I was cyber-stalked last week, by an orthodox Catholic extremist. It was a little unsettling to read about 25 angry mini-screeds (most written within a 72 hour interval!) some pubic, others private, each bit of neurotic vitriol articulated in God's name -- but it was good for business! The cyber-stalker fixated especially on the possibility that he might prove that I am not Catholic. The whole episode was desperate, tedious and sad, but what interested me most about this man's quest was his Eureka moment came when he found what he saw as incontrovertible proof that I was not Roman Catholic: an R-rated poem published in an excellent online poetry publication, The Nervous Breakdown.
My Roman Catholic faith and worship are important to me. There are two crosses and a Blessed Mother on display in the room where I work on my novel, books of poetry and essays about education, politics and religion. There's a 9x11 framed copy of my "Masters Thesis Approval" form hanging above my desk, too. The man who sponsored this thesis, Allen Ginsberg, went to court to defend his book of verse -- which I also hold sacred -- against fools who deemed it obscene. I learned, as a girl, from reading Howl and other great works of literature, that using "dirty words" in a poem no a sin.
The word "angel" means messenger; sometimes angels use "dirty words," and thus render them clean.
It is telling, but not surprising that it was the sexy, "dirty word" poem which seemed to sent the cyber-stalker into a tizzy.
We're seeing this same kind of perversion play out on a much larger scale, with a far smarter writer than I in the eye of storm and center of the the pontifical dartboard. Sister Dr. Margaret Farley, in her not-exactly-hot-off-the presses-but-just-in-time-to-bump-the-United States-top-bishop-off-the-front-pages book "Just Love" has, according to Ratzinger, done the unforgivable. She's challenging the way the Vatican looks at sex. Not abortion, not contraception -- sex. Farley is, in a sense, using "dirty words."
I don't think the bishops especially mind good sex. Indeed, plenty of them have good sex or enjoyed it in their youth, but Ratzinger et al are afraid of women who like sex and of women who think liking sex could possibly be a good thing. They are afraid that potty-mouth female angel-messengers will reverse the Magisterium's anti-sex message.
If Catholic women like sex too much, the reasoning goes, the whole Holy Roman Catholic Empire will buckle. (In my three-part essay "Sex and the City of God" I float some "voice from the pews" theories on why the Vatican persists with its medieval views on sex.) The advance of feminism within the past 50 years has left both those Catholics who long to restore the church of five centuries ago, and the current pontificate, which views feminism as a threat to global evangelization, feeling jittery. The Vatican and orthodox fringe Catholic both want global Catholic expansion. The expansion they envision it is only possible if Catholic women comply sexually.
There are two reasons that the Vatican is jumping on Farley's book right now: 1) The "Gunning for the Nuns" initiative has been very successful at pushing stories about priests who rape boys and the bishops who (allegedly) serve as their accomplices after the fact off the front pages. 2) The other reason is that the Vatican wants women to like sex only enough to ensure a maximum number of new Catholic baptisms per annum.
Indoctrinating female Roman Catholics with the notion that sex is inherently sinful helps this plan along, but Catholic girls and women pay a price when they are taught to view their sexuality as a an essentially sinful aspect of their physical selves designed to be alternatively suppressed except when employed in the service of procreation within sacramental marriage. (I note that current Vatican teaching makes an allowance for non procreative love in the context of what it calls the "unitive love" between spouses in a sacramental marriage. Many in the anti-Vatican II. traditionalist fringe do not like the exemption for "unitive" love. Many of them believe any sex that lacks the potential to bear fruit is sinful.)
I believe a more honest, expansive, and (most of all) adult approach to understanding sexuality in the context of Roman Catholicism would go a long way toward creating more safety for children and a less defective priesthood. But today's Vatican will never permit that because it would blow the lid off the Pandora's Box, so to speak, of women's desire for knowledge, power and justice.
Just as the rule of celibacy for priests arose for economic reasons, so does the need to keep women "fruitful" exist for economic reasons. Desire is complex. It extends outward to include longing for knowledge and political power. That's where the gynephobia of the hierarchy comes in.
Women who command control over their own sexuality are more likely to mother more consciously and conscientiously. They are more likely to bring no more children into the world than they can truly afford to nurture, educate and feed. Women with fewer children tend to be better educated and have lives outside the home. It is easy to see why conservative Catholics fear this, because they are banking on Roman Catholic women to whelp those armies for Christ who will haul the church of the past into the future.
But Roman Catholic women who have fewer children are more likely to produce thoughtful, discerning Roman Catholics who live active, conscious lives in Christ and do the kind of work which drew the first Christians to follow Him. This would be very good for the church.
A woman who goes to a clinic to get birth control pills has her blood pressure taken, her breasts palpated, her weight checked, and a cervical cancer screening. A physician listens to her heart. Nuns who are open to "ObamaCare" are focused on health care outside of contraception, not free love. Many nuns recognize that in industrialized nations in which contraception and sex education are widely available, women are less likely to have abortions. The nuns who are currently under fire, including author, theologian and nun Dr. Farley, are not libertines. They aren't militating for the right of Catholic nyphomaniacs to run around town in fishnet stockings and hooker pumps trolling for sex. They are concerned with the hunger and poverty that results when medieval-style religious practice requires its women to breed like rabbits.
Even their worst enemies (that would be the Vatican, I suppose) recognize that nuns like Sister Margaret Farley aren't interested in the least in promoting perversion.
There is, however, something truly perverse about watching a Vatican credibly accused of being soft on child rape persecuting a Catholic theologian for the transgression of discussing sex.
It can't be denied that the decidedly erotic nature of our Roman Catholic faith demands that Catholics pay attention to the topic of sexuality. Obviously, Ratzinger knows that theological investigation of human sexuality is part and parcel of Roman Catholic inquiry; he has written much about human sexuality himself.
When Roman Catholic writers, artists and thinkers refuse to push erotic and sexual content away, it is a blessing.
We have a cardinal in the news who has pretty much admitted he paid priests who sexually violated minors to disappear. In other words, he knew priests were raping children, declined to report them and sent them off with pocket money, little to lose and no guarantees that these men would not rape again. Can an authority that refuses to condemn such transgressions against children possibly be seen as having the slightest credibility at all when commenting on any book about faith and sex?
I watched Steve McQueen's film "Shame" on Easter Monday about two months ago. Those on the hunt for anti-Catholic elements will not find them in "Shame," but the film struck me as quite Catholic -- which might explain why my friend, a Roman Catholic priest, exhorted me to see it. In "Shame," the body promiscuous becomes the vessel of suffering. This could never have been achieved without graphic depictions of attractive people having ugly, empty, mechanical sex while utterly failing at both love and lovemaking. This argument, which the Magisterium would favor, was made by means of by imagery it would surely deem obscene.
Can church leadership that has so long dwelled in the mire of perversion and obscenity be trusted to offer any wisdom at all on human sexuality? No.
Sidebar: As it turns out, it appears my "condemn-a-Luciferian-liberal-to-Hell-for-Christ" cyber-stalker helped sell a couple of copies of my own 2009 book.
Ratzinger will sell tens of thousands of copies of "Just Love." It's nice to see the pope doing something right.