Saturday, May 10, 2008

More Anti-Sex Propaganda From Mr. Ratzinger

Cripes. Do these people ever listen to themselves? They're so obsessively afraid of sex that they spin out elaborate, fantastical theories bout why it's terribly awfully horribly naughty--except, of course, as a means to the end of producing additional members of their religion. Then it's a duty. (As in the old Soviet Union, that which is not forbidden is obligatory...)

What's truly astonishing is that so many people listen to this guy, no matter how little sense he makes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You seem to have at least partially misunderstood what the current Pope (and Pope Paul VI) is saying here.

I understand that your characterization of the position as "sex is 'awfully horribly naught' except for procreation" is (probably) an intentional exaggeration. But the non-exaggerated version (something like "The goodness of sex is wholly determined by its procreative function") is not accurate, either.

The position of these two Popes (and all those in between) is that sex has a twofold function: procreation AND the intimacy of the partners. Both of these functions are considered to be very good.

Since it would be way too long (not to mention, irrelevant) to get into all the implications which the Popes draw from this, I'll just say a few things in response to your post and the original article.

(1) It is not considered a duty to procreate, even within marriage. The (official teaching of the) Church recognizes the necessity of family planning. Of course, the methods by which one does so is limited to non-artificial birth control (most notably, "Natural Family Planning). It is worth noting that this does NOT mean that it is moral to have sex only when trying to have a baby. Sex as an expression of love is legitimate even when there is no possibility of reproduction (e.g., when one of the couple is infertile).

(2) That "sex can become 'like a drug'" seems like a fairly reasonable claim. The mere existence of Sexaholics Anonymous suggests that there are a number of people without any necessary connection to Papal teaching who agree with the claim. Anecdotally, I have known at least one person (well, more, but to point to the possibility, the one is sufficient) whose relationship was strained by a demand for sex on the part of one person despite the lack of complete willingness of the other. The Pope's point in such cases is that the act of sex has been detached detrimentally from its index to mutual love/care.

(3) Given that Catholics are produced only in baptism, the fecundity of spouses is not capable of directly "producing additional members of their religion." Certainly it is not irrelevant that Catholic families tend to baptize their children, but it just goes to show that what the Pope is valuing is human life, not merely Catholic life.

I don't expect that that is sufficient to compel agreement, but it strikes me as sufficient to show that what "these people" are saying is not wholly and irredeemible an irrational fear. I find this, and much else of what the Pope says, to be at least somewhat reasonable.

Perhaps I'm biased because I'm Catholic, but the fact that I find some other things he has said not to be very reasonably expressed perhaps indicates that I am not wholly and irredeemibily biased.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Very reasonable response, Spencer, and you are obviously just right--and I am just wrong--on several of these points. It's bad to allow oneself to confuse parody with serious criticism, which is what one (and by 'one' I mean *I*) have a tendency to do when people just let me ramble.

The more serious objection to Mr. Ratzinger's (and the Catholic church's) position goes more like this:

It's puritanical at its heart. Sure, sex can ruin people, and sex can ruin relationships. But lack of sex can ruin people and relationships, too. I've certainly seen more people who were unhappy b/c of too little sex than I've seen who were unhappy b/c they were having too much.

Procreation and intimacy are both sometimes good things and sometimes bad things, but there is at least something intrinsically (but over-ridably) good about both of them. But sexual pleasure is also good in itself (though this goodness, too, can be overridden). The mistake many religions make is to pretend that this isn't so--that is, that sexual pleasure is not good in itself--is to deny what is obvious to pretty much everybody who has had sex. That sex *can* become like a drug does not mean that it's rational to build your whole theory of sex around that fear. Almost anything--religion emphatically included--can become like a drug and destructive. What's really telling here is that Mr. Ratzinger and the church chooses to emphasize the drug analogy with sex, but not with other things. Like religion. It betrays what I think is pretty obviously a rather sick attitude about sex. Points of emphasis matter...

Although one's Catholicism becomes *official* only during baptism, everyone knows that it's easier to make new adherents than convert them. If mommy and daddy are catholic, odds are very, very high that Jr. will be, too. Religions are like sports teams--you tend to inherit allegiance to them from your parents.

Don't get me wrong. I've got a fair amount of respect for Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. But overall I do think their stories are tragedies. Some good ideas mixed together with bad ideas...but both wedded to the overarching idea that all the major bits of the truth are already in hand, thus ruling out genuine self-criticism and progress.

Furthermore: take that mixture of ideas and then give some of history's smartest people 2000 years to come up with arguments in favor of the doctrines. What you get is a baroque fortress that can fight many objections to a standstill...even objections that are sound. Those objections would prompt real progress in a doctrine that was open to such progress.

Though let me emphasize that--dogmatic elements aside--there are many things I admire about Christianity.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree and disagree with some of your comments. I'll run through the points quickly, since a) I suspect this is probably more interesting to me than anyone else in this part of the blogosphere and b) I should get back to that final paper than which your blog is so much more interesting.

Re: religion and parents.
You are right. My ill-expressed point here was that the Catholic evaluation on procreation stems rather from a value placed on human life in general, since it is an ideal the Church puts forward for everyone, non-Catholics included. But admittedly, non-officially, the teaching does sometimes get preached as "those Muslims are outbreeding us!" Which, of course, is a terrible reason to preach a doctrine.

Re: the goodness of sex. John Paul II spent a year (maybe more?) of his daily audiences preaching through a "theology of the body" which was a somewhat revolutionary new perspective on sex which was primarily positive. He reorganized the traditional emphases to emphasize the positive (e.g., sex is there considered to be reflective of the divine being, about as positive a theological statement as you can get).

Re: pleasure. That being said, I do think that pleasure gets the short end of the stick in a lot of these discussions. One might worry that the category of "intimacy" has a tendency to (Neo-)Platonize what is a fairly non-Platonic act (i.e., doing it). So, I think agree with your worry on this score (no pun intended).

Re: progress. In the (official) Church's self-understanding, there is such a process as the development of doctrine. This is why the Church now (officially) teaches - contra its own Middle Ages - that freedom of religion is an inalienable human right; why loaning at interest is (officially) no longer considered inherently sinful; why being outside the bounds of the Catholic Church is (officially) no longer considered to be an automatic ticket to Hell. These developments must take place within certain dogmatic bounds, but even these bounds are considered to contain enough mystery that we can still discover things about them.

That being said, I do worry that there is (unofficially) a "creeping infallibility" in the general Catholic mind, which attributes the protection of infallibility to everything that the Pope says or has ever been uttered in "the Tradition." Or the mindset which divests dogma of its mystery and therefore of its richness and flexibility. Or that any philosophical argument made by a saint is automatically awesome (e.g., Aquinas' Five Ways). This, I think, is very worrisome.

Re: religion as a drug. No such thing! Praise Jeebus or get blowed up!

PS. So much for "quickly."

10:55 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Important points, S--thanks for the info and arguments.

Quickly (I, too, am currently pressed by other writing obligations)--it's the dogmatism about the most general aspects of the view I was talking about--e.g. about the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, etc.

also: huh huh. You said "score"...

I think we have similar concerns about the category *intimacy.* Vague enough to allow a lot of hanky-panky, as it were. My worry: it's vague enough to allow a bait-and-switch. It allows the church to pretend like it's recognizing the validity of sexual pleasure in defending itself against objections, but then cash 'intimacy' out in more "platonic"/non-sexual/non-physical terms when that's doctrinally convenient.

How in particular is that Neo-platonic? (I'm not skeptical, just interested--I'm interested in neoplatonism these days).

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose we'll have to leave off on the general dogmatism question. I certainly can understand abstractly your worry. However, I find myself in the position of not being able to shake the faith which forces upon my mind precisely those most general dogmas - though not for lack of ever having tried. I suppose there's a gamble in that kind of defense: after all, I can never know with absolute certainty whether I have done my epistemic duty with enough vigor in trying to doubt these dogmas. And I recognize that, from the outside, the only possible interpretation is some kind of confusion, self-deception, mental illness, or whatever. It's the interesting position of the Church to be in that these central dogmas do not seem to let us go, and to pretend otherwise is, I think, to internally weaken our epistemic position. This isn't really the place to get into my unbidden thoughts on the nature of faith, but my point is just that those dogmas you mentioned worrying about are ones which constitute something of a wall for a conversation like this. A wall we can see each other over, and cordially converse, argue, etc., but a wall nonetheless.

I'll slip one more quick quasi-defense of papal sex-teaching. If you look at the documents, I think you can definitely see an overall trend of a more and more positive evaluation of sex, including pleasure. So, while, again I think your point is completely valid from a synchronic point of view, the diachronic softens it a bit, at least in my eyes.

As for neo-Platonism, I used the label because I'm not sure it would be super-fair to the author of the Symposium to give his name directly to anti-sex tendencies. Also, my imipression is that that anti-physical stuff gets exaggerated in the Neo-Platonists. I don't know if you could find that attitude in Plotinus or Proclus, but you definitely see it in religious movements of the time that share affinities with it: Gnosticism, some heavily Neo-Platonic Christian Church Fathers (e.g., Augustine in some places.)

I was thinking of trying to read the Enneads this summer, but I've got to admit I'm a little intimidated. It comes up a lot in the stuff that I read these days, and I get the impression that there is much to it that is more reasonable than its totally bizarre presentation sometimes makes it sound.

Why the interest in Neo-Platonism these days on your end? Know any good books on it?

3:39 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Not to push where it's it more like you find it impossible to doubt that there is something mind-like in/about the universe...or that you can't doubt the whole shebang, triune god, virgin birth, divinity of Jesus, died-and-reborn, transubstantiation, etc.? I guess I *do* find it a little tough to believe that anybody accepts that whole latter collection of stuff without appreciable doubts... But I'm more interested and asking than pressing the point.

I see your point about Neoplatonism.

Nope. Sadly, I don't know any good books on it. I'm still fruitlessly pursuing an understanding of Peirce, and, *inter alia*, this Smythian claim that certain Emersonian influences on CSP were neoplatonic.

I'm in over my head, truth be told. A common predicament for me.

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to this...I've been finishing up school, graduating, and trying to get a job.

Here's the brief answer to your question about my inability to doubt the Christian worldview:

I find it difficult to describe the phenomenon of my inability to doubt. It's not that there is a particular proposition or series of propositions in my mind which I cannot doubt. It's something more akin to a perception.

I don't carry around in my head a continual assent to an explicitly formed proposition that "My senses are generally trustworthy." Sense data is fed into my brain in such a way that, when I reflect on it, I more or less spontaneously form the proposition "my senses are generally trustworthy" (Descartes notwithstanding).

I have found faith to be analogous to this. I 'perceive' Jesus Christ in such a way that the interpretation of that figure that spontaneously arises in my perception is something like "Truly this man was the son of God." Pretty much all the other apparatus of Christian doctrine is inference from this original perception.

That doesn't strike me as a totally accurate explanation, but it's approximating something that I have trouble explaining. So, it'll have to do for now.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, one more thing. Since "the whole shebang, triune god, virgin birth," etc is a collection of inferences from a more original act of faith, there are indeed varying degrees of doubt that accompany these items in my mind, as there are varying degrees of doubt in my mind about any kind of inference.

Since this is a question I get a lot, maybe it would be worthwhile to sit down and figure out a way to explain it at greater length and with greater clarity.

10:32 AM  

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