Friday, April 22, 2005


The proliferation of priests on television the past couple of weeks reminds me of a joke I often heard missionaries tell in Catholic-dominated Chile.
A Catholic priest invites a mormon Bishop over to discuss issues of mutual concern in their community. The priest is a good host, but not past needling his ecclesiastical colleague: "May I offer you a cup of coffee?"

"You're very kind," replies the Mormon bishop, "but no, thank you, we don't drink coffee."

"Why, Bishop, you don't know what you're missing! How about some tea?"

"Very gracious, Father, but again I must decline. We don't drink tea either."

"Ah, you don't know what you're missing. Well, perhaps we could ease into our discussion with a glass of bourbon and a fine cigar?"

"Father, I appreciate the gesture, but we don't smoke or drink."

"Well, you don't know what you're missing! On to the business at hand, then."

Their business is dispatched smoothly. Turning back as he makes his way out, the Bishop issues a final farewell: "Give my best to your wife."

"Why, Bishop, you know we don't marry."

The Bishop shakes his head: "Father, you don't know what you're missing!"

It may be utterly juvenile on my part, but while watching the priests "pontificate" on television, for some reason the celibacy thing distracts me to the point that I can hardly hear what they're saying. In the two worldviews I've taken seriously, sexuality and reproduction play a central role: In Mormon theology, it is practically the defining characteristic of godhood; in evolution, it defines "survival of the fittest." From these perspectives, to be without family or expectations of it is to practically not exist. (In Mormonism, even those who must do without look forward to receiving in eternity all blessings they were denied in mortality.) To choose celibacy willingly seems so abnormal, so out of sync with reality, that it makes it hard for me to lend credibility to anything they say.

There is a strong emotional response on my part here. Seeing sexuality as an integral part of manhood, and unwilling to conceive of anything different for myself, it is perhaps hard for me to think of them as "real men." The revulsion is similar to that evoked by the punishment Odysseus meted out to the wicked suitors, who had their privy parts ripped off and fed to the dogs. (As I recall, for some reason the epic insists on repeating this over and over.)

But there is an intellectual component too. Now, I may have a lot to learn about the fine points of theology (even Mormon theology---I haven't read Blake Ostler's book). But I can't help thinking that for all the much-vaunted "intellectual consistency" of the Catholic "culture of life," the wheels must have come off the logic wagon in a major way when it came to celibacy. Artificial birth control is banned; how ironic, then, to bestow the title of Father upon those whose elective unnatural lifestyle amounts to the most severe method of artificial contraception imaginable! Unlike other methods, this one appears to be waning in popularity---a reality that might, someday, bring someone to their senses.


I'm not sure you can so easily fault Catholic priests for being "unnatural" in foregoing family and children in favor of service to God and the church. Mormon missionaries do that too, remember (for two years). What is natural for humans? We create our own nature, to some degree. A good deal of the self-discipline and sacrifice at the heart of most religious morality is non-natural in the sense that it asks us to go against type. As Jesus noted, if we love only those that love us, we are no better than greedy tax collectors (publicans). Doing something with no expectation of return, the essence of charity, is starkly inconsistent with evolutionary explanations of behavior. Biologists spend an inordinate amount of time debunking altruism because it plays such a central role in human behavior.

The sacrifice asked of priests is a measure to protect the church from nepotism. One only needs to look at the list of LDS senior leaders from 1830 to now to see how reasonable that concern is. If Hyrum hadn't died too, I'll bet we would have had twelve President Smiths! 
Comment by Dave | 4/22/2005 04:03:00 PM  

We had better be careful our condemnation of "unnatural" behavior because we might end up condemning ourselves. Sexual abstinence before marriage is unnatural. Fidelity in marriage in unnatural. In fact all Godly behavior is in one way or another unnatural. The Catholics don't use the Book of Mormon but if they did they would quote King Benjamin to you: The natural man is an enemy to God. 
Comment by Geoff Johnston | 4/22/2005 04:09:00 PM  

Dave , I think you're a little too stark in your portrayal of which aspects of our nature evolution might or might not plausibly account for (probably a discussion for another time). But yes, clearly culture in general and religion in particular play a major role in moderating individualistic impulses, and yes, these are partly within our control.

Rules and sacrifice are necessary for communities to exist, but I think they can "take strength unto themselves" to a point that goes well beyond the degree necessary to keep peace and happiness in the community. I think celibacy is an example of this.

The nepotism angle is interesting, I had never heard of that as an important reason for celibacy. Clearly our church took a different route. Confident that God is at the helm, not only in the inspiration of callings, but in directing which spirits are born where, I doubt most Mormons would have a problem with nepotism (despite Pres. Hinckley's recently expressed sensitivity).
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/23/2005 11:58:00 AM  

Geoff , as I said to Dave, don't disagree about the need for self-control. It's true that the Book of Mormon is permeated with a pessimistic view of the depravity of man, but I think Joseph's theology outgrew that with notions of our being essentially the same type of being as God (including drives for procreation). Since Nauvoo an optimistic view of the essential goodness of humanity is the norm in the Church: We hear mostly about being children of God, our divine worth, eternal potential, etc., etc.

Now it's a little unfair of me to come down so hard on them when their theology doesn't include divine procreation (in spite of D&C 132, maybe ours doesn't either; hence my allusion to Blake's book). They have a more general notion of what the "fatherhood" of God means, and hence what it means for a priest. When did the notion of God as Father first arise? It doesn't seem to be in (non-restoration) Old Testament views, does it?
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/23/2005 12:08:00 PM  

Of course, one needn't have sexual intercourse to have sexuality, or even to have sex. I know next to nothing about the present-day culture of priestly celibacy [bracketing the sexual abuse scandals], but medieval and renaissance traditions, at least, sublimated quite a lot of sacred eroticism into representations of Christ.

One must, however, have intercourse to have reproduction [bracketing artificial technologies]. And I think you're right that sexuality-cum-procreation was central to Joseph's thought, and Brigham's too. But it strikes me that the intercourse model of godly sex (a la Elder Holland , or Russell Arben Fox) is more attractive to men than to women, and when advocated presently is often characterized by a slightly wishful idealization of the mutuality of the act.  
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/24/2005 12:12:00 AM  

Rosalynde, I am completely ignorant of and completely fascinated by the historical artistic sublimations you mention (as you know I am weak in the humanities, but anxious to learn). By way of a primer, is there any chance you might be prevailed upon to provide a guest post here on "sacred eroticism in medieval and renaissance representations of Christ"? (All in favor, say "Aye." I'm hoping that this unusual subject might be one you'd rather treat here where no one will see it, rather than risk alienating the million (to within a factor of two) visitors of T&S who might be startled by such a subject...)

Two things you mention, the sexual abuse scandals and artistic sublimation, may be examples that sexuality is a central part of our natures that will not be denied, but work its way to the surface in one form or another. For all the strictness of our orthopraxis (just to throw that new-to-me word around), I for one am grateful that we allow (even celebrate, at least the males, according to you) a tangible, concrete, and fruitful realization of this aspect of ourselves.

On the mutuality point... For several reasons, I will simply allow your word to stand, and not dare to touch it with a ten-foot pole!
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/24/2005 02:43:00 PM  



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