2016-06-30
Mark D. Jordan
The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism
The University of Chicago Press, 302 pp.

Interesting, if true. That's how I'd sum up Mark Jordan's provocative and tangled examination of the clandestine role of homosexuality in the Catholic Church.

Why "interesting?"

"The Silence of Sodom" tackles a question that is, at the least, intriguing and might even be important: Is the Roman Catholic Church run by homosexuals? Mark Jordan thinks so. He argues that the all-male clerical and hierarchical structure of Catholicism both harbors homosexuals and harasses them. Its liturgy abets homoerotic imagination while its moral theology proscribes it. Though the church publicly condemns homosexual acts because they violate the natural order, Jordan argues that the condemnation actually arises from the veiled homoeroticism at work in the lives of priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes, some unspecified number of whom he believes to be active homosexuals.

An inquiry exposing the hypocrisy of preaching celibacy while practicing sodomy might also throw light on a wide range of the church's distinctive problems from the reluctance to ordain married men to the animus against ordaining women. A string of controversies, a few of which the book examines, might look different from this perspective: Does Catholicism's top-down system of promotion and tenure really serve the church's mission or does it protect a homosexual subculture? Do the liturgical battles that beset the church derive from a Vatican penchant for proper rubrics, or from competing strands of homoerotic imagination? For many reasons then, not excluding the resolution of conspiratorial and titillating rumors and charges, The Silence of Sodom could be interesting and even enlightening.

But is it true? If clerical sodomy is secretive and silent, what would verify Jordan's claim that "The most elaborate secrecies will be found in religious institutions that condemn same-sex desires fiercely while creating conditions under which they can flourish: the situation of modern Catholicism"? By definition, secrets and silence do not provide evidence-or at least, the kind that can be openly examined and adjudicated.

Does that mean fierce condemnation itself constitutes proof that same-sex desire flourishes in the ranks of the men who run the Catholic Church? That is the direction of the opening argument. Jordan examines the rhetoric of recent Vatican statements on homosexuality. And it is rhetoric, not content, that engages him; his argument being that one way to ensure silence is for church bureaucrats to repeat condemnations loudly and at length. Persuasion would mean engagement with the argument and experience of those who oppose official teaching on homosexuality as on many other subjects. It is true that many Roman documents, particularly of a disciplinary nature, are not persuasive, including statements on the role of theologians, episcopal collegiality, and inclusive language as well as those on homosexuality.

Is there evidence for silent sodomy from the lives of Catholic clergy? Jordan briefly recaps the argument of a previous book, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (1997). His exegesis of medieval texts places this "invention" at the door of the clergy who are both associated with "sodomy" and with its condemnation; who perpetuate its practices and sensibilities while loudly and hysterically condemning its presence even down to today. That is Jordan's view. His single contemporary example is Rudolph Kos, a priest and convicted pedophile (and one of Jordan's former students at Holy Trinity Seminary, Dallas). Jordan believes that Kos's behavior was known to diocesan officials and fellow priests. That it continued Jordan attributes to the "church's habit of keeping secrets, even from itself." And though he carefully distinguishes pedophilia from homosexuality, he insists that the same mechanism, "secrecy and silence," that keeps same-sex desire closeted in the church allowed Kos to practice pedophilia. But why not consider that the same mechanism that would keep heterosexuals from confronting Kos-incredulity that a "celibate" priest could do such a thing, might operate in the case of homosexuals as well? In the context of an argument that is all-gay all the time, Jordan cannot imagine the power of ordinary obtuseness or fear of confrontation. How many professionals miss cases of child abuse? Who ever suspected the kindly old lady down the street would turn out to be a serial killer?

"The epistemology of the closet," Jordan's operative metaphor (and the title of Eve Sedgewick's book on the subject), doesn't concern itself with ordinary ways of knowing or the usual rules of evidence. It doesn't really matter, for example, how many or how few homosexuals, sexually active or not, there may be among Catholic clergy, "because the closet is a collaborative construction of gay and straight." The proof: "There may be just one homosexually active monsignor in a curial office of ten, but the closet around him is built by all ten together." Is it really?

The ordinary reader could go through this book posing such obvious questions, but it would count for little because the epistemology of the closet then raises the specter of denial. For me, on the contrary, it is the question of evidence. What counts as evidence for Jordan's thesis? Not much that your ordinary heterosexual-and perhaps homosexual-reader would credit.

Jordan's book strikingly resembles the Vatican documents he examines: convoluted, abstract, condemnatory, repetitious-and finally unpersuasive. If what Jordan writes is true-as it may be, at least in some form-it will require another book from a publisher more interested than the University of Chicago Press in advancing a credible discussion about the Catholic Church and homosexuality. And its author will have be more willing and ready than Jordan to engage in ordinary debate and argument with those of us who don't see the world through the epistemology of the closet.

more from beliefnet and our partners