Saturday, April 27, 2013
Sad Bad Sex
We are human, and we long to be loved. It's not just LGBTQ people who feel isolated and demeaned by the way that the sexual teachings of the Church are generally portrayed. For the most part the secular media puts forward the idea that there is a Catholic answer to every question about sex, and the answer is always “No.” Sadly, Catholic apologists tend to confirm this impression: “Can I use contraception if my wife refuses to have a baby or use NFP and I'm going completely bananas and finding myself compulsively gawking at teenage starlets on my iPad in the early hours of the morning?” “No.” “I go to my local Courage meeting every week, and attend daily Mass, and say fifteen rosaries a day, and wear seven different scapulars, and I still end up at the Bathhouse every Friday night. Wouldn't it be more prudent to get a permanent sexual partner so I don't get AIDS?” “Well, it's a tough situation, but...I would have to say...No.” “Is it okay if I make love to my wife in a Batman costume?” “Mmmm...it's not covered in the Catechism, but if I had to give an answer, based on what I understand of the dignity and beauty of the marital act, most likely your safest bet is...No."
Let's call this approach “negative chastity.” It's the form of the teaching that presents chastity solely in terms of “Just say no to sex!”. Saying “NO” is supposed to be a form of mortification which brings the person into closer union with Christ and schools the soul in self-control and self-possession. Yet overwhelmingly people do not experience union with Christ or self-possession: they experience overwhelming sexual frustration compounded by loneliness and depression. This experience cuts across the lines of sexual orientation to include parents who feel utterly overwhelmed by the task of parenting and who have recourse to contraception because there is no sense of real and concrete support from the Church; Priests who are socially isolated and abandoned by their parishioners and end up turning to sex as a form of relief; spouses who have discovered that marriage is not actually a relationship in which two people “complete” each other, and who now find themselves trying to navigate the demands of fidelity while their single friends continue to frequent the titty-bar.
This frustration is caused by a lack of companionship and solidarity. All forms of chastity demand communion and community because chastity is the virtue that is ordered towards the communio personarum. The most common cause of sexual sin is isolation and loneliness. The sexual appetite is an urge to overcome isolation, to give and receive another person. A person who is fulfilled in their daily life through other forms of “knowing and being known” will find that chastity frees them to be generous and loving and to receive love and generosity without the clinging neediness of sex. The problem is that most people in the contemporary world are literally starving for human communion, and sex fills that need at least temporarily.
Negative chastity, the kind of chastity that limits itself to saying “Thou shalt not,” has consistently failed to persuade the postmodern world because it is madness. The vast majority of people will eat things that are designated “unclean” by their religion or “unhealthy” by their doctors when faced with starvation. In most cases it's not even voluntary. Unless you have strengthened your will to a superhuman extent it's not possible to starve yourself to death. Likewise, unless you've devoted a huge number of character points to picking up the “Stoic” superpower you will simply not be able to endure the kind of social starvation that negative chastity demands in the contemporary world. The way that we live, our architecture, our social structures, our institutions, are all far too individualistic for it to even be possible. From the new institution of “the single life” to the catastrophic experiment of the “nuclear family” we have created a culture of isolation. In order to gain increased autonomy for the individual citizen and the individual family we have severed the ties that hold communities together. Within this insular existence sex is a powerful means of escape. Telling people that they can't have it is like telling a child who has eaten nothing in days that she shouldn't eat a lollipop because it's bad for her teeth. The distant threat of cavities will simply sound hollow and meaningless compared with the present experience of hunger pangs.
This is the point at which we tend to fall into the mistake of blaming society. There is some formless, nameless agency (or possibly a specific secret cabal of Freemasons, Zionists, Bilderbergers, or Reptilians) which is deliberately seeking to undermine human communion by creating conditions of social starvation and then offering sex as an evil and manipulative means of fulfilling them. The problem with this narrative is that it's highly pessimistic and ultimately unhelpful. A much more accurate way of looking at the situation is to recognize that modernism created a new vision of the self as an autonomous rationality, a distinct social agent to whom the state is naturally responsible and who is individually an “end in himself.” This model of personhood is very good in many respects. It recognizes the importance of free will and reason to humanity, it affirms that the human person is the ultimate end of politics and not visa versa, and it celebrates the dignity of each individual qua his individuality. All of these things are true and they are truths worth upholding.
But, but, but... all truth is subject to corruption. We are human, we err. The direction in which modernism errs is in overemphasizing human individuality at the expense of human communiality. The modern self will naturally tend towards loneliness and isolation as a means of protecting its autonomy and uniqueness. The great task which the modern world poses to the Church is that of finding a way of reconciling the individual self and the dignity of his individuality with the fact that we are made to image God through communion with other people. Society is not to blame for posing this problem, nor is it to blame for having put sex forward as its best attempt at a solution: the world can only ever provide solutions which are of the world. The job of the Church is not, therefore, to complain that the world is unable to do Her job for Her. It is to do that work which the world is literally incapable of doing: to take the worldly offering of the modern self and to sanctify and transform it, to incorporate it into the Body of Christ and then return it to the world in the form of Communion.