Monday, February 18, 2013

Kicking The Can Of Celibacy

With the Richter-scale crack in Roman Catholicism caused by Benedict XVI's dramatic resignation it seems an apt moment to take another look at priestly celibacy. If the retiring pope seeks to make way for a more energetic successor, one able to confront the "questions of deep concern to the life of faith", issues of sexuality, gender, and relationship in general must be front and center. The RCC's response in all these areas is existentially conditioned by its insistence on celibacy for ordained ministers

Jesus states clearly that celibacy is a gift and an option "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:10). In other words it's a possible choice to be made by some for whom the coming of God into the world is an overriding personal event and meaning. There is nothing about a "vow of celibacy" in his statement. Simply a decision for something--from one point of view quite brutal ("making oneself a eunuch," i.e. desexualized)--because another, transcending relationship has completely overwhelmed and replaced this vital aspect of human existence.

A living sense of the in-breaking of God in the world could do this, I am quite certain. But it seems evident that this is a deeply personal, individual choice, a solitary Kiekegaardian leap of faith, not a standard membership rule of an institution.

There are other, more human reasons for the rule of celibacy. The classic one is taking arms to fight for king and country. A war disrupts all normal domestic life. By and large a conscripted man or woman will be deprived of sexual relationship during the course of active service. The urgent necessity of confronting the threat of the enemy overrides this most basic of human situations.

But in the case of war enforced celibacy is temporary. It is contingent on the time of war and its extraordinary emotions and responses. Once the war and its supercharged mood are gone, ordinary sexual relationship will resume. The church instead requires that the extraordinary condition of celibacy determines the whole of the priest's life, and--again--does so as a matter of a rule.

As a point of historical reference one of the underlying causes for the progressive enforcement of celibacy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (known as the Gregorian reform) was its part in a struggle to wrest control of ecclesiastical appointments from the German nobility. To be unable to marry was a critical way of signaling a "real" priest, different from the worldly men appointed by feudal lords for worldly reasons. There is, therefore, an enduring element of Roman Catholic "spiritual militancy" against the saeculum in its celibate tradition. This militancy does not use weapons of war but turns the suspension of sexuality into its own form of weapon against the world.

But it is Mimetic Theory which perhaps enables us to reflect most acutely on the question of celibacy. Mimesis and its cousin science of mirror neurons show us how profoundly the self is made up of and by "the other". Either we are governed by the other in a relationship of rivalry, or we experience identification with the other through what Girard calls a relationship of "vertical transcendence," where we look on the other in awe and refuse to enter into rivalry. But there is also the third possibility, one of identification through surrender in love, something Girard does not talk about but must certainly be the goal of marriage. The key question here is who or what is the other for a celibate?

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, over the years I was a celibate, I experienced at first hand the collapse of the old-style vertical transcendence in respect to the church: the habit of looking at it with awe as a perfect institution. In its place there really was a tremendous sense of rivalry with established authority with its rules and regulations. The walls really did come tumbling down. I believe the Council intended to seek out and discover the third possibility in regard to "church": the surrender to each other in love of active Christian community. But that is spiritually very demanding and, against the background of continuing hierarchical structures and mass membership parishes, I think people hardly knew how or where to begin. When they tried the Vatican generally hated the results. In the meantime I believe priestly celibates fell into four broad groups and my guess is those groups still basically cover the territory.

1. First: in-group gays who were closeted but experienced a clear liberation in terms of self-affirmation and, to some degree, lifestyle. In my experience this group made up at least a third of priests and they were definitely the happiest group around.

2. Second: church militants. These were men who hung on to the medieval sense of an embattled church taking on the forces of a hostile world. The church was a noble cause to which they had given their lives, and for them "vertical transcendence" was still real.

3. Third: the rest. This was the amorphous group which included alcoholics, chronic malcontents, sex abusers, materialists, men having affairs with women, sports fanatics and pure intellectuals. Until I left I essentially belonged to the rest.

4. Genuine celibates. Having said "the rest" there doesn't seem to be room for another group, and there are so few of them they really should be included in number three. But because this handful of men (and personally I think I knew three or four) was so exceptional in every sense it really merits a group on its own.

Meanwhile the celibate who does not know a self-transcending relationship is up against himself as his sole horizon, and must inevitably, I think, fall into group three. The married person is up against an/other, they live the self-as-other relationship day by day. This may become boring and dull, but it is still a fact. It may become unbalanced and destructive, in which case it is in need of healing, and at limit of being dissolved. But in the age of the collapse of vertical transcendence--the thing that Girard regards as the character of modernity--celibates are at an enormous risk of at best shallow, at worst destructive lives. When the celibate looks in the mirror there is far too often an endless presence of the same, where there should be the transcending gaze of the other.

My guess is Benedict knows all this in his heart of hearts but has kicked the can down the road. He can only kick it so far. His abdication is the historical equivalent to John XXIII's calling the Second Vatican Council back in January 1959. It was an enormous shock then, because hardly anybody in the Roman church saw its ecclesial necessity. Benedict's decision is an inverted way of taking exactly the same revolutionary step. The cultural urgency comes from outside the church, just as it did back then, but Benedict cannot convoke a council. He is too compromised in the negative reaction he has led against the last. He now surrenders his papal voice in order, I believe, for someone else to have the courage to make the call.

Tony Bartlett, T&P TinR

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ashes and the Beginning of Lent

As abbot of St. Gregory's Abbey, I celebrate the Ash Wednesday mass with the distribution of ashes. I always give a brief homily. I commented on the challenge of forgiveness in the film/musical Les Miserable which I discussed on my blog last week. For my blog this week, I offered some more reflection on the social dimensions of Lenten disciplines in a post called "Turning on Ash Wednesday." The title is taken from T.S. Eliot's poem as two lines near the beginning reflect clearly on mimetic desire before going on to other dimensions of desire.

It happens that I was assigned to celebrate & preach tomorrow, the First Sunday of Lent with the Gospel being on the temptations of Christ. I have posted my reflections on this important story "Stumbling Blocks in the Desert."

You can log onto the blog on the main page if you wish.

A holy Lent to all.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Messiah At The Door

Jerry Shave who attends our Friday night bible study believes me to be an optimist type. He's not the first one to accuse me of the last plague out of Pandora's box, but he's one of the more sympathetic. While others might interject "naive" before the descriptor he has been known to put terms like "intelligent."

It is no small matter.

Growing up I spent some of my most impressionable years in the shadow of a British penitentiary. It was a bleak estate of cramped army billets for families of the guards, just outside the fifteen foot granite walls which held the convicts. Allied to the harsh atmosphere was a sour, tense mood in both my parents, for a number of reasons, mostly to do with sad, repressive religion and its consequences. Our family situation improved but, without going into it all Angela's-Ashes-style, you can guess that a lot of the direction I followed in later life--spiritual and intellectual--would be a working out of the major features of that experience.

What sustained me? Was there hope in all this? There was, of course, the native instinct of a child to survive and find as many ways of entertainment and happiness as possible. I can even look back on some of that time with affection and pleasure. But when things really were grim and native spirits deserted me and I was scared and alone, it was something else that kept me going. There was a feeling in the middle of it all, too deep or dark to give it a name or even be properly aware of it: a weird, improbable feeling that there was a profound structure to everything and it was good. Although all present appearance might seem to be against it, the goodness was always there and one day it would win out.

I believe that awareness is in fact properly named hope. It is not a surface sentiment of good intent and positive attitude, a superficial golly-gee-look-on-the-brightside thing. It belongs actually in the midst of darkness, not light. It is planted in a field of stones. It is not inappropriate for a child, because "the kingdom belongs to such as these". The key word is structural, but a sense of structural that goes way beyond ordinary up-down, left-right, like the shape of a room. The experience has profoundly affected all my later understanding of the world.

It is really the structure of love: something that does not force itself on the world but shows its face where the world is overturned and cruel on its underside. It is "Blessed are the hungry...Blessed are those who mourn" become real according to its own wonderful oblique logic. I can't say that I knew this in any direct way, and that I am not now perhaps overreaching names for my experience looking back. But something kept me going and this is the best language for it I have. I depended on it totally to survive as a person in my world, in my time.

Subsequently I needed the better part of thirty years to figure out that this structure of love was not necessarily the sense of the "Religious Life" to which I later committed my life. I set out on that road (in a religious order of the Roman Catholic church) in a spirit of profound rejection of the world. Classically called fuga mundi (flight from the world) I took much delight in accomplishing this gesture, not realizing that it was really the attitude of someone who had never been given the world in the first place. I mostly acted out of spite. And the church went along with it. I had to leave it all behind in order to find and embrace that deep structure which I first dimly sensed as a child.

Almost immediately I left the order I encountered the work of Rene Girard, and I then understood that the deep structure of the gospels has infected the whole of human culture. Why not? If it could speak from the grim prospect of a prison estate, surely it could announce itself in just about every other situation!

Many people have remarked on how Girard has transformed their lives. There is even a facebook page dedicated to it! For me his work provided a fundamentally new way of understanding the Christian gospel at work in the world, allowing a new theology which raised the structure of hope to full, plain view. But at the end of his career, in his last book, Girard turned to a pessimistic view, seeing human history as essentially a duel between rivals, escalating toward some inevitable cataclysm. The structure of hope now seems to be missing.

That is why I have now turned to other authors, not abandoning basic mimetic insights, but seeking out a further articulation of hope to affirm the direction I first glimpsed there. Here is the core point of this blog.

One particular author who has helped supply this character of hope is Giorgio Agamben. His short book on Romans, The Time That Remains, is a goldmine. In it Agamben pays close attention to the quality of time released and expressed in the New Testament.We are used to seeing time in a purely sequential way, thinking that it doesn't have much bearing on spirituality. It is only the period or interval in which we are--or are not--"saved". Space is the key dimension, the place where we are now (bad) and the place where, finally, we're going (much better).

But time is the medium of spiritual relationship. It puts you in tension toward something. Or rather it is that tension which produces the quality or nature of time itself. The philosopher Heidegger famously made death to be the meaning of human time, but the New Testament put the whole world in a relationship with Christ. It has thus produced a critical change in time right here in the present. Heidegger is known in fact to have plagiarized this New Testament Christian time to produce his own existential time. The churches, on the other hand, have tended to reduce Christian time to a mere flat sequence between one spatial order and another. Allowing too much tension in the present creates disorder.

Agamben's point is that every present moment bends under the weight of Christ and so the quality of time is changed from within. This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 7 : 29,  ho kairos synestalmenos estin, "time is contracted". Time is contracted like the wave pattern of sound, producing a very different frequency of experience right now. Or it is like a woman about to give birth. Any sensitive mind and heart, not deafened and blinded by the constant stream of media, has to hear this crucially different pitch and quality in time in which we're living in today.

Agamben points out that the famous distinction of chronos (clock time) and chairos (season time) in the New Testament is not an absolute distinction. Chronos contains chairos, and vice a versa. Every tick of the clock is fractured with the kingdom of God. This is the concrete structure of hope. That no matter what happens to space our relationship is always with a radical newness here and now, and that relationship inevitably will include space too!

So if humanity is looking down the collective barrel of a gun it is also, at the very same time, glancing at the Messiah at the door. Messianic time trumps apocalyptic time, that is Agamben's New Testament analysis. By not constantly teaching, structuring and communicating this radically transformed sense of time the churches lose authority in the world, forfeiting their message to a "bye and bye in the sky." Meanwhile the world cocks the rifle. But even if it shoots--and this is the most profound point about the structure of hope--the Messiah is still at the door, transforming every element of that moment. The earth is not taken away by men, it is remade by Jesus even as they may pull the trigger.

And because this is our hope--differing from Girard--that final, extreme trigger can and never will be pulled.

This indeed is the structure of hope. It is, I am certain, an intelligent hope.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian