Thursday, October 28, 2010

Castitatis Splendor

Lately I have been running into persons who seem very surprised that a Catholic who happens to be homosexually attracted would choose to retain his Christianity and actually attempt to practice chastity. (I do not have a stellar record, but that is beside the point.) I am baffled by this bafflement. From non-Christians it is less surprising, but even a number of my Christian friends have evinced it, or assumed that I was a practicing homosexual until corrected -- not out of any intention to insult me, but because it had apparently not occurred to them that someone would just abstain from sex; while it had not occurred to me that this needed explanation.

Make no mistake. Nobody, gay or straight, has ever found chastity easy. (Okay, perhaps Christ Jesus and the Virgin Mary did -- but, on the other hand, we know from Hebrews that He learned obedience from what He suffered, and I imagine the same would apply to the Mother of God as to God Incarnate.) It is, thankfully, straightforward: few people would even pretend that the obligations of chastity are hard to comprehend. They're just hard to actually practice. But I rather suspect that this surprise has less to do with chastity proper than it does with surrendering to God, and, secondarily, to the Church that purveys His teaching.

Curiously enough, one of the most neglected facts in the Church is the Sexual Revolution of the '60s. I don't mean that it has been neglected from a theoretic standpoint; reams have been written on it. And I don't mean that it's been neglected in the same way that certain, ahem, progressive persons within the Catholic Church might aver the same -- meaning that the Church has failed to adjust herself and her doctrines to a whopping ten percent of the world (North America and western Europe) that has abruptly discovered the truth that chastity is difficult. That it is not even, in itself, as entertaining as sex. But I digress.

Nor do I mean that the theologically conservative reaction, especially in the political sphere, has been absent. There is no shortage of pro-life advocacy, literature explaining the Church's teaching on contraception and Natural Family Planning, and books and retreats and seminars in plenty on sacramental marriage, the vocation to celibacy, homosexuality and chastity, and so forth, until one begins to see C. S. Lewis' point: "Poor Aphrodite! they have sandpapered most of the Homeric laughter off her face."

What I am talking about is our mindset and our heart attitude. In giving talks and writing books (or blogs) and preaching homilies, and what have you, about chastity, there is one key element missing. Many people discuss symptoms: adultery, fornication, abortion. Some people discuss deeper symptoms: divorce, immodesty, contraception. But very few people discuss the lie which our culture's view of sex is based on, and which we have mostly bought.

The thing that makes chastity so hard for us -- it is always hard, in every age, because it is resisting a strong impulse, but the thing that makes it so particularly hard for our generation -- is that we, like our Babylonian rulers, believe in the Divine Right to Orgasm.

I wish I could give it a more dignified name. It is admittedly not a name that one is likely to come across at present, among those for it or against it (but give it a few years). But that is what it amounts to. We believe, and rightly, that God wishes us all to be happy; we also believe, less rightly, that happiness without orgasms doesn't exist or doesn't count. I remember once having a conversation with a lovely young woman, a Classics graduate student, who was fascinated and bewildered by my attempt to be a chaste Catholic even though I acknowledged quite frankly that I was gay: she asked me, not at all antagonistically, "How can you be part of a Church that restricts your ability to love?" I was lost for a second; then I realized that she was talking about sex.

For of course, real Christian teaching on the subject of sex is not a restriction to love at all. It does involve certain assumptions about what sex is, and does, and means -- spiritual assumptions -- and these assumptions are either true or false. Now, if they are true, then chastity (which, remember, is not the same thing as virginity; a married couple that has sex every night can be chaste) is not a restriction of love, but the logical result of plugging "Love your neighbor as yourself" into the data about sex and sexuality that Catholic doctrine constitutes. Conversely, if those doctrines are false, then what the World says about sex -- it's a great time, don't get pregnant, don't get a disease, leave kids and animals alone, otherwise you're good -- holds. But the question about what is true must be answered first. That might sound dry and demanding, but it is really no different from answering the question "Is this glass full of poison?" before offering it to a thirsty man. If the thirsty man claims not to care because, whatever it is, it tastes good, we just might continue to care.

The reason we have such a hard time keeping that in mind is that we have soaked in the values of the culture around us. The equivocation between sex and love evinced by my friend is not insignificant. Sex, broadly speaking, makes us feel loved and worthwhile. It was designed to; that's why the hormones it releases into our bloodstream do what they do, relieving stress and promoting emotional bonding and the like. A husband and wife are supposed to feel that way about each other, most of all when their spiritual oneness is sacramentally imaged forth through sexual oneness. But we have torn the pleasure (emotional, spiritual, and physical) from its sacramental context -- sacrificing most of the pleasure it has in the process -- and, maintaining its association with love, have now confused it with love. By mixing in the truth that everyone needs love and that it should be available to all, we have wrongly predicated the same thing about sex.

That, I think, is why so many Catholics have a tough time accepting not only clerical celibacy but the Church's teaching about homosexuality. I certainly don't have an easy time with it; I have absorbed the lie just like anyone else, the lie that I need a sexual relationship to be happy, and that since I don't or can't have one with a woman, my desire to have one with a man needs to be given the Nihil Obstat.

It must be stated plainly, however, that it is the Catholic view which gives profound significance to sex. Whenever something has and objective meaning, you can tell because the one who designed keeps saying, "No, not like that," and telling you how to use the thing properly. As if he knew! The view that sees nothing wrong with using precious, irreplaceable human beings for pleasure -- of whatever variety -- literally by the dozen, and then sending them on their merry, is as callous and contemptuous toward sex as it is toward humanity.

The late and Venerable John Paul II published an encyclical letter entitled Veritatis Splendor, or "The Splendor of the Truth," dealing with authority, the conscience, and relativism. I have not read it (though it inspired the title of this post), but I rather suspect I have found a summary of the relevant part of it. Dr. Peter Kreeft recently wrote a book, Between Allah and Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims, in which his main contention is that we western Christians have lost our spiritual toughness, and that Moslems set us an excellent example. Here is a selection from the chapter "On Sexual and Moral Ambiguity."

'"You have inherited the same commandments as we have, commandments that are very easy to understand and very hard to practice. And what do you do to them? You make them hard to understand and easy to practice. So you talk about 'moral ambiguity' so that you can feel good about yourself. And what is your motive for doing that? Your Bible gives you a clear answer to that question, and it tells you the same thing as the Qur'an tells you: that you are trying to escape God's demand to surrender. That's why you have invented your 'moral ambiguity.' It's a fog. You run into it to escape the hard, clear light that makes you uncomfortable. It's your wiggle room. You want to negotiate with God instead of making an unconditional surrender.
'... I see rationalization there in ordinary people. Don't you? What kind of psychologist are you if you don't see that? Don't you see how it works? You transfer the real inner struggle, the struggle between good and evil in the will, the struggle between good will and bad will, the inner struggle that we call jihad -- you transfer that struggle to the mind, where you call it moral ambiguity. That way, you don't have to admit that you have a bad will. You don't have to admit that you're a sinner."
'"You know, Jack, you're sounding more and more like one of those fundamentalist preachers."
'"But I don't want your money or your approval, Libby."
'"Well, it's clear you don't want my approval. What do you want from me?"
'"Your honesty."'

1 comment:

  1. I realize that this is by now a very old post, and to most content management systems (like the one I use myself), this comment would either not be allowed or immediately marked as spam, but I'm going to comment anyway. I merely wanted to commend you for acknowledging that chastity, although it is difficult, is still a sensible option. I get so upset by people who insist that choosing chastity must be a sign of repression or some other mental disorder.