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.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Well said, Joanne!

  • Margaret Rose Realy

    Well done! Thank you.

  • movie girl

    Wow, that was beautiful. As a mom of teenage boys, I struggle to explain to them the Church's teaching on same sex marriage. We live in the world ( kids are not homeschooled), so thank you for this! I try to explain that it's not anything to do with "hating gays." It's part of Christ's explanation of what love is, of how we are to love, and sacrifice for each other. As you can see, I'm not very articulate.

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    Very articulate indeed. The world is where we live, and where your boys will need to wrestle with this. Thank you for helping them have the tools to do it with consciousness and grace.

  • ofangelsandplants

    I think my computer ate my first comment, so I'll post again:Thank you for this post. My English class is reading the Laramie Project, and I was pleasantly surprised at its presentation of the priest (whose name I'm forgetting right now) and at how nuanced it was. It gave me a lot to think about.Thanks again,YuukoIchihara

  • Melody K

    Well said, Joanne. I also like the title of the post with the burning heart picture. That's cool (or should I say hot?)

  • Corita

    movie girl: I am a movie girl too!I like what you say about love. I always think of it like, "Love asks us to strive for ever-deepened integrity."I just had a conversation with my boys (mainly the oldest, but I have four of them, ten and under) about why they couldn't see a particular movie. I said, "I don't like the way the camera looks at the women. Like they are just collections of pretty body parts, or just meant for the enjoyment of other people, rather than whole human beings. And I don't want you to be forced to look at women like that just because you are watching it."My oldest made reference to that conversation today, applying it to the book he was reading (1984?! I forgot all about that frank sexual talk in there!! And why did he pick THAT up?). It was astonishing, and gave me a little edification. Anyway, my point is that whenever I can, I try to emphasize that, as Catholics we believe that people are given dignity as created beings, and that the value of a person is based on what GOD sees, nothing more or less. And G-d loves us and asks us to love, which means, trying to have integrity of thought, deed, and word. Kids get that even before the whole troublesome sex-thing comes into play.Also, when I taught high school I found that my theology students really responded to the idea that, our human dignity as creatures of G-d with a soul and free will means that we are all sin as well as in our call to live with integrity… and the "world" wants you to forget this, wants you to fall into the trap of thinking that integrity doesn't matter, that some authority can put values on people, and rank them, have power over them, and buy and sell them.This is not only true, but it appeals to the rebel in them …in me, too… And it is the main weapon I have in my soul for the struggle I feel with the Church's teachings. (Joanne, I have been there, done that, in nearly every way; if I haven't I have a close friend or extended family member who has. I feel like a weirdo in Catholic circles sometimes because we don't homeschool and I believe that many Catholic-school educated kids have the worst preparation for living their faith ….but I am happy to have found this blog.)

  • Anonymous

    The Church does have a teaching about sexuality that doesn't portray it as bad, nasty, or evil. The Theology of the Body or TOB is available in programs geared specifically for adults, teens and middle schoolers and it teaches us that our sexuality is a beautiful gift from God to be respected and cherished! I am so thankful I found it while my children are young. It is a great tool to help me teach them how to be in the world, but not of the world and to fight the increasing message in popular society of sexual activity without consequences. AM

  • Anonymous

    Wow, incredible writing, incredible insight.

  • Anonymous

    You are fighting shadows. " The majority of non-Catholics" are not even going to hear about this. It's time that folks over here grew up. If you have convictions, any convictions, there will be those who disagree with you virulently (and sometimes even unfairly), because they have convictions which contradict yours.

  • Anonymous

    Not to stir the pot, but while the author states:"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." It might be wise to check out the link that NPR (not a right wing news source for sure) notes on the story- that there are two points of view on the death of Mathhew Shepard one that it was a Gay Hate crime and the other that it was a drug deal gone bad."Six years after the crime, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 set out to debunk the idea that Shepard was murdered because he was gay. Like The Laramie Project, the one-hour episode included interviews with Shepard's friends, as well as investigators assigned to the case. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas interviewed Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russ Henderson, both serving life sentences."Which point of view is correct? I have to go with what the author in the NPR article says:"She says she has problems with The Laramie Project and with the 20/20 report. Both offer too narrow an explanation for why Shepard was killed, she contends. "If you say 'It's just about hate,' or 'It's just about drugs,' you so simplify the story," Wypijewski says. "It's not either-or.""Emblematic stories need emblematic victims," maintains Wypijewski. "So Matthew needed to be an emblematic victim. And as soon as you have to do that, you start creating a kind of myth." Kaufman knows very well that which story you tell — and which story you choose to believe — depend a lot on your own agenda. "Stories are malleable," he says. "History is malleable. And so we have to be doubly vigilant when we listen to history and we listen to stories."So I would only ask the author to consider that the author of the NPR article has a better grasp of the middle of the road view of the crime than she does. And I would simply wonder why the story of Matthew Sheperd is well known among the general population but the death of Jesse William Dirkhising a minor who was murdered in a similar brutal manner by two gay lovers was not national news. for the long post. I just grow weary of people thinking that Evil exists only in the straight side of the population.

  • Max Lindenman

    Thanks for writing so thoughtfully, Joanne.When the playwrights first visited Laramie for research purposes, they were astonished to find the locals so sympathetic to Shepard, I wish people like Mary Elizabeth Williams, who wrote the piece I sent you, tried harder to see the same kind of mildness in Bishop Amos' actions.It's true — some ranking Churchmen wage culture war without much thought to collateral damage. Though there are many things I admire about Archbishop Chaput, I wasn't happy to see him bar a child with two mothers from parochial school. While serving as bishop of Scranton, Msgr. Martino threatened to sack two diocesan employees for their involvement with a production of the Vagina Monologues. Nevertheless, they're not the whole Church. Not yet, anyway.

  • Anonymous

    First off, I apologize for posting a comment with external links. I didn’t bother to read your comments policy until after the post.Second, to me it isn’t that important that the post be posted. The primary reason for writing itWas simply to point out to the you that sometimes the stories that we are presented are like the author says- malleable to our own viewpoints.If my comment has done that, then it has served its purpose. I will have to stop by again to read your thoughts. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. No need to post this as it is just a comment between fellow travelers.

  • Anonymous

    "The Church" as in official doctrine has no unhealthy dualist disdain for the body. It's "the church" locally where all the issues arise…so if Americans who are Catholic have experienced "church" people exhibiting an unhealthy disdain for the body vs. the spirit, calling sex 'icky' and not something noble… that's hardly an indictment of "Catholicism". Especially when "the church" in the USA has been in more or less doctrinal confusion for the past 40 years on the issues. The Church in other countries of Asia and Africa don't seem to have similar issues about sex, but then they're more forthright about marriage and moral norms. As for the local dustups with the gay lobby…Was Mat Shepherd killed solely because he was gay or was he killed for another reason? In other words, while it's entirely understandable for any group to seek martyrs for their cause and use these marytrs' "witness" (to be redundant), as a means to advance the righteousness of their cause (because, see, if the innocent suffer at the hands of evident evil-doers, it must mean all those who are like Mat are likewise innocent and any opposition to them must be morally equivalent to the evil-doers who killed Mat". So I get it.But has it actually been established that his murderers were primarily anti-gay bigots…or generic bad guys seeking drugs and money who would have killed a straight kid just as dead? Because if the latter…doesn't it do an injustice to claim Mat as a martyr for the cause? And from this conclude that any opposition to the Cause is likely due to irrational homicidal hostility?And can it always be assumed that any thing a person does (i.e. suicide) is always the result of a sane reaction to outrageously unjust behavior vs. an insane breakdown not in congruity with a supposed outside input? After all, people have been bullied or ostracized by "society" for millennia without vast numbers of them killing themselves. Suicide was relatively rare as recently as the early 1960s even among populations that didn't enjoy society's favor (blacks and other minorities like Catholics and Jews). If then those who have same sex attraction are more prone to suicide than the general population and other minority groups who experience similar social pariah status… might this not be something we ought to explore rather than ignore and continue to insist is "not a problem" because the assumption is: perfectly healthy – it's society's fault"?I ask because at least with the LGBT community, it's always assumed that the suicide was caused by societal or specific homophobic 'bullying' and nothing else… while the general publics' numbers of suicides are not automatically assumed to be similarly caused by outside malign forces.It's also assumed that homicides that result in dead people who happen to be LGBT must likewise have come solely from bias or bigotry and no other vector. But when white people are killed in the general population it's not assumed to be due one set of motives. Indeed even when mobs of blacks have attacked whites while shouting racial taunts it's not been assumed to be due racism vs. poverty or local conditions.

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    No problem. It wasn't because of the links that you didn't see your comment right away; I've got no problem with links that add info, but I'm not keen on people linking to their own blogs or pages from here. I'm just sometimes slow to review comments that appear when I'm sleeping. Apologies!

  • Anonymous

    When it comes to TOB, please always refer to the original text and not to those put forth by so-called experts on the subject like TOBET and Matthew West. I have found their writings and interpretations of TOB on the subject of sexuality to border on heresy in many places. Plus sexuality is only part of the TOB teachings and these so-called experts make it seem like the only concern it has is on sexuality. With very little effort you can find other, much more well-balanced teachings on TOB.

  • J. R. Lewis

    This was a thought-provoking and moving piece; I was impressed by both the clarity of the rhetoric and touched by the transparency of your humanity. It is the craftsmanship of the writing, however, that truly stands out. It is elegantly and beautifully written and somehow both artful and precise. (J.R. Lewis, Bakersfield CA)p.s. This should have been the letter that went home to parents with BFL curriculum. At the very least, it would provided the right context for the series.

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    J.R.! A voice from the Long Ago. I hope you are well and happy and feisty as ever. Thank you for your kind words.

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