Right Reverend: Sex, Contraception, and the Episcopal Body

Since January of this year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been one of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s mandate that all non-church institutions (including Catholic-run hospitals and universities) must make contraception available as part of their health insurance package.  The USCCB rejected the initial mandate and also the compromise, orchestrated by the administration, that would have insurers make contraception available to employees independent of the Catholic institutions themselves.

So what’s happening here, from a religious studies perspective?  The most obvious analysis is that the bishops are standing up for Catholic teaching–that they are faithfully representing a monolithic body of doctrine with the tacit support of the flock of believers.  But this overlooks the majority of Catholics who supported the contraception mandate even before it was revised for compromise. And according to a Guttmacher institute study, the vast majority (98%) of Catholics practice birth control methods prohibited by the church.  Even more striking is that the compromise solution proposed by the Obama administration was accepted by a number of the administration’s Catholic allies, including Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, and James Salt, executive director of Catholics United.

I think what this all shows is that the relationship between bodies and doctrines is complicated.  Dogma can’t regulate and regiment bodies in uniform and predictable ways.  And there seems to be a disconnect between the elite of the Catholic hierarchy–particularly from the bishops on up–and rank and file Catholics.

In The Politics of Piety (2004), Saba Mahmood describes how mundane bodily practices create an “ethics,” what she defines as “practices, techniques, and discourses through which a subject transforms herself in order to achieve a particular state of being, happiness or truth.” (28, my emphasis) So this is my question: Is it possible that the bodily practices of high-ranking Catholic bishops contribute to a particular understanding of sex–a sexual ethics–among the Catholic elite?  A sense of sex as something that can be stopped, that would make the rejection of birth control a high priority?

Let’s think this through by looking at a particular body, the body of Cardinal Dolan, president of the USCCB.

Photo credit Seth Wenig, AP(Photo credit Seth Wenig, AP)

What are the cardinal’s ethics, the bodily practices that would help create his understanding of the “truth” about sex?

The most immediate and striking thing about this body is the clothing he wears.  How would it transform a body to put on ornate robes–tailored fabrics, luscious colors–and to move in a social world where other bodies were called on to react to that clothing in a set of pre-scripted ways?  Clerical clothing–especially the elaborate finery of the bishops–keeps bodies at a distance, fostering a set of embodied interactions in which one’s body is seldom touched, seldom approached, seldom given the opportunity to feel the accidental intimacy of bodies in proximity to one another.

This clothing also entails an ongoing performance of hierarchy.  Michel Foucault suggests that the practices of ranking–of classifying individuals relative to one another–also contribute to an ethics: the clothing and accoutrements of bishophood insert a body into a highly hierarchicalized space, in which other bodies perform subordination and the bishop performs dominance.  We see this reflected in the regal posture Dolan is assuming in this picture (on a throne, no less): the presumption of authority with perhaps a trace of vanity–an inconspicuous antenna for the thrill of the transaction of power.

I am not raising this issue to attack the church hierarchy.  Hierarchical space is not necessarily a bad space.  But it is a prescripted space, in which the organization of bodies is rigidly arranged.  These bodies are separated bodies, bodies that practice contact largely through a set of pre-arranged scripts (though Dolan is notable for overturning these scripts).  Since Foucault considers architecture’s role in the formation of ethics, let’s talk, too, about the the spaces within which this body moves.  How would it transform a body to sit on a throne, to stand at a raised pulpit (while others are seated), to walk daily through ancient hallways of paneled wood and gilded ornaments?  And then to attach those ornaments to your body–as with the crucifix–or to hold them in your hand, as with the bishop’s crozier?

Dolan, like many bishops, is a scholar, holding a doctorate from American Catholic University in US Catholic history.  So his is also an academic body, even if Dolan perhaps fits the mold of the public intellectual or charismatic academic superstar more than the awkward bookworm.  But the practices of scholarship, as Kimerer LaMothe has pointed out, create their own bodily habits: “our scholarly education,” she writes in a 2008 article, “is a sensory education.” How would an approach that treated sex entirely in terms of scholarly commentary tilt one’s perspective on sex?  What ethics of sex would be produced by an orientation to sex derived primarily from books?

All of these things, I think, foster a sexual ethics informed by a sense of distance between bodies.  Bodies in the bishop’s world are slotted easily into predefined roles, defined by manuals, maintained by daily ritual practices. Bodies that do not live and breathe inside these hierarchical apparatuses are, I think, runny bodies, messier bodies, bodies more easily entangled with one another, bodies with a more acute sense of the powerful and destabilizing intimacy of the proximity of other bodies.  Indeed, even the casual intimacy of bodies–the heat, the magnetism of bodies desiring one another–is transfigured in episcopal spaces.  Sex in these spaces is construed as something that can be switched off, something that we can choose to make not happen.

Catholic bishops–the most powerful coalition of virgins on the planet–have a tendency to see the world as a place where sex can be stopped.  This is why they are, as a group, so cavalier about disdaining birth control: not having sex is, for them, an easy thing.

This belief, I contend, is fostered (not to say guaranteed–I have no doubt there are many bishops who deviate from the official Catholic line on this issue behind closed doors, and the relationship of bodily practices to ethics must be assessed with the same scrupulous caution with which we connect bodies to dogma–as textured and far from inevitable) by the unique set of bodily practices and embodied relationships that come along with being a bishop.  They are overseers–Greek epi-skopos, from which is derived the English “bishop”–those who watch over.  They stand above the whirlpool of bodies in which the rest of us live, watching and wondering what it’s like.

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One Response to Right Reverend: Sex, Contraception, and the Episcopal Body

  1. D-Lo says:

    Nice article. I your analysis raises some very interesting avenues for thinking about the relationship between embodiment and the formulation of ethical selves. Dress, place, and space undoubtedly play a significant role in the norms of any given religious culture. Still, I would say that it’s not that the Bishops look down on the world as a place where “sex can be stopped,” but rather where it SHOULD be highly restricted (for the purposes of procreation within marriage). After all, sex is prohibited in their limited world, and your insights about the role of distanced bodies in this regard shed light on how chastity is carried out successfully (at least some of the time). It bears noting, however, that the Catholic laity learn through embodied ethics equally. Your piece appears to me (and I don’t want to misrepresent it) to assert that “sex is unstoppable” in some essential way, but I think it’s fair to state the American Catholics persist in a larger cultural context that promotes practices, habits, and ethics at odds with traditional teachings (embodied or otherwise) of the church. Further, the church is not a democracy and has never claimed to be such, and just because polls reveal that adherents might rarely see eye to eye in word or deed with church authorities is really irrelevant from a strictly Catholic perspective. Therefore, (and let me say that I am neither Catholic nor do I agree with their positions on sexuality) the observable discrepancy between the church’s position and actual behavior of its members doesn’t make the church wrong, nor does it make the church anymore “out of touch” with its members than the members might be “out of touch” with the church.

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