Monday, April 26, 2010

I remember when Sinead O’Connor scandalized us by tearing up a picture of the Pope on SNL.  But I didn’t remember that she did it to protest sexual abuse of children by priests.

Historically, there was a time, I imagine, when priestly recruitment in the Catholic Church drew more equally from diverse sources – men overtaken by a genuine passion for the church; men (like youngest sons) who had few opportunities elsewhere; or more generally, men who saw the Church as an institution from which to lead a meaningful, purposeful life – socially, spiritually, materially and even politically; and always of course, men who were suppressing their own sexualities and so felt attuned to the Church’s rhetoric of sexual shame.

As an anthropologist I can appreciate the deftness with which authoritarian religious sects like the Catholic Church have been able to use guilt and shame in order to psychologically bind people to their hierarchies.  But for most people Humanism and the Enlightenment (however vaguely perceived) have granted a soft landing from Genesis’s Fall from Grace and religions lost their moral monopoly.  Religions in the Occident haven’t been able to use violence to enforce participation for generations, and the churches have lost much of their social and temporal power.  They are not at the center of civic and philosophical life like they once were.  And we now live with a consumer capitalism that puts people’s anxieties about sex to work in other ways.

I think priestly recruiting draws from a much smaller pool now, especially when it entails the sacrifice of celibacy.  As shame about hetero-sexuality becomes less and less useful as a tool for attracting and incorporating followers to authoritarian religions, this seems to have left a higher proportion of those still widely condemned as sexual deviants (notably closeted homosexuals, pedophiles and misogynists) to be susceptible to the psychological alchemy of the Church’s sexual shaming.  We’re left with a church that attracts to its understaffed priesthood more than its fair share of men who are afflicted with sexualities about which they are conflicted, in denial, closeted, clandestine, repressive and so on.  Which brings us to the scandals of today.  And I think it is probably no coincidence that not just shame about heterosexual sex, but rampant homophobia among the churches’ rank and file (tied so often to the shame of repressing personal sexual desires) is so crucial for maintaining passionate adherence to the authoritarian churches – whether Catholic, Baptist or Anglican.

There is no scriptural need to hate the homosexuals (as demonstrated by scores of Christian sects), but  many churches do, despite the obvious drawbacks of trying to keep the power of sexual shame in play.  They have struck a devil’s bargain: hate the gay, purge the self, love the church that has delivered me.  These churches should be ashamed of themselves, and I think one day they will be.