Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Moral privacy and Catholicism

With the Pope resigning and speculation about his successor rife, a lot of talk about sexuality and Catholicism is floating about.

And that ties to the issue of moral privacy in an interesting way, in a sexual way because sex is often a matter of moral privacy for practical reasons.

One of our more naive assumptions is that an adversarial system, whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, will always expose lies. We assume that both sides have an interest in exposing the lies of their opponents; even if I have a tendency to exaggerate my own claims, you can count on my opponent to cut me down to size.

But that only works most of the time. Sometimes both sides of an adversarial system have a share interest in maintaining the same lie. For example, we had a government here in Canada some thirty years ago now that promised to cut the size of the public sector. The government, once elected, duly made (false) claims about jobs cut. But the opposition didn't expose these lies because they knew that their most vocal supporters wanted to hate the government for making "deep, unconscionable cuts". The opposition, in fact, argued that the government was actually making even deeper cuts than the ones it was only lying about making in the first place.

A similar phenomenon obtains when it comes to debates about sexual morality and the teachings of the Catholic church.

Liberal Catholics have long argued that traditional Catholic sexual teaching needs to change because you can no longer expect people to follow Catholic sexual teachings in the modern world and that, therefore, traditional teachings are driving people out. They argue that allowing some slack, allowing for a region of moral privacy where people can allow their consciences to over-ride the teachings of the church, will put more bums on pews every Sunday.

Conservative Catholics counter not by denying that things are, in their terms, "getting worse" but by arguing that the situation is even more extreme than liberals believe. They argue that not just the church but the entire world is at risk because of changing moral standards regarding sexuality.

The lie that both sides endorse is that things have changed significantly from what they used to be. For the most part they haven't. There never was a time when large numbers of Christians did not privately practice a sexual morality of their own devising. Never. (Paul complains about it when writing to the Corinthians written within a couple of decades after the crucifixion of Jesus.)

As Philip Larkin slyly observes, oral sex was not invented sometime in 1963. And the same is true of all sorts of other ways of privately circumventing the public consequences of private sexual activity. Feminists would argue, and argue correctly, that the available methods or circumvention were heavily loaded in men's favour and that they were especially heavily loaded against any woman who wanted to have social status. It's also true that literacy played a factor—the more literate you were, the more likely you were to disregard Catholic sexual teaching. (Casanova was a devout Catholic all his life!) To pretend that people suddenly started disregarding Catholic sexual teachings in the last few decades is pure nonsense.

Large numbers of Catholics have always ignored Catholic sexual teachings. You can take that as cause for shame or you can take it as proof that there is something unreasonable about these teachings as you will. What you cannot do is claim that we live in a time of crisis where we must act one way or another or else the walls will fall in on us. It's always been this way.

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