Monday, November 2, 2009

White Male Voters and Phallocentric Preoccupations: Reflections on Catholic Sexual Ethics and the Battle Against Same-Sex Marriage

I wrote yesterday that it strikes me as tragically wrong-headed (not to mention a betrayal of core Christian values) that powerful Christian leaders today are hinging the future of Christianity on the belief that those with a penis and light skin coloring have an ontological status different from and higher than that of everyone else in the world.

Today, I’m interested to read Andrew Sullivan’s comments on a U.S. map showing the percentage of white male voters for Obama in the U.S. The map appeared yesterday in a posting at Open Left. Compare the two maps at Open Left—state-by-state percentages of all but white men who voted for President Obama, and percentages of white men who voted for Obama—and a fascinating picture emerges.

As Andrew Sullivan notes,

When the disparities of experience and understanding are this acute, Washington has a problem with its pundit class. Increasingly, we're talking about ourselves, not America.

And I agree. One of the conspicuous shortcomings of much political (and religious, and academic, and so on) commentary is that it projects the straight white male viewpoint onto everyone else as the human viewpoint.

And so I continue to maintain that it is tragically shortsighted for so many Christian leaders to apotheosize the experience of one small sociological group and to seek to make that experience normative for all believers everywhere. The big struggle within the Christian churches today—the struggle on whose outcome the future will depend—is about whether the gospels give inordinate privilege to those who have a penis and light complexion.

If the answer to that question is no, then the churches need to find immediate ways to revise their polities radically, and to shift how they do business at the most fundamental level possible. If the answer to that question is yes, then many of us will continue to distance ourselves from the churches and will continue to stand by in sad dismay as things fall apart.

Vis-à-vis the Catholic church in particular, a reader left a valuable comment at my posting last week about the Italian Catholic priest who married a couple in which the female partner was transsexual. Readers will recall that Cardinal Renato Martino, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, condemned the pastor’s decision to marry this couple, on the ground that marrying a couple in which a spouse or spouses are transsexual “does not bring anything to the church.”

Ht. Tom, the perceptive reader who commented on this posting, noted that the marriage law of the Catholic church is a mess, and offered the opinion that the church ought to get out of marriage altogether. To illustrate his point that the marriage law of the Catholic church is mess, he offered two canons governing Catholic pastoral decisions about whether a priest ought or ought not to witness the sacramental marriage of a couple in which one or both partners is unable to conceive.

I’m not a canonist, and I haven’t researched the two canons in question. I have only the text posted by Ht. Tom to go by, as I think about this issue.

But as I read these canons, I have to say that I completely agree with Ht. Tom. The Catholic church’s understanding of marriage and human sexuality is a total mess. It’s a mess because it depends on phallocentric biological and anthropological assumptions that are so obsessively focused on penises and what penises do, that Catholic sexual ethics twists itself into bizarre conclusions which no informed and right-thinking person today can possibly accept.

Here are the canons that Ht. Tom cites to illustrate the mess the Catholic church has made of the theology of marriage, with its obsessive focus on penises:

Canon 1084.1 Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have sexual intercourse, whether on the part of the man or on that of the woman, whether absolute or relative, by its very nature invalidates marriage.

Canon 1084.3 Without prejudice to the provisions of canon 1098, sterility neither forbids nor invalidates a marriage.

Here’s what strikes me as I read these canons (and, again, I want to stress that I haven’t researched these texts in context, and I haven’t read theological commentary on them: my impressions are top-of-the-head ones, but they’re considered top-of-the-head responses based on wide reading in Catholic sexual ethics). What strikes me is the absurd, blind focus of 1084.1 on “impotence” as the sole impediment to a marriage in which one or both partners may be incapable of consummating a marriage.

This is an exclusively penis-centered approach to the complex question of why some couples are unable to have satisfactory intercourse. The word “impotence” is phallocentric. It is customary to speak of women who may find it impossible to engage in sexual relations either persistently or intermittently as “sterile,” not impotent.

The canon takes a male term and a male experience and applies it to women, as if women experience difficulty achieving an erection, and consequently can’t hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to consummating a marriage. In doing so, it makes nonsense of all that we know about human biology, about the act of conception, about women’s sexuality and the role that this plays in marriage.

And how can canon 1084.1 and 1084.3 both be true? If sterility doesn’t forbid or invalidate a marriage, then what is this female “impotence” that does forbid or invalidate a marriage?

It seems clear to me that the primary focus of the church’s sexual ethics—the obsessive, monomaniacal, laughable focus—is the penis and what it does. Or does not do, as the case may be.

The Catholic magisterial understanding of sexual ethics reflects a worldview and a pre-modern biological system that sees the penis as the only important thing to think about in the act of reproduction. This worldview sees women as passive receptacles for sperm, ovens in which a man is to place his bun and let it bake. This worldview imagines men doing everything that is really important in the act of conception. They supply the stuff of which life is made. Women merely receive and incubate that stuff.

Women’s sexual pleasure and sexual responses simply have no place in this worldview. Women’s sexuality makes no sense at all in the worldview on which Catholic sexual ethics continues to be based.

It’s all about the penis—where it goes, what it does, what happens to sperm, where sperm is placed and ends up. I really do wonder if those evangelical Protestants like Bernice King, the new president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, have any idea who and what they’re getting into bed with, when they parrot the Catholic line that marriage is all about procreation?

King, who is Martin Luther King’s daughter, opposes same-sex marriage. Several years ago, she told reporters that she does so because the purpose of sexuality and marriage is procreation.

So I take it that, with her legacy of a strong commitment to fairness, equity, and justice for all citizens, Bernice King opposes the marriage of two people of the opposite sex who are beyond childbearing years, or of an opposite-sex couple in which one or both partners cannot conceive for other reasons, or of an opposite-sex couple that does not intend to have children. I take it that Bernice King (who is a minister of the gospel) holds these positions because, otherwise, it would be radically unfair to oppose the marriage of people of the same sex on the ground that marriage is all about procreation. If we maintain that gays must not marry because marriage is all about procreation, then logic and consistency (not to mention elemental fairness) demand that we apply that norm to all couples, gay or straight, who intend to marry.

Otherwise, it’s not all about procreation. It’s all about bashing the gays and keeping them in their places.

And about the magical power of the penis, about where it goes and what it does, as the most significant datum to consider in sexual ethics. That’s what Catholicism thinks, with its “all about procreation” claim.

Does Bernice King agree, I wonder?