusional, marked the image of the priest, the ideal by which he was supposed to live and to which we, the faithful, were meant to respond.

How did this ideal, this image, this icon, differ from the female sacred beings available to the Catholic imagination: nuns? For one thing, no single part of the female body was fetishized, consecrated, anointed, blessed, as the priest’s hands were. Women have always been denied the supernatural agency given to men: they cannot say Mass, they cannot make bread and wine into flesh, they cannot raise their hands in blessing and forgive sin. A nun is a special kind of lay person: a priest is considered, by the virtue of his very consecration, an order apart. A nun, therefore, has more in common with other women than she does with priests.

Although there were, in the past, strict limits placed on the friendships that nuns could have with one another, they always lived in community, and their identity as nuns was importantly formed by their relationship to other nuns. Priests lived semiautonomously in rectories with other priests; each came and went as he pleased. Most priests had cars; they could eat in the rectory or not, they could eat and drink in public, as nuns could not-priests could travel. There are no jokes about priests having to travel in pairs, as there are about nuns. Priests, then, were encouraged to live a life of hyperindividuality; nuns were nuns by virtue of a relationship to other nuns.

The body of a nun was entirely covered up; her garments were never ornamental, unlike the priest’s, whose highly embellished vestments, worn when he said Mass, were a sign of the community’s regard. Even in the 50s, priests could wear shorts and bathing suits; they often did when they were chaperoning or supervising groups of boys. No nun was ever seen in anything except full habit: no possibility of peek-a-boo here, no ironized now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t performances that so marked the priestly presentation-no double message about a sexy nun. Think of the movies. In The Bells of St. Mary’s even Ingrid Bergman in her habit as Sister Benedict is off limits to the erotic imagination: she belongs to God alone. Bing Crosby, Father O’Malley, in his straw boater hat and with his connections to the world of show business and sports, is a man of the world.

It is not irrelevant to be thinking of movies. The love Catholics had for priests was something like the love we had for movie stars and something like the love we had for God. It only narrowly skirted idolatry. Let’s think for a moment of the most successful Movie Priest: Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in two immensely successful, even Oscar nominated films, Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Father O’Malley endlessly gave to everyone but was intimate with no one. He seemed to have no needs. In one scene in The Bells of St. Mary ‘s we might think for a moment that he and Ingrid Bergman will fly into each other’s arms, but they never do: he is saying goodbye, sending her off for treatment of her TB. There is no problem Father O’Malley can’t solve-just dial O for O’Malley he tells everyone, a 24/7 spiritual 911. But there is no number he would ever call, no one available for him. But, then, he is entirely emotionally self-sufficient.

This was the ideal that priests, particularly American priests, were meant to live up to. This ideal was inculcated in the imaginations of Catholics at a very early age. Most men who are priests now made the decision to become a priest-that is to say, the decision to be greater than an ordinary man but to claim less of his birthright-when they were barely out of childhood. Preparatory seminaries accepted boys at 13 years of age; most candidates entered at 18, directly after high school. For many years, these boys would inhabit a world in which they had almost no contact with women. Even access to the biological family was strictly limited and supervised.

Being cut off from a bond with even a mother or a sister, the priest was entirely and radically removed from the sphere of female regard. No female judgment touched him, and female standards were considered so low as to be absolutely irrelevant. Ls it possible to conjecture that this kind of hypermaleness, connected inevitably to idealization, denial, and isolation, put the priest in the position of a lonely child and therefore made the vulnerable child a tempting focus of sexual desire?

A priest was meant to be connected only to God. The connection of the nonpriest with the priest was a connection of strangers; the priest was observed, mostly at a distance; until the mid-1960s, he said Mass with his back to the Congregation.

This combination of the idealized and the denied, a combination that skirts cleanly over issues of ordinary adult identity formation, marks the biographies of most men who are priests in the Catholic Church today. It was, and is, a crazy-making combination, for the priests and for the people they serve.

For priests, there were, of course, great compensations for what they had given up, both sexually and as relational beings. The community bestowed on them a place of honor that had enormous libidinal rewards. Every Catholic mother prayed for the blessing of having at least one son a priest. But this honor was tarnished and diminished because the reforms of the second Vatican Council, which tried to humanize many aspects of the Church, including the formation of priests and nuns, occurred at the same historical moment as the steady erosion of the authority and prestige of the Catholic Church, which could be linked directly to its unrealistic and intransigent position on birth control.

Priests were removed from their pedestals, and told that they were creatures who did require intimacy (a good thing as long as it was never, ever sexual). Yet they were still required to maintain their unique positions of power and authority: only they could perform the sacred ritual, only they could forgive sin. There was a hemorrhage of men from the priesthood in the 60s and 70s and a crisis of declining numbers of boys entering the priesthood. The drowning shame of leaving the priesthood to marry was diminished as more and more men left. The unspeakable stigma attached to homosexuality became less pronounced in the world at large. There were fewer reasons to enter the priesthood and fewer reasons to stay. Who, then, was left? Why did they stay?

I fear that I am approaching dangerously near a territory I do not wish to enter: the territory that suggests that the only reasons for entering the priesthood and staying in it are pathological. I know many priests whom I respect deeply, and, while I am not privy to the details of their sexual lives in all cases, I know that some make the kinds of compromises that many of us who have taken vows have made at one point or another in our lives. The difference is that when married people pretend to be monogamous, they do not have to pretend to be beyond the lure of sex. Priests do. There may be a few, a very few, natural celibates (I have met several, some men, some women, who have described themselves this way) for whom the lure of genital sexual contact is not irresistible. The structural error of the Church is to insist that this rare occurrence, natural or hardwon celibacy, must be the norm for someone who will take on a position of authority and ritual power.

Many Catholic priests are gay, discreetly sexually active. The demographics of the priesthood mean that many priests are past middle age and have made some sort of peace with their sexual histories. But this is not the aspect of the current situation that I mean to discuss. The Catholic hierarchy would like to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, but the research does not support their assumption. The question is not what is the connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, but, rather, if there has been an epidemic of pedophilia in the Catholic priesthood, what does that say about the special kind of maleness that is an extricable part of being a Catholic priest?

I think it cannot be denied that pedophiles are much more commonly male than female. This is a mystery that I cannot even pretend to be able to explore. When nuns abuse children, the libidinal flavor is usually psychological humiliation rather than genital violation.

Allow me to digress for a moment to speculate on the similarities between a therapist who violates the trust of his patient and the priest who violates the trust of his parishioner. There are iconic similarities between the priest and the traditional analyst that were an issue in my own analysis, an issue that I believed the literature had not touched on because most psychoanalytic writers and thinkers were not Catholic. In both cases, the priest and the analyst is “anointed” and is apart from the patient/parishioner. In both cases, the lived life of the anointed one is not accessible to the nonanointed. In both cases, this inaccessibility is said to be for the benefit of the patient/parishioner: for the analyst, the blankness allows for a greater range of transference; for the priest, the empty biography makes space for the pure or unaccented word of God. In addition, they are sources of wisdom, or at least of some sort of help in the task of living a good life, however that life is defined. For the priest, the goodness that is being pointed to has a moral cast, but it is tragically the case of the modern Church that this goodness has been disproportionately defined in sexual terms. This hypocrisy inherent in the sexual transgression on the part of a priest who has laid down the sexual law is particularly embittering.

But the sense of betrayal when boundaries are breached by either the priest or the analyst is at least as much ontological as ethical. The promised creature has been replaced by a different animal, an animal whose desire is now part of the conversation, whose needs were said to be nonexistent or irrelevant but are now exigent-at the center of the lens. In both cases, the aura of anointing is so powerful as to suggest that, by being chosen as desirable, one is honored. The sense of being honored and the sense of outrage-exacerbated by the anxiety of ingratitude how can I say no to one who has given so much, who has helped me so much?—makes notions of consent especially vexing where either a priest or an analyst is involved. But in the case of the priest, an unwanted sexual advance may seem to come not just from the mouth of the anointed, but from the mouth of God. Questions of salvation may hang in the balance, and not only the parishioner’s sexual future but her or his eternal spiritual self are in jeopardy.

It is possible to say that there is an institution called psychoanalysis, but to do so is a shaky proposition at best. No one, however, would question the notion that there is an institution called the Catholic Church. And the identity of the priest takes its shape from that institution. Breaching the boundaries of his identity is, therefore, an institutional question. And it is on this level that the scandal of pedophile priests is most egregious. One might say-and I don’t think we yet have the data to support or to deny such an assertion-that pedophilia is no more common among priests than it is among other populations that have access to children. But this is beside the point. The particular kind of access that priests are given is a product of their institutional identity; the kind of safety that their roles suggest comes to them from the authority of the institution. Therefore, the institution must examine itself to see what its structure and history have contributed to the problem.

And that is precisely what the Catholic Church refuses to do. The historical cover-ups and the new zero-toleration policies are tactics for avoiding deep structural examination. Even the words zero-tolerance policy suggest that a considered look at individual cases means that one “tolerates” the sexual abuse of children in some cases. When did you stop beating your wife. This new policy combines the worst aspects of American and Church culture: it can be seen as a preemptive strike against American litigiousness, and it partakes of the Roman appetite for fiat. What it does not do is dismantle the structure of idealization. What it does is to place the emphasis on punishment rather than on healing-a habit of mind that the Catholic Church finds all too familiar, a habit of mind that ensures the calcification and then replication of the status quo. It is a status quo that insists on the transcendent value of the icon of superhuman, or perhaps semidivine, male: desirable, untouchable, untouched, his father’s son, in whom, to quote God the Father at the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, He is always well pleased.

The events of September 11 might have been an opportunity for us Americans to examine ourselves. Without entering into craven self-abasement, we could have taken the step of questioning what it is that makes people hate us so that our annihilation would seem a larger good. Structurally the Catholic Church could use the moment of the scandal of pedophile priests to examine its attitudes toward sex. But retreating to the bunkers and waving the flag or the cross are easier gestures than the long, slow process of self-understanding. The Church is made up of humans, so its reluctance to change is understandable. This position could be more sympathetic if those humans understood that in their humanity, they are subject to at least as high a level of scrutiny, and are responsible for at least as good faith an effort at truth telling, as are others of their kind. The human kind, that is to say.