In 1961 Robert Frost stammered through part of a poem he couldn’t quite read on a snowy and bitterly cold Washington day.
The occasion was the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States. Choosing Frost, then in his eighties, to lend dignity to a ceremony so prosaic it can only be compared to buying stamps, was a stroke of genius–a tribute to Kennedy’s New England roots and the liberal protestant tradition that went with it. Even Presbyterian schoolteachers in Raleigh loved his poetry.
Yes, the new guy was Catholic, the thinking went, but he was also a product of New England’s finest Yankee institutions, Choate and Harvard. Some of that must have had a civilizing effect, though few south of Maryland or west of Pennsylvania had heard of Choate and what they knew of Harvard they didn’t like much. They still don’t.
In that era, when there was still a “Catholic vote,” there was also little disagreement between Catholics and protestants over issues like abortion (illegal), contraception (risky, no pill), and divorce (heinous for Catholics but not recommended for others with political designs, either).
The fear of protestants was not that Catholics would impose a socially conservative agenda on the country but that America would become a colony of Rome and that the pope would rule in absentia. Kennedy put a hole in that senseless idea in a famous speech in 1960 when he said,
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
How things have changed. The Catholic church is now as loud and politically obtrusive as Kennedy required it not to be to win an election. Though Catholics and protestants come out nearly even in surveys concerning prevalence of “pre-marital” sex (I know: it sounds quaint, doesn’t it?), birth control and even the incidence of abortion in cases of unintended pregnancy (Protestants account for 37.4% of all abortions in the U.S.; Catholic women for 31.3%, Jewish women for 1.3%, and women with no religious affiliation, 23,7%), the Catholic church has decided to make abortion its cause celebre in its battle for social and moral relevance.
HE Gospel of Life -obsession of the official Church is largely based on traditional Catholic moral teaching as expounded by the bewildering and now blessed John Paul II. Along with its pre-modern understanding of human sexuality, it carries with its sanctity- of -life prescription a European- friendly condemnation of capital punishment and anti-war bias, as well as a totally incoherent ban on contraception as a way of reducing the instances of unwanted pregnancy. –Call it the Mother Theresa Ultimatum.
The contraception phobia, which dates back to Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (and the birth-control hysteria of the 1960’s) had nothing to do with a consistent sexual “moral theory” but with a theory of human nature formulated by St Augustine in the fifth century, based on the notion that pleasure was never intended by God as a part of human good. The equation between pleasure and sin is so firmly entrenched in Catholic psychology that it has to be seen as programmatic orthodox Catholic moral theology: a celibate priesthood, the veiling of women religious (nuns), a virgin birth, an immaculate conception, and a sexless apostolic community are just the doctrinal excrescences of an institutionalized fear of the flesh.
Curiously, alongside this partially disguised abhorrence of fleshly fulfillment the Catholic church still retains its admiration for the productivity of marriage and opposition to divorce. But when you consider that Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Andrew Cuomo, to name only prominent political figures, are forbidden (and with variable consistency have accepted that they are forbidden) to receive the Church’s most revered sacrament, while ghoulish mock-Catholics like Rick Santorum and parody-Catholic, spouse-abandoning, thrice married Newt Gingrich get the Church’s seal of approval for their extreme “pro-life” commitments, it is high time for The Catholic Church to declare itself a colony of the Tea Party.
As if this isn’t bad enough, Santorum has decided to break ranks with the Kennedy legacy by repudiating JFK’s robust appeal to the First Amendment as the guaranty that religion plays no role in the affairs of state. Calling the 1960 speech by Kennedy a “great mistake,” and a “radical statement that did much damage,” he said in a recent speech in Newton, Massachusetts:
We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process. Jefferson is spinning in his grave.
Which of course is true. At the ignorance of Rick Santorum. Rob Boston says mildly and to the point,
Look, it’s bad enough that you run around talking trash about Kennedy, but adding Jefferson to your Festival of Ignorance is just too much. Leave the man out of it. You apparently know nothing about him. Jefferson spent his entire life opposing government-mandated religion and fought every member of the clergy who supported that foul idea. Here’s a famous example: During the election of 1800, presidential candidate Jefferson knew that many New England preachers were yearning to win favoritism for their faith from the federal government. He also knew that they hated him because they realized he would never let that happen. That’s why they spread wild tales about Jefferson being a libertine who, if elected, would burn Bibles.
The social and moral “conservatism” of the Republican field is primarily an appeal to the ignorance of the American people. It’s the ugliest kind of alliance between the Church’s need to remain relevant by appealing to uteral issues and the political need of soulless office-grubbers to appear moral. Both are appeals to ignorance, to the Faithful, on the one side, who are often willing to refer moral responsibility to higher authorities and to “The American People” (often described virtuously as “the basic goodness and decency” of the American people) on the other, who can usually be counted upon to follow their gut and are often shocked slack-jawed when their gut takes them in the wrong direction as it did in the 2010 congressional runnings. It’s a little hard to swallow the opinion-polls of a nation who votes ignoramuses into office and then loses all respect for them once they get to their desk, isn’t it?
HAT is even more depressing is that the ignorance of a Rick Santorum is probably real rather than Machiavellian. He is as dumb about the history of his Church as he is about the history of his nation. And the machinations of the Catholic church–his church–while Machiavellian, are tragically self-centered and manifestly wicked.
Ever since the Jewish priestly class invented the story of cloddish Adam and compliant Eve, the hierarchy has known how to use an idiot to make a point: Do what you’re told. Don’t ask too many questions. Believe us: you don’t want the responsibility of knowing the big picture. Given those marching orders, it doesn’t matter what Jefferson really said or thought. It’s enough that there is an interpretation of him as a believing Christian who would spout, basically, the same things the Tea Party is saying if he were around today. There is no difference between history and delusion in Rick Santorum’s world.
Kennedy ended the speech that Santorum calls a big mistake with the following:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
In a scant fifty years, how have we come so far from regarding this kind of rhetoric as fundamental, rational and wise to seeing it as radically mistaken? And how much guilt does the Church bear for encouraging this treason against the first principles of American democracy by egging on the clods?
Well, the answer to your final question seems to be quite a lot, but then the Vatican is itself a country; admittedly it’s a very small one, but it has been exceedingly useful when it comes to providing safe refuge for people who might otherwise have faced the Courts in the US and elsewhere on such trifling matters as genocide and the sexual abuse of children.
Christopher Hitchens wrote in Slate about the influence of a Supreme Court packed with practising Roman Catholics back in 2010; Dan Savage, a reformed cradle Catholic, has taken the baton and is lambasting the current crop of supposedly devout Catholic politicians by pointing to their numerous failings to practise what they preach, as well as creating the now famous definition of santorum to be found in good dictionaries everywhere…
Frost said: “Something we were withholding made us weak, Until we found out that it was ourselves”. America was a promising independent nation, but now half of it (hopefully much less than half on the day) seems to be subservient to Vatholican. Which party stands for peace and the environment, healthcare and education? I know which one is fighting the election over uteral issues and divorce rates – the Tea Party in the sanitorium.
Even Presbyterian schoolteachers in Raleigh could see the error in your sentence:
“Choosing Frost, then in his eighties, to lend dignity to a ceremony so prosaic it can only be compared to buying stamps, was a stroke of genius–a tribute to Kennedy’s New England roots and the liberal protestant tradition that went with it.”
The first it should be removed, so the sentence reads,
Choosing Frost, then in his eighties, to lend dignity to a ceremony so prosaic can only be compared to buying stamps, was a stroke of genius–a tribute to Kennedy’s New England roots and the liberal protestant tradition that went with it.
“Choosing Frost” is the complete subject; the MV is “was” and “it” refers to ceremony (though “that it” might be slightly better). Who taught you sentence construction girl? Your revision makes no sense at all.
Whoa. Error 101 — Epic grammar correction fail. Reboot System? Y/N.
Jefferson may have burnt bibles (not certain), but he definitely cut and pasted them….
Hi Joe, good article. Argie is heavily engaged in trying to drum up support in the Dominican Republic for a secular state and abandonment of the Concordat entered into between the dictator Trujillo and the Vatican. An outrageous amount of money is provided to the Church by the government. You can read some of her material on her blog. argeliatejada.blogspot.com
A question: Did the Jewish priestly class actually invent the Adam and Eve story or did they pick it up from the older surrounding cultures and adapt it for their religious use?
Joe, as to Adam: the cast of characters, the garden, and other parts are familiar and the creation of Eve story probably Babylonian. It’s all been adapted to the Yahwist cult however, probably by priests who wanted to equate stupidity and disobedience by making Adam willful and ungrateful–what you have to be in any religion if the framework is to make any sense.
There are also two distinct creation stories with Adam, literally ‘man’, and his woman, contained in the Hebrew Bible. Both were probably collected and transmitted in writing by scribes. The biblical creation myths, like creation myths in other pre-scientific cultures, arose out of human attempts to understand their environment. It’s important to know and understand these myths as storytelling so that we can all appreciate them for they are: stories with histories and contexts.
I take it that when you talk about ‘the equation between pleasure and sin’ you really mean the equation between sex and sin. After all, there are plenty of other pleasures and I don’t think the Catholic church has been afraid of all of them.
As for ‘the doctrinal excrescences of an institutionalized fear of the flesh’ I can understand the reason for including three of the things on your list. But the virgin birth is in the gospels and is in no way the invention of the Catholic church. And as for the immaculate conception, well here I am stumped. What on earth does that have to do with the fear of the flesh?
Perhaps I might have said sensual or venal pleasures, and the Church has resolutely been against lust, gluttony and sloth. I wouldn’t contest that the virginity of Mary isn’t biblical but it also becomes the paradigm for the chastity of women, as Jesus and the disciples become a model for the chastity of men. Surely therefore this is a pleasure-denying ethos or discipline, isn’t it?
So are you in favour of lust, gluttony and sloth? The Catholic church has always taught that any pleasure can be indulged in to excess. There has also been a strong element in Catholic teaching that any sexual pleasure at all is sinful and I thought that was what you were referring to. As far as I know, the church has never taught that any other sensual pleasure was sinful in itself, when used in moderation.
Yes, the doctrine of the virgin birth may well have been used to discourage women from sex. But the doctrine itself is not to blame for that and was not thought up by the Catholic church.
You do not mention the immaculate conception. Do you agree that that doctrine does not belong in the list?
I do not agree that a doctrine tied to venality and biological generation of sin through sex does not belong on the list. Your earlier argument is that the virgin birth “is in the Bible” and while some doctrines have warrants in scripture others don’t. Surely thererfore you can’t mean that the doctrine is not the root of teachings about chastity even if the Church is not the only organization to possess such stories. It would be interesting to publish on the subject of the Church’s teaching on pleasure per se. Augustine’s view is complictaed because he doesn’t speak for the whole church tradition but even he would agree with you that pleasure is both a matter of intensity and an “end,” which if pursued for its own sake becomes an evil,
As well as the conception of Jesus being bereft of lustful, gluttonous sensuosity there is also an absence of blood. No broken hymen might have appealed to cultural sensitivities regarding purity laws. Bleeding, menstruating women were unclean therefore a breaking hymen… But while the ‘virginity’ of Mary is biblical, the idea is only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The ‘perpetual virgnity’ of Mary was a doctrine created by the church fathers who apparently devised it as a way for women to compensate or pay for, all the supposed sins of Eve. So the implication is that women must suffer in order to pay for inherited sins which are derived from a creation myth. Our ideal image is a virgin (with no ‘impure’ thoughts).
Obviously the doctrine of the virgin birth cannot be an excrescence of the Catholic church’s ‘institutionalized fear of the flesh’ if it predates the Catholic church. It also cannot be the cause of the teachings about chastity since chastity (at least in women) was highly valued before the doctrine was thought of. I suppose it could be argued that it was a cause of the church’s later very harsh views on the evil of sex but that seems unlikely to me since there are plenty of other interpretations of the doctrine.
I am very far from being an expert on Augustine and I do not feel able to discuss his views on pleasure. As you say, Augustine does not speak for everyone in the church but does even Augustine really say that doing something simply because you enjoy doing it is a sin?
I am very puzzled by your comment on the immaculate conception. I suspect, though I may be wrong, that what you really mean is the doctrine of original sin itself, not the doctrine of the immaculate conception. You talk about the ‘biological generation of sin through sex’. Do you object to the view that we are all born in a state of sin or that one person escaped it?
But even if you mean original sin it still seems a strange vew. Why should the idea that we inherit a propensity to sin cause or be caused by a ‘fear of the flesh’? Would the view that some undesirable character is inherited be necessarily connected to a fear of the flesh?
Anyway, I will leave it at that. Thank-you for answering my posts.
The equation between pleasure and sin is so firmly entrenched in Catholic psychology that it has to be seen as programmatic orthodox Catholic moral theology: a celibate priesthood, the veiling of women religious (nuns), a virgin birth, an immaculate conception, and a sexless apostolic community are just the doctrinal excrescences of an institutionalized fear of the flesh.
IN this regard there is something about the Catholic church that I’ve never understood.
If The Church has such an institutionalised fear of the flesh, then why is so much of its art so sensual?
Even the most moderate Muslim, for example, could never broker what is painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Also why is life in so many majority Catholic countries so sensual as well?
Catholic Bavaria has Oktoberfest with its highspirits, music, copious food and the endless cleavage of waitresses.
Oh-so Catholic Brazil has its Carnival, a baccnalian celebration of music, food, dance in which many of the participants are half naked, and which is used to mark the beginning of Lent, a very Catholic time of the year.
And why is it that nearly all of the world’s very best wines, Baccus’ favorite beverage, all come from majority, or at least formerly majority, Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain and France?
You never know what you got till it’s gone.
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