Saturday, April 16, 2016

Timothy Egan and the Reverent Subject of Sex

Timothy Egan. (Photo: Barry Wong.)
The last few days, I’ve been focused on the hyperventilating by Catholic radical traditionalists over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ overlong summation of the work of the last two Synods on the Family. The reactions from the left were, for the most part, entirely predictable — some despaired because it didn’t go as far as they thought it should, while others rejoiced because they thought it went farther than it did. Of the latter category, we have Timothy Egan of the New York Times, who penned what Phil Lawler has called “surely ... the dumbest column published on the topic.”

“Sex was Dirty”

Egan, Lawler states, “rolls out the stale complaints of the 1970s about the Bad Old Church, opening and closing his column with citations from the late comedian George Carlin. The reader will look in vain for references to any other authority. Nor is there evidence that Egan has paid attention to Catholic writers who have reflected on the Church’s approach to human sexuality more recently, and just maybe more profoundly, than Carlin—such as, just for example, St. John Paul II.”

Actually, Egan does worse than go without authoritative references: he cites the Baltimore Catechism in such a way that it appears to support the tropes.

Sex was dirty. Sex was shameful. Sex was unnatural. Thinking about it was wrong. Premeditation itself was a sin, and so was flirting. Sex had one purpose: procreation, the joyless act of breeding. “The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks and actions,” was admonition No. 256 in the Baltimore Catechism, the standard text used to teach the faith from 1885 to the late 1960s.
No. 256 [sic; the actual answer number is 257] also warned about the dangers of “sinful curiosity, bad companions, drinking, immodest dress and indecent books, plays and motion pictures.” If that sounds now like the dynamics of a good dinner party, you can also see this pope joining the fun at the table.

In my post on Amoris Laetitia, I spoke of the distinction the Church makes between the doctoral (“What do we teach?”) and the pastoral (“How do we integrate this teaching into parish life?”). The same kind of distinction ought to be observed between doctrine and indoctrination: religious formation, also known as catechesis. What the Catholic Church teaches is one thing; what Tim Egan and George Carlin “learned”, however, is another thing entirely, and may not be entirely their fault for not paying attention in class.

Sex and Christian Marriage

That sex is “dirty”, “shameful”, or “unnatural” is not now, and never has been, a Catholic doctrine, far less a dogma. It isn’t even a reasonable intuition from Catholic doctrine. If anything, it verges on Gnosticism, which taught that sex was evil because it perpetuated corporeal life. The Church has taught that procreation is the primary end of sex (current teaching speaks of a unitive aspect as well as a procreative aspect);[1] however, she has never said it was the only end of sex, nor that procreative sex was to be “joyless”.

From the very beginning, the Church has encouraged husbands and wives to have sex with one another. In fact, a sacramental marriage could not (and cannot) exist without consummation in the conjugal act; canon law prohibits marriage between a woman and a man who suffers from “antecedent and perpetual” impotence, and holds indissolvable marriages which have been ratified and consummated (ratum et consummatum).[2] Saint Paul told the Corinthians that neither husband nor wife should refuse each other their conjugal rights, a command which Pope Pius XI said expressed “not only a law of justice but of charity.”[3]

For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.[4]

So far as sin attaches to sex, it has always been in sex’s misuse or abuse, particularly in those acts which deliberately frustrate the procreative drive, reduce sex to a mere pastime, or gives to others what rightly belongs to the spouse alone: fornication, adultery, masturbation, sodomy, contraception, prostitution, and so forth. Saint Augustine of Hippo, citing the case of Onan, said, “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.”[5] Nevertheless, the Church has merely required marriages to be open to offspring; she has not required spouses to limit their intentions to conception, nor to avoid enjoying their couplings.

(Why sex that’s open to conception must be somehow less enjoyable than sex for any other reason is something no self-anointed expert has ever bothered to explain, let alone prove.)

“A Reverint Subject”

Did individual catechists — lay teachers, religious, priests — always teach this? I fear not. The Baltimore Catechism was taught largely by rote; as students got older, they asked questions for which the teacher didn’t always have an adequate answer. I have no doubt that, here and there, some priests and religious put such a fire-and-brimstone emphasis on sexual sins that young people grew up thinking sex “dirty” as such.

With all due respect to Egan’s anecdotal evidence, however, there’s no hard evidence to suggest that this was as common as the tropes would have us believe. More common, I think, was the attitude expressed by the late Bill Mauldin’s “Willie”: “Take off yer hat when ya mention sex here. It’s a reverint subject.”

A reverent subject. Sex, Man’s participation in God’s ongoing act of creation, was something to be respected, to be treated without coarseness or callousness but rather with a consciousness of its sacramentality. Therefore, every act or appearance which encouraged its ill-treatment was to be avoided. Sex itself wasn’t contemptible; what was contemptible was the manner in which libertine pseudo-sophisticates made (and still make) sport of it.

But Amoris Laetitia means “The Joy of Love”, not “The Joy of Sex”. I don’t know how Egan abstracts from Amoris the idea that Pope Francis would enjoy a dinner party full of salacious conversation, extramarital flirting, lascivious clothes, and all the other chazzerai that Egan apparently thinks is necessary for “fun”. Francis himself wrote, “Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community.”[6] I can see Francis trying to evangelize to such a gathering, but not “joining in the fun.”

“Bad Company Ruins Good Morals”

Egan, I must conclude with a sigh, didn’t really read Amoris Laetitia. At the risk of boring my readers with self-repetition:

The main point Pope Francis strives to make … is that Church members can’t and shouldn’t content themselves with merely saying to those in “irregular situations”, “You can’t join us at the table because you’re not in a state of grace.” Rather, the Church must actively reach out to these people and work to bring them into a state of grace so they can join us at the table … no matter how long that takes, no matter whether the effort will be successful or not.

The Catholic Church is just as concerned about sin today as she has been since Jesus’ earthly ministry. She still exhorts us to purity and modesty, to the purification of our social climate.[7] Variations of the Act of Contrition and post-Confession prayers still include the promise to avoid “the near occasion of sin” or words to that effect;[8] as St. Paul said (possibly quoting a current proverb), “Bad company ruins good morals.”[9] As Cdl. Raymond L. Burke and others have repeatedly pointed out, Amoris Laetitia didn’t change any doctrine or dogma, not even those concerned with sexual sins.

Sex isn’t dirty. It’s the human heart that needs washing.[10]

[2] Code of Canon Law, Canons 1084.1; 1141.
[3] 1 Corinthians 7:3; Casti Connubii 25.
[4] Casti Connubii 59.
[5] On Adulterous Marriages 2:12; cf. Genesis 38:8-10.
[8] E.g., “Act of Contrition” in Catholic Online: