The current campaign within the Archdiocese of New York to canonize the radical activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) offers a good example of what Elizabeth Povinelli, writing here on December 13 (“Can Sex be a Minor Form of Spitting?”), calls the “mutual conditions and secret agreements” that tie the sexual revolution and Catholic teaching together behind the scenes—and of the “transformation in the field of sin” sealed in their alliance. It isn’t simply that the candor with which Cardinal O’Connor and now Cardinal Egan have described Day’s sexual agency, single motherhood, and presumed abortion signals the Church’s accommodation to new, post-1960s norms of frankness. Nor that the hagiographical plotline of Day’s renunciation of sex on her way to becoming a Catholic nicely embodies the paradox familiar to any schoolchild catechized in the sanctity of virginity, the sexual knowledge required of those being schooled to avoid it. Rather, by promoting Dorothy Day as a penitent Magdalen first and foremost—and not, say, a blistering critic of a war-making government and the depredations of capital—the Church furthers the ideological shift by which sexuality, with its attendant possibilities and dangers, comes to trump every other way that human flourishing might be imagined or enacted. In the case put forward by both O’Connor and Egan for her sainthood, Dorothy Day is upheld as the patroness of all who would (or should) repent of sexual quests gone gravely awry, with the result that the militarism, corporate greed, and other systemic injustice that Day was relentless in calling to account are reduced to comparatively lesser infractions-as it were, to minor forms of spitting.
Sociologist Gene Burns unfolds this shift in the context of Vatican II. According to Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), a key Vatican II document that clarifies the doctrine of papal infallibility pronounced in the First Vatican Council of 1869, the pontiff exercises “infallibility in virtue of his office when, as supreme pastor and teacher of the faithful . . . he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.” Of these, “faith”—that is, faithful membership in the One True Church—is understood to be obligatory for Catholics only, and beyond the power of democratic governance to enforce. “Morals,” however, because they ostensibly inhere in natural law rather than in Catholic teaching, remain binding on all, Catholic and non-Catholic, without regard for democratic norms. Trading its earlier presumption of unimpeachable temporal power for charismatic authority in the realm of “faith and morals,” the Church since 1965 has come increasingly to pronounce on questions of morality, and overwhelmingly to define morality in terms of sex and gender. Particularly since the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reiterated its condemnation of all forms of artificial birth control, the Catholic Church’s ever more visible commitment to regulating sexuality—a way of consolidating its authority in an era of secularism and religious pluralism—has strengthened its ties with conservative forces in the United States and worldwide. In this way, the ostensibly progressive reforms of Vatican II yielded new reinforcements for an ideological hierarchy in which “morals”—the Church’s teachings on sexuality and gender, understood to be universal and absolute—occupy the highest position, Catholic faith and doctrine the middle ground, and Catholic social teaching on issues like war and poverty the lowest, most discretionary rung.
What remains of the Catholic Church’s aspirations to universality in a secular age, then, inheres almost entirely in the register of sex and gender. For Charles Taylor, the binding-on-all quality of even post-Vatican II Catholic teaching on sexuality—binding on all because purportedly grounded in natural law—finds its enabling corollary in the sex-is-natural message of the Church’s post-sexual revolution critics. Importantly, Taylor locates the ramping-up of sexual regulation and the modes of its resistance much further back, in the Counter-Reformation, which also brings a broader set of considerations to bear on the enormously consequential question of why sex (and not, say, greed or aggression) became the Church’s favored site of prohibition.
Taylor’s partial answer, wrapped in a disclaimer (“I can’t pretend to be able to explain it”) is, first, to speculate that sexuality became an irresistible target of regulation for the Catholic Church because “violence and anger became less overwhelming realities of life” with the decline of “brigands, feuds, rebellions, clan rivalries, and the like” (it’s gotten so quiet around here, friars . . . so let’s talk about sex); and second to suggest that since sexual prohibition was a “central fact of life” for an avowedly celibate clergy , they’d understandably want to make it a central fact of life for everyone else, too. But what precisely is the Counter-Reformation context, here? Where, in other words, is the legacy of Protestantism in these developments? “What has often been forgotten,” Max Weber reminds us, is “that the Reformation meant not the elimination of the Church’s control over everyday life, but rather the substitution of a new form of control for the previous one. It meant the repudiation of a control that was very lax, at that time scarcely perceptible in practice and hardly more than formal in favor of a regulation of the whole conduct which, penetrating all departments of private and public life, was infinitely burdensome and earnestly enforced.” Evacuating Christian religious authority from its institutional locations, the Reformation generated its presence “everywhere,” not least in the form of the gendered bodily disciplines that went to the making of sexuality as the defining feature of the modern subject and the defining dilemma of modernity.
One implication of this is that until sex became a very big deal in Christendom, religion may not have been a very big deal in Christendom, either. There was, of course, the medieval Church with its virgins and martyrs, its cinematic splendor and gore. But by what storyline did we come to imagine that everyone, everywhere might be caught up in its net? The “more rigid sexual code [of early modern French Catholicism] directly attacked certain common male practices,” writes Taylor, citing a well established narrative, “particularly the rowdy lifestyle of young men . . . This tension drove many men out of the confessional-and eventually out of the church.” Note the slippage from the (at least potentially) faithful peasant who ardently desires the Church’s communion to the virile rowdy who spurns it, the “everything” of religious identity giving way to the “everything” of sexual identity. But what if the first of these—the religious subject, who cedes his place to the sexual subject in a declension variously celebrated and mourned—were instead a projection thrown back on the past by the same operations that produce the central fact of sexuality in modernity, produce sexuality as the central fact of modernity?
Surely the Catholic Church learned something from the Reformers—surely they have had much to teach each other—about the ways institutional power might be augmented in the appearance of its being relinquished. By the nineteenth century, Taylor notes, “morality takes precedence over everything [in the lessons of the French Catechism], and religion becomes its servant.” If “religion” no longer serves to define the reigning regime of modernity, then “morality”—sexuality—will have to do. And where sex is, can religion be far behind?
In the spirit, then, of Elizabeth Povinelli’s call to Taylor’s readers to do more than attend with renewed care to the “self-authorizing, self-fulfilling sexual subject”-to decide, for example, that sexual purity might in fact serve the cause of self-making as well as libertinism, or vice versa: How might we instead try to circumvent the genealogy-let’s call it the “secularization narrative”-by which a particularly descended form of religious authority still holds us in its grip as that whose imagined primacy has been dislodged by stronger claims to truth, and, so it follows, must either be a) fortified and restored, or b) kept ever again from exercising its repressive sway? For aren’t these the circumscribed alternatives that any iteration of sexuality as the central dilemma of modernity really poses?