Is the Church screwed up around sex? Do bears run naked in the woods? And they want to make me just like them!
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 20, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
The Church, Sex, Psychology, and Conversion
This post is a response to A Shout Out to "Recovering Catholics" this Christmas and Beyond by Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D.
Thomas Plante calls for disillusioned Catholics to return to the Church, "There are a lot of "Recovering Catholics" out there... a lot!" Dr. Plante urges them to reconsider any small objections they may have:
"Recovering Catholics also point to hot button issues in the Church such as the clergy sexual abuse scandals (which often dominates the news) and the official Church positions on abortion, contraception use, homosexuality, divorce, masturbation, premarital sex, and a host of other typically sexual ethics issues (which also often dominate press reports about the Church)."
Would it be fair to say that the Church is hung up around sex? Consider the psychological view of clergy sexual abuse, abortion (sometimes called a woman's right to choose), homosexuality, divorce, masturbation, premarital sex, et al. Is it fair to say that it is opposed to pretty much all of the Church's positions - for example, calling masturbation and homosexuality sins? Or divorce and premarital sex? Or contraception and abortion? (Only to religious people is opposing both of these not a contradiction.)
In order to understand why psychology seems to stand in direct opposition to the Church on every issue concerning sex, let's start at the beginning. The Church maintains that sex's only purpose is procreation - that's why no contraception, no premarital sex, no homosexuality, no masturbation - since all of these are not related to the primary goal of creating children. Meanwhile, priests and nuns demonstrate their holiness and dedication to God by abjuring sex (except for. . . you know).
Let's turn to "How to Become a Catholic " to understand this logic: "Contraception is wrong because it's a deliberate violation of the design God built into the human race, often referred to as 'natural law.' The natural law purpose of sex is procreation." (Remind me again - why did God make human beings so sexual, so that compared to other animals, they're perpetually in heat?)
How did God decide natural law - that sex is bad unless you are striving to have children? Here's what psychology thinks - sex is a primary motivation for people, people should strive to satisfy their sexual urges in authentic, non-destructive, pleasurable ways - particularly including sexual contact between people mature enough to communicate love and affection through a sexual connection. And reliable contraception is the main way humans have been able to realize these crucial benefits - especially women.
The Church has seen some reverses in popular opinion on these issues - as indicated by Dr. Plante. There were those massive sex scandals throughout the Catholic world - and their dismissal and cover-up by the hierarchy. Why was the Church so protective of clergy predators, do you think? As Dr. Plante explains it: "You can't have a 2,000 year old institution that currently includes over a billion members without plenty of challenging issues that are embarrassing, unflattering, and even horrific." (the Catholic Church's abuse scandal, which reached a "degree we could not have imagined" this year according to the Pope , wasn't perpetrated by the billion worshipping Catholics, but by the clergy.)
Okay, so there were a few mistakes made and resulting scandals. But what about the Church's ongoing, eternal positions? Consider, for example, the gay revolution - in Western countries at least, people are coming to the view that some people are homosexuals, however that comes about, and for them to be authentic and fully human, they need to express their sexuality. But the Catholic Church doesn't take this view - nor is it clear that it can ever change its position.
And what about women married to abusive spouses? Who would deny them the right to seek a divorce? And what about educating children about sex - what instruction should they be given? That non-marital sex is inherently evil? What about the growing number of unmarried couples - nearing a majority in some (Catholic) countries? Must everybody have children? What about teen pregnancies? What about sexual guilt that manifests itself in sexual dysfunction? And what about gay youths who kill themselves?
In fact, when I hear ardent Catholics - like Pat Buchanan, the MSNBC commentator - defend the Church up and down the line, I always want to ask - "Do you use birth control? Are your children sinners if they masturbate? Which laws granting equal status to gay people will you oppose until you die?"
Yes, Catholicism is a 2,000-year-old system. Some things it espouses - that it insists on - have dated badly (although there are those who argue that various elements in the current canon - e.g., the celibate priesthood - are come-lately attitudes). And this means what? That we should devote massive institutions and funds to maintaining these positions for billions of people forever, no matter how much they contradict our best knowledge about what being human means today?
Whenever I claim that I don't really understand religion, or Catholicism, Catholic defenders always slay me (see here ). But I am being disingenuous when I say that. Rather, when I see brilliant people like gay Atlantic columnist Andrew Sullivan debate (it seems primarily with themselves) about why they remain Catholics even as their own Church's most zealous members despise them , I think - "What a horrible waste of effort."
So, Dr. Plante, when you note that, "Tragically, many of these Recovering Catholics haven't found a suitable spiritual home in their adulthood," please - in the interests of a balanced psychological perspective - could you include the downsides of their swallowing the distaste in their mouths? Oh, and while you're at it, please explain how the changed status of women in the 2,000 years of the Church's existence is well represented by its position that only men can be priests, bishops, and Popes - and how telling a Catholic girl that this is what God in heaven intended is good psychologically for her to internalize.
Afternote: People often seek to explain my missives by my frailties - e.g., I am a recovering (or not-so-recovering) alcoholic. I can describe in the case of religious proselytizers like Dr. Plante an unusual experience I have had more than once as an adult - as a sixty-something. The devout seemingly mistake me for a lapsed Catholic like those Dr. Plante addresses. (Dr. Plante, what do you think your insight - "There are a lot of "Recovering Catholics" out there... a lot!" - indicates?)
Religious Cathoic people can't resist trying to persuade me to return to Jesus and Catholicism, even though I was raised Jewish! Okay, that beats Catholic kids in Philadelphia calling me a Jew and jumping me as a kid. But aren't the two similar - both disrespect and attack my religious beliefs and personal integrity - and is Dr. Plante doing the same by offering his help to those who haven't asked for it? (Does Dr. Plante advise people about other psychological problems he thinks they have - like he regards not being a religious Catholic - without being invited?)
My uninvited rescuers don't really care what religious tradition I am from - their religion and beliefs are so obviously superior to anything in my life that if I only reflected a moment I'd adopt theirs. Denigrating gay people is such a gift to humanity! What chutzpah! Please, spare me. Your efforts are like the coerced conversion of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice."