In the past 20 years of studying lived Catholicism in Northeast Brazil, I have often wondered why women make up the majority of active faithful. The Christian ‘gender paradox’ – women’s attraction to conservative, patriarchal forms of religion – has been most famously elaborated in the case of Pentecostalism by Bernice Martin. In that context, women’s enthusiasm for church life tends to follow in the wake of intense conversion experiences, and is often marked by a sense of eschatological urgency. For the women joining Pentecostal Churches in droves back in the 1990s, the paradox that presented itself to researchers was all the more prominent as women’s enthusiasm for those conservative and patriarchal churches was clearly not a matter of habit or tradition: it was conscious, individual, and motivated by choice.
The gender paradox as it presents itself in Catholicism begs a slightly different set of questions, particularly in areas of the world where the Catholic church has been dominant for centuries. In such contexts, women’s enthusiasm cannot be put down to recent, intense conversion experiences. Neither can it be said that the Catholic Church serves women’s interests because, unlike Elizabeth Brusco’s findings for Pentecostalism, it is not effective at curbing male drinking, adultery, and wasteful spending. This is not to say there is no positive correlation between Catholic women’s church participation and their capacity to deal with domestic and economic problems, but it is doubtful that such a correlation is the main reason for women’s religiosity.
Some might say that to take a social scientific approach to Catholicism’s ‘gender paradox’ is to bark up the wrong tree, as all it can do is produce a somewhat reductive set of answers to the question, ignoring the role of faith. As many of my Brazilian interlocutors themselves were wont to explain, women do not necessarily get more out of going to church than men, they simply have stronger faith. One person explained it to me thus: “It is because women desire God more strongly, and therefore find it easier to submit to His will. Faith and desire are part of one another.” In order to understand the gender paradox, then, perhaps what we need is not just a list of the social and economic benefits that accrue to women through church participation, but a deeper understanding of desire and faith.
Women “find it easier to submit to His will,” as my interlocutor explained: the gendered nature of who is submitting to whom may be relevant here. There is a further complication: the person explaining all this to me was a priest. This may seem somewhat by the by, but it points to an important dimension of Catholicism’s gender paradox: if women are more likely to be devotionally active than men, they are also more likely to be spending time with priests. To what degree, then, does women’s greater desire for God include desire for priests? And how does that desire intersect with the priest’s ontological status as an alter Christus, his maleness, and his celibacy?
To speak of desire for priests may seem sacrilegious given that, desire-wise, priests are supposed to be ‘off the menu’. It may also seem somewhat insensitive amidst ongoing concerns about the destruction to lives caused by cultures of clericalism and sex-abuse. Why speak of desire for priests when all across the world priests are being spurned and held to account for violence and crime towards minors? My intention is certainly not to deny the ongoing existence of anti-clericalism in its myriad forms, nor to downplay the abuse perpetuated by a tragically large number priests. Rather, it is to ask a different, but equally pertinent, set of questions about the role of the laity in the production of priestly status, and thus of Catholicism as a deeply relational system.
The topic of forbidden longing across the religious/secular divide is a well-worn trope in literature, television, film, and popular media. In such explorations, it is usually the priest’s requited or unrequited desire for someone that becomes the test of his vocation with tragic or heroic consequences. In the popular non-fiction which deals with this theme, a mixture of survey and psychological data is used to lay bare the inner desires of priests themselves, and to explore their successes and failures at overcoming them. This large corpus of popular non-fiction exemplified in works by Richard Sipe, Tom Rastrelli, and Donald Cozzens, participates very much in a confessional form centred on the Christian obligation to tell the truth about oneself, and thus forms part of an old ecclesiastical tradition which regards sex as the “meeting line of the body and soul” (Foucault: 20). Within such literature desire is overwhelmingly a psychological matter, rooted in the mind (and spirit) of the individual.
As an anthropologist I have taken a more expansive approach to desire, seeking to understand its collective and mimetic dimensions. Years of ethnography have convinced me that in order to comprehend some of the ethical crises the Church is facing today, we need to move beyond our popular obsession with the desirous souls of priests in order to consider how desire drives faith and devotion among the ‘common priesthood’ of the baptised laity.
Flavia’s father left her mother and disappeared forever when she was just a baby. When Flavia was in her early twenties she had 3 children in quick succession, however one was born with a life-limiting illness, and another with a severe disability. Like her own father, the father of those babies disappeared never to be seen again when the children were infants, around the time the severity of their condition was starting to reveal itself. By the time I met Flavia, she had survived a string of relationships with abusive men, and was seeking temporary refuge in the house of her aunt.
Flavia herself was a devoted Catholic and while she rarely left the house because of her constant caring responsibilities, she allowed herself some time out for church activities. One day she coyly described the recently arrived parish priest Padre Marcos to me as her latest ‘passion’ (paixão). Her feelings were a kind of ‘madness’ (loucura), she laughed, but how could she help it? In her view, Padre Marcos was the best priest the town had ever known. Flavia went on to describe for me how Padre Marcos embodied masculinities of ‘care’ (cuidado) and ‘security’ (segurança ) through his ministry and especially, she said, through the sacrament of confession. Flavia was an avid confession-goer, describing herself as the sort of Catholic who would ‘run’ to confess the minute she felt ashamed of an action. Although she confessed on a regular basis, she was careful to match the gravity and nature of her confession with the appropriate priest. Even though she trusted utterly in the ritual itself, never doubting any priest to keep her confession a total secret, not all priests, she admitted ‘transmitted security’. It wasn’t a matter of trust, it was the quality of a priest’s ability to listen, she explained. Some priests were cold and lacked empathy; she could not trust them to guide her with sensitivity. With Padre Marcos, however, Flavia felt safe. In him she had found a man who would listen not only to her sins but also to her problems; a man whose support for her was not predicated on expectation of financial or sexual return.
In studying the lives of Catholic women, I have noted how respect for priests is strongly interlaced with eros and desire. Within the testimonies I have collected are complex codes and allusions to the body of the priest: to his lifestyle, his celibacy, and assumptions about his sexuality. Methods of referencing a particular priest’s character are often used to covertly index his assumed sexual inclination (as homosexual or heterosexual), forming part of an established discourse among devout Catholic women about different masculine traits which make up the ‘good priest’. The good priest, thus, is a specific kind of man: ‘Different to other men’ he ‘pays attention to me’, ‘listens to me’, is ‘sensitive’ and ‘intelligent’. He might also be ‘beautiful’, ‘educated’, and ‘well turned out’.
In a deeply patriarchal culture where domestic violence and femicide is tragically common, women who desire priests are also very common. Desires like Flavia’s may be conscious or unconscious. Often they exceed discourse entirely, manifesting mainly through devotional labour or the constant tending to priests’ domestic needs, or through hours spent pursuing and waiting for priests, seeking audiences and blessings from them, and/or following them on social media. Women who desire priests may be ridiculed or victimised because of it by husbands, fathers, brothers. Even priests themselves perceive female over-attachment to them as something of an occupational hazard.
Gilles Deleuze’s idea of desire has helped me to conceptualise the vast repetitiveness of this terrain: the sheer numbers of desiring women who flock around priests making Catholicism, at the congregational level, into a uniquely female thing. In Deleuze’s account, desire is neither restricted to individuals, nor is it an exclusively psychical force; it can be thought of as part of a more collective, materialist cartography (Deleuze 2006). With that cartography comes the notion of ‘desiring production’. Desire in this model isn’t just passive longing; it actively produces more of itself, more sensation, more horizon. In the heady words of Guattari and Rolnik, desire is “the will to live, the will to create, the will to love, the will to invent another society, another perception of the world, and other value systems…” (p.318).
We might be curious about this “will to invent another society” in relation to the magisterium’s “silence” on priestly homosexuality. Building on Mark Jordan’s explorations of the homophobia/homoeroticism duality which structures the church, we might move horizontally, away from an introspective focus on the sexual tribulations of priests to ask how conservative gender imaginaries, codes of machismo, and the ambiguous nature of clerical sexuality promulgate desire among Catholic women.
In the countless testimonies I have collected, women’s affective and sexual attraction to priests indexes a search for both alternative models of masculinity and alternative experiences of male authority. For women who have suffered abuse at the hands of husbands and boyfriends, religious longing is also longing for a world in which men do not undermine, beat, rape, or murder them. In such contexts, the priest is a signifier of patriarchy, but his non-heteronormative sexuality troubles that signification. His institutional celibacy or his (assumed) homosexuality, or both, queers the heteronormative structure that the culture of machismo is built upon, generating alternative horizons for gender relations. For some women (as undoubtedly for some men and some non-binary individuals), the priest may be the only man who can incubate the vision of such an alternate world, even if, as a foot soldier for an institution whose structural misogyny precedes him, he can never fully consummate it.
In acknowledging that desire for God begets desire for priests, it is necessary to note that these two desires are not identical. Despite the alter Christus character of priests, there is a problematic and unfulfilled nature to the desire that women have for them. Such desire can never be satiated, unlike the desire for God which, to the theologian Sarah Coakley, “signifies no lack – as it manifestly does in humans” (p.10). Despite his status as Father to all, the priest remains a man ‘set apart’: sexually untouchable and relationally unattainable. His capacity to socially acknowledge the fruits of his sexuality – whether in the form of a public partnership, or in the recognition of biological offspring – is institutionally restricted. To speak of the priest as an object of desire is thus to speak of his potential to activate desire at the individual and collective level, but not necessarily to fulfil it.
What is the significance of desire, then, for understanding the ‘gender paradox’ of Catholicism? In her book on transnationalism and the Catholic Church, anthropologist Valentina Napolitano presents us with a complex portrait of the relationship between the Vatican and its Latin American flock. The territory Napolitano traverses is one in which religiosity entwines with power, bureaucracy, and affect. The terrain is familiar to any scholar with an interest in Roman Catholicism as an institutional phenomenon. It is a terrain of rules and bureaucracy, canons and encyclicals, but equally a terrain of faith and passion in which the erotic, fleshly, and laboring bodies of female migrants take up a vital place.
In order to comprehend the Church in its full totality, as a system that continually reproduces itself through flows of desire and rigid bureaucracy, Napolitano offers us the metaphor of the “passionate machine”. The metaphor owes much to Deleuze’s machinic notion of desire, which moves beyond the notion of desire as lack, towards a conception of it as a force for production. The machine part of the “passionate machine”, then, relates to this sense of desire as production, but it also, I would say, captures something quite particular about the Roman Catholic Church: its nature as a system.
The notion of the Church as a system whose complex parts are interlinked and therefore productive, however far removed from one another those parts may be in social, theological, or geographical terms, is integral for any understanding of this particular form of Christianity. The systemic nature of Catholic power cannot be ignored – as any campaigner working against the tide of clerical sexual abuse cover-ups knows. As an ethnographer I have been guided by a sense of the Church as a passionate machine where, amongst other things, the homoerotic power of the ordained priesthood and feminine desires meet; a system in which all parts, for better or worse, are ultimately co-constitutive of one another.
This passionate machine can be seen in rural Brazil, where cultures of machismo predominate. The priest is a figure who, by virtue of his celibate image or “silent homosexuality,” challenges the heteronormative structure and generates an alternative collective imagination among women. Celibacy combined with silent homosexuality generates desire and suggests alternative possibilities for womens’ relations with male power, even if those possibilities struggle to be fully realised.
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