In her research, writing and teaching, medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes focuses especially on violence, suffering and premature death on the margins of the modern world. Best-known for her work on the global trade in human organs, she was invited to participate in a Vatican conference last summer on human trafficking. The experience brought the Berkeley professor — a lifelong Roman Catholic and sometime critic of the church — into close proximity with Pope Francis. Scheper-Hughes recently shared reflections on the pope and the state of the Catholic Church with Berkeley News.
BN: The Oscar-nominated film Spotlight concerns sex abuse by Catholic priests in Massachusetts and the cover-up of that scandal by the church, touching on topics you’ve written about for some time. What were your impressions of the movie?
NSH: The film is superb in capturing the time, teamwork and skills necessary to produce brilliant investigative reporting. The Boston Globe team was as dogged as a pack of bloodhounds on the scent of the musty, claustrophobic, “holy” spaces — altar, sacristy, rectory, confessional box — where clergy felt free to violate, again and again, the bodies, minds and souls of vulnerable youngsters.
But Spotlight exaggerates the role of the Boston Globe team as setting off a global tidal wave of revelations of clerical sex abuse in the United States, Europe, Australia and Latin America. Truth be told, allegations, media stories and governmental investigations of clerical sexual abuse began appearing in the 1980s — most explicitly in Newfoundland, Canada, Ireland, South Africa and other vigilant nations — long before the Boston Globe series.
Do you feel there are other gaps in Spotlight?
We don’t learn very much about the victims of clerical sexual abuse in Spotlight. There is a kind of delicacy about exposing their vulnerabilities as particularly needy youngsters who were often maliciously labeled as the seducers.
The largest gap, however, is the priests who were serial rapists and child and adolescent molesters. What were they thinking? Did they confess their sins and were they given absolution again and again and again? Where and how do they live today?
You grew up Catholic in New York. How did that influence you?
I received a strong Catholic education from Irish nuns in Brooklyn and French nuns in South Ozone Park, Queens, where I went to high school. Between the two I was well-educated, for someone from a post-immigrant family (my grandparents were Czech immigrants to Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
So I feel I owe a lot to the church. But I also owe a kind of a constant critique. My mother was a devout Catholic, but my maternal grandfather, the immigrant, and my father were nonbelievers. My father was an agnostic who was well-read, an autodidact, in both science and literature. Late in life he converted to Catholicism, mostly to please my mother, who feared for his soul. He died a true Catholic, at 94, praying the “Hail Mary” with its “Now at the hour of our death, Amen.”
I was a pious little girl who wanted to be a nun herself one day. But by high school I began to doubt and I grieved the “loss of faith,” which I confessed to priest-confessors many times. One famous Upper East Side confessor, to whom I was sent by a high school nun, tried to seduce me after my confession. But most of the priests I confessed to were kind and told me that faith was a gift and my doubt was not a mortal sin.
When did you first make a public critique of the church?
I began writing about the Catholic Church in my first book, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenic: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. The book includes a chapter about the puritanical version of Catholicism that got to Ireland via the French Jansenists, an ultra-right-wing sect of Catholicism. It was foreign to the Irish-speaking rural villages; it made them not very Celtic and very uptight about sexuality.
I did my fieldwork there in 1973, ’74, when the outmigration of Irish women left so many bachelor farmers without wives and children to work their farms. Single women had been leaving Ireland since the 19th century, initially in search of work and dowry money before returning home. But after World War II, young single women left Ireland for good. Others were exiled if they became pregnant. Some were put into one of the infamous Magdalen homes. Others were shipped off to England to have their babies.
In my book I said that the Irish Catholic Church — with its punitive attitudes towards the body, women, sexuality, contraception and abortion — created moral and psychological problems for young people. I suggested that mental breakdowns in western Ireland could be attributed to social and psychological factors as much as to biological or other medical causes.
Writings on the Catholic Church
by Nancy Scheper-Hughes
● Witness to a troubled saint-making: Junipero Serra and the theology of failure
● Face-to-face with Pope Francis, on the 2015 Vatican meeting on human trafficking
● The final conversion of Pope Francis, with Jennifer Scheper-Hughes, on Pope Francis’ history in Argentina
● Can God forgive Jorge Mario Bergoglio?
● Priestly celibacy and child sexual abuse, with John Devine (pdf)
The desire for, and the repression of, intimacy was very prominent in the psychological, projective tests that I used both in the rural village and in the mental hospital. Incest was a theme that frequently appeared in the narratives of young mental patients and with normal villagers alike. I did not interpret these as social facts but as preoccupations reflecting the high number of single bachelor and bachelor-spinster/ brother-sister households, due to the outmigration of marriageable women.
Where did you next go with your dialogue with the church?
Soon after the publication of Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics, I began to write articles about sex abuse and the Catholic Church. I said that celibacy has its place if one wants to be a monk. But that for parish priests who are living in a lonely little rectory, desires for intimacy came into play and got some priests in deep trouble.
I tried to approach this with compassion. But I also said that the church was to blame for creating an “occasion for sin,” meaning situations that tempted good priests to try to find intimacy and sexual pleasure or relief with those who were close at hand: boys and girls, but mostly boys, who were taught to obey priests as if they were demigods.
In 1992 I was invited to a closed conference in Newfoundland to respond to a 1990 report on clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Newfoundland (based on allegations dating back as far as the 1960s). The government’s inquiry took place a decade after the Canadian media reported on the clerical sexual abuse “scandal.”
The report described a culture of fairly normalized and protected sexual abuse of children at a large Catholic orphanage and in dozens of small rural parish churches throughout Newfoundland. Simultaneously, there had been allegations and media reports of sexual abuse by teachers in Irish public schools managed by the Catholic church, in reform schools (known as “industrial schools”) and in orphanages run by the Magdalene Sisters. Which is to say that the Vatican had known about these things for a long time.
Do you see the creation of the ‘occasion for sin’ as the root cause of clerical sexual abuse?
I published an article on sex abuse in the Catholic church in 1998 in my co-edited volume Small Wars and Invisible Genocides. I wrote that while there is no single explanation for the endemic, widespread nature of clerical sexual abuse, one reason is cultural, in the sense that the Catholic Church has failed to grapple with human sexuality.
Celibacy is not reasonable for priests who live a secular life, surrounded by families and couples and privy to the confessional, where devout Catholics share their sins — most of them bearing on needs and passions that come with being human. We are embodied; we have unruly and fleshly desires. That’s how we are made. Either the church accepts this or it inadvertently creates a space for social and spiritual pathologies.
I think Pope Francis is trying to open up this conversation, but it’s going to be a battle, including his own battle within, as he was once a very rigid moralist.
Have you ever given up on the church along the way?
At one point — after a sex-abuse scandal and cover-up in Missouri, an egregiously awful case — I wrote a piece in CounterPunch with the fierce title “What’s a Catholic to Do When Her Church Is Corrupt and Moribund?” It was published online as “The Slow Death of the Roman Catholic Church.”
I wrote that I could no longer be part of the official Catholic Church and would have to make my way as a “deinstitutionalized independent, Franciscan Catholic” who would find some comfort in a green theology based on a reverence for earth and sky and sea, and all the critters that slither and crawl, walk and swim.
I said I grieved the loss of sacraments and rituals that once gave beauty, richness and fullness to my life. But that the secular humanism of anthropology offered an alternative form of “discipleship” based on critical self-reflexivity, contemplation and reflection, and was a powerful moral tool capable of replacing ignorance with understanding, hatred with empathy, and compassionate and modest witness to human sorrows.
But even anthropology was cold comfort for the former Catholic when the mystery is gone and the light has gone out in one’s soul. That article was to be my swan song. And then I met Pope Francis at a Vatican conference to which I was invited in April 2015 — and all of a sudden I felt like, “Well, maybe I’ll reconsider this.”
Do you anticipate more Pope watching?
As long as they’ll let me do it, I definitely will. What Pope Francis has done is turn one of the most closed institutions — an uptight, baroque, males-only place — into a public forum. The Pontifical Academy of Social Science holds multiple workshops and conferences, bringing together people from all over the world: adults and youth who are doing work on trafficking, migrants, refugees and people in detention.
Pope Francis has started to turn the Vatican inside out, to somehow make these very grumpy, older, traditional cardinals comfortable with youth and children who are human rights activists, and women who have different views about the church.
Will he succeed? Do we really know who this surprising pope really is? On better days, Francis describes the new Catholic Church as a social movement, one that is dedicated to the marginal, the outsiders, whoever they are — which is kind of where Jesus of Nazareth began.
Related information: Ten days in the Vatican: anti-human-trafficking work, a Golden Bear pin and a kiss (Berkeley News article, May 2015)