Sex and companionship

Sex and companionship

Max Lindenman — everybody’s favourite blogger (or mine, anyway) — recently posted on the limits of companionship in a life of celibacy.

He was responding to a post on a blog called Sexual Authenticity. Melinda Selmys suggests the most common cause of sexual sin is isolation and loneliness:

The sexual appetite is an urge to overcome isolation, to give and receive another person. A person who is fulfilled in their daily life through other forms of ‘knowing and being known’ will find that chastity frees them to be generous and loving and to receive love and generosity without the clinging neediness of sex. The problem is that most people in the contemporary world are literally starving for human communion, and sex fills that need at least temporarily.

How true. Who could possible argue with that? Selmys is especially good in critiquing the old chestnuts about contemporary licentiousness.

Lindenman, however, is less enamoured by Selmys’ solution:

She stumbles, I think, in recommending “companionship” as an antidote for sexual promiscuity. That’s like saying apples are a substitute for oranges. The Greeks conceived of Eros as a kind divine madness or pleasurable wound. While pounding sand after Daphne, Apollo wheezes, “There is no herb to medicate my wound, and all the arts that save have failed [me].” Even while spiritualizing Eros, Plato allowed that its aim is possession of the beloved. Aristotle’s Philia, or a bond of mutual affection and concern between good people, is a much tamer animal. In its own right, for its own sake, it’s great; but it doesn’t satisfy the precise needs that will make you send Long Island iced teas to the girl down the bar in the push-up bra.

Mostly, I think Lindenman is spot on.

As the seminary’s resident spiritual director once warned us, priestly celibacy leaves a gap which even Jesus cannot fill. That’s not to deny that intimacy with God is possible or that it is satisfying; only to observe that it is different to sexual intimacy.

Some people can’t be happy — they can’t be fulfilled — by celibacy. That needn’t reflect poorly on them. St Thomas More, for example, is generally believed to have abandoned thoughts of a monastic life because he concluded celibacy wasn’t for him. Instead he became a husband and father of such heroic virtue, that quite apart from his martyrdom, he is remembered as “the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints.”

In the same way, Pope Francis (before he was elected pope) shared his own experience as a seminarian falling in love, and his advice to seminarians in a similar predicament:

When this happens, one has to get one’s bearings again. It’s a matter of one choosing again or saying, “No, what I’m feeling is very beautiful. I am afraid I won’t be faithful to my commitment later on, so I’m leaving the seminary.” When something like this happens to a seminarian, I help him go in peace to be a good Christian and not a bad priest.

If God himself can’t “plug the gap” which continence creates, it’s disingenuous to suggest that chaste companionship will do it. So it’s in this sense that Lindenman is right to identify ‘the limits of companionship.’

On the other hand, I think he has perhaps diminished the power of friendship. Aristotle considered the chaste love of ‘perfect friendship’ — wherein two people spend a lot of time together, doing things in common — as the key to eudomonia, or the secret to happiness. This sort of companionship, which to be fair to Selmys is the sort we should consider as a salve to sexual sin, doesn’t resemble the “tamer animal” Lindenman describes.

But here I am, quibbling over Lindenman’s post, which is quibbling over Selmys’ post. Better, instead, to read them for themselves. They are both well-written and thoughtful reflections on love and lust, and they will no doubt get you thinking yourself.

Melinda Selmys: Sad bad sex.

Max Lindenman: The limits of companionship.

Octopuses! Or is it octopie?

Octopuses! Or is it octopie?

I was going to blog on something serious tonight. But that can wait.

Instead, I was captivated by a remarkable article which Max Lindenman recommended with the moniker: “These suckers are smart.” (Sometimes I think he scours the Internet for articles with the sole purpose of posting puns on Facebook.)

It’s a long article, but it doesn’t read like one. Here’s an appetiser:

WHILE ALEXA WARBURTON was researching her senior thesis at Middlebury College’s newly created octopus lab, “every day,” she said, “was a disaster.”

She was working with two species: the California two-spot, with a head the size of a clementine, and the smaller, Florida species, Octopus joubini. Her objective was to study the octopuses’ behavior in a T-shaped maze. But her study subjects were constantly thwarting her.

Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor—and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” Warburton said. “It’s so weird!”

Admit it. You want to read the rest now!

Meanwhile, in Korea:

I could never do this. When I was a kid, I wanted an octopus like that as a pet!

Civility matters

One of the best articles I’ve read which relates to the recent shooting in America is “I am Adam Lanza’ mother.”

It’s a very personal and thoughtful call for better mental health care for children — especially boys — who are afflicted with violent tempers and psychotic episodes.

Like any article, it contains claims which others can dispute, and conclusions which require scrutiny and debate. And like any article online, it has attracted ferocious attack from trolls who show astounding insensitivity and hatefulness.

In contrast to this, three of my favourite bloggers have reviewed their online tone in light of the tragedy in Connecticut.

Max Lindeman:

The great mass of my Facebook cronies and I managed to do something that just a little earlier would have seemed almost as miraculous. For a few hours, we canned our opinions, clamped off our snark glands, and went out of our way to be gentle to one another.

Kat Fernandez:

In a more recent example of times when I should have been the better person and just left well enough alone, I called an atheist blogger hateful for exploiting the Sandy Hook tragedy to advanced his agenda against Christians. He used one tweet, out of the hundreds of thousands in support of the victims and their families, to paint all Christians as vengeful religious fundies . . .

. . The incident forced me to recall all the times I’ve done the exact same thing. When a Christian church is burned to the ground by Muslim hands I am quick to post something nasty about the “religion of peace”. Hi, pot. You’re black. Love, the kettle. I do this because I need to have a reason to validate my hatred. It makes it easier to continue to hate and not to not feel bad for doing so. Again, pray for me. Please.

Elizabeth Scalia:

Now that the first fog of everything-the-press-got-wrong is lifting, and people are asking“why” I wonder about the time and the place, and if bullying from a decade ago, or longer, played into the creation of the evil and misery unleashed upon so many innocents, yesterday.

Everything matters. Everything ripples through time and our lives, like a pebble tossed to a pond, we cannot know what gets touched upon which shore . . .

. . Every day it becomes clearer to me that we must each BE the change we wish to see in the world — fix ourselves and be gentle with others. It’s a waste of time to try to compel others to be what we think they should be.

Trolling and nasty, personal argumentation are very human. Put it down to concupiscence. But it’s also very human — very humane — to declare a cease fire at times of moral crisis, like the September 11 attack, and the Newtown shooting.

The bloggers I quoted were able to do that because they still observe civility. Trolls don’t do that. A million bloggers I haven’t quoted don’t do that.

Civility matters. But civility is dying. Which is why I still defend Cardinal Dolan’s prophetic gesture earlier this year.

The Catholic voice in public debate

Many readers would be familiar by now with the recent news of Leah Libresco, who previously blogged at Patheos’ atheist portal, under the banner: Unequally Yoked: a geeky atheist picks fights with her Catholic boyfriend. Not anymore. Now Libresco blogs under the banner: Unequally Yoked: a geeky convert picks fights in good faith.

Since Libresco joined Max Lindeman over at Patheos’ Catholic portal, Lindeman was bound to blog about Libresco’s high-profile conversion sooner or later. And so he has, providing a typically thoughtful meditation on intellectual conversion and the evangelisation of our modern culture. He makes many claims in that post which I agree with, but I’m not so sure about this one:

These days, Christians had better sound smart. The dice are cogged against authority. Cite the Bible, any pope, or either Vatican Council, and you’ll probably hear “So what?” If Christianity wants to survive as a cultural force, or inform public policy, it had better explain itself in terms intelligible to people who reject its supernatural basis.

It’s not crystal clear what Linderman means by this. If he means that we shouldn’t argue from authority, and fundamentalism is better eschewed, then of course I agree whole-heartedly. We must argue from reason — but not rationalism. Just because some of our listeners reject our supernatural basis, doesn’t mean we should reject our supernatural arguments.

In the seminary, though, I was taught otherwise. Here are a few examples of the claims some of our professors made:

  • We can only win the pro-life debates by appealing to a secular humanist account of human rights and dignity. Leave God out of it.
  • We can only win the debate about gay marriage by appealing to the natural institution of marriage, and the precedent of cultural history. Leave the Theology of the Body out of it.
  • We can only win the God debate by invoking philosophical grounds for theism. Leave Christian revelation out of it.

Sometimes these rules are good to follow. In the political campaigns to introduce euthanasia, it is advisable for Catholics to cultivate a broad alliance with other interested parties — the medical practicioners who do not want a license to kill patients, the lobby groups who represent the most likely targets of euthanasia, other religious objectors. In that case, it is much better to argue from common ground, and leave the Catholic apologetics for another time.

But over all, I think these rules have been disastrous. The Catholic Church has been on the backfoot for years, and still we are told that the only way forward is to keep doing what we’re doing? “Argue from the natural law (but don’t call it natural law), and people of different faiths and no faith will be convinced. (And ignore the fact that we’re even losing the case with Catholics themselves!)”

An example of where this approach won’t work, I think, is the debate over same sex marriage. Here we have an opportunity to present the good news about sex and marriage which is very specific to the Christian tradition. It’s deeply theological and even supernatural, so it’s going to offend some people, and bamboozle others. But it’s also deeply attractive, and tragically unknown by the majority of Christians themselves — including couples who have received the sacrament of marriage!

The good news is attractive because Christ is attractive. But in a well-intentioned bid to avoid offence and foster harmony, we sometimes forget to mention Christ! The Lord’s remarks about the light and the bushel come to mind.

This post was prompted by a presentation at the clergy conference I’ve been attending. Dr Gerard O’Shea argued that an exaggerated distinction between grace and nature has produced a sort of dualism which impedes the Church’s evangelisation. His paper is available to download, but I haven’t had time yet to read it. Here’s an appetiser:

In moving into the Roman world, the first Christians encountered a secular culture whose social, political and cultural characteristics bore a striking resemblance to the contemporary period. Yet these Christians did not feel constrained to present only those aspects of their message that would be acceptable. For most of its history, the presentation of a Christian message in the “public square” has entailed both theological and philosophical perspectives. Today, Catholics seem “self-limited” by an unspoken demand that they argue solely from philosophical and scientific positions in public debates. This approach often fails to present a distinctively Christian viewpoint. As early as 1946, Henri de Lubac pointed out that this side-lining of the Christian view was not solely the result of secularist agitation. Since the sixteenth century, the generally accepted notion that human reality is composed of two separate dimensions – natural and a supernatural – has given the impression that one can speak of a discrete natural order which is unaffected by grace.

When Catholics confine themselves to naturalistic arguments, they deceive no one. Secularists – who argue from their own perspective of “belief” – are able to accuse their Catholic opponents of having a hidden agenda, and of lacking the courage of their convictions by concealing what really motivates them. Any movement away from this situation is likely to be met with derision. Nevertheless, while neither Christians nor Secularists should impose their political views on others, Catholics should feel free to mount the full range of their arguments in public and should reject the notion that they are bound by rules of engagement set by their intellectual opponents.

I’m looking forward to reading it, and posting a proper treatment. In the meantime though, I have located a short passage from Fulton Sheen’s autobiography which seems to vindicate part of the thesis. Here the Archbishop recalls a trip to Athens, where he followed the footsteps of St Paul:

Every night I went to Mars Hill and reread that famous speech of St Paul in chapter 17 of Acts. From the point of view of rhetoric and pedagogy it was a perfect speech. First he began with a tribute that was to win their souls. Paul spoke about how God made the universe, was the Lord of Heaven and earth, did not dwell in temples made with hands (such as the beautiful one he was looking on); that He made of one blood every nation of men that dwelled upon the face of the earth, fixing the limits and extent of their habitation, and inspiring them to seek God even though they might be groping in the darkness. God, Paul said, was not far from any one of them. As the poet put it, “We are all His offspring.” Paul then jumped to the subject of Judgement and the Resurrection.

He made only two converts — a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. The talk was not a success. It was rather one of Paul’s great failures. He left the city immediately after the talk and walked to Corinth. He never went back to Athens, never wrote a letter to the Athenians, and there is no record he established a church in Athens.

As I sat evening after evening reading that speech, it finally dawned on me why St Paul had failed in that talk. He had failed to mention the Name of Christ and His Crucifixion. I am sure that as he walked that dusty road between Athens and Corinth he must have said over and over again what he later wrote to the Corinthians: “I am resolved among you to know nothing but Christ and Him Crucified.”

Keeping it positive

Keeping it positive

No sooner did I publish that last post, that I regretted it. My spiritual director suggested a few months ago that I would do better to keep my blog positive. He acknowledged that controversy attracts traffic, but controversy doesn’t have to be negative.

For what it’s worth, more than one reader agreed. I received several comments, and more e-mails, querying my decision to comment on the Fr Kevin Lee news story.

I don’t think the post below on the Legionaries of Christ is negative per se, but it’s not exactly positive either. All this was going through my mind when I visited my favourite blogger, whose latest post right addresses this very topic:

This weekend at the Catholic Media Conference in Indianapolis, Bishop Christopher Coyne who once served as spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, offered some advice to folks in my line of work. Point one: Take the high road. Point two: Stay on message, meaning, the Good News. Point three: Build up, rather than tear down. It does sound a bit like a recipe for editorial blandness. It definitely sounds like an invitation for pundits to re-direct their rage inward, or toward their pets. But, as Coyne demonstrates, all of his points have their roots in Scripture, not to mention common sense. The Church as a body, and each of its individual members, already have all the enemies they need.

Read it all. It’s Lindenman at his finest.

As for me, I’m going to lay off for the rest of the day. I haven’t posted this much in a single day since I was a seminarian. If you didn’t know it already, you might have guessed today is the first day of a short holiday. There’s no place like airports to incite serial blogging!