THOUGHT FOR THE DAY

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” – T.S. Eliot, 1950.

WHY CELIBACY IS THE PROBLEM: A terrific email from a reader, who highlights what I think has been an over-looked aspect of the Church’s crisis: power. I’ve long believed that sex which is a function of one person’s power over another is indeed sinful. That goes for all those married women in years gone by who were treated as sexual instruments by their husbands, and indeed those women now subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. This was my one sole moral objection to Clinton’s sex life – not that he had affairs, which struck me as a matter between him and his wife, but that he had affairs with less powerful women he could control. That’s what was at the crux of the Clinton case: the abuse of power, not the pursuit of sex. And I think that abuse of power for sex is what the essential problem of priestly sexual predation is about. Here’s how my reader puts it:

The problem really isn’t pedophiles, nor is it gay priests, it’s a church so clueless that it doesn’t realize the evil of using power to coerce sex. And that is closely tied to clerical celibacy. Religious celibates experience sex only as temptation. Although the church professes that married sex is beautiful, I don’t think they really believe it. (Did you notice that the married couple canonized recently, the Quattroccis, gave up sex, while married, on the advice of their spiritual director?) The clergy and bishops seem to not realize what an abomination coerced sex is because they don’t really see the beauty and dignity in freely chosen sexuality – including gay and out-of-wedlock sexuality. They have acted as though a teenager being coerced is no different from a teenager “messing around”… Celibate clergy live in an all-male culture, and tend not to hear female-type insights. Women are far more sensitive than men to problems of power imbalance in sexual relationships (probably because we are often on the wrong end of a power imbalance). I found it interesting that the abusive priest featured in this week’s Newsweek stopped because a nun became suspicious of his relationship with a teenage boy. A non-celibate clergy (even if all male) would be forced to listen to input from women – and would get insights that don’t seem to be getting through now.

I couldn’t agree more.

MAXIM AGAIN: Of course, the truly funny thing about Maxim’s goof-up is when it got the delivery wrong and sent New York’s copies to Philadelphia by mistake. If you received the wrong copy in Philly, you were informed that Philadelphia is ” “a glorified piss break between New York and D.C.” You were also told that the average inhabitant of such a city is “a lard-ass with arteries packed as tight as a Colombian airline passenger’s G.I. tract.” If only they’d had the balls to send that out in every copy, I’d respect them.

NEW STAR ON THE BLOCK: She’s 22, she’s conservative, and she writes as well as anyone in the mainstream press. Check asparagirl out.

IT’S THE CONSULTANTS, STUPID: Here’s one reason to celebrate campaign finance reform. Political consultants are about to get a lot poorer. Walter Shapiro has the goods in Slate.

AND STILL THEY FIND THEM: “This afternoon, I watched them bring someone out of Ground Zero. From 39 stories up, and 300 yards away, the workers are small figures an eighth of an inch tall. It’s raining here, so they’re very visible in their yellow rain slickers…” A gripping first-hand account from yesterday at Ground Zero – continued on the Letters Page.

ALL OR NOTHING?: Eve Tushnet, on her wonderful blog, takes on my attempt to stay in the Church while remaining a pretty happy homosexual, with, gulp, a sex life. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere in my two books, Virtually Normal and Love Undetectable. So I’m not going to go into extreme detail here. But here’s Tushnet’s argument:

I read Sullivan’s Love Undetectable during a period in my life that was already rough; I was deeply shaken by his rejection of the Church’s sexual teachings, and his reasons for that rejection, but since I lacked his emotional commitment to the Church my options were different. He stays in, and dissents; I had absolutely no reason to go that route. I had no deeply-felt connection to Catholicism. I wasn’t raised in it. And so my options were: reject Sullivan’s claims about sex, or reject the Church. That’s why I think that Sullivan’s form of Catholicism is accurately described as “Oprahfied”–its claim to be Catholic rests, ultimately, on nothing stronger than the unpredictable waves of human emotion.

What Eve posits here is a binary world where you are either a) completely orthodox or b) you base your beliefs about, say, sexual morality, on pure self-interest, while incoherently staying in the Church for sentimental reasons. But surely there’s something somewhere in the middle.

A THIRD WAY: My argument for the moral neutrality of homosexuality, for example, for the moral good of some homosexual sexual activity, and for the moral evil of abusive sexual activity, whether gay or straight, is not based on pure blind emotion. It’s not wish-fullfilment. It’s an argument that the reduction of human sexuality to pure, heterosexual, procreative sex strikes me as excessively strict, given the not-so-terrifying moral dangers of other forms of human sexuality. It’s an argument that other forms of sex – pre-marital, contracepted, same-sex, masturbatory – are not always the ‘evils’ the Church claims them to be – and indeed might be legitimate and humanizing ways to express sexual freedom. I’m not saying that the heterosexual, procreative act isn’t a beautiful and holy and mysterious thing. I’m saying that other forms of sexuality are not therefore ‘evil.’ I believe that the God-given moral and spiritual autonomy of people – and the psychological and spiritual freedom that can be tapped through the mystery of sexual experience – means that our sex lives cannot be easily reduced to procreation alone. In fact, I’d go further and say that the reduction of human sexuality to such an instrumental plane is demeaning to human nature and untrue to morality. It’s like saying the human mouth can only be used to breathe and eat – not speak and sing and kiss. I’m not going to win this argument, I know. The Church hierarchy can listen, and simply ignore it. That’s what they do. But, hey, it’s what I think.

SPERMS AND EGGS ALONE: That doesn’t mean all sexual activity is equally okay. But it means that, as Catholics, we can apply other moral standards to it other than: will it create a baby? Some of those standards, drawing from within the Catholic faith tradition, might be, for example: Does the sexual act express love? Does it respect the other and treat him or her as an equal? Does it demean or abuse another person? Does it draw one away from God? Does it represent freedom for both parties? These, frankly, strike me as more profound moral issues than the mechanistic one of whether
a sperm is going to find an egg. The Church has partly acknowledged this already. It already makes exceptions to its otherwise strict rules. It gives communion each week to millions of people who practise contraception and who masturbate, and doesn’t in general make much effort to enforce these ‘doctrines,’ because, given human nature, they are unenforceable. The Church allows bad marriages to be ‘annulled’ rather than ended, if enough money and influence can be brought to bear. It allows infertile couples – as long as they’re straight – to have non-procreative sex, and gladly marries them. It even allows married, non-celibate clergy in England right now, as long as they are former Anglicans who have defected. So celibacy can be waived for a one-time influx of disaffected priests from other denominations – but not to address a real crisis of vocation in America. And the Church really draws the line at accommodating historically marginalized groups like gays or those from failed marriages or those who seem unable or unsuited to form a long-term monogamous relationship. I’ve argued at great length that these double-standards need to be examined – not accepted as given – for authentically Catholic reasons. This is especially true when Jesus was quite clear about the evil of excluding marginalized people from God’s church, while far less insistent on sexual orthodoxy as the lynch-pin of a Christian life. I’m not therefore arguing out of emotive, Oprahfied self-interest. I’m arguing from within the Catholic tradition against a current Catholic orthodoxy. You may disagree, and I’m not saying there aren’t strong arguments on both sides. But it’s unfair to dismiss this argument as mere emotionalism or selfishness. In fact, it’s worse than unfair. It’s insulting.