Sacred vulgarity

23 09 2010

Why the Catholic Church feels it needs to be all up in your bedroom

One of the most formative moments in my theological life came when I asked a well-educated friend of mine what the Fathers of the Church would think if you handed them a little pill and told them that if a woman took this pill, she would not get pregnant no matter how much intercourse she had. Expecting either an answer of “well, they would think it’s okay” or “they would think it an abomination”, I was rather surprised by the answer that he did give. He said, “They wouldn’t think anything, because they thought that sex was disgusting”. From my readings in the subject, I had to concur. Any talk about sexual practices was probably considered off the table in any civilized discourse concerning religion. It would have been akin to discussing the theological value of one toilet habit over another.

This is what came to mind when I was reading a couple of articles by Sandro Magister (via the Western Confucian blog) regarding the use of artificial contraception in early 20th century Italy, and the employment of pastoral attitudes towards these practices. In general, prior to the publication of the encyclical, Casti Connubii, priests in northern Italy often took what would be considered a lax approach to the subject. If someone was suspected in the confessional of having committed such a sin, the confessor in the old manuals was expected not to ask prying questions. As Magister writes:

So then, one constant guideline emerges from the solutions given by the diocese of Padua to cases of morality regarding contraception: that of employing the “theory of good faith” taught by Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. According to this theory, in the presence of a penitent who is suspected of committing contraceptive actions but appears unaware of the gravity of the sin and in practice incapable of correcting his behavior, it is best to respect his silence and take his good faith into account, absolving him without posing any further questions.

The Liguorian theory was dominant for many decades, not only in the seminaries and in the care of souls, but also in the guidelines given by the Holy See in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It even appeared in the code of canon law of 1917, in force until 1983, which said at canon 888: “The priest who hears confessions should be very careful not to pose curious and useless questions, especially concerning the sixth commandment, to anyone with whom he deals, and particularly not to ask younger persons about things of which they are unaware.”

Not only in the confessional, but also in the pulpit priests were urged to be cautious, prudent, reserved on these matters. In rare instances it was suggested that men and women be spoken with separately.

The encyclical, Casti Connubi, and of course after it, Humanae Vitae, changed all of that. But if we are to look at the classical discipline regarding this question, it would not be hard to see the common sense logic behind it. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly from the clerical perspective, such lewd details had no place being put in the ears of supposed celibates in an intimate setting such as the confessional. The priest needed to be protected from thinking too much about the bedroom habits of the faithful in his charge, for obvious reasons. But from the lay perspective, it just made sense that a bunch of celibate men in robes shouldn’t go prying into how and when a married couple decided to have children. The Church already had them as a captive audience, and as long as they came to church on Sunday, put money in the basket, and kept their noses relatively clean, their daily lives were none of its concern.

My theory on these questions is that the concern of the Church in matters of the bedroom goes up in inverse proportion to its declining influence in society in general. Insofar as the Church was hegemonic in early modern societies, it cared little about the daily lives of the common folk. Could one imagine a seventeenth century pope writing an encyclical about the sexual habits of peasants in Bavaria? No, because popes didn’t write encyclicals, but it also would make little sense for them to do so. It is only with the advent of secularism that the Church had to create a moral panic in order to internalize assent. In the Liguorian “laxity” regarding artificial contraception, we see the last gasp of the old pastoral practice based on this hegemonic world view. In a society that was becoming increasingly hostile to the Church, the hierarchy saw that it was no longer possible to “look the other way”. Assent would be active in all issues, or it would not be.

A word or two is needed regarding the state of moral theology in that particular time and place. Many “neo-Thomist” critics have criticized casuist manual theology for its sloppy anti-intellectualism. In the old “Thomistic” model, one would have to always posit that the action of a thing should conform to its being (operare esse sequitur). The essence of the sexual act is to produce progeny, and anything that did not do that would not conform to the proper being of man. While Liguori and Co. may have agreed with such a premise, they hardly thought it so invincibly convincing that one had to instill this concept in each penitent who crossed your path. The soul and body may be one, but not so unified that a virtuous life was always determined by the correct form of sexual practice in every instance. In one sense, they were continuing the prejudices of the Fathers that my friend stated above: sexuality was a moral neutral ground, only touched by virtue in the sense that it is properly employed and controlled in a very private setting.

Compared to this, the modern tendency of Catholicism to bring out into the open, interrogate, and conform all sexualities to a supposed norm seems very odd indeed. Whereas the old pastoral practice was to give the couple the benefit of the doubt, the new one sought to rein in the dangers of sex in the midst of a society going the way of complete licentiousness. Sexuality, in a certain sense, became too dangerous to be left alone. While in the past the Church could look the other way and be quite indulgent towards artificial contraception, serial marital infidelity, concubinage, and other sexual malpractices, in the twentieth century the Church began to “crack down”, so to speak, and make the nuclear family into the very model of lay godliness in the secular world. In the eyes of the Church, the only Catholicism possible in the new situation would be militant Catholicism, and that militant Catholicism would often start in the bedroom. It is not as if the Church had many other places left for it to be militant.

Some commenters that I have read so far have stated that this development is progress in that it calls people out of their hypocrisy and onto a path to holiness. I will not argue with this insofar as I would concede that the attitude of clerical Catholicism in the past was often one of benign (and not so benign) neglect of the laity. On the other hand, such prodding has also led to the cognitive dissonance that many “faithful” Catholics have to deal with when employing the sexual rhetoric of the hierarchy. This can often degenerate into a neurotic obsession with bodily fluids, thermometers, and charts to determine one’s fertility in an exercise deemed to be the most intimate intervention of God in your life. At worst, it can plant into the faithful Catholic the lie that God’s way is the only one to bestow “toe-curling, mind-blowing, infallible loving”, and if somehow this is not my experience of the conjugal act within marriage, there is something inherently wrong with my union (perhaps it was never a union to begin with).

Personally, I think that the first pastoral inclination was the right one. Especially in the context of our post-Sexual Revolution morality, the Church is becoming less and less ideologically equipped to address these “below the belt” issues in any sort of convincing manner. Perhaps it is time for the institutional magisterium to get its mind out of the gutter, and realize that our sexual morality is an ideal that we cannot really live up to, and perhaps that is the whole point.


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41 responses

29 09 2010
GB

I really enjoyed the post and I took the liberty to link it in one of mine (http://ta-biblia.blogspot.com/2010/09/morale-sessuale-cristiana.html).
Keep up the good work,
GB

26 09 2010
Rob

🙂

25 09 2010
random Orthodox chick

You made my night, Rob.

25 09 2010
Rob

No, schismatic, we haven’t.

25 09 2010
random Orthodox chick

Ha! I know what I’m going to do today…

I’ve often wondered if militants on both sides of these cultural wars have they ever talked to an actual human being who they haven’t compartmentalized.

25 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I am sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Stolen from the Catholic Fascist.

25 09 2010
sortacatholic

Jared: Here and now, the battle is elsewhere, but the factors at work are the same: the surrounding culture has a set of issues on which it desires total victory — not one soul alive with dissenting beliefs in its skull — the Church will not grant them that victory, so it gets labeled “obsessed with ” and vilified in every possible way.

C’mon, don’t play the “G.I. Joe” argument.

Why call it the “G.I. Joe” argument? ‘Cause every friggin’ cartoon episode G.I. Joe and Cobra fight to a stalemate only to revisit the same damn fight next week. Even the scenery is the same! He-Man, Thundercats, Inspector Gadget, whatever: cartoons always propose that a simplistic and dualistic argument always conditions two artificially discrete adversaries.

Your compartmentalization of various eras of European history into dualistic episodes and the transposition of these artificial dualities into today’s social and religious discourse suggests that there is a division between Church and society (that never was), and that these dualistic episodes required specific resolution before moving towards another contention (never possible, because all historical contentions are self-reflexive and predicative).

So, devout Catholics are locked in a deathmatch with NOW, Human Rights Commission, Berzerkeley, and the NYT inter alia. From the devout vantage point, the papers of record, the boob tube, the ivory tower, and the net have all conspired to drill “traditional” sexual morality out of American minds. Yet a recent “western” regime has successfully (or perhaps superficially) drilled the Catholic perspective into a finely graded public discourse. Does Franco have any impact on conservative/traditional Catholic sexual discourse? Has the Francoist strong-armed idealistic enforcement of Catholic mores influenced recent Vatican sexual/political policy? You bet, Josemaria. Even this recent example illustrates that both the characters and scenery revolve in the conjoined Christian-ritual-belief-social-order. Even Pixar couldn’t’ve pulled this one off.

24 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

This would be a valid criticism, if the Church itself didn’t set this agenda a long time ago. Who do you think invented the technologies of confession in the last two hundred years or so? Who helped to create the interrogation of the subject, or sex as a techocratically employed social phenomenon? It was the churches themselves, in collaboration with the state. Just look at Ireland. Don’t present the institutional church as some innocent party that had all of these sexual neuroses imposed upon it!

The main problem is that there is an epistemic gap between how some are addressing the problem and how I am addressing the problem. The more “loyal” readers regard the Ecclesia Immaculata as the casta meretrix: it has the appearance of employing power for questionable gains, but it still is a-historically processing the Truth through history. The Church is thus the victim of over-sexualization: it is the neglected mother whose children have turned against her. On the other hand, I am seeing it just as the opposite: the Church is suffering precisely because her children have been too obedient to her. Secularism is the logical conclusion of an increasingly secularized Christianity: the outgrowth of its “perverse core” (Zizek). Thus, the constant interrogation is not just out of pastoral concern, but the continual conquest of the subject by ecclesial power.

Call me an apostate, or whatever, but that is how I see it. Those more devout can shudder in horror, or whatever.

24 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I think you mistake my post for something inherently sympathetic to the traditional narrative of Catholicism. I have very little sympathy for it. At this point, my sexual morality has more to do with my Platonism than it does with my Catholicism. Even Pierre Hadot criticized the modern world for reducing everything to sex and drugs.

24 09 2010
christina

I was under the impression that priests were discouraged from asking such questions because of past abuses where priests had seduced women in the confessional. They were counseled against asking intimate questions lest they be accused of attempted seduction.

24 09 2010
A Sinner

I would agree with what you say about “who are we to cause a moral panic about it”…but that doesn’t mean that those of us who DO know better are excused. Leave the simple folk alone, but there is a segment of the laity now who aren’t “simple folk” anymore, who are religiously literate, who do fill a niche that is thus essentially clerical, and who should thus be held to higher standards (a sinful peasant…whatever. A corrupt cleric, however…is disgusting). Whether you think bothering with annulments is part of the standard, or merely a loophole manifestation of corruption in itself…is another question.

While I love the stuff you write on this blog, I worry that some people (in fact, I know some people) who ARE religiously literate, who are “clerical,” as it were…are taking such analysis as an excuse for their own moral laxity or questionable orthodoxy. And while we may romanticize the “peasant” and fight for him to be protected, or benignly neglected, against the fundamentalist self-righteous neocons and rad-trads who would seek to set some sort of Inquisition against him…that doesn’t mean we can become peasants ourselves either. By the very fact that people read this blog, I’d say, means they are almost certainly of the dispensation that has been given higher standards when it comes to orthodoxy and morality.

My point is just…I can agree with everything you say around here about how destructive it has been for the “fundamentalist Catholics” to attack the “folk religion”…but I also think that you and I and your readers ARE religiously literate, and by that fact are bound by the rigor of the “clerical religion” and cannot legitimately adopt for our own lives the relative laxity of the folk religion, which is justified mainly by a benign ignorance that we can no longer plead by the very fact of our literacy.

In terms of concrete solutions (as I was arguing in my long comment above) I think that ordaining the fanboys, at least to minor orders, and so recreating the official distinction between the folk and literate…would be a start. Such an official distinction, I think, is what allows for the “benign neglect” of the folk, as if people link religious literacy and such to clerical status, then the lay folk won’t be held to the same high standards or expectations. Whereas if the distinction is merely an UNofficial one, among laity, all of the same ecclesiastical caste…then there is an antagonization of the folk, as the “lay clergy” start to think and say “Well, if we can do it, you should too!”

Of course, we can’t change structures easily nor can most of us start getting ourselves into actual clerical positions where we would actually have the clerical say that our intellectual investment in these matters really deserves. But we can, in our own lives, not be so concerned or judgmental towards the “folk” (any critiques we make should really be directed at our own class, at the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the self-annointed Saved).

A lot of these same topics are coincidentally touched upon in a very good post on In Exsilium recently about the clericalization of the laity and the distinction between “good Catholics” and “bad Catholics” that thus emerged: http://inexsilium.blogspot.com/2010/09/spirit-of-vatican-ii-is-spirit-of-trent.html

24 09 2010
Jared B.

God forbid “good Catholics” should get so indignant about childhood poverty, usury, or war.

Of course many good Catholics do exactly that—it just doesn’t make headlines. It should be obvious why: those issues are popular with the prevailing Liberal culture (among both conservatives and progressives in varying degrees). On other issues, Catholic morality is unpopular, so there are battle lines drawn in the sand. My point is that it is not the Church who decides where those lines are drawn, it is the society / context in which the Church finds herself in any place and time. The Church has a bazillion moral teachings, but is only attacked for a few of them, easily recognized by the way many in the hierarchy ‘soften’ those teachings to be more ‘pastoral’, while some militant laity compensate by hardening those same teachings. Back in ancient Rome, I’m sure that Christians had every appearance of being “obsessed” with worshiping the Emperor because of their intransigent teachings on that matter. They weren’t obsessed with the issue at all: their opponents chose that battle for them, so that is the battle that was fought. In the 11th century the Church was “obsessed” with war; in the 21th with peace. When missionaries argued with tree-worshiping pagans they seemed obsessed with the fallen nature of the world and the flesh; arguing with Manichaeans they seemed obsessed with the goodness of creation and the dignity of man. Here and now, the battle is elsewhere, but the factors at work are the same: the surrounding culture has a set of issues on which it desires total victory — not one soul alive with dissenting beliefs in its skull — the Church will not grant them that victory, so it gets labeled “obsessed with ” and vilified in every possible way.

24 09 2010
Jared B.

As usual, AV’s comments on his own stuff are more edifying than the rest. While I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for “those big bad liberals” (I’ll get to that in a moment) I guess if they really feel the need to view morality as a social construct, I guess I get it, that Christian civilization is partly to blame for that appearance.

if the American Catholic hierarchy really wants to seem like it is not obsessed with sex…

Again, I think you have a good point — I totally agree that a little ‘punitive rhetoric’ for other areas of ethics would be helpful, tho I wouldn’t concede that there has not in fact already been some without doing my homework first.

Much of the time when talking about “the hierarchy”, I think AV is describing a parallel universe with a different Church and a different America. If the way the American hierarchy “seems” is taken from Reuters or MSNBC, then what ya got is an impression of what Reuters & MSNBC thinks, and no impression at all of the Church in America. One wouldn’t know it from any media outlet (including much Catholic media), but the U.S. bishops spent a helluva lot more verbiage on poverty, progressive tax structures, ecumenism, 3rd world debt relief, and above all immigration than they do about sexual issues. Sure, lately there’s been statements concerning Catholic hospitals, doctors, pharmacists etc. but do you notice, almost all of it is couched in language of rights and legality…the bishops give every impression of speaking first as simple Americans and secondly as Catholics. In other words, when backed into a corner (i.e. civil rights are at stake), they “speak out” on stuff like homosexuality and contraception, but otherwise are happier leaving well enough alone and getting back to their real jobs of condemning Arizona and BP.

24 09 2010
Louis

AMEN!!!!!!!

24 09 2010
James Kabala

I suspect those NFP and annulment ads are mostly appealing to different constituencies. The annulment epidemic is part of the modern breakdown of sexual morality, not a counter-trend. Diocesan papers are notoriously mushy entities.

24 09 2010
James Kabala

Actually, whatever may have been the reality in farming communities, the wording of the canon supports Dominic’s interpretation:

“The priest who hears confessions should be very careful not to pose curious and useless questions, especially concerning the sixth commandment, to anyone with whom he deals, and particularly not to ask younger persons about things of which they are UNAWARE.” [My emphasis]

24 09 2010
Turmarion

You mention the theology of the body in passing, but you lump it together with the other things as part of the “same neurosis”. I think this hits it on the head.

I think a big part of the problem is Western infallibilism. In the East, there is a definite teaching, but there is less emphasis on levels certainty of teaching, and there is more flexibility through oikonomia. In the West, the teaching is seen as fairly set in stone, and so while doctrine can’t “change”, it can “develop”–which means intellectual contortions into a pretzel trying to say that a changed teaching really isn’t changed.

Back in the days when sex was considered disgusting and even procreative sex was a venial sin, at least there was a fairly robust logic to the teaching–essentially, don’t do anything sexual except reproduce, and that’s grudgingly allowed, and it’s better if you’re a cleric or religious. In the post Vatican II era, there has been a shift to seeing sexuality not as a revolting and unfortunate necessity but a “gift from God”. But then, if it’s a gift, a fundamental good, then how do you logically maintain large tracts of the traditional teachings? I mean, why can’t even a married couple do interesting non-procreative things, for example?

The theology of the body tried to square this circle, and it was a Herculean attempt, but it turned out to be really a mirror image of the old view, but more psychologically damaging. Instead of saying that all sex besides missionary-position, procreative sex was wrong because all sex is revolting and disgusting and even procreative sex is a concession, now they were saying that all sex other than missionary-position, procreative sex was wrong because it wasn’t good enough–anything short wasn’t really good sex, wasn’t all it could be!

I knew a catechist for whom this was probably partially responsible for wrecking their marriage (I deliberately use bad grammar to conceal even the gender)–the person thought that unless every single act with their spouse was some kind of epiphany of self-giving, Divine love, potential reproduction–in short, if it wasn’t a crashing orgasm both physically and spiritually–that it wasn’t right. Of course, no mere mortals could ever do this on a regular (or even frequent) basis anyway, so a marriage that had other issues was abetted in going off the tracks.

I don’t deny that sexuality is an important aspect of humanity, nor that sexual sins are real, nor am I necessarily disagreeing with Catholic sexual morality in the abstract; but I do agree with your essay, and I think that maybe the hierarchy just needs to shut up about the whole deal, for awhile, at least.

24 09 2010
Turmarion

I second this. Excellent post, excellent comment.

24 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Exhibit B

We see the effects of this daily. Many U.S. senators and congressmen who publically profess their Catholicism consistently support practices — such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and homosexual “marriage” — that are in direct opposition to Church teachings. Catholic institutions — notably hospitals, schools, and universities — that should be bulwarks of Catholicism frequently stand in open opposition to Catholic doctrine. Our public secular culture is rife with the celebration of a misguided “tolerance” and “openness.” At the recently televised Emmy Awards, convicted felon Jack Kevorkian, the champion and practitioner of euthanasia, was applauded. What religious figure — particularly a faithful Catholic one — could be so publically and enthusiastically praised at a secular event in America today?

In other words: sex, sex, and none of your damn business.

God forbid “good Catholics” should get so indignant about childhood poverty, usury, or war.

24 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

That’s a long comment, but I think that there is something to distinctions between laypeople. If most people don’t follow the Church’s rules on artificial contraception, but are in relatively good faith, care about their families, and have some sense of sexual decency that doesn’t exactly line up with the hierarchy’s, then who are we to cause a moral panic about it. Maybe they vaguely know what the Church teaches, but have no idea as to why. Most people can’t be bothered to read an encyclical, let alone the theology of the body or other religious dreck. And do you really want the sermon of the priest to be on sexual morality once a month or every other week? How would they know their teaching is effective? Aren’t there better ways for Church to employ its motivational skills than on the habits of the boudoir?

Indeed, it seems that the Church in most places is ignoring sexual morality at least from the pulpit and only focusing on these issues in the confessional and in private offices. In that case, I like the status quo, and let it stay the same.

As for the “lay clergy”, I wouldn’t give them so much credit. I know of prominent members (do we really want to name names?) who seemed to be blissfully ignorant about the Church’s teaching on marriage, to the point that they even lived in something that looked exactly like a marriage, kids and all, but still had no understanding of it. So their fake marriages ended up being declared nullified, so they could enter into a real marriage this time. When these people crusade against birth control and other sexual issues, it just seems like “invincible ignorance for me, but not for thee”. I find it ironic in the diocesan paper that ads for NFP classes are right next to the ones for the annulment writing workshop. As I have said, it is a miracle that the hierarchy thinks that any morality is possible at all amongst the lowly laity.

24 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Here I don’t think that the “Christianization” of society was ever complete. In both my wife’s and my family history, we are descended from women in Mexico and Louisiana who were long-term mistresses of some male ancestor. The dynamics of race and class just mandated that some people would be “marriageable” and others would not (as in that film, Gigi). In one of Juan Rulfo’s stories in El llano en llamas, the opening line is something like, “Daddy said that Mary would be a slut”, at the misfortune of her only dowry, a small calf, being washed away in a flood. Often, sexual morality was a luxury that many just couldn’t afford. It was determined by what your material circumstances were.

Of course, the other aspect is the total lack of shame in this regard. I come from a shame culture, and often it has little to do with religious ideals, and more to do with gender expectations. Often, “sexual decency” depended on “locking up your daughters” and viewing your wife as a non-sexual producer of children (Madonna / whore). It was to the point that Mexican men often felt they had to go to a prostitute because there are certain things he just wouldn’t do with his wife because he “respected” her. Sometimes I think Christians secretly feel that everything would be resolved if women stopped dressing so provocatively and stopped being so “easy”, as a recently cited on-line “pants debate” highlighted. Even as cultural conservatives, we would be uncomfortable reading about such double standards, but no doubt they are in the back of our minds.

But even when conservative Christians speak of sexual morality, such exteriorized shame has nothing to do with it. Sexual technologies and social mobility seem to mitigate any sense of shame that we have, as does the impersonal nature of late capitalist society. Your bank teller may be into bondage or S & M, but is that any of your business? The fact is, traditional Christian views of sexuality were often enforced by non-religious societal pressures. Those are gone, and the rules have changed. Is it any wonder then, that those big, bad liberals think that they were merely a product of those times? As to sexuality’s pervasiveness, I have to object that obesity is also a problem in this country, but I don’t see “good Catholics” having crusades against gluttony. Usury is also a big problem, as anyone who has a credit card with 29.99% APR could tell you. But where are the decrees of excommunication for investment bankers? Again, if the American Catholic hierarchy really wants to seem like it is not obsessed with sex, it needs to come up with more punitive rhetoric for those people who defy the other teachings of the Church that have far more visible consequences.

24 09 2010
sortacatholic

Jared: For goodness’ sake sortacatholic, most people are still working on realizing the omnipresence of God—something supposedly knowable through both reason and revelation. “Omnipresence of libido”, in contrast, would be laughable to the Church Fathers who (as already mentioned) scarcely considered sexuality worthy of much discussion. The Fathers did recognize the universality of concupiscence, but that term doesn’t get trucked around so much nowadays. Probably because it isn’t as easy to glorify it as ‘sexuality’ or even ‘libido’.

I agree that the terms “concupiscence” and “libido” are not exactly synonymous. Freud’s term lacks “morality”, while the Christian notion of concupiscence precisely involves “morality”.

For this agnostic man, concupiscence and “mastery” are illusions that distort the inevitability of human ecstasy, error, and evil. This inevitability exists regardless of the fluctuation between guilt and shame practices evident both pre- and post-Christianity. Trent reminds us that those who trust in the indelible depravity of humanity as the necessary counterpoint of salvation — anathema sit! Indeed. Shame culture was the soil from which “primitive” Christianity sprouted and returned later in Reformation thought (though now with guilt and shame as conjoined motivators). The Church Fathers were submerged in a world that exploited ritual as a mechanism for political control. The acts of sexuality did not matter so long as the social boundaries that kept the Empire rolling through Britannia and Mesopotamia simultaneously. The patristic response to the Roman shame society and relatively free libidinous expression was the inculcation of steep sexual boundaries as a bar against exploitation. No longer were prostitutes and slaves convenient sexual outlets: rather each person exercised autonomy and dignity within the Christian community regardless of their place within the imperial familias.

The birth of Christianity illustrates the waning of Christianity. “Western” history has vacillated between different ideologies of libido but has never successfully internalized or externalized sexual control. This “post-Christian” era where concupiscence and inculcated guilt no longer hold great sway requires an ethic based not on guilt but a shame that recognizes and attempts to control mores by the modern notion of law. The call for the “preservation of traditional marriage” falls on many deaf ears precisely because concupiscence has lost meaning. Rather, the legislation of acts previously suppressed through Christian morality cynically channels libido rather than preach guilt or inherent depravity.

24 09 2010
A Sinner

The fact that we’re even discussing this makes us seem sex obsessed.

I may do my own blog post on this later, but I’ve been thinking this over for a day now and managed to boil down some essential points of my thoughts on all this, and really I think it comes down much more to structural sociological factors in the Church than any obsession with sex (which is more of a side-effect):

-There are now a “high-powered” laity who pray the Office, read the Summa and catechisms and moral theology manuals and the Encyclicals of Popes (and Catholic blogs), receive daily communion, and as pointed out here, are expected to conform in intimate detail to all these tenets of sexual morality, use only NFP, quote Theology of the Body, etc

-The modern religiously literate laity are, however, simply filling a niche of people who, a thousand years ago, would have been of the clerical class. This analogy extends even to the psychological control through sexuality/greater concern over sexual morality.

-Since the 10-20% who are religiously literate would have been of the secular clerical class (including the wives of clergy) in the past, it is no wonder there is a shortage of priests now

-This class of “clerical laity” is denied actual clerical status because, at some point in the middle ages, the secular clergy as such ceased to exist in the West. The “middle tier” between the religiously illiterate peasants and the highly institutionalized monastics was eliminated as diocesan clergy took on a variety of features designed to basically merge or move them up into the category of monks: most of all mandatory celibacy, but also pseudo-monastic seminary environment, the sense of being “set apart” etc. In other words, they all became pseudo-Religious rather than meaningfully Seculars.

-In some sense, the breakdown of the clerical/lay distinction or roles in the liturgy since Vatican II was already there implicitly in allowing lay servers, in having a portion of the laity that follows along in missals, in having lay people who were well versed in catechism or for whom Catholicism was our “hobby” and not just our religion. So we find pseudo-clerical roles in other ways (this all reminds me of my post on the Politics of Lay Readers: http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com/2010/06/lay-readers.html), including even a few as married permanent deacons who are technically “clerics” in canon law (but often not treated like it in practice compared to priests).

-The other 85% or whatever of Catholics who are not totally orthodox or orthodoxly moral or all-out zealous or whatever…doesnt really concern or surprise me, and hasn’t for some time because I guess I see them as sort of equivalent to the “peasants” of the middle ages; they have their dispensation and will be saved in their own way. They don’t know any better, but I know they’re good people at heart. Simple folk, spiritually at least. And though some could be educated, I’m not too concerned with enforcing too many things on them or shattering the innocence that ignorance affords.

-BUT just because we don’t hold the “peasants” to the rigorous standards of orthodoxy…doesn’t mean that those of us who ARE religiously literate are excused from living by them. Nor does it mean we shouldn’t educate those who can be educated. What it does mean is that ideally we could be a lot less concerned about the religiously illiterate if they are simple good people just trying to get by. However, all of us hear reading this blog are really equivalent to a secular clerical class (even if denied it officially), and so we SHOULD be held to such higher standards. The benign ignorance and humble recognition of sinfulness among the peasants cannot be plead by the clerics, in whom it becomes contemptuous hypocrisy and corruption; the Catholic imagination has always treated it that way and had this double standard.

-The Protestant Reformation led to an elimination of distinctions in holiness. The Protesants laicized their clergy, while the Catholics attempted to clericalize their laity.

-A class of laity who are religiously literate is not necessarily bad, but it leads to a lot of problems. This group of laity leads to expectations that ALL lay people could be similarly literate, and puts pressure on the “peasants” to become so too. Since they can’t all live up to such rigor, they are antagonized, and their former apathy, ignorant “misunderstanding,” and humbly accepted sinfulness…becomes outright apostasy, explicit heresy, and obstinancy in sin. This creates a cycle, as these things are then truly bad, so the “clerical laity” get concerned and even more militant about enforcing orthodoxy, like fundamentalists, which only drives the others even further away.

-What is the celibate clergy’s investment or ulterior motive in allowing all this instead of just letting those of us who ARE fanboys become actual clerics more easily? I don’t really know but one theory might include the fact that it creates a niche market for the paraphernalia of clerical-catholic piety without us being able to confect the sacraments ourselves, with us remaining dependent on THEM to supply it. So they get the leash on us psychologically, but then deny us the corresponding privileges. By doing so they create a greater demand for themselves (since we can’t do it without them) and justify the maintenance of the secular clergy as a full-time salaried position. When, really, if the “clerical laity” were allowed to be actually clerical (the role I feel they are naturally called towards, the men at least)…almost all its tasks could be fulfilled by them as part-time volunteers and their wives. But, as it is, we are kept “needing” the lazy alcoholic who works only 2 hours a day and lives off OUR donations…

24 09 2010
Tom

Well, it’s one of the reasons we usually have married priests as parish priests, for one thing.

But for another, in my experience, Orthodox priests take the approach mentioned by Arturo to these matters – it’s generally a very private matter that you and your wife talk only to your spiritual father or confessor about.

It’s always recommended that a couple have the same confessor, too.

Generally we aren’t too legalistic about these sorts of things – but there are different schools within Orthodoxy. Antiochian parishioners aren’t allowed to confess at Elder Ephraim’s monasteries in the U.S. because of a perceived extreme strictness in this regard.

24 09 2010
dominic

Well, you know what happens when you assume…

24 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

This short essay has little to do with artificial birth control, and more to do with sexual identity politics. I think that there is no question that the Church in many circles has magnified the role of sexual identity in the last fifty years in such things as the theology of the body, the thumping constantly on the theme of demographic implosion, the combating of the “homosexual menace” within its ranks, and so forth. Whether or not this is action or reaction makes little difference. The result is the same, the neurosis is the same. The point is that, at least in this country, the Church is not threatening to excommunicate politicians because of their stances on war and immigration (Bishop Botean of the Romanian eparchy being a notable exception). They are threatening such actions against those politicians whose positions are deemed to be too soft on abortion or homosexuality. Whether or not the main pressure is coming from the Puritan-rite Catholics also makes little difference; they have their cheerleaders in the hierarchy, and claim to immerse themselves in the mantle of Vatican legitimacy.

And as for being “over-sexed”, I would counsel one to read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality for some good theoretical background on these questions. “Sexual decency” was often enforced by societal pressures or at worst violence. Heck, growing up in a Mexican family, we were taught on one level that sex was dirty. But to think that there has been some sort of marked change in human nature because of this, or that we know more about sex than our ancestors did (again, never lived in a farming community)… well, if you are convinced of that, this is no place for me to try to convince you otherwise. God knows I’ve tried it before.

24 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I take it you have never lived in a farming community.

Enough said.

24 09 2010
dominic

It seems that the older “benign” approach was counseled not because the Church didn’t think the bedroom was its business, but rather for more practical reasons. A bumbling but well-read priest could teach his ignorant parishioners a lot of freaky things if he wasn’t careful in clarifying what they were trying to tell him. He could be assuming they might be talking about the same kinds of things he heard about back in class, when really they were confessing things much more mundane.

Same thing applies to the pulpit-no priest in his right mind would give a sermon about sodomy, contraception or mistresses. I would bet that back then a priest could have a very reasonable hope in the innocence of many of his flock. There is no reason to teach them such things or other seedy things of the world.

Today, this “benign” approach would not be appropriate. First, because it really wasn’t more laissez faire, it was just super prudent and discretionary. Also, many of today’s pre-teens know freakier things than well read clerics back then would have known of. Trying to use just extreme discretion no longer has the same benefit it did 200 yrs. ago.

24 09 2010
Jared B.

I don’t subscribe to the notion of an oversexed society.

Um okay, good luck with that.

The hard-right insistence that the Vatican isn’t speaking out against the omnipresent spectre of societal sexual immorality speaks not of a genuine concern about the welfare of others.

This is doublespeak. If you mean “the Vatican is every bit as obsessed with sexual issues as the Left accuses of them of being, and the Right is being dishonest in claiming otherwise”, then just say so—and prove it. I still think this is a matter of perspective and projection, and I am encouraged by the way most communications coming from “the Vatican” (as if there is such a monolithic entity) are a great deal more calm than practically everything that is said about them from the detractors or would-be supporters of the Church.

Wouldn’t healthy religion simply realize the omnipresence of libido yet move through it with serenity and a semblance of humility?
For goodness’ sake sortacatholic, most people are still working on realizing the omnipresence of God—something supposedly knowable through both reason and revelation. “Omnipresence of libido”, in contrast, would be laughable to the Church Fathers who (as already mentioned) scarcely considered sexuality worthy of much discussion. The Fathers did recognize the universality of concupiscence, but that term doesn’t get trucked around so much nowadays. Probably because it isn’t as easy to glorify it as ‘sexuality’ or even ‘libido’.

(Though it would be a hoot to have a serious philosophical discourse Is libido in all things? Is libido everywhere? Is libido everywhere by essense, power, and presence? Does it belong to libido alone to be everywhere? ;))

23 09 2010
sortacatholic

Jared: Anyone who asks me as their straw-man Catholic, “Why is the Church so obsessed with sex?” gets from me the retort, “When did you stop beating your wife?” because the question seems out of touch with reality.

Questions of sexuality appear absurd simply because we are constantly immersed in their implications (frogs, meet pot on the boil). I don’t subscribe to the notion of an oversexed society. Our immersion in “sex-power” (when have sex and power ever been undone?) is constant but variable. The Victorians covered their piano legs in fabric tufts. We have 30-foot underwear models in Times Square.

The alphabet soup of the Pelagian faithful (CUF, EWTN) call for a new rigidity because the pendulum trajectory of our day is towards the incessant discussion and display of sexuality. Arturo did well to point out the retrospective laxity of 19th century penitential manuals. I suppose that the devout of those days took to other criticisms and practices to display their steadfast conviction of salvation on earth.

Collective neuroses over the sixth and tenth commandments are a sure ticket upstairs. The devout obsession over Church in/activity over a “sexually immoral society” is nothing more than a manifestation of the -power in sex-power. Ziggy: religion : wish-fulfillment. Let me add: the control of sexuality within the wish-fulfillment of religion is the power that drives spiritual and ritual conviction and devotion. When a believer harnesses his/her sexual drive for devotion, he/she receives a powerful sense of self-righteousness and self-mastery. Yet this power can be most destructive as seen with the child abuse cases. Sex-Power can offer the illusion of control or unleash a most destructive fury.

The hard-right insistence that the Vatican isn’t speaking out against the omnipresent spectre of societal sexual immorality speaks not of a genuine concern about the welfare of others. Rather, this is a language of the conviction won through a self-centeredness. Wouldn’t healthy religion simply realize the omnipresence of libido yet move through it with serenity and a semblance of humility?

23 09 2010
Leah

I think the only way to really know what pastoral approach was used towards sexual matters would be to examine what was being said in different times and cultures. We would need to see not just what was said in 1950s Boston or Milwaukee but also in 1st century Corinth, 5th century Constantinoble, 12th century Verona, 15th century Antwerp, 18th century Sao Paolo, 19th century Capetown, etc. There’s also the problem that what’s listed on the books might not have been what was said in the confessional or in one on one counselling. Once again, there’s really no way to know without a time machine. I think that while “the Church” teachings don’t change, the way people respond to them does. For example, the practice of a white man keeping a black or mixed race mistress in another household was once quite common in Louisiana, but the clergy never felt like it was a subject worth commenting about (to be fair, this was happening in other places in the South, but being Protestant in culture, the input of probably priests wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway)

23 09 2010
KarlH

“All the average person can do with regard to sexual morality, whether a layman, a priest, or whatever, is to not be a slut in one’s own personal life and help people when they ask for it.”

Amen.

23 09 2010
Jared B.

Along with liturgy and clerical culture, all the contradictory histories surrounding Humanae Vitae are a case where I’m a victim of being under 30: it’s all second-hand and I don’t know whose story to believe.

I’ve never seen much evidence that the magisterium / institutional Church is disproportionately concerned with sexual matters…I browse around vatican.va, read a [English] copy of L’Osservatore Romano, peruse USCCB documents from the last 30 years, and I get quite the opposite impression. Most of the sexual hysteria has come from lay groups like Catholics United for the Faith, who tell of the deafening silence of the institutional church on sexual matters as their primary reason for organizing in the first place. As they tell it, it was in the mid 20th century that the bishops and the pulpit stopped being very concerned with sexual matters, not when it started. Considering priests & bishops — not lay groups with their own agenda — that’s pretty much been my experience too. Anyone who asks me as their straw-man Catholic, “Why is the Church so obsessed with sex?” gets from me the retort, “When did you stop beating your wife?” because the question seems out of touch with reality.

Arturo, apparently, is in touch with another reality and has the confessional manuals & encyclicals to prove it. Still when I look at the Church herself, I see more concern about immigration and freedom of religion than sexual issues. I see a secular society that definitely is obsessed with sex, and hates the Church for not falling into line; I see many “lay apostolates” who counter the popular sexual obsessions with their own, and are often frustrated with the Church for not sharing their concerns; and I see a Church that just teaches faith & morals as it always has, while everyone else projects their own preoccupations onto her.

So as a guy who “wasn’t there” during all the transitions of the mid-20th century, whose version of history am I supposed to accept as reality?

23 09 2010
Sam Urfer

Well, the bishops make a big deal about immigrant rights, healthcare, and economic justice in general; the “Seamless Garment,” apart from below the pants issues. But whatever parts don’t fit with the Republican platform tend to be ignored or even lambasted in certain circles, and those are mostly sexual it seems. Papal fundamentalism rears it’s head in “show me where the POPE says that” moments regarding issues that don’t fit the party platform.

23 09 2010
Fearsome Pirate

This suggests that detailed inquiry into lay sexual practices is not a recent inventions:

http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article05190801.aspx

Perhaps it wasn’t as widespread then, but there were clerics who cared even what position you used in bed.

23 09 2010
Leah

In many inner city neighborhoods, there have been 3 or 4 generations of people who have no personal experience with any kind of “normal” family life. Since everybody’s friends, family, and acquaintences have babies out of wedlock, oftentimes with different guys, no one sees anything strange about it. How do you change situtations like these? I don’t think that handing out condoms or preaching abstinence will change anyone’s behavior if out of wedlock children are the norm. All that can be done is a change in culture, but how can that be done? None of the culture warriors on either side have much of an answer.

At this point, I don’t think that we can go back to the pre-Roe status quo in terms of abortion because nowadays you don’t even need a clinic to have an abortion. If abortion was criminalized, who would we put in jail? The doctors, I guess. But what about the woman? Maybe if she’s some unlikable harpy who got an abortion to fit into a dress or because she wanted one baby but is having twins. But what if she’s a teenager who is the victim of incest? Or a hardworking girl trying to get out of the ghetto/barrio/trailer park/reservation/(insert some other dire situtation) who got pregnant by her loser boyfriend during spring break? I don’t think the public would support such an action. I’m not justifying abortion, but very little thought has been given to what a world without legalized abortion would look like or who we would be putting in jail in such a regime.

Similarly, I think the battle on homosexuality is also futile. Very few people are advocating putting the anti-sodomy laws back on the book, and no one is really interesting in enforcing them. Some people seem to think that increasing homophobia among the populace is the answer, but that just seems adolescent and counterproductive to me. All the average person can do with regard to sexual morality, whether a layman, a priest, or whatever, is to not be a slut in one’s own personal life and help people when they ask for it.

23 09 2010
M.Z.

I think poor Liguori gets a bad name. I have read two summary books, one inspired by him and the other plucking different parts of his writings. Therefore, I am by no means a scholar on him. My understanding was that he was fighting the rigorists when they basically claimed uncertainty over applying more principles to practice meant abstention. You of course see this a lot on the Internet. Liguori was often caricatured as a laxist, of supporting the Jesuits. I don’t think LIguori would necessarily agree with everything claimed in his name.

As far as the American episcopate is concerned, they were raised in a uniquely American triumphalistic context. Sin is not a permanent mark upon society that we trudge through, but something to be over come with will power and ingenuity. (Isn’t this what makes NFP so beautiful? As Henry has said, it is difficult to get NFP out of the fathers.) The idea that sin is going to be a permanent condition, and we are just going to trudge through making the best choices we can seems completely foreign.

Then there is the not so insignificant matter of petty demagoguery being easier than dealing with issues. This is where we are at with the issues you cite. They have easy answers unlike how we address that the only effective way to form families is to wait until you need fertility treatments. 50% of those in poverty are children, but you wouldn’t know that from our episcopacy. Over a fifth of all children are in poverty. That people might care about their own well being more than the unborn or gay marriage is of course an indication that they are selfish and not virtuous.* Of course it is easier to find those issues the most important when you live in a mansion and have servants.

* Abortion is not nearly as much in play as people think it is, and much of being against abortion amounts to little more than posturing. See the health care debate.

23 09 2010
sortacatholic

High Pass. Proceed to dissertation. (Sorry, I’m writing comps now — I, procrastinator, have angina.) Seriously, one of your best posts.

The late 20th/early 21st century Vatican obsession with sexuality has much to do with the fission of the binary sexual order. No longer are we vir et mulier, we’re “LGBTTIQQ2S and allies” (no joke, that’s the fully consonantal acronym used at the University of Toronto queer affairs office). The Genesis creation allegories and their tendrils through Christian theology and liturgy no longer satisfy a post-Christian world. Yet the sexual binary pervades almost all aspects of the Christian faith, from the metaphorical relationships between clergy and religious with the church, to Madonna and child and the ecstasies of the saints. This extreme investment in sex instead of the recent construct of “gender” has spawned the recent Vatican policy of extreme hostility to birth control, queer identity, and the admission of women to the clerical caste.

The tertium quid homophobic/homoerotic clerical universe (per Mark Jordan) further magnifies the sex versus gender question. The sexual psychosis of the clergy and the collateral damage to the laity maintains the sex binary division at an inestimable cost to souls and the corporate church. If the Church was indeed never “bride”, would propitiatory sacrifice be in vain? We must continuously ask ourselves this vital question.

23 09 2010
Mark of the Vineyard

Anyone know how the Eastern Orthodox handled the confession of sexual sins given that they have always had married clergy?

23 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

As a mandatory footnote, I insert here an excerpt from a recent correspondence that I sent to someone:

…That being said, I find the Catholic Church’s contemporary rhetoric on how to engage politics in the American context neurotic and nearly perverse. Yes, I certainly don’t like baby-killing at any age. But it seems that the only “non-negotiable” issues for a Catholic in the United States have to do with “below the belt” matters: abortion, homosexuality, sex education, artificial contraception, and so on. To the extent that one is only a real Catholic insofar as he or she agrees about tab A being correctly inserted into slot B. No wonder, then, that I have called modern Catholicism an emerging right-wing fertility cult. It is as if some of the hierarchy were saying: “You are allowed to vote for any party that you want, or hold any political position that you want, as long as you conform yourself to the Church’s positions on/in the bedroom”. This is a strange inversion, as the Church hierarchy historically has been pretty silent about the bedroom habits of its faithful, content that whatever was “on the books”, so to speak, was enough. Now, the only thing that matters in the public sphere is whatever one does in the privacy of one’s own home. I suppose Zizek would have a field day with this stuff.

I would add that, along with Zizek, one could speak of a “perverse core” of modern Catholicism. If anyone wants to give a crack at some Lacanian analysis on this one, he or she is more than welcome to do so here.

23 09 2010
A Sinner

I think you make a lot of good points about how and why this all developed historically.

The Liguorian pastoral practice of giving the benefit of the doubt I feel is especially good.

I have often had the thought before that impressionable young people probably shouldn’t even be told about the Church’s opinion of masturbation, for example, until they’re older (like, even, of real marriageable age in a given society). If only because…it’s going to happen with teenage males, at least, and telling them actually only makes them become morally culpable, so why give them “full knowledge” needlessly too soon? Doing something objectively wrong but ignorantly won’t hurt them subjectively.

However, there is also the fact that many of us can’t claim ignorance anymore. The cadre of TOB quoting Catholics and NFP users and the rest of us who are informed…probably represents the segment of Catholics who would have been priests and nuns in the old world. The religiously “literate” as it were.

And I have no problem holding myself (or the rest of the members of this segment) to the orthodox standards. If you’re going to be self-righteous, you damn well better not be a hypocrite! My anti-clericalism extends to us new lay-clergy in that regard.

The 80% or whatever that use contraception and such…are the old ignorant masses, and they weren’t demonized before, but now they are. It’s not that in the past there wasn’t a sexual morality or that the people didn’t know that unnatural sex or fornication or adultery were wrong…but it certainly wasn’t an issues like it is today.

There are many things to think about here, and I’ll need to mull it over more. But I think that the internal control, using sex as the hook, may just be the equivalent of celibacy for the new “lay-clergy”…

I’ll flesh that out more on my own later.

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