A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Mark Jordan on the Rhetoric of Abuse (updated)

The Immanent Frame has been continuing to post a series of articles from the "Sex Abuse and the Study of Religion" conference hosted at Yale by Kathryn Lofton last September. I commented on Lofton's provocative opening post here. In that piece, she argued that for scholars of religion the perpetration and cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church ought to be understood, among other things, as a case of religious praxis. Given that the abuse took place in the context of theologically coded relationships, often occurred in ecclesial spaces, and was systematically covered-up by a hierarchy who claim a divine mandate to protect the institution from scandal, Lofton argued that an analysis of the abuse crisis that explains it primarily against the backdrop of secular culture, as the John Jay reports did, is short-sighted.Not surprisingly, Lofton's piece raised several difficult questions concerning the substantive role of theological rhetoric in the perpetration and cover-up of abuse. Was theology simply deployed by abusers to "rationalize" their behavior, or is there something problematic in some of the Church's traditional theological tropes themselves that lent moral plausibility to such abuse? Did theclinical language of psychopathology give clarity or confusion to those charged with responding to cases of abuse? Was the perpetuation of abuse aided by the monarchical ecclesiology of the Church, or was it caused precisely by the more permissive, democratizing, and secularizing influences of Vatican II? Mark Jordan addresses these questions in his recent contribution to the forum. Here's a key paragraph on the first question:

The possibility of authorizing abuse theologically follows too easily from the always exceptional status claimed for modern church power. In modern Catholic contexts, official languages often pretend to be exempt from qualification, questioning, or appeal. They are absolute languages. They function in a state of exception. When that rhetorical character is extended to traditional images of a masculinized God or angel who ravishesrapessouls that are gendered as feminine, then erotic domination seems to receive divine blessing. Im not objecting to mystical writing. Im pointing to a consequence of moving older mystical or liturgical languages into a modern system that endows some church speech with an incontestable and literal authority. Under a regime that claims divine exemption for its decrees, mustnt erotic metaphors of divine domination sometimes seem to authorize sexual demands by priests? Turn the question around: imagine what you would have to change in present claims for church language to prevent the violent misapplication of old metaphors for Gods love.

The whole thing is definitely worth a read, along with the other pieces that have been posted so far.Update: A comment on Peter Steinfels' related article (subscribers) in the recent issue of Commonweal after the jump...

I just read Peter Steinfels' affecting essay (subscribers) in the recent issue of Commonweal, in which he recounts his own experience of discovering and reporting abuse while serving as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp. Steinfels repeats the refrain that the sexual abuse of minors happens in many contexts beyond the Catholic Church, and that attitudes toward and procedures for dealing with such abuse have changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Of course, these claims are indisputable, but he goes on to say:

But my firsthand experience also planted resistance to explanations that attributed the abuse toexclusively Catholic practices or beliefs. [...] In short, my initial encounter left me allergic to explaining sexual abuse in sweeping or single-factor terms, usually ones that coincided with their proponents preexisting convictions, whether about homosexuality or (in my case) the need for a more participatory and democratic church.

While I agree that the sex abuse crisis in the Church should not be blamed "exclusively" on aspects of Catholic belief and practice and that we should avoid any "single-factor" explanations, I also think that the work of Lofton, Jordan, and the other contributors to The Immanent Frame forum can help us to resist the temptation to bracket Catholic belief and practice from our explanations. If the analysis of abuse demands a multifaceted and nuanced approach, as Steinfels rightly suggests, then we should be willing to look at all of the factors that may have contributed to its perpetration and proliferation.I also think that Steinfels concedes too much to those conservatives who would blame the crisis on homosexuality when he suggests that his own belief in the prophylactic need for a "more participatory and democratic church" is a similar "preexisting conviction." The former is driven by clear prejudice and scapegoating, while the latter strikes me as a straight-forwardly pragmatic answer to a problem that stemmed, in part, from an institution that lacks the proper structures of accountability. It cannot be denied that the swift response to reports of abuse and the preventative measures put in place by the non-Catholic institutions that Steinfels mentions were due in large part to the external checks on the authority of the leaders of such institutions that were already in place. We should not dignify ugly homophobic slander by placing it on the same level as this rather commonsensical conclusion.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I do think the lens is different when looking at the abuse from outside the church vs. from within the church when trying to finds its causes. I also believe that a system of equality between men and women in the church would change some of the dynamics which could cause the abuse to start. There are many good priests, and I think they could operate so much better for their parishes mirroring the society they are trying to serve; that being an equal opportunity employer that includes men and women in equal roles.

"The whole thing is definitely worth a read"Having, despite my better judgment, read the whole thing, I disagree. It would be Exhibit A in any brief to defund liberal arts departments.

I agree with Jim Pauwels: the symposium seems to take no heed or to reject out of hand the social science that might dispute their theses, namely the John Jay study and others. There doesn't seem to be much scholarly or critical thinking going on there, despite some impressive names. Their question is a good one, but has yet to be engaged seriously.

Jim and David: I think you need to do a bit more work, if only not to be thought to "take no heed or reject out of hand" more humanistic analyses of the crisis. Why do you think that the social sciences have a monopoly on engaging the questions being considered? Should we not also be interested in the perspectives of philosophers and theologians on the crisis? It seems ironic that a religious group that is often (and rightly) wary of "scientism" would consider an empirical study like John Jay to be so definitive.

Scientism is the belief that all reality can be adequately explained using only the methods of the natural sciences. It is not the belief that one ought to consider the available empirical data about a problem before offering a theory about the problem. Facts first, then interpretation: that, I think, is all David Gibson is asking for, and this demand doesn't make him -- or anyone else -- guilty of scientism. By all means, let the theologians and philosophers have at the sex-abuse scandal. But when their theories seem to be based on bad information, it's no good claiming that information is for social scientists and we've heard enough from them.

Eric,I believe that the John Jay report is not definitive while at the same time wonder about this theologically based approach. It seems to be that neither David nor Jim reject science so much as they reject this approach. The gnawing question is how is this theological approach that possible since we see sexual abuse in non religious areas. There are certainly issues with a patriarchal religion. But the transition to a cause of sexual abuse seems to be far fetched.

Matt: I don't think that anyone is saying, "information is for social scientists and weve heard enough from them." What is being questioned is the neat division between facts and interpretation. As many have already said, the facts in the John Jay reports were influenced by antecedent expectations concerning the nature of the crisis (e.g. bishops and clergy have the best knowledge of reportable cases). So, getting our facts straight also involves asking ourselves about the plausibility structures that determine which facts we are going to take into account, especially when considering social scientific research models. I take it that part of "scientism" is an unwillingness to acknowledge that all empirical research is guided by some such preexisting theory. To avoid this, then, it is important to think theoretically about the facts that we have and how we got them before we simply take them to be "the" facts.Bill: I don't see anyone making a causal leap. I think that they are just trying to say that the religious context in which abuse occurs does matter, and it cannot be just assumed to be unimportant simply because abuse happens in other contexts as well. Presumably, the specifics of those non-ecclesial contexts would also be important in gaining a full understanding of their failures (e.g. the sporting culture at Penn State).

Certainly there was more than one factor in play in the abuse scandal. Too-proud bishops, old-fashioned and/or out of touch bishops, sharp, rapid changes in American culture, Remote Romans, stubborn Americans, a too-trusting laity, and some number (hopefully a small number) of homosexuals in America were ordained Catholic priests. Now, one can say all day long that introducing gay clergy was not a factor in the abuse scandal, but I do not think it wise to dismiss it out-of-hand, to say it had no effect whatever. Roman Catholics have learned tough lessons in all this and are still learning. Anglicans are now experimenting with ordaining gay clergy, albeit more openly than the Catholic church did back in the late 60s and into the 70s. Well see - give that experiment time to run its course.

In the military, as in the Catholic clerical culture, power, authority and appropriate obedience are all valued highly. When a military man transfers those specific military values to his family life no one thinks it unusual, and when the children of officers are found to be very obedient no one finds it surprising. I dare say some similar thinking goes on in Catholic children relative to priests and bishops.But what about a priest who demands inappropriate obedience from a child? It should be obvious to the priest as an adult that his behavior is wrong (unless he is mentally ill). But can we say that his clerical culture has nothing to do with his crimes? I think not. We tend to transfer values from one domain to another. But is such transference of values the only or main cause of the crime? Who can say. Should the clerical culture abandon its appreciation of power, authority and obediene? No, it should still respect *appropriate* power and authority and demand *appropriate* obedience, and the priests should be trained to know unequivocally which inappropriate exercises of authority and demand for obedience are intolerable.(I might add that these generalizations are also relevant to how the Church treats its theologians. How they are trained and treated is also part of the same general problem of authority and obedience.)

From the article:"Im pointing to a consequence of moving older mystical or liturgical languages into a modern system that endows some church speech with an incontestable and literal authority. Under a regime that claims divine exemption for its decrees, mustnt erotic metaphors of divine domination sometimes seem to authorize sexual demands by priests?"No.

Eric,You make a fair point about the limits of the John Jay study, and I too have reservations about its methodology. If Lofton and Jordan had limited themselves to raising questions about the adequacy of the data presented by John Jay, I would have more sympathy for their project. It seems to me that they are doing something else, however. Because they have theories about why sex abuse would be more common in the Catholic Church than in other institutions, they allow themselves to assume that it is. I think we can too easily be seduced by a powerful theory into overlooking the need to verify the facts the theory is supposed to explain. And, as Peter Steinfels points out, part of what makes a theory persuasive is how well it corresponds to our prejudices, whether these are described as bigotry or creditable intuition.

Under a regime that claims divine exemption for its decrees, mustnt erotic metaphors of divine domination sometimes seem to authorize sexual demands by priests? Mark Jordans question expects the answer, Yes. Stated positively, this yields: Under a regime that claims divine exemption for its decrees, erotic metaphors of divine domination must sometimes seem to authorize sexual demands by priests. I pass over the exaggerated statement about the divine exemption of Church-authority, and ask a couple of questions: 1) What does that must mean? Why must rather than, say, may? Is some kind of logical or psychological entailment intended? 2) What is the status of this claim? Is it meant as a hypothesis? If so, does it require, does it admit, empirical verification? Can it be falsified? 3) And then there is that sometimes: how many times must erotic metaphors seem to authorize sexual demands by priests to qualify as sometimes? If instances of the connection turn out to be few-and-far-between, must not that must become a may, and must we not then turn our attention to other factors?

I don't know... What about Fifty Shades of Grey? I think there is a strain of intertwined eroticism and power that runs through other things than the church!

So, Jordan is arguing that if we didn't use images such as "bride of Christ", then Fr Meffam might not have committed sexual abuse, because he would not have felt as justified in doing it? And the proof is that when Meffan uses exalted vocabulary, he "seems sincere"? That's pretty thin. I'm no psychologist, but I know that when I feel like doing something, I will interpret things to excuse my choices, and that will be in all sincerity.How many people you hear talking of "true love" when they're having an affair. In all sincerity! Does the church need to stop talking about love, to remove the risk that the word will be used in the wrong way by exalted minds? (That's what commitments are for: contracts with myself so that, when I've lost my bearings, I still remember that there was a time when I had decided that no matter what I would not act in certain ways, and I might still abide by that past decision even if it doesn't seem to make sense any more at the moment).

Joe Komonchak deftly cut through the academic sludge passing for analysis to the heart of the matter. Apodictic assertions, even when wrapped in the pretty papers of postmodern discourse, are subject to the old scholastic axiom that what is freely asserted may be freely denied.

Joe: I think that your rigorous consideration of Jordan's claim is exactly what his essay was encouraging us to do with our erotic metaphors for theological power. So, if "sometimes" turns out to be "almost never," then, yes, we turn to other factors. If "sometimes" turns out to be "more often than we would like," which for some of us might be "even once," then we still have to consider other factors, but we might also be more careful the next time we apply erotic metaphors to human expressions of divinely sanctioned power. Cathy: If the "Fifty Shades of Gray" fans formed a church, I think we would be concerned about the way the entwinement of eroticism and power might deform their hierarchical relationships.

Eric: Do I understand you to agree that Jordan's claim needs to be tested and that until it is, its status is that of one of those "bright ideas" that Bernard Lonergan used to say were "a dime a dozen"?Another question: If a troubled priest makes use of an erotic metaphor to justify his evil acts, does the fault lie with the metaphor or with the troubled priest? The highest figure I've heard for incidence of pedophilia among priests is around 10%, which means that 90% of priests are not involved, even with all that erotic imagery available. And of those guilty of the abuse, how many were moved to it or justified it by the erotic imagery? The more I think about it, the more Jordan's assertions strike me as quite untenable.

Joe: Yes, I think claims always should be tested, especially if they are aiming at recommending practical intervention. But there is also a value in thinking for its own sake, and considering the ways in which ideas implicitly or explicitly shape plausible or actual behavior. So, empirical verification, yes, but "bright ideas" can be powerful in ways that aren't always empirically verifiable.As for your second question: Of course, Individuals are always the ones responsible for their actions. You can't prosecute and jail an idea (which is where McCarthy went so wrong). So, the fault will always lie with the perpetrator. But in thinking about how to build a just society or a holier Church, in which, for example, it's easy to be virtuous, ideas certainly do matter, and it behooves us to think about how ideas edify or deform individuals and relationships.

"When that rhetorical character is extended to traditional images of a masculinized God or angel who ravishesrapessouls that are gendered as feminine, then erotic domination seems to receive divine blessing." Wait a minute, since when has the biblical and mystical tradition of erotic metaphors included metaphors of RAPE? I.e., of God forcing Himself (Herself) on the soul against one's will? I thought it was always about wooing, etc. I mean, yes, for Catholicism, even though we must cooperate freely with grace, grace itself enables and brings about that cooperation, but is that really tantamount to rape if expressed in erotic terms? Perhaps I just haven't encountered any examples of that myself, or perhaps I'm overlooking or blinded to the element of rape in various erotic metaphors, but that's never been my understanding nor my experience of the biblical-mystical tradition. (Ooh, or better yet, my "lived experience"! Who can argue with my lived experience?! Mark Jordan's arguments can't hold a candle to my lived experience!)

The big factor in abuse as I see it is the authority factor whether hierarchical or just supervisory. We might remind ourselves that only a few years ago many of us cringed at even criticizing a bishop or the pope or even priests. Psychotherapists, at least in comparable numbers to priests, seduce their patients as do teachers and youth counselors. In the church the power might be considered more awesome because of the divine implications. But to start criticizing the language of God is something that angers someone of faith and stops the conversation. For example, people like Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman who begin their criticisms in an apparently scientific manner soon devolve into a total denial of the whole faith. Certainly ideas are important to consider. Yet when there appears a certain bias in progress one should cry foul. So criticism of a particular problem, like in this case sexual abuse, when it proceeds to a total rejection of the body of the faithful it becomes tainted and people become rightfully resentful and angry. As happened frequently in the posts above.

Mr. McGrath --The notion of "wounds" of love is not foreign to Christian mystics. Origen spoke of God as wounding the soul, and for Bernard of Clairvaux God was a violent lover. Mystics, of course, speak in metaphors, but it is easy for me to understand them and others as meaning that God overpowers with something analogous to physical violence. Bernard in particular has always struck me a a masochist. But who knows.

Hi Ann (oh, and please call me Brendan! I'm only 30 -- I hope I can call you Ann?) -- I know the language of wounding too, but at least where I've encountered it (for example, in St. Teresa of Avila, and... well, I can't think of other specifics off the top of my head, but the women mystics in general), it's not connected with rape -- i.e., St. Teresa of Avila wasn't saying no, or wishing God would leave her alone, etc. The wound is more an ache of longing and desiring God even more. I mean, the whole idea of the soul being wounded is just an element that's part of a greater overall joy, ecstasy, desire, etc.

Brendan --Please do call me Ann. I agree with your interpretation of St. Teresa. But there are others. . . Bernard of Clairvaux talks like a masochist a times. See Bernard McGinn' s "The Presence of God". v. II, pp. 158 and 203. Bernard even says of "Love", "What is more violent?" and seems to imply that God Himself is Love and therefore Violence. Horrid. Sure, sure, mystics talk in paradoxes. But I think William James is right to say that some of them are healthy-minded and some are not. Bernard is one who is not.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for youAs yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bendYour force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.I, like an usurp'd town to another due,Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,But am betroth'd unto your enemy;Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,Take me to you, imprison me, for I,Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.(John Donne)

From the OED, two meanings of "ravish" that would be pertinent to Donne's last line:" b. To transport (a person, the mind, etc.) with the strength of some emotion; to fill with ecstasy, intense delight, or sensuous pleasure; to entrance, captivate, or enrapture."" b. To rape, violate (a woman)."The second, it seems to me, is a metaphor for the first.

How about Verlaine: mon Dieu, vous m'avez bless d'amour Et la blessure est encore vibrante, mon Dieu, vous m'avez bless d'amour. mon Dieu, votre crainte m'a frapp Et la brlure est encor l qui tonne, mon Dieu, votre crainte m'a frapp. mon Dieu, j'ai connu que tout est vil Et votre gloire en moi s'est installe, mon Dieu, j'ai connu que tout est vil.Noyez mon me aux flots de votre Vin, Fondez ma vie au Pain de votre table, Noyez mon me aux flots de votre Vin.Voici mon sang que je n'ai pas vers, Voici ma chair indigne de souffrance, Voici mon sang que je n'ai pas vers....Mais ce que j'ai, mon Dieu, je vous le donne.------------------------------------------------------------------O my God, you have wounded me with love, And the wound is still throbbingO my God, you have wounded me with love.O my God, a holy fear has struck me And the strike is still burning, O my God, a holy fear has struck me.O my God, I have seen that all is vile And your glory settled within me, O my God, I have seen that all is vile.Drown my soul in the floods of your Wine, Melt my life in the Bread of your table, Drown my soul in the floods of your Wine.Here is the blood that I did not pour, Here is my flesh, of suffering unworthy, Here is the blood that I did not pour....But what I have, I give to you, my God.

Ann and Fr. Komonchak -- I see what you mean by those examples, and I'm familiar with a number of them, but how can we consider it rape, if the people in question (the speaker of the poem, the mystics, etc.) are ASKING for God to "ravish" them? I mean, I suppose as you said, Ann, there's paradox (though you were talking about the paradox of love vs. violence), but I guess it just seems very mistaken for someone to look at these examples and think it can lend itself to some sanctioning of clerical rape. With a LOT of stretching, you could try to argue that it might lend legitimacy to clergy having sex with people or whatever, but... actually, no, not even that.

By the way, as long as we're posting our favorite erotic passages from the mystics, allow me to add Hadewijch from the 1200s -- I'm copying and pasting this from a packet I made for my students, so the text might be slightly adapted in places to make it more comprehensible, but I think this is pretty much verbatim:With that he came in the form and clothing of a Man, as he was on the day when he gave us his Body for the first time; looking like a Human Being and a Man, wonderful, and beautiful, and with glorious face, he came to me as humbly as anyone who wholly belongs to another. Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is; and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is. After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him, and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity. So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported. [Then] I saw him completely come to naught and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me. Then it was to me as if we were one without difference. It was thus: outwardly, to see, taste, and feel, as one can outwardly taste, see, and feel in the reception of the outward Sacrament. So can the Beloved, with the loved one, each wholly receive the other in all full satisfaction of the sight, the hearing, and the passing away of the one in the other. After that I remained in a passing away in my Beloved, so that I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myselfBy the way, one of my Jesuit teachers at Georgetown remarked of Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa": "I'll have what she's having." ;)

Brendan ==My main point was that some mystics are not psychologically normal to start with. Specifically, some are manic-depressives, some have typically schizophrenic "intuitions" of being identical with everything else, and some are masochists who "enjoy" pain and being over-whelmed, and the only difference between that and rape seems to be the enjoyment. Not being a masochist I have no idea how they can experience such a state of mind/body, but I don't doubt them when they say it happens. Yes, they seem to confuse an extreme masochistic sexual experience with an experience of God.The speech of Bernard that McGinn quotes waxes poetics about the joy of penance so extremely painful it can hardly be imagined. He also preached the second crusade with relish, and I used to wonder how he could be so enthusiastic about it. The masochist hypothesis explains it, I think.People can be very weird, Brendan. Very, very weird, even with the best of intentions. Even with saintly intentions.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment