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Liberal Pieties | The Nation

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Liberal Pieties

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There was the rub. Protestant liberals hated and distrusted Catholics, but they hated and distrusted socialists more. The huge immigrant proletariat was drawn to both, and with less contradiction than Catholic leaders would admit. With its advocacy for a "living wage," for profit sharing or, in its absence, for unions, for government intervention where wages were "insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner," the church was the enemy of laissez-faire economics. But that "well-behaved" said it all. Old liberal worries over "the combined power of rebellion, Catholicism and whiskey" faded in the face of the red flag. "Freedom of opinion" had its limits, and even Charles Eliot Norton looked to Catholic authority to curb the "anarchic religion of the unchurched multitude." There was a class war to fight, and on that bloodied ground liberalism made its historic compromise with Catholicism.

CORRECTION: The Fisher family
of Six Feet Under is Episcopalian, not Catholic. (10/1)

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Sex, or the fear of it, has been almost as important in the construction of this nightmare as racism.

We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

By the 1930s, McGreevy writes, "the most obvious legacy of early Catholic involvement in the union movement was not the development of Catholic social thought but Catholic leadership in the struggle against socialism." Liberal fears of Catholic authoritarianism would resurface in the 1940s and '50s, and again be trumped by fears of Communism. Liberalism had found its calling, and the church, so easily derided in other areas of civic life, could reliably be counted on to manage dissent. Later, Paul VI would favor economic redistribution, and on his watch Latin American bishops would meet in Medellín to critique "liberal capitalism" and articulate a "preferential option for the poor." But his name would forever be welded to Humanae Vitae, the disastrous encyclical rejecting all forms of artificial contraception. Once capitalism "won," there was nothing left to fight about but sex.

Re-enter Jenkins, whose book revolves largely around contests over sexuality and seems to have been prompted, in fact, by the sex panic around priests, with its echoes of old denunciations of Catholicism as "the whore of Babylon," politically corrupt and sexually dangerous. We're inclined now to regard the Catholic Church as the sex police, and there's much evidence for that--from the "love the sinner, hate the sin" posture on homosexuality to the international bullying on reproductive rights to the criminal abuses of "bad girls" depicted in harrowing detail in the new docudrama The Magdalene Sisters. Yet another view has always run parallel, that of a hypersexual, "Italianate" (read: effeminate, pederastic) Catholicism. In the nineteenth century, anti-Catholic sensationalism (one of the most notorious such tracts underwritten by a prominent Abolitionist) provided, as Jenkins writes, "one of the few socially approved vehicles for pornographic interest," so laden was it with lecherous priests, lesbian nuns, sensual iconography and beastly goings-on in the confessional.

Indeed, the confessional was one of the few places where sexuality could be plainly discussed. And if, as Foucault suggests, the penitential rite was another "scheme for transforming sex into discourse," thereby controlling it, it also provided a zone of privacy in which, as a practical matter, people could unburden themselves of their secrets. Not ideal, but what is? In that aforementioned 1843 moral theology, Bishop Kenrick also instructed confessor-priests that it was a married woman's right to coax herself to climax "by touches" if she didn't experience orgasm during intercourse, that a man who ignored his wife's pleasure was guilty of a venial sin of omission and that--contrary to some Victorian counsel urging women to distract themselves during lovemaking to avoid orgasm--the woman should yield to her body, the intentional avoidance of orgasm being a mortal sin. This recommendation, Peter Gardella observes in his intriguing book Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure, "reflected normative Catholic teaching" at a time when the Calvinists spoke only of sin.

Jenkins offers no brief for the church's sexual agenda or its errant priests, but he rightly suspects games of "gotcha." He notes that the soundest study of priestly sexual misconduct--involving 2,252 priests over forty years--indicates that 1.7 percent behaved badly, such behavior ranging from inappropriate speech to rape, and in only one case involving a true pedophile: i.e., an adult sexually interested in prepubescent children. Obviously, some 1,500 priests accused of any sexual abuse between the 1960s and 2002 indicates trouble, but Jenkins argues that honesty demands a recognition that (a) incidents of pedophilia are rare, (b) priests hold no monopoly on such behavior and (c) "there is strikingly little evidence that clergy of any kind are any more or less likely to abuse than non-clerical groups who have close contact with children." A 1998 study by Education Week, for instance, cited 244 incidents of teacher-student sex over a six-month period, ranging from unwelcome touching to consensual relations to serial rape, an average of nine cases a week. The press has not elevated this to "social problem" status. As Jenkins puts it in Pedophiles and Priests, "there is no cultural home" for the pedophile pedant.

In the heat of the scandal, Jenkins was verbally pummeled for such views, by liberals who found fuel in the crisis to push for an end to celibacy and the ordination of women; by conservatives who saw their chance to purge gay priests. Garry Wills attacked him for making the unpopular but sensible distinction between sex with children and sex with teenagers, which Wills lumped together under the curious label "boy-sex." Given the near-totalitarian perception generated by the scandal, Jenkins's chapter on the subject here is most important. If he weren't otherwise so focused on gays and others demonizing Catholicism, he might have noticed, though, that the target of this sex panic was as much homosexuality as it was priests. Why else would newspapers wallow in stories of priests and boys, priests and men, when most targets of unwanted priestly attention are girls and women, and most sexual violence occurs in the heterosexual home? He might also have challenged the Boston Globe's legal-rights-be-damned approach to the story, its retailing of false assertions (which he and McGreevy repeat in the case of one Father Paul Shanley) and its prime role in making monsters, to which the unlamented jailhouse murder of John Geoghan now stands as grim testament.

There is far more to say on the scandal, on the contradictions of Catholic homoeroticism and homophobia, the elision of accusation and guilt, the opportunism and disingenuousness of the press, the church and lawyers than can here be accommodated, or than either book explores. It is perhaps enough, for now, to let the century-and-a-half-old image of Thomas Whall, faint and bleeding, provoke us to more complicated considerations of the latest power struggle between the church and liberal Boston than the received narrative of perfidy versus righteousness provides. The church is surely disgraced, but what of liberalism when its victory comes at the price of truth, fairness, privacy rights, proportionality, the presumption of innocence, all of which were trampled in last year's media frenzy? As ever, in the contest between Catholicism and American freedom, neither side has much to preen about.

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