Saturday, September 18, 2010

Masturbation and the Moral Order

Absurd as it is in most ways, Christine O'Donnell's senate campaign has performed the good service of calling attention to the Catholic church's insane view of masturbation. Most American Catholics don't pay any more attention to this teaching than they do the church's views on birth control, but officially the church still thinks masturbation is "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." The church used to say that the only acceptable reason to have sex was to conceive a child, so enjoying it in any way was a sin. Over the past 150 years they have liberalized their view to the extent that they accept sex as part of married love, endorsing "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."

This business of "the moral order" creeps me out.

The church holds to a vision of human life that has its fullest expression in a monastery, where every action conforms to a careful plan. Every time of day has its allotted task, and one should only walk to get from one task to another. One should only speak purposeful words, to make the tasks easier or to acquire knowledge that will lead toward salvation. Waste is offensive and forbidden; laughter dubious. The church's genius for ritual springs from this same love of order and the measured passage from one task to the next. Outside the convent, these theologians imagine a world where people obey the laws, work hard at the tasks their bosses assign them, marry sensibly, love the people they should love, and never make trouble.

It is this side of the church's teaching that has made it a good partner for fascist dictators and dictatorial kings. Again and again in human history we have seen rulers who were appalled by the riotous disorder that prevailed among their subjects. The people, they said, should stop goofing off, stop getting drunk, stop fornicating, and do what they are told. They should work harder and stay where they can be counted and be observed. They should shun fripperies and be happy with the essentials of life. They should avoid waste and stay on task.

As far as I am concerned, the correct religious term for a perfectly ordered world would be "hell." I find this vision of an ordered, purposeful, tightly controlled world horrifying. It is true that a world of chaos is equally frightening, but that is no excuse for totalitarianism. To live, we must maintain order of a sort. But the life force is a force of chaos, a riotous upwelling of energies that push and pull in every direction. Life is violent, sexual, torn by powerful emotions, full of conflict, and given to waste in extravagant proportions. To live fully, we must embrace some of the chaos, waste, and violence that is our animal birthright. It is our task as thinking beings to find a balance between the order we need and the chaotic forces that gave birth to us and surge through us.

To imagine that masturbation is a "grave" force for disorder is to desire a world that would be far toward the rigid and puritanical end of life's possibilities. If masturbation is gravely disordered, then I am a chaos agent of satanic magnitude. And so is everyone else I know. Masturbation is something like bungie jumping: pointless and wasteful, at least of time, perhaps tacky, but also absolutely unimportant. People who worry about such things have their minds in the wrong place: fretting about disorder when they should be concerned about something that matters, like justice, or when, perhaps, they should be off doing something pointless, wasteful, and fun themselves.


Anonymous said...

To be fair to the Church, I doubt that Ms. O'Donnell uttered her words at the urging of a group of bishops who are on a campaign to impose monastic "moral order." In this case, she's really speaking for herself and her own private lunacy. These days, I think they're pretty happy if they can stay out of the scandal sheets for a month running, and fill more than half the places in a seminary class.

And, to be fair to the old dynasts, few of them took moral legislation like this very seriously. ("Do you want to masturbate? For a small fee you can get a royal charter giving you the privilege . ..") The people who've really troubled the wider world trying to impose a monastic vision of life on everyone are the revolutionaries, from Cromwell to Robespierre to Che and Pol Pot.

John said...

It is certainly true that modern revolutionaries have been more effective in imposing their moral visions than Catholic kings. But many early modern kings had the impulse (as Foucault documented ad nauseam) and there were always bishops willing to help, which is why it troubles me that Catholic doctrine still contains all this "moral order" stuff. Franco's Spain, I gather, managed to make things very gray, although they never persuaded anyone to work hard.

As an aside, this kind of thinking was very big in China, too; western newspapers call this Confucianism, but hints of the doctrine appear in the oldest Chinese sources.

Anonymous said...

Some Catholic kings tried but were not "effective" in imposing this monastic moral vision, but my experience is that the reason most were not effective "monasticizers" is because their moral vision was not genuinely, ardently monastic--certainly not before the Council of Trent. Their moral legislation was designed to go through traditionalist motions or to satisfy a noisy constituency or perhaps their own tepid guilt feelings. Yes there were exceptions--Louis the Pious, Charles the Lame and Robert the Wise of Naples, etc. After Trent, yes, things were different in some places (though Foucault didn't document the phenomenon ad nauseam; he mostly read a few pieces of declaratory legislation very closely). The revolutionaries were effective in large measure because they were so much more fanatical.