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Castrating the Church
At root, the priest sex hysteria is about extinguishing the male
By Bill Andriette
Behind the talk of rooting out "pedophiles" and punishing "abuse," the priest-sex scandal is about extinguishing the male. Not literally of course -- though bio-engineering raises doubts about the future of the sexes, with the male the most efficient to eliminate. Rather the priest scandal is about extinguishing the male psychologically and symbolically.
It is about de-legitimizing male moral and political authority, of which the Catholic church is exemplar. It is about subjecting males, based on their sex and sexuality, to a reign of terror and damnation of Biblical proportions. It is about obstructing the underground homo-social processes by which boys become men. If the Catholic church facilitated the castration of thousands boys for its choirs over the centuries, this scandal is a further step toward reducing entire generations in the West to neutered totalitarian subjects.
The past 25 years have seen recurrent panics over a sexual danger posed by men to children and adolescents, with a range of themes -- kidnappings, daycare center "Satanic" abuse, kiddie porn, child prostitution, and indeed, sexual abuse by clergy. Waves of repressive legislation continue to be enacted to combat these hugely exaggerated and sometimes purely fabricated dangers, and to fight the "pedophile" who is their wellspring. But these panics seem like random cherry-bombs compared to the global firestorm that has broken out over the Church -- a conflagration even those who had closely explored the matter did not predict. The success of the campaign and its spread from Boston around the world requires explanation.
The priest-sex hysteria crowns and furthers developments that were under way in the West for some time, taking them up to a new height and down to greater cultural depths. The Church, though waning, remains symbolically potent and spreads around the globe -- one of the foundational institutions of Western culture, and the only one persisting in an unbroken chain from ancient times. The Church asserts a fundamental ontological status and custodianship over souls, and in the West its theology was once obligatory and generally shared. Moreover, a prior rupture within the Church -- the Reformation -- transformed Western culture with world-historic consequences.
In the pedophile priest scandal, secular forces from outside and dissenting ones seeking liberalization from within now target the Church with the most potent demonology to have emerged in the West following the cultural transformations of the 1960s and 70s. Evidence so far revealed in court has not lived up to the lurid promises in the media, and campaigners have possibly overreached. Outside the peculiarly hotted moral and litigious climate of the US, the spark of scandal may find damper kindling. Still, both as a symbol and in its potential consequences, the scandal raises huge stakes.
The priest sex panic is comparable to the hysteria over black male rapists in the South following its defeat in the Civil War and the imposition by the victorious North of notional racial equality. Smarting with defeat, Southern whites demonized black men as a sexual danger to white female "purity." The reign terror and lynching helped break the back of black communities and served to emasculate black men at a historical juncture when they could have asserted familial and political leadership.
The priest panic also bears comparison to the way totalitarian regimes corrode private social bonds by rewarding betrayals and denunciations, which are often ritualized so that the destruction of a socially-constructed enemy becomes a central act in the drama of the state's political legitimacy. This dis-intermediation of the relationship between totality and individual abets the former's total arbitrary power and the latter's total subjection.
In trying to makes sense of what is happening today, these features seem key:
The scandal's homosexual character
The Catholic church is patriarchal and theologically grounded as such. At its highest reaches and in its priesthood, it is all-male -- something that until recently did not distinguish it from other major institutions of Western (or other) cultures. The sexed status of God the Father, Christ the Son, and Mary the Mother of God is not doctrinally trivial. The social organization of the church, from the apostles onward, shows strong male homo-social character, which provided the ground for same-sex bonding, affection, and eroticism -- often covertly, occasionally openly over the millennia. For both men and women of the Church, the spurning of heterosexual relations in a demand for celibacy, strengthened, despite the latter, its homo-erotic character.
Church structure suggests and perhaps facilitates all three major types of male homosexuality -- the "egalitarian" form of relations between adults (the brotherhood of priests and monks); the pederastic (the relation between priests and seminarians, key for the transmission of Catholic culture) -- and is there not a bit of gender-bending exemplified in priestly raiment and accouterment?
The present scandal presents itself as being about "pedophilia" and the protection of children, not about homosexuality. Pedophilia is defined as sexual attraction to prepubescent children. But of the 100 or so priests who have been accused in Boston, only a handful are charged with sex with girls or prepubescent boys. The scandal's main thrust, both in Boston and around the world, is about pederasty, which anthropologically-speaking, is homosexuality's dominant form. The Catholic pedophile priest scandal is a homosexual scandal.
The totalitarianism of the scandal
Totalitarian regimes are characterized by their paucity of civil society, their homogenization of the social mass, and the direct mediation between the individual and a state that has arbitrary and unpredictable power. Under totalitarianism, local loyalties of all kinds -- independent political parties, churches, clans, families, friendships -- are suspect, as are institutions with any independence from the state, particularly those bearing historical memory.
Totalitarianism functions through a mass spectacle that supplants the local circuits of information and communication on which social bonds depend. These displaced social connections moreover are indeterminate, not explicitly laid out in contractual fine-print, but -- like quantum mechanical states -- supersaturated with unrealized possibility, from which derive their flexibility and strength -- and to totalitarian states, their danger.
Totalitarianism sunders these bonds of mystery as it does those of locality. The unknown potentials of organic relationships are transubstantiated into totalitarian's mere randomness -- in the logic of the spectacle, it doesn't matter who ends up on show-trial. Novel yet emotionally charged forms of demonization -- such as the essentially theological charges lain by Stalin's henchmen or during the Cultural Revolution -- are conjured to help break local social bonds and to transfer the energies thus freed to the totality, rendering society a plasma in constant crisis and motion.
Margaret Mead observed that the more varied and complex the roles a society fosters the more "carrying capacity" it has, other things being equal, for diverse forms of behavior and belief. There is a sort of membrane surrounding each role and the group of those who play it, a veil or barrier that obstructs sight-lines and creates spaces where, over time, practices can flourish that might otherwise diverge from norms or never find their niche. A corollary is that the creation of social demons and witches is easier when there is less social differentiation, in the same way that wind storms gain strength over flat terrain, or epidemics rage fastest in large, homogenous populations. Its non-differentiation and non-locality helps totalitarianism produce powerful demonizations.
Just as the monstrous stereotype of the black rapist emerged out of an attempt at notional racial equalization, the creation of the pedophile monster emerged in a process of equalizing previously highly distinct and local sexual forms, and through the bulldozing local cultural ecosystems.
After the West's great sexual liberalization, the new rule governing sex was simple -- if you contract to do it, you can have the sex. This recasting of the ethical ground of sex as consent essentially equalized man and woman, homosex and heterosex, sex in marriage and sex without. Birth control, abortion, and penicillin helped, too. Thus was cleared a thicket of regulation, often highly contextual, that had governed sex- - complex, dense, and usually unarticulated rules depending on gender, class, neighborhood, ethnicity, and degrees of visibility. Those rules were comparable to those devised by guilds to govern production and trade in medieval Europe. Such proliferate rules and roles, as Mead would predict, offered a good deal of hidden carrying-capacity -- and the Church offered nooks and crannies in spades.
If the contract model allowed new freedom in sex's private exchange, it also de-privatized and socialized sex, because the guarantor of contracts in the final instance is the state. The stage was set for increased policing of domestic relationships for violence and newly proliferated categories of abuse. But most important, the sex-as-contract model hit up against a major liberal problem -- that of children.
More than conservative ideologies -- religious ones, for instance -- liberalism casts children as outside the realm of subjects -- since it regards the subject fundamentally as an individual atom of self-interested rationality, a criterion that tends to exclude the young, and in liberal theory does as a matter of doctrine. Under 21? No beer, no questions. Liberalism's great equalizing of most forms of sex thus set the stage for an *über*-differentiation of sex involving "children". The sharp ideological differentiation allowed liberals to secure their gains by drawing the child-adult line ever more starkly, and gave conservatives upset by the new liberties a protected redoubt from which to shoot missiles at the market's new Sodoms and Gomorras.
The theological fervor and diverse crystallizations of fear emerging from the new problematizing of children and sex owes some of its power to the general liberalization of culture occurring at the time. That is, there was a subsumption of culture itself, not just sex, to the marketplace -- a clearing away of lingering cultural elites and proprieties, and a reproduction of memes not on the basis of locality, community, or tradition, but on the basis of what individuals would buy.
What people would buy filled the shelves in the new cultural supermarkets. With people increasingly freed from family and locality, identities proliferated like Protestant sects. The talk shows already loved gays, sadomasochists, and cross-dressers. The "child-sex" zone proved an especially rich vein for forming new cults and identities. The folk hysterias of the 80s and 90s around kiddie sex -- recovered memories, Satanic abuse, daycare center orgies with decapitated rabbits -- were embraced by media desperate for hot copy.
But because these proliferate identities were all reproduced on the market, they shared a sameness, like chain motels or a fractal. A gay disco in Budapest is fungible with one in Bangkok. To effect the mediation between the abstraction of identity and the subject requires the conjuring of an emotional bond.
The market's relationship to the cultural consumer is as direct and personal as the collective-farmer's relationship to Father Stalin -- or the bond Protestantism holds between God the individual, whose limit case is private language and madness. Fear and distrust compel -- a power totalitarian regimes took to new heights. Identity movements have tended to become victim movements by the logic of the market, and the continual media parade of victims bursting with *ressentiment* has produced a culture of outrage. If only its fists could be unshackled, the state could swoop in and save the day against the monsters in our midst.
Nietzsche diagnosed Christianity as fevered with ressentiment. Early Christianity, he argued, resolved the contradiction between its high self-regard and its low status by becoming a sickly and ascetic shut-in -- rejecting life and the world. If so, then power, success, and the winds of the centuries tended to erode Catholic ressentiment's sharp peaks into something softer and more curvaceous -- and overgrown besides with vegetation. The result was a Catholic ecosystem rather more pagan and worldly than it could ever say, though its art and music hinted at the truth. This gap between theology and reality -- an unintended effect of the mystery Catholicism always welcomed -- is now the opening for the slings and arrows of the church's enemies, or those within who hope to clear away its accumulated thickets. The force of those projectiles owes not a little to a fresh outbreak of ressentiment- - this time sold on the market.
The market was all about individual liberty, freedom to choose, and the triumph of secular reason, but it could produce cultural outcomes that talked and quacked Hitleresque. Certainly anyone facing pedo sex charges at the turn of the millennium could be forgiven for thinking he was a Jew in Berlin in the 30s.
The end of the male
Mead observed that figuring out what to do with its males is a problem every culture must confront. Males bored and restless are dangerous. Nature gives them no special role, as it does women. The flipside is that the man's labor tends to be more specialized, anthropologically speaking, more variable and subject to local circumstance. It is localized also in tending to involve more coordinated action with his fellows and less one-on-one engagement.
The male's existence is characterized by rupture and apartness -- separation from the mother, whose sex he does not share, followed by separation from childhood when he must leave it to find his role. His social apartness, his on-average less connectedness abet his coordination into the structure of the gang. In contrast to greater female continuities, the boy is -- again anthropologically speaking -- "born again," a process that, like birth, is frightening and messy. Forging a gang of boys and bonding with men are key elements in interpolating the male subject and binding him into the social -- a process that cross-culturally involves less discursive than physical engagement, often in the guise of roughhousing that lies on the borders, or beyond them, of the erotic.
For all its hostility to sex and homosex, the Church sometimes became a place where that binding could happen. "All the boys did it with the brothers, but they never did it with me because I was too much a woman." So says a Boston gay man in his 50s. An Irish man in his late 60s recalls a relationship he had when he was 10 and 11 with a priest. "It didn't hurt me a bit." Another man in his 50s: "You went to confessional, got your blow-job, and went on your merry."
A gay man in his 40s tells of sex with two brothers who taught at his Catholic high school -- one he remembers as pushy, aggressive, and unpleasant. The other, he says, was what made it possible to accept being gay, and was the best sex of his teen years. These are experiences, from a doubtless unrepresentative sample. But these are experiences, evidently common, that cannot be represented today -- to report them in the media would jeopardize the lives of the priests and brothers involved, and would raise questions whether you were yourself a sexual predator.
Doubtless there are problems with some of the sex that went on between men and boys in the Church. But eliminating the possibility of these connections is the greater harm.
Hannah Arendt argued that while the Jews were never liked in gentile Europe, they were only singled out for extermination when their function as suppliers of capital was taken over by the markets, so that now they were not only disliked, but also without any use.
The Catholic church is now targeted for much the same reason. Among those functions subsumed to the market is the Church's offer of redemption. The cults of identity promise redemption that's purely positive, without any challenging demands of forgiveness, any recognition of the universality of sin, any communal or historical mediation, nor any limits to the revenge the wronged can demand. In the same way, post-modern society eliminates the need for local male solidarity, which is why its relics can be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
The Church's anti-sexual and anti-gay rhetoric is now turned against it with a vengeance, but the occasion for the attack merely shows what were that rhetoric's real limits. The battle over homo-eroticism is engaged not on the Church's favored ground of mystery and paradox, sin and forgiveness, but out in the open, in the garish yellow glare of the tabloids. That the Church's own anti-sexual weapons, with a new secular veneer, are deployed against it is part of what leaves the institution today so tongue-tied and defenseless.
Contrary to liberal conceits, light and air are not absolute goods. The human is defined by opacity, veiling, and mystery -- though perhaps nothing that tomorrow's gene chips and neural detectors can't crack. What sort of place tomorrow will be is anyone's guess. But a world in which boys are deprived of secrets, where they are continually surveilled so that they are not abused and do not abuse, is a world in which they fail to become human.
The consequences are evident already -- boys will develop perhaps nihilistic ghetto swagger, the super-novaing of their masculinity's depleted star. They will identify with sports teams or designer labels but will never overcome their apartness. And they will lash out not least at those who might have been close to them. How can anyone so ungrounded resist the most powerful brand of all -- the demonic pedophile? Yet the pedophile is us. He is Everyman, for any man who is alone with a child for a moment has lost plausible deniability and can be prosecuted any time in the future, statutes of limitations being merely loopholes for monsters. Hundreds of thousands of dollars become available for the ex-child to make the charge. Therapists are standing by to tease out the memories. Betrayal anyone?
The attack on the priests aims to topple a last bastion of patriarchy and cultural memory and to prevent the formation of the male subject, which the Church puts on the crucifix, center-stage on the altar. In the New World Order of germicidal zero-tolerance, we are fancied to be socialized from the start, unsullied by life's muck. Experience is repellent because it tarnishes what we hold to be our original purity, an image of ourselves sold to us in every deodorant ad.
A mythic, sweet-smelling child has replaced God as that which lies outside the fallen quotidian. In effect, the system tends to render us mere clones of its circulation of capital and identities. It's a data-stream we now engage direct, screen-to-brain, that writhes right into our DNA, as our DNA gets uploaded into the Interpol databases. A pity just for these wayward priests and lost altar boys? Or is the extinguishing of the male the canary in the coal mine of the putting out of the human?
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