The Church and Sex
The last week has been a big one for the church and sex.
In Rome, Pope Francis convened a summit on clergy sexual abuse. Concurrently, a tell-all book, In the Closet of the Vatican, about the gay culture of the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church, was published.
The Southern Baptist denomination was having a come-to-Jesus moment on its own. Their terrible record on clergy sexual abuse, courtesy of the dogged journalism of The Houston Chronicle, is now available.
And, not to be overlooked, the United Methodist Church was meeting in St. Louis to try and sort out it’s position on LGBTQ ordination and marriage. Although that was second on the agenda after clergy pensions!
Leave it to Ross Douthat (NYT) to argue the case for celibacy!
In Douthat’s column on the Catholic Church — he is a committed Catholic — he noted the way that Catholicism has been the target of a succession of attacks, through two centuries and half a dozen generations, on the part of those who were sure they knew what “healthy sexuality” meant. (Heads up: “healthy sexuality” is a moving target)
This does not mean he dismisses the gravity of the current situation. He does not.
But it does mean that he exercises some skepticism about the high-minded claims of those who are the advocates of “healthy sexuality,” and who condemn celibacy as a spiritual discipline.
While acknowledging the terrible gravity of the Catholic sins and failures, Douthat makes an important point. Namely, that the prevailing sexual ethic of contemporary western society may not be a really adequate alternative. It’s not like, “Gee the Catholic Church is really screwed up, good thing the rest of us are in a really great, humane, ethical, loving place.” His quick summary of what’s on offer is “an ethic of sexual individualism.”
“Now, in our own age of sexual individualism, Catholicism is mostly just accused of a repressive cruelty, of denying people — and especially its celibacy-burdened priests — the sexual fulfillment that every human being needs.”
He elaborates on the ethic of our age of “sexual individualism” as follows:
“The sexual ethic on offer in our own era should make Catholics particularly skeptical. That ethic regards celibacy as unrealistic while offering porn and sex robots to ease frustrations created by its failure to pair men and women off. It pities Catholic priests as repressed and miserable (some are; in general they are not) even as its own cultural order seeds a vast social experiment in growing old alone. It disdains large families while it fails to reproduce itself. It treats any acknowledgment of male-female differences as reactionary while constructing an architecture of sexual identities whose complexities would daunt a medieval schoolman.”
In other words, it is not as if the rest of us have our act together.
Clearly, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist denomination need to deal forthrightly with histories of clergy sexual abuse.
But the problem is still larger. Do we, as western society, have any sort of understanding or ethic about sexual behavior that is truly “healthy” and viable for human life and species?
Which takes us back to the United Methodists. Here the issue is, does Methodism support LGBTQ people’s claim for ordination and marriage within the (Methodist) church?
That is the issue around which various more or less liberal religious denominations are divided.
It is important.
But not as important as the larger one to which Douthat points. Namely, that ours is a culture where the ethic is one of “sexual individualism.” I imagine that means something on the order of, “sex is a universal human need (someone would undoubtedly say “right”) and it is your job to take care of that for yourself.”
The best of Catholic thinking may be worth re-visiting. The core idea there is that sex ought not be divorced from conception and child-rearing. Many will object. I get it.
But the problem with sexual individualism is will there be a new generation? And if so, who minds them? And does sex lead to enduring human connections? Or is it a random encounter without context or enduring meaning?
Punish the pedophiles! De-frock the abusers! By all means. But don’t imagine that in doing these things we have arrived at something like “healthy sexuality.” That remains a long ways off.
We are a society that is deeply confused — distorted — around sex.