‘Gay’ priests and a herd of elephants

The recent comments by Mary McAleese, a former Irish President, on ‘gay priests’ have created a bit of a stir over here in Ireland:

She said that “a very large number” of Catholic priests are homosexual and that the church had been in denial about homosexuality for decades. “It isn’t so much the elephant in the room but a herd of elephants.”


The popular Sean O’Rourke RTE radio1 show took up the issue devoting a large section to discussing ‘gay clergy’ with several contributors including priests. Despite all that was discussed I found the absence of one particular narrative quite telling as to the devalued position of social critique in public discussion. The absence pertained to the socialisation and social construction of sexuality through social conditions and relations of power. In short heterosexuality remained unquestioned throughout as the norm for human sexuality with homosexuality – despite the generally liberal approach towards it during the discussion – treated as the deviant Other. It was basically a liberal essentialist narrative that people are (in the words of Lady Gaga’s essentialism) ‘born this way’ and that we should be tolerant of it. Now I don’t deny the existence of a biological influence to arousal[1] and unconscious object-desires (which by way of Lacan are not necessarily gendered: the unconscious object of arousal for example can be the specific aspect of a specific person regardless of what sexual identity one perceives oneself as) but there is still clearly room to explore social relations especially when you consider the implications of the following excerpts:

The cultural influences on the notion of appropriate sexual behaviour, also the cultural (as opposed to biological) creation of the current dominant norm of heterosexuality, are evident in what Foucault in his History of Sexuality writes concerning the nonheterosexual society of Ancient Greece. Referring to Greek men’s penchant for women and lust for the same sex, he states:

So it seemed to people that of these two inclinations one was not more likely than the other, and the two could easily coexist in the same individual. Were the Greeks bisexual, then? Yes, if we mean by this that a Greek [free man] could, simultaneously or in turn, be enamoured of a boy or a girl… But if we wish to turn our attention to the way in which they conceived of this dual practice, we need to take note of the fact that they did not recognize two kinds of “desire,” two different or competing “drives,” each claiming a share of men’s hearts or appetites. We can talk about their “bisexuality,” thinking of the free choice they allowed themselves between the two sexes, but for them this option was not referred to a dual, ambivalent, and “bisexual” structure of desire. To their way of thinking, what made it possible to desire a man or a woman was simply the appetite that nature had implanted in man’s heart for “beautiful” human beings, whatever their sex might be. (1)

On the construction of ‘homosexuality’:

One of Foucault’s prime examples of biopower’s operation is the late nineteenth- century invention of the ‘homosexual’ as a discrete identity, a form of selfhood. Before roughly 1870, Foucault contends, it was not really possible to think of oneself as a homosexual, no matter what kind of sex one had or with whom, because the category of homosexuality didn’t yet exist. Once the homosexual had been named as a type of person characterized by a distinct psychology, however, sexual activity with a member of the same sex could be understood as not only a sin or a crime, but also a sickness and a deviation from the norm. Through transformations such as this, modern power relies less on laws and taboos than on the force of social norms to regulate behavior (2).

Or as Foucault himself puts it:

We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized – Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth – less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (3)

Research into the biological origins of sexuality:

adopt the idea of the homosexual as a physical “species” different from the heterosexual. But there are no convincing historical grounds for this view. As Foucault points out, at the time of Plato, “People did not have the notion of two distinct appetites allotted to different individuals or at odds with each other in the same soul; rather, they saw two ways of enjoying one’s pleasure…”


Also consider this text on the class-related social character of sex from an article in the Journal of Sociology:

Sex is commonly thought of as a ’natural’ part of life, even as the animal part of human nature. Yet from the origins of modern sexual science its social character has also been recognised, especially its interplay with class. Krafft-Ebing (1886) was acutely aware of the class contexts of sexual activity; mid-Victorian upper-class diarists and moralists in Britain were fascinated by sexual contact across class lines (Marcus, 1966). Twentieth century radicals such as Reich (1972) and Marcuse (1955), blending Freud and Marx, saw class rule extended as sexual constraint. The Kinsey reports in the United States mapped class differences in the frequency and occasion of orgasm (Kinsey et al., 1948) (4).

1. Foucault M (1990) The History of Sexuality: The use of pleasure. New York: Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, Inc. p188

2. Dean T (2003) Lacan and Queer Theory. In: Jean-Michel R (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge University Press, p239

3. Foucault M (1978) The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books. p43

4 Connell R W, Davis M D and Dowsett G W (1993) A Bastard of a Life: Homosexual Desire and Practice among Men in Working-class Milieux. Journal of Sociology 29: 112.

[1] There is also possibly an effect from endocrine-disrupting chemical contaminants in the environment


One thought on “‘Gay’ priests and a herd of elephants

  1. Pingback: What is Relational Sociology: Differences between Disconnected and Interconnected Readings of the World | Myths of Our Time

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