Catholic Colonialism and Its Subaltern Celibates

by A. A. J. DeVille

Cover, From the Depths of Our Hearts

In researching my book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, which features extensive discussion of Orthodox and Anglican ecclesial structures, I came across a curious tranche of letters and legislative documents from Anglican churchmen in my native Canada in the pre-confederation period. In the 1850s, these men, having tasted freedom in the colonies, found it de trop and began writing to London begging the mother of Parliaments to centralize all nascent Anglican structures throughout the empire and to severely restrict any local powers that were then emerging, including the power of local synods to elect their own bishops rather than having one appointed by the Crown and sent from England. A series of bills putting these restrictions into effect came before Westminster but were—mirabile dictu—ultimately voted down, leaving the locals free once more to design a system of synodal election and accountability in the Diocese of Huron (the Anglican jurisdiction in southwestern Ontario where I grew up) that was utterly novel at the time, but is now normative throughout most of the Anglican Communion.

Many of us might find the request of proto-Canadian Anglicans to be ruled yet more strictly by England very strange indeed. And yet as scholars working in the areas of colonial theory and Christianity, including George Demacopoulos and Daniel Galadza, have recently shown, this is not nearly so odd nor so rare as we might expect. Sometimes the subaltern becomes an uber-imperialist.

The personality type who desires to be ruled by the colonial office is not unknown in the psychoanalytic literature. It is best captured and understood by the indispensable 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. Authored by Erich Fromm, the fortieth anniversary of whose death we are marking this year, that book (building, as my own new book showed, on Freud’s insights into “moral masochism”) made it clear that all of us, at least some of the time, rather prefer to surrender at least part of our freedom to a superior power and have that power (spouse, boss, lover, pope) tell us what to do—even (and sometimes especially!) if that superior power will cause us pain. (At the Guardian reported this week, the sadomasochistic novel Fifty Shades of Gray has sold over 150 million copies worldwide and was the fastest selling book in British history.) What is even more perverse is the demand that the superior power not cavil at all but enforce its demands with maximum strictness to the point of cruelty. That is no less true in the Church than anywhere else.

I would invite my Orthodox friends, publicly and soon, to weigh in on whether the Catholic Church is entering into one such highly dangerous moment now, and if so what its ecumenical consequences might be as the Catholic Church faces impertinent demands to utterly abolish a married priesthood and to ruthlessly enforce clerical celibacy, turning it from no longer a peculiar Latin discipline but into what Freud called a totem and taboo.

I speak of the emerging furor over a book being released in French in the coming days, and not long after that in English, authored very largely by Robert Cardinal Sarah, a Guinean churchmen and current prefect of the Roman dicastery for liturgy and sacraments. With, apparently, some modest contribution by the retired bishop of Rome, whose photo and papal name are being retained by publishers even after he requested they not do so, the book has already rocketed up to the #1 slot on Amazon.

None of this might be worth commentary just yet, but for the fact the publisher has seen fit to release at least one blurb from the book, splashed all over social media, which can only invite utter dismay in Eastern Catholics such as myself who want to defend married clergy not only for their own sake but also with a view to continued Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement and eventual unity one day.

Cardinal Sarah claims (my translation) that “there is an ontologico-sacramental link between priesthood and celibacy. Any lessening of this link would constitute a questioning of the magisterium of the council and of popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. I humbly beg Pope Francis to protect us definitively from any such possibility by using his veto over any weakening of the law of sacerdotal celibacy even limited to one region or another.”

This “ontological” language is dangerous nonsense. Sarah’s views are not only philosophical gibberish but are also a transparently tendentious distortion of Vatican II (“the council”) and all the popes Sarah cites, as I show in my own forthcoming book with the University of Notre Dame Press, Married Catholic Priests, which has several essays in it by Orthodox canonists, priests, and historians, at least one of whom will be familiar to readers of Public Orthodoxy.

At this moment when a cardinal is literally begging his superior in Rome not just to rule out any regional variations to a Latin rule but, worse, to commit a kind of ecclesial amputation program of married priests (in Le Figaro Sarah calls married clergy a “a breach, a wound in the coherence of the priesthood”), I would invite my Orthodox friends not just to attend to this debate, and to read the book upon release, but to begin, even now, to manifest unreservedly to the Catholic Church their thoughts on the likely ecumenical implications of all this.

A. A. J. DeVille is associate professor of theology and director of humanities at the University of Saint Francis, Ft. Wayne, IN; and author, inter alia, of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (2011) and Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (2019). He was one of the official Catholic observers at the inaugural IOTA assembly in Iasi, Romania in 2019.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.