Sunday, March 8, 2009

Of Robots and Florists and the Limits of Rational Discourse about Sexual Matters

You know that “religious” discourse about gay issues is hitting rock bottom (or so one devoutly hopes) when these are the kinds of arguments being advanced against gay marriage: here and here.

Robots and florists.

I don’t know about you, but I have never felt that way inclined, vis-à-vis my robots—inclined to cuddle with them, that is. I just leave them be as they bustle about tending to their mechanical little business of scrambling my eggs, plumping my pillows, and vacuuming the carpets. Marrying them would be . . . superfluous. And it would, something in me warns, perhaps distract them from the servile tasks they perform so willingly for me now, sans marital privilege.

And florists? Really? The Catholic church’s new poster boys for opposition to same-sex marriage are going to be florists anguished by doubts about whether their contribution of calla lilies and roses to bacchanalian gay marriage ceremonies is going to upend civilization?

And as this nonsense spews forth, Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho of the diocese of Olinda and Recife in Brazil excommunicates those who decide to perform an abortion in the case of a nine-year old girl carrying twins, who has accused her stepfather of raping her repeatedly since she was six years old (here and here).

What this tragic story illustrates oh so clearly is the cruelty and inhumanity of how Catholic ethics has come to approach all issues related to human sexuality. In other areas of ethical life, the Catholic ethical tradition has long since recognized the need to weigh abstract principles that frequently come into conflict in real, lived human experience. The tradition rightly recognizes the need, in other areas of human life, for human beings to consult their experience, to listen to the best of philosophy and science as we form our consciences and make conscientious decisions. In all areas other than those touching on sexual issues, the tradition recognizes that we have an obligation and a right to shape nature rather than being expected to conform to some rigid dictates of “natural” law.

But not in the area of sexual ethics. In contemporary practice in the Catholic church, sexual ethics has been reduced to a dessicated, wildly unconvincing set of rigid abstractions handed down from above and applied willy-nilly to all human experiences and all conceivable situations. The assumption is that ethical behavior proceeds from unthinking adherence to inviolable abstract principles, that human behavior is morally correct only when it conforms to those principles, regardless of situations and circumstances.

Rational principles, principles formulated in the head which have nothing to do with the heart, with the non-rational aspects of human experience, of which the erotic life is chock-full . . . . Principles formulated and dictated by men, for the most part—by men sitting in rectories and episcopal palaces and curial offices far removed from the strife and complexity of human life . . . . From the tragic ambiguity of human life.

In this case, the church thinks it is absolutely clear, rationally perspicuous, that a forty-pound girl who has apparently been raped by her stepfather should carry to term twins she is found to be carrying as a result of that rape. In this case, the church sees no ambiguity—as it does with war and capital punishment and capitalist greed and, as recent stories suggest, apparently with anti-Semitism—and no tragedy.

Only a burning white light which dictates that those who intervened and sought an abortion be branded as murderers and excommunicates . . . . A light that shines for men who do not have to carry babies conceived by rape . . . .

Something is wrong here, tragically so. Something is wrong when abstract principles are applied in a cruel and inhuman way that admits of no exception, even in circumstances in which other abstract principles (e.g., saving the life of a girl, which is placed in serious jeopardy by the insistence that she carry twins to term when she is nine years old) conflict with the one and only principle the men making the rules acknowledge.

Is it any wonder that the church and its teaching on sexual issues does not compel assent? Those of us who do not live in the curial halls and rectories and episcopal palaces deal with mundane realities that make those crystal-clear rational principles far less clear, as we cope with the principles in the realm of the real, the lived, the everyday. And as we do so, we garner a treasury of experience that would vastly benefit those making the rules and dictating the ironclad rational principles—if they would but find ways to listen.