Another Theology of the Body XII--The Sound of Music, Dependence, and Ideology

Over the weekend, I saw a film entitled A Pervert's Guide to Ideology.  Ostensibly it was a documentary, but really it was a 2 1/4 hour lecture by Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst, and provocateur Slavoj Zizek on his theories of ideology and how it works.  To make his points, he uses movies, ranging from Triumph of the Will to Jaws to The Dark Knight, as illustrations.  Even if you don't agree with everything he says, he is very engaging and thought-provoking, not to mention very weird and funny.

In addition to talking about ideology generally, he also goes into specific ideologies--Nazism, Stalinism, Capitalism, Consumerism, etc.  He also has a fascinating discussion of Christianity generally, which I will come back to at some point.  But at the beginning of the film, he talks about the "ideology" of Catholicism.

To explain his view of Catholicism, he uses the movie The Sound of Music.  In the beginning of the film, we have the novice nun Maria, who so full of energy (libido, Zizek concludes, and it is hard to argue with him here) that she can't really function within the confines of the convent.  So, the Mother Superior sends her off to help raise the Von Trapp children, where Maria falls in love with the Baron Von Trapp.  But the Baron is engaged to marry someone else, so Maria goes back to the convent.  At this point, she is talking again with the Mother Superior.  Contrary to what one might expect from a Mother Superior, a woman who has dedicated her life to a religious order, the Mother Superior tells Maria to go back to the Baron, express her love, and then stay with him.  At which point, the Mother Superior sings the song "Climb Every Mountain."

Zizek notes that when he first saw the film as a child in communist Yugoslavia, the censors cut out the song.  For Zizek, that's the correct call (if you're a communist), because the scene represents the truly attractive thing about Catholicism.  On the surface, Catholicism portrays itself as being all about harsh moral discipline and strict rules.  But, under the surface, it provides opportunities for great license, including sexual license.  You can have your cake (feeling righteous morally, identifying with this "morally strict" organization) and eat it too (providing opportunities to have fun and play around).

This morning in the shower (where all profound thoughts come), I was thinking about this idea in connection with Pope Francis's recent statement about birth control that he made in the Philippines.  No doubt he reaffirmed Humanae Vitae, et al.   But then:

"He [Pope Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitaeknew the difficulties that families experience and that's why in his encyclical he expressed compassion for particular cases," he continued. "And he taught confessors to be particularly compassionate with particular cases."

One could certainly interpret that as an out-clause, or at least the possibility of an out-clause.  If you got the "right" priest, you could imagine that the scope of "difficult circumstances" could be very broad indeed.  And if being "particularly compassionate" means "always granting absolution, even if they confess it every time," then all of the sudden the birth control teaching melts away, at least as a de facto obstacle to people using contraception.

It's just like the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music.  Sure, she would say, in general life in the convent is superior to getting married to the Baron and raising his kids, but we must understand the "particular circumstances" of Maria (which are what, exactly?).  In this particular case, Maria needs to go out and get it on with the Baron, which in no way undermines the general principle that sex is bad and the convent is the way to go.  The social cohesion of the strict rules are maintained, and the social flexibility of the "particular cases" is maintained as well.  You can have your cake and eat it, too.

I think Zizek is really on to something here analytically.  However, from the perspective of someone on the inside, there are two problems with the "Mother Superior" approach.

One, this only works if the people who are immersed in the system maintain the proper distance from the rules themselves.  This is a point Zizek makes in connection with the military and the movie Full Metal Jacket.  Military discipline is ostensibly very strict and totalizing, but you must maintain an ironic distance from it in order for it to work.  Both Private Joker and the Drill Sergeant maintain that distance (Joker just in general, the Drill Sergeant in the form of the over-the-top and obscene way he runs the barracks).

 Private Pyle, on the other hand, starts to absorb the rules without the detachment, and he goes insane.  Once the wink-wink-nudge-nudge goes away, the system gets very brutal very fast.

Right now, at least in many segments of Catholicism, that ironic distance is breaking down.  There are quite a few Private Pyles in American Catholicism right now.  And the distance between Mother Superior and Private Pyle is often a personnel reshuffling.  The attractive elements of Catholicism can be replaced with a nightmare in the blink of an eye.  Just ask the couple in Montana.

The other problem is that this approach of forbidding publicly and then allowing privately, even if one could count on the "allowing privately" part, is that it sets up a weird psychological dependency on the part of the Catholic in the pews.  You want to use birth control (or go have sex with Baron Von Trapp), but you know its bad, so you are conflicted; the Church steps in to resolve your conflict by either forgiving your sin or assuaging your conscience with reference to your "special circumstances."  In any event, you need to go to the Church in order to address your bad conscience, one that was created by the Church itself.  That's a cynical way of looking at it, but I think it cannot be dismissed out of hand.  Indeed, Zizek would say that this dependency is precisely the point of the Catholic ideology, and all ideologies.  It can't possibly be psychologically healthy.

This weekend I also finished James Alison's book Jesus the Forgiving Victim.  It is an outstanding book that I am still digesting in many ways.  One of the ideas of the book is the importance of putting aside the notion of God as an emotional blackmailer.  That's the problem with this otherwise (as Zizek notes) appealing feature of Catholic moral theology--it makes God an emotional blackmailer, facilitated by the Church.  It doesn't solve the problem, it just changes it.  As Zizek would say, it makes it into an ideology.


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