Those Sinners are Our Sinners
The question of what counts as “religious practice” and its protected “free exercise” has dominated much of the Catholic conversation recently, and it has figured prominently on this blog and in the magazine. My approach to the question has been largely informed by a “religious studies” perspective, which attempts to think of “religion” as an object of academic inquiry and analyze the many ways in which it is performed and negotiated by those who use the concept. This includes both believers and non-believers. The former might argue either that “religion” is a 19th-century abstraction imposed on them from without, forcing them to define what they do in very restrictive and exclusionary terms (e.g. as strictly worship), or they might embrace it for the civil protections that it offers and seek shelter under its hopefully expanding exceptions. (The USCCB, it seems to me, is currently oscillating between both of these positions.) Non-believers also might either reject the concept as a 19th-century abstraction that has long been revealed to be a social or psychological pathology that we are (hopefully) outgrowing, or they might find it useful for describing certain communities and individuals that do, in fact, seem to preserve valuable beliefs and practices that set them apart and may provide important resources for a culturally impoverished post-secular society. Regardless of which of these four options one decides to take up, it seems clear that “religion” is indeed a concept that, like all inherited traits, we are stuck with, and thus, the question, “What is religion?” remains a live one, even if your answer is that it is an illusion.
Against this “religious studies” background, Kathryn Lofton has a provocative post over at The Immanent Frame about a conference that she hosted last September at Yale on “Sex Abuse and the Study of Religion.” The participants at the conference focused primarily on the epidemic in the Catholic Church, and looking at the archive of material compiled at BishopAccountability.org, they asked, “How [are] the sex abuse cases also cases of religion?”
This is, of course, a very controversial question for many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who would likely protest that sexual abuse is the furthest thing from an instance of “religion,” insisting that it must be a perversion of religion, if not a negation of religion. Acknowledging this, Lofton writes:
While it seems reasonable to imagine the celebration of the Mass or the substance of seminary education as subjects of analysis for the academic study of religion, turning to sexual abuse is a more awkward maneuver to make. However, scholarship pursuing popular religious experience offers some vocabulary to begin such a venture. “The study of lived religion focuses most intensely on places where people are wounded or broken, amid disruptions in relationships, because it is in these broken places that religious media become most exigent,” Robert Orsi has written. “It is in such hot cultural moments—at the edges of life, in times of social upheaval, confusion, or transition, when old orders give way and what is ahead remains unclear—that we see what matters most in a religious world.” Orsi invites us to observe the simultaneity of religious life and religious studies, how the scholar’s role to interpret what matters becomes especially important precisely when it seems that the system collapses in its effort to maintain what matters.
For many, the current public controversy over “religious freedom” seems like such a “hot cultural moment,” when believers and non-believers are deploying “religious” rhetoric to stake out positions for themselves in the public sphere and to move people in their communities to action. The Bishops’ call for a “Fortnight for Freedom” and the language surrounding it conjures images of religious persecution and martyrdom, encourages holy defiance, suggests a suspension of political order for the sake of a Higher Call, imagines an expansive vocational understanding, in which everything a person of faith does is in some way an extension of living his or her Catholic identity, and all of this is done in an “effort to maintain what matters.”
Was this not also true of the perpetration and cover-up of sex abuse? I am, of course, not suggesting that the Bishops’ actions in seeking to protect what they see as the “religious freedom” owed to them and their flock are the same kinds of actions as the perpetration and cover-up of sexual abuse. Yet, from the perspective of one who is interested in “religion” in all of its manifestations, the question is: What do these “hot cultural moments” reveal about a particular “religion”? When it comes to the “cultural moment” of abuse in the Church, Lofton writes:
These “hot cultural moments” are rarely the ones accompanied by photographers’ flashbulbs or press releases. After reviewing the documentary record, the story of Catholic sex abuse that emerges is one of stunning intensity and intimacy. This was a series of crimes committed in quiet auspices, in recreational and domestic spaces, in vestries, campgrounds, and children’s bedrooms. This was a series of relationships that were, simultaneously, abusive and interdependent, public and private, possessive and devotional. Sexual abuse between priest and parishioner is, therefore, a form of lived religion. This is not only because religious contexts offer hierarchical social situations conducive to abuse, but also because abuse is, in this documentary record, shown to be an articulation of Catholic ecclesiastical authority, Catholic theological investment, and Catholic sociological change.
It seems to me that if we, as a Church, are going to get to the “how” and “why,” and more importantly, the “how do we not let this happen again” of sexual abuse, we are going to have to deal with the “religious,” and specifically, “Catholic” nature of the problem. Of course, as we’ve all heard, sexual abuse is something that happens in many different kinds of institutions, but as we have also been told more recently, the things done by Catholics in those institutions have a distinctively Catholic character, which should be all the more true if that institution is a church.
So, when we look at the stories of sexual abuse and its cover-up, and we see and hear theological language being used to justify those actions, we have to be honest about the way in which our theology might be inextricably intertwined with all those things done in its name. To take a recent case, it seems that Monsignor Lynn understood is vows of obedience to cover all actions prescribed for him by his Bishop and to entail unquestioning loyalty in their execution. Similarly, the perpetuation of abuse was often aided by replacing the language of psychology and illness with the language of pastoral care and forgiveness. These were not simply weaknesses of individual moral judgment or misunderstandings of the pathology of pedophelia, but they were “religious” failures, insofar as they involved the use of theological language to destroy rather than build-up the faithful. Thus, if we are going to confront the abuse crisis head-on, Lofton writes, we must ask questions like:
Why did sex abuse occur? How did it occur? Why was it managed as it was by ecclesiastical authorities? What sacramental thinking and theological rhetoric has circulated during its duration? For example, how did Catholic understandings of the child and of the priest, or the distinctive Catholic construction of human sexuality—in particular the requirement of celibacy for leadership and prohibition of masturbation—contribute to the perpetuation of abuse? What sort of sexual politics, gender norms, cultural logic, and social facts contributed to the unmitigated persistence and slow diagnosis of abuse? And how does the very way we interpret and define abuse relate to its experience and practice?
It’s not enough to name sexual abuse as a lapse in “religious” practice and belief. In order to understand it in its specifically “Catholic” form, we must re-examine our theology and the ways in which we perform that theology institutionally and interpersonally. In this case, far from being a useless abstraction, Lofton is encouraging scholars and lay people to use the category of “religion” to examine the very particularity of lives lived in faith and doubt, redemption and sin. As she writes, “‘Religion’ as a category has no meaning if it is merely saved to designate ideal practice; it is a term that summarizes failure and fulfillment of prescribed relations.” If Lofton is right, then, “religious studies” might actually be able to illuminate the failures of “religion,” which believers themselves might miss with their gaze fixed firmly on the promises, and not the perils, of their own traditions. And while some might even be tempted to shake their heads with sanctimonious disappointment at the few sinners that are spoiling the Church for the rest of us, perspectives from the “study of religion” might help us see that those sinners are our sinners, their words are our words, their victims are our victims, and, in this case, their abuse was Catholic abuse.