I was hoping to find some light or humorous news story with which to introduce my research and this blog, but when it comes to the Catholic Church these days, news headlines offer few opportunities for levity. I’m referring, of course, to the thorny problem of sex abuse in the Church. As a student of Catholicism, I’m evidently disturbed by the Church’s handling of the scandal, but I’m also deeply troubled by the tendency among those outside the Church to treat this as a specifically “Catholic problem,” as if it were the logical conclusion of clerical celibacy or some element of Catholic dogma.
Such sentiments are of course tempting, because they allow us to quarantine the problem of sexual abuse instead of considering the structural conditions that allow for and promote it—structures we might find are not at all unique to the Catholic Church. This is by no means intended as a defense of the Church, but as an antidote to both the Vatican’s tendency to treat sex abuse as a problem of personal sin—in other words, of a few “bad apples”—and the secular tendency to treat it as the outgrowth of some institutional or dogmatic element specific (and presumably foundational) to Catholicism. Instead, I would argue that the Church represents an extreme case of a closed, hierarchical institution lacking transparency and outlets for independent recourse against the clergy. Far more than any question of dogma or celibacy, these structural features seem to me to play a leading role in allowing for and covering up abuse on such a vast scale. But the Catholic Church is by no means the only institution with these kinds of structures. The abuse scandal therefore challenges us to consider the uncomfortable possibility that such problems may not be easily confined to the Church, but might contaminate some of our most cherished secular institutions—military, political, or even educational. As academics, for instance, it would be worth considering the extent to which the hierarchy, the protections afforded by tenureship, and the opacity of the university system might enable similar kinds of abuses—albeit, of course, on a much smaller scale.
Recognizing these continuities between religious and secular institutions naturally makes many of us deeply uncomfortable. This is particularly true in a country like France, whose republican identity rests upon the presumption that religion can and has been cleanly exorcised from the public sphere since Church and state were separated over a hundred years ago. It is to this historical moment that I therefore direct my research, in an effort to uncover the ways in which religion consistently overflows the boundaries of the institutions to which it is tied, contaminating even the most apparently secular intellectuals and institutions. But if religion does exhibit this kind of viral quality, where might one look to find its concrete historical symptoms? Over the next two months, I intend to use this blog to record some of the surprises, insights, and frustrations that emerge from my hunt through the archives of Paris in search of evidence that, like sex abuse, religion itself is far from the exclusive property of an institution like the Catholic Church.