Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Top Catholic Chaplain and DADT: Jesus and the Club of Manly Men

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a proposal by the vice-chancellor and vocations director of the  Catholic diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to save the priesthood by ridding it of the vice of effeminacy.  As I noted in that posting, this analysis, with its suggestion that the priesthood is now a gay club, and that the priesthood  must be saved by re-populating seminaries with manly men, runs through important sectors of American Catholicism right now.  Spend any time at all reading blogs of the Catholic right or watching the influential Catholic television network EWTN, and you'll encounter this gender-biased (and homophobic) analysis of the ills of the contemporary priesthood, and its concomitant proposal to save the priesthood by bringing back the manly-men priests we imagine of yore. 

There's a clear link between this understanding of what's wrong with the Catholic priesthood and what the top Catholic chaplain to the military, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, said recently about the danger of admitting openly gay soldiers to the armed forces.  Broglio's animus against permitting openly gay soldiers is ultimately an animus against opening an all-male club to men traditionally regarded as unmanly.  The real fear hiding behind the resistance of Catholic officials like Broglio to the abolition of anti-gay discrimination in the American military is a fear of what will happen in the culture at large when gay men are able to prove through military service that their masculinity is just as solid as that of straight soldiers.

The military, military service, offers an important symbolic cultural proving ground for men to demonstrate their masculinity.  What is at stake in the debate about opening the doors of the armed forces to openly gay men is, as Christians of the political and religious right correctly perceive, the renegotiation of one of the most significant symbolic stamps of approval our culture employs to designate some men as truly masculine, as role models for what it means to be a man.  Removing the bar on military service by openly gay men will  remove from the hands of the political and religious right an important weapon these groups have used in recent years to bash gay men and denigrate their masculinity. 

And so it's especially fascinating to watch top Catholic clerics like Archbishop Broglio participate in this volatile cultural battle about symbolic masculinity and the definition of gender.  It's interesting to track the preoccupation of Catholic clerics with the question of who's a man and who's not--to track the obvious preoccupation of clerics like Broglio with protecting their own claim to belong to a club of bona fide manly men--when there's increasingly open discussion of the extent to which the current pope has brought to the church, with his liturgical reforms, a new wind of homoerotic haute couture.

That phrase is from Michael Meier's recent review of German theologian David Berger's book The Holy Illusion: Being a Gay Theologian in the Catholic Church.*  As I noted several days back, Berger is a gay German Catholic theologian who was a darling of the Catholic right in Europe and the Americas, as long as he kept his partnered gay life well hidden.  When he came out of the closet, his right-wing cronies decisively repudiated him, and Berger has now written a tell-all book to explain how it happens that the hierarchy of the Catholic church today appears to be both intensely, overtly homophobic and at the same time full of closeted gay men fascinated by over-the-top liturgical drag and liturgical theater.

Berger notes, in particular, how the Tridentine liturgy functioned in his own experience of the church as a gateway drug.  As Meier's review of Berger's book (the review is entitled "The Perfumed Traditionalists") notes, "Berger sees the Latin liturgy, which presents the sacred in an overemphasis on the aesthetic, as essentially a 'product of homosexual sublimation.'"  In the retrieval of the Latin liturgy, the current Vatican regime has built a hyper-accentuated male world from which women are adamantly excluded, in which there is lavish male-male hand kissing and foot kissing, all against a backdrop of brocade, Belgian lace, tassels, and resplendent billowing trains of scads and scads of scarlet Moiré silk.

And it is this very same world of liturgical haute couture and hand- and foot-kissing that is militantly homophobic, determined to demean gay people, to keep gays firmly in their place as second-class citizens, to fight as hard as possible to retain any and all cultural gestures of denigration that remind us of what these men call the disorder of homosexuality.  There is, in other words, a strong and obvious connection between these two poles of the current hierarchical system: its effusive theatrical celebration of a liturgical world full of homoerotic symbols, a world forbidden to women, and its nasty homophobia.

And it's that world which, Archbishop Broglio wants us to believe, is the world most fit today to define who is a man and who is not, who is a member of the club of manly men and who will continue to be barred from that club.  But it's also that world that proves, with its fixation on presenting its homoerotic boys' club as the standard by which masculinity is to be defined, the truth of John Ibson's observation that the most noisily homophobic societies always happen to be the most male-bonded societies.  

In his book Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, Ibson writes:

But such is the fierce power of homophobia nowadays that in precisely those arenas in which an unusual closeness between men is allowed, the efforts are most strenuous to deny the erotic nature of the attachments (p. 5).
And so what to make, then, of the resistance of so many top Catholic prelates like Archbishop Timothy Broglio to the opening up of exclusive boys' clubs traditionally closed to (openly) gay men?  What to make of the assertions underlying these attempts to keep the bar against gay men firmly in place--assertions that implicitly celebrate, in a very self-congratulatory way, the entirely unearned hyper-masculinity of those men intent on barring gay men from their club--when one reads John Dominic Crossan's analysis of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples?

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY: HarperCollins, 1994), writes:

Most of Jesus’ first followers would have known about but seldom experienced being served at table by slaves.  The male followers would think more experientially of females as preparers and servers of the family food.  Jesus took on himself the role not only of servant but of female.  Not only servile but female hosting is symbolized by the juxtaposition of those four verbs.  Far from realizing and being served, Jesus himself serves, like any housewife, the same meal to all, including himself (p. 181).

If Crossan is right in his reading of what Jesus intended through his gesture of washing his disciples' feet, then what to make of the fixation of some contemporary American Catholics, of whom Timothy Broglio is a conspicuous example, on the cult of the manly man?  What to make of the suggestion of these Catholics that the priesthood can be saved only by barring those who are gay from the club, by re-populating the priesthood with manly men?

If Crossan's reading of the gospels is right, then this fixation may have a serious theological problem on its hands: Jesus may well not belong to the club of manly-men priests at all.  In fact, his face may be set against that club altogether, since, by kneeling down and washing and drying his followers' feet, and then serving them at table, he made himself into a despised object in his own cultural milieu (and theirs).  He made himself into a woman, in the eyes of his culture, when he chose to wash his disciples' feet and serve them food.

*Thanks to Conrad Noll for sending me this link.

No comments: