The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust

Modern Catholic sexuality is a dark and troubled landscape.

Illustration by Cornelia Li

By Robert A. Orsi

Would we who are scholars of religion not all agree—and who ought to know this better than we do—that on balance, in the long perspective of human history, religions have done more harm than good and that the good they do is almost always inseparable from the harm? I think we would. This is not to deny that religions have done and continue to do good things. But that I even have to utter such a correction—and that we scholars of religion feel compelled to do so, always, right after we speak what we all agree is a simple truth—shows the power of the idea that, in the end, religions are essentially good. It is so powerful and deeply embedded that rarely do we—who ought to know better—pause to stare into the depths of the truth that religions have, over time, done more harm than good before we scramble up toward the warm sunlight of good religion.

Sometimes, we might observe, if we are inclined to be irenic, that the harm a religion does is a distortion of its true identity or of its essence; or we might specify the features that identify a particular religion as harmful, carefully setting a boundary between it and good religions; or we might say, if we are sociologically or historically inclined, that the harm a religion does is attributable to environmental factors. Some might even affirm in a heroic spirit of theological brutalism usually, but not always, associated with muscular male Christianity, that yes, religion, specifically Christianity, is hard, that the Christian God is a hard God, as is the world this Christian God has made, as are the things this Christian God may demand of humans, things that may go against our natural inclinations or that contravene the pallid decencies that less heroic men and women mistakenly identify with the good. In this case, the harm that religions do is embraced and called not just ethically good, but holy. Or some might say, in a spirit of theoretical rigor, that the assertion is poorly framed; that every word in it—“religion,” “harm,” “good,” “perspective,” “human,” “history”—carries a history; that this history is marked by the violence and presumptions of racism, sexism, or the hierarchies of social class; that in any case, such words mean nothing apart from their place within particular linguistic and semiotic structures, within specific ontologies and epistemologies; that used naively and un-self-critically, such words mistake the contingencies of personal prejudices for timeless truth. This is all true. I have said much of this myself in my work over the years. But still, I say, and perhaps we agree, that in the long perspective of human history, religion has done more harm than good and that the good it does is inextricable from the harm.

Please don’t think that what I have said so far and will go on to say are the sentiments of a cranky hater of religion of the sort that characterizes the inevitably short-lived but much-touted public performances of atheism in the United States.1 If you know my work, you know this is not me. I was raised in a devout Italian Catholic home. I served as an altar boy in my parish until I left for college. This means that throughout my childhood and adolescence I was at Mass many times during the week, often in the early hours of the morning, when the Bronx was held by a deep and peaceful stillness that seemed sacred to me. I have never met anyone more sanely religious than my mother, who managed to hold together throughout her life a deep and sustaining love of Jesus, Mary, and the saints with an abiding contempt for the pretentions to power and the capacities for cruelty of the Catholic Church, especially of various cardinals of New York, for one of whom, Cardinal Francis Spellman, she worked as a secretary in the Military Ordinariate when she was just out of high school. My mother is dead now, but if she hears me, as she sometimes, not always, believed she would be able to do after her death, I know she will understand when I say on this day that I am disgusted with Catholicism and, by extension, with all religion.

What I want to offer here is a phenomenology of the disgust of a scholar of religion, of its dangers, but also of what I have come to see not only as the inevitability of disgust in the life of a scholar of religion, but more, its usefulness on many levels, emotional, psychological, existential, and intellectual. I will be talking about my disgust with Catholicism for the most part, but let me say at the outset that I am also assuming that there are others here today who have reason to be disgusted with what they study and that they are ready to talk about this with me and with each other. Perhaps some of you are disgusted, for instance, by how cravenly evangelicals have embraced political corruption in the United States today in order to advance the allegedly Christian agenda of ostracizing and harassing young LGBTQ people, curtailing women’s reproductive rights and basic health care, and reviving a toxic white Christian nationalism. I know, I know, not all evangelicals, just like not all priests, not all bishops, not all congregations . . . but I am not talking about these other ones today, and anyway this is just another way of avoiding the question, and the disgust. The ecumenicism of disgust aside, however, it may be that disgust is a distinctly Catholic emotion, given that the central act of worship in Catholicism, the sacrament of God’s real presence, is the reception, ingestion, and digestion of the consecrated bread and wine, which is to say God’s body and blood, in the community that gathers for and is constituted by this practice. It is not surprising that I, as a Catholic, am disgusted with Catholicism. But then again, most religions, I daresay all religions, offer practitioners the opportunity on some occasion or another to eat, lick, kiss, or drink something, and so disgust may be a potentiality of all religions. In any case, I am assuming that in a group of scholars of religion there will always be, or ought to be, some percentage that is thoroughly disgusted.

The word “crisis” for this moment in Catholic history is a mischaracterization, if “crisis” includes any notion of the exceptional, unforeseen, or unusual nature either of the abuse or its cover-up.

My disgust with Catholicism has been growing for a long time. For the past ten years or so, I have been immersed in the sheer horror of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis. “The sexual abuse crisis” refers to the sexual violation of Catholics by their priests, first of all, and, second, to the protection of these priests by their bishops and religious superiors, who were quite often themselves involved in illicit sexual activities. The word “crisis” for this moment in Catholic history is a mischaracterization, if what is meant by “crisis” includes any notion of the exceptional, unforeseen, or unusual nature either of the abuse or its cover-up. The psychologist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest who spent his life studying the sexual behavior of Catholic priests, has written that on the evidence of his practice and research, at any time no more than half of all Catholic priests are living in faithfulness to their vow of celibacy. Sipe passed away in August 2018, and I would like to take this moment to say that, had the ranks of Catholic saints not been compromised by some hasty recent additions I would not hesitate to affirm that Richard Sipe is a saint. Scholar of religion Mark Jordan refers to Catholicism as an “empire of closets.” Priests have been sexually active throughout the modern era (and before, but I am primarily concerned with the post-Trent period), with children and adolescents, with nuns, with seminarians, and with each other, depending on the nature of individual priests’ needs and inclinations; these sexual activities have taken place in churches, rectories, convents, and schools, in the missions, in orphanages, in mother and baby homes, and in private residences, often owned by priests’ families—basically everywhere.2

Church authorities have known about all this, all along, and they have always taken a managerial attitude toward it. The agents of the Inquisition might be an exception to this; they seem to have pursued cases of clerical sexual misconduct not only seriously, but vigorously.3 Modern church authorities are generally without concern for the children, sometimes very young children, for the teenagers, or for the men and women of whatever ages with whom priests are having sex. Their primary concern has been the protection of the Church’s prerogatives, above all its political influence, property, and finances. The strategies for covering up the crimes and misdeeds of sexually predatory priests, as mandated by the Vatican and official church procedures, such as moving them around a diocese or out of the state or country, almost always resulted in further abuse, sexual, but also, collaterally, legal, emotional, and economic damage, as when church officials went after victims with high-powered and aggressive counsel or when parish workers who spoke out lost not only their jobs but the prospects of ever working in the Church again. The extent of the destruction is vast. Lay people at different times and in different places have more or less known about it all too; how they responded or failed to respond are questions for historical analysis. There is also, in other words, the destructiveness of pervasive bad faith.

There is no comparison between the stress the research might cause me and what the victims endured.

I am often asked whether this work is personally difficult for me. The question, as well-meaning as it is, always makes me uncomfortable, and I have usually responded by saying that while it is profoundly troubling to hear stories of sexual violence, against anyone, but especially children, it is the suffering and pain of the victims that ought to occupy the center of our attention. There is no comparison between the stress the research might cause me and what the victims endured. This was true enough until about a year ago, when I began working my way through the enormous cache of documents on Boston’s Father Paul Shanley. These included 30 years of correspondence between Father Shanley, who was known already to his classmates at St. John’s Seminary for his excessive and bizarre sexual appetites, and his various overseers in the Boston chancery. It was here, with Father Shanley, that the research began to get very difficult for me.

Father Shanley’s first assignment out of seminary in 1960 was to Saint Patrick’s parish in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where he immediately began sexually abusing boys as young as six. On one occasion, after listening in confession to a boy’s struggles with purity, Father Shanley demanded the boy masturbate him, calling this the “lesser evil” than the boy masturbating himself. He compelled another boy to masturbate him in the baptistry. On land he owned or rented in rural New England, Father Shanley had some sort of campground where he brought boys for weekends of sex; afterwards, on the way back to the city, he dropped them off at the church of a “brother priest,” as members of the clerical fraternity refer to one another, who absolved them of the weekend’s sins. By 1969, so notorious had Father Shanley become in the Boston archdiocese for his out-of-control sexual behavior that, in his own words, “no pastor in the Archdiocese will have [me]” as his assistant. This did not stop the aged Richard Cardinal Cushing from agreeing to Father Shanley’s plan to establish a residence in Roxbury for homeless youth, a population Cushing identified in the 1970 letter appointing Fr. Shanley to this ministry as “desperately need[ing] the solace of Christ in an increasingly impersonal world.” What they got, thanks to Cardinal Cushing, was a rapist.4

Fr. Shanley was an effective self-promoter: during his nine years in Roxbury he successfully cultivated a romantic image of himself as a hip young street priest who understood the problems and needs of Boston’s “alienated youth” better than other adults did, including their parents. He became a much-sought-after public speaker on the “youth problem” and, increasingly, on gay rights, for which he was an ardent—and ardently self-aggrandizing—advocate. As the 1970s wore on, Father Shanley’s belief that only he was courageous and bold enough to speak the truth about sexuality seems to have made him more and more aggressive in his public pronouncements on the subject—outrageously so. His lies become bolder in this period, his self-embellishment extravagant. Cushing had been succeeded by Cardinal Humberto Sousa Medeiros, who clearly did not know what to do with the notorious street priest he had inherited. The aura of the late Cardinal Cushing’s support and affection protected Father Shanley. Everyone in Boston seemed to know that in the last year of his life, Cushing liked to drop by Warwick House, as Fr. Shanley had rather grandiosely styled his Roxbury apartment, after holiday dinners at his sister’s home. The cardinal died later that year. “I remember how Cardinal Cushing loved [Father Shanley],” Shanley’s longtime secretary, (Miss) Eileen Mulcahy, wrote to Medeiros in November 1971, “and how he came to Thanksgiving dinner with the street kids.” It is more than likely that Father Shanley dictated this letter.

In late September 1977, Fr. Shanley gave a talk to the Rochester, New York, chapter of Dignity, the organization of gay Catholics. This event came amid the controversy over the Declaration regarding Certain Questions of Sexual Ethics, issued in January 1976 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Declaration is a complex document beyond the scope of this essay to consider. What is important for understanding Father Shanley’s talk was Rome’s reassertion of the (singular) “natural law” argument against sexual acts that “do not have their true significance or moral force outside of legitimate marriage.” These included extramarital sex, masturbation, and homosexuality. Fr. Shanley opened his talk in Rochester with the assertion that “straight people cannot tell the truth about sex” and then went on to say that no sexual act causes psychological damage to participants, not even bestiality or incest; that when adults have sex with children “the kid is the seducer,” not the adult; and that the only thing that harms children in these cases is when the police “drag” them in for questioning. (He later repeated this claim at a meeting of the Boy-Man love association in Boston.) All of this was faithfully reported to the Boston Chancery by a Catholic woman who had attended the lecture. She identifies herself in correspondence with the cardinal as a former nurse, the wife of a physician, and an anti-abortion activist. She was quickly impugned by church officials in Rochester, who challenged the presumptuous “tone” of her report—she was a woman, after all, and they were priests, one of them a monsignor—before they dismissed it and her.

Then, in November 1978, Cardinal Medeiros received a sharply worded letter from Cardinal Franjo Seper of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which had gotten hold of a set of audio tapes Fr. Shanley had made for public distribution, titled “Changing Norms of Sexuality.” In them, Fr. Shanley claims, falsely, to have been assigned to “full-time ministry to homosexuals” under Medeiros’s authorization. Seper asked Medeiros “to inform the Congregation of any steps you have taken or intend to take in regard to the spread of [Father Shanley’s] erroneous ideas and in regard to the position of Father Shanley.” Medeiros’s response, dated February 12, 1979, is anxiously defensive, not surprisingly. But of greater interest is his decision to cite in his own defense the new procedures for evaluating candidates to the priesthood he had introduced in the archdiocese, as a result of which, he writes, a “large number of homosexual men,” who otherwise would have been ordained, were “removed from the path to the priesthood.” It is as if he were reassuring Seper that he, Cardinal Medeiros, was as good at the carpentry of closets as any other Catholic authority. Then he puts the blame for Shanley squarely on Cushing’s shoulders (leaving open the question of why he himself left Shanley in place for eight years), and he concludes, “I believe Fr. Shanley is a troubled priest.” Shortly afterwards, Medeiros removed Fr. Shanley from the Roxbury ministry and put him back in parish work, although he reassured Shanley that this new appointment was not meant as punishment. To the sheep among whom he had put the wolf, the shepherd said nothing.

Ten troubled years followed. Cardinal Bernard Law succeeded Cardinal Medeiros in 1984, and in 1990, Fr. Shanley resigned from parish work and moved to the diocese of San Bernardino, California, vaguely citing ill health. To smooth the way for his reception, the vicar for administration of the Boston archdiocese, the Most Reverend Robert J. Banks, who knew full well Shanley’s history, writes to his counterpart in San Bernardino: “His Eminence, Cardinal Law, will appreciate whatever assistance can be given to Father Shanley. . . . I can assure you that Fr. Shanley has no problem that would be of concern to your diocese.” Officially, Fr. Shanley was on medical leave. He continued to collect his salary from the Boston archdiocese, which also paid his medical bills. He told the administrators back in Boston who were responsible for him that he was working part-time at a parish in San Bernardino. But since the archdiocese was sending his paychecks and reimbursements to a post office box, they in fact had no idea where he was. As it turned out, Fr. Shanley was operating a bed-and-breakfast for a gay clientele with a fellow priest in Palm Springs.

Detail of issue's cover illustration, showing a man walking forward from a sphere with a shimmering sky above and oily swirls reflected below

Illustration by Cornelia Li

Throughout this period in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston, if a pastor of even the smallest, most remote parish wanted to make long-postponed repairs to the physical plant he was responsible for—say, for example, he wanted to purchase a new heater to replace the malfunctioning, dangerous, and unhealthy one he had been living with for years—he was compelled to enter into a protracted correspondence with chancery officials. His letters to them would need to be couched in the most deferential and obsequious language, while their responses to him bristled with mistrust of his judgment and contempt for his management abilities. A maintenance engineer sent out from the chancery to review the situation might suggest cheaper alternatives, or perhaps another contractor, one better known to the chancery, or he might propose temporary measures. These could be as specific as the advice given a South Boston priest in 1978 to change the location of a thermostat in the rectory.

Yet, between 1990 and Fr. Shanley’s conviction of sexual crimes in 2005, officials in the chancery, many of whom had known him since the seminary, treated his hectoring and abusive demands for money with the most exquisite respect, attention, and courtesy. They settled legal claims against him and, afterwards, with the greatest solicitude reassured him that he need not worry anymore. They rarely knew where Shanley was living. “I hope you are well, Paul,” Father William F. Murphy, delegate to the archbishop, writes Shanley in the summer, 1998, when Shanley may have been rooming with a young man in New York City, adding, “as always, I will help you in any way I can.” Two years earlier, Shanley had taunted the assistant to the secretary for ministerial personnel, Fr. Brian M. Flatley, who had inquired about his living arrangements, “Do you prefer that I have a female roommate?” (Father Shanley was a master of the misogynist non sequitur, a distinct genre of Catholic clerical discourse: when he is accused of sexual misconduct with boys or men, he often redirects chancery officials’ attention to the figure he knows they would all have agreed was the real threat to clerical celibacy, the priest-obsessed women in the parish who, Father Shanley alleges, are after him.) He tells his correspondents what to put in their reports on him. After Flatley visited Father Shanley in New York to check up on his living situation—and discovers the young male roommate—Father Shanley demands he add to the draft of the report Flatley has already shared with him, “There was no evidence of children present while I was there.” Flatley obediently does so. Father Shanley threatens, cajoles, and bullies, sometimes subtly, most often with obvious pleasure. He knows exactly what he is doing when he works the system. “Now that my friend and classmate John McCormack is a bishop,” he warns Flatley at one point, “I shall expect upgraded consideration and respect from you at every turn.” He informs Flatley, McCormack, and others that, for their sakes, to permit them deniability, he is not telling them the whole truth about his whereabouts or activities, thereby implicating them, in writing, with every letter he sends them.

Why did these men of authority, prestige, and prominence, who were empowered to loosen and to bind on heaven and earth; men who decided who might receive God’s body in good conscience and who were forbidden; men who demanded government recognition for Catholic moral teaching in setting hospital practice, prohibited abortion even in the most extreme cases of medical emergency, and denied contraceptives to employees of Catholic institutions that are underwritten by federal funds; men who extended their hands even to the most powerful that they might kiss their rings, why did these men behave so cravenly toward a rapist and pedophile who had so often embarrassed them, betrayed their faith, and endangered their Church? Perhaps it was solidarity among “brother priests,” secured by the enduring bonds of seminary friendships, with all the prerogatives that come with faithful allegiance to this network; or maybe it was genuine affection (which seems to have been true of Bishop McCormack); perhaps in some cases it was respect for what was seen as Shanley’s moral courage in the 1970s for speaking out against the Church’s teaching on sexual issues; or perhaps it was, as it is so often claimed, the risk of scandal (which is serious because of the grave threat it poses to ordinary Catholics who lose their faith on account of it).

Or maybe it was because of this: in September 1995, Fr. Shanley, fighting to stay in New York City on the Boston archdiocese’s payroll and health plan, reminds Flatley that he, Father Shanley, has abided by “every rule and restriction given me,” including that of never mentioning the “fact” that he had been sexually abused as a teenager “and, later, as a seminarian by a priest, a faculty member, a pastor, and ironically by the predecessor of one of the two Cardinals [sic] who now decide my fate,” a reference to Boston’s Cardinal Law and New York’s Cardinal O’Connor. Flatley forwards this correspondence to the New York chancery the next day, with the comment, “Some crazy stuff in there! He is an interesting character.”5

With this, we come at last to disgust. It took this long to get here because I could not speak casually or without sufficient warrant of my disgust with the religious world of my ancestors in Sicily and Tuscany, on the Lower East Side of New York City and in the Bronx, in which I was raised. Do you think this is easy for me? I needed to tell you what brought me to this horrible place. It is a defamation of the demand for justice by victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse and of its cover-up by Catholic authorities to attribute it to some passing reflex of modern anti-Catholic prejudice. It is also a defamation of my disgust.

Disgust lacks the cultivated reserve of the hermeneutics of suspicion that so easily slides into a posture of knowingness, with the reassurance of the scholar’s superiority over religious practitioners.

What distinguishes disgust from other responses a scholar might have to religious phenomena? Disgust is visceral and intimate; it is the power of revulsion in the body. Disgust lacks the cultivated reserve of the hermeneutics of suspicion that so easily slides into a posture of knowingness, with the accompanying reassurance of the scholar’s superiority over religious practitioners. Disgust brings the scholar directly into the horror; it represents the force of his or her body refusing to allow him or her to step back. It signals arrival at a point where critical analysis, for the time being at least, is not adequate to the reality encountered. Disgust is not shame; it is the rejection of shame and a step toward agency.

Contemporary philosophers and cognitive scientists commonly view disgust as a device of social, moral, and ontological control, when disgust is caused, for example, by persons or behaviors that are transgressing racialized or gendered norms that have been granted the status of the natural in a given lifeworld. To be disgusted by another in such instances is not only to project onto him or her the judgments of the powerful, meaning those who determine the coordinates of the normal or the “natural”; it is to mobilize the other to underwrite the realness of that world he or she is said to be transgressing by his or her behaviors, or body, or by his or her very being. Disgust in this sense has been a powerful device in the hands of religious authorities generally, Catholic authorities in particular, against gay people (as in aversive therapies or rejection from the sacraments), women (as in menstrual taboos), trans persons, and others. Likewise, we ought to pay special attention and take particular care when we find ourselves disgusted by the behaviors of the poor or the needs of the sick, by the smells of poverty or sickness, or by the inevitable breakdown of the human body.6 Not to be attentive to the dangers of disgust poses the risk that my unexamined disgust may be directed at actions that are merely unpopular or unfamiliar to me, or that perhaps my disgust is not directed at actions at all but at categories of persons. But these things do not disgust me. When I am so attentive, when I take the necessary care, I discover that my disgust is on the other side of critique. I know, I know, I know . . . but I am still deeply disgusted. And I am proposing to take disgust itself away from the powerful and use it against them.

I am disgusted with them not for who they are, but for what they have done, what they have permitted, and now for what they refuse to say or do in order to atone for their years of complicity and criminality and to prevent the recurrence of this horror. I am disgusted by the cowardice, venality, and cruelty of diocesan administrators, by their failure first to recognize the grievous harm done to persons in their care, then to empathize with their sufferings, then to protect them, and then to take responsibility for these failures. I am disgusted by the strange sadomasochistic rituals that some prelates have offered by way of expiation that only reinscribe the very dynamics of abuse from which sexual violence emerged and that empowered them.7 I am disgusted by what priests and bishops did to children, to their bodies and to their minds, to the rest of their lives, and I am disgusted that they knew all along the harm they were doing, over and over again. I am disgusted by what they did to families and to communities, and I am especially disgusted that they said they were doing all these things in God’s name.

Disgust makes it all but impossible to fall back on the good religion/bad religion distinction. I say “all but impossible” here because I know, as I said earlier, how deeply pressed this distinction is into our bodies and minds as modern people. I want to say: but no . . . think of—[insert here the name of a good priest]. But disgust reminds me that this good priest knew what was going on with his “brother priests,” that he colluded in the discourses, practices, and privileges that turned the vulnerable into victims. But no, I want to say again, think of—[insert here the name of a religious institute dedicated to good works]. Disgust reminds me of the sexual abuse of indigenous people at the hands of Catholic missionaries who claimed a vocation to go and care for them in the United States and around the world, of those who knew about it and tolerated it in the name of something higher, and of the sexual abuse of orphans, of children with disabilities, of drug-addicted teenagers.

Please make no mistake about this: it is impossible to separate “religion” here from the rape of children, young people, women, seminarians, and novices. “There is no one” among the victims of clerical sexual abuse, a survivor I got to know well named Monica told me, “who was not abused in a Catholic way.” Here is an example of what you find in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: “Victim three reported that, while he was an altar boy, Father Ed, as the boys called Parrakow, told the altar boys not to wear any clothing under their cassocks because God did not want any man-made clothes to be worn next to their skin while they were serving Mass. Parrakow also told the boys their cassocks had been blessed and were meant to be worn next to the skin.”

Disgust teaches me that the history of religion is always also a history of perversions…in the sense of perversions as fundamental to the constitution of a religious world.

Disgust directs us toward the painful truth of religion in human life beyond the bourgeois pieties of “religion” as it is defined and policed in the modern era. Scholars of religion are exquisitely attentive to how religion is implicated in social questions—and Christian scholars of Christianity’s efforts to practice a social gospel; they are less attentive to religion’s inextricability with human beings’ most basic drives and impulses, with sex, with aggression, with the dynamics of domination and submission, sadism and masochism. These exist even among the ostensibly good religious practitioners, as the history of the civil rights movement attests, for instance, or as we now know about the pacifist John Howard Yoder. Such dynamics do not exist apart from the realities of particular social environments and structures of power. But neither is the reverse true, that we can account for the dynamics of a religious world in purely social categories without examining the movement of these subterranean currents, which are themselves born of the peculiarities of particular religious worlds. There are theological, historical, and social reasons why priests fantasized children as objects of their desire—and why John Howard Yoder aimed to control women theologians sexually—but the desire is real and takes on a life of its own. Disgust teaches me that the history of religion is always also a history of perversions, not in the sense of “perversions of the original goodness of a religious world” but in the sense of perversions as fundamental to the constitution of a religious world.

What I understand now is that the dark and troubled landscape of modern Catholic sexuality, and therefore of modern Catholicism itself, has been the normal, everyday life of modern Catholicism. This is not a crisis. It is the modern Catholic normal, finally disclosed for all to see clearly. What Richard Sipe’s claim that no more than 50 percent of ordained men at any time are living in faithfulness to their vow of celibacy translates into as lived experience is that priests and prelates are always in possession of sexual dirt on each other. This makes every priest intimately vulnerable to the network of “brother priests,” but it also gives priests a measure of control over it. It is there to be manipulated for their own purposes of power and sex. Secret sexual knowledge is the integument of the network and its operating principle. This is the sexual modernity created in large part by the Council of Trent’s insistence on maintaining clerical celibacy. In grand jury reports, victims’ testimonies, and perpetrators’ dossiers, the relationship between ordination and sexual privilege, between what is permitted to priests and forbidden to lay people, is on display for all to see. All this sexual activity has taken place in the context of official and unofficial repression, denial, secrecy, and moral condemnation, with their attendant stimulations, permissions, and excitement. This has facilitated the sexual exploitation of children, young people, and women, rendering them silent by canonical decree, legal agreement, and public shaming. The modern Catholic normal has been a dangerous, violent, and horribly destructive environment.

It feels to me that disgust is the final step in the explication of the idea of lived religion. On the other side of disgust is a clearer vision of how religion is actually lived in everyday life, with its intimate cruelties, its petty as well as profound humiliations, its sadism and its masochism, its abuses of power, and its impulses to destroy and dominate. We know there is more to religion than this. But we ought to know as well, and never forget, that there is nothing to religion without this and that even the more of religion, religion’s really realness, is implicated in horrors.


  1. On a recent, much-touted public performance of atheism, see Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Fry, The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution (Random House, 2019); for a longer historical perspective, see the excellent study by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press, 2016).
  2. In general, it is difficult to imagine that relations between a layperson and a priest might be consensual, given the priest’s ontological superiority and privilege within this particular religious world; yet it seems necessary, if only in recognition of the diversity of choices humans make and respect for human complexity, to allow for the possibility of consensual relations between priests and others in specific circumstances.
  3. See Stephen Haliczer, Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned (Oxford University Press, 1996).
  4. All documents referenced here may be found under Shanley’s name at bishop-accountability.org (BishopAccountability.org: Documenting the Abuse Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church).
  5. Recently, more disclosures about prominent authorities, including Cardinal Spellman, are coming to light. Lucian K. Truscott’s account in salon.com (“I Was Groped by a Man Called ‘Mary’: The World Changes but not the Catholic Church,” February 9, 2019) describes Cardinal Spellman’s multiple attempts to grope him, with three other people present in the room, when he was a West Point cadet.
  6. For a powerful example of the philosophical inquiry into disgust, see Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2018), 256–61.
  7. See, for example, Rick Rojas, “Catholic Archbishop, on His Hands and Knees, Begged for Forgiveness over Abuse,” The New York Times, March 8, 2019.

Robert A. Orsi holds the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies in the Religion Department at Northwestern University. His award-winning books include The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (Yale, 1985, 2nd ed. 2002), Thank You, Saint Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (Yale, 1996), and Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them ( Princeton, 2004). His most recent book is History and Presence, published in 2016 under the Belknap Imprint of Harvard University Press. He is currently at work on a book about the role of Catholic sexuality and sexual abuse in the formation of boys at a Jesuit high school in New York City in 1967–71.

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