INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROBERT ORSI (NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY).
The title of the book I'm working on right now is Give Us Boys, which is the first half of a phrase attributed by Voltaire to Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. The rest of the phrase is alleged to have been something like, "and we give them back to you as men." But it is likely that Voltaire himself coined the phrase as a comment on what he had come to see as the Jesuits' pedagogical pretensions (Voltaire himself was a product of Jesuit education). The Jesuits are famous, of course, for their educational institutions, at which some of the most powerful and influential men in modern history have been trained--three members of the current US Supreme Court, for instance, and 16% of the Congress. Look at the leadership both of South American fascism and of the resistance to it (including Fidel Castro) and you will find men trained by Jesuits. Give Us Boys examines the formation--the Catholic word for the deep and transformative care of mind, body, and soul--of a class of young men at a Jesuit prep school in the Bronx in 1967-1971. The boys came to the school from different ethnic and class backgrounds, from city neighborhoods and from the wealthy northern suburbs. It was an exciting time in Catholicism, just after the Second Vatican Council, following the terrible betrayal that Humanae Vitae was to the hopes generated by the meetings in Rome, and the first stirrings of reaction. It was also a convulsive time in the city and nation, when a racist discourse of fear was deployed to dismiss progressive initiatives in favor of police solutions in a neoliberal context. So, the book looks at formation as it is intersected by these diverse realities.
But what may make the book somewhat unusual is its insistence on the centrality of sexuality to this history, and more broadly to modern Catholicism, and therefore, more broadly, to the modern world. The history of modernity, and in particular the history of sexual modernity, cannot be told apart from Catholicism, although this may strike many as counterintuitive. Give Us Boys aims to be a new kind of Catholic history, one in which sexuality is not peripheral, nor set apart in a sphere of its own, but central, as I argue sexuality was to Catholicism throughout modernity. Historians of Catholicism seem to have succumbed to what I am thinking of these days as the celibacy fallacy, meaning that the men and women they are studying were actually living in faithfulness to their vows. Don't get me wrong: many were. But very many weren't, at different times and in various places. It's time that we put sexuality fully into the study of the history of Catholicism (as Foucault, who grew up Catholic, would agree). And I don't mean in the sense of prohibitions, but of the dynamic between prohibition and permission, of the interplay of denial and desire and what comes of it.
Catholicism was the sexual closet of the modern world. Think of global modernity along the lines of a metaphor of a house. You have different rooms, with different functions, arranged differently in various contexts...We know, for instance, that democracy looks different in say, Iran, then it does in Italy, or in Argentina. So, too, freedom of religion. Still, imagine this big and various house called "modernity" and then be aware that in it, at its center, is a great sexual closet. That is Catholicism. From Rimbaud to Mapplethorpe and beyond. Out of this closet came perversities and pleasures, prohibitions and permissions; out of the closet came beauty and horror. From Quebec to Ireland to the Catholic missions in Africa, across South America, the Catholic closet made sexuality horribly dangerous for women, for children, for the vulnerable, even as it put into place immense institutions to care for the victims it helped create. As the clergy sexual abuse crisis has taught us, Catholic authorities are willing to sacrifice anything for the preservation of their sexual regime.
I can't say how my work is a contribution to "the field," whatever the field is; such a judgment belongs to the field itself.
2. What is the relationship between your current work with Catholic sex abuse survivors and your prior work? What are the similarities? Differences?
My mother, who died sixteen years ago, has been much on my mind these days. She was a fiercely Catholic woman, who held together a deep and abiding love for Jesus, Mary and the saints, with the deepest scorn for the pretensions of clerical and prelatical authority. She is probably the clue to what links the various periods of my work together: I have always been concerned with Catholics lived experience--Italian immigrants despised by the Irish American church; women who turned to Saint Jude as a way of contending not only with the everyday realities of their respective times--war, economic distress, the dangers of childbirth, sickness--but also with the impositions of male clerical authority. Think of the cruelties of the Quebec church or the Irish, or the southern Italian, or the Chilean--it goes on and on and on. I have always been interested in people who struggle against this to make lives for themselves in the ontology into which they were born and formed. People sometimes say to me, well, couldn't these people upon whom the authority and cruelty of the male authorities of the church weighed so heavily simply leave? But why should they? What sort of question is this? To borrow a phrase from de Certeau, I'm interested in those who insist on a right to Catholicism, akin to his "right to the city," those who refuse the authority of those who would deny them access, and will not leave.
A Catholic priest recently asked me what he could do in response to my critique; if one accepts my analysis, he said, how is one to be a priest. First, let me say that while I reject any assumption that there are "innocent priests" unaware of the abuses of power taking place around them, I welcomed his openness. I said that he might consider saying mass on Sunday mornings outside the church building, on its steps, to show that there is a Catholicism bigger than that contained within the walls of the institution and its fantasies of power. If he does this, I will go back to mass.
3. What does your research actually entail? What are the challenges and opportunities of working with survivor support groups? How do you negotiate that space, and how have you been welcomed into it (or not)?
My research is a combination of ethnography and historical study; I work with documents and in archives, and I work in conversation with living persons. Survivors have welcomed me because they want their stories to be part of the historical record, and they know all too well that Catholic authorities are doing all in their power to erase them now. There has been nothing to negotiate. It has been a foundational axiom of my work over the years that I am responsible for representing as carefully, directly and straightforwardly as possible the people--in the past or in the present--among whom I go in order to understand some aspect of Catholicism, and by extension, of religion itself, in the modern world. I am always careful to use their language for their experience, and to pay attention to how they understand themselves, the ideas they have about themselves. But how I understand them in relation to the historical and phenomenological questions I ask is my responsibility to myself and to my colleagues in the academy. I take very, very seriously the importance of the latter as my primary interlocutors.
4. When did your research start, and have you noticed any shift in survivor attitudes given the media attention over the years? (For example, the summer of 2017 has often been called "the summer of shame." Have you seen a difference, or a shift, in the attitudes of the people you have talked to since then?)
Survivors I know are afraid Catholic authorities will succeed in erasing them, in convincing the public, both within the church and outside it, that they, these authorities, have adequately dealt with the problem (before they, the authorities, have even understood the problem or acknowledged it) by putting in place some simple programs for protecting children, as if any protocols will be effective against the ontological presumptions of men who are given the authority to bind and loosen. Even the fact that so many were "shocked" by the Pennsylvania report: it's like the scene in "Casablanca" where the police commissioner is "shocked" that gambling is going on at Rick's establishment. The survivors are good and sick of the willful naivete of Catholics who persist in thinking this crisis is being adequately dealt with or that it is in the past. "Naivete" is a compliment. For some, like the reactionaries in the Vatican, they are knowingly distorting the realities of what they insist on calling a "crisis" when it is really, as I have argued elsewhere, the everyday normal of modern Catholicism.
5. What does your question, "What is Catholic about the Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis," mean? If sexual abuse is something that exists within many communities, why is it important to specify the "Catholic" nature of this particular crisis?
Catholic authorities and their lawyers prefer to talk about the "crisis" as one of pedophilia, insisting that there is no difference between a priest and, say, Larry Nassar. This argument alone, which is truly beneath contempt, shows the full corruption of Catholic authorities in regards to this situation. As a survivor I spoke to whom I have identified elsewhere as Monica said, every person sexually abused by a priest was abused in a Catholic way. Abusers drew on the imagery and theology of Catholicism for staging their sexual actions, for explaining them to themselves and their victims, and the abuse took place within the rich aesthetic, sacramental, ontological environment of lived Catholicism. It cannot be separated from it. To say this is not to deny that there is much to be learned from other religious contexts about religious sexual violence, nor that insights from Catholic experience might not be useful elsewhere. But particularity matters.
6. How do you respond to questions about the causes of the crisis, and about its possible solutions or responses?
It's not a "crisis." It's the modern Catholic normal. It's causes need to be studied locally and globally, in their theological and doctrinal grounds, as well as in the pathologies of sexual violence. Catholic clerical misogyny is key to all of this. I don't see how any thinking person can read John Paul II's celebrations of "marriage" and "woman" without seeing he is both ignorant and terrified about both. And always, whatever he says about sexuality must be viewed in relation to his staunch defense of Marcial Maciel, a malignant sexual predator and rapist. "Woman"--those defenses of ethereal womanhood (while, by the way, he himself was in a complicated relationship with a real woman)--served as a screen for his defense of one of the most depraved figures in the history of the church. And for this the College of Cardinals saw fit to canonize John Paul II. This is what I mean when I say this was the Catholic normal. But the question is too broad: we need decades of particular research now, on the dynamics and contexts of particular instances of sexual violence by priests, in the US and elsewhere, before we can begin talking about causes. It is not my responsibility to offer "solutions" or "responses."
7. Where does work on Catholic sex abuse fit in the overall scheme of religious studies? How does it pose challenges to our writing, teaching, and thinking about religion?
I'm not sure what the "scheme of religious studies" means. As I have said, I hope that we will see, post-Catholic sexual abuse "crisis," that sexuality is not peripheral to the study of religion, but integral to it.
Samuel B. Davis is the Lead Co-Editor Sam Davis will proof his own article as well as the Interview with Dr. Orsi. As a student in both the UNC Charlotte Religious Studies Graduate Department and Women's and Gender Studies program, Sam is currently completing a master's thesis on how the Vatican's handling of sexual abuse by priests is represented and depicted by Catholic news media. Last year, Sam helped organize a graduate conference titled, "Sex and Religion," sponsored by both departments to which he belongs. That conference was held at UNC Charlotte's Center City Campus in the spring of 2019 and was a primary inspiration and source of material for this journal issue. Sam lives in Charlotte, NC with his beautiful, supportive, and talented partner Amanda and their two cats.
Pamela D. Winfield is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University, NC. Her first book, Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2013) won the Association of Asian Studies--Southeast Conference Book Prize in 2015. Her second book is a co-edited volume with Steven Heine entitled Zen and Material Culture (Oxford University Press, 2017). Her numerous articles and book chapters have appeared in The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, Religion Compass, Religious Studies Review, and the Southeast Review of Asian Studies, as well as in publications by Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, Brill, and Routledge.
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|Author:||Davis, Samuel B.; Winfield, Pamela D.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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