Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Catholic traditional theology, Catholic liberal politics.

I have been thinking extensively over recent poll results that show that American Catholics are more accepting of homosexuality than any other religious group in America. Here's one result breakdown:

You have to scroll pretty far down to see the religious results, but they're there. In all, it's a very interesting article.

At any rate, it's interesting to note a dichotomy in Catholic thought on these issues. If you speak to a person who self-identifies as Catholic, and politics become the nature of the conversation, it's inevitable that you will suddenly be hearing a lot of liberal views (especially if they're younger). But when it comes to articles of faith, you'll get a very traditional, very conservative defense of things like transubstantiation, confession, the Marian dogmas, etc. In any other setting, in mainline Protestantism and charismatic Evangelicalism in particular, when you encounter strong and avid defense of matters of faith, you get very conservative politics that go along with it. Is this an expression of a disconnect between Catholic teaching and the laity's application to the world? I posit that it's not, and there is a very reasonable and rational explanation for this.

Generally speaking, post-reformation churches are Once-Saved-Always-Saved (generally). It is a common, unifying article of theology that the grace of Christ pardons all sins, past, present, and future. So, you are forgiven if you sin. It makes matters such as sexual sin (fornication, homosexual interaction, adultery, etc.) a lot easier to discuss frankly. In Catholicism, however, we do not believe that you are guaranteed immediate heaven simply because you were baptized. We believe we must take responsibility for our actions, no matter the sacraments we have received. Because, if we willingly indulge in sin with full knowledge of the sinfulness of our behavior, we run the risk of going to hell. Not a pleasant thought.

So why do we suddenly show a rise in support for things like gay civil unions? Mind you, Catholics tend to get uppity when you use the term "marriage" and don't support it as much. But that's a discussion for another day. Well, as the survey results point out, the rise in support is mostly amongst those who do not attend Mass weekly. And the less one attends Mass, the more noticeable the change. At first glance, this looks like a lot of Christmas and Easter Catholics taking surveys. At a deeper level, it's not just the Christmas and Easter Catholics. It's the younger Catholics. The ones who have not yet finished growing physically, mentally, or spiritually.

Catholicism approaches the nature of sin in a very convoluted matter. Most Catholic parents will be generally frank with their children in regards to sexual behavior. But outside this closed familial setting (and even between the various children of the family), the subject is strictly taboo. The closest thing I have ever heard in a priest's homily concerning sexual behavior was an explanation that Mark was not condemning marriage, but saying it's not for everyone. By contrast, you are almost guaranteed on a fairly regular basis in a Protestant or Evangelical church a lecture on sexual sin. The difference is that Catholics, in preparing their children for the world, equip them with the knowledge, but then immediately try to shield them from what that knowledge pertains to. Problem? Well, yes and no.

A friend of mine referred to Catholics as the "whores of Christendom". And the stereotype of the Catholic school girl/boy is not ill-founded. There is a tendency amongst Catholic youth to lose their virginity earlier than most, or to suppress their sexuality until very late and lose their virginity far later. We are the outliers in surveys for losing your v-card. Why is this? We are equipped early with the knowledge of how our bits work. We are also indoctrinated from an early age that it's simply not something to talk about. Friends, family, that girl you like on the bus, nope. We're not discussing it. Sex does NOT exist. So when a Catholic encounters it for the first time, there are really only two choices available: indulge or run. This initial reaction will determine future reactions for years to come.

What are we doing, then? On a deeply psychological level, we are experiencing intellectual dissonance. What we are doing doesn't make logical sense, even within our own mental framework. But anything dealing with mental dissonance of any kind shows that the more you engage such dissonance, the quicker it resolves itself. Hence, the ones who run from their early sexual experiences don't lose their virginity until their thirties. Those that engage immediately find themselves more ready to handle a mature sexual relationship earlier than their peers. Dissonance in music operates in much the same way. Ignore it, and the grating lack of proper harmonization continues. Engage, fight it, and overcome it, and you get chord resolutions that sound delightful. Much more delightful, even, than if the dissonance didn't exist in the first place.

So, in response to our bizarre method of "Inform, then Suppress", we are actively arming ourselves with the ability to engage that which we have to struggle against. Early Christian mystics made similar statements. To overcome sin, you must understand it, or remove yourself from the world entirely. The only way to understand would be to engage it. Latin Christendom didn't like this approach to much, so we argued to suppress it. But in Orthodoxy and the Eastern Churches, you have the concept of the Holy Fool who sleeps with dozens of women, eats meat on Fridays in Lent, and is still considered holy. In the West, you have a serious plethora of monastic orders.

But for those of us who cannot join a monastery or a convent, we are, in our own way, acting out the role of the holy fool. We may end up in the confessional way more than our priests would like, but what we are seeing is that sin is sin and no sin is worse than any other. This is a realization that is lost entirely in those churches that make it their mission to "cure" homosexuality or otherwise spend inordinate amounts of time battling it. All sexual sin is fornication. So the pulpit from which the fiery sermons of "gays in hell" originate should also be condemning premarital sex in high schools, divorce, adultery, and every other form of sexual sin. But if this was so, homosexuality would be lost in the din. So Catholicism, in its way, recognizes that sin is sin and doesn't try to adopt a particularly strong issue on one over all the others. And it allows the laity to engage in a way that is forbidden elsewhere, and develop a much more mature understanding of the world around them.

There isn't a change in Catholic teaching. The homosexual union would still be seen as sinful in the eyes of the Church. But to treat a fellow human being as less than equal would go against everything Christ stood for. And the laity, I feel, is realizing this and finally expressing it. Thank God for the Holy Fool, and the engagement of sin to overcome it, rather than the complete ignorance of sin found in so many other communities.

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