Blessed Are They Who Mourn: Roman Catholic Sex/Gender Ideology after Vatican II

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Marian Ronan
American Baptist Seminary of the West


    One widely accepted reading of twentieth century Roman Catholicism is that the Catholic Church became part of the modern world as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). And certainly, some of the most widely hailed conciliar documents—"The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,"[1] for example, and "The Declaration on Religious Freedom"[2] —reflect a new Catholic opening toward modern values.

  1. Yet, as the sociologist Gene Burns argues, the changes emerging from Vatican II are far more ambiguous than is generally acknowledged. The Council was, in part, called to complete the agenda of the First Vatican Council of 1869 at which the doctrine of papal infallibility was defined. Despite its undeniable opening toward modernity, Vatican II by no means suspended the monarchical governance structure instituted at Vatican I. Instead, as Burns explains, the Council shifted the territory over which the infallible monarch, the Pope, claimed authority from the entire world in all of its religious and socio-temporal dimensions to the arena of "faith and morals."[3]

  2. In this new economy, although "all men" still have the moral obligation to follow the true religion, states are no longer required to enforce that faith, which is now, practically speaking, obligatory for Catholics only. "Morals," on the other hand, by virtue of inhering in the natural law rather than in Catholic teaching, continue to be obligatory for all and unencumbered by democratic norms.[4] It only makes sense, then--and a survey of developments since 1965 substantiates this--that the post-Vatican II church has placed increasing emphasis on "morals," which means, to all intents and purposes, sexuality and gender.[5]

  3. The Discourses of Mourning

  4. The sources of these developments in Roman Catholicism since the 1960s and their implications come into sharper focus when examined in light of the psychoanalytic discourse of mourning. More specifically, in this paper I will use Eric Santner's Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany to read the current Catholic hyper-emphasis on sexuality and gender as an instance of the inability to mourn.[6]

  5. Freud initiated the psychoanalytic discourse of mourning with his essay, "Mourning and Melancholia."[7] Mourning and melancholia (or depression), according to Freud, are each painful reactions to the loss of a love object. Because melancholia is made up of an ambivalent mixture of pleasurable attachment to and rage at the love object, however, the period of suffering is prolonged. The melancholic, instead of engaging the feelings of loss until the separation is complete, absorbs the lost and partially hated object into his or her ego, a process that results in self-hatred and sometimes even suicide.

  6. Furthermore, in the case of melancholia, or depression, loss is worked through with greater difficulty because the love-object was identified with the self of the bereaved. Such an identification occurs because the self is not strong enough to tolerate the separateness, the sharp edges of "I" and "you," that exist between the self and the love object. In effect, the melancholic self cannot bear the interval that exists between it and the world. Mourning and the inability to mourn are thus linked to structures fundamental to people's ability, or inability, to tolerate difference.[8]

  7. Eric Santner's book, Stranded Objects, builds on an earlier work by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich which claims that after the defeat of the Third Reich, the citizens of the first West German generation did not engage emotionally in any sustained way with their responsibility for Nazi-era crimes, nor with the loss of the nation's ego ideal, Adolph Hitler. Instead, they avoided a potentially massive loss of self-esteem by severing all affective links with the immediate past, throwing themselves manically into rebuilding their country, and coming to see themselves as more truly victims than those who had perished at their hands.[9]

  8. Santner extends the Mitscherlich's thesis to the second and third generations after the war, arguing that the inability to mourn is passed on from one generation to the next unless human solidarity enables the working through of losses in multiple symbolic reenactments. Such symbolic reenactments parallel at the collective level a child's working through of its separation from the primary caregiver through repeated acts of play. Santner calls the parent figure who helps with this working through the "empathic witness." The lack of an empathic witness in one generation renders the next generation less able, perhaps unable, to help the third generation with its losses. Because of their preoccupation with repressing their own catastrophic losses, Santner argues, the first West German generation could not support the second generation as it undertook the work of separation from individual and collective love objects, and so on.

  9. In Stranded Objects, Santner also displays multiple connections between the discourses of mourning—in Freud as well as in Holocaust scholarship—and the critique of modernity called postmodernism. Central to postmodernism is the premise that fantasies of presence, fullness, unity, certainty, and innocence associated with the Enlightenment are the primary sources of twentieth century violence and catastrophe, with the Holocaust an extreme instance.

  10. Santner deepens these intertextual relations by arguing that the pre-eminent modern fantasy ruled "no longer possible" in the postmodernist critique is the fantasy of purity and wholeness, with its corollary, the inability to tolerate difference, heterogeneity, and weakness. By linking his analysis with the broader modern fantasy of purity, Santner makes clear that the inability to mourn is not limited to a particular generation, but is an ongoing process. In addition to the avoidance of difference that fascism attempted by projecting infection onto European Jewry, the object of Santner's critique is the inability of successive German generations to mourn that inability to mourn. Santner calls this inheritance mechanism the repetition compulsion of modern European history, and identifies Auschwitz, that "modern industrial apparatus for the elimination of difference," as a staging area for this compulsion.[10]  

  11. Catholicism and Difference

  12. Imbrications between Santner's reading of the inability to mourn and the history of modern Catholicism are striking. Though the church was intimately involved in the emergence of the modern West, with its losses in the liberal European revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the papacy adopted a thoroughgoing anti-modern ideological stance. A central plank in the papal anti-modernist campaign was the revival of medieval philosophy and social theory called the Thomist, or the neo-Thomist, revival. Yet in the light of the psychoanalytic discourse of mourning, the Catholic world-view that was undergirded by this return to Aristotelian/ Thomistic metaphysics, with its absolute bifurcation of substance from accidents, of a pure, unified Catholicism from the evils of the secular world, emerges as a distinctly modern inability to mourn the loss of the church's pre-modern hegemony.

  13. One could imagine that the Catholic Church in the U.S. would have escaped this inability to mourn because, as an American phenomenon, it found Catholicism compatible with liberalism in a way the church in Europe had never done. In The Survival of American Innocence, however, the historian William Halsey demonstrates that the enforced revival of Thomistic thinking provided an ideological defense against the modern world for American Catholicism as well.[11]

  14. Specifically, Halsey argues, neo-Thomism enabled middle-class American Catholics, many of whom were not far from their immigrant roots, to construct a world impervious to modernity and to maintain around themselves the boundaries of a distinctly American innocence. The 19th century had been a time of poverty and oppression for immigrant American Catholics. For white, middle-class American Protestants, however, it was an era of romantic optimism, but World War I, and particularly the failure of the Treaty of Versailles, had begun a distinctly less optimistic, and, in many ways, horrifying age. Just as the horrors of World War I were dawning on American Protestants, the more influential cohort of American Catholics was in the process of joining the American middle-class and receiving the benefits of life in America. Neo-Thomist ideology enabled these American Catholics to believe in a rational and predictable cosmos, in moral structures inherent in the universe, and in a didactic or "genteel" rendering of the arts and culture. They were thus able to experience the nineteenth century American optimism that was unavailable to their immigrant parents and grandparents, and avoid the mourning experienced by other Americans after Versailles and the Great Depression.

  15. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of what Halsey calls "American Catholic innocence" was its resistance to intellectual and ethical complexity. Since Catholics could condemn modern society, they didn't feel compelled to analyze it in its increasing complexity. They spoke frequently of the "nonsense" of "enemies" or "adversaries" to indicate that it would be a waste of time to engage the arguments of those enemies. Thus, like their fellow Catholics in Europe but for differently-inflected reasons, U.S. Catholics were hardly prepared to acknowledge and mourn the losses of the 20th century.

  16. Catholic Sex/Gender Ideology

  17. Although questions of sexuality and gender have been significant throughout the history of the Catholic Church, they became inextricably bound to the church's anti-modern ideology with the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. This dogma, which proclaimed that Mary had been without sin since the first moment of her conception, served as a commentary on democracy at a time when Pius IX was losing the Vatican territories to the new liberal Italian state. Since all humans except Mary (and Jesus) were sinners, they were clearly incapable of governing themselves.[12]

  18. In addition to serving this socio-political function, however, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception also played a key role in settling the question of exactly when the fetus is ensouled, that is, becomes a human being. As Paul Badham shows, before the mid-19th century, some highly revered Catholic teachers, including Augustine and Aquinas, had argued that ensoulment occurs between the fifth and sixth months of pregnancy.[13] But, "if Mary was, as this dogma claimed, untainted by sin from the time of her conception, then she must have been a person from the time of her conception."[14] In 1869 the pope, when issuing excommunication decrees for women who had undergone abortions, dropped the adjective "ensouled" from the phrase used previously to clarify what kind of fetus could not be aborted: an "ensouled fetus." This made early abortions grounds for excommunication for the first time in church history.[15]

  19. The church's opening to liberalism at Vatican II could theoretically have included the liberalization of its teaching on sex and gender, but it did not. In fact, as Gene Burns makes clear, with the abdication of the church's claims to absolute doctrinal truth and authority over all humankind, sexuality and gender became increasingly central to Catholic institutional identity because those areas were, for the most part, all that remained. While the Council fathers managed to hammer out compromises on religious liberty and the separation of church and state, such serious conflicts emerged between some of them and the conservative Vatican curia that one of their leaders, Cardinal Suenens, prevailed upon the Pope to set up a separate birth control commission. Their hope was that light shed by this commission would undergird a change in the church's traditional teaching. When John XXIII died before the conclusion of the Council, his successor, Paul VI, expanded the commission substantially, adding twenty-nine laymen and five laywomen to the group. But he was apparently unprepared for the group's recommendation that the church change the position laid out by Pius XI in 1931; in 1968 Paul VI issued the encyclical "Humanae Vitae," reiterating the previous prohibition.[16]

  20. Following upon Vatican II's liberalization of significant portions of church life, "Humanae Vitae" shocked many Catholics in the U.S., as did "Inter Insigniores," the Vatican rejection of the possibility of ordaining women which appeared in 1976. The strength of these reactions suggests that many liberal Catholics seriously underestimated the centrality of sexuality and gender in magisterial Catholic self-understanding during the 20th century. In point of fact, the condemnation of contraception, divorce, and abortion had already been functioning as an ongoing thread of identity for American Catholics as they moved from the old urban neighborhoods to the suburbs after World War II.[17] The intensification of Roman Catholic sex-gender ideology since Vatican II, as embodied in "Humanae Vitae" and other documents and interventions, further buttressed Catholic identity in the face of the multiple critiques generated by the events of the 20th century.

  21. Ecclesial Displacements

  22. My use of Eric Santner's work on the inability of the first three West German generations to mourn the Holocaust is not an arbitrary appropriation of Holocaust scholarship for use in Roman Catholic studies. The documented antisemitism of many Catholic intellectual leaders in the first half of the 20th century—Chesterton, Belloc, Bernanos, Bloy, Claudel, and others—as well as the Vatican's passivity toward the Nazis, establishes a link between Santner's Holocaust scholarship and the history of twentieth century Catholicism.[18] This linkage becomes more apparent when we remember that the Vatican II declarations on the church in the modern world and on religious freedom were not the only historic changes to emerge from the Council. In the "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" the church also renounced its historic "teaching of contempt" against the Jews. This document replaces the traditional Catholic accusation of Jewish deicide with a dogmatic statement that Christ underwent his passion and death for "the sins of all men," thus formally abolishing church sanction for persecution of the Jews.[19]

  23. There can be little doubt that the Vatican II statement on the Jews was prompted at least in part by religious motivations and genuine regret for the tragic effects of Catholic antisemitism. And the statement on the Jews had a very real impact on rank-and -file Catholics; I remember clearly, for example, when the prayers for the conversion of the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy were replaced with a prayer for the Jewish people as "the first to hear the word of God."   

  24. Yet conciliar shifts in Catholic teaching on the Jews may be seen to have another set of consequences for the reconfiguration of Catholic identity. In this construal, the conciliar statement on the Jews, however genuinely intended, is also another instance of the Council's accommodation with modernity. In the light of the liberal democratic norms by which the church received greater authority over a more narrowly religious/moral sphere in exchange for its claims to control temporal matters and the consciences of individuals, the church officially excluded antisemitism and anti-Judaism from its public identity. This does not mean that Catholic antisemitism and anti-Judaism are no longer serious problems, but only that Roman Catholic ideology no longer offers the Jews as a blank slate onto which Catholics can project their terror of difference. Whatever the intention of the Council fathers, the Vatican II renunciation of the teaching of contempt has functioned as a vehicle for the displacement of hostility from one class of victims to another even as it comprised an initial stage in the work of mourning. Alas, the church's post-Vatican II portrayal of itself as victim and hero of the Holocaust, in the canonization of Edith Stein, for example, and in the 1998 document "We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah," offers some indication as to which of these two components was more substantive.[20]

  25. The psychoanalytic discourse of mourning suggests that until Roman Catholicism really does manage to work through the damage to its historic self-understanding and to its belief in its own perfection and innocence which has been called into question by modernity, by the Holocaust, and by feminist and post-colonial critiques, it will require some other onto which to project this conflict. And as we have seen, the primary available remaining other is sexuality and gender.

  26. Conclusion

  27. Without multiple symbolic reenactments of loss, the inability to mourn is passed down from one generation to the next. One might expect that the Catholic inability to mourn would be inherited mainly by conservative and restorationist Catholics. But writings by many liberal Catholics are also marked by a discursive smoothness belied by the rips, tears, and fissures that inscribe the Catholic Christian tradition. Invocations of "Catholic social teaching" and "the common good" by Catholic social justice activists, for example, rarely acknowledge the non-innocent openings toward fascism that mar the history of papal social teaching.[21] Similarly, representations of the earth by Catholic environmentalists regularly rival, in their romanticism and oversimplification, anything that came out of the 19th century. Even Catholic feminism exhibits, for the most part, a coherence and rationality that the situation of women in Catholicism hardly warrants.[22]

  28. I am not optimistic about a reversal of this situation in the near future. Particularly telling with regard to the Catholic inability to mourn is the widespread Catholic attachment to the innocence and purity of the fetus at all stages of its development. That the church greatly intensified its opposition to abortion at the exact time of the Vatican's loss of its territories to the Italian state in the 1850s is not a coincidence. Randall Balmer offers an analysis of U.S. Protestant fundamentalist hyper-attention to abortion that applies as well to Roman Catholicism. In the 20th century, Balmer avers, fundamentalists have felt under attack by forces beyond their control; the fetus serves to symbolize their situation. "Nothing is so pure and untainted as an unborn child…," Balmer observes, and "nothing is so vulnerable as a fetus…" Institutional Catholicism, like American fundamentalism, sees contemporary culture as alien and their own existence as precarious.[23]

  29. So thoroughgoing is the Catholic identification with the innocence of the fetus that even among liberal Catholics the attempt to distinguish between a personal decision regarding abortion and the legal right to abortion can be very costly, a situation Christine Gudorf describes as "a siege mentality in which everyone who is not 100 percent with us is against us, an enemy."[24] A genuine engagement by the institutional church with the complex situations of pregnant women, all of whom are currently obligated by Catholic sexual teaching to risk their lives and well being in the service of "innocent life," might comprise a first step toward Catholic mourning. Such a step seems highly unlikely, however.

  30. The movement of women into Catholic liturgical roles in recent years, despite the Vatican's near-virulent opposition to the actual ordination of women, could also be cause for hope. In the Catholic tradition, the female body has traditionally symbolized the fragmentation and materiality thought to undermine the church's transcendence. The positioning of the female body in relation to the sacred eucharistic elements, even if a woman is not yet the ordained celebrant, has the potential to reconfigure the psychodynamics of the Mass, undergirding the possibility of new and deeply felt acknowledgments.[25] Even the epidemic of clergy sexual abuse in recent years provides an opportunity for communal self-scrutiny and mourning.

  31. Yet undertaking such a process would require the support of the kind of empathic witness that Eric Santner describes in Stranded Objects, one who could help the community to face up to its failures and losses and work them through. Such facilitation demands a degree of courage and honesty that is currently in short supply among Catholic leaders. Until this situation changes, until the church effectively confronts and works through the multiple losses that afflict it, these losses will, I fear, continue to be projected onto the sexual other in the Catholic condemnation of abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and the ordination of women.


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