Of Mothers, Muppets and Sr. Margaret Farley

Maybe because she grew up hearing the Tridentine Mass daily, my mother has always had a passion for order that verged on the fetishistic. She could no more tolerate chaos than God can the presence of sin. If, say, I plucked her copy of Fear of Flying off the coffee table and failed to set it back down at right angles measurable with a compass, she’d gasp, point with a trembling hand, and cry, “MOVE THAT BOOK! IT’S MAKING ME NERVOUS!”

Throughout my childhood, the two of us waged a kind of twilight war: while she struggled to make our lives as regimented and decorous as possible, I fought just as hard to subvert her. Some of my strategems — emerging from the bathroom with an extravagant sigh and a thumbs-up — were crude. But I had my moments of subtlety. Once, when I was about eight, the two of us were walking up 81st Street. As usual, she was taking the long and forceful strides that made her look like part of an honor guard at the tomb of some embalmed dictator. Without breaking the flow of the conversation, I fell into step with her. Before we’d marched 30 paces, she turned and snapped, “STOP THAT! IT’S OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE!”

We were evenly matched, the two of us — perfect foils for one another.

Today in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick makes the case that just such a balance between order and chaos makes the world go round. Her model: Jim Henson’s Muppet Show. “Each and every one of us,” writes Lithwick, “is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.” Chaos Muppets, like Cookie Monster, Grover, Gonzo and presumably Elmo, are “out-of-control, emotional, volatile.” Order Muppets, like Sam the Eagle and Bert, “tend to be neurotic, highly regimented,” but “secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running.” A carefully calibrated ratio of the two types in any closed system is the key to happiness and harmony.

This all sounds very hippy-dippy Daoist, but it reflects one of Christianity’s great paradoxes: that the Holy Roman Catholic Church was founded by Chaos Muppet Jesus to be governed by Order Muppets like CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada. At any rate, that seems to be the point made lately by the Catholic Theological Society of America. This past Thursday, the CTSA voted to endorse a statement clarifying their view of the theologian’s calling. According to the statement, theologians, in order to play a “constructive role in the life of the Church,” should be able to “give voice to the experience and concerns of ordinary believers,” “raise questions about the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions” and “offer alternative theological frameworks as potentially helpful contributions to the authentic development of doctrine.” In other words, scholars should feel free to inject a little chaos into the system, provided they do it responsibly.

The reason for the statement is Sr. Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Thanks to the notification issued last Monday by the CDF, we know that the book suffers from “a defective understanding of the objective nature of natural moral law” and stands “in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality.” Since Farley makes cases in favor of same-sex marriage and masturbation, and one against the indissolubility of marriage, this must be true. But in her National Catholic Reporter column, former Farley protégée Jamie Manson explains what Just Love isn’t, namely, a call for sexual anarchy. Farley’s ethical guidelines may deviate on many key points from the Church’s doctrine, but in their own way, they’re at least as restrictive, and much more complicated.

According to Manson, Farley runs all potential relationships through a seven-point test. Some of the points — Is the relationship harmful? Are both parties giving informed consent? Is the relationship based on “mutual desire, trust and self-disclosure?” — sound commonsensical enough. But others nearly gave my poor brain whiplash. For example: “Does the commitment bring about new life by nourishing other relationships and by providing goodness and beauty to the wider community?” Till reading those words, I’d always bought into the (wo)man’s-home-is-his-castle model, where a moat of convention protects the happy couple from the wider world. Beyond not waking them with gunfire, married people owe their neighbors nothing. HOA rules are draconian enough already.

Farley also posits a “norm of equality.” In Manson’s summary, this requires “that both partners share an equality of power that in no way entails an unequal vulnerability, dependence or limitation of options.” That, right there, cuts to the heart of one of the toughest challenges I’ve faced when it comes to mate selection. My working ideal for equality is something I’ll call the Rocky and Adrian Balboa Formula: “I fill gaps, she fills gaps, together we fill gaps.” Ignobly, in practice, this translates to a tallying-up of the ways in which a potential partner is as undesirable as I am. “Well, I dropped out of grad school, but she’s dizzy (ugly, suffering from unhealed psychic wounds). We may just be able to make a go of this.” It has yet to work, and Farley’s implicit disapproval alone gains her my ear.

It would have been easier for all concerned had Farley proposed this seven-norm test without challenging Church teachings on homosexuality or divorce. Taken in isolation, it could fit just dandily into any marriage prep class. But, since Farley seems to have found her framework more reflective of “the concerns of ordinary believers,” it would be nice if the CDF had condemned Just Love a little less sweepingly. Instead of declaring it unfit “either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue,” could it not have settled for something like “not authentic Catholic teaching, but certainly food for thought and deserving of an A+ for effort”? This sort of cautious recognition of the symbiosis joining Order and Chaos Muppets seems to be the reaction the CTSA would prefer.

As much as anything did, growing up with a fastidious mother primed me for life as a Catholic. Lacking any finicky presence to bang my cranium against, how can I be sure I’m alive? But I doubt I’d have developed nearly so deep an affection for her idea of order if she hadn’t been sport enough to admit, every now and then, that my chaos was just what her life needed. Once, in rebellion against some new stricture or other, I ran into the bathroom and emerged with a towel framing my face like a nun’s guimpe. “THIS,” I screamed, “IS WHAT YOU WANT ME TO BE!” To her great credit, my mother conceded the point, by falling to the ground and making honking sounds that only a very close acquaintance would have known for laughter.

Maybe it’s naive of me to say so, or maybe I’m guilty of comparing apples to oranges, but I wish Mother Church could look so indulgently on her rebellious but creative kids. To bring back the Muppets, I’d love to hear her say, in the voice of the character Dahlia Lithwick calls “the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants,” “Waiter, there’s a gadfly in my soup. Let him swim.”

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