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Cautionary Tale or Cri de Coeur?

Telling Truths In Church: Scandal, Flesh, And Christian Speech Mark D. Jordan (Beacon Press, 2003, 121pp.)

READERS OF CONSCIENCE, whether rooted in Roman Catholic traditions or not, need to attend to the writings of Mark D. Jordan, whose three earlier books have brought extraordinarily perceptive historical scrutiny to Catholic teaching in relation to homosexuality. A professor of theology in the graduate department of religious studies at Emory University and a former teacher at Notre Dame, his remarkable study of medieval monastic spirituality, The Invention of Sodomy, won well-deserved praise for tracing the discourses that were created to anathematize male homoeroticism as "sodomy." Jordan rereads medieval male monasticism from the standpoint of the newer literary hermeneutics now revolutionizing cultural studies in religion. Known in some circles as "Queer Theory," this textual approach, among other things, makes for a concrete understanding of the fears and contradictions in which discourses are set. In his first hook, he exposes the morbid fears projected onto monks thought to be engaging in same sex eroticism. What is exposed is the lurid imaginations of those who denounce the sin.

Jordan's exposition of monastic writings exposed the embodied shape of Christian desire expressed in male monastic community. Not surprisingly in his hands, medieval male monasticism reappeared as an arena of struggle and contestation in relation to male homoeroticism and those who experienced such desire are shown to be victims of the vivid imaginations of others terrified of such longings. "Sodomy" becomes the fearsome name for sexual sins that fuel the fantasies of the accusers and shape subsequent teaching. Needless to say, official Catholic spokesmen have been less than thrilled with Jordan's approach to rereading Christian sexual teaching. This newer cultural historical approach to sexuality in western Christian piety opens the way to the author's later explorations of ongoing and continuous distortions about human sexuality in Catholic discourse.

A subsequent book, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality, in Modern Catholicism also served as an insistent challenge to the Roman Catholic hierarchy (his term is bureaucracy) to reconsider the costs in terms of inauthentic moral theology of its condemnations of male/male sexual desire. ("Bureaucratic ethics" is his terminology for current official Roman Catholic teaching.) Jordan makes clear that gay Catholic men's spirituality has been misshaped by the misnaming of their lives in such moral theology. Yet Jordan calls upon gay Catholics to stand their ground and find their way to authentic theological speech by embracing the goodness of their homoeroticism. He makes a strong case for the integrity of such spirituality, of queer Catholicism, as a source of profoundly Catholic faith. In Jordan's work overall, sexual desire reappears not as evil longing but as a positive response to divine incarnation and a concrete expression of a human desire for Godliness and communion.

In his new book, Telling Truths in Church, Jordan goes a further step toward direct engagement with the current crisis of credibility about sexuality within Roman Catholicism. This is not a book about sexual ethics but rather one about the relationship of spiritual truthfulness and the moral ethos of a faith community and about the affront to the quality of community that a lack of candor and truthfulness entails. I provided a blurb for its cover before publication and endorsed it enthusiastically as a thoughtful re-reflection of the cost of the cover-up on the moral credibility of the Catholic church, and it surely is that.

A second, more measured reading has only deepened my admiration however and has persuaded me to recommend the book as a profound normative theological statement, of what incarnational faith must entail. Christian speech is to have integrity. Here Jordan posits a deep and unbreakable connection between truthfulness in Christian theological utterance and the believability of AN Y AN, ALL Christian talk in the contemporary world. While ties, secrets and silences about sexuality are the specific occasion for the piece, the subtlety of Jordan's analysis leads to a recollecting of all that is more broadly amiss in the many trivializing forms of speech within our churches and our culture. Treat the work as a sobering guide to the depth of efforts at honesty that will be needed to make a violent and deeply lied-to culture listen again to claims that the Divine Word became flesh and actually dwells among us.

The book is well read as a spiritual guide to theologians and other Christians who still believe there is a point to Christian speech. It can be read either as a cautionary tale that will perhaps lead some to become silent (and many of us professional theologians in particular need to consider that option) but it can also be read as a cri de coeur of a compassionate lover of God who believes that the world badly needs a word of genuine hope. I kid you not, this brief read is worth pondering on the whole issue of how far we have to move before what he calls "churchly chatter" will be replaced by forms of Christian speech that are truly persuasive.

IN EACH OF HIS WORKS, JORDAN stresses that the theological testimony underlying his perspective is that of gay male experience within Catholicism. He insists that the gay male gaze cannot adequately name the concrete sufferings of lesbians nor give an adequate account of the cost to women of distorted Catholic teaching. While protesting the ecclesial violence done to gay men, be also acknowledges official Catholic crimes against women, and solicits concrete testimony from lesbians. This appreciative reader wishes, however, that his own texts took more note of the lesbian testimony among Catholic women that already does exist.

Furthermore, I am one critic of Roman Catholic bureaucratic ethics who believes that the most violated of victims of official Roman Catholic teaching, when this sort of analysis is extended, will turn out to be women who consider themselves to be typically heterosexual. Such women have had the total meaning of their lives preempted by male teachers who see nothing of value save their capacity as biological reproducers. Non-lesbian Catholic women have been reduced to the utility of their capacity for child-bearing and their dreams of fulfillment circumscribed exclusively to the horizons flamed by motherhood. The complex and varied multicultural institutions of motherhood have been treated as an ahistorical constant in a world where the conditions of childbearing within most cultures have in fact been worsening at a devastating pace. An abstract ethic of maternal sacrifice has fallen willy-nilly upon the shoulders of Catholic married women who have even less power to shape the language of faith than do other Catholics.

While my conclusions here may or may not commend themselves to Catholic critics, even those as perceptive as Jordan, my many years of engagement in the battles over abortion lead me to such conclusions. Jordan notes the appalling trivialization of marriage rhetoric and practice within contemporary Catholicism (and I would add, Protestant official bureaucratic doctrine) but his gaze has not yet situated official teaching in the deepest idolatries of contemporary Christian piety--the sanctimonious and exaggeratedly romanticized chatter about marriage as a site for the Christian practice of intimacy. Recently, while I was writing about the socio-structural changes initiated by the Protestant Reformation, the great irony of contemporary Catholicism dawned upon me. The Protestant reformers embraced marriage in order to refocus socialization into Christianity within the family unit. It was a utilitarian embrace of that already existing institution, and to Protestants marriage was NOT a sacrament. Now, at the end of the Protestant era, it is the popes of Rome who are the most ardent and uncompromising advocates of Protestant family-life teaching. Looked at from this standpoint, it may even be possible to see how far Catholic bureaucratic ethics have strayed from their own intent. Nothing would make clearer Mark Jordan's point about churchly moral chatter! And nothing would more greatly enhance the eloquent case he has made for the urgency of truth-telling in all Christian discourses about human sexuality.

BEVERLY WILDUNG HARRISON, PH.D., was the Carolyn Beird Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York until her retirement in 1999. Dr. Harrison is the author of Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion, and Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics.
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Author:Harrison, Beverly Wildung
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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