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.

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

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