The End of Catholic Guilt
By Timothy Egan
New York Times
April 15, 2016
The comedian George Carlin used to say that he was a Roman Catholic “until I reached the age of reason.” For Carlin, that happened sometime in the eighth grade, when all his probing questions about faith were answered with, “well, it’s a mystery.” Of course, as a lifelong contrarian, Carlin also wondered if it was O.K. for a vegetarian to eat animal crackers.
I thought of him while reading the latest institution-shifting document from Pope Francis, “Amoris Laetitia” — the Joy of Love. The title sets the tone for the continuation of a quiet revolution. Note that it’s not called the Job of Love, the Duty of Love or the Unbearable Burden of Love. Instead, the pope implies that there’s considerable fun to be had in human relationships. You can even find in its 256 pages a mention of the “erotic dimension” of love and “the stirring of desire.” Yes, sex. The pope approves of it, in many forms.
And while skeptics were disappointed that the latest apostolic exhortation did not change church teachings regarding Catholics who are divorced or in same-sex marriages, the document signals the end for one particular kind of medieval millstone — Catholic guilt, especially in regard to sex.
He’s not talking here about the guilt that generations of clerics and their enablers should feel for the crimes of sexual abuse against the young, an institutional cancer tied to its own awful pathology.
The new teachings, from a self-professed less-judgmental church, go to the everyday lives of people who don’t believe that they should be constantly reminded of their inadequacies. By emphasizing the inclusive and the positive, the church under Francis strives to be more “modern family” than “monastic denial,” and will even let some things go. “No one can be condemned forever,” says the pope, which seems to rule out that burn-in-hell-for-eternity thing. He offers tips, as well, for how to keep “the passion” alive.
It wasn’t so long ago that hearing the word “erotic” from a man who’s taken a vow of chastity was blush-worthy. Catholic doctrine, as laid out in spiritual statutes governing human conduct, featured an exhaustive list of enumerated offenses.
Sex was dirty. Sex was shameful. Sex was unnatural. Thinking about it was wrong. Premeditation itself was a sin, and so was flirting. Sex had one purpose: procreation, the joyless act of breeding. “The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks and actions,” was admonition No. 256 in the Baltimore Catechism, the standard text used to teach the faith from 1885 to the late 1960s.
No. 256 also warned about the dangers of “sinful curiosity, bad companions, drinking, immodest dress and indecent books, plays and motion pictures.” If that sounds now like the dynamics of a good dinner party, you can also see this pope joining the fun at the table.
I can’t tell you how many Catholics I know who are trying to work through the consequences of those sexual strictures. They wonder if there are still people doing time in purgatory because of the misdemeanor sins of masturbation or premarital sex. Life was all don’ts and dark thoughts.
As Jack Donaghy, the character played by Alec Baldwin in “30 Rock,” explained: “Whether things are good or bad, or you’re simply eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt.”
The old message was: If you break the rules, you’re condemned. Shame, shame, shame. The new message is: Welcome, for forgiveness is at the heart of this faith.
Sex “is a marvelous gift from God,” Francis wrote. “The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy.” Those living less than ideal marital unions are no longer vilified as sinners to be scorned. “Irregular unions” is the term coined by Pope Francis.
“Hence it can no longer be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situations are living in a state of mortal sin,” he wrote. You can read that as a papal pardon of sorts. Yet for this kind of language and fresh air, the pope has come under renewed attack from conservative Catholics. One critic called the latest treatise “The Joy of Sex.” Well, yes.
The pope’s guidance would be a relief to the millions of Catholics living in those newly classified irregular unions, if they ever gave it a second thought. The truth is that a majority of Catholics in Europe and the United States have long since stopped listening to church dictates about sex. A British study in 2013 found that only 1 in 10 regular attendees at Mass felt any guilt over using contraception, long shunned by the church. Evangelical Christians and Muslims were more likely to feel guilt over sexual sins, the survey found.
Pope Francis is merely acknowledging the obvious. As he’s done before, he’s using words to change hearts, rather than trying to wrangle with the rusted plumbing of church doctrine. Still, to George Carlin’s point, some things will always remain a mystery, but then so is love.