Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech

Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech

by Mark D. Jordan

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Is the reform we have seen in the wake of the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church meaningful? Have our conversations about the causes of these scandals delved as deeply as they need to? For those questioning the relations between hierarchical power, secrecy, and sexuality in institutional religion, Mark D. Jordan's eloquent meditations on what truths about

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Is the reform we have seen in the wake of the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church meaningful? Have our conversations about the causes of these scandals delved as deeply as they need to? For those questioning the relations between hierarchical power, secrecy, and sexuality in institutional religion, Mark D. Jordan's eloquent meditations on what truths about sexuality need to be told in church-and the difficulty of telling any truths-will be a balm and a revelation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Sure to be controversial . . . [Telling Truths in Church] is about how church people speak about sex in the church; it is about what it means to tell the truth, and how to go about the vulnerable act of truth-telling when your topic is something as intimate as sex. —Lauren F. Winner, Washington Post Book World

"This is a major contribution to the telling of truth and truths. Jordan's analysis lays bare the fear and anxiety behind the silence and spins of church authorities; it is a profound and provocative book." —Donald Cozzens, author of Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church and The Changing Face of the Priesthood.

"[A] profound normative theological statement, of what incarnational faith must entail . . . [Telling Truths in Church] is well read as a spiritual guide to theologians and other Christians who still believe there is a point to Christian speech." —Beverly Wildung Harrison, Conscience

The Washington Post
These lectures will no doubt be read either as a response to those [pedophilia] scandals or as a brief for the recognition and affirmation of homosexuality by the Church. Such readings would not be inaccurate so much as myopic. For this book is really about how church people speak about sex in the church; it is about what it means to tell the truth, and how to go about the vulnerable act of truth-telling when your topic is something as intimate as sex. — Lauren F. Winner
Publishers Weekly
The secrecy and cover-ups in the priestly pedophilia scandals are a symptom of the Catholic Church's wider suppression of discourse about homosexuality, according to this heartfelt but occasionally tumid book. Gay Catholic theologian Jordan (The Silence of Sodom) argues that the Church "solicits same-sex desire, depends on it, but also denounces it and punishes it." The Church's "ways of silencing disruptive truths" function mainly at the rhetorical level, Jordan feels, where open discussion of the Church and homosexuality gets dismissed by officials as anti-Catholic prejudice or scandal-mongering. In the same vein, Jordan asserts that disputations of homophobic Church doctrines are self-defeating. Instead, gay Catholics should deploy more visceral rhetorical styles-testimonials by gay priests, "provocative analogies" between the Church and secular gay sub-cultures, even satire-to get the Church to acknowledge what Jordan sees as its blatant homoeroticism. The exploration of new discursive modes by gay Catholics can also enrich Church teachings. Gay and lesbian fiction and poetry might clarify Church theology about same-sex unions, while frank consideration of the body (specifically, the genitals) of Christ might lessen "sexual shame" and enlighten Christians about the sanctity of eroticism. Jordan's call for truth-telling about the Church's relationship with homosexuality is provocative, but his insistence that language and rhetorical style matter more than Church doctrine or governance distances him from what many feel are the most crucial issues in that debate. His own discursive style, combining theology with critical theory, wavers between elegance and abstruseness. This feels more like a series of meditations (the book is based on lectures Jordan delivered) than a volume likely to spark productive debate. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Meet the Author

Mark D. Jordan is the author of The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism, among other books. He is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Chapter One

Telling Truths in a "Church Crisis” What you are reading began as a series of lectures delivered in Boston a few months into the "Catholic pedophile crisis.” The crisis (to stay with that cliché for a moment) was provoked when the Boston Globe reported how the local archdiocese handled priests accused of pedophilia. The topic for my lectures had been set about a year earlier. It brought together questions I had been writing on for a decade. I had no idea that the topic would coincide with such painful months in the history of Boston’s Roman Catholic churches—indeed, of the Catholic Church in America. Still, when the Globe stories began streaming out in early January 2002, I decided to leave the lectures exactly as they were originally conceived. I was convinced that Catholics were obliged especially in those months not only to speak about what had happened, but to try to say how things might be done differently. We were obliged to think precisely about which kinds of truth needed telling and how best they could be told into a "crisis,” if they could be told at all.
Even under that conviction, delivering the lectures was not easy. Many in the audience were angry and heartsick from the shock of the daily revelations. What would tomorrow’s newscasts bring? Would the priest of their parish or a childhood pastor be the next one exposed? Was the archbishop staying or going? Where was the pope in all of the turmoil? There were darker fears as well. Some people saw the growing press coverage as the latest round of anti-Catholic politics, the Globe’s revenge on not only Cardinal Law but the city’s Irish establishment. Others worried that the crisis revealed the perilous vulnerability of churches to press attack. Others still were overwhelmed just by the suffering—of the boys or young men who had been sexually abused; of their parents and families; of parishioners whose lifelong confidence in their church was bitterly contradicted; of priests who had not committed abuse and were in danger of unjust suspicion; even of the priests who had committed abuse, but who were still human souls in need of forgiveness.
I was and was not an outsider in Boston. I didn’t know the archdiocese, but I did know the story. In July 1997, I had watched on local television as a Dallas jury made history. Its members assessed $119.6 million in damages against the Catholic diocese of Dallas for "gross negligence” in failing to discipline a pedophile priest. The judgment set a record for cases of clerical abuse and so earned stories in USA Today and the New York Times. There was even a passing mention by Dan Rather. Like so many Catholics living in Dallas, I had been caught up in the case for weeks.
The jury’s finding came in a civil trial of eleven cases involving Fr. Rudy Kos.1 The cases accused Kos of having sex with a number of boys from 1981 through 1992 when they were between nine and sixteen years old. Ten of the plaintiffs identified themselves as victims of Kos’s abuse. The eleventh case was filed by parents of a young man who killed himself in 1992 at the age of twenty-two. In testimony, the young men still alive described various sexual acts that Kos performed on them hundreds of times. (One of the macabre sidelights of the trial was watching the staid local newspaper trying to hint, say, at the mechanics of foot fetishism.) Lawyers for the plaintiffs then showed that the Catholic diocese had been warned of Kos’s activities with boys at least as early as 1985. The Catholic diocese finally sent Rudy Kos for treatment in 1992, but while misleading parishioners about the real reason for his absence. The diocese continued to support Kos for another two years, not least by paying off $25,000 in credit card debt.
The issue in the Dallas civil trial was not whether Fr. Rudy Kos had forced sex on the boys. The question was whether the diocese was liable for allowing him to continue doing so. The jury agreed unanimously that the diocese was liable for between 85 and 50 percent of the real and punitive damages in each of the cases. Although the Catholic bishop of Dallas professed deep sorrow over what happened and eventually ordered special prayers and fasts, he wouldn’t, of course, admit that he or any other official had been negligent. Some priests were bolder in defense of clerical privilege. The head of diocesan fund-raising, later removed, suggested that pastors should begin transferring assets to get them beyond reach of a settlement. A former chancellor of the diocese, who failed to act on numerous complaints against Kos, and who was almost cited for contempt of court during the trial, told the Dallas Morning News that the victims’ parents were really the onnes to blame: "It doesn’t appear they were very concerned about their kids.” I watched the verdict live on a local broadcast that scooooorched July afternoon. There was a fat file of news clippings beside me and tablets full of notes. I had no financial stake in the outcome, but I was caught up in it. I had once taught at a local Catholic university and its affiliated seminary. In my first year there, I taught Rudy Kos.
Kos was enrolled in a remedial course designed to cram seminarians with whatever minimum of "Scholastic philosophy” church officials then demanded of future priests. Kos explained that he was taking the course under duress. Eight years older than me, he was struggling to change over from nursing to the dusk-lit labyrinths of Latin theology. His struggles were typical of too many "late vocations”—men who entered inflexible seminaries after starting careers elsewhere. And not only careers. Kos had already been convicted of sexual abuse as a juvenile. The diocese claimed not to have known about it. It did know that Kos got a brief marriage annulled, since the diocese itself managed the annulment procedure. The ex- wife later swore that she had reported that Kos had "a problem with boys.” The diocese denied.
So, what was new in the "Boston scandal”? There was nothing new in the cases themselves or the archdiocesan response to them. The pattern of abuse and cover-up was queasily familiar. What made Boston different was the extent and persistence of the national press coverage. The Kos case had flickered across the national media, but it remained essentially a local story. The cases in Boston and the responses to them became and stayed national news. Because national coverage lasted so long, the American hierarchy and the Vatican itself were finally compelled to respond. Then both the coverage and the cardinals began shifting the questions toward priestly sexuality in general. Suddenly, there was a huge and serious audience for talk about the number of gay priests in the church and what it might mean. Before the "Boston scandal” began, Catholic bishops didn’t often talk in public about homosexuals in the priesthood. When pushed, they might admit that there were a few of "them”—perhaps "2 percent,” certainly fewer per capita than in the general population. By the time the American cardinals were meeting in Rome about pedophilia, the president of the American bishops’ conference found himself admitting that it was "an ongoing struggle” to ensure that the priesthood "is not dominated by homosexual men.”2 Newsweek devoted several pages of its cover story to "the gay dilemma.”3 The coverage shifted for a while from particular cases and responses to institutional distortions. What was new about Boston was that the story was suddenly not just about Boston. It became for some time a scandal about the system of seminary formation and priestly discipline, of official speeches and their anxious silences.
The persistence of national press coverage was not all to the good, of course. Much of it was sensationalism. It rehearsed unwittingly the old satirical complaints according to which all priests are gay and (therefore?) sexually voracious. Other publicized debates showed the ignorance of church history that is the bane of the mass media—and of contemporary Catholicism. Splashy graphics on magazine covers or websites asked whether the church could survive, as if the Roman church hadn’t ensured its survival in the face of much more threatening "crises.” On the other side, well- groomed defenders of clerical bureaucracy could somehow still assert that the church had always fully cooperated with local authorities. As if the churches hadn’t resisted over centuries any interference of secular authority with priestly discipline—and as if the Vatican weren’t still claiming preemptive jurisdiction of cases involving priestly sexual relations with minors.4 The persistent news coverage reactivated powerful hate speeches inside and outside the Catholic Church. Church officials rolled out familiar accusations against homosexuals not only to legitimize a purge of "out” gay men from the priesthood, but to divert attention from aching institutional failures. Some outside the church got to rehearse the old stereotypes of Catholicism as a cult of idols run by demonic deviants. Everyone got to hear homosexuals repeatedly confused with pedophiles, "molesters,” and "perverts.” I had my own small role in the coverage, both before and after delivering the lectures in Boston. Sitting in TV studios waiting for a "discussion” or being filmed for a momentary clip on the evening news, I kept wondering how anyone could speak truth into this cacophony. I was grateful to the news coverage for bringing forbidden questions into discussion. I was horrified at what the coverage was doing to our languages for speaking about priestly abuse, its real causes, and its practicable remedies. Before we could get any further, we would have to think more critically and more creatively about how to speak the truths we all professed to want "on the record.” I began by remembering the most easily forgotten thing: truth telling is not simple. It is not like the Norman Rockwell painting in which a ruggedly handsome white man, whose plaid collar is literally blue, speaks to the town meeting at his white clapboard church, while other white men, wearing ties, listen in admiration.5 Truth telling isn’t like that. Truth’s speakers don’t often radiate handsome honesty. They are disconcerting and diverse rather than comfortably familiar. They are rarely received with admiring attention. And what they have to say can seem beyond hearing—or bearing.
Then I remembered something equally obvious: there are different kinds of truth, and each requires its own ways of speaking and listening. Leaving aside the more spectacular rhetorical flights in the scripted point– counterpoint of the national press, I tried to list the kinds of truths being offered around this scandal.
It had begun with truths in files, the truth of documents and legal proceedings. Complaints were filed against a priest, and investigations followed. Settlements were arranged, and then the priest was transferred. These are the sorts of actions documents record, but only in a shorthand punctuated by silences. Some documents are saved, others not. Some letters are full and frank, but other letters are carefully plotted after long conversations that don’t survive in the files. Legal pleadings, depositions, and verdicts are the products of staged recital and negotiated "facts.” Documents are traces of events, but they are also elements in an official story. No matter how many revelations they seem to make, documents in personnel files or court records also record decisions not to reveal, to stick by the agreed story.
The "Boston scandal” began as well from the memories of abused children and adolescents. News reports tried to capture the content of these memories and to show something of the pathos in them. We have heard the desolate stories told on screens by trembling faces. The truth in them is at once so compelling and so elusive, so urgent and so reticent, that it cannot be captured by tape. The memories are traumatic memories, and trauma chops itself into memory by chopping up memories. I don’t discount the testimonies of abuse as untrue. They are probably the truest words we have heard in the scandal. Still, their truth is not a truth of numbered propositions. It is the truth of an unclosed wound.
The scandal turned then toward the truths of institutions, of the regulations, customs, and fictions that enable the Roman church to operate. It has been hard to hold this kind of truth in view for more than a few instants, because so much of the reporting has wanted to hurry past it to policy proposals or predictions of outcomes. Institutional truths are more complicated than single policies or brash predictions, but they are also more important. Complicated and important—how do we begin to describe them? Do we need ethnographers and anthropologists to narrate for us how the cultures of the Catholic priesthood are lived out? Should we turn instead to institutional sociologists or legal historians or cultural critics? If the most hidden truths in the scandal are truths about clerical institutions, what is the expertise that could even begin to tell them?
The expertise used to be called "theology.” Since the institution in question is not just any human complex but rather a Christian church, and since Christians profess that their churches are not merely human complexes, Christian theology ought to have something to say about how to tell truths in a crisis that now reaches into the core structures of the institution. Yet, theology has been notably absent in the scandal. Some people classified as theologians, including myself, have been invited to speak—in the short snippets required by our media. I’m not sure that what we have spoken is theology. To say that more personally: although I think that I managed to say a few true things about Catholic institutions in the course of dozens of interviews and not a few op-ed pieces, I don’t think that I ever managed to move my words into the realm of theology.6 I understand by theology taking mature responsibility for the indispensable forms of Christian speaking. This shouldn’t mean that theologians usurp responsibility for what others have to say, either by appropriating it or censoring it. The theologian is asked to take responsibility for her or his own speaking in those forms. Responsibility has to be taken in the presence of scriptures and traditions, face to face with the ablest speaking partners, before the challenge of holiness, with a special trust (badly translated as "faith”). It also has to be taken through the indispensable forms. At its best, theology is not divorced from the rest of Christian speech. It is not like a superlanguage that judges every other language. Theology is more like a new grip on language, a more supple and more deliberate handling of it. The theologian takes new responsibility for speaking in the confidence that Christian speech has already been used for proclaiming a revelation, for performing sacraments, and for efficacious prayer. Language has been sanctified. We ought to be able to use it to tell sanctifying truths— which is not the same as telling "the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Taking responsibility for speech requires being especially responsible for its inevitable failures.
Sitting on newsroom sets or waiting while reporters typed in what they heard of my hasty responses to rushed questions, I remembered finally that I should have expected special difficulties when trying to speak a few words of theology into a scandal about sex in the priesthood. Sex has always been a nervous preoccupation for Christian speaking. It has provoked some of the angriest theological words, as it has excited some of the most violent theological passions. At the same time, and not coincidentally, sex has seemed to threaten the authority of Christian speaking. Trying to speak truth about a churchly sex scandal—or trying to speak the truth about sex in church—or trying to speak what churches might be after some honesty about what sex is . . . these efforts lead us right to the most awkward tasks of the speech called theology.
In the brief chapters following, you will read some parts of the original lectures I delivered in Boston. Mostly, you will find my third or fourth attempt to deliver them better. While rewriting, I have kept the conviviality and casualness of the spoken word.7 You will hear the places where the pressure of the "Boston scandal” pushed on the lecturer and the audience. Most of all, I hope that you can catch an effort to find a way of speaking theology into institutional "crisis.” In part, this will mean figuring out how to talk when so much talking has been distorted by the powerful motives of institutions in conflict. For the most part, it will mean searching for ways to enliven the oldest speeches Christians have.

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