On February 24th of this year (2019) Pope Francis spoke of the horrific abuse of children that had occurred by members of the clergy, and which had been all too often enabled and then covered up by the leadership of the Catholic Church. He declared ‘Brothers and Sisters: in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons’. At the same time, he insisted that the Church herself remained pure and could ameliorate this crisis. On February 25th, the day after, the news that Cardinal George Pell had been found guilty of child sexual abuse was made public [The conviction has since been overturned in the High Court of Australia – eds]. The timing of these two events was striking. On one day we saw the Pope standing in the Vatican, in the Sala Regia, assuming a voice of moral authority, contrition, and yet construing sexual abuse in the Church as a warping of the institution’s essentially true and divine mission. The next day we saw one of the most powerful churchmen of his generation found guilty of sexual crimes against minors in a secular court on the other side of the world.
The Pope delivered this statement in the Sala Regia, the antechamber to the Sistine Chapel. As he intoned against the evils of the use of children for sexual gratification, the Pope was surrounded by glorious sixteenth-century frescoes that detailed the history of the Church as she triumphed against her enemies. This setting tells us a lot about how the Church understands her mission and her place in history. The Church’s task is sacred, divinely authorised from the moment Christ entrusted Peter with the keys to the kingdom of heaven and asked him to manifest his saving work on earth. The Pope is understood to have inherited these keys, as have his predecessors, and have sacred authority to perform God’s work in the world. This mission is apostolic, in that it bears an unbroken link with the apostles who served Christ. The frescoes in the Sala Regia, which depict Catholic victories, remind the viewer that the Church is always under attack, but that she always prevails because ultimately she is doing work mandated by God.
Always righteous and always persecuted, the Church understands itself to be both all-powerful and yet permanently under siege from those who fail to embrace its authority and its monopoly on the salvation of souls. This mindset seems profoundly hypocritical when considered from outside. The Church proclaims her magnificence across the globe. Her cathedrals declare in stone the permanence of her claims. How is it possible that this institution could understand herself to be vulnerable, to be under attack? The answer is the devil. Because the Church understands herself to contain a perfection granted by God, even if her membership consists of necessarily flawed humans, then any attack upon her is ultimately an attack upon that perfection. And who would presume to attack God himself? Only the devil, that is. To be human is to sin: the idea of our brokenness is at the core of Catholic anthropologies of the person. But we are also made in God’s image and so are capable of transcending sin through God’s grace (or so goes the theology). The devil, however, has already rejected God wholly and is irredeemable. The Church understands herself to be locked into a cosmic battle for the salvation of these complicated sinful creatures that we call humans, and so, when the Church finds herself under attack the ‘logical’ assumption is that the incursion is the work of the devil.
If only we were all able to neutralise criticism with such a device. It would be so handy as an explanation. Rather than examining ourselves and contending with our behaviour, we could go on the attack and defend ourselves absolutely. There is no need for soul searching if we imagine our critics to be indelibly evil and destructive. There is no need to think about the implications of our actions if we are entirely confident about our legitimacy and righteousness. This is the psychological theology that informs the Church’s response to clerical sexual abuse. There are sinners in the Church, and the sin of sexual abuse is indeed heinous. But the crimes permitted by the clergy need not, and do not, invalidate the Church herself. And as we have seen in the myriad cases of denial and obfuscation of these crimes, at enormous cost to the victims, the response of the Church of the sexual abuse crisis has always prioritised the interests of the Church over those of the children violated by her representatives. The Church herself, you see, is sacred.
I am not explaining any of this to mitigate the Church. In fact, I want to do the opposite. I need to make sense of the Church in order to understand how it has been able to do the profound damage that it has done to those entrusted to her care. I grew up in the Catholic Church. Her rituals and her theologies are in my DNA. In times of sadness and joy, comforting prayers arrive unbidden to my conscious mind. The tragic excoriating beauty of Christ on the cross reminds me, whenever I see a crucifix, of what it is to be broken in an imperfect world. As a mother, agonised by the depths of my love for my children, I think of beautiful Pietas that bear witness to the sublime suffering inherent to the maternal. And as a sexual being a part of me remains conflicted and anxious about what it means to lust and be lusted after, in spite of the fact that I have been in a heterosexual relationship with the same man since I was 19, and I am 46 now. This sounds as absurd to me as it must sound to the reader. My sexual life has been as hetero-normative as can be, and sanctioned by marriage (albeit one performed in a registry office rather than a church). My husband and I have two children, a boy and a girl. We have a mortgage and a Camry. And yet, from the time I decided that I would have sex before marriage and that I would really enjoy it, I felt that I had left the realm of the Church, and sundered myself from the world in which I was formed.
In good faith, from the time that I became sexually active, I felt that I could no longer be a Catholic. Before I go on, I should stress that a great many Catholics do not experience this conflict. Many members of the Church, probably the majority, who will get married with a nuptial mass and send their children to Catholic schools, are relatively unbothered by the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. But speaking for myself, when I, as a young woman experienced the profundity and rapture of falling in love and lust, and I realised that the Church sought to deny me that pleasure unless I were to get married and eschew contraception, I felt I had to walk away. Once sex and intimacy found me when I met my now husband, which is the most important event of my life, I realised the punitive violence of the Church’s attitude to sex. The institution sought to disallow the very experience that was giving me myself. In sexual expression I had found what felt like the essence of being, to share oneself wholly and be received with desire, respect and love. I once had a teacher at my school who described a character in a novel as a ‘nasty little tart who shared herself around’. What a world, in which the worst thing a woman could be was someone who shared herself.
So I left the Church as a young woman, but with a heavy heart. After all, it was my world. Consequently, I have spent my adult life as a historian of Catholic theology. I am still trying to work it out, and I miss the Church terribly in spite of myself. But after those two days in February of this year, I realised that it was over for me. The last time I went to Mass, to give myself the comfort of the ritual, the priest reminded the congregation that they ought to be voting no in the marriage equality plebiscite. How dare they? The actions of the Church have revealed, in essence, that she considers consenting sexual relations between unmarried adults (in any gender combination) to be a greater sin than the sexual abuse of children. So many of us brought up Catholic have experienced profound ambivalence about our sexual lives, our harmless sexual lives. We have been told that the only licit sexual behaviour is that between a man and a woman whose union has been legitimised through the sacrament of marriage, and in which the couple are open to offspring that may result.
Any sexual expression, therefore, that takes place outside Catholic marriage is a sin. This is what I was told. The only other option is abstinence. If you hear this enough as a child, the idea will stick at some level, even if you spend much of your adult life reckoning with its physical and psychic cruelty. And two or three years ago, I would have said that it is what it is. While I felt saddened and hurt by this doctrine in my own life, and the fact that it meant that I felt like I could no longer be a member of the Church, I felt that I had made my peace with the loss and was confident in the choices I had made.
But after the Church’s response to the plebiscite, and after the Pell verdict, I am not at peace, I am furious. I am seething with anger at how the Church has pathologised consenting non-heterosexual relationships. I am outraged at how many Catholics, of all sexual orientations, have lost time, joy, pleasure, and love as a result of internalising this nonsense. And it is nonsense, it has to be. If an Archbishop can assault boys in his care, in the Cathedral itself, and still feel entitled to chastise consenting adults about their sexual choices, then there is nothing good there. The sex is not the problem here, it is the gaslighting.
The fourth-century theologian Augustine defined evil as the absence of good. This is the Church now, as I perceive it, she is defined by the absence of good. The Church has revealed her own profound emptiness in her acts of abuse, the enabling of paedophile priests, and the callous refusal to compensate victims and account for these betrayals. These are all terrible sins. But they are all symptoms of a larger breach, one that hurts all believers. The Church is enamoured of her righteousness, in love with her mission, devoted to her foundation story, so much so that she permits herself the most appalling hypocrisies. In the past, when I have felt some of this anger, I have remarked to myself, ‘Well, at least we have the Sistine Chapel’. I love that room. This is the room in which the Pope is elected. In this room, Michelangelo’s extraordinary frescoes take us from Genesis to Judgement, they bring to life ideas of Christian anthropology and history with an awesome plasticity that feels divinely-inspired. ‘At least we have the Sistine Chapel’. But it is not worth it. The Sistine Chapel is not worth the lives of those children, exploited and broken by a Church that pretended to care for them. And it is not worth the sexual shame engendered by its doctrines, which is felt in the bodies and the minds of so many of us.
Clare Monagle: a strong ally of the LGBTIQ+ community, and a graduate of Monash and the Johns Hopkins Universities, receiving her PhD in 2007. Between 2007 and 2014, Clare worked at Monash University. She came to Macquarie at the end of 2014 and is an Associate Professor in Medieval History. She is broadly interested in history of intellectuals in the Middle Ages, as well as the histories of the institutions that housed them. More particularly, she is currently engaged with the uses of gendered categories in scholastic thought between 1150 and 1520. Her work is also concerned with the ‘medievalism’ of twentieth and twenty-first century thought, that is, the uses to which the concept of the medieval is put within definitions of modernity and progress.