Sexuality Uber Alles

So, Ross Douthat wrote an interesting blog post yesterday.  The topic of the post is, in essence, why conservative Catholics are adrift during the Age of Francis, and he raises some interesting and thought provoking points.  But it seems to me that he doesn't really name the heart of the issue, despite orbiting it very closely.

He begins by discussing Damon Linker's piece in The Week, which I mentioned last week.  Douthat's primary argument is that Linker is totally wrong about conservative Catholics, since after all they have been willing to change on all sorts of stuff.  If we were really as reactionary and fearful of change, Douthat argues, we would have revolted long ago when they got rid of the Latin Mass, ecumenism, etc.  If Linker were really right about who we are, all of us would have joined the SSPX folks, but we didn't, so we are not afraid of change.

This position, however, raises an an issue not directly addressed by Douthat in the piece.  Douthat essentially concedes the point I made about the discontinuities between the pre- and post-Vatican II church.  How does Douthat square what he sees as a fact about the post-Vatican II church (and one that he seems to suggest that he and his fellows embrace, at least mostly), with the rhetoric of post-Vatican II conservatives?  Because the rhetoric of conservative Catholicism has been exactly as Linker describes, notwithstanding Douthat's concessions.  Remember, just a few months ago, it was Douthat himself who described the core narrative of conservative Catholicism as follows:

Once, fifty years ago, there was an ecumenical council of the Church. Its goal was to reorient Catholicism away from its nineteenth-century fortress mentality, to open a new dialogue with the modern world, to look more deeply into the Catholic past in order to prepare for the Catholic future, and to usher in an era of evangelization and renewal.

This was not intended to be a revolutionary council, and nothing in its deliberations, documents, and reforms was meant to rewrite doctrine or Protestantize the faith. But the council’s sessions coincided with an era of social upheaval and cultural revolution in the West, and the hoped-for renewal was hijacked, in many cases, by those for whom renewal meant an accommodation to the spirit of the 1960s, and the transformation of the Church along liberal Protestant lines.

Soon, two parties developed: One followed the actual documents of the council and urged the Church to maintain continuity with Catholic teaching and tradition, and the other was loyal to a “spirit of the council” that just happened to coincide with the cultural fashions that came in its wake.

Now, I suppose you could argue that the changes Douthat lists in his recent piece were not the product of those "loyal to a 'spirit of the council' that just happened to coincide with the cultural fashions that came in its wake."  But it is hard to frame the laundry list of changes Douthat notes as consistent with a Council that where "nothing in its deliberations, documents, and reforms was meant to rewrite doctrine. . . ."  It's hard to escape the conclusion that Douthat is essentially admitting that the "hermaneutic of continuity" narrative, so often used in the 90s and 00s by Pope John Paul II and Benedict devotees, is basically bunk.

Along those lines, and this is a bit of a tangent but it is worth throwing this in there:  I have known several Catholic converts who feel as if they were essentially brought into Catholicism during the JPII/Benedict era under false pretenses.  Whatever the realities, these folks report that they were told that Catholicism is unchanging and static, and indeed that was part of the selling point for people coming in from the more chaotic Protestant world.  If conservatives like Douthat understood all along that the Church has undergone substantial changes in the last 50 years, they certainly didn't communicate that to these converts and potential converts.  Once Pope Francis arrived, it was like the rug was pulled out from underneath these converts--nothing in the Catholicism they were presented with even allowed for the possibility of a change of focus in the manner embodied by Francis.  I've never met Damon Linker, and so I would never attempt to speak for him, but I wonder if he experienced some of that in his own journey into the Church.

Be that as it may, Douthat disclaims the idea of an unchanging Church:

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations. 

The question, then, is this--what are the "essentials of the faith" and the crucial foundations"?  For Douthat, at least one of the answers is clear:

That the church’s understanding of marriage is so close to the heart of Catholic moral and sacramental theology, and the pastoral and doctrinal so closely intertwined therein, that liberalization on this point would lead to a great unraveling (and a severing of the church from its own past) in a way that other alterations (past and potential) would not.

Keep in mind what he is saying here.  Douthat's position is that the Catholic understanding of marriage is more important and more central than the structure of the liturgy, than the way "the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox" [read: universalism], or the status of everyone other than Catholics with regard to their eternal destiny.

I would strenuously argue that Douthat's vision of the role marriage plays in Catholic thought is neither theologically nor empirically supportable.  The idea that Catholicism has had a singular, unchanging theology of marriage from the beginning is simply not true.  The historical continuity that Douthat posits is simply not there--marriage wasn't a sacrament until no earlier than the 12th Century in the West, and wasn't seen as a "church function" until the Counter Reformation.  Also keep in mind that it is hard to see the idea of marriage as central to the faith in a church that has proclaimed consecrated celibacy as ontologically superior to being married, and has done so consistently from St. Paul to John Paul II ("As a way of showing forth the Church's holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ's own way of life, has an objective superiority."--Vita Consecrata, paragraph 32 (emphasis in the original) (1996)).

But those details are less important that the take-away.  If it is not the case that an unchanging theology is the touchstone of conservative Catholicism, Douthat's piece shows that an unchanging sexual morality surely is.  The complex basket of traditional Catholic teachings surrounding embodied gender have become the sine qua non of real Catholicism for this crowd.  In this, it seems to me, Douthat is perfectly aligned with the de facto, if not de jure, attitude in the Vatican during the John Paul II and Benedict eras.  If you bracket the fight over Liberation Theology (which was tied explicitly to the anti-Communist political campaign, it seems to me), the primary focus of the Vatican theological watchdogs has been policing deviations regarding sex.

I have two Catholic-oriented books on my nightstand right now.  The first is Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Sr. Margaret Farley, R.S.M. the other is The World in the Trinity: Open-Ended Systems in Science and Religion, by Fr. Joseph Bracken, S.J.  I should say that I think both books are excellent, so I am not criticizing either of them.  But Fr. Bracken argues that we need to rethink the core philosophical commitments that have under-girded Catholic reflection on the nature of God and the universe since the beginning of the faith, and Sr. Farley argues that it might be OK for women to masturbate to figure out how their sexuality works.  The Vatican spent four years investigating and criticizing Sr. Farley and her book, and as far as I know no one has said a peep about Bracken.  Now, Fr. Bracken's book has a 2014 copyright date, and so dates to the Francis era; Bracken, however, has been writing about Process Theology for 35 years, so its not like he waited until Francis to spring this on people.  It is hard to come up with a schema under which Bracken's book is more inside the mainstream of Catholic thought than Farley's that doesn't involve declaring all discussions of sex to be sui generis.  It is also hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that you can say and write about whatever you want to, so long as it doesn't touch the electrified rail of sex and gender.  The only heresy is dissent about sex.

If there is anything that I think all sides can agree on, it should be that Pope Francis does not share this sexuality uber alles vision of Catholicism, not only in its conservative but also in its progressive form (which reduces Francis's pontificate to a referendum on "who am I to judge?," for example).  It seems to me that the Pope is trying to get both sides to step away from the barricades a bit and focus on other topics.  This is hard for progressives to swallow, but it is really hard for conservatives (especially American conservatives), who have defined the faith as opposition to the Sexual Revolution, to swallow.  The "essentials to the faith" have been defined almost exclusively (in practice if not rhetorically) in terms of a particular perspective on sexuality, and now that exclusivity is being pulled away.

From that perspective, it is easy to see why Douthat would argue that we are headed to total disintegration.  It's not that the sexual teaching of the Church were a part of the foundation, it was the foundation.  Everything rides on holding the line here.  So, I understand where he is coming from, even though I think its his position is utterly, almost comically, wrong.  Putting aside my views on the merits of all of the disputed questions regarding sexuality, I am firmly convinced that role of sexuality and sexual morality in the Catholic Church has become wildly inflated.  If Pope Francis is able to do nothing except get us to talk about something else, and to reduce our monomaniacal obsession with the topic, he will have done a great service.

In fact, reflecting on Douthat's piece, I have come to a conclusion--I have been talking far too much about sexuality in this blog.  I am contributing to the sexuality uber alles mindset of Catholicism, if from the other side.  So, in the spirit of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness, I hereby declare a six month moratorium on writing anything to do with sex or sexuality or gender or anything like that.  I'm sure I can find other stuff to talk about, and if I can't then so be it. I've been meaning to do a series on the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and how Girardian they are, so I'm going to write about that and not yet another discussion of marriage or sex.

Anyway, a very good and honest piece by Douthat.  Far be it for me to suggest it, but maybe Douthat might think about a moratorium as well.  It's not like he won't have enough politics to write about.


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