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Image courtesy of Maya Mayblin
Catholic Re-Visions

On the Catholicity of Desire

Although its aim is to provide a snapshot of our research and thinking on the topic of desire, this symposium hints at aspects of ourselves as desiring subjects, as people who bring differing social and sexual identities to their work, and who inhabit religious and secular worlds in diverse ways.

The concept of desire –  at least in the term’s basic sense of ‘vital striving’  – has a foundational yet troubled role in Roman Catholic theology and practice. Its connection to the fleshy and the carnal, and thus its expression via the materiality of the world, makes it potentially problematic in Christian thinking, but also a great mobiliser towards divine union. It is in this fleshly and carnal sense, in Catholicism’s famously ambiguous embrace of the body, that desire is both potentially sublime and suspicious, aspirational and sinful.

In the contemporary social life of the Church, desire is simultaneously oppressive and liberatory. On one hand, it seems linked to the institution’s worst forms of excess and corruption: its financial debts and material opulence, its abuse scandals, and problems of clericalism. On the other, desire runs through recent Catholic feminist and LGBTQ reworkings of theology which have shaped it via Christian concepts of love, passion, and devotion, in order to envision a more diverse and inclusive Church for the sexed and gendered person. Desire, then, becomes as fundamental to the human divine relationship as it is to the social, the psychological, and the political. And this central role of desire in defining what it means to be human is precisely what gives it its universality – in an apt sense, its catholicity.

This symposium brings together an interdisciplinary group of writers on Catholicism to explore this catholicity of desire in relation to the specific forms it takes in a range of sociological and theological contexts. The discussion that unfolds draws from a range of academic backgrounds – in theology, philosophy, and social anthropology – and stands as an exploratory foray, the beginning of a dialogue. Such a dialogue, we hope, may do more than merely juxtapose different positions and spirits of enquiry; it may push us out of our disciplinary comfort zones and towards new kinds of questions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this symposium is personal as well as intellectual. Although its aim is to provide a snapshot of our research and thinking on the topic of desire, it nevertheless hints at aspects of ourselves as desiring subjects, as people who bring differing social and sexual identities to their work, and who inhabit religious and secular worlds in diverse ways. All writing, it might be said, points back towards its author. But the personal voices behind this symposium gesture also at the ‘Why’ of desire – its ultimate role in understanding the self. For all its capacity to drive things forward, desire is that which returns us to ourselves, and to our very own experience of being-in-the-world. Whether we theorize it as a drive or dynamic, desire constructs the self out of the other; it leads as much towards the self-enclosed gaze, as it does towards what Thomas Carlson describes as the ‘incomprehensible gaze that spurs ever more desire’ (43).

If desire, too, has a history, what Alexandre Kojève named ‘the history of desired desires’, what is Catholicism’s ‘history of desired desires’? How, we ask, has Catholicism interpellated desire at the nexus of race, sexuality, gender, and the body? What role has desire played in different traditions of prayer, mysticism, ritual, and vocation? In asking such questions, we often feel we know the answers; after all, desire is familiar, and so  – for many of us – is Catholicism.  Or at least, a certain image of Catholicism. It is commonly assumed, for example, that Catholicism and desire go ‘naturally’ together, that its rich materiality and incarnational emphasis makes for a particularly sensual form of Christianity.

Our assumptions on this topic may derive, in complex ways, from contemporary discussions of the Church’s subjugation of bodies: its historical role in colonial expansion, slavery and racial genocide; its sexual abuses; and the suffering generated by its conservative stance on gender and sexuality. They may also derive from aesthetics, our exposure to Catholic art and popular-cultural representations of Catholicism as a religion that draws deeply on the ‘pleasure-pain’ contours of the Christian Passion. Weeping Madonnas, blood-soaked ecstasies, pulsating, wounded orifices, may lead us to assume that Catholicism turns centrally on desire because it is ‘all about sex’ or ‘all about the body’.

But what aspects of desire are obscured by such popular assumptions? And does Catholicism shape its subjects, the world over, into similarly desirous subjects, or do Catholics interpret Catholic truths in relation to a-priori desires rooted in the specifics of local cultures and upbringings? Questions like this tug at all the contributions to this symposium, and are particularly marked in relation to whether and to what degree we choose to equate Catholic desire with sex.

Interestingly, all contributions to this symposium do, in their different ways, engage the question of sex, but not all do so in a way that would support Michel Foucault’s famous observation that in Catholicism sex invariably constitutes the “meeting line of the body and soul” (20). For Jason Keith Fernandes, our tendency to interpret desire through sex is primarily the result of a contemporary frame of reference which has been, at least since Freud, sexual. Such a framework, he writes ‘leads us to interpret things sexually, rather than being open to other, particularly transcendental, frames of reference’. Fernandes’ contribution challenges common assumptions that Catholic desire is ‘all about sex’ or ‘all about the body’, and it reminds us that our go-to interpretative frameworks are themselves the products of particular histories.

Nevertheless, the proliferation of archives, literatures, and activism around Catholicism’s core teachings on sex and gender would seem to support the notion that Catholicism’s sexual preoccupation is an ethnographic fact to be reckoned with – at least in secular European and Anglo-American contexts. In Josep Almudever Chanza’s essay, we glimpse the pivotal yet troubled role that sexuality plays in the lives of clergy via the story of 82-year-old Emili who was ejected from the seminary aged 19 because of his homosexual inclination. Almudver Chanza moves beyond this event, however, to focus Emili’s subsequent re-interpretation of his religious vocation in terms we might today define as ‘LGBTQ’ activism, via Emili’s amassing of a large archive of sexually inclusive religious literature and writing.

Emili’s compunction to work through the religious meaning of his sexuality through writing points tangentially to my own observation about the sizeable role that sexually-focussed ‘confessional literature’ continues to play in the Catholic tradition. That most of the publicly available literature in this vein is authored by white, North American men (who are priests) would seem to indicate that sex-focussed discourse is a tradition at once more prominent in the Catholic Church of the ‘West’, and shaped by who has most access to publishing resources. Compared to the confessional literature by white male clergy on masculine sexuality (including homosexuality), discourse that focuses on feminine desire is comparatively small. Moreover, male-centred confessional literature is more likely to dwell on the psychological challenges and rewards of clerical celibacy whilst skirting around the life-altering consequences of any sexual desire that results in pregnancy. For women, however, reproductive processes such as pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, and miscarriage burst through solid form, quickly producing effects and outcomes that demand a different framing.

Matters of reproduction are, in this sense, central to Catholic problematics of desire, as Agnieska Koscianska’s contribution reminds us. For the Polish Catholics of her research, sexual issues take centre stage because they are political in both an everyday and formal sense. Using snippets of interviews, Koscianska reveals for us the intense ethical labour that devout and ostensibly ‘conservative’ Catholics must perform throughout their lives in relation to Catholic teachings on sexuality and the use of contraception. Such labour is a response to the unruly nature of the female uterus, and it revolves around the right to a relationship with God as well as to a life worth living. It coalesces to form what Koscianska calls a ‘grassroots theology’, one that does not cleave neatly to labels such as ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ or capitulate entirely to secular concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’, but that addresses, in a religious way, desire’s inevitable consequences.

That said, this symposium also invites us to think Catholic desire beyond the human and the sexual, by exploring the desiring God, and our desire for God. Such desire may be deeply sensual without being sexual, like God’s love which, in the words of Benedict XVI, is eros ‘disciplined and purified … the pinnacle of our existence’. Many Catholics turn to the writings of Augustine, John of the Cross, and Teresa D’Avila to understand such desire, but what are its sociological contours? How, in practice, does it express itself? As this symposium suggests, desire for God is ridden with tensions: it may bring us towards or away from others via Christian concepts of service, community, contemplation, and solitude.

In Richard Irvine’s contribution, desire for God is best pursued via contemplative prayer, alone and in silence. This tradition among the Benedictine monks of an English abbey comes with an element of aridity, of world-renouncement. As Irvine points out, such solitude and absence can be hard to dwell with, but that hardness is part of the process. The aim is to confront ourselves in absence because ‘God is beyond any finite concepts and images at our disposal, and what we desire is God, not those concepts.’ To desire God in this way is not a compromise, a flight from sociality, but a flight from self-obsession, for what human company ultimately provides us with is the opportunity to delight in our own reflection.

All the same, a tension remains between the contemplative drive toward the plenitude of God’s (often sensorially absent) company and the satisfaction promised by more worldly and immediate social and sexual relationships. Such ‘disciplined and purified eros’ is not for all monks, as Irvine’s contribution details, but it stands as an important counter to the presumption that Catholic desire necessarily needs or partakes in sexuality.

If desire for God is, for Catholics, the primal or the encompassing desire, the question becomes one of mediation. What does such a desire grasp onto? What artefacts, people, and institutions mediate it? In the apophatic tradition, signs, material forms, and even concepts are not up the task; there can be no satisfactory way to know God, no means adequate to God’s expression. And yet we keep trying. This ongoing tension between restlessness and resolution, lack and plenitude haunts the notion of religious desire. Does desire for God ever reach its final destination or does it exist simply to generate more of itself?

Such a tension runs strongly though at least two contributions. As Luigi Gioia explores through the writings of Augustine, desire for God necessarily emerges at the restless intersection of longing and language. In other words, it does not pre-know itself but unfolds phenomenologically through the mediating office of praise. We see this in action in Confessions, where desire for God is discovered through language and tumbles forth with joyful restlessness. From this, notes Gioia, we may take that ‘our dealings with the world through language and our search for meaning do not originate from a fullness trying to communicate itself, but from a lack, a restlessness that strives after enjoyment and union.’

This generative, originary lack – much like the lack that gapes between the Real and Symbolic orders in Lacanian thought – is forever present. Its inability to repose gives it a continual, engine-like property. In my own contribution, I use the engine-like nature of desire to think through the existence of a Catholic gender paradox: how might we understand the fact that, world over, those who are most active at the congregational level are women? My focus here is not on women’s desire for God, but on their desire for something that seems to be at once more immediate and tangibly present, and at the same time unattainable: the figure of the priest. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in rural northeast Brazil, I ask how the figure of the priest as an extension of God on earth, and as a sexually ambiguous alter Christus, becomes a mobilizer of desire toward other things. And I argue that in paying attention to the desire that drives thousands of Catholic women across the world towards a much smaller number of un-possessable male figures, we might understand how it is that desire works beyond the individual, how it scales up and down in strange yet predictable patterns to reproduce the Church as a patriarchal institution.

Desire, then, is ontological. And insofar as it embraces us all it is catholic  – in the sense of universal. But how we think desire –  write it, examine it –  is unique to cultures, and also to historical traditions. In Catholicism, desire’s compulsions and subsequent dissections have forged particular pathways. This symposium follows some of those pathways and uses desire’s energy (for as authors we cannot escape our own longings) to sift new trails. Like desire itself, however, discourse on desire will find no repose for it can only generate more of itself. The essays collected here are not, in this sense, works completed but works in motion. Ranging provocatively between the theological and the political, the speculative and the empirical, they partake in desire’s endless movement.

Symposium Essays

“My secret is God, I’m God’s secret” [1]: desire, the closet, and queer ministry

In Spain, a man contests the sexual politics of the Catholic Church by opening the first LGBTQ+ faith refuge.

Women’s Desire for Priests

Reflections on a Catholic ‘gender paradox’: When womens’ desire for priests drives the Church’s ‘passionate machine’

Polish Grassroots Theologies of Desire: From Internal Conflict to Political Action

Polish Catholics protest against the Church’s conservative approach to sexuality. Liberal traditions have been successfully silenced since John Paul II, so now they create their own theologies of desire. Will the Church listen?

Responding to the Desiring God

Contemplating a radical response to contemporary politics of (sexual) desire

Contemplative Prayer, Desire, and the Problem of Other People

In its embrace of solitude, contemplative prayer opens up a space of tension around the social and embodied qualities of desire.

Desire and Meaning in Augustine

Language and meaning originate not from a fullness trying to communicate itself but from a lack that strives after enjoyment.