Devon, PA. As someone who has written in an extended fashion on Benedict XVI, Catholicism, and human sexuality in the past (here and here), it seems appropriate that I should offer at least some comment on the current of bluster and indignation that has fabricated, during these past several weeks, a new sex scandal out of the residue of old ones. A few observations, dilating from news items toward reflection, followed by a concluding commentary:
1. In 2002, when reports of serial pedophilia by Catholic priests emerged in the Boston media and, indeed, across the country, it became very clear that two distinct phenomena had been depressingly conjoined: individual pedophilic and pederastic predators on the one hand and inept, shameful, and sometimes vicious acts of bureaucratic self-interest on the part of certain Bishops on the other. These were, again, two distinct phenomena between which hung several nauseating threads.
2. For many years, apologists for the Catholic Church who have sought to explain and grapple with the individual cases of pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse, much less the evident presence of active homosexual and pedophilic clergy within the Church, rightly pointed out that instances of sexual abuse by clergy in general were comparable to that within the American population as a whole. That is, a Catholic priest was approximately as likely to engage in some form of sexual abuse as was anyone else, they explained hopefully. More recent data suggests otherwise: a Catholic priest is substantially less likely to commit such an act than is a Protestant minister or a school teacher, and is half as likely to engage in sexual abuse as the average male. The ontological explanation for such priests is the fact of original sin, which ensures that all things from sexuality to salesmanship, and on to the growth of cells and the shifts of tectonic plates, may be frustrated in their natural movements to their proper ends. The result is evil: sexual perversion, charlatanry, cancer, and earthquakes, respectively.
3. We also have witnessed that larger, bureaucratic scandal, in which Bishops and their subordinates behaved like modern managers, seeking to minimize internal problems by the mere shuffling of personnel. It is true that the majority of sexual abuse cases derive from the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the consensus on sexual disorders was that they should be treated by therapy rather than deemed a permanent mark on the psyche of the pervert; insofar as they were as “scientistic” as the rest of us, bishops, had good reason to believe a change of scene and some serious engagement in the “talking cure” might be all that was required. Since then, however, we have witnessed the collapse of psychology along with most of the social sciences as serious disciplines with predictive and manipulative powers equivalent to physics and engineering respectively. We have witnessed the broader cultural shift that presumes sexuality to be an intractable thicket of desires impervious to reason and moral analysis alike. And so, we — meaning of course the modern West rather than its dissidents — have concluded that the only kind of “bad sex” is the kind that violates shared consent and that the only proper response to this violation is incarceration. I shall return to this cultural shift presently, but here I wish only to underscore that the practical judgment of the Bishops of yore looks less sound now than it would have several decades back.
4. An accurate, if bare, assessment of the Bishops’ actions past and recent, however, does not require the above sort of cultural analysis so much as it does one that attends to the rise of the manager as a social type (as Alasdair MacIntyre defines this in After Virtue). We live in an age of technocrats and bureaucrats, in which most persons flee from their uncertainties regarding the end or purpose of human life or the hard work of discerning what consistutes the Good Itself and the good life for man. We flee from such hard decisions about an end seemingly as unreachable as the horizon to those more immanent finish lines one may cross, almost thoughtlessly, in a dash. What we crave, in brief, is the security proper to the manager: that social type whose only job is to keep an organization under his direction running efficiently. As long as the criterion of internal efficiency is met, the manager has succeeded. We may not know what it takes to be a good man, but we sigh with relief and confidence that we know what it takes to be a good executive, a good secretary, a good “expert” in some results-governed field. Ours is a culture where children are brought up to see grades in school as the benchmark of reality and to seek material success as part of an efficiently run organization as the one thing necessary — not because we fail to sense that more is required by and of us, but because we presume that “more” is a private matter to be ajudicated in the despair and darkness of the soul. What can be measured is our delight and the light by which we see. And so, one can turn to all that “introspective musing” after one has achieved reality as a manager “of something.” My presumption is that the Bishops were not immune to this ubiquitous social phenomenon — a frightening testimony to their (modern American) humanity, but hardly surprising. Bishops as managers put the apparent good, the efficiency of the organization, ahead of questions that require a broader horizon. A manager consults his expert; the expert tells him what he wants to hear; he complies with the “best practices” advice of his expert; he is shocked when this sterile process results in reports of hundred, nay, thousands of children scarred by the indignity and violence of sexual predation.
5. These two phenomena feed readily the tastes of traditional American anti-Catholicism. Americans have always viewed the Catholic Church as a sub-culture that approximates to a sub-basement. We fear that any institution not the State is hiding something we have a “right” to know and control: ghoulish and dank oubliettes where the democratic light cannot reach. So Americans thought when they burnt down convents in the Nineteenth Century; when they thrilled over the pages of Maria Monk (the most popular book of the age), attracted to its gothic confessions of sexual captivity, abuse, and titilating violence; when they declaimed against the priest-ridden masses of immigrants and feared the Papist invasions that would tranform their fair land. These American prejudices derive from British ones that extend back to the very origin of the modern British State. They are not only old of foundation but necessary of foundation: neither State could have forged its consciousness without deep fears of Catholic power and plots. Deep fears, these two cultures would show, manifest themselves as fairly crude symbols: dank monasteries and sexual secrets, and so the imaginations of Americans, the English, and Western liberal society as a whole has been well trained to chirp like a metal detector at the first signs of sexual depravity and conspiratorial, mafia-like secrets. However great the horrors of abusive priests and managerial bishops, in the western imagination they loom larger and greater still, darker and more horrible.
6. But this second-nature inclination to view the Catholic Church as the seat of “antient” secrecy and sexual violence should not blind us to the reality that the events that have so disturbed its faithful and damaged its work to spread the Gospel are exquisitely modern in character. They testify not to perenniel Catholic depravities but to the novel adoption of the errors of modern liberal rationalism. A reluctance to think of sexuality in moral rather than clinical terms; a reluctance to think of the Church as the Body of Christ rather than as a corporation with immanent interests that must be protected at the expense of larger, external goods; a deference to expertise; concerns about “losing personnel”; — so begins what might stretch into a long list of sorrowful errors in which the leaders of the Church provided inadvertent witness that the two lenses through which moderns tend to view the world — the therapeutic and the managerial — are entirely inadequate to any serious human question.
7. How does all this explain the news media-generated and largely news-media contained outrage at Pope Benedict XVI? The denunciations from dubious voices like Maureen Dowd and more respectable, if over-hasty, ones like Rod Dreher? It cannot. No one explanation could. Our age is so sered and bleared by hatred of the Church and the psychic dissonance of trying to reconcile the Church as the manifestation of the Eternal Body of Christ on earth with our general belief that only the individual with his contracted property of a nervous system counts as real, that hatred and dissonance alike will manifest themselves in myriad forms. The Church, like Christ, is a corpse hung amid the elements. Every wind will strike Her. Including, of course, lies . . .
8. But surely the baselessness of the accusations against Benedict, the misreporting of “facts,” the vitriol against the sexual crimes in the Church coming directly from those persons most publically committed to sexual libertinism and negative freedom, are susceptible to some explanation. I am one who prefers the difficult, winding theorization to the simple, little brass key; generally, a simple explanation of great and varied phenomena bespeaks a simple mind rather than the simple truth. But the essays to which I referred at the start of this one, as well as other meditations I have submitted to the public (such as that on South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford) have all been part of a difficult grappling with a sadly simple, embarrassingly obvious, aspect of modern western society. Most of us live as isolated individuals whose daily life affirms the inconsequence of our actions, the meaninglessness of our role in any larger dramatic form, the blandness of our condition. And yet, within that individuated loneliness, before which all social institutions from the family to the city, to the nation and the Church wither as mere “subjective” and inessential extensions of the Cartesian bedrock of our selves,–within that atomic certitude, I say, we sense some ineradicable spark of consequence and meaning. While most of us root out and extinguish that spark as much as possible, it cannot be thoroughly dimmed so long as we retain a nervous system and therefore remain capable of the crude but inexplicable mystery, the ecstatic and superhuman but manipulable event, of sexual desire and satisfaction. Most of us experience the inadequacy of material possessions as a means to happiness and, curiously, in this materialistic age, we do not therefore divest ourselves of posessions but seek to reduce everything to a kind of possession. A marriage, a friendship, a body, becomes one among many possessions subject to our will no less than is a new riding mower. In the moment of sexual ecstasy, the myriad atomized loners of our age recognize that crossing point where the bedrock of the self whose certitude is beyond us meets–indeed, tries to become one with–the indifferent matter we subject to our ownership, possession, and control. Between definite elation and evanescence, between self and matter, subjection and domination, modern man finds the only space from which meaning, some sense of greatness, cannot be fully eradicated. Sexual pleasure is the one joy whose meaningfulness we do not question, though we doubt what that meaning is. It becomes the one currency that remains in hard coin for the modern intellect.
9. Rather than recognizing this intransigent reality of sexuality, accepting it, cultivating it, and rediscovering at last that it is an essential if germinal part of the great body of Creation that is super-saturated in intelligibility, meaning, goodness, moral consequence, love, obligations, relations, distinctions, ranks, and purpose . . . rather than submitting sex and self, matter and subjectivity, to the order of which they are merely a part — modern man has made sex the last battle field to be conquered. He would rather transform the whole world, tearing down every monument, wiping out every convention and tradition, reconfiguring every practical relationship and institution, until it all seems ordered to nothing more than making possible sexual satisfaction. Ours is the age of concupiscence, appetite — above all, libido. Sexual liberation has become the only cry that excites immediate emotions of justice and “rights,” of truth and freedom from oppressive ideological “misconceptions.” The denizens of our age do not agitate for an “enlightened sexuality,” for a mere pragmatic distribution of contraception and “health advice,” for a mild Lockean affirmation of “reproductive rights,” or entrance into a bourgeois form of marriage. They do not clamor for a more just society rid of needless superstitions, one more rationally organized to conform to an “enlightened humanism.” Such is the language we hear, but the dark center that produces all this disingenuous verbiage is reducible to sexual ache. As the sole reality, the center of the self, the only good impervious to our doubt because its pleasure cannot be entirely effaced no matter how we debase and abuse it, we live, so far as I can discern, in the first age ever formally committed to reordering reality to the emancipation of the orgasm.
10. We abstain from moral judgments regarding others’ sexual activities for fear that hindering their pleasure might lead them to condemn ours. We accept any range of moral judgments so long as they have no sexual implications or seem to promise increased opportunities for promiscuity (only such a configuration could explain the treatment of contraception and retro-viral drugs as the solution to an AIDS epidemic that will only in fact be brought to an end by abstinence and fidelity). We invade the public sphere with sexuality to reassure ourselves there is nothing shameful about any sexual desire we might indulge, but also to ensure no one thinks there is anything especially elevated or sacred about sex either. We want sex everywhere so that we become incapable of reflecting on it — so that we become capable only of fantasizing about and doing it. In the aggregate, we seek to minimize its singularity in hopes of multiplying its instances. Of all the worldly empires that sought after power and wealth, surely none appears so pathetic as ours: we do not require great monuments or a grand historical narrative of man overcoming weakness and desire to establish something greater than himself. We require only constant, super-saturating reminders that everybody is just a body that likes sex. We are very ethical indeed, because we badger and agitate perpetually to ensure that every inch of the world and every depth of the psychic dark is arranged to make possible one good, the good: the thoughtless, consequence-free, apotheosis of the orgasm. We may, therefore, rightly complain of the unlimited appetites of material acquisition and power that so govern our age, mar our landscape, and deplete and wound the order of Creation, but these grave matters are secondary to the simple and intransigent thrust of our age toward the quantitative absolutization of sexual experience.
11. The Church, of course, remains the great visible obstacle to this absolutization and liberation. Its very existence stands as a symbolic rebuke of those who would otherwise (they believe) be able to forget their “useless guilt” and indulge their every lust without the slightest hestitation. How absolute the drive to liberate lust is, and how intolerant, is testified to all the more by the curious fact that the Church’s exposure as having been itself prey to that drive in some awful instances has not led to a mere sigh of relief on the part of the sexual libertines. They have not murmered calmly, “See? We’re all about equally depraved and perverse, so let’s get back to our fetishes.” They have sought to destroy rather than compassionate, in hopes that all taboo and custom surrounding sexuality will at last dissolve. Without the Catholic Church as the representative institution of hierarchical moral order, we will, they hope, at last be free to ply our sexuality as the appetite listeth. A great, if evil, ambition — but also one impossible to succeed. I do not refer to the indefeasible life of the Church, but to the misconception of sexual libertinism at its root. Were the Church somehow to disappear, some new supposed prudery would appear on the horizon as the next “judgmental” demon to be slayed, and another after that.
Today, we are led to believe any sex act with anyone or anything is legitimate so long as all subjects involved “consent.” Given the central billing rape and womens’ rights “awareness” has as a substitute for real thought and action for women in western society, it seems unlikely that “consent” will disappear as the one sure juridico-moral standard of sexuality — at least explicitly. Of course it will crumble, as it has crumbled, in other ways: the social pressures to engage in sex that we associate with awkward and poorly parented adolescents have come to feature ever more largely in the public culture of supposedly mature adults. The assumption that everyone wants to and would engage in sex with as many partners as is legally permissible presents itself as common knowledge in the myriad internet responses to the Tiger Woods catastrophe: “You would do it too, if you could,” the snide insult echoes through the ether. Shame and reverence regarding sexuality is so routinely mocked that I — even sheltered and homebound James Matthew Wilson — have found myself on more than one occasion mocked for condemning pornography and for (imagine my backwardness!) refusing to go to a strip club. “Consent” may not go anywhere as the last legal taboo, but there is a no less powerful and more widespread cultural imperative that pushes in favor of everyone “consenting” whenever and wherever possible at the risk of being found prudish, backward, or “intolerant” otherwise. The long range consequence of this will almost certainly be the normalization of pedophilia under “certain conditions.” In the short term, of course, the consequence is a public culture entirely given over to displays and chatter of the libidonous. And, in any case, this culture of atomized eroticism will persist in a restless quest for ever-further sexual liberation that, by definition, no single “victory” can satisfy, until it runs short — not of obstacles, but — of interest. Ultimately, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, our civilization shall die not of decadence but of boredom.
12. The Church, that corpse hanging in the wind for all of history, has always adapted her apologetics to show that the Gospel answers the deepest — the one true — need in man. In the early Christian centuries, she emphasized its Logos, Creation’s contingent being saturated in intelligibility as the fulfillment and reconfiguration of what the Hellenic world had taken for an eternal, divine, and necessary Cosmos. Through much of the medieval period, She preached the Gospel as a dramatic fulfillment: the arrival of the Son as Sun in triumph over the legions of darkness. In the diseased and violent decades of the Reformation, she preached the Gospel as the voice of the Church, and the Church as Perfect Society and Humanistic Beauty (health). In all ages, She taught the Gospel as the balm for human sinfulness and wretchedness; Pascal, in the Seventeenth Century, rearticulated this perenniel message in terms of the isolated subjectivity agonizing within the indifferent and lonely spaces of an infinite geometric universe. In the Ninteenth Century, She spoke of the Gospel as the source of social order and the feast for gentle sentiments. In the Early Twentieth, through Chesterton and the Neo-Thomists, She preached the Gospel of the Creation, of the goodness of things in a world made in and for the Joy of Being.
13. But our age, as I have described it, is one of atomized eroticism; we privilege the nerve centers of sexual pleasure as the one unquestionable good even as we disenchant everything about them to make sex more readily available for exploitation without moral reflection. I noted above that the unquestionable and ineradicable certitude of that pleasure is what makes it so suitable for this violent reordering of society that forces everything to comply with and to enable its needs. But I also noted that the certitude of sexuality could be the germ, the foundation, for a rediscovery of the meaning and truth of the Gospel and of human life. Just as the facts of sin and death disturbed generation after generation for two thousand years and prompted them to seek the one immortal good, so too may the fact of our embodied sexualities disturb us and summon us to seek for more than the momentary ecstasy contained in a twitch of nerves. The Church has seen as much; She has taught it. She stands ready to elaborate the entire truth of the Gospel if we will grant Her, for a starter, only the most polite willingness to consider the claim of Genesis 1:27,
God created man in his image;
in the divine image he created him;
male and female he created them.
From these few words derive worlds — the world of human experience, but also the world of Creation brought into being through the perfect love of the Trinity. And so, while the world of our age calls each of us to turn from thought, from any moral reflection, from anything but the most physically immanent of our desires, the Church calls us to see in that ineradicable certitude the beginning of something, the seed of the mystery of Creation. If one has little mind for these matters but a good will, one can at least read the first half of Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est. If one sees more clearly that the profundity of desire in man is answered by a profoundity of Truth, of meaning, to explain it, then one might wisely and swiftly turn to John Paul II’s early Love and Responsibility, a philosophical reflection on sexuality and human personhood, or to his magesterial (literally) Man and Woman He Created Them, the most complete ellaboration of his Theology of the Body. In such silent books one finds the only voice capable of silencing the violent snarl of modern man’s lust in the face of every obstacle. Here is the battle of our present moment: not between the West and Islam, between the Market State and Provincial Society, or between Capital and the masses, but between “Love” as a euphemism and Love in Truth.