Do you know where you were on this date, 11/22, 36 years ago? That would be 1975, for those who can’t do the math. I was being ordained a Catholic priest in Oakland, CA.
I’m riding the bus when we come to a stop near a local high school. Five teenage boys get on. They are all jocks—football, probably. Their jackets are emblazoned with varsity letters and they appear to be fresh from practice. Each carries an oversized duffel.
They are boisterous and full of menacing bravado. The bus is immediately overwhelmed with a rush of testosterone. As they move toward the back of the bus, they purposely jostle everyone in their path. They are rude and crude and every other word is fuck.
The bus lurches forward, and my fellow passengers instinctively know not to make eye contact. The older women clutch their belongings tight to their bosom. Everyone is tense.
The pack mentality emboldens the young men, who are flush with their newly discovered sense of male privilege. Hormones rage in their adolescent bodies, yet there is an awkward childishness about them too. They are alpha, but only in as much as they are part of a pack.
They have off-color comments for everyone around them. Girls are singled out for the most abuse. They make insinuations about their sexual prowess, while pawing at their groins. The women blush with embarrassment.
Despite being loud, obnoxious and brutish, they lack conviction. They giggle too much, indicating self-consciousness. It’s apparent that, at their core, they are still very uneasy about themselves, and have yet to grow into and own the alpha maleness they mimic.
The bus approaches the next stop, and several of us get up to exit. A nerdy boy with glasses and a violin case accidentally trips over one of the teen’s duffel bags. This is the spark. The jocks erupt, lunging at the offending kid. He is easy prey. He’s petrified, but his survival instincts kick in, and he quickly maneuvers further up the aisle. I grab his shoulder and push him toward the door ahead of me. He makes his escape.
Now I’m in the line of fire. The rear door is only a couple steps away, but I stand my ground. The jocks size me up. I’m not an easy mark; I’m older and more dominant than any of them as individuals, but they trump me as a group. I may even be dangerous. In a split-second, the teens reevaluate the situation and instead of coming at me, they try to take me down with their best verbal shot: “You motherfucking fag!”
I move to the door. This could end very badly for me, but I will not show any weakness. Adrenaline courses through my bloodstream. I alight from the bus, holding the door open so I can briefly yell back. “Hey, thanks for the recognition. Oh, and for your information, its father-fucking, brother-fucking and/or son-fucking fag, never mother-fucking. Get it?”
By the time the jocks realize what’s happened, the bus is in motion, and I am safe.
The teens thought better of physically attacking me, so they did the next best thing. It’s what most threatened males do: they tried to diminish the threat by calling into question my masculinity. And they do it in that time-honored way—by inferring I was a defective male, a queer, and a sissy. Trouble is, I am queer, and I owned it—right in their faces. On top of that, I stood up to them and even had the temerity to publicly shame them. So that had to be unsettling to them on several levels.
How did the derogatory epithet fag become the quintessential means of destroying the male ego? Why has the only somewhat less offensive slur, “that’s so gay,” become emblematic for everything stupid, negative or girly? These questions get to the root of our culture’s deeply ingrained homophobia.
I contend that homophobia is rooted in a fear and hatred of women. It’s no accident that when we want to denigrate a man we call him a pussy—the same word we use to refer to female genitals. In our culture, men are superior to women—it’s the oily by-product of male privilege. A man who falls short of this lofty ideal, or, god forbid, assumes a passive role in sex, cheapens the “privilege” for all other males. This is a particularly sensitive issue for ostensibly heterosexual men.
This prohibition is so deep-seated in our culture, one can trace its roots back to the Bible. Leviticus 20:13: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.” In biblical days, women were nothing more than chattel. For a man to behave like a woman—particularly in a passive, receptive sexual way—back then was an even greater insult to the male privilege than it is nowadays (which explains the whole capital punishment thing.)
Women are also objectified as sexual objects before men dominate them. A woman is not so much a person as she is a collection of parts—tits, pussy, ass, etc. A heterosexual man, familiar with and practiced in this dynamic, will not tolerate another male objectifying him as a sexual object, either real or imagined.
These cultural triggers are exceptionally easy to trip. With very little effort at all, we can debase a man simply by suggesting that there’s a whiff of the feminine about him or that his cock is small. In turn, the slandered male is burdened with proving the contrary, which often leads to overcompensation. To deflect suspicion, some men affect a macho bravado so as to appear even more masculine than their peers. And how better to do that than to suggest someone else is a pansy?
I can say for certain that all those boys on the bus had been, at one time or another, accused of being a fag. It’s exceedingly common in sports for even teammates to insinuate a fellow athlete is not performing up to expectations. Each of them must have known the sting of that reproach. Some may even have had self-doubt about their own sexual tendencies. That’s why they hurled at me what they knew would hurt any other self-respecting male the most.
What they didn’t count on was that I had, long ago, inoculated myself against this poison. I own, even revel, in my queer sexuality. An insult doesn’t work if the one insulted self-identifies as the slur.
Institutionalized homophobia, on the other hand, is more insidious. The dominant culture enshrines male privilege and, like the boys on the bus, punishes anyone who attempts to undercut the paradigm. Discrimination is so widespread, ingrained—and sometimes so subtle—that many non-gay people don’t even notice most of it. But those of us on the receiving end of the bigotry are keenly aware.
It’s a particularly acute problem for young people who know they are different, and different in a way that isn’t tolerated of by the dominant culture. They are much more vulnerable because they have yet to developed the emotional resources to counteract the oppression. They don’t yet realize that it’s society’s problem, not theirs. Their peers mercilessly persecute them. And for the most part, authority figures don’t even try to stop the torment. That’s why young gay people commit suicide at a rate of about seven times that of straight kids.
You may have noticed that I’ve framed this presentation in terms of the natural world. Dominant and submissive behaviors in other species often have sexual overtones, especially in other primate species. A dominant male will harass a male subordinate until he submits and presents his rump. This establishes a pecking order in the troupe: a subordinate male is submissive and the dominant male is in control.
Some straight men see gay men as a threat, instinctively fearing a supposed challenge to the established order of things; who is in control. It’s basically a struggle for dominance and troupe status. A gay person who is a productive member of society, who is indistinguishable from his heterosexual counterparts, ups the ante. He’s a threat to anyone who believes what he has been told all his life—that gays are perverted, miserable, lonely people who live short, desperate lives.
Institutionalized homophobia impacts so many aspects of our culture. It may be obvious how it skews our notions of sex and sexuality, of who can do what to whom and when. But did you know that it is often an underlying cause of much male sexual dysfunction? It also contaminates national policy in terms of public health issues, military readiness and the rights and freedoms we afford our citizenry. Most religious traditions force their priests, ministers and religious women and men to live duplicitous lives, which contradict the basic tenants of every religion. The business sector also suffers. Harassment and intimidation of gay workers result in loss of productivity costing businesses millions every year. But the most tragic is the toll it takes on individual relationships. Families are torn apart, friendships end, and people sometimes are killed or kill themselves over a futile and misguided attempt to uphold the status quo.
Imagine what our Church would look like if all us LGBT clergy, religious and parishoners decided to come out.
Just in time for National Coming Out Day, which just so happens to be today, October 11th, we have this from Craig:
I’m 19, and I’ve decided that I’m gay. But I don’t know how to tell anyone. I’m afraid that I’ll lose my friends and family. I come from a very religious family, and they’ll never understand. I don’t want to hurt them, but I want to be honest about who I am. Just wondering if you could help me.
Coming out is never easy—or almost never—but having to do so to bigoted people makes things worse. There are many different aspects to the coming out process. It means both owning and valuing who you are, and sharing that information with others. You’ve apparently laid the groundwork by self-identifying as gay. Unfortunately, coming out also means learning to deal with the hostility many people have toward us sexual minorities.
Owning your sexual identity and integrating it into your overall sense of self is the first step in what I believe is a lifelong process. Your sexual preferences are just a small part of who you are. It is indeed an important part, but it’s not necessarily the defining element that some would make it out to be. In this instance, LGBT folks are not all that different from everyone else who is awakening to his/her sexuality. We can take some comfort from the fact that we are not alone. So many other segments of the population are marginalized and discounted because of their race, gender, age, religion, ethnic origin, you name it. Let’s face it, pup, our culture doesn’t do real well with diversity.
And ya know what else? There are a whole lot of us who are marginalized and who are discriminated against, who then turn right around and discriminate against and marginalize others. This just breaks my heart! Hopefully you’ll avoid the temptation to do this yourself.
Being different in our society is a double-edged sword. Obviously, it’s a challenge to the status quo, but it also frees us up to tread a less traveled path. To compensate for the difficulties of being a minority, we get to define ourselves in ways that are unavailable to the dominant culture.
I don’t suppose any of us is ever entirely really free of our own internalized homophobia, any more than other marginalized minorities can rid themselves of their internalized self-doubt. No one can completely escape the prejudices and biases that surround them, but most of us make our way, regardless. That’s why coming out is so important. It empowers us. It increases our self-esteem. Honesty increases personal integrity. And when we stop hiding or denying this important aspect of ourselves, we have greater freedom of self-expression, and we become more available for happy, healthy and honest relationships.
So, how much do you know about LGBT history? Knowing that you belong to a big and vibrant community with a long and illustrious history will enhance your queer identity. You’ll find positive role models in every era of human history, and in every human endeavor—and affirmative role models will help you achieve a positive sense of self. (However, you’re gonna have to do some digging. The dominant culture suppresses queer history, which often leaves those who are just coming out feeling isolated, alone and unsure. Fear of rejection from the dominant culture is greatest for those who don’t know they belong to something bigger and stronger than themselves.)
Knowing your gay history will also give you ammunition to refute those around you who will try to label you as sick or sinful. Loads of LGBT folk have enriched civilization through science, religion, music, politics, art, theater, sports and literature, to name just a few. Long before you and I showed up on the scene they were paving the way for the freedoms and tolerance we currently enjoy in this country.
If you’re not already involved in your local gay community, it’s high time you got hooked up. Practice your coming out skills with other LGBT people. Coming out to those who are most likely to be supportive will make this phase easier. And in doing so, you’ll be creating a natural support system of friends who will be your gay “family.” You will also find helpful resources, including support groups, crisis lines, gay-friendly churches and synagogues, social outlets and political and cultural activities and organizations.
Once you’ve honed your coming out skills with the queer community, you’ll be ready to move on to straight folks. This will probably be a mixed bag. Some won’t give a hoot. Others may have a lot of hoot to give. The best advice I can give you is the same advice I received from my gay elders when I was coming out at about your age: Make your coming out a celebration.
Listen, if you carry your hat in your hand, shuffle your feet and look all dejected when you make your announcement, your audience will have little choice but to receive the information as bad or troubling news. However, if you stand up, look the person in the eye, and tell her or him that you have some wonderful news to share with them, you will be giving them a running start on receiving the information as good news. Besides, a positive presentation will help short-circuit some of the initial shock or confusion they may experience.
Expect that most straight folks—particularly those of a religious bent—will need some time to get used to the idea of you being queer. And as you suggest, it is quite possible that some family members or friends may reject you initially. But it’s not the end of the world, and lots of people, even some religious folks, come around in their own sweet time.
Coming out to others will be a more positive experience if you’re comfortable in your own skin. Hopefully you’re not overly dependent on others for your sense of self—a tall order for someone of your tender age and background. But remember, thousands of people, young and old from every corner of the world, are making their first tentative steps out of the closet right this minute. You are not alone.
How well you do fare may ultimately hinge on controlling, as much as possible, the time and place you come out. If you “out” yourself as opposed to being “outted” by someone else, you’re more likely to succeed. Being able to judge the receptiveness of your audience is also important. The best time for you might not necessarily be the best time for the person you’re about to tell. (F’rinstance, grandpa’s funeral may not be the ideal time to announce to your family that you’re a big fat flamer.)
While some friends and family may have figured you’re queer long before you have, give everyone the time and space he or she needs to work through the news. Be prepared for some negative reactions. (Having some supportive friends available to talk things through afterward, or retreat to, will help.) If you do your best to bring the news in a life affirming way and your audience still rejects you, that’s not your fault; nor does that make them right. You have the right to be who you are. You have the right to be out, proud and open about all the aspects of your life, including your sexuality. Never let people unable to accept that, even if they are family, diminish your self-worth.
Coming out may be difficult, but it’s also very rewarding. Coming out affirms your dignity, as well as underscores the dignity of other queer folk. Finally, never take for granted the freedom and tolerance the dominant culture begrudgingly gives us. It’s only through vigilance and political action that we secure our rightful place in society.
Author Kay Jaybee interviews me about my book, and other topics of interest.
Click on the Kay Jaybee’s logo above to view the interview.
Part 5 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
This column concludes my series on Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. But before I move on to other topics I’d like to leave you with some tips on how you might make up your own mind when grappling with difficult moral issues.
In Part 1 of this series, A Key To Understanding Catholic Moral Theology, I talked about the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching — the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. That is, you must follow the sure judgment of your conscience even when, through no fault of your own, it might be mistaken.
Tip 1 — When faced with a moral dilemma, start with some soul-searching. Your conscience is, in fact, your primary connection with your God. No law, dictum or dogma can take precedence over your conscience. I contend that we don’t need theologians to tell us what is right and wrong or what is just and unjust. We simply need to tap into that simple formula called the golden rule. Deal with others, as you would like others to deal with you. That pretty much covers everything.
As we’ve seen in this series, much of Catholic moral theology is shame based. Shaming is a very effective means of regulating an individual’s behavior so that it conforms to the mores of the group. But capitulating to shame is never the same thing as acting morally. In fact, in many situations the moral thing to do is to stand against the prevailing opinions of the group.
Tip 2 — Try to unravel the system that instills the shame. If you go back to the source of the shaming you will, most likely, discover the reason why the shaming continues. I gave you a good example of this in Part 1 of this series. “To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.“ Once you uncover the root of the shame you can demythologize it. This will free you up to form your moral decisions less encumbered with dubious communal mores.
Guilt-based theology is dependent on demonizing people or behaviors. When people blindly accept what they are told, they perpetuate the communal mores even if they are unjust or intolerant. Sometimes this becomes so extreme that whole groups of people are vilified often using only stereotypes as evidence of their wrongdoing.
As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, Sins Of The Flesh, it all begins with language. That’s “wrong”, “dirty”, “bad”, “disordered”, “unnatural” or “intrinsically evil”. In short order this incendiary language becomes a rallying cry that inevitably sets in motion active persecution. Moral maturity, on the other hand, demands that each of us take responsibility for our judgments and prejudices. If nothing more, this process of owning our biases slows down our rush to judgment.
Tip 3 — When faced with a shaming statement, like “that’s wrong”, it’s incumbent upon us ask why it’s wrong and who is making that judgment call. Because if something is “wrong” that means there must be a “right” way. But who gets to determine that, and what are the criteria for making that judgment?
“That’s dirty, disordered, unnatural or intrinsically evil!” Are some body parts or some sexual behaviors more wholesome, more in keeping with the natural order, than others? Again, whose prejudices are at work here?
I suggest that theologians aren’t competent to offer the definitive interpretation of the natural world, but even if they were, we still should ask. How much of your “natural/unnatural” worldview is culturally induced and dependent? Remember, it was once anathema to suggest that the world is round and not the center of the universe.
Finally, Catholicism is not a club. Despite what the hardliners say, lock-step adherence to every facet of church dogma is not what determines ecclesial fellowship. Baptism is! Catholic Christianity is a faith community. That means it’s a living, breathing, malleable thing. Just as I pointed out in Part 4 of this series, Seismic Shift, even the Pope must, from time to time, bow to the currents of culture, history and science.
Tip 4 — Questioning systemic injustice or intolerance in the Church is the right, nay the responsibility, of every believer. And if you find yourself at odds with Church authorities on moral issues, know you are not alone. Catholic women and men of conscience have always been a voice of dissent within the church. Their loyal opposition is precisely what helps keep the hierarchy honest.
Of course the flip side of taking a conscientious stand against the institution can often result in ostracism, shunning and persecution as I pointed out in Part 3 of this series, Sacred Cows. But then again, no one ever said embracing gospel values was gonna be easy.
Part 4 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
Something earthshaking happened the weekend before Thanksgiving last year. It was so dramatic it was felt right round the globe, don’t cha know.
Pope Benedict made a most extraordinary comment in an interview with the German journalist, Peter Seewald, in July 2010. He said that condom use could be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS. This startling statement came to light as part of a promotional push for Seewald’s latest book on Cardinal Ratzinger, (now Benedict XVI): Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.
In order to see just how astonishing this is one need only look back to the spring of the previous year. In March, 2009, during his trip to Cameroon, the pope not only reaffirmed Church teaching on the unacceptability of condom use under any circumstance, including the effort to diminish the spread of AIDS. He went on to say that he thought condom use might actually make HIV infection worse. This reiteration of the Vatican’s hard line, especially on African soil, coupled with his casual dismissal of established scientific evidence, drew immediate criticism from around the world. It was yet another public relations nightmare this pontiff didn’t need, or apparently want.
But now Benedict says condoms are not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, adding, “that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he also says that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
To the avid Vatican watcher this is nothing short of revolutionary. I tell you the Catholic world has shifted on its axis, Benedict’s tortured logic aside.
The week that followed the initial revelation of the pope’s condom statement was a maelstrom. The Vatican curia, bishops from around the world as well as Catholic activists all tried to spin his words. Church conservatives insisted the pontiff had been misquoted or misunderstood. — “The pope’s statement on condoms was extremely limited: he did not approve their use or suggest that the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to back away from its prohibition of birth control” said Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, one of Benedict’s former student and editor in chief of the very conservative Ignatius Press. The liberal wing of the Church was hopeful. — “It’s a marvelous victory for common sense,” said Jon O’Brien, the head of the Catholic group — Catholics for Choice.
Then, only a couple of days after the original news broke, more startling information came to light. At a news conference in Rome, papal spokesman, the Fr. Frederico Lombardi, said Benedict knew his comments would provoke intense debate, and that the pope meant for his remarks to apply not just to male prostitutes, but also “if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual.”
The pope seemed to be clarifying and expanding his comments, instead of walking them back. At this point, my head began to reel. Had he undergone some kind of metanoya? Did he develop a sense of compassion for male (female and transsexual) prostitutes and their johns? Was he finally having second thoughts about all us sexual reprobates and the damnation that awaits us for our unnatural acts? It was utterly astonishing! And who knew the word transsexual was even in the pope’s vocabulary?
Astonishing, because in October 2010 Belgian Archbishop, André-Joseph Léonard, asserted aloud what most hardliners say in private. He said the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a matter of “immanent justice”, i.e. God’s retribution for sodommite depravity.
By week’s end all hell had broken loose. Many prominent conservative Catholics were publicly rejecting the Vatican’s own explanation of what the pope said. They declared that they would only accept a more formal papal pronouncement, like an encyclical. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, were taking the pontiff at his word. For them the pope had spoken; exceptions to the Vatican’s previously uncompromising ban on the use of artificial contraception CAN be made in the worldwide effort to combat AIDS.
But what is the average pew Catholic supposed to make of all of this?
The pope is appealing to the principle of double effect, a standard of Catholic moral theology since Thomas Aquinas. This doctrine claims that sometimes it is permissible to bring about, a harmful side effect (contraception) in an effort to promote some greater good (the fight against the spread of AIDS). In other words, accepting the lesser of two evils.
No matter how you look at it, this seemingly innocuous papal statement has created a fissure in the bedrock of Catholic moral theology. It is a total game-changer and nothing will ever be quite the same.
Part 3 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
The most contentious hot button issue for the Roman Catholic hierarchy today is gay marriage. The pope and his bishops stand united, at least publicly, in vehement opposition. But that’s as far as the unanimity goes. Your typical church going lay Catholic isn’t all that up in arms about gay marriage. Surveys show that Catholics are more accepting of LGBT people than any other Christian group. According to a May 2010 Gallup Poll; 62 percent of Catholics said gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable. That’s a 16 percent increase from just four years earlier.
Why the big disconnect between the leadership and the laity? Good question. First off, the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, is in a dogmatic bind. The procreative nature of sex is the bedrock issue of Catholic sexual morality. There can be no legitimate expression of sex outside the confines of heterosexual marriage. And even within a marriage, all sexual expression must be open to procreation. (See last week’s article — Sins Of The Flesh)
The Church leadership opposes homosexual activity because it is “intrinsically disordered and an abuse of our human nature.” And marriage is “a conduit through which God’s grace flows to the couple and their children.” So you can see that in the mind of the bishops, the two concepts “gay” and “marriage” are really mutually exclusive. That’s why they use what little moral authority they have left after the clergy abuse scandals and their always deep pockets (Where does that endless supply of money come from anyway?) to push for bans on same-sex marriage and even civil unions in states from California to Maine.
The bishops argue that the law influences what is socially permissible and acceptable. “In effect, giving same-sex unions the legal status of marriage would grant official public approval to homosexual activity and would treat it as if it were morally neutral.”
But there is a growing groundswell of vocal Catholics urging mutiny against the hierarchy on this issue. Much like in the early 1970’s when activists formed Dignity, a worship-based support system for gay Catholics; Equally Blessed, a coalition of faithful Catholics who support full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people both in the church and in civil society was born September 2010.
The majority of lay Catholics are at loggerheads with the hierarchy because the two groups keep talking past each other. The bishops insist on defending their interpretation of the unique meaning and purpose of marriage, i.e. “a faithful, exclusive lifelong union of a man and woman” who “commit themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them.” And lay activists focus on compassion and human rights. Each group believes the other is missing the point.
It’s not surprising then that public relations snafus, like the one that happened last September, occur. Archbishop John Nienstedt, of the Saint Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, and his fellow bishops in Minnesota mailed out 400,000 DVDs, explaining the Church’s position on the institution of marriage. Every registered Catholic family in their state received one. The bishops said that the DVD simply defended the Church’s position, but most people saw it as a ham-fisted attempt to influence the upcoming election. This sparked an equally high profile ”Return the DVD” campaign, which questioned the priorities of bishops and planed to make art from the returned DVDs. The faithful asked; How could the over $1 million spent to distribute these DVDs have benefited the poor?
As one would expect, the American Catholic hierarchy is playing hardball. They simply will not countenance decent. Pro-gay priests are being silenced or removed from ministry. Inclusive worship communities, like Dignity, have been exiled from Church property. Organizations like New Ways Ministry, a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, has been vilified and their loyal opposition denigrated. Even the artist who suggested the DVD sculpture in Minnesota was suspended from her artist-in-residence job at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. And some of the lay faithful are being denied the sacraments for their conscientious objection to this church teaching.
This is pretty much business as usual for Church leadership. But the opposition shows no sign of caving. If anything they appear emboldened by the example of nuns who broke with the Catholic bishops by supporting the health-care overhaul Congress passed in March 2010.
In the end, a detente will no doubt settle in as it has in all the countries that have already adopted same-sex marriage — Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. In the meantime, however, American Catholics of conscience know that they are in the midst of a struggle every bit as significant as the struggle against segregation. For them sexual orientation is as much a part of a person’s identity and humanity as the color of a person’s skin or his/her gender. Clearly they have plenty of work ahead of them as they demand the Church leadership to live up to the most basic standards of human decency.
Another review of my book, this time in marvelous E-zine — Oysters & Chocolate.
Click on the O&C logo above to view the interview.
Part 2 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
I was absolutely mesmerized by the recent papal visit to Spain for World Youth Day. I confess it was a morbid curiosity in the spectacle, but who among us doesn’t have a guilty pleasure or two? My clergy days are way behind me, but the pomp and ceremony are still very familiar and even a little beguiling.
Benedict XVI, the kindly grandfather figure, kisses babies, waves to the crowd from what looks like a clown car. Yet there was a palpable tension in the air that was not missed by the devout and the skeptic alike. The pope came to Spain to mark his territory and that is always an anxious time for those whose territory he invades.
The innocuous visit soon turned ominous when the elderly pontiff began to scold against the dual evils of relativism and secularism. You’d think having so much to apologize for in terms of the worldwide priest sex abuse scandal he’d take a more humble approach to our common human foibles. But there was no hint of that.
His litany of our cultural sins is as familiar as his papal vestments. Abortion; homosexuality, particularly those who advocate same-sex marriage; sexual permissiveness among the young; and the spiritual vacuum at the heart of a modern society bent on instant gratification. The common thread being an abhorrence of sexual pleasure.
Catholic doctrine specifically states that the sacred act of procreation is the only legitimate reason for sexual expression and that, or course, can only occur within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman. If a married couple is interested in having intercourse, then they’d better be willing to accept the real potential for creating another life each and every time.
On New Year’s Eve 1930, the Roman Catholic Church officially banned all “artificial” means of birth control. Condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps are artificial, in as much as they block the natural journey of sperm during intercourse. Douches, suppositories and spermicides kill or impeded sperm, so they too are banned. Tampering with the “male seed” is tantamount to murder. A common admonition at the time was “so many conceptions prevented, so many homicides.” To interfere with God’s will is a mortal sin and even grounds for excommunication.
Catholics are left with abstinence or the rhythm method (the practice of abstaining from sex during a woman’s period of ovulation) as the only means of family planning. But, the rhythm method is wildly unreliable. The roulette of it all places its heaviest strain on the women, but the marital relationship is also stressed.
In 1966 the Church revisited the doctrine. A papal commission set up to review the dogma voted 30-5 to relax the concerns on birth control. But in 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical, Humanae Vitae which overrode the bishops and reiterated the anti-birth-control stance. He said this was necessary for several reasons. Chief among them was — if sex were not about creating children in a loving family unit, then sex would solely be about pleasure with no responsibility. Men would simply use women as pleasure objects and would lose respect for them.
Some argued that Pope Paul’s decision to issue the letter was more about exerting papal authority then it was about birth control. They claimed he wanted to reserve to himself the authority to decide the issue rather then let the bishops of Vatican II decide. But I see it differently; the pope had virtually no choice. If he buckled on the bedrock issue of the procreative nature of sex he would have undercut the totality of Catholic sexual morality. There’d no longer be a cogent argument for outlawing masturbation, homosexuality, premarital sex, extramarital sex and divorce as disordered and intrinsically evil.
Obviously, the practical application of this encyclical goes way beyond the marital bed. It prohibits condoms in the fight against AIDS; young people are set adrift in a void of sex education; teenage pregnancies soar; gay and lesbian people are vilified; and married people as well as theologians are left questioning the relevancy of a doctrine that causes so much harm.
But, in this matter at least, that faithful have spoken. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s 2002 National Survey of Family Growth revealed that 97% of American Catholic women over age 18 have used a form of contraception, which is the same percentage as the general population. A 2005 nationwide poll of 2,242 U.S. adults by Harris Interactive showed that 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control. Use of modern contraceptive methods is also high in many predominantly Catholic countries: 67% of married women of child-bearing age in Spain, 69% in France, 60% in Mexico, and 70% in Brazil.
These statistics underscore what we’ve all known for a long time. There is massive “disobedience” on the part of Catholic faithful. But they’re not being obstinate just to be contrary. These are women and men of conscience, who have weighed the Vatican arguments and found them wanting. Most Catholics know their religious affiliation is more than a slavish adherence to dogma; they know that it actually means finding the divine in the crucible of their own life.
Part 1 of this series HERE!
Thoughtful review of my book on Men of Color Blog.