The Church of Gynaecology

I have to admit that Pope Francis was not my situla of holy water when he came on the scene back in March.  To the extent I care about popes, I like ones who dress up, know how to sing, think like theologians and make the Church an easy target for critics like me.  I miss you, Benedict. Papa Francesco can’t do any of those things, and now he has also made the church a more difficult target. He thinks the Church should stop talking about abortion and gays and bedroom issues and step out into the sunshine.

Maybe it’s because he comes from a sunny country and has a fairly sunny disposition. Anyway, it’s hard to argue that the church should get out of the bedroom when some of its own priests seem to prefer public toilets and darkened sacristies. Anyone who has paid attention to the history of Catholic dogma in the last forty years knows what is going on.  Hard to swallow dogmas (doctrines that have been officially proclaimed by Rome) like the real presence, an ancient one, and the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary into heaven, (newer ones) are being quietly laid away in the attic along with the gold-threaded chasubles and ruby studded chalices. They were beautiful examples of human ingenuity, theology gone wild.

But no one really understands them anymore.  A recent survey revealed that nearly half of Catholics didn’t know that they were supposed to believe that in the Mass ordinary bread and wine is actually (but in a mysterious way) transformed into the “body blood soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.”  Wars were fought over this doctrine. The map of Europe was transformed because of it.  Television comedians used to be censored for going near it in their routines. Who could have predicted a day when Jimmy Fagin’s grandson Trevonne would get asked about it by a pollster and answer “Really? We believe that shit?” But that’s where we are and that is where the Church’s failed attempt at modernization—Vatican II—has brought Mother Church. Attempts to renew devotion to Mary—May processions as of yore and praying the rosary—have not quite convinced people that she is bodily in heaven (the Assumption, 1950) because she was born without sin (Immaculate Conception, 1854) and thus cannot have died.  –Death being a punishment for original sin, the effects of which, being the mother of God, she was spared.  Everyone likes Mary of course, so no one says much out loud. But almost everybody hated the rosary so don’t look for a groundswell there.

What took the place of what was no longer understood or believed were things that were too easily understood because they had nothing to do with theology. No one has experienced an immaculate conception, but most women knew what pregnancy, birth control, and abortion were. The Gynecological Church was born. The world had moved on, but the Church began to obsess about issues it could not have foreseen in 1969, the year Pope Paul VI issued his absurd salvo against effective birth control. Prior to that all Catholics knew they shouldn’t use condoms, but they did anyway, and it was the man’s responsibility to supply them.  With the advent of the birth control pill and related methods of contraception, the church began to worry that it might lose moral control.  Only three years later, with the Roe v Wade decision, abortion was decriminalized in the United States.  And then, beginning in the 1990’s the possibility of same sex marriage was openly discussed, and in the first decades of the new millennium, became a reality . In an embarrassing way, the extent to which the church was (always had been) immersed in gynecological issues was revealed, and revealed because it was being progressively excluded from any role in making pronouncements about human conception and life.

To make it worse, the prophetic voices the church offered were those of celibate but not necessarily chaste priests who considered marriage an inferior lifestyle option (even if they didn’t say so) and considered birth control and abortion direct assaults on the church’s standard means of replenishment; the large family, or failing that, ample numbers of orphans and adoptees. Undoubtedly many theologians had a high view of what they thought they were doing: Pope John Paul II’s manifestos on “the culture of life” tried to sanctify the question of human existence “from conception to death” arguing that the church has a rightful interest in protecting “human dignity at every step along the way.” To be fair, it isn’t a bad argument, despite the fact that it launches from a series of arguable propositions the failure of any one of which is rather like taking a wing off a jet plane.

But if you think God created you, and established the process whereby you are made, and wished for you to be alive no matter what from the moment the process began until the moment your number is up, then attacking or interrupting the process at any level—murder, capital punishment, war, and of course, abortion—were to be considered violations of the natural law established by God for the propagation of his world.  It was a tantalizingly simple calculus designed to sequester what was given to you by God—life—from any power, secular or medical, that wants to take it from you.  Catholic pro-life crazies screamed the 7th commandment at abortion doctors as they arrived at family planning clinics.  But the Church academicians had a much more sophisticated argument, one the crazies never quite grasped. Even contraception, while nowhere near as bad as abortion, messed with the process, and thus also had to be considered sinful.  The church threw war and capital punishment into the mix as flotsam; after all it had had centuries of experience propagating both.  But for the sake of consistency and to win hearts and minds in Europe, the spectrum of protectable life was made to include all cases of life being “interrupted” by the decision of an individual or the fiat of the state.  And is abortion not an interruption of those natural processes which God ordained for the good of the world at the beginning of time? Of course it is. But whatever the theologians were doing by remaking Thomistic analogies, the ordinary Catholic was seduced into thinking that the modern Catholic Church was really only about vaginas.

Worshipers of the virgin—now the very symbol of obedient motherhood and the unwanted but submissive pregnancy–could do her best service not by crowning her with gardenias in May but maybe by bombing an abortion clinic, interrupting a surgical procedure—even harassing and doing violence to a medical practitioner.  When she won the Nobel prize in 1979 Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the most insidious woman ever to be awarded a prize for peace described easy access to birth control alongside infanticide as coequal atrocities. The church’s reaction to gay marriage was somewhat hampered by the pedophile priest scandal of the last twelve years,which sent the interesting message that perhaps getting jiggered under the cassock was okay but it is not okay to kiss or have sexual relations with another man or consider that same-sex tendencies might be as natural as heterosexual ones. We will never know the extent to which priests unhappily tied to vows of sexual celibacy were driven into the corners of the Church rather than openly acknowledge their sexual preferences.  What everyone knows is the consequences of denial.  Unable to express themselves freely to their fellow priests for fear of censure or being ratted out, they were forced to live their sexual lives in secret, prey on the innocent, ruin lives.

Yet still the church preached against homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered’ and “contrary to God’s will.” It is now 2013 and we have had more than a generation of the Gynecological Church, a church without a clear theological message and a hundred discarded dogmas, that has tried to keep abortion and more recently an improved message about gay marriage front and centre.  It has done this for the worst of reasons: to get people to believe in something identifiably Catholic when they have forgotten everything else. To his credit, this pope has recognized, or more likely has been made to recognize, that this obsession with abortion, gays and birth control threatens to replace Catholicism as a church and turn it into a campaign.  He seems to understand that if the Church becomes a franchise for a “right to life” movement, a church where, in my limited experience over the last twenty years, every sermon preached by every priest manages to allude to abortion and murder, then it will last as long as the movements that spawned prohibition and temperance, women’s rights, and civil rights—linked inexorably to the conditions that brought them into existence and not fated to outlast them. We do not struggle against earthly powers, Paul the apostle once said, but against principalities and powers.

Translated, that means, big ideas, not social and sexual conventions and trends that the Church has no hope of controlling. I do not expect the church to make abortion a sacrament, though confessing that contraception might be something a just, merciful and compassionate God would want wouldn’t be bad thing to acknowledge. I do not expect the Church to become an advocate of gay marriage—not least because I personally believe that the framing of the gay marriage debate has been preposterous; that what we are really talking about is the human right for people who love each other to live and be intimate with each other and live happily or unhappily ever after, same as other people. My liberal friends implore me to give up my idea of marriage as being out of step with everything else I think.  Or else not to talk about it.

But I have always thought—for historical and cultural reasons—that the church holds the imprimatur on the definition of marriage. Marriage only makes sense to me in a religious and cultural context, like penis gourds and hula skirts.  But the Church does not hold a patent on human relationships, sexuality, and happiness. I may be alone, but I stubbornly persist in having an Aristotelian idea that marriage is that connection, accidentally (read the Metaphysics before you write to me) between two persons of opposite sexes which results in progeny—its telos and end.  You can call the legal union of two people of the same sex a marriage if you want to, you can even add children to the mix.  But the union will always lack that defining element that society and culture have assigned to it. No I was not brainwashed by Dominicans to believe that; it simply makes good sense.  So let the Church have its Aristotle and its view; but let it also say that the union of man and man and woman and woman is not sexually disordered, is not sin, is  not unnatural, is not something the Church needs to condemn. Let a Church that claims to represent the author of Life—nay claims to be able to make him supernaturally present on earth to this day–acknowledge that God made all kinds of people, and that, as in the platonic myth, each of us is wired a little differently. Basically, it’s unlikely that the church can modify its sacramental theology to incorporate same sex love.

That doesn’t mean a hundred theologians from adjacent traditions especially Anglican traditions, won’t try and aren’t trying. But it can modify its teaching about sin. I don’t know whether Pope Francis will prove to be one of the “outstanding” popes of the modern era or a leftover of some of the feel-goodism  of post Vatican II liberal theology. It can go either way. Let’s say simply that i am skeptical. It seems to me that all popes, finally, will share in the destiny of their church, which is to be less and less relevant in the ordinary lives of ordinary Catholics.  This is not a messaging problem. It is a reality problem. I was lucky enough to grow up in a Church of immense liturgical beauty, that knew who and what it was; the mystical bride of Christ enraptured in a perpetual wedding banquet called the Eucharist. But I Lived to see a church that stumbled arthritically through a failed renewal, tried to be young when it was old, lost its singing voice (maybe Francis is a metaphor) and its self-respect. I am not quite sure however what Francis is saying: Perhaps he really is trying to get the Church out of the bedroom and into the world again.

That’s why he talks so much about the poor, about justice and peace.  Things we all like to hear about, now and again.  But, as every newspaperman knows, the question isn’t whether peace and justice and the alleviation of poverty are good things.  It’s about whether those things sell newspapers—or a Church. Or is Francis saying something different: the Church shouldn’t talk so much about gays and abortion and birth control. There are other things to talk about. If he is saying that, he is admitting defeat—as perhaps he should.  But a church that is consigned to silence on such issues has already consigned itself to irrelevance. Is that what he has done?

6 thoughts on “The Church of Gynaecology

  1. This may be one of your pieces of writing that I most agree with. To go beyond it, I am constantly surprised at how an entire faction of atheists, specially Humanists and secular Humanists, base their rejection of faith on the alleged contradictions or “lack of niceness” of bible stories, and on their opinion that Churches are generally behind the times. If these gnu-atheists and Humanists/secular Humanists lost their faith because of their disagreements with various Church/biblical doctrines… does that mean that if the doctrines become more palatable, people will rejoin their churches? That would be the logical conclusion.
    What your essay intimates is what I’ve always thought, that the palatability of Church/bible doctrines is irrelevant. One either recognises that the proposition that there are supernatural beings, or one doesn’t, based strictly on the scientific process and/or rational mind.

    I am really excited about a palatable Pope, maybe it will stop the flow of “gnu-atheism” until people become atheists for more profound reasons than their simple disagreement with some dude’s/book’s doctrines.
    Surprisingly, and this will certainly surprise you… I think somewhat similarly to you on the matter of marriage… somewhat… but let me preface with a segue…
    Several years ago, Westerners were discussing a possible military intervention in an African country were genocide was being considered. At the time, the excuse for non intervention was that there were indeed “acts of genocide”, but no overall Genocide “capital G”. At that time, I disagreed with that distinction, as did a great many people. But I now clearly see the distinction between the two. Now as for homosexual choices, I’ve been a supporter since my youngest years, and my sister publicly (TV) celebrated her lesbian civil union way back in 1988. But I’ve also been anti-marriage all my life. Marriage is a contracted monogamy to ensure that a womb has financial support from a third party and can focus entirely on breeding, in order to create plenty of cheap labour to build grand wealth and monuments for important people. That is really the only purpose of marriage for in the past, people always had sex with whoever, no contract required. But some time in the past two centuries, various governments have enshrined this religious ceremony into civil life… there was the mistake. It opened the doors for individuals to get government sponsorship/favouritism for what was originally designed to be a breeding subsidy. Contracts were not between lovers, and females did not historically have any say in the contract, it was in essence a contract between two males, the groom and the bride’s father. It was an economic and/or political contract. Modern governments subside housing, fees, taxes, to couples in order to decrease their hardship in their breeding efforts. Corporations paid out health care plans to partners for the same reason, to decrease hardship for the parents, to help ensure that all the offspring would grow with a fighting to chance to become a slave (paid or not) to the economy.

    Many gay activists complain that our civil and religious legislation on marriage is hetero-centric. But they are just a tad off… in fact, our legislation is monogamy-centric… in the sense that marriage was created by religious leaders in order to guarantee that males knew their offspring. This was to put an end to the previous uncertainty in these biological matters, since nor anthropology, nor biology, have us down as monogamous animals. Mating was not previously regimented by monogamy, and pre-civilisation neonates were raised by groups of females, while males went about their various tasks, never having paternal certainty.
    Modern religions legislated breeding, in order to make breeding a more productive endeavour, and very successfully at that.

    So as for gay marriage… it is preposterous, mostly because marriage itself is preposterous. Furthermore, to come full circle with the genocide segue brought in earlier (and contrary to most gay activists words), in nature, there is evidence a plenty for “acts of homosexuality”, but really no evidence for Homosexuality (capital H, as a lifestyle choice).
    So you’re absolutely right. Humans should absolutely go about doing whatever sexual activities which whichever partners they bloody well please. But let us stop this lunacy of contract marriages. Let’s put an end to marriage altogether. We are not a biologically monogamous species, contracts was the only way to hold us in pairs, and even that fails 50% of the time when citizens are free to exercise their choice. As we dump faith from modern life, so too we should be dumping contracts between lovers. There are over 7 billion people on earth, breeding need not be a government/corporate sponsored endeavour and let lovers be lovers… for however long blind love may last.

  2. Just a bit of a nitpicky point but one that might shed some light on the odd status of some Catholic dogmas:

    The claim give above that the Real Presence meant the bread and wine were “physcially” the body and blood of Christ is not quite right. The whole thing was cloaked in the terminology of classical philosophical categories with “substance” (or “essence”) being the unchanging reality of the thing (that which makes it what it is) while the “accidents” are the changing properties of the thing – which includes all the physical propeties. For example, as I age my waistline has increased and my hair has touches of gray but I am still me somewhere in this aging pile of flesh. Thus everything physical is an “accident” and the substance might be better termed metaphysical. Thus the doctrine states the accidents (physical properties) remain those of bread and wine while the substance (metaphysical reality) changes to that of the body and blood. Hence the term “transubstantiation.”

    That being said, it is still pretty weird, just a different kind of weird. Some time around the fifteenth century, lots of people began discovering that Aristotelian philosophical categories didn’t actually explain how the world worked. They were just logical games that sounded intelligent in lieu of a real explanation but looked ridiculous once people started figuring things out. At that point, the Catholic Church might have been better served by ditching the whole thing, but change happens much more slowly in the Vatican. They just got around to deciding Galileo may have had a point a decade or so ago. No need to rush these things, you know.

    • I know just a little about the doctrine of the real presence and you are quite right that in the Middle Ages Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas got together to underpin it with concepts of substance and accidents. However if you go back to the early discussion–Ignatius of Antioch, especially–you will find that the emphasis is on sheer physicality wthout much philosophical undergirding. Tertullian and Hippolytus so the same thing. And as you know, Aristotle was only made available in the 12th century because the Church considered almost all of his writings except the Ethics theplogically dangerous. So I stick by what I said. Looked at another way, Aquinas was trying to save the doctrine from the grotesquery of the earlier period but ended up making is so abstract that it virtually invited the reformers to attack and unravel it.

  3. Dear Laborum,

    Do you believe that the doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’ as it is officially proclaimed by Rome, was created, and is taught to, and interpreted by, believers (such as those indicated in the poll) in such a precise and sophisticated way as you have articulated? Is it possible, rather more simply, that in Rome, now at least, it is proclaimed that bread and wine is physically (but in a mysterious way) transformed into the “body blood soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps the ‘mysterious way’ is understood as just that – mysterious – and does not need further elaboration and each believer receives it and ponders over it individually (if at all).

  4. Reblogged this on The New Oxonian and commented:

    My liberal friends implore me to give up my idea of marriage as being out of step with everything else I think. Or else not to talk about it. But I have always thought—for historical and cultural reasons—that the church holds the imprimatur on the definition of marriage. Marriage only makes sense to me in a religious and cultural context, like penis gourds and hula skirts. But the Church does not hold a patent on human relationships, sexuality, and happiness.Add your thoughts here… (optional)

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