Wednesday, August 13, 2008

“…and here’s to you, Bishop Robinson…”

(In case you think I’m terribly clever – I did, until I looked – google that title. If you do, note that my reference here is not to Bishop Gene Robinson, a gay Episcopal bishop, much more in the news.)

In late May, retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson toured the U.S., discussing his book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. I had the privilege of offering a short response to his presentation when he came to Fairfield University.

He observed, as have others, that the impact of Humanae vitae (the 1968 encyclical on the issue of artificial contraception) was much greater in the area of Church authority than in the area of sexual morality. In short, the combination of the Church’s unequivocal rejection of artificial contraception, and the "non-reception" of that rejection by the laity, led to a situation in which the general authority of the Church, its ability to speak persuasively to Catholics, was seriously undermined. Scoffing in one area led to scoffing in general.

Indeed, most Catholics today do not consider the use of artificial contraception to be a matter of conscience at all. I check this with my students, who, no matter what their position may be on the question of legalizing abortion, generally agree that abortion is a serious moral issue. In contrast, these same student associate “condom” with “responsible sex.” While many are vaguely aware of the Church's position, it is widely dismissed as completely unreasonable. (Yet, when I suggest that the Church should, therefore, just change its position on artificial contraception, these same students demur -- they seem to think it would make the Church look "weak." Hmmmm.)

The thing to notice, as Bishop Robinson observes, is that the framework for all this sex talk is in fact a struggle about authority and obedience. I agree. But it's the collateral damage that bothers me, that with all the noise of shouting doctrine and slamming bedroom doors, most Catholics today have never received a nuanced and pastoral presentation of the connection between sexual love and children – rather, both are treated as sort of "parallel goods” of marriage. Thus, because of the authority baggage associated with a widely dismissed teaching, the centrality of new life for the meaning of sexual intercourse is lost. Children are seen as a mere byproduct of sex, to be permitted or not, as "responsibility" dictates.

To be fair, many parents I know would agree, in private, that of course they see their children as a gift of their sexual expression. But they can’t connect the two in an integral way, nor do they have the language to say this to one another, even between spouses. Most importantly, they have no language, and no context, to convey this truth to their own children.

This is a loss. Yes?

I acknowledge (now that I’m fifty!) that there are valid and important sexual expressions that are not open to the gift of life. But this important fact of human experience – that many sexual acts are, at various times, not fruitful -- this should not silence the fundamental connection between sexual expression and new life.

Bishop Robinson’s point is a very important one: that in the Catholic Church there are many truths about power buried in, or thinly disguised by, discussions about sex and sexuality and gender.

But that does not negate the fact there are also other truths that need to be retrieved from this muddle ... and these are truths about sex and sexuality and gender.

* * * * * * *

Many thanks for all the comments and email on last week’s post. An interesting development on the situation is the public appearance of a male priest at the ordination of yet another womanpriest, in Kentucky on August 9th.

This was reported by the National Catholic Reporter, but I see no reports in the "regular" press, I’m not sure why. I also notice that serious commentary on the womenpriest movement does not seem to happen in mainstream Catholic periodicals like America and Commonweal. Jesuit-run America may simply find it too problematic to handle, recall the Reese affair. Commonweal has given considerable attention to the question of ordaining women recently, in a back-and-forth by Robert Egan, SJ (pro) and Sara Butler, MSBT (con), but without reference to this movement. My guess – and this is simply my conjecture – is that someone like Egan would say that there are so many problems with the womenpriest movement that even an acknowledgement of this movement’s existence would cause his argument to be dismissed outright.

He’d be right. But this does give me a little twinge.