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Watch Your Language: “Celibacy,” “Sanctity of Life,” and Anti-Rape Conversation

Posted by pocochina on March 30, 2010

Absolutely nothing I am about to say should be construed as a defense of the actions of the Catholic Church here or abroad.  I am writing to clarify, not to excuse, defend, or render sympathetic – I think that all of those things are currently impossible.  But I do think that when good critics of conscience talk about the problems explicitly and purposefully caused by the Vatican, it’s important for us to understand that what conservative Catholics, including the *spits* Pope, mean when they use certain terms like “sanctity of life,” or what the cultural and religious context for the debate over celibacy is.  A post that I really recommend is Amanda Marcotte’s exploration of the Church and secular rape culture, which places the Church’s actions and official viewpoints in their rational sociopolitical context.  I think that’s important.  And I don’t think it’s important to engage with Church dogma in order to condemn church actions – as ever, I recommend Shakesville for some clear-eyed moral perspective on the issue.  But non-Catholic (by birth or practice) folks who are going to engage with the specifics of the Church’s reprehensible actions and defense of those actions should be aware of the ways the Church uses certain terms and language – not because it will win us any fans among pro-rape, anti-woman loyalists to the Church, but because it reveals the depth of the problem and allows for us to make the strongest possible good-faith arguments against the Church’s reprehensible actions of late, and allows us to draw the correct lines between facially disparate topics like the worldwide systemic abuse of children and the US-targeted anti-health-care strategizing.

Clearly, triggers below.

I think the discussion of “celibacy” is one where a lot of folks who generally agree on the end point of their discussion – CHILD RAPE IS BAD – talk past each other because they’re using wildly different definitions and applications of what sounds like the same terms.  You’ll get both Catholic loyalists and avowed secularists pointing to the celibacy requirement of the priesthood as a contributing factor to the widespread abuse of children.  And then you’ll get a rightfully outraged response from anti-rape activists, which comes in the form of a slightly inaccurate cry that sexual abuse has NOTHING TO DO with celibacy.  I really do think it’s critical to fight back against the rape-culture-based assertion that lack of sex builds up sexual frustration in men until they must rape.  As usual, the anti-rape activists have the right end of the stick.  Abuse is about power, about control, about seizing emotional ownership over the weak and vulnerable, and not about a lack of sex – if it weren’t, we’d simply see those same priests having consensual affairs with adults, and we’d see a comparable number of nuns breaking their vows to do the same.

But lack of causation does not imply lack of relatedness.  Sexual abuse is very much tied in with the celibacy requirement for the priesthood because they both stem from the anti-sex views of the Church.  An entire worldview that casts all enjoyment of sexuality as sin and filth, of the flesh and tarnishing the soul, isn’t going to make much distinction between molestation of children, rape of adults, or consensual sex between adults.  This is true whether you think sex offenders are hardwired with a predilection towards abusing children, or whether you think they are created by their formative experiences within rape culture.   If you think tendency towards child molestation is hardwired, you can see how someone fighting against such a natural tendency would be drawn towards the anti-sex, black-and-white life promised by the priesthood – such a man would be fighting his sex drive same as all of the other priests, and would moreover be assured of an unparalleled level of protection from his employer.  This is a relatively common explanation offered by your garden-variety Catholics, who are appalled by the actions of the Church but want to minimize its responsibility and continue to trust the priests they know and like.  (This is from a very scientific longitudinal observational study of my extended family – Catholic, so the are enough of us to be scientific, natch.  They’re fond of claiming that “priests don’t become pedophiles, pedophiles become priests.”)  If you think child molesters are made not born, you get at the same result by a divergent path.  A worldview that thinks all sex is dirtybadwrong doesn’t make the critical distinction of meaningful consent between sex acts, so if a priest is going to fall off of the celibacy wagon, he’ll simply go for the most vulnerable population in order to minimize potential consequences, and, as Amanda points out, he can rationalize that children don’t actually have sexuality, and so it isn’t actual sex.  Either way, the church’s position on celibacy is important to understanding the phenomenon of parochial sexual abuse.  Don’t get me wrong – none of these are excuses.  Child sexual abuse is always wrong, it is always a crime, and in America, there is an affirmative legal duty to report abuse.

The affirmative legal duty to report brings us to the institutional issue.  Appropriate discussion of the celibacy requirement allows us to contextualize the sexual abuse of children and the celibacy vow in the spot they belong, in the pantheon of the currently-dominant terrible Catholic thinking concerning sex and sexuality.  Rationalization of sexual abuse and victim-blaming are nothing new in the Church.  Where boys’ role models are saints who lived and died for the basic tenets of their faith, the female saints are often women – and by women I do mean teenage girls barely older than the victims of the modern abusive priests – who “remained chaste” in the face of “pressure,” which is a vile and permeating euphemism for “were tortured and murdered before they were raped.”  Sex is viewed as an evil which just happens, sudden temptation which takes control of two people simultaneously unawares and then taints their bodies and souls irreparably.  It is shameful and it is secret, and it must be hidden at all costs.  Victim-blaming is organic to this view of human sexuality; the rationalization of shared blame becomes entirely too easy.  Again, if folks choose to view this strictly in terms of criminality, because after all the Church can only offer rationalizations and lies, I have absolutely no issue with that.  But engagement with the Church on its own terms requires this particular cultural backdrop.

And this is where the “sanctity of life” phrase comes in.  For many – and in truth, probably most – Catholics, this phrase simply means that the preservation of life is paramount.  Catholics for Choice, the Wobblies, and other Catholic social justice movements seem wildly inconsistent with the Church that can perpetrate such horror, but they are part of a long tradition of a Christian humanist reading of the Bible.  Sinead O’Connor, who famously tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL before the extent of the Church’s abuse was apparent to the population at large, still embraces Catholic theology even as she stands with grace and strength by her indictment of the Church.  This is not just a highly moral position, but a theologically defensible one; one that has had many moments of ascendancy in the Church.  But when devotees of the dominant Ratzinger faction of the Church use the phrase “sanctity of life,” they mean something quite different.  Catholic catechism at its most elementary embraces the concept of mystery; of things we don’t understand and can’t control.  At its best, this can be a joyful expression of wonder at the inexplicable possibilities of the universe.  When it’s contextualized politically, though, it’s an imposed passivity towards social structures which restrict the courses of our lives. In this paradigm, the phrase “sanctity of life” hints at a worldview that requires the beginning and end of life to be completely out of our control.

This explains, neatly and horrifyingly, the Ratzinger Vatican’s position on any number of issues.  It is why people shouldn’t own their sexuality – because sexuality is seen in a framework of procreation and as such should run the divine risk of unwanted pregnancy and disease.  It’s why the Church is against abortion and contraception – such actions are conscious human control over the creation of life.  I’ve talked before about the way anti-choice and pro-rape political decisions dovetail in individual politicians, and the same holds true for entire institutions.  It even explains the hostility to health care reform, even though this is logically inconsistent if you take the “life” rhetoric on its face.  Access to modern health care acknowledges that life can be improved and extended, and that the suffering which has previously been chalked up to the existence of evil and as punishment for human suffering has in fact been perpetrated consciously by secretive and powerful organizations which don’t care about the human casualties, as long as they can achieve their stated goals.  Please tell me this is starting to sound familiar.

In case subtlety is not my strong point:  There is a significant, and currently dominant, strain of Catholic thought which claims that in certain areas – sex, health, death – all consequences must be left up to God, and His appointed representatives on earth.  Those appointed representatives are always socially, economically, and when appropriate theologically powerful.  The iron grip of control the Church has attempted to retain over the sexual abuse evidence is completely in line with this idea of mystery; this cloister of shame.

So what do we do about it?  We support the victims and we clamor for justice, as we always do when faced with the outrage of rape.  If we choose to engage with Catholics and Catholicism (which is ABSOLUTELY NOT NECESSARY, and should be expected of NO ONE), we support those who have left the church in rage, and we support and use the appropriate language and cultural cues in order to speak with those who stay.  We acknowledge that rape culture exists outside of the church as well, and that this is but one expression of its bottomless evil.  We remember that when those who stay choose to fight for justice, they are drawing on a significant theological faction of their religion, which, should it ever regain ascendency, has great potential to make the world a safer, woman-friendlier, more genuinely life-affirming place.

One Response to “Watch Your Language: “Celibacy,” “Sanctity of Life,” and Anti-Rape Conversation”

  1. […] It is coming from the Catholic Church and from “families’ rights” groups who only seem to care about exploitation when someone is doing something consensually. Perhaps tellingly, much of the “fury” is stoked by the idea that the contraceptives […]

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