Does Sex Matter?

Posted: Mar 27, 2002 12:00 AM
A 17-year-old lesbian writes to chastise me for imagining that the outbreak of priestly misconduct with teen-age males has anything at all to do with ordaining homosexuals. It was a civil and thoughtful note, which I appreciated, but really, what is a thinking person to do with assertions of this kind? Yes, Virginia. One of us is sexually naive about men. Possibly it is me, a 41-year-old married survivor of the sexual revolution. Possibly it is you, a 17-year-old lesbian. Just possibly. Tell me: Under what conditions do you think men are most likely to live up to holy vows of celibacy? a. When they live in segregated quarters with clear prohibitions on intimate associations with the object of their sexual desire? or: b. When they live intimately with and have power over the sort of people to whom they are sexually attracted? Ordaining gay men to all-male celibate orders makes about as much sense as sending married guys away from their wives to live in all-girl boarding communes. Sure Gandhi probably could do it, and maybe some priests can, too. But overall, what do you expect? The current scandals -- what the pope called priests who succumb to the "mystery of evil" and what New York's Cardinal Egan denounced as an "abomination" he will "not tolerate" -- have brought out in certain Catholic quarters what I call the Gotta Have It brigade. Columnist Maureen Dowd blames "mandatory celibacy -- stifling God-given urges" for the sudden outbreak of "sacramental perverts." Andrew Sullivan goes even further. The church's problem, he asserts, is that it imagines that sex matters. "Why cannot the church be as neutral as Jesus was about this issue? Why can we not leave the dark and difficult realm of eros out of fundamental moral teaching?" In short, why can we not make marriage the goal without moralizing about those "whose erotic needs and desires are more complex than the crude opposition to all nonmarital and nonprocreative sex allows?" Why get all hot and bothered about sex? I leave aside Andrew's ludicrously stigmatizing language toward those who attempt to live up to the Christian standard of sexual conduct. Remind me again, Andrew: Why is it exactly that the difference between a) giving oneself body and soul to another human being in a permanent bond that includes a mutual willingness to make new life, and b) engaging in other sorts of sexual encounters constitutes some sort of "crude" opposition? And what exactly is it about the desire to engage in anonymous bare-backing that is somehow "more complex" than vows of marriage? Sullivan began his career desperately searching for ways that same-sex desire could be remade into the language of true Christian love (i.e. marriage) and has ended up another middle-aged roue angrily asserting the unimportance of the very conduct which he personally is most unwilling to renounce. The truth is, Andrew, that most of us have, from time to time, desires which, if we are to live decent lives and treat others with true love (and not as consumer objects), we must be willing to renounce. A desire, sexual or otherwise, is not its own justification. Renouncing gratification, whether it is a priestly vow of celibacy or a married man's vow of chastity, is certainly more possible to people who believe that sex matters a great deal than to those who try to pretend it is merely an unseemly appetite of no intrinsic moral importance. How strange that so many who maintain sex is so important turn around and try to pretend that it does not matter at all.