The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 1A--"Human Sexuality...or Ecclesial Discourse?"

I said I was going to do a series of reflections on James Alison's book The Joy of Being Wrong, and I intend to do that.  But before I get there, I want to talk about what I think is Alison's best work, an essay entitled "Human Sexuality...or Ecclesial Discourse?"  You can find the essay on his website here, or you can find it in a collection of Alison's work entitled Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break In.  Either way, do yourself a favor and take the time to read it.

Alison's essay is structured into five parts, and so I am going to do a series of five posts about each section.  Alison first gave this talk in 2004 at a forum about sexuality in Christianity.  Into this environment, he begins by arguing that we shouldn't talk so much about sexuality in the Church:

The first point I would like to make is a little provocative, setting up a distinction between the thought of Freud and the thought of René Girard, whose disciple I am. Imagine a Freudian or a neo-Freudian looking at a rugby scrum. We can hear such a person commenting, after a bit: “Hmmm, lots of latent homosexuality around here”. Now imagine a Girardian or neo-Girardian gazing at the goings on at a gay sex club. Such a person might say, after a bit: “Hmmm, an awful lot of latent rugby playing going on here”.

Funnily enough when I have talked to gay male audiences on retreats and made this comparison, they’ve always smiled and got it immediately. The Girardian comment rings much truer to our experience than the Freudian. And this is not, I think, because it is ideologically more flattering to us. But because you can’t hang around in such circles for very long without realising how much of the apparently sexual activity which is going on is to do with touching, with bonding, being with the tribe, with affection and with playing games.

Now I think that this is more important than meets the eye, because it is suggesting that the sexual drive is not, if you like, the key psychological impulse, the key drive, the centrepiece of desire, as a good deal of our discourse implies. Rather it suggests that the sexual component of desire is comparatively symptomatic of other things which precede it and inflect it this way or that. Or to put it another way: it is not the sexual drive which makes us into rivals. It is dealing with rivalry which shapes how we are sexual.

Right here, in three short paragraphs, Alison has identified one of the core reasons why all of our discussions about sexuality have become distorted and unworkable.  The "progressive" or "secular" approach to sexuality invests enormous structural and psychic importance in people being able to engage in any one of a number of specific sexual acts as the individual chooses; the "conservative" or "religious" approach to sexuality invests an equal amount of energy in seeing to it that people not engage in the same array of sexual acts, or engage in them only under specific preconditions.  Either way, what sorts of sexual acts are or are not happening becomes the whole of what sexuality means.

Alison, correctly in my view, argues that sexual acts are always the product of the nature of the relationship between the two (or more) people involved.  The relationship between people is the thing that is important; the acts matter only insofar as they shed light on the nature of the relationship.  Questions like "is gay sex moral?" are meaningless--the answer is always "sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the relationship between the people who are having sex."  Which is exactly the same answer for "is straight sex moral?"

This insight is important, because the problem is not simply that some kinds of sexual behavior that should be seen as OK is seen as immoral; it is also that lots of problematic or destructive behavior that goes on under the broad headings of "romance" or "sex" gets a pass because we are obsessed with who is doing (or not doing) what to whom.  In other words, our vision of "sexual sin" is under-inclusive as well as over-inclusive.


This is what I was trying to get at with my Taylor Swift post from a while back.  The behavior described Swift is immoral, regardless of whether she and the unnamed dude are having physical sexual contact.  More importantly, if it is the case that these two people are having sex, that fact is well down the list of the relevant facts that you would consider in trying to fix the problems with the relationship, if it's relevant at all.  What happens far too often in our current discussions about sex is exactly the opposite--we begin with whether or not they are having sex and (maybe) work backwards to talk about the nature of the relationship as a subsidiary question.

If you want to see what happens when you talk about a problem related to sex in the wrong way, Alison provides a tragic example:

If you are with me on this, you may not perhaps be surprised when I say that it gives a quite different reading of the controversy surrounding the systemic failure of the clerical culture of my own Church in dealing appropriately with the 1.7% of its own members in the United States who perpetrated sexual abuse against minors. One of the readings we heard, and which was common enough, was that the problem was clerical celibacy. In this view, clerical celibacy leads to emotionally repressed, sexually immature, males who are then at a particular risk of acting out inappropriately with the children or youths who come into their responsibility.

This emphasis on the sexual, and the chance of a swipe at celibacy, seems to me to do no service to understanding at all. It ignores the fact that the percentage of clerical offenders against minors is pretty much exactly the same as in any other profession or walk of life. The trouble with the clerical culture was not in the greater percentage of offenders, but in the greater success in the cover-up. It was the extent of the cover-up, not the incidents of abuse, which caused real scandal to the faithful. And it is here, it seems to me, that you have the bitter fruits of an obligatory celibate culture (and this is not a criticism of celibacy itself at all, but of the culture formed by its obligation): the bitter fruits are not in the sexual acting out, but in the group-think and the club culture which couldn’t talk about these things in an adult way, and so which went into knee-jerk group shame-avoidance mode.

Alison's numbers appear to be off.  The John Jay Report says that the percentage of those Catholic priests within the scope of the study for whom there is an allegation of sexual abuse is 4.4%.  That is a shockingly high, unacceptable number, but it must also be seen in context.  The Jay Report says that slightly over 10,000 young people reported being sexually abused by a priest from 1950 to 2002.  If you look at the CARA data on baptisms, you end up with something in the neighborhood of 1 million baptisms in the U.S. per year over the course of that period, or 52 million over the 1950-2002 period.  In other words, out of about 52 million Catholic children, .019% of them reported being sexually abused.  Now, that's reported, which is not the same as happened, but even if one were to assume that only one child reported for every ten children who were actually abused, one still only gets .19% of children who are effected by sexual abuse by clergy.  By contrast, the U.S. Department of Education cites a study that suggests that the rate of children suffering sexual abuse from teachers is at least twenty times as high, and probably significantly higher than that.

All of this supports Alison's basic point--if it were the case that celibacy per se led to sexual abuse, one would expect rates of abuse higher than the general pool, not lower (it's also worth pointing out that sexual abuse rates among clergy of other denominations and religious traditions, where celibacy is uncommon, appear to be more or less the same as that of Catholic clergy--and Billy Graham's grandson says that sexual abuse is worse in the Evangelical world than in the Catholic Church).  So, it's not celibacy per se that is the problem, but the way celibacy forms the culture of priesthood in the Catholic Church that is the problem.

There are hardly any Catholic Bishops in the English speaking world, if any at all, who haven’t been socialized since their youth into a significantly, but discretely, gay culture. Whether or not they are themselves gay, they have grown up in a world where the presence of gay people, and the malaise concerning honest talk about them, has been thoroughly normal. Furthermore, and properly, part of their socialization into that world has been learning not to throw stones in the glass house.

Now I suggest that it is this combination of a discretely but thoroughly gay socialization, and a malaise about open speech which has contributed to the systemic failure surrounding the child abuse issue. It has meant that the clerical group was significantly slower than the rest of society in being able to make the distinction between “gay” and “paedophile”, because “gay” was all around, but as something not to be talked about, and yet as something towards which the clerical culture was, and is, generally rather merciful. I wonder whether part of the problem wasn’t that the all-male, obligatory celibate culture with a strong gay element set itself up for a failure of intelligence: it was the fact of being accustomed to turning a blind eye to others’ indiscretions and trying to avoid scandal for them and for the group which led people to be unable to tell the difference. The difference in question being that between adults who had occasional consensual sexual relationships with other adults which may or may not have lead to mutual flourishing, and adults whose occasional “falls” were part of a pathology which could lead to no flourishing at all, only repetitive damage to their victims and themselves. Group-think, and a defective official definition which maintained the culture of that group-think, meant that too often its members couldn’t tell the difference until it was far too late.

In my experience "inside the walls," so to speak, this analysis of the culture of the Catholic clergy is on point.  But I think another critical component to the story is the presence of the "two boxes" approach to sexuality.  The "two boxes" theory, coined by Libby Anne and her Love, Joy, Feminism blog, postulates that there are only two kinds of sexuality--married heterosexual sex (and, if you are Catholic, married heterosexual sex open to children) and everything else.  The problem comes because the intellectual system does not really contain the tools to make any distinctions within the "everything else" box.  "Everything else," no matter what it is, must be treated the same because what is really important about it is that it is not heterosexual married sex.

So, here is what you have in the clerical culture in the Catholic Church.  Everyone (1) is supposed to be celibate, so (2) no form of sexual activity is acceptable under the rules, resulting in (3) no culturally-approved language, and no perceived need, to draw distinctions between different scenarios under which the celibacy rule is violated.  At the same time, (4) people sometimes fall down on their obligations with regard to sexuality (especially, I would say, where there are no approved expressions of sexuality), and, (5) in a religion that takes very seriously the notion of forgiveness, there is a mandate to allow people to move on from failures of every type.  Meanwhile, (6) many of the clergy are gay (including in the highest levels of leadership), which (7) everyone (at least on the inside) knows about, but (8) no one can really acknowledge publicly (in part, as discussed in the next post, because there is no internally acceptable language to talk about it).

The result of all of this is a culture that is committed to not talking about, and "handling privately," the individual behavior of its members, and no tools for distinguishing between "handling privately" a priest having a fully adult mutual relationship with another man (or a woman) and "handling privately" a priest molesting a 13 year old boy.  So, both were "handled privately," as everyone now knows.

Something else that occurred to me that Alison doesn't mention but is important in trying to understand the U.S. Catholic Church--until very recently (by which I mean maybe the last 20 years), the culture of the U.S. Church was basically Irish.  Now, I am of predominantly Irish heritage and I am deeply proud of that, so I can tell you that one of the true pathologies of Irish culture is that the knee-jerk reaction to uncomfortably truths, particularly within our own tight circles, is to not talk about whatever the uncomfortable truth is.  There is this (irrational, destructive) idea that if we don't acknowledge the problem via talking about it, then it doesn't exist, and we can get on with our lives.  So, when faced with a situation that they don't know how to talk about or wrap their minds around in any way, a predominantly Irish clergy (culturally, if not ethnically) defaulted to the classic Irish move  of doing the thing that allows one to say as little as possible so that we can get back as quickly as possible to pretending the problem doesn't exist.  Which, in practice, means sweeping everything under the rug.

All of that comes, at its root, from an inability to talk about the problem, which in turn stems from an inability to talk about sexuality in a constructive manner.

My assumption this afternoon is that Girard has it basically right. And one of the consequences of this is that I’m not sure that it is appropriate to spend much time discussing human sexuality. For to do so is to go round and round forever discussing a very malleable, rather fluid set of symptoms, rather than engaging in the real discussion about their prior socialization. The real discussion involves, therefore, our looking at how we talk about things, which is a very large part of how they are humanised and lived.

You will never fix a problem until you understand it, and you will never come to understand a problem until you can talk about it in the right way.  The language with which the Catholic Church talked about the problem of sexual abuse was wrong, and so it was all but inevitable that they would fail to properly address the issue.  Alison argues that our problems with sexuality are basically problems with language, and I think he is right.  This is not simply a Catholic issue of Catholic language--the "our" in "our problems," as I mentioned above, includes other religious traditions, as well as the "secular" culture.  But there are some unique features of "Catholic language" that create particular problems, which is the subject of Alison's second big idea, and the next post.

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