The Heartburn of Sex

When Max Lindenman sent me a link to this story last night, I got heartburn. I knew I was going to have to post on it, and that whatever I said would be taken as heresy by people I care about. I gave it a sleepless night, hoping somebody else would beat me to it, but although there are many posts and comments out there this morning–a few of them even adding light, not more heat–my heart still burns. So here goes.

I’ve said before that the Church’s hard teaching on sexuality (by which I mean the whole range of human sexuality, not the marked sense of the term that makes people hear only homosexuality) is the thorn in the flesh of my reversion. Put simply–and the teaching is very, very simple, though putting it into practice is not–Catholic teaching upholds lifelong marriage between a man and a woman, fully open to the gift of children, as normative (in the sense that it is both the ideal and the rule, not in the sense that other states of life are abnormal). Because the Church teaches that the only legitimate use of physical sexual expression occurs within such marriage, those in all other states of life–single people, whatever their sexual orientation; ordained clergy; vowed religious; the widowed, the divorced–are bound to abstain from physical sexual expression, alone or with others. It’s not the legal privileges of domestic partnership or gay marriage that the Church opposes, but the inherent approval of the extra-heterosexual-marriage relationships to which they are granted. In every age, not just our highly sexualized era, that message is as countercultural as you can get, and these days it can sound (I’m with you here, which is a big part of my struggle) downright crazy.

What it isn’t is discrimination. The expectation of sexual abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage applies to everyone, gay or straight, male or female, whatever your age, race, ethnicity, or political preference. And as with the Church’s prohibitions of contraception and abortion, which flow from the same teaching, no Catholic’s legal rights are being violated. That the Church forbids to its members practices that are legal in the wider society is a moot point. No matter how the Constitution is now or will be interpreted in the future, the Church does not consider having sex a basic human right. And no matter how you or I or the world may argue it, Kat Fernandez is absolutely right when she notes that you don’t die from not having sex. Finally, the argument that Everybody Does It is as irrational in this arena as it was when your mother said If everybody jumped off a cliff, would that make it right for me to let you jump off a cliff?

Not that sex is jumping off a cliff, though God knows it can be that dangerous and that exhilarating. And not that sex is bad, nasty, evil. That’s my biggest beef with us as Church, that we can’t seem to find a way to present our teaching positively, mostly because, I suspect, a lot of our teachers and leaders harbor a secret or not-so-secret belief that sex is bad, nasty, and evil, and some sex is even badder, nastier, and more evil than that.

Long prelude and wandering tangents aside, the decision by Bishop Amos of Davenport not to allow a representative of the Eychaner Foundation to present Keaton Fuller with its Matthew Shepard Scholarship at the Prince of Peace graduation ceremonies is correct, within the bishop’s rights, and completely nondiscriminatory. The Eychaner Foundation advocates for gay rights, among which are engaging in homosexual relationships and gay marriage. This advocacy runs counter to Catholic teaching, so for a Catholic school to provide the Eychaner Foundation with a bully pulpit (and I use that phrase deliberately) at Prince of Peace’s graduation ceremonies would be inappropriate. Bishop Amos rightly congratulates Mr Fuller on his accomplishments and has no problem with the scholarship being announced by a school official–as, by the way, every scholarship I’ve ever seen or read about being awarded is handled, as I am certain all other scholarships being awarded to members of Mr Fuller’s graduating class will be handled. That is not discrimination or, as Salon puts it, “an anti-gay snub.”

Here are some of the facts going unnoticed in the heat and smoke:

  • Mr Fuller is not being persecuted. He clearly states that he has received nothing but support and acceptance from his Catholic school classmates, teachers, and school administrators. He brought his boyfriend to prom. This is not tepid Catholic “tolerance,” much less anti-gay bias or bullying. For him to claim identification as a victim with Matthew Shepard, whose murder was the result of anti-gay hate (fueled by alcohol and the general stupidness of drunken young men) is offensive.
  • The chief purpose of the Matthew Shepard Scholarships is to provide the Eychaner Foundation a platform for LGBT advocacy. The Foundation limits its anti-bullying, anti-discrimination efforts to this segment of the population. That is why acceptance of the award is contingent on the Foundation’s having public representation–complete with media presence–at the recipient’s senior awards program or graduation ceremony, and conditional on the recipient’s being out and proud and willing to be a public spokesperson for the Foundation’s goals. It’s perfectly within the Foundation’s rights to set these conditions, but–in as far as the goals advocated do not include sexual abstinence for LGBT persons–they are in conflict with Catholic teaching. Eychaner has attempted to award its scholarships to Catholic school students in three other cases, and has been prevented from doing so because in each case the school officials saw through the agenda and refused to sign the agreement to allow an Eychaner representative to speak. Prince of Peace officials, in their genuine desire to live their commitment to inclusion, either overlooked this or deliberately chose to engage it. In either case, they left themselves open to being used politically, in violation of both Catholic teaching and diocesan authority. If Mr Fuller has a legitimate complaint here, it is with the way Prince of Peace officials mishandled this from the start.
  • Mr Fuller will not be cheated out of anything, unless the Eychaner Foundation rescinds its offer and thereby admits that it was simply using him as a poster student and his graduation as a platform. If they go ahead with the award, he and his family will be feted at the Foundation’s highly publicized scholarship awards banquet. His efforts to work for acceptance of LGBT students have already gained national attention, and will be supported by a $40,000 college award. If they withdraw the award, he will have learned a valuable lesson about what it means to be caught in the middle of a clash of values.
  • Bullying is evil, and has tragic consequences in many cases. Mr Fuller is right to oppose it, in every form. But it is not bullying, or discrimination, or homophobia for a Catholic school to uphold Catholic teachings. Neither would it be bullying or discrimination for a Catholic school to deny a platform, no matter how much scholarship money accompanied it, to Planned Parenthood or the Women’s Ordination Conference or The Hemlock Society or any other organization whose public policies conflict with Church teaching.

Those are the facts, but what gives me heartburn is that nobody is going to care. The majority of the country’s non-Catholics–and many of its Catholics, too–will cry hypocrisy and discrimination and medievalism on the part of the Church, and will throw in the clergy sex scandals for bad measure. All too many Catholics will cry heresy and abomination at Prince of Peace for its embrace of Mr Fuller, and reaction to this story will have people like Mark Shea foaming at the mouth over the Gay Brownshirts again. There is no way for this not to play into somebody’s–everybody’s–manipulative hands.

And that’s tragic. Because it once again obscures any chance we might have as a society to talk to one another, beyond slogans and demonstrations and combox cursing, about what it means to be fully human and to love responsibly and generously, to deliver our young people from the bullying of social attitudes, the tyranny of false expectations that drive them to commit murder (of those they hate or fear, of unborn children, of themselves, of their spirits).

One of the reasons Max sent me the link to this story is that he knows I spent last week participating in a citywide series of public readings of The Laramie Project, the play developed by the Tectonic Theater Project that documents the feelings and reactions of those living in Laramie, Wyoming during the months following Matthew Shepard’s murder. The play is often perceived as a vehicle for LGBT rights, and the series of readings I participated in (as a volunteer with a Shakespeare theater company) was sponsored by the Gay-Straight Alliance at the local community college. I was familiar with the story of the play’s development, but had never read it or seen it performed. I was extremely moved to find that it offers a much more nuanced and much less polemic view of American attitudes toward sexuality in general and to the murder of Matthew Shepard in particular than I had expected. In our post-play discussion, there was regret that the reading had not drawn wider representation–not because the mostly LGBT-friendly audience wanted a chance to pick a fight, but because they genuinely wanted to listen. Tolerance is not tolerance when it’s only preached to the choir. But what struck me most was that one of the sanest, wisest, most compassionate and principled voices in the play belongs to Laramie’s Catholic priest. We do have a message to speak, a role to play in guaranteeing human rights, but will anyone be listening?

Another reason Max sent me the link is that he knows not only that the Church’s hard teaching on sexuality is the thorn in the side of my reversion, but why that is. In my long life, both while I was in the Church the first time and while I was away, I have been involved in relationships that violated Church teaching in pretty much every way possible. There was sin involved, aplenty, but there was also real love and real blessing. So this is personal for me, not just in the sense that “some of my best friends are” gay, or have been involved in adulterous affairs, or are divorced and remarried, or are single and living together, or whatever–though they are–but because I have been there and done most of that and while I have repented formally I don’t, God help me, regret all the parts the Church tells me I must. That I am chaste now, I know, is no credit to my virtue but more a consequence of age and lack of near, or even distant, occasion of sin.

I struggle with the Church’s hard teaching about sexuality because it runs counter, not to society or popular sentiment, but to my own brain. Which means, if I am serious about my faith, I need to think more and deeper and harder, not to stop thinking and be an unquestioning automaton. I struggle because it runs counter, sometimes, to who I understand God to be. Which means I need to pray more, to seek more understanding, to grow closer to God. And I struggle because it runs counter to my heart, which is why my heart burns. And why I need not to put that fire out, but to let it burn hotter and wider, until it burns away anything that is not love, in deed and in truth.

I ask you to think and pray and burn with me if you can. If not, I understand.

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