Tuesday, July 15, 2008

From Paul VI to Gene Robinson: Judging Sexual Morality

The Clerical Whispers blog today posts a reminder of the upcoming anniversary of the encyclical Humanae vitae (http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2008/07/debate-over-1968-encyclical-rages-on.html). It’s hard to believe, but 25 July will mark the 40th anniversary of this encyclical of Paul VI reiterating the Catholic prohibition against the use of artificial contraception.

One line in the Clerical Whispers summary of the debate about this controversial encyclical leaps out: this is Paul VI’s insistence that, to be moral, "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." On the basis of that unambiguous norm, Paul VI judged the use of artificial contraception as “intrinsically disordered”—the same term the present pope, Benedict XVI, has sought repeatedly to use to characterize gay persons.

There are links, in other words, between the Catholic church’s condemnation of artificial contraception and of homosexuality. And I’m not sure how many people who look to the Catholic church as a bulwark against gay rights understand this. Many evangelicals have made common cause with the Catholic church when it stands against gay human beings and our rights. But I suspect that not a few of the Christian right allies of Catholicism when it comes to gay rights have not a clue about what the Catholic church teaches re: artificial contraception, and why it teaches what it does. And I also suspect that they’d be appalled if they did encounter this teaching in its unvarnished state, the state in which Catholics are expected meekly to receive it.

I could say a lot about Humanae vitae and why it was a colossal mistake on the part of Paul VI to issue this encyclical. As critics have noted, the theological commission the pope put together to advise him advised him not to issue a condemnation of artificial contraception. The mind of the church, in other words, what Cardinal Newman called the sensus fidelium, rejects the stance against artificial contraception. And nothing the church has said or done in the intervening period has convinced Catholics to change their minds. Polls indicate that something over 90% of married Catholics in the global North practice artificial contraception. And with a good conscience.

As the Clerical Whispers article notes, one of the primary reasons Paul VI decided to reject the advice of his theological commission (and thus, of the sensus fidelium) about this issue was that he feared he’d bring disrepute to the church by appearing to acknowledge that church teachings can change—that they can be wrong, and can need to revise in light of historical developments. And yet, ironically (again, the Clerical Whispers post notes this), perhaps no other event in the history of Catholic church after Vatican II (except, I’d argue, the clerical sexual abuse crisis) has so undermined public confidence in the Catholic church’s teaching, than “Humanae vitae.”

Which brings me back to the norm Paul VI uses to determine the morality of sexual acts. It’s so logical. It’s so lucid. It’s so plain wrong.

Think about it: "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." The word “act” leaps out immediately. A whole sexual morality built on measuring acts, on determining if they are “intrinsically disordered.”

The Catholic approach to sexual morality conjures up visions of someone—a priest; the Pope; the couple having intercourse—in the bedroom of a couple, measuring acts . . . . As if the morality of sex, a drive that unites two people at deep levels of their beings, can be summed up by measuring an act!

The whole approach to sexual morality in Catholicism—and I’m saying nothing thousands of other theologians haven’t said for years now—is simply wrong-headed. It’s off on the wrong track, from the get-go.

Insofar as it tries to hinge the judgment of the morality of human sexuality on acts, and insofar as it premises its judgment about said acts on whether they conform to some purported biological purpose of sexuality, it is simply not looking at what really deserves attention in sexual morality. This is quality of relationships, not acts, and, particularly, acts judged by biological yardsticks.

To illustrate: in Catholic sexual morality, a rape in which the male succeeds in ejaculating inside the female is far less immoral than a rape in which the coitus is interruptus. Which is to say, rape receives much less attention in Catholic sexual morality—the quality of the relationship between two people having sex receives much less attention—than the kind of act done, and what happens to that act when it is consummated. Is the penis inside or outside? Did at least some semen reach the vagina? Did the man intentionally or unintentionally ejaculate prematurely? If non-penis-in-vagina foreplay occurred, and the male climaxed prior to consummating the sexual act, did he (or she, wanton temptress) intend for this to happen?

Insane. Who “does” sex this way? Who thinks about sex this way? Who wants to think about sex this way? Why are ostensibly celibate male clerics, who have no experience at all the bedroom, entering the bedroom via the confessional to measure, photograph, judge, question? (Priests do ask the kinds of questions I asked above, in the confessional. They’re expected to do so. This is why many Catholics no longer go to confession. And can you blame us?)

And so from artificial contraception to homosexuality. Most people get it, when it comes to artificial contraception. Most people get that this way of thinking about human sexuality is just plain foolish. It does not reflect what people mean when they live their lives as erotic beings, when we express ourselves erotically. It is moral analysis imposed on human experience, and therefore extrinsic to human experience.

Why, then, I wonder, do people who reject the absurd teachings about artificial contraception not feel equally indignant about the equally crazy Catholic teaching that gay human beings are intrinsically disordered? Why do evangelicals who decidedly do not buy into the biologistic natural-law theology that frames all Catholic teachings about sexual morality, and who do not buy into the prohibition against artificial contraception, accept and promote Catholic teaching against gay human beings?

I could advance all kinds of reasons for this disconnect in the popular mind. I may well do so in future postings. Here, though, I’d like to think this problem through by thinking about a video clip that has been circulating on the internet these past few days. A link to it is, in fact, on the same Clerical Whispers webpage I cited above for the link to the commemoration of “Humanae vitae.” It’s at http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2008/07/heckle-that-symbolises-church-split.html.

The clip shows openly gay (and partnered) Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson preaching at St. Mary’s in Putney (London) this past Sunday. As Bishop Robinson preached, a man in the audience stood up to heckle, calling him a heretic, shouting that he (and the congregation, who clapped and sang to drown out the heckler’s voice) needed to repent.
High drama for an Anglican church. And interesting drama. The question I keep asking myself as I watch this clip is, “What motivates someone to do something like this?” What motivates those who feel so urgently compelled to preach to gay human beings that we need to repent?

It’s not as if there aren’t a lot of other heinous sins around that need condemning. Just read the accounts of the round-up of hundreds of illegal Mexican and Central American immigrants in Postville, Iowa, recently, and you’ll likely wonder what kind of human beings can treat other human beings this way.

Why Bishop Robinson’s sin? Why “the” sin of the Anglican communion, insofar as it will not repudiate all gay persons and their supporters? What drives people (usually men) to take such extreme action to prevent gays and our supporters from going to hell?

I can’t help thinking this has far more to do with the desire to control than it has to do with the desire to save. It’s not about love at all. It’s about the need of a social group that feels its power over others may be waning, to find a juicy scapegoat group and to use that group to the maximum to shore up its waning control.

I find it very hard to believe that many of the preachers and hecklers I’ve encountered, who are so earnest about saving gay souls, read much of the bible at all. If they did so, they’d find that the overwhelming weight of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, when they address the moral life, is about love. And justice. And living in a way that embodies mercy and justice.

Not about sex. And certainly not about sexual acts. And that ravenous need to control? It seems to be what the whole biblical narrative reflects on, from Adam and Eve forward, when it reflects on our human reluctance to place our lives at God’s disposal. Those moved by the Spirit—the Spirit that Christian traditions identify as holy—are far less intent on controlling others than they are on opening their own hearts and minds to the influence of the divine. And in responding to that influence through acts of practical compassion in a world starved for the milk of human kindness.

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