Michel Foucault and the Catholic Church

3 05 2010

In general, I have resolved to no longer read anything concerning Catholicism except for things that are at least fifty years old. And even then, I am trying to be highly selective. I have just found that everything that has come out recently has been plagued with such intellectually passé posturing that I am not learning anything anymore. In general, Christian “intellectuals” tend to be obsessed with ideological trends that were cool, say, the middle of last century, and they seem to think themselves “oh so hip” if they can mention Heidegger, Husserl, or (and this is really stretching it) Wittgenstein in a sentence.

Catholic discourse seems plagued by a phenomenological personalism that colors everything it touches a hazy shade of ambiguous. At the local Pauline bookstore in Metairie, they carried the complete works of Edith Stein, ten books explaining Wojtyla’s theology of the body, a couple of books on Aquinas, and a whole lot of nothing else (unless you count Henri Nouwen, which I don’t).

I am fast coming to the conclusion that the philosophical endeavors of post-Cartesian philosophy are the last things you want to be dialoguing with. And it goes without saying that the emaciated investigations of Anglo analytical philosophy are a complete waste of time. If you want to talk to modernity, talk to the stuff that is at least interesting and is not just some recycled mumbo-jumbo a first year student of Plato could refute in his sleep. Anthropology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and so forth are fields that sane Catholics have yet to actually penetrate and digest. Most seem to think that their religion magically falls from the sky, or is pre-packaged by nuns working in the Papal palace, delivered to their doorsteps by UPS or FedEx. I think one figure that Catholics could learn a lot from is that postmodern enfant terrible, Michel Foucault. Sure, he is almost as dated as the people mentioned above, but I don’t think anyone has tried to engage his work from a Catholic perspective, or if they have, it hasn’t trickled down.

Re-reading the first volume of his History of Sexuality, I encountered again his definition of modern man as a confessing animal. I think this idea is crucial to understanding many of the crises of modern thought. For Foucault, the early modern period began an explosion of technologies of self-formation in which the truth of one’s inner being (particularly in sexual matters) was laid bare and scrutinized. These “technologies” were born in the bosom of the Church during the Counter-Reformation in the codifying of such practices as obligatory sacramental confession and the examination of conscience. While these methods had their origins in previous practice, what has emerged from them is a hyper-subjectivity run amok.

One should highlight the ways modern ideas of the self diverge from more ancient ideas. Of course, there existed the old Platonic injunction to “know thyself”. This coupled with a purity of heart encouraged in early Christianity no doubt proved to be novel in a pagan world comfortable with religious and ideological hypocrisy. In its modern manifestation, however, power tries to draw truth out of the shadows through a confession; a systematized method is employed to “bring the truth out”. From Oprah and psychoanalysis to religious cyber-altar calls and lay spirituality retreats, there is a need to spill one’s subjective experience all over public discourse, so that it is validated, exposed, and brought under control. What we have at the end of this is a self-absorbed ethos of the personal wherein the same concerns and obsessions are produced over and over again as if from an assembly line.

Even more intriguing is Foucault’s idea of power which overturns previous binary or hierarchical models. In Foucault’s late work, power is not something to be possessed or seized, but is rather a web of coercion and command coming from all directions that is the property of no one. In this web, some may benefit more than others, but none escape its reach. No one is sitting in the control room operating the gears. Various mechanisms and players must negotiate their way through an unconsciously organized system of directives and norms. Ironically, this is also the point of resistance and creativity.

Though this may seem like some fatalistic Nietzschean trap, I think it is closer to the ecclesial reality on the ground than the traditional hierarchical or more contemporary “communion” models. How religion develops cannot be merely attributed to the ideas of the elites or the irrational superstitions of the mobs, but is rather an interaction between theological principles and real life dilemmas; between, as I have put it before, high theory and low practice. You cannot understand such things as the cult to the saints merely from the texts of learned scholars, nor can you underestimate how much “simple people“ have organically assimilated complex philosophical or theological concepts into their own most cherished beliefs. In all of these considerations, perhaps some tendencies are more privileged than others, but none can stand alone. In the shape of religion, there is pressure from above, a push back from below, and an accommodation somewhere in the middle. One cannot romanticize any side of that web of power.

Catholicism is ill-equipped to face the modern world precisely because it still refuses to analyze the human side of what it means to believe. Instead it turns to foolish romanticism, revolutionary idealism, or anti-intellectual pragmatism to substitute for any real intelligent discourse. If I find reading Catholic things so distasteful now, it is because they have all forgotten what religion really means, and have mistaken the fads of the modern world for the highest exercises of human wisdom. From phenomenological personalism to the pseudo-Marxism of liberation theology, Catholicism seems intent on repeating the same mistakes of modern thought over and over again. I am not saying that I have all of the answers. I am just wondering if we can try something different.


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11 responses

22 07 2013
Curio

You refuse to read contemporary Catholic intellectuals because of their obsession with trendy modern philosophers (Heidegger, Husserl, Wittgenstein) and instead suggest that Catholic intellectuals engage with an even trendier postmodern philosopher?

What makes a Catholic engagement with/reading of Foucault any better than Marxist Liberation Theology or phenomenological personalism? Can’t we just keep asking for engagement with ever more contemporary public intellectuals (We need a Catholic response to Ken Wilber! etc.)

Moreover, at least one “Catholic” philosopher has made an entire career out of studying Foucault. Gary Gutting has written a brief introduction to Foucault, edited the Cambridge Companion to Foucault, written a book titled ‘Michel Foucault’s Archeology of Scientific Reason’, and numerous journal articles. Show me the fruit.

9 04 2012
Mark C

I found your insights strangely intoxicating and beguiling at the same time.let’s leave it at that.I wish u well on your mission

7 05 2010
The Human Side of Faith-Part I | Koinonia

[…] Ochlophobist posted a link to a discussion on Arturo’s recent post “Michel Foucault and the Catholic Church.”  In his post Arturo argues, among other things, Anthropology, psychoanalysis, sociology, […]

6 05 2010
Ryan

Arturo- Could you explain a little more about how resistance to this “impersonal” confession is actually reproducing these paradigms?

I actually had an older priest give the sacrament of confession in this manner. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

6 05 2010
Arturo Vasquez

There is an old practice in Russia in which the sacrament of confession was heard by the reciting of a list to which the penitent would automatically answer yes to all questions. This had a lot to do with the fact that priests themselves could not be trusted to keep the seal of confession. But it also entailed the surreal phenomenon of little old babushkas confessing to such things as regicide and beastiality. The Western mind would find this to be an invalid confession, but such a list is both antithetical to and a product of the rise of such “confessional technologies”.

Let me put it another way: I think what you had pre-Reformation (and maybe a smidgen before that) was the prevalence of monastic confessional practice that was much more “personal” in a modern sense. It was more the relationship of disciple to master, just as was the case with religious life (in the institutional sense) prior to the mendicant orders in the West. By the early modern period, you have the emergence of the “system” and the “rule” as an absolute determinant of the permissible and desirable. Modernity ultimately is the victory of the impersonal disguised in the cloak of subjectivity; not the creation of the self in the ancient sense but the absolute conforming of the “true, inner self” to the dominant web of power. That is why even when people are “confessing”, on Oprah, on Facebook, at an “altar call”, they are really just re-producing the same dominant paradigms over and over again without even knowing it.

6 05 2010
John

Why do you presume that old style Catholics knew anything more about either The Divine Reality, and everything altogether, than todays Catholic intellectuals etc?

They too were the product of the dominate zeitgeist of the times–just like every generation of Catholics. There writings etc would probably (to one degree or another) be incomprehensible to pre-modern Catholics.

5 05 2010
Tom

Arturo, you write: “These “technologies” were born in the bosom of the Church during the Counter-Reformation in the codifying of such practices as obligatory sacramental confession and the examination of conscience. While these methods had their origins in previous practice, what has emerged from them is a hyper-subjectivity run amok.”

It’s an awfully long way from sacramental confession and the examination of conscience to subjectivity run amok. Care to supply a few of the details in between?

4 05 2010
Fr Maximos

I’ve always understood the Dionysian idea of “hierarchy” to be about how we know, not about how we distribute power.

“Hierarchy is, in my opinion, a holy order and knowledge and activity which, so far as is attainable, participates in the Divine Likeness, and is lifted up to the illuminations given it from God, and correspondingly towards the imitation of God.” (Celestial Hierarchy, ch. 3)

The goal is communion. Hierarchy gets us there by leading us through successive cycles of suffering and insight, with a bit of rest thrown in as the third phase, rest that then leads to still more insight won through suffering. The fact that this is, literally, an endless process toward an eternally transcendent reality does seem congenial with the idea that there’s nothing to be “possessed or seized,” including power.

Not sure where that leads in the light of Arturo’s main point.

3 05 2010
Sam Urfer

Depends on what you mean by a “traditional hierarchical” model. If we are talking Pseudo-Dionysus and the Great Chain of Being, Foucault’s ideas about power sound very much like the original definition of hierarchy.

If we’re talking a bland, ultramontane approach, maybe not so much.

3 05 2010
A Sinner

“Anthropology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and so forth are fields that sane Catholics have yet to actually penetrate and digest.”

I made that same point at the end of this post:
http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com/2010/03/papalgate.html

And at the end of this one:
http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com/2010/02/is-coup-in-our-future.html

The hierarchy these days seem to be acting like the human institution is exempt from the normal political and socio-economic phenomena and rules to which all human organizations are subject…

3 05 2010
sortacatholic

In Foucault’s late work, power is not something to be possessed or seized, but is rather a web of coercion and command coming from all directions that is the property of no one. […] Various mechanisms and players must negotiate their way through an unconsciously organized system of directives and norms. Ironically, this is also the point of resistance and creativity.

Your paraphrase of Foucault captures the essential cognitive dissonance at the heart of Catholic liturgy and devotional life. Some view worship and devotion as a lifestyle instead of an intellectual encounter with the union of heaven and earth. Conversely, those who primarily encounter the liturgy as an intellectual pursuit will find themselves inevitably swept into the prevailing lifestyle of their church or movement. All participants are impelled by delusions of control that often end in the loss of a faith that never existed outside of a distortion.

For fifteen years of my life I presumed that the extraordinary form of the Mass possessed an excellence demonstrated by its textual profundity. I wrongly presumed that the ancient liturgy could explain itself. Indeed, I thought that the Mass was above the devotional and social undercurrents that always accompany ritual in community. I ignored the undertoe of the traditional social praxis until I could no longer deny that the traditional Catholic “confession” of life inevitably influences even those who find themselves enthralled by the philology of liturgy to the exclusion of nearly all else.

I quickly learned that the confessions of both traditional and modern Catholicism erect barriers of implicit social praxis that strongly bind their respective adherents. I never cared for the rigidity, sanctimony, and prejudice of traditional Catholics. Then again, I never agreed with (post)modern liturgists’ disdain for traditional liturgy as necessarily regressive. Foucault’s contention that confession generates creativity holds only to a certain point. Eventually the compassionate lover of ancient liturgy must accept the prejudices of his community as inevitable strictures or reject the confession because of its moral inadequacy.

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