Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Robinson on the Puritans and Economic Justice

Marilynne Robinson is a fairly solid cultural ally for consistently Christian conservatives as far as criticisms of modern cultural and 'scientific' excess. She's not a big fan of the overarching cultural narratives that seem to have developed in modern times. While I was reading her books of essays, The Death of Adam, I found a great resemblance between much of her mission, and the mission of the more conservative Catholics I have known, in terms of being truly faithful to one's faith tradition on all matters, including matters of economics.

Speaking first of the so-called Christian right and then of the supposedly hypercapitalist "Protestant work Ethic", Robinson says in the chapter on "Family:"
"My own sense of [the Scripture], based on more than cursory reading, is that the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan [...] I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward particular holiness [...] I know those who have taken a course in American history will think this merger of Christian pretensions and bullyboy economics has its origins in Calvinism and in Puritanism. [...] Go find a place where they are guilty of this vulgarization. Or [...] find a hundred or a thousand places where they denounce it, taking inspiration, always, from the Bible."
Elsewhere in this same chapter she bemoans the loss of the Sabbath to commerce and labor, and the inability of the lower classes to refuse an employer, among other things. There are definitely places where she differs from the Catholics, but she is very much an ally in terms of bringing back the Sacred. And one thing I think Catholics can and should get behind her on is people actually reading historical things they want to condemn, or at least, not thinking they know too much about them to read them--Robinson pretty rightly lists the entire Old Testament among these so-known-nobody-reads-it works. The way that this theme comes through here is in Robinson's exasperation that this sort of Capitalism gets assigned to the Puritans when, really, it is so not what they meant. Though her book focuses mostly on correcting our distortions of what Calvinistic strains of Christianity actually taught in their historical forms, she seems quite obviously an ally of the more truly conservative Catholics who would also very much like to recall traditions of economic justice and fair limits on enterprise--as opposed to just legislating on abortion and gay marriage.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Catholicism and the "Modern Notion" of Consent

So bear with me. There's this "modern notion of consent" that we've seen some objections to, the one that had been given in the book Yes Means Yes, a group of feminist essays about dismantling cultures which aid and abet rape. In particular it seemed to run up against understandings about what it meant for a husband and wife to have a 'marriage debt' to each other. And a few weeks ago I finally got it formulated for myself as to what I don't like about the modern notion with respect to the Christian view of marriage. (In particular, a feminist friend of mine, and Eric, and others, have all served as sounding boards for my formulations.) I'm going to pull pretty heavily from commenters Eric, Nick and CJ to try and establish certain points. So enjoy.

Eric had said:
Your first question was what I meant by saying there is no analogy between modern "consentual sex" and marriage. I said this because your first post had a comment along the lines of "I would agree to such-and-such a statement in the book, provided its in the context of marriage." If you look up "marriage debt" you will see why there is no analogy.
The statement you're speaking of, I believe, is:
Obviously my stipulations about the proper and moral context of this initiative differ from that of secular feminism, but within a marital framework, if we truly consider the husband and wife equal in dignity, regardless of whether we're complementarians or egalitarians, is there any good reason not to treat the two as having an equal weight not only in consenting to their bodily union, which the serious thinkers on the subject in the Christian tradition has already taken seriously, but also in initiating it, in asking for that special bodily intimacy?
I need to write shorter sentences. I'm going to "trim the fat" a little, but I'm leaving the original there in case I trimmed something essential by mistake. (Please, someone let me know if I trimmed something essential.
[W]ithin a marital framework, if we truly consider the husband and wife equal in dignity [...] is there any good reason not to treat the two as having an equal weight not only in consenting to their bodily union [...] but also in initiating it, in asking for that special bodily intimacy?
I am in agreement that the modern notion of consent can't be applied here. Perhaps I spoke hastily or was slightly mis-phrased. What I do maintain is that reading Paul's injunction that a couple not deprive each other except by mutual consent does not imply that persons must, whenever asked, consent, except for the reasons Aquinas lists. Aquinas obviously has some major concerns about concupiscience--concerns with no small reason--but seems to overstate the case. The natural reading of the text seems to me, again, a guy with no Greek lexicon, to indicate that a marriage ought to have a healthy sex life unless there's some reason not to--not that every request must be met unless there's some reason not to. That said, I definitely don't think it's good for 'deprivation' to last longer than a few days without mutual consent; at that point I'd call it borderline; much further and I'd be willing to go as far as sin. I will say I think it's more important that two persons in a marriage have the same understanding of marriage debt, and that this understanding be consistently applied regardless of gender, than that every person who calls themselves Christian or Catholic has that same understanding. That is where I draw the line; if there is still disagreement, we will have to agree to disagree about this.

Now Nick had written, regarding the modern notions of consent:
The modern notion of consent operates in this framework: "You can only *use* me when *I* gain something from that *use*". That's prostitution. Pope Leo XIII called it "legalized concubinage."
I actually agree with what Nick is saying about the modern notions of consent; they do seem to (mostly) boil down to a mutual use. I think one big concern of the Yes Means Yes people is to correct hatever imbalances there might be in perceptions of the importance of male vs. female enjoyment of the act itself. That in itself is fine. I should hope the Church doesn't teach that one is more important than the other. And I don't at all think it would be Christian or loving to be unconcerned with how much one's spouse enjoys having sex. As a general pattern it does seem like the ideal presented by the Yes Means Yes crowd veers more in the direction of consenting mostly if not almost only when one is seeking pleasure. I should note that nowhere in the book have I actually read that said--but the overall tone suggests that consensual and pleasure-seeking sex is the ideal. And I sort of agree with them on that, but not really. I'll get back to that.

Nick went on to say:
The Catholic notion of "consent" (so-called) operates in different framework: "Through Charity (in which *I* love God and neighbor selflessly), *I* give myself to *You* in order that *You* grow in holiness and maturity as Spouse." (1 Cor 7, esp v3-5) Now, in a fallen world this is not easy for most of us, but it's a clear ideal, which the One True Church promotes and guards.
Yes. This goes along with what CJ had said in his response to Eric:
[S]ex within marriage must be understood [...] active consent, while not getting us all the way there, does reclaim some of that essence. It is an active giving and an active receiving. Yes, there is a marriage debt. But that marriage debt in light of the Christian Gospel is not to be fulfilled in the way we view, say, the ten commandments. These are, in fact, marriage debts owed by Christ's Church, his bride. But she is not to fulfill them because she has to, but because she wants to.
I actually agree with this, for certain definitions of "want." Of course forcing someone to go to Mass and take communion against their will would be wrong, but to convince them to will such so even if they didn't particularly desire it would not be. I definitely don't want to do service when I do in the sense of actively desiring it, but I do in the sense that I actively will it. Clearly there is a space in which we can will something, without wanting it in the colloquial sense, though in the sense of going to Mass or making love with our spouses desiring it is certainly the ideal.

So, as I see it, the things that are wrong with the 'modern notion' of consent seem to be:

1) It's tied up too much with seeking of pleasure in a hedonistic sense.
2) It does not, at least not prima facie, allow for consent to a reasonable sexual life with another person in the future.

So the overall tone of YMY, as I said above--and I have said this, and I may be wrong--but to me it suggests that consensual and pleasure-seeking sex is the ideal. And like I said, I sort of agree. I agree if we mean the pleasure of contemplating God, the pleasure of the proper union of spouses, the pleasure of two persons given to each other in Christ. In other words, pleasures that transcend the hedonistic. As for criticism (2), consent seems very much an immediate and for-the-moment thing in modern thought, and there is truth to this; a lack of consent for a sexual act makes it wrong. But in Christian marriage there is a sort of implied consent which does not imply one's consent whenever asked, but more of an agreement not to deprive one's partner of that facet of the relationship; there does seem to be an implicit agreement that one will consent in the future, sometimes, but not all of the time.

So with all of this in mind--here's my moral heirarchy. Here's what I'd call "good, passable, ehn, bad, worse, abhorrent" with respect to different uses or misuses of the 'marriage act'--specifically, here, the act within the Christian context of marriage. I think this does apply more or less to other marriage as well, but I can only claim to speak most fully about what I see as the ideal coming from my perspective as a Catholic.

Good: Husband and wife with a healthy sex life, because they want (desire) to have one.
Passable: The same, but because they want (will) to have one.
Ehn: The same, but just to pay their marriage debt. So, really, probably not as healthy as it could be.
Bad: Either a lack of sex that constitutes "deprivation" on the part of one partner or the other, without mutual consent for prayer. Here's where we cross the line into sin, as we've clearly violated a Scriptural mandate. (Again, I can't know for each couple when this line is crossed.)
Worse: Coercion on the part of one partner or the other under threat of sin.
Abhorrent: Marital rape.

I'm not sure if there's a giant difference between my descriptions for "passable" and "ehn." So I'm not sure exactly how else I'd construct Christian marital consent; obviously this was not a rigorous process for me, and quite frankly I don't know if it's something I want to try and construct with much more rigor unless I find myself breaking into academia and studying Catholic sexual ethics as part of my living. So there it is, for now at least.

Anyway, Hope you all have enjoyed this ride as much as me. Comments as usual are welcome. This will probably be the last Yes Means Yes post for quite awhile.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Consistency, Hope, Scripture

(1) I generally hope, and I take this hope to be an action of the will, for the salvation of all; I find some encouragement in knowing that there is some sense in which God desires all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

(2) I doubt that this will actually happen, based on the weight of the Biblical evidence and a couple of rather conclusive-sounding things Jesus said about the narrow way and the wide gate, and the knowledge of some sort of predestination inextricable from the Christian tradition.

Is (1) consistent with (2)? (2), judging by the Christian tradition, certainly has more weight for our intellectual lives. Are they both consistent with the Scriptures?