Spirit Versus Nature

The Unhealed Woundby By Eugene KennedySt. Martin’s Press. 214p $19.95.

Combining archetypal psychology, ecclesiology and ethics, Eugene Kennedy, in his latest book, The Unhealed Wound, sets out a disturbing vision of church malaise rooted in the distorted transference of sexual energy into power and manipulation.

Kennedy uses the analogy of the wounded Grail King of the Parsifal legend. Wounded in his genitals, he exists in a state of permanent pain, longing to be healed yet trapped in his illusions. Being surrounded by royal flunkeys who are either too afraid to speak up or too deluded themselves to know they need healing, his kingdom suffers spiritual decay and the effects of sick, abusive power. Welcome to the Catholic Church, Kennedy suggests, where the Grail Kings (the pope and his bishops) refuse to address realistically the unresolved and unhealed problems of sexuality. In a climate of denial, fear and manipulation (often expressed in language evocative of sexual domination), dissenting voices that could provide healing and hope are silenced.


The three recurring, interconnected wounds he focuses on are compulsory priestly celibacy, birth control and the non-ordination of women.

The sexual wounding and process of growth and integration that is the natural course for most people as they mature are arrested, not healed, for most priests. Sexuality is often channeled into pursuits ranging from relatively harmless hobbies (like golf) to dangerous and obsessive behavior, particularly when it comes to defending the institution or one’s priestly identity. Priests who leave, he illustrates, are subjected to widespread institutional restrictions by Rome that are plainly vindictive. Ironically, Kennedy concludes, many who leave are those who sense their sexual wounding and decide to be healed.

Institutional power is the main obstacle to changing Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical that included a ban on artificial contraception. The ban, he argues, is rooted in bad psychology, wrong biology and a wounded understanding of sexuality, compounded by Vatican manipulation. Paul VI having refused to let the question be discussed at the Second Vatican Council, the pontifical commission’s more reformist report was rejected out of fear that the church would lose authority: if it can change on such an issue, anything might change. Here as elsewhere, Kennedy argues, the problem is that the Grail King and his entourage confuse power with authority. Under John Paul II the fact that support for Humanae Vitae has become a litmus test of orthodoxy for a candidate to be bishop is a measure of how power has replacedeven underminedlegitimate authority.

Refusal to ordain womeneven to allow discussion of the subjectis the third major example Kennedy uses to illustrate sexual wounding and the unhealthy exercise of power in the church. Rooted more in fear of women and sexuality than in good theology, none of the arguments against women’s ordination are credible. Like celibacy and contraception, women’s ordination has become a matter of power.

All of this has disastrous consequences for the church, says Kennedy, not least in its sacramental life and the building of healthy community. There are fewer priests now in the United States in a church that has grown in numbers. In many other countries the situation is, if anything, much worse. In addition, many of the new men in the seminariesthe John Paul II generationexhibit all the unhealthy characteristicsthe sexual woundsthat he sees in church leadership today.

For Kennedy, professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, the solution lies with the church acknowledging its woundedness and need for healing. His model of the healed Grail King is Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose vision of the world and humanity as family rather than foe, and of dialogue rather than diatribe, is Kennedy’s vision of what will ultimately heal us. In this I am sure Kennedy is not alone.

It is not easy to summarize the argument of this book clearly, for content is severely undermined by style. Kennedy’s writing is often jerky, almost stream of consciousness, regularly leaping in different directions at once. He often starts to raise an interesting point only to drop it midstream to head off elsewhere, sometimes back to areas already well covered. Tantalizing points are raised but never developed. He mentions, for example, some research on pedophilia he did for Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a document that was subsequently buried by other bishops. I hoped he would give more detail about it, but he doesn’t.

There are also a few errors in the book, both of fact and, I would suggest, of interpretation. He places the Chinese Rites controversy about 200 years before it happened. I also think he draws too heavily on the story of Peter Abelard. Though there may be superficial parallels between physical and intellectual castration in Abelard’s life, I do not think Fulbert acted in persona ecclesiae when he had the scholar castrated for his affair with Fulbert’s niece Heloise, however much it reflected the medieval patriarchal mindset. In short, though parts of the book are at once intellectually challenging and deeply moving, the whole is disappointing.

If only he had combined his at times lyrical outrage with more systematic rigor, this could have been a valuable tool for those who seek reform.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019