Monday, April 26, 2010

Listening to Prozac, Listening to Pedophilia


I am a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist, and a psychoanalyst. It’s a peculiar life that I lead, listening to, thinking about, and trying to heal the maladies of mood, thought, character and self-regard (or lack thereof) that are brought to my office and to my couch. It was strange the first six months that I did it, and strange ten years later, and still strange twenty-plus years into it, as I am now. Not strange to me, just strange to most other people. I am enough of an introvert that most of the time I am content to sit with the muddle and the misery and keep them largely to myself, save for the conversations I have, usually at a somewhat abstract level, with other therapists and analysts who do what I do in their own offices. The epiphanies I share with individual patients have a way of sustaining a person like me, whose penchant for privacy and wealth of reserve is a good fit, and maybe even a necessary one, for the work that I do.

There’s something about the ongoing debacle of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, however, that leaves me feeling like the kid in the back of class raising his hand with something to say, and never called on. Years of listening to and thinking about the voices of the sexually abused, from every perspective, on and behind the couch, have led me to feel particularly endowed and particularly burdened with insight into these matters. The experience of growing up Catholic and spending time in “formation” at a Catholic seminary prior to medical school gives me a particular vantage from which to view the church. Yet my status as a gay man who is frequently singled out for particular censure by the Catholic hierarchy gives me pause when I think of commenting on their failings. Would anyone hear my voice and not think I am just peeved at my own excommunication from the fold? But it turns out I have a lot to say on the subject of pedophilia in the church. The dilemma seems only to be: Where do I start?

One of the observations made recently in the media that I found particularly trenchant came from Maureen Dowd, commenting on Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist for the Holy See, who said that the abuse scandal showed that Satan uses priests to try to destroy the church, “and so we should not be surprised if priests too ... fall into temptation. They also live in the world and can fall like men of the world.”

Dowd’s comment was “Actually, falling into temptation is eating cupcakes after you’ve given them up for Lent. Rape and molestation of children is far beyond what most of us think of as succumbing to worldly temptation.”

The failure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to contemplate that maybe there is something about the church and the priesthood itself that breeds the sickness of pedophilia is exasperating in the extreme. The easy answer they prefer, that it is cultural permissiveness about sexuality that fosters the sexual abuse of children, is so lacking in insight and rich in smug self-regard that it makes me nearly apopleptic. The idea that mastery of a sexual life might be what guards against the trends that end in sexual abuse of children is so far from their comprehension that I hold little hope of their arriving at a position of moral wisdom on this subject, at least in my lifetime. They are as bought-in as a group of people can be to their doctrine that sexuality is sinful unless it is subordinate to procreation, and it is precisely this equation of all other aspects of sexuality, however they might be viewed by the rest of “the secular world” as opposites, as optimal and healthy on one end of the scale and deranged and perverse at the other, that disables their moral reasoning on the subject of sex. I think it also attracts the pedophilic character structure to the priesthood. If you know, deep in your heart, that your sexual and interpersonal reality is one that successful, actualized adults view as twisted and insufferable, then the twin enticements of the priesthood are these: The elusive ideal of chastity is seen as superior to a sexually expressive relationship between adults, and the intention to fulfill or attain it, even if doomed to occasional or frequent or, as we have seen, compulsive lapses, provides a balm of superiority to the battered self-esteem of the emotionally-hobbled pedophile. And the doctrine that all non-procreative acts are equally or at least similarly in violation of natural law, the view that enables Father Gabriele Amorth to think of child seduction or rape as “giving into temptation” instead of acts of an entirely other order, likewise appeals to the fractured vanity of the pedophile, who can feel he’s no worse than all the fornicating, contraception-using, masturbating masses, and maybe even a step above them, as he has worn the cloak of priestly virtues in at least some traditional respects, comforting the bereaved, preaching charity, forgoing personal wealth, stifling the impulse to petty gossip, and the like.

Certainly the Catholic priesthood over the centuries has attracted exemplary men, men of exceptional ego strength, uncompromised virtue, and true sacrifice. But it has also attracted quite the opposite, and the church cannot pretend that its attraction of large numbers of pedophiles has nothing to do with the contours of the institution it has created. The longstanding and current assertion that it is permissiveness about homosexuality in the secular world with which the church must coexist, or perhaps on the formation staffs of its own seminaries, that accounts for the ghastly pervasiveness of sexual abuse by ordained priests, is not merely misguided and inaccurate. It is that (misguided and inaccurate), and it's a logical outgrowth of their superiority complex about the renunciation of sex for gratification’s sake, but it is also pathetic, dishonest, and selfish—-the scapegoating of yet another vulnerable population-—and it’s unworthy of anyone who would make claims to honesty, charity or moral authority.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy exists in a world of their own deliberate perpetuation that is pre-modern and basically ahistorical with respect to sexuality. The actual world in which we live, in which health and maturity are achieved, or in which they prove to be beyond the capacity of certain unfortunate or, yes, morally defective individuals, is not one in which moral wisdom exists only in the valuing of virginity and the observance of due gravity about procreative capacity. Almost any normal, moral, mature adult could tell you this. The hierarchy of the church, however, cannot or will not. While we know the large chasm, and many differences, between the activities of a pedophile with a child and the consensual, respectful, tender activities of two adults who are motivated by many things but not by any wish to conceive a child, the church hierarchy conflates them in an instant, and points to our tolerance for the supposed evils of the latter as breeding ground for the former. Psychologically, this happens to be the exact opposite of the truth, and in the twenty-first century we are not such victims of misinformation that we can’t come right out and say so. Pedophiles cannot manage the rigors that adults in functional, intimate, ongoing sexual relationships with other adults must rise to: We must let another whole, more-or-less equal person, whose interests we must consider mutually with our own, into the vulnerable and messy recesses of our lives, and not only survive it but come back to it another day and in fact come back to it on a string of other days stretching forward into an indefinite future. Pedophiles, on the other hand, are terrified of vulnerability. They either avoid it entirely, or keep an internal running score of acts of domination that compensate for what they feel are the accumulated humiliations of interpersonal relations, and so lead split lives of seeming normalcy alongside hidden perversity that, in their view of things, equalizes the psychic imbalance. It is the capacity to accept ourselves as imperfect and messy and perhaps at times ridiculous in our own eyes, and in the eyes of at least our chosen intimate partner, and the ability not to judge our imperfections too harshly, that makes us capable of sexual intimacy in its most moral form. It is the inability to tolerate any such thing that prompts the pedophile to do what he does. The teaching that sexual relations for purposes that are not procreative, or even masturbation, are evil in the eyes of God does not help any individual prepare for sexual or interpersonal maturity, or to direct their sexual energies into channels that are consistent with health instead of the tortured path of sickness and depravity.

A second subject, tangled up with the splitting of life into normalcy and perversity that so often attends to the existence of pedophilia, is the meaning of secret-keeping. Part of the domination of a child by a pedophile is coercion to accept that the reality of these events is authored only by the abuser; they have only the meaning he gives them or are in fact made magically unreal by his wish that they be so. Most any survivor of sexual abuse can tell you that secrecy about the events of their abuse protects the abuser and perpetuates the destruction of the victim. How is it that members of the hierarchy can unselfconsciously utter the assertion that they thought secrecy was in the best interests of the Universal Church? They are more than a bit like Michael Jackson telling Martin Brashear on network television that there was nothing wrong about an adult sharing his bed with children, in fact nothing more beautiful in the world, and not realizing that he had, by his own obliviousness, convicted himself in the court of public opinion. No one in their right moral mind could have said what he said, and most everyone but him knew it instantly. Exactly what is the moral derangement that allows some, many, in fact, in the Roman Catholic hierarchy to perceive a greater moral good in secret-keeping about priestly pedophilia than in bringing pedophilia into the light, and marshalling every force, religious and civil, that could bring it to an end? That greater moral good is not apparent to we mere lay people, and we do not suspect, as a matter of fact, than any exists. I for one suspect that the hierarchy’s different ordering of values has something to do with the very notion of hierarchy-—that the mutuality and equality that orders life for those of us who maintain intimate adult relationships is at odds with the hierarchical order of Roman Catholic clerical life, and the idea that one’s subordinates should accept bearing a cross for the good or the aggrandizement of someone or something greater seems more in keeping with moral order when everyone is one up or one down, and never straight across the breakfast table from you.

Few in the Roman Catholic hierarchy could care less what I think, except perhaps if there’s an advantage to be gained in tying an unwelcome message to a messenger as discredited as me. But I believe, nevertheless, that the reformation necessary to address what’s ailing their church is one in which the inequalities between clergy and laity, male and female, celibate and sexual, adult and child, gay and straight, all begin to bend to the sensibilities of the-—heaven forfend!—-modern world in which we find ourselves. Only then will the exploitation of the weak, and the cover-ups that perpetuate it, strike them in something like the way it strikes us—as an unmitigated injustice, with no veneer of godliness.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thoughts about Gods and idols, on a day between Pesach and Easter, 2010


I may doubt the existence of God, but there’s little doubt in my mind about the perils of idolatry.

In my understanding, it falls under the definition of idolatry to worship a God we have imagined to be like us, and not consider that an infinite divinity is likely to be beyond our self-centeredness, beyond our insecurity, our shame, our doubt, our vengefulness, our sadism, our single-mindedness, our intolerance, our venality. If there is a God, natural or supernatural, it would seem to be in the definition of God to be larger than our frail imaginations, and larger than our anthropomorphic declarations about “His” mind and motives.

I believe quite passionately (fervently, to use a word to use a word that is usually reserved for the traditionally religious) that those who believe in a supernatural being are most spiritual when they avoid dividing the sacred and the profane along the same line that separates believers in their own version of God from believers in God by another name, or believers in a supernatural God from the believers in none. When they make these divisions, I think what is displayed is reckless hubris and ultimately, idolatry. Though I may doubt the existence of God, of this I am convinced: the idolatry of thinking God has taken our side is a most grievous sin against the very nature of what is sacred. The experience of the sacred is far too important to humanity to be sequestered by only those--and for only those--who believe in one particular, or in fact any, supernatural being.

A fair number of us, supernaturalists and non-supernaturalists alike, would sanctify the moral tenet that to obliterate others in the name of the divine, to persecute them, certainly, or enslave them, but even to demean them or treat them in any way other than according to the golden rule, belongs to the category of evil, not to the category of good. I consider these my spiritual brethren. I sadly fear that we are not a majority on the planet, and never have been, but that in itself does not defeat us, annihilate us, convert us, or cause us to despair.

The faithful can call me an atheist, or not. It is not important to me. I hope I can be credited with this: that I strive to possess the virtue of humility and avoid the sin of idolatry. Can they say the same, themselves? Are those two things a virtue and a sin, respectively, in their vocabulary? How disciplined, logical, mature, consistent, generous, fair and loving is their own act of faith? Or do they not take ownership of their faith as their own act? Do their holy scriptures relieve them of any such responsibility? Jean-Paul Sartre receives a lot of contempt from people who’ve never read a word he wrote, but one of his assertions that I came to appreciate in a profound way in my college years is this: We cannot blame our beliefs or our actions on those who have advised us, because ultimately the fact of our human existence once we reach maturity is that we choose our advisers. That includes choosing holy scripture.

Freedom of religion served as a major organizer of the Constitution of the United States. It was a dearly-held principle at the time of its drafting-—made dear by much recent and cumulative religious persecution. I am happy to stand with its defenders, because I know it is a right on which much human happiness depends, and without which much human suffering proliferates. It gets far more lip service than it gets true respect and appreciation. It is attacked incessantly by many who claim to hold it in high esteem. At its core is a value that I consider to be deeply spiritual-—that my fellow man and I have mutual and equal rights to declare what is sacred and divine in our experience, and that recognition of this equality is itself a declaration of something held sacred, the absence of which is best regarded as a manifestation of evil.

There is in our culture an oft-stated aphorism that everything happens for a reason. This is a thesis usually associated with numerous corollaries, any of which may be doubted: if we believe not everything happens for a reason, then we think we have been abandoned by God, or worse, we have abandoned “Him;” either way, nothing could possibly be sacred any longer, nothing moral or immoral, nothing endowed with meaning. But perhaps these assertions are false. The conception of a God with a plan that stretches infinitely in every direction stretches, itself, in every direction but one, which is toward contemplation that perhaps our human lot is to grapple with our existence and our need for morality and our need for categories of sacred and profane without the simplicity of a divinely-conceived reason for it all. Contemplation that our lot may be to cope with events as having a natural or human cause and not bring the supernatural in to share blame or authorship.

One of the spiritual highlights of my last several decades has been to sit in a planetarium and look at the Hubble Deep Field. It is an image of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major, constructed from a series of photographs taken over ten consecutive days in December, 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It covers an area just 2.5 arcminutes across, therefore just two millionths of the sky. The field is so small that only a few foreground stars in the Milky Way lie within it, yet there are 3,000 objects in the image, all the rest of which are other galaxies. Galaxies; not solar systems, not planets. Three years later, the image called the Hubble Deep Field South was compiled, of a similar tiny slice of the south celestial hemisphere. The similarities between this bit of sky and the one in the Hubble Deep Field advanced our understanding that the universe is uniform all around us, and that the region of the universe the Earth occupies is typical. That means that in ten days, measurable light from 1.5 billion galaxies could be photographed if we undertook to photograph the entire sky. How many would we see-—because enough of their light finally reached us in measurable amounts—-in a month? In a year?

My rational mind—-the mind that has travelled the worlds of chemistry and biology and medicine--understands that the chances that the elements that combined to give rise to carbon-based life here on Earth have done so only here, and nowhere else in the universe, are infinitesimally small. And my spiritual self-—yes, I insist that I have one, just as much as any other human-—believes that if any of us on Earth undertakes to conceive of God as universal, then our need for humility, in the face of the enormity of the universe, cannot be overstated. Could we ever be too circumspect, too tolerant, too patient, too humble in our assertions? Seems unlikely to me.

If life on Earth is not unique, but in fact typical of life elsewhere in the universe, what could we expect to deduce from it? It seems to me that the challenge for us is how to live with our fellow beings in a way that gives us meaning and hope and moral direction, while at the same time recognizing that the universe—-by the hand of a supernatural God or not-—gave rise to sentient others just as it gave rise to us. Annihilation of the other could be our godly imperative, just as submission to annihilation could be the path to eternal, non-corporeal life. But what about the other possibilities? Are they less likely? What if divinity lies along the path of co-existence, however difficult that turns out to be? What if the concept of the devil, of the evil other, was just an anthropomorphic projection on the universe, a supernatural goblin we conceived, to help us make sense of the terrors of existence? What if our true godly orientation to the other is always to figure out best how to hold onto ourselves, not lose ourselves as we meet him or her, and yet not annihilate what is them, on the assumption that they are our equal? When I think about things that I hold to be undeniably immoral-—bullying, battering, murder, child sexual abuse, genocide-—what is apparent to me is the psychic annihilation intended in all of them. These are the acts that would rouse me to defensive action. I would live with ambivalence about the harm, destruction or death entailed in my cause, but it’s where I would confidently plant my spiritual colors and defend my ground.

I spent years feeling deeply conflicted about the casual statements by others that they would ‘pray for me,’ or requests they made that I ‘pray for them’ or those they loved. For years, I couldn’t say ‘yes, I would,’ because I couldn’t pray in the way I did as a child, to the God I had been taught existed. Only in my forties have I concluded that I am entitled to my own understanding of divinity, and that my will, lifted and directed in hopeful expectation of redemption, whatever that may be, is just as sacred and worthy of solicitation as anyone else’s. I will not pray that your team wins the Superbowl, or that your daughter’s team wins her swim meet—-it insults my concept of everything properly spiritual. But I will pray for anyone’s comfort, and peace, and solace-—because I do not believe that the meaning of the sacred is in the path of suffering, but instead that it endures despite suffering. I understand that frequently the sacred might lie down a path that requires a person to turn away from selfishness, destruction, and falsehood, and that the mantle of responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions can be a painful one to pick up and bear. But I cannot sanctify as “prayer” my wishes that anyone encounter ill for the sake of ill, or suffering for the sake of vengeance. I know better. I have changed my mind over time about how to respond, though, when people ask me to pray for them. Now I say that I will, and I mean it. I am a spiritual person who does not believe in a supernatural God. I pray, maybe not every day, and certainly not in my most venal, selfish moments, but I do pray; I pause to lift my will in the direction of what I understand to be sacred and divine, for my family, for my friends, sometimes even for my enemies, and always for the safe forward transit of our tiny Earth in our incomprehensibly enormous universe. I just do not require the certainty of a respondent in order to know I am praying.