Monday, December 12, 2011

Catholic Moms v. Erica Jong

Back in July, I wrote a reflection on an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Fear of Flying author Erica Jong, titled “Is Sex Passé?” The point of my post was that the Sexual Revolution, of which Jong was a prominent exponent, had done women more harm than good by telling them that they had to have multiple partners, eschew monogamy and put strict limits on childbearing (if not forgo it altogether).

In the article, Jong thought about why so many of the women who contributed to her anthology, Sugar in My Bowl, were “obsessed with motherhood and monogamy”, mostly choosing not to search for the “zipless f***” Jong had celebrated in her first novel.[*] Three-quarters of the way through, what could have been for her a line of thought leading to a massive paradigm shift runs instead into the unyielding wall of ideology:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

One OTA reader snapped, “Good Lord, how arrogant. If she’d venture out of the ivory tower and ask a real person (paging Simcha Fisher!) maybe it wouldn’t be ‘lingering unanswered.’ How does she think all these babies get made, anyway?”

Since I was suffering from a mental tunnel vision when I wrote the piece — and possibly because I’ve never been married — I must admit this aspect didn’t hit me until I read the comment just today (12/11/11). Now that I have read it, it makes sense, and it’s of a piece with the attitude many “progressives” seem to have that “sex is dirty only if it’s done right”.

Let Young Catholics For Choice explain what I mean:

Young Catholics are having sex. We are using contraception and condoms. We are having abortions. We are bisexual, gay, lesbian, straight and transgender. And none of this makes us any less Catholic than conservative Catholics who speak out against us.
... It comes down to Catholic teaching on conscience [WARNING: Out-of-context fallacy ahead!]. Basically, every individual has the right and responsibility to follow his or her own conscience—and respect others’ right to do the same. With conscience and respect, good Catholic sex is not only possible, it’s already happening [Bold font mine].

You see what I mean? Good sex isn’t possible if you adhere to the Church’s teachings. A traditional marriage that’s open to childbearing is closed to sexual satisfaction; procreation precludes passion. Sex is good only when it’s selfish and self-centered.

How arrogant, indeed.

The Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual morality are meant to protect not only the inherent dignity of people, to keep them from using themselves and each other as masturbation tools, but also to protect the inherent goodness and dignity of the act of procreation. Sex is good, but it’s not an end in itself, nor is it meant to be sought as an end in itself. As Jong’s authors have discovered, when taken out of the context of monogamy, marriage and physical parenthood, casual sex fails of its promise: either it becomes an compulsive-obsessive behavior disorder destructive to the person’s life and psyche, or it loses its meaning and goodness, becoming in Andy Warhol’s words “the biggest nothing of all time”.

But here we’re more concerned with the mishegoss that sex within the context of Catholic teaching is less than satisfactory. Our Reader referenced Simcha Fisher, who blogs on the National Catholic Register website and I Have to Sit Down, and who also writes for Faith and Family; she is, or ought to be, the Erma Bombeck of Generation X. But Our Reader referenced her because she just gave birth to her ninth child.

Now, it would be not merely insensitive but stupid to think Simcha’s sex life is less than satisfactory simply because she’s cranking out kids in blind adherence to the Church’s magisterium. Rather, like other Catholic mothers of many children, she and her husband have generously chosen not to ration out their love, regardless of financial and social pressure. Her husband has willingly adopted her nickname for him, “The Jerk”, as his online avatar, and she writes of him and their children with an affectionate, humorous warmth and zest that merits her name, Simcha.[†]

Although St. Paul was celibate, he knew that sexual desire was a powerful force that could drive people into sin. He advised the Corinthians that, since celibacy was not everyone’s gift (Mt 19:11-12), men and women should marry and not refuse each other their conjugal rights except for time devoted to prayer (1 Cor 7:1-7). While it’s still the individual’s responsibility to be faithful, St. Paul’s teaching coincides with the common-sense observation that, “If they’re not getting it at home, they’re gonna get it somewhere else.”

Naturally, your mileage may vary. But if you bum around the Catholic blogosphere long enough, you pick up anecdotal evidence of people who found, once they adopted Catholic teachings on sex (particularly NFP and Bl. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body), that their sex lives changed for the better precisely because they were more aware of their spouses’ feelings and needs.

It’s not just that Catholic mothers, contra Jong, still find passion for their husbands. Rather, these couples participate not only in God’s creation but in the great Passion that launched creation. Sex, put firmly in its place, becomes sacramental because it reveals God’s mysterious Presence in our lives.

After that, who needs a “zipless f***”?

[*] Jong’s term for “a sexual encounter for its own sake, without emotional involvement or commitment or any ulterior motive, between two previously unacquainted persons” (
[†] Simcha’s parents are Hebrew Catholics; simcha is “joy” in Hebrew. Her mother, Marilyn Prever, has written a reflection on Jewish-Catholic relations that shows where Simcha got her sense of humor.