Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who Knew? What Reading Newman Did Not Prepare Me for When I Became Catholic

I’ve mentioned  before on this blog that one of the motivating factors in my fateful decision to become Catholic as a teenager was John Henry Newman.  I encountered Newman in high school.  Both his Apologia and Development of Christian Doctrine were on the reading list of my school’s accelerated English program—along with, as I think of it, Merton’s Seven-Storey Mountain, Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Pascal’s Pensées, and a rich assortment of other philosophical and religious writings from around the world.  It was a truly catholic reading list, and reading Newman only underscored the commitment to catholicity of thought--the commitment to read widely and think carefully--that I was taught by the best teachers who taught me in high-school.

But as I’ve also noted, reading Newman decidedly did not prepare me for what I encountered when I joined the Catholic church at the age of 17.  I had imagined—foolishly—that every Catholic I would encounter would be well-read and thoughtful, or would, at the very least, have a more than passing acquaintance with theological works, and a lively interest in exploring the connection between the ancient treasure trove of their tradition and contemporary culture.

I was wrong in making those assumptions.   

As Newman is beatified, I’ve been thinking the past few days of what reading Newman did not prepare me for, when I joined the Catholic church.  And here’s a partial list, articles in the creed of card-carrying Catholics that I didn’t find in Newman’s version of Catholicism, and with which I still struggle.  

Newman did not prepare me to know the following ten essential articles of the creed of many contemporary card-carrying Catholics:

1.    When you sign the card that qualifies you to be a card-carrying Catholic, you’re signing a pledge to combat any and all criticism of everything tagged Catholic, Roman, papal, or Vatican.  Unless, of course, what’s being (erroneously) tagged as Catholic is something like “Catholic” gay rights, or “Catholic” support for women’s rights.  Or support for “Catholics” protesting the institutional church’s complicity in covering up sexual abuse of minors.

2.    The most salient point to be considered in evaluating sexual behavior is whether a penis and a vagina are involved.  And whether the two meet.  Whether they meet without artificial interruption, and whether the penis finally ejaculates in the vagina and nowhere else.

3.    Considerations about the relationship within which two people engage in erotic activity are secondary to—they don’t even count in—the assessment of the morality of sexual behavior.

4.    It’s better by far for a penis and a vagina to meet in almost any imaginable expression of sexuality—whether that meeting occurs inside or outside marriage or even in acts of rape—than for two penises or two vaginas to interact.  Or for a penis or a vagina deliberately to entertain impure thoughts and engage in impure activity in the absence of its binary partner.

5.    So it’s far more moral for a man to rape a woman, or for a man and a woman to engage in premarital or extramarital sex even in an exploitative, impermanent, uncommitted relationship than for two members of the same sex to engage in sexual activity within the context of a long-term, exclusive, monogamous relationship.

6.    The church is right to focus the laser beam of its political attention on the latter and to try to outlaw the latter, while ignoring the former and claiming that its focus on the latter is all about safeguarding the sanctity of marriage.

7.    Having a penis—the sheer biological possession of one—automatically qualifies one for governing office in (i.e., for the clerical state of) the Catholic church.  Not having a penis automatically disqualifies one for such governing office.  This hard and fast rule does not and cannot change dependent on the personal qualifications that the penis or the vagina bring to the clerical office.  The penis may be, in almost any respect short of its biological configuration, spectacularly disqualified to exercise leadership of any kind.  The vagina may be spectacularly qualified to exercise leadership, especially of a pastoral sort.  But none of that matters any more than the quality of relationship of two people engaging in sexual activity matters when we assess the morality of the sexual activity.

What counts above all is the penis.  Just having it.

8.    Ditto for all Catholic institutions, since they function according to the penis-trumps-vagina principle on whose basis the church chooses to allocate institutional governing power.  The most unqualified man is automatically more qualified to exercise power in most Catholic circles than the most highly qualified woman.  Since penis trumps vagina in the governing structures of Catholicism.

9.    Even men of the least morally astute sort, of the least intellectually prepared sort, men who use the church and its teachings to harm, demean, and bash targeted "inferiors," have the right to claim the Catholic church as their true moral home, and a bastion defending their phallic rights, more than any woman of the most morally astute sort and most intellectually prepared sort does.

10.    And, finally, reading Newman certainly didn't prepare me for the revelation that the church that attracted my attention and my lifelong commitment in the 1960s because of its courageous public stand in defense of the human rights of people of color in the 1950s and 1960s would, by the latter decades of the 20th century, make itself known as the chief defender of discrimination against the human rights of gay and lesbian human beings.  While continuing to maintain that it stands on the side of human rights for all.

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