Dispatches from The Great Divide

1.  Two weeks ago, the Episcopal Church voted to give general authorization for same sex weddings to be conducted in Episcopal Churches.  Having followed this story as an outsider, the outcome was not a surprise--all of the commentary I had read suggested it was going to pass.  What was surprising, at least for me, was the margin of victory.  Out of 160 Episcopal bishops, only 26 voted no, with five abstentions; it other words it passed with an 64 percent margin of victory, which is an enormous number.  But it is actually even bigger than that--if you take out the retired bishops, the assisting and auxiliary bishops, and the the bishops from places outside the United States that are part of the Episcopal Church (all of whom are included in the vote), you end up with only eight dicocesan bishops voting no out of 99 dioceses in the 50 States.  That's a land slide in by any measure.

I also found the reactions from the other elements of the Anglican world interesting, if predictable.  The Archbishop of Canterbury immediately released a very strange statement, in which he seemed to take the position that it was inappropriate to consider the issue in the aftermath of, among other things, the Charleston shooting.  It's not like the Episcopal Church decided "hmm, shooting in Charleston, what to do?  I've got it--marriage equality!"  This had been in the hopper for a while.  Plus, it seems to me that if the standard is that we can't do anything in the wake (lasting how long?) of some act of violence, we won't be getting much done, ever.

Conservative Anglicans in Africa also weighed in, but, as an outside observer, it seems like they have more or less given up the ghost.  Sure, they are going to issue communiques talking about how the Episcopal Church has violated "Biblical principles," and they are going to continue to support these splinter groups in the U.S. as a show of strength, but it is pretty clear they are not going to cut ties.  Because, if they were going to do that, it seems to me they would have done it already.  The truth is that the Episcopal Church called their bluff--once it became clear that the more conservative elements in Africa and elsewhere were not going to be able to brow-beat (or, let's be real, use "white guilt" on) the Western churches into doing what they  wanted. they didn't really have any options other than cutting ties completely.  And, of course, doing that would jeopardize access to financial support.  So, it seems they have accepted the reality that they will call them heretics and then take their cash.

I wonder if that pattern might repeat itself on the Catholic side.  The German Catholic Church gives an enormous amount of money to the African Catholic Church through organizations like Misereor.  And, that money is not directly controlled by the German bishops, but instead through a lay board.  That gives the German bishops, if they want it, a certain plausible deniability if they wanted to exert pressure on the African bishops to moderate their conservative positions on family issues.  And it is not like the Germans are afraid to play hard-ball with their money.  Just ask the Greeks.

2.  Let's take a trip to the State of Colorado.  I lived in Colorado for a year with the Dominicans, and I will tell you it is a truly lovely place.  But it is also a bit of a strange place, in the sense that that there are some very progressive elements and regions of the state (Denver and especially Boulder) and some very, very conservative parts (especially around Colorado Springs).  For this reason, politics in Colorado tend to get very ugly, which is out of character for an otherwise laid-back place.

In 2009, an anonymous donor gave $23 million dollars to fund something called the "Colorado Family Planning Initiative."  The idea was that, for five years, the sale and implantation of intra-uterine devices (IUDs) would be subsidized throughout the state.  IUDs are basically the most effective birth control available, because once they are implanted they just work--no remembering to take the pill, no not putting on the condom properly, etc.  The problem with IUDs is that they have a high up-front cost and they require a doctor's visit to implant.  Hence the grant--money for the devices themselves and the doctor's visits.

Well, what happened?  The teen pregnancy rate in Colorado declined by 40 percent in five years.  And the abortion rate went down by 35%.  Colorado went from being a state with a higher than the national average teen pregnancy rate to a below-average rate.  If you take the position that teen pregnancies are undesirable and abortions are bad, then you have no choice but to conclude that this program was a spectacular success.

Faced with the end of the grant, the Colorado Family Planning Initiative went to the legislature to try to get additional funding.  Did they get it?  Nope.  And why?  Because it might encourage teenagers to have sex.

"I want programs that make sense with the moral standards of our communities," said state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. "There are many people that believe that we should not be telling our kids, 'oh go ahead, we’ll just give you the proper means to prevent pregnancy.'" 

And this is why the vast majority of conservative Christian pro-life people are full of shit.  If they really cared about reducing the number of abortions, then they should be celebrating this initiative.  But they aren't because being pro-life is not really about being pro-life; it's about trying to prevent people (especially teenagers and especially women) from having sex.

This is the same thing we see with Camosy in Beyond the Abortion Wars.  I've lost steam with that series, but I will give you the ten-second version of the punch line of the book--he wants to pair a series of policy initiatives for women and families (like parental leave, workplace sex discrimination protections, and aid to dependent children) with severe restrictions on the availability of abortion.  His argument is that these pro-family policies are designed to make it less necessary for women to have abortions.  And I am sure they would be some marginal help, but it is picking around the margins.

If you are really serious about reducing the need for people to have abortions, the most direct and most effective way to do that is to provide comprehensive access to birth control.  The most pro-life President in the last 40 years is President Obama, because he insisted on the birth control mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act.  The Colorado initiative proves that this is true.  And if you can't. or won't, see that, then it is clear what you really care about in this space.  And it isn't abortion.

3.  Speaking of women and sex--it's always hard figuring out what the real points of disagreement between any two parties are.  It is particularly hard if the central issue of disagreement is something that is buried underneath multiple levels of analysis.  It is even harder when that central issue is something that each side assumes to be true, so much so that each side never really thinks much about whether it is in fact true or not.

Here's a good example of such a buried assumption--how much do women like sex and want sex?  To be more specific, let's suppose you stripped away every cultural norm that might cause women to be hesitant to have sex while not providing a similar limitation on men.  Let's suppose you even found some way to bracket the biological fact that a pregnancy disproportionately impacts the woman.  Would you end up with a situation where, on balance, women liked sex and wanted sex as much as men?  Or is there something inherent in men (or, correspondingly, lacking in women) that makes them like sex and want sex more than women do?

One of the buried assumptions for folks on the more conservative end of the spectrum is that the latter is true, while those on the more progressive side assume the former is true.  I will say that my experience, limited though it is, certainly lines up with the former--the more you remove taboos and preconditions and shame and other things that act as obstacles to women enjoying sex, the more they enjoy it and the more they want to have it, and the closer you will get to parity between the sexes.  The majority of men with whom I have discussed this with (a small circle--this isn't casual conversation) agree, along with the (smaller) group of women that I have talked to on this issue.  But there is a minority that insist that women just don't really like sex and that's just the way things are.  And that minority, again in my very limited sample set, consists entirely of guys who either are themselves very conservative or were raised in a conservative environment.

Here's an example of why this matters.  Melinda Selmys, who I mentioned in connection with the First Things gay marriage "summit," has a series of posts about NFP.  One of the most interesting is one on libido and its role in the the manageability of NFP.  Selmys argues that she didn't really understand how difficult all this abstinence stuff was for her husband until she realized that she had almost no libido.

Selmys does not try to suggest that her experience is universal for women.  But it points out how these foundational assumptions affect everything that is built upon them.  If sex is not really that important to you and you don't really care all that much about not having it, the idea of abstaining during fertile periods sounds a whole lot more reasonable.  Plus, it makes the folks that refuse to play along seem a whole lot more unreasonable and easier to demagogue as manifesting out of control lust.

More fundamentally, though, there is the gendered component to all of this.  If you believe that at the end of the day women don't really like sex, then things like NFP makes more sense.  The fundamental dynamic of NFP is that the woman must be a gatekeeper of sexuality in the relationship, dictating when it can occur based on the NFP process.  Many people who criticize NFP see that as creating a problematic dynamic in the relationship.  But, if women don't really like sex, then they are going to be gatekeepers anyway. After all, since men like sex and men don't, women are going to be saying "no" to sex from their husbands all the time anyway; NFP just tells them to say "no" in this particular way.  In other words, NFP doesn't add any new dynamic to the relationship that isn't already there.

Likewise, one sees in the NFP world the argument that artificial birth control is bad because it makes a woman always "accessible" to the man for sex, which is bad for women.  Or that NFP encourages the man to "respect" the woman's body by agreeing not to have sex at certain times.  Again, this notion presupposes that the default position is that women want to say no, and that birth control removes an "excuse" they could make to not have to have sex, while NFP provides an opportunity for the man to "respect" that basic posture.  At no point is there any consideration of the idea that women want to be "accessible" because women want to get it on.

There is also a vicious circle that is formed with this dynamic, and I have seen this in talking to the folks who insist that women don't like sex.  If you put the sole responsibility for determining whether a sexual encounter might lead to a baby on the woman (which NFP does), you make sex a source of neurosis, or at least a potential source of neurosis.  Add on top of that a series of restrictions on what kinds of sexual behavior are allowed--no masturbation (which would allow her to figure out what works for her sexually) and often no oral or manual stimulation (often necessary for a woman to orgasm)--you end up with a sexual encounter that is not super fun for the lady.  At which point the guy throws up his hands and declares that women don't like sex.  If you made sex as neurotic and unpleasurable for guys as these conditions make it for women, I'm sure you would see lots of gatekeeping behavior from the dudes, too.  It's like tying someone's legs together and then declaring that they are an inferior runner to the person with both legs free; that may be true, but you can't really tell from the conditions you've placed on the "slower" runner.

Again, my experience is that if you remove the kind of Catch-22s described above, you end up in a situation where, in the aggregate, women are just as interested in, and just as fired up by, sex as men are.  And, if you do that, it is extremely unlikely that those women are going to go for the sex life that NFP requires.  Birth control is not some nefarious plot to undermine the lives of women; it is a tool to give them what they want, but wouldn't otherwise be able to have.  Once you look at it from that perspective, everything changes.

4.  I have complained in the past about this idea, held by many conservative Catholics, that if people don't agree with the Church on something, it must be because they don't understand or haven't be taught the teaching.  In addition to being not true, it is utterly demeaning and condescending to the people who disagree.

This is clearly a revelation for Max Lindenman:

Anyway, fans of both approaches tend to overlook the fact that people, especially adults, aren’t passive receptacles for doctrine. A certain number of knowledgeable doubters don’t merely believe that the Church is wrong. They believe that they’re right, and that the Church should change to suit them. Majorities of respondents to an earlier Quinnipiac poll stated specifically that the Church should ordain women and lift its ban on artificial contraception. It might not be unfair to say these people come to catechize, not to be catechized.
Maybe I’m late to the party — maybe everyone but me has already made this adjustment — but it would seem the time has come to tweak our mental picture of outliers, or dissenters, or whatever term fits best. They’re not the simple faithful, waiting to be led. They’re not “struggling” with Church teachings; in their view, those teachings aren’t worth the struggle. And if they’re cafeteria Catholics, it’s not because they have small appetites. It’s because they expect the Church to revise the menu.

You might be tempted to dismiss this with a hearty "no shit, Max," but I actually think this is a constructive development.  To the extent that traditionalists actually believed that there was some secret formula that would magically get the vast majority of Catholics to buy into Humanae Vitae, it is for the best that they face facts and stop chasing windmills.  But it is also good for more progressive Catholics to stop hiding the ball and retreating to passive-aggressive forms of behavior.  If you think the Church should ordain women, you should say that.  If you want the Church to bless same-sex relationships, you should say that.  If you think that the Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body is problematic, you should say that.  Because Lindenman is right--I don't "struggle" with the Church's position on birth control; I think the Church is wrong about birth control, and I want the Church to change its position.

This brings me one of the dilemmas I struggle with in this area.  I do want the Catholic Church to change its views on birth control and LGBT issues and women's ordination.  Let's suppose I get my way and it does change.  A large segment of folks, apparently including Lindenman, would then be disaffected by the new reality.  Is that fair to them?  Particularly as there is an alternative place that someone like me can go and have most everything I am looking for right now, in the form of the Episcopal Church.  They don't have an equivalent.

Maybe this is a dumb concern.  And there is also the fact that I believe that these changes I am looking for are not just changes for changes sake--they reflect what I believe to be a better version of Catholicism itself.  That seems to be worth fighting for.  But if you are someone who advocates for changes in the Church, you shouldn't make the same mistake the traditionalists make and think that everyone will magically come around to your point of view.  Some people will not be able to accept the new reality if it were to come to pass; some will be left adrift.  That may be unavoidable.  But we should not be blind to that fact.


Anonymous said…
[B]eing pro-life is not really about being pro-life; it's about trying to prevent people (especially teenagers and especially women) from having sex.

To me, the ultimate proof of this is the resistance to giving girls the HPV vaccine.

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