Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The End of Catholicism?

The Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandals have now reached the papacy itself. Der Spiegel is reporting that hundreds of German Catholics have left the faith in the past month, while internal criticism of the church hierarchy continues to grow.

Reading some of the comments filtering to my Facebook account, there are many who wonder if this is the final death-knell for Catholicism itself. With Benedict XVI caught between a rock and a hard place, it would seem that the Vatican's credibility can only go further and further down. And so I see some actually proposing that the Church itself must inevitably go the way of the Byzantine Empire.

Not so fast.

For one thing, the Church and papacy have survived far worse scandals than this. It's also important to remember that faith has a logic all its own. People will choose to remain, perhaps to weather the storm, or more hopefully to rebuild from within. Some will argue that Catholicism is bigger than the papacy, or even the hierarchy of priests and bishops. Others, like Bill Donahue, will persist in trying to dismiss the current wave of criticism.

So the question is not whether the Church will survive, but in what form. Will it revert and retreat into a conservative core of true believers? Or will it accept the challenge to examine the contradictions between its highest values and its most questionable practices?

Ultimately, the Church need not become more "worldly" to maintain influence in the world. But its leaders do need to be mindful of what the world sees -- how we "picture" Catholicism. At one end of the spectrum are cold, cloistered clerics in denial about the damage they have inflicted on their own flock. At the other end are the charities and street ministries reaching out to, and speaking out for, the impoverished and disenfranchised. The College of Cardinals behind closed doors, versus the local church with its doors wide open to all. It is these contradictions which have defined Catholicism in the modern era, and which Catholics must now address.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stop "Having Sex" - Start Being Sexual

This coming Monday evening, I’ll be co-leading a workshop on safer sex, and one of the sections I’ll be doing is called “alternatives to intercourse” – and I’m beginning to feel some trepidation. Not the subject, but anticipation of the conversation…

“Oh, you mean ‘alternatives to having sex’?”

“No, intercourse.

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“If that were true, then gay and lesbian couples never have sex. Right?”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess so. Still,…”

Given a recent Kinsey Institute study, the debate over what constitutes “having sex” still rages on. Five percent of people interviewed did not consider vaginal intercourse as “having sex”; it gets worse if they’re told the man didn’t ejaculate (eleven percent) or if he used a condom (18 percent of men over 65).

Kind of explains the scores of teens and twenty-somethings, put through “abstinence-only” programs masquerading as sex education, and sincerely believing that they are still virgins because they did fellatio or cunnilingus or anal intercourse – none of which, in their minds, means “having sex.”

In my mind, the very phrase having sex is bothersome. Sex is not something you have or merely do, but something you experience and share. And sexuality is an integral part of who we are. I wonder if thinking about “having sex” in fact contributes to the ways in which we divorce sex and sexuality from our being, making it all to easy to further separate some forms of erotic and intimate expression from the very concept of sex.

So, here’s a rather bold proposal: Replace “having sex” with “being sexual.” Language changes all the time, and with it the way we think. So imagine, instead of saying: “We had sex,” the impact of saying: “We were sexual.” Think of the radical difference – the wonderful, essential difference – between the two, of merely having and actually being.

Some I’m sure would suggest “making love” as an alternative. But that seems almost euphemistic, as if trying to dodge the very question of sex via comfortable couching. I remember a celebrated singer giving a master class to young Julliard students, asking one fellow who’d been singing a torch song what he thought it meant. The young man talked wistfully about longing and yearning, and she simply shook her head, held up her hand, and told him bluntly: “It’s about sex.”

We need to be as blunt. Yet we also need to reintegrate the sexual back into our lives, to see the erotic and intimate not as mere things we can do in dissociated isolation, but as essential to our lives and life stories. We need to stop merely “having sex” and start “being sexual.” Let’s start by saying so, and work our way up from there.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Many Ways We Can Bear Witness

Recently it was announced that the Unitarian Universalist Association will undergo considerable restructuring, including several layoffs, in part because of a shortfall of funds. One of the casualties of this change is the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy, and this has led to much debate among UUs online. Some are upset that we have lost what they see as a vital voice; others have responded by raising the question of how much and what kind of political activism and advocacy is appropriate for a religious body, how such advocacy might alienate some of our members, and so forth.

Below are my own thoughts on the subject, posted on one of the UUA's discussion lists:

I don't think the issue is whether we have unanimity, or live up to the perceived example of our forebears. The issue IMHO is whether the positions we take are consistent with our shared values and principles.

Supporting marriage equality, for example, is indeed consistent with our values of equality, fairness, love, and the encouragement of spiritual growth. As such, we can voice our approval of proposed legislation which furthers this goal, and the opposite to those proposals which would hinder it.

The more specific we get, however, the more problematic having the UUA as a whole voice support or opposition. What happens when a proposed piece of legislation would advance one goal, but at the expense of another? For example, we may think that restricting the politcal influence of corporations through campaign finance reform is beneficial to democracy, but what if the same legislation also restricts free speech for various non-profit advocacy groups?

At the end of the day, however, I believe the real question is what we mean by "advocacy." Is it just lobbying for Federal legislation, or are there other ways we can bend the moral arc of the universe? In my own congregation, I've been priviledged to know many such advocates -- those who tend to our city's hungry and lonely souls through our Friday Night Supper Program; the doctor who spent a week doing intensive care medicine in Haiti; the Partner Church Committee helping to rebuild homes in New Orleans; the man who has devoted his life to lift up the lives of children in Guatemala. Not only do these stories give me hope, but inspiration in my own work on sexuality issues.

We may disagree about the specific means of acheiving the ends we seek, but if we are to acheive them, then we need to acknowledge and make room for diverse ways of doing so. And, in doing so, we affirm yet another of our cherished values.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Impact of Porn ... May Actually Surprise You

For years, anti-porn activists on the Right and Left have been arguing that porn leads to increased levels of sexual violence. Some have even claimed to provide scientific evidence to support this view.

Now, a recent study by Professor Milton Diamond at the University of Hawaii says otherwise. Looking over data collected over many years and across many countries and cultures, Diamond's research finds no evidence showing a correlation between the two -- and that in some cases, rape and other sex crimes have decreased as availability of porn has gone up.

I'm typically skeptical whenever a sex study hits the headlines, and respond by taking a good hard look at the methodology and data. From what I can see, Diamond's work is thorough, and his critique is sound. Some may want to believe that porn is inherently bad for us, but belief and evidence are two different things. And it looks like the evidence just isn't there.

If anything, how we teach our children to think about sex is an even more important factor. Diamond cites research showing that: "rapists were more likely than nonrapists in the prison population to have been punished for looking at pornography while a youngster, while other research has shown that incarcerated nonrapists had seen more pornography, and seen it at an earlier age, than rapists. What does correlate highly with sex offense is a strict, repressive religious upbringing. Richard Green too has reported that both rapists and child molesters use less pornography than a control group of 'normal' males."

Time to put away puritanical legalism, and embrace a spirituality which celebrates our bodies and our erotic capabilities. And if more people do that, then maybe we'll even see a higher quality of erotic media out there. Wouldn't that be something!