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?
…why sex and not, say, greed or aggression became the Church’s favored site of prohibition
Possibly a look at the family of movements from the 13th to the 15th century, existing on the borderline between “acceptable” (Franciscan Spirituals) and “heretical” (Lollardry, for instance, and its relatives in other countries), could help point the way to an answer to that very important question. For these movements, the grasping and holding-on that is characteristic of “greed” was linked to the other attitudes of tyranny (modern term “aggression”) and ultimately idolatry, as a package.
And these programs had a “millenarian” aspect, that partly just reflected the thoroughgoing nature of their critique of greed. In a nutshell, this was an association of ideas that the Church couldn’t assimilate, and so suppressed.
I don’t think you will find a lot of references to that family of movements in Taylor’s latest book, unless it is the footnote on page 315. I don’t know if I should go so far as to say Tayor has retrospectively bought into that suppression…
Be that as it may, this nexus of ideas—revolutionary change in and through a moral process—obviously did live on, and it continues to be “unacceptable”. There are lots of ways of approaching what it is that is missing from Taylor’s latest book, but I think the biggest problem is that for all his skill in digging up the archaeology of moral ideas, he seems to have left this one out. Instead what he seems to be doing is smuggling fragments of this tradition into his narrative piecemeal, sometimes talking about self-abnegation in and of itself, and sometimes talking about the new-age thing, but all reduced under his ketchup-on-the-wall “supernova” rubric.
This isn’t just a minor lapse. Taylor’s narrative is about the shifting and re-forming of moral ideas and attitudes from one period to the next, all told with the advantage of hindsight. It is about the re-cycling of ideas and attitudes, but what it lacks is any consideration of what exactly makes for forward-looking originality. It stays away from this question: What is it that enables someone at a given time in history to imagine or formulate a “different” situation (today we would have to say “radically different” in order to be understood).
“Different”: For instance a world in which the “Church” would focus on the real problems of greed and aggression (Tracy Fessenden and others); or a world in which scholars would face up to the need for global social cohesion instead of weaseling out of that question (Robert Bellah); and so on. (Or even on a much more humble level, a “different” world in which scholars would learn unrelated languages (Arabic, say) as a matter of course before bloviating on the affairs of the speakers of those languages (me in an earlier set of comments). It’s no good raising these questions if your interlocutor is already at work re-building a world where those possibities can’t exist.
John, many thanks for your thoughtful response. I particularly appreciate the way you’ve tied together some of the conversations in the last several threads, and look forward to an invigorated discussion.
Thanks. Certainly more vigorous discussion would be a natural and a good thing, and I think the line-up of posts on the shortcomings of Taylor’s book (including Wendy Brown’s, which I forgot to mention in my comment) point that way. But at the same time there seems to be an unusual level of diffidence and esotericism in the language here, that I guess works to discourage that. Just as an example, probably people think if Robert Bellah can’t make his point without multiple references to a lot of stuff people haven’t read, then it’s not really up for comment. Which is a pity, isn’t it, where people take the trouble to think new thoughts, and then wrap them up again so people won’t react to them?