Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sex and Catholic religious culture: Is there a problem?

Peter Kreeft once noted that our post-modern culture, far from being a-moral, is in fact highly moralistic about everything from smoking and sexism, to recycling and politically correct language. Our culture, he said, is not decidedly a-moral about anything, he said, except for "pelvic issues" -- that is, anything related in some way to sex.

Hard on the heels of the recent flap over Christopher West's ABC Nightline discussion of John Paul II's theology of the body as representing the "sexiest" religion in the world ("A theology of the body too far?" Musings, May 11, 2009) came news of "Ex-Archbishop Weakland coming out of the closet" (Musings, May 17, 2009). Given this recrudescence of pelvic issues in recent news, perhaps the theme warrants a more deliberate revisiting.

This, of course, is a huge subject, just as huge as the pelvic obsessions of our culture, which have led to the proliferation of pornography, legalized contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965), widespread recreational sex, a bull market in sex-enhancement drugs, prostitution, sex toys, sex bars, sex slaves, rampant adultery, runaway divorce, legalized abortion (Roe vs. Wade, 1973), broken homes, single-parent families, skyrocketing numbers of welfare moms, child abuse, the mainstreaming of homosexualism, same-sex 'marriage' and sodomy, and the greater part of those social and moral toxins that afflict us in our fatally diseased Culture of Death.

The issue of sex has been addressed thoroughly in a positive light by the late John Paul II in his Theology of the Body -- now famous, thanks to the publicity of Christopher West. Yet the issue continues to present itself as a problem for the Church in multiple ways -- not only through quotidian pastoral questions about personal sexual sins, contraception, autoeroticism, homosexual acts, pre-marital cohabitation, divorce, annulments, remarriage, women's ordination, and the like; but through questions raised by the legacy of the huge sex-abuse scandal involving the priestly molestation of (mostly) young boys publicized by the Boston Globe in 2002, as well as proximate questions raised by the continuing debate over priestly celibacy, recently fueled by comments by former New York Archbishop Cardinal Edward M. Egan (March 12, 2009) and his successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan (May 16, 2009).

This last issue of priestly celibacy is often perceived, it seems, whether rightly or wrongly, as a point of vulnerability in the current discipline of the Church, as well as in Catholic tradition, and a means by which her general attitude to sex and gender is frequently called into question.

Ordinarily I confess that I find it difficult to take seriously criticisms of the Catholic tradition of priestly celibacy, since I think the aboriginal antiquity and legitimacy of the tradition has been amply demonstrated -- for example, by Ignace de la Potterie, "The biblical foundation of priestly celibacy" (Vatican website), or by Christian Cochini's Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (Ignatius, 1990). Moreover, no arguments I have so far encountered against the ongoing practice of priestly celibacy have struck me as the least bit convincing, and I can think of ample reason for supporting it -- not only St. Paul's counsel that an unmarried man retains his freedom to give his undivided attention to things of the Lord, while the married man is inevitably filled with worldly cares about how to care for his family and wife (1 Corinthians 7:32-33) -- although that may be reason enough: I have often wondered how Blessed Fr. Damien's priestly vocation among the lepers of Molokai might have fared had he been married and had wife and family to go home to each night. I have also wondered how St. Francis Xavier's vocation as a missionary in Asia would have fared had he not been able to win the confidence of the indigenous peoples by demonstrating that he and his fellow Jesuits and Franciscans were sworn to chastity, poverty, and obedience, and were thus no threat to their women, their wealth, or their government. Yet there are also other reasons, too, such as the stark counter-cultural witness of a priest's consecrated celibacy to the deeper spiritual reality of the Church's nuptial fidelity to Christ within a culture of narcissistic sexual self-indulgence.

Even so, various tangentially-related issues often arise alongside the question of priestly celibacy that may warrant further consideration. A challenging example of how this can occur is found in a recent post by my friend, Gregory Krehbiel.[1]

The post is entitled "There is something deeply troubling about the Catholic Church’s problem with sex" (Crowhill Weblog, May 15, 2009). What he says in his post is troubling indeed. On one level, it can be read as sounding an alarm about certain (mostly recent) trends he claims to detect in Catholic and religious culture -- or, at the very least, in broadly-held views of Catholic and religious culture. On another level, the post can be read as expressing certain doubts that have arisen in his own mind about various attitudes and practices within Catholic culture. Frankly, I am not sure whether to take the post as setting forth propositions that Krehbiel himself takes firmly and unambiguously to be his own and clearly and unambiguously true. Maybe so; maybe not. The post raises more questions than it answers, except for the obvious problem of the sex-abuse crisis and the possible feminization of Catholic parish culture at certain levels. A constant thread running through the post is Krehbiel's disgust with the sex-abuse scandal and distaste for a general 'sissified' drift he claims to detect in Catholic culture. I do not agree with key elements of his assessment, and neither will many of you; yet I think that most of the questions raised here are of sufficient importance to warrant a substantial analysis and discussion. If there is any truth in the propositions that follow, they should concern us indeed.

What follows is his post (green) with my comments (red):
I don’t mean to say that the problem is with the doctrines (nor do I mean to support all of them). [I'm not entirely sure what he means by his parenthetical remark, although it seems clear that he has some doubts about the discipline of priestly celibacy, as we shall see.] The problem is in the culture. Something in the Catholic culture re: sex is disturbing at a very deep level. [One catches a hint of something sinister here, though in my view there is little warrant for it. Sex, after all, is like fire -- powerful. It's good, when used properly and treated with respect, but exceedingly dangerous when treated carelessly or abused. If the Church seems deeply ambivalent about sex, my first inclination would be to credit this to her discernment, not to question her sensibilities. Let us wait and see, however; perhaps he means something else.]

This has been brewing in my mind for a long time. Part of it is disgust at the sex-abuse crisis and related problems. Part of it is bewilderment re: the insistence on mandatory celibacy for priests.

But a large part of it is just the drip, drip of a general sense of sissiness. There’s a cumulative weight of ... something. I don’t even know if I have the right word for it. Some say the church is too “feminine,” but that doesn’t quite do it because femininity is a good thing. (At least in women.) It might be better to call it “anti-masculinity.”
[Here we're getting somewhere -- at something directly addressed by Leon Podles in his article, "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," Crisis Magazine (February 1999), as well as his book by the same title. More on this later.]

The end result if that if you were to take all the messed up things I hated about the 70s, boil it down and make me drink it, that would be a good approximation of how I feel at mass. It’s trite, maudlin, sentimental and drippy.
[We've discussed this matter before in Musings, particularly in the context of liturgical questions. Something of this is addressed by Thomas Day's now classic Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (1992); Robert Bellah gets at an aspect of it with his notion of "therapeutic" religion in Habits of the Heart (1985; 2007); and another dimension may be discerned, if only obliquely, by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (1978; 1991).]

But I digress.

Let’s review some general trends re: religion and Catholicism and see if they add up to anything.

1. Religion (in general) attracts women in disproportionate numbers.

Lee Podles has done a lot of work on this. The point is not that men aren’t religious, but that women are more religious. Furthermore, the more feminine a religion becomes, the less the men want to be involved. (The opposite does not seem to be true. Masculine forms of religion still attract women.)

I know some people like to dispute this, or say “it’s not like that in my church” (have you counted?), but the people who look for facts and statistics have found a clear trend.
[This is a serious issue that nobody seems to want to touch. When it comes to the average suburban parish, the Director of Religious Education (DRE) is nearly always a woman, and so are various and sundry other "ministers" of one sort or another. Why is this? One answer may be that men don't volunteer. Again, why is this? I've heard it said that pastors prefer working with women because they are generally more compliant. However that may be, I have previously noted my own observation that when a priest is surrounded by ten or more female Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion at the altar, he looks a bit like an out-of-place gentleman in a kitchen surrounded by bustling women. Leon Podles' description of contemporary churches as "women's clubs with a few male officers," does not seem far off the mark. There is a huge problem here, whether anyone wants to deal with it or not; and I haven't even mentioned the effect on boys serving at the altar.]

2. Catholicism has been down on sex for a long time.

Modern apologists will take issue with this by referring to recent developments like John Paul II’s theology of the body and that sort of thing, but the Catholic Church has a long history of encouraging young women and men to the celibate life by implying that a married life is a sorry, second choice that God will (reluctantly, “Oh, okay, if you have to”) put up with if you can’t do any better (i.e., forsake sex “for the kingdom”).
[Calling marriage a "sorry, second choice" overstates the matter, it seems to me. Yet, the fact is that something of this preferential attitude toward celibacy is found in the words of Jesus and St. Paul themselves. Jesus says, for example, that "some men are celibate from birth, while some are celibate because they have been made that way by others. Still others are celibate because they have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can" (Matthew 19:12); and St. Paul counsels: "It is good for a man not to marry .... I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:1, 7-9). Thus, Jesus and Paul both regard celibacy as a gift to which all should aspire, but which is not given to everyone. The Church doesn't force anyone into celibacy anymore than she forces anyone into the priesthood. It goes without saying that Catholic priesthood is not a 'right' but a divine vocation with its proper charisms.]

For those also-rans who elect to marry, the church has a history of trying to regulate the heck out of their sex lives. Not during Lent. Not on Sundays. Etc. etc. When you look at what the church fathers and the medieval penitential writers say about sex, and the list of restrictions they encouraged, it’s pretty much impossible not to conclude that they regarded sex as a necessary evil. To get some idea of this, go to google book search and take a peak inside Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, by James A. Brundage.
[Brundage packs an impressive wallop of detail and statistics, but has a definite anti-Catholic axe to grind. While Brundage is a serious scholar, I would not trust him to provide an accurate interpretation of the Church's rationale for historical Catholic practices. The problem may not be unlike that of consulting Larry Flint or Hugh Hefner on sex: long on up-close details, but short on spiritual insight. I would recommend a number of alternatives.][2]

Think about the message that’s sent by saying a priest has to be celibate. It doesn’t matter how many caveats and conditions you put on it. The celibacy requirement implies that holiness means no sex. It implies that you can choose girls or God, but not both. It’s like Merlin in some book I read — sex messes up the magic.
[It is an ancient Judeo-Christian tradition that fasting from sex, like fasting from food, promotes spiritual clarity, insight, and personal holiness. Why did the Jews in the Old Testament abstain from conjugal relations when preparing for divine worship, or St. Paul mention sexual abstinence for the sake of prayer?][3]

Obviously that’s not the whole story. Marriage is a sacrament, of course, and for every cultural trend you can find a counter-trend. (There are married saints ... but very few. And I’ll bet I wouldn’t want to imitate their sex lives.)

My point is that there’s a strong anti-sex theme within Catholicism, and that theme has had an effect on the church to this day. To some extent people are getting over it, but it’s still a problem. (I suppose someone could argue that making marriage a sacrament actually goes along with the anti-sex attitude. I.e., “Ha ha, it’s a sacrament so we get to regulate it!”)
[This strikes me as rather superficial, like a comment one might get from the secular media, and Mr. Krehbiel would probably agree; however, I recognize the frustration here and the difficulty of the issue. On the one hand, the Church affirms the goodness of sex within conjugal relations open to life, and in this respect a Catholic could readily affirm the view I've heard attributed to a prominent Dominican that sanctimonious prissiness has no place in the marriage bed -- that, on the contrary, the marriage bed should positively rattle the rafters during conjugal lovemaking. On the other hand, however, the Church seems extremely sensitive to the uncanny dangers of sex, as clearly emerges in the warnings of saints like Augustne and Thomas Aquinas against the dangers of narcissistic lust (reducing one's spouse to a convenient object for self-gratification) even within conjugal relations. St. Thomas even ranks "wife rape" higher in the order of grave sins than adultery (ST II-II, Q 154, a 12). It seems to me that the secular (and Protestant?) world could be missing something important beneath the surface of appearances here.]

3. Catholicism is culturally anti-masculine.

Again, somebody will object to this. Somebody will say the power structure in Catholic Church is an all-boys’ club, the Vatican is full of men, only men can be priests, etc., so how can I say the church is anti-masculine?

For one thing, have you seen the frilly stuff they wear in the Vatican? Serge would just love it.

But seriously, would a masculine church be upset by the death penalty? Would a masculine church spend so much time worrying about gestures and vestments and how to fold the napkin? Would a masculine church allow the feminists to carve “male headship” readings out of the lectionary? Would a masculine church allow an entire profession to be stained by the charge of pederasty? (Imagine, for comparisons’ sake, if some percentage of construction workers were notorious pederasts, and everybody started equating “construction worker” with “pederast.” What do you think would happen?)
[A couple of questions here. First, are opposition to the death penalty and "male headship" texts in the Bible a reflection of Catholic tradition, or liberal and feminist influences in contemporary Catholic culture? Second, who benefits the most from those who promote slackness in the observance of liturgical rubrics: orthodox men or heterodox women? And where do you find boys climbing over each other to become altar servers -- in liturgies where sneakers and jeans and slackness (and girls) are permitted, or those where cassock and surplice and months of practice are de rigueur and no female servers are found?]

I realize that I’m being just a little silly in my examples here, but ... look, some things are intuitively obvious. If you don’t believe me, check out the priest in the oovoo commercial. (Why did they portray him that way?) Or google “mark shea masculine and feminine.” Or just read the newspaper.
[I remember first running into the argument that Catholicism is historically "feminine" in Podles' book and thinking it weak, where he champions various other Christian traditions (Protestant and Eastern Orthodox) as more masculine and male-affirming than Catholicism. When it comes to the contemporary Catholic parish, I admit, he might have a point. Take any number of songs sung in a typical suburban Catholic parish, like "Be Not Afraid" (St. Louis Jesuits), "Take and Eat" (Michael Joncas), "Sing a New Song" (Dan Schutte), "We Remember" (Marty Haugen), or "We Have Been Told" (David Haas), and compare them with any of the following selections from the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom. (Scroll down and listen online, and you will see what I mean. Hear those deep base voices? Most contemporary Catholic Mass songs aren't even written in a register accessible to the male voice. Eventually guys begin to wonder if what's expected of them at Mass is something like "active participation" as interpreted by Stephen Colbert, and no wonder they drop out in horror.) Neither is there anything sissified about traditional Latin hymns such as "Adeste Fideles," or traditional plainsong, like "Adoremus in Aeternum," or Gregorian chant -- although it is certainly otherworldly; nor is there anything "unmanly" about traditional gestures of piety, such as kneeling and genuflecting, when one considers the image of a medieval knight kneeling before his liege lord before going off to do battle.]

4. The priesthood — a gay profession.

Not all priests are gay. Probably not a majority. And manly men can become priests and retain their masculinity. I know some.

But let’s be honest. If religion is somewhat skewed towards the feminine to begin with, and Catholicism is even more skewed in that direction (and towards a deep distrust of sex), and priests are supposed to renounce marriage .... Isn’t that going to influence the kind of men who will apply for the priesthood? Isn’t it going to attract too many men who can’t deal with their sexuality — who are trying to run away from all those questions?

Of course it will.

If you don’t believe me, Google “gay subculture in priesthood” to see what I mean.

[Two things here: first, nobody who has followed the news about the sex-abuse crisis in the Church since 2002 or read Michael S. Rose's Goodbye! Good Men: How Catholic Seminaries Turned Away Two Generations of Vocations From the Priesthood (2002) can ignore the fact that we have a problem, but the Church has also been effectively addressing it; second, Krehbiel is making certain assumptions here that I, for one, would not accept. Whatever problems the Catholic culture may now be reaping from the slack discipline of the sixties and seventies, I have never thought for a moment that Catholicism is inherently or traditionally skewed toward anything like sissification or homosexualism. Neither do I think that the measure of a man lies in how lavishly he indulges his sexual appetite, nor that his manliness is compromised in the degree he exercises self-mastery. Quite the contrary. Like fire, sex is perfectly good where it's meant to be; but it is little boys (not men) who like to play with fire and end up getting burnt -- and for those little boys we are today reaping the whirlwind.]

In this post — If half of this is true, how is it possible to take the Catholic Church seriously? — Lee Podles made the following comment:
My darkest suspicion is that pederasty has been entrenched in the clergy as an inheritance from classical antiquity, and that only occasionally does it come to light. St. Peter Damian denounced it in the Middle Ages, but nothing was done to extirpate it.
It may be dark, Lee, but it’s not all that unlikely, IMO. [I admit that I, too, was captivated when I first saw the title of Leon Podles' book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence Publishing Company, 1999), and looked forward to reading it when it first came out, I found it disappointing on several levels. First, I thought the historical parts of the book were weak. Second, I thought that although he made some good points about the feminization of contemporary Catholic parish culture, his attempt to generalize that claim historically foundered, as exemplified in the quotation above. The historical accusation amounts to little more than empty conjecture. Certainly, as a victim of sexual abuse himself -- he says he was sexually assaulted by a classmate in seminary -- Podles has personal reasons for his animus, and for the sequel he has published, entitled Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Crossland Press, 2007). Yet, although the facts remain virtually untouched by the media, some honest statistical reporting on sexual abuse among Protestant clergy show figures ranking neck-and-neck, if not surpassing, those of the recent Catholic scandal. I think there's plenty of sin to go around; but what does that prove? Surprise, surprise -- only that we are all sinners.]

The bottom line is that there’s a huge problem here that many Catholics aren’t willing to face up to. Perhaps JPII saw this and that was part of his reason for promoting his “theology of the body.” I doubt it, but ... maybe.
  1. Mr. Krehbiel and I enjoyed a brief correspondence about Catholicism some ten-or-fifteen years ago, back when he was on his way into the Church. I enjoyed reading a number of essays he sent me at that time, and considered them quite insightful. While I can't speak for where he is now religiously, I can say that I've always appreciated his knack for cutting through nonsense, and his nose for hypocrisy. He has a great imagination and energy, has authored a number of novels, brews his own beer, and is a connoisseur of fine Jethro Tull. If you have followed his Crowhill Blog, you will know that his sojourn in the Catholic Church since 1999 has been something less than an altogether sanguine experience. "I'm not one of those cheer-leading Catholic converts," he wrote back in 2006: "On the contrary, I often feel like a man who has spent many years on a difficult quest to join the Arthurian round table only to find a bunch of sissies in velvet playing Chutes and Ladders." [back]

  2. The Anglican scholar, Peter Brown, is much better in terms of even-handedness, in The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988, 2008). I would want to supplement my reading, however, with the more sympathetic 'in-house,' reliably Catholic interpretations provided by Ignace de la Potterie's and Christian Cochini's aforementioned works, along with treatments such as Alphonso M. Cardinal Stickler's The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations (Ignatius, 1995), Stefan Heid's Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West (Ignatius, 2000), as well as the fascinating diversity of the world's religious traditions discussed in the collection edited by Carol Olson, Celibacy and Religious Traditions (Oxford University Press, 2007). It is also helpful to be aware that liberal Protestant and Jewish scholars since the early 1970s have been promoting the revisionist notion that Catholic views of sex represent a radical rupture with traditional Jewish and apostolic Christian views, as claimed, for example, in Jane Schaberg's The illegitimacy of Jesus: a feminist theological interpretation of the infancy narratives (Harper & Row, 1987). [back]

  3. Keils-Delitsch's Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 2: Pentateuch [Exodus], trans. Rev. James Martin (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1866), p. 393, refers to "the law and custom, of abstaining from conjugal intercourse during preparation for acts of divine worship, or performance of the same (Ex 19:15; 1 Sam. 21:5, 6; 2 Sam. 11:4)"; and Paul himself refers married couples periodically abstaining from conjugal relations "that you may devote yourselves to prayer" (1 Cor. 7:5). Even in Eastern churches, married men may not be ordained bishops, and although married men are permitted to be ordained as deacons and priests, they may not remarry if widowed.

    There are obviously two ways to look at all of this: EITHER this attitude toward sex involves the silly repression of a good thing (I would call this the prevailing secular and Protestant view, which I used to get ad nauseam from some of my "sin-boldly-since-grace-abounds" Lutheran friends), OR there are deeper reasons justifying it even if they may be beneath the surface and difficult to easily discern -- like Merlin's magic, perhaps -- only, profoundly Christian. The Church's proscription of autoeroticism clearly falls within this sphere. Those who engage in the activity, are typically inclined to dismiss it as harmless -- a view shared by the Evangelical James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who once famously declared that "masturbation is not much of an issue with God" (
    Preparing for Adolescence, p. 83) -- though John Paul II seems clearly to have the deeper discernment when he suggests that such activity on the part of men feeds a predatory attitude towards women, in which they are increasingly regarded as objects of use for subjective enjoyment as an end-in-itself. [back]

  4. This has all been said in one way or another by Nietzsche before, who derisively scorned Christianity as weak, effeminate, and life-denying. He championed classical manly virtues, like courage, self-discipline, and strength, and despised the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) as weak and female. One can almost hear him reciting the Beatitudes in a mocking, effeminate voice, dripping with sarcasm: "Blessed are the POOR in spirit, the MEEK, the MERCIFUL, the PURE, the PEACEMAKERS ... It's because you're a bunch cowardly wusses and wimps and resent the fact that you don't have what it takes to be real MEN (power, intelligence, wealth, health and good looks) that you've gone and turned morality on its head by saying that God is on the side of the weak and oppressed, the poor and sickly and miserably mediocre and ugly!" The definitive philosophical answer to this, however, is the argument of Ressentiment, trans. Lewis B. Coser (Marquette Univ. Press, 1994), by Max Scheler, whom Ernst Troelsch called "the Catholic Nietzsche." Nietzsche may be onto something in his psychology of resentment, but, according to Scheler, he's picked the wrong target in Christianity: there's nothing less reactionary or more powerful than the injunction to love your enemy. [back]