Jesus Doesn't Care if You Masturbate, and Other Provocations
1. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon this post on the Patheos Catholic channel. In it, a young woman named Marina S. Olsen began what she promised is a series of posts discussing sexual sins, and she begins with masturbation. To call the post alarmist would not do it justice--even in the heyday of the drug scares in the 80s, an anti-drug ad that adopted this tone would be seen as over-the-top.
But something struck me in reading her post--Ms. Olsen believes, with an apparently unshakable conviction, that what the Catholic Church has to say about masturbation is true. Actually, that's not quite right--she takes as a given that what the Church says about masturbation is true. It is noticeable that at no point does she try to do the Dr. Greg trick, which is to justify her opposition to masturbation on the basis of ostensibly neutral or scientific grounds. No, her thesis is that people despair about masturbation because masturbation is going to result in those folks going to Hell. And we know this, she all but explicitly says, because the Catholic Church says so.
I am not interested in criticizing Ms. Olsen. No, her article is instructive to me because it points out something which has been true to some degree for a while, and has become completely true in the last few years. Whereas Ms. Olsen trusts completely that what the Catholic Church has to say about sexuality is really true, I no longer trust them about sexuality at all.
The origin of this evolution began during my time with the Dominicans, though this is obvious only in retrospect. I didn't come to the Dominicans or religious life with an intentional enthusiasm for being celibate (i.e. "yay, no sex for life!"), but I trusted the Church when it told me that being celibate was a healthy lifestyle that could lead to my growth in faith and personal flourishing. That was the promise, and I trusted in that promise. Over the course of my time with the Dominicans, I lost that trust, as I saw people around me--both my fellow novices and the vowed community--who were not healthy, not flourishing, not growing in faith. My decision to leave was founded in a concern that I would not come out of the process of becoming a priest unscathed, and I feared that by the time I realized that things had gone south, I would have given up a large portion of my life that I would never really able to recover.
I wasn't able to fully vocalize or organize that idea at the time I decided to leave--it has taken years to put the pieces together. In fact, my decision to leave the Dominicans was probably the first intuitive decision that I made in my life. Nevertheless, it is clear to me now that the reason I left is that I lost that sense of trust. And, over time, that lack of trust in the Church in the celibacy question has slowly but inexorably expanded into the rest of what the Church has to say about sexuality. The final straw, the last line in the sand, was LGBT issues. The moment I realized I could not and would not defend what the Church had to say about gay folks was the moment that the trust, so seemingly reflexive to someone like Ms. Olsen, was for me gone forever.
2. But, then, something amazing happened. You see, when I finally had to admit that I no longer trusted what the Church had to say about sexuality (and, since Catholicism presents everything as a take-it-or-leave-it package, by extension the Church as a whole), I had to face a question that I never really faced as an adult--am I really a Christian? Do I really believe all of this stuff about Jesus? Maybe I don't really believe in any of this anymore.
And so I went ad fontes, to the sources. I read and I looked and I thought and I prayed. I discovered Rene Girard and James Alison and Brian McLaren and Donald Cozzens and Hans Kung. But more than anything else, I came across Jesus, the man, the one described in the pages of the Gospels. The one who reassured the people of Galilee, living as they were in the midst of the terror and confusion of Roman occupation, that God had not abandoned them. The one who confronted the religious leadership of His day, calling them to shed the comfortable blanket of certainty they had wrapped themselves in. The one who called everyone to a new and better way of living, one that would set them free. The one who seemed to have an entirely different agenda and set of concerns from that of most of the Christian leadership, Catholic or otherwise, that I had encountered.
Where I no longer trusted the Church, I came to trust in Him. It wasn't something that could be tied down to one particular moment or event, but was instead a slow and gradual process of evolution. In going through that evolution, I came to realize that I hadn't really trusted in Him before. Before, my faith was primarily in the Church, and only secondarily and by extension in Jesus. I trusted the institution, and the institution told me a set of facts about Jesus of Nazareth that I accepted because of the Church's witness. But, now, there was no longer such an intermediary. I no longer needed, or wanted, such an intermediary, or at least not in the same way.
In certain segments of Christianity, the critical question is whether you have been "born again." I reject the theology that undergirds that construction (at least in its modern, evangelical form), the born again experience is usually described as a singular moment as opposed to a gradual evolution I have experienced, and the content of this change is radically different from what normally comes out of an evangelical conversion. But, as a purely descriptive matter, I think it would be fair to say that, yes, I have been born again.
3. I know that some of my readers do not live in the U.S., and as such probably did not watch the Presidential Conventions. For them, and for anyone that missed it, you need to watch the speech/sermon given by the Rev. William Barber on the last night of the convention. It's a little over ten minutes long.
Prior to watching this speech, I was not familiar with Rev. Barber. I had the convention on TV while I was doing something else, so I wasn't closely paying attention when he first began to speak. But then he said something that made be stop, something that cut through all of the noise like a thunderbolt:
"I am worried about those who say so much about what God says so little, and say so little about what God says so much."
How true is that? How much time is spent on things that are so peripheral, even unmentioned, in the Word of God we all claim to revere? People have scoured the entirety of the Scriptures to find seven passages that even arguably talk about homosexuality; open to a random chapter of the Gospels and you are likely to find seven references to care of the poor and/or marginalized.
Watching Rev. Barber, I kept thinking about the line from the Gospels, speaking of Jesus: "They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." (Mark 1:22; it's also in Matthew 7:28-29). Rev. Barber spoke with authority that night in Philadelphia. Dr. King spoke with authority; Archbishop Romero spoke with authority; Bishop Michael Curry speaks with authority. Pope Francis, every once in a while, speaks with authority, but at other times he indulges in his ignorance and prejudices.
But how about our other Catholic leaders? To take what is the most obvious example, does Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia speak with authority? The man who tried to smear Catholic legislators who voted to assist sex abuse victims? The man who used the positive language of Amoris Laetitia to further denigrate divorced people and LGBT folks? Or, perhaps most telling, the man who wrote this?
So what are we to do this election cycle as Catholic voters? Note that by “Catholic,” I mean people who take their faith seriously; people who actually believe what the Catholic faith holds to be true; people who place it first in their loyalty, thoughts and actions; people who submit their lives to Jesus Christ, to Scripture and to the guidance of the community of belief we know as the Church.
Anyone else who claims the Catholic label is simply fooling himself or herself -- and even more importantly, misleading others.
Right there, in two paragraphs, we have on full display clear evidence that Charles Chaput is everything that Rev. Barber is not, and visa versa. Chaput's first loyalty, as he says right there in black and white, is to the institution of the Catholic Church, not the message of Jesus Christ. Chaput defines membership and good standing in that institution--"taking your faith seriously"--precisely in terms of the things that God says so little about, at the direct expense of those things which God cares so much. So much so that he finds himself completely indifferent to whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton becomes the President of the United States, while pushing books that reinforce the farcical notion that white straight Christians are some sort of persecuted minority under threat from evil liberals (and, by extension, those people who are "fooling themselves," such as, for example, Rev. Barber and his comrade-in-arms Sr. Simone Campbell).
The Catholicism of Charles Chaput (and he is not remotely alone in this) is fundamentally a set of rules about having sex. Sure, he headfakes to caring about other topics--he weirdly and transparently fakes concern about how much money the two candidates for President have, as if this is some sort of radical new development in U.S. politics (a point that Michael Sean Winters makes well, in the midst of a sea of characteristic MSW hand-wringing). But at the end of the day, Chaput and his fellow travelers believe that fidelity is defined in terms of the now-tired litany of "culture war" topics, all of which directly or indirectly involve sex--abortion, birth control, LGBT issues, and, yes, masturbation. Jesus says nothing about any of these topics, and the Bible scarcely anything more, but those facts appear to be at best of marginal concern. Sexuality uber alles is the order of the day.
Charles Chaput may be a good Catholic. But as the mayor of Philadelphia so rightly said, Charles Chaput's behaviors and approach are not Christian, full stop. Chaput is calling on people, whether he knows it or not, to choose between the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ. While he never mentioned him by name, Rev. Barber came to Archbishop Chaput's city and called him to account for the sake of the Gospel. Rev. Barber spoke in Philadelphia with authority. Charles Chaput has proven himself to be a scribe, and nothing more.
4. This context points us to the real problem with Ms. Olsen's piece. If this were simply a question of whether or not you should be masturbating, the issue would be a triviality. Some people would listen to what the Catholic Church has to say on this topic, and most would find it bizarre and ridiculous and safely ignorable. One might be concerned that those who expended mental energy on the question were obsessed in an unhealthy way, but people have all sorts of weird quirks and we all collectively find a way to make it through life together.
No, the problem is that worrying about things like masturbation is used by Christians and Catholics, sometimes unintentionally but all too often very intentionally, as a substitute for caring about the things Jesus tells us we should be concerned about. Care about masturbation and who is doing it crowds out care for the poor and the marginalized. But it is even worse than that, because these distractions are used as a vehicle and a justification for affirmatively ignoring certain slices of the marginalized, and even assisting in their marginalization.
Bill Lindsey, in a beautiful and moving post, calls this the "meanness" of so-called "doctrinally pure" Catholicism. Ultimately, all of this focus on sexual issues is a tool that allows people (again, sometimes unknowingly but just as often with full understanding) to justify a set of anti-Christian behaviors and attitudes that cannot possibly be justified in any other context. But for the obsession with abortion, there is no cohesive argument for a Catholic or a Christian to prefer Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But for the fixation on the purported "sin" of LGBT relationships, there is no reason to hesitate to mourn for and with the victims of the Orlando shooting.
This obsession with sex is not a harmless quirk. It's like a virus, taking control of the healthy cell that is a Christian community and co-opting it for a fundamentally anti-Christian agenda. It is making us, or allowing us to, do things that are contrary to the instructions we have been given by the Son of Man. It makes us mean and hard-hearted. We need to get some antibodies in our system, and we need them quick.
Or, perhaps a better analogy has been offered by Morgan Guyton--the obsession with sex is the knife at the throat of Isaac. And, unlike Abraham, far too many people are willing to go through with the sacrifice, secure in the belief that God is telling them to cut the throats of others. We need to be people who are willing to put down the knife, and even be those who will snatch the knife out of the hands of others who prove themselves willing to follow through on this brutal business.
5. I didn't know, while it was happening, why I lost trust in the Catholic Church regarding sex. I didn't even understand it after it was complete. It has taken a long time to piece together what was going on with me on the inside, and I don't think all of the pieces will ever be 100% clear to me. But I believe that I needed to lose that trust in the Church in order to prepare the way for me to build that trust in Jesus. It was, in many ways, my system building those antibodies against the virus. It was not a loss of faith; indeed it was the opposite, a work of the Spirit in my life.
Thanks be to God.
6. Rev. Barber and his organization are calling for a revival in America. He wants to know "where are the Christians now?" He wants Christians who do not, as Lindsey highlights, look down their noses at a Christianity that focuses on doing good for our brothers and sisters. He wants Christians to stop finding excuses to avoid doing what we are being asked to do when we take on the label of "Christian."
It's time for an altar call. It's time for people to come to Jesus and join the Jesus movement. We need Rev. Barber's clarion call--"I am worried about those who say so much about what God says so little, and say so little about what God says so much."--to be seared in our minds and in our hearts. But it is not just an individual altar call that is needed--Christian churches need to come forward and rededicate themselves to the message of the Gospel.
And, if those institutions won't come along, it is time to shake the dust off your feet and move on.