Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Catholicism's "deep puzzle" (Part 1)

"Why sex plays such a large role in Catholic doctrine is a deep puzzle."
(Richard Posner, "Contraception and Catholicism")
Posner makes this comment in a blog posting that deals with Catholic policy & doctrine regarding contraception, and which treats the Catholic church as a "corporation" with "customers." In his essay, he remarks on several aspects of Catholic policy of sex: prohibition of contraception; belief that procreation is the primary reason for sex; requirement of abstinence for priests, nuns and monks; prohibition of "unnatural sex." He analyzes the development of Catholic doctrine as having evolved purely out of economic pressures, i.e., pressures to compete, attract and retain "customers," etc.

Posner's take is an interesting way of looking at it. But from my perspective as a Christian, it ignores the central fact that motivates Christian doctrine: the reality of God and of His revelation to humankind. Of course, the other dimension to my perspective as a Protestant Christian is that it seems totally plausible to me that many of the areas where Catholic doctrine diverges from my own beliefs have human/economic motivations behind them.

That said, I'd like to address the comment that I quoted at the start of this post, in which Posner makes the following claims:
  • Sex plays "a large role" in Catholic doctrine.
  • This large doctrinal role of sex is "a deep puzzle."
I find both of these claims a bit mystifying. First off, does sex really play a remarkably large role in Catholic doctrine? Secondly, if sex does play a large role in doctrine, is that really puzzling at all?

One way to look at the first question is to reframe it as: Is the role of sex in Catholic doctrine unusually great? So Catholics have many constraints around sex. Protestants do too! (The conservative ones, at least.) Jews do too! Hey, if we're going to complain about the Catholic endorsement of the "rhythm method" of contraception (avoid pregnancy by only having sex on infertile days of the month), what are we going to say about Orthodox Jewish laws about "family purity"? Would Posner say, "Why sex plays such a large role in orthodox Jewish doctrine is a deep puzzle?" I have no idea. Moreover, Muslims also have a great deal of doctrine related to sex. Ahem: Does Catholicism promise 40 virgins to the martyr in Paradise?? If we're talking about larger-than-average doctrinal roles for sex, don't you think that using sex as a motivation for martyrdom and entry into heaven is more remarkable than putting sharp constraints around the implementation of sex during life on earth? It seems far from clear to me that the role of sex is greater in Catholic doctrine than in other religions. (Which is not to say that the religions I just listed are a representative sample. They are the religions I am most familiar with. Feel free to comment on the role of sex in the doctrines of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Scientology, etc!)

In fact, the one standpoint from which it seems most clear to me that Catholicism's doctrines of sex would seem notably important, and surprisingly so, is the perspective of modern secularism. This is the perspective from which any doctrine pertaining to sex seems strange, intrusive, a relic of another era. This is the perspective in which sex between consensual adults is no one else's business. This is the perspective in which sex is all about personal pleasure and fulfillment--by which I do *not* mean that sex in this perspective is only about the physical; the pleasure and fulfillment could also be about emotional and social experience. The point I mean to make is that modern secularism provides the perspective in which sex is dramatically divorced from the family and from God, and thus the perspective from which sex seems irrelevant to religious doctrine.

[I wrote this all yesterday and then didn't post because I hadn't dealt with the 2nd issue: of whether it is "puzzling" for sex to play a large role in Catholic (or really, in any) doctrine. But I'm going to just post this now and write up the rest of my thoughts in a separate post.]

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