Faith and Sexual Abuse

Jerry Harp
December 12, 2017
Comments 1

As it happened, I began this blog after attending Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was a small gathering, and during the homily we discussed the church’s policies and attitudes concerning women, which remain, even if better than in centuries past, abysmal. We discussed how the image of Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus, has been so encrusted with sanctimonious imagery as to obscure the more radical representations of her in scripture. For when, in the Gospel of Luke, she visits her kinswoman Elizabeth, she utters her canticle, which includes the following lines:

He has deposed the mighty from their thrones

and raised the lowly to high places.

The hungry he has given every good thing,

while the rich he has sent empty away.

Raising the lowly and providing for the hungry while unseating the rich and powerful—this is nothing if not a proclamation of social justice. Largely composed of language culled from the Psalms, Mary’s Canticle was put together by early believers in the message of Jesus, but its far-reaching social implications have been too often glossed over.


Our Immaculate Conception conversation seemed especially relevant to me because we find ourselves in a moment when many women are speaking up about sexual misconduct, saying Enough!—saying, indeed, Even a little is too much! The church is among the many institutions that have enabled and even encouraged the denigration of women for centuries, and not merely because it has harbored abusers. Some might defend the church by pointing out its ways of honoring of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a sign of its deep reverence for women. But how close is this kind of adoration to the sort of objectification that leads to second- or-third-class status? I suspect that the two are very close indeed. Thomas Merton spoke about the dangers of thinking in terms of the “plaster cast saint,” that is, an image of holiness so emptied of human passion and desire as to be enervating and inhuman. It looks to me like many Catholic practices of adoring Mary are ground zero for this kind of enervation. I’m hardly the first to observe the tendency to couple the adoration of Mary with deprecation of those who do not meet the plaster cast version of perpetual virginity.


Pope Francis has given me a new infusion of hope for the church’s ongoing renewal, but it’s going to take a lot more than than even a charismatic and forward-thinking pope to bring about the needed changes. As Elizabeth Johnson wrote in her great She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse 1992), “The women’s movement in civil society and the church has shed a bright light on the pervasive exclusion of women from the realm of public symbol formation and decision making, and women’s consequent, strongly enforced subordination to the imagination and needs of a world designed chiefly by men.” The much needed shifting of our culture’s imaginary and symbolic life, from which so much of our thinking emerges, is necessary work for us all. It will take all of the creative and critical work that we can muster.


Likewise, I take great hope from the many voices speaking up about sexual misconduct and abuse in entertainment, politics, and other realms such as literary pursuit (the editor of The Paris Review recently stepped down amid reports of sexual misconduct). Our symbolic and imaginary life needs to be reconfigured so that there can no longer be an unspoken assumption that it’s open season on women’s bodies, that these bodies do not have their own integrity and dignity, that they exist primarily for the pleasure of another. The momentum needs to continue. It’s one thing, and an important one, for women in positions of relative power to speak up. One real test of who we are will be our capacity to hear and take seriously women speaking up from the corner store, the neighborhood office, the quiet house down the lane. It’s a matter that concerns us all, having to do with nothing less than redefining who we are.

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