Bedrooms and Bootstraps

Last weekend I went to a conference put on by the Archdiocese of Washington, “Speaking of Love: Answering Tough Questions About Human Sexuality.” It was geared toward youth ministers, teachers, and other people who work with teens and young adults, so it was a window into what the AD-Dubs thinks young people need to hear about sex, marriage and chastity. I had, I guess, three basic problems with the conference’s approach, which I will present in no especial order. (I went to the keynote speech/q&a and two of the afternoon sessions.)

1) Separating sex from the rest of culture. Sex and marriage can’t be fully considered outside of the context of economics, and outside of broader ideas about the self/the person. For many teens and young adults, marriage seems like a fantasy (longed-for but unrealistic) which competes with alternative narratives about finding oneself, travel, fame or following your dreams, and economic competition. I was sort of surprised that this conference didn’t seem to ask what young people want, what stories they’re telling themselves about their own futures, and what they believe is necessary in order to be a good person. There was almost an assumption that Catholic kids know what it means to be moral and just need help choosing the right thing more often, and I’m not convinced that’s true. I’ve said before that people have strong moral beliefs that premarital sex is the responsible path to marriage (/”commitment”), marriage should be delayed until you’re economically stable, etc, and these counternarratives weren’t acknowledged at the conference.

2) On gay issues, when it’s three o’clock in New York it’s still 1991 in the ADW. When the conference addressed gay issues or same-sex attraction the presenters took a natural-law theological approach, backed up by bogus statistics. This doesn’t answer the questions people are asking. I mean, I don’t think most people even reach the point of disagreeing with the natural-law approach, because they’re not asking, “Give me a theological basis for the Church’s teaching.” They’re asking, “What future does the Church envision for my son who just came out, or my best friend who just married her partner?” That question was 100% unaddressed.

Also, bad statistics. The average gay man does not have hundreds of partners. He just does not. And it was obvious from conversations with people in the audience that these stats were having the DARE effect: Because they were so obviously out of line with one’s own personal experience of gay people, they made everything else the presenters said about gay issues unbelievable.

3) The Gospel is not a moral code. The keynote speaker set the tone here. He made some really interesting points which I will be mulling over, so I don’t want to act as if everything he said was wrong or unhelpful, but he really emphasized doing the right thing through one’s own efforts. There was no mention of human weakness and the need for unconditional surrender to God; no talk of penitence and forgiveness, accepting one’s own failures in the area of chastity and seeking to rely solely on God rather than on one’s own strength.

I asked a (rambling, clumsy) question about this exclusive emphasis on victory-through-individual-effort, since I think it sets up a success vs. failure narrative which almost guarantees that teens will feel either despairing or dismissive of chastity, and here’s the amazing thing: The guy’s answer was beautiful. He delivered this two- or three-minute-long off-the-cuff peroration about the need for surrender and for grace and for Confession, and it was just the most hopeful and lovely thing you can imagine. So why didn’t anyone realize that this needs to be part of the core of our message on chastity? Surrender and penitence are realistic whereas success is not. They are relevant to teens! Obviously yes, try to do the right thing, if you don’t try to be aware of your attitudes and actions you can’t turn them over to God, but better technique is not the way to sanctification.

About Eve Tushnet

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