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Summer Books

Author analyzes church’s wound of divided spirit, flesh


By Eugene Kennedy
St. Martin Press, 224 pages, $17.95


Bring up the subjects of sex, celibacy and the church at the next cocktail party you attend and you are likely to generate considerable heat. Do so after reading Eugene Kennedy’s The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality and you will be able to bring considerable light to the heated discussion.

Kennedy is a longtime observer of a church he clearly loves. Those familiar with his extraordinary career know this former Maryknoll priest to wear many hats -- psychologist, journalist, biographer, novelist and syndicated columnist. But it’s the priest and psychologist, the healer of souls, that is at work here. His goal is to help the people of God see the depth of their spiritual wound, to understand its origin, and to discover a path to healing and wholeness.

To accomplish this goal, Kennedy puts the institutional church on the couch and examines not only the church’s wound but also how the wound affects the exercise of celibate power and authority by its episcopal and clerical leaders. Like any analysis, the process is often disturbing and uncomfortable. But if what Kennedy brings to light is heeded, it can relieve a great deal of unnecessary suffering, especially the suffering of unhealthy guilt.

Analysis, as we know, is work, and Kennedy’s bold look into the psychic depths of the church is not always easy reading. Yet, this book, written for the educated Catholic, does what a good analysis does -- it brings to the light of day what is ailing us and how our unhealed wound affects the lives of the people of God. In particular, Kennedy wants to help his readers see why those in the church who exercise authority and power often do so in ways that demean and humiliate, especially in matters of human sexuality. Whether one finds the analysis a success or not, it brings to the surface an important dimension of church life that has not, until now, received the attention it deserves.

We come to see that our unhealed wound is the result of an unnatural sundering, from a radical division between “God and his universe, heaven and earth, and spirit and flesh.” The result is a profound mistrust of human desire and passionate longing. Not only are we the poorer for it, we find in this sundering the origins of loneliness, lust and our pervasive, restless anxiety.

Christianity, of course, is held in the cradle of paradox -- life through the experience of death, fulfillment through compassionate service, liberation and salvation through the cross. The paradox takes on a different hue, however, when it comes to the church and sexuality. What other major religion raises the sexual union of husband and wife to the status of sacrament? Our theology of incarnation holds that all of creation has been lifted up and redeemed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ -- including human sexuality. We Christians, Kennedy reminds us, profess that human sexuality is good and that intimate communion between husband and wife is holy.

At the same time, the institutional church obsesses about the dangers inherent in human sexuality -- dangers that are quite real, but dangers that are allowed to eclipse the profound goodness of our enfleshed being. Acknowledging the sacramental character of married love, it raises as the ideal the states of virginity and celibacy.

Kennedy understands more than most of us sexuality’s power for weal and woe, its depth and mystery, its demonic potential and its pervasive influence in our personal and social lives. What The Unhealed Wound makes evident to the reader is the toxic nature of ecclesial power exercised by conflicted, asexual or psychosexually underdeveloped individuals. This unhealthy exercise of power in the guise of pastoral authority contributes to the human suffering grounded in the mythic wound at the heart of Kennedy’s analysis.

If sexually conflicted themselves, Kennedy warns, it is easy for ordained celibates to miss the sexually charged nature of their exercise of authority and power over their parishioners, and in the case of bishops, in their exercise of authority and power over priests. How men exercise power over men, especially how asexual, conflicted celibate men exercise power over men, is telling. Often, Kennedy believes, it exposes the presence of suppressed eros. Leaders who remain alienated from their own sexuality, leaders who think they can live as angels, wind up wounding others in spite of their best conscious efforts to do otherwise. Here healthy members of the laity and clergy know instinctively that something is wrong.

It is here, in Kennedy’s analysis of the dynamics of sexually charged celibate power, that priests, in particular, will find his book both enlightening and healing. Even veteran priests confess to a certain tightness in their stomachs as they wait for an appointment outside their bishop’s office. In naming the unhealthy, eros-charged tendency to dominance evident in the power transactions of many church officials, especially in matters of human sexuality, the author helps priests and others subject to ecclesial authority to grasp the primitive undercurrents of dominance and submission that mark many of their exchanges with superiors. This aspect of Kennedy’s analysis will prove controversial, but it deserves attention and study.

Both clergy and laity have suspected for some time now that the exercise of power is in itself dangerous, and when power is exercised by the sexually conflicted or confused, it tends to shrink the human soul. The healthy exercise of authority, on the other hand, strives to liberate the human spirit and expand the human soul.

The proper exercise of authority, therefore, is to enable -- to empower -- the life and work, the freedom and authenticity, of those under authority. This is the kind of authority we witnessed in the pontificate of Pope John XXIII and we witness today in the ministry of many of our bishops and pastors. When psychosexually immature and conflicted church officials exercise authority, however, their unmet human needs demand the kind of appeasement that comes from exercising power over others. They reveal to the careful observer a need to control and manage, not only the behavior and ministry of their charges, but even the innermost chambers of their souls where freedom meets responsibility and where their urgent longings lead to God.

I found Kennedy’s analysis of the church and human sexuality compelling. He knows the human soul and its wounds. He also knows that we need not fear what God has created and deemed good. His analysis raises, nonetheless, a number of questions. Is our unhealed wound somehow distinct from the universal wound we Christians understand as original sin, our original woundedness? What can we learn from cultures that have transcended our radical division of spirit and flesh? And what can we learn from the way celibate women exercise authority over others?

I suspect there will be calls for a “second opinion.” Kennedy’s analysis certainly will be disturbing to those who equate human sexuality with genital sex and to individuals suspicious of human desire and passion. To those, however, who understand the intimate relationship between sexuality and spirituality and between eros and power, The Unhealed Wound will be a source of healing and liberation.

It deserves to be widely discussed. At cocktail parties, in coffee houses, certainly. Even more so in chancery and Vatican offices.

Fr. Donald Cozzens is president-rector and professor of pastoral theology at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland. He is author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2000).

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001