Monday, May 08, 2006

In Praise of Hairy Palms

Walking down Pacific Avenue yesterday, I did a double take in front of Camouflage, the lingerie (and more!) store. A sign in the window read: “May is Masturbation Month. Are you doing your part?” A little research on Google uncovered the facts. Early in 1995, Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was fired by President Bill Clinton after suggesting that masturbation was a natural part of human sexuality and should be discussed in a comprehensive sexual health curriculum. In response to the firing, Good Vibrations, a supermarket for sex toys and books in San Francisco, declared May to be National Masturbation Month, and the unofficial holiday has been celebrated for over a decade. You can read all about it here.

I still vividly recall my embarrassment when an 8th grade science teacher solemnly told his class that “excessive masturbation makes hair grow on your palms” – and I looked. Has anyone managed to avoid this rite of passage? According to wisdom of Lily Tomlin: “We have reason to believe that man first walked upright to free his hands for masturbation.” And another wit has argued: “if God didn’t want us to masturbate, He would have given us shorter arms.” Certainly in the catalogue of human sexuality, masturbation is something to be laughed at, and enjoyed, rather than to be feared.

But my Catholic Church does indeed continue to believe that masturbation is a sin. According to the official catechism, masturbation is an offense against chastity because it is “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” Pope Paul VI, in “Persona Humana,” declared that the main reason for this condemnation is because “whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.” In other words, the “faculty” was created by God solely for the purpose of procreation within (heterosexual) marriage, and not for pleasure, with someone else or alone.

Is masturbation a trivial sin, something to be eventually overturned, like eating fish on Fridays or the necessity for women to cover their heads in church, or is it rather symptomatic of all that the Church has gotten wrong about human sexuality? While the Magisterium in Rome claims that tradition is one of the pillars of the Church, it has been clear to scholars for years that culture and politics play important roles in shaping that tradition. While not willing to rehash history now, let me argue here that the Church’s attitude toward sex and the body is a holdover from Gnosticism which saw the universe in black and white terms (not unlike the Manicheanism that St. Augustine believed but later rejected). In this tradition, the body is either evil or an illusion, or both, and something to be transcended rather than enjoyed. This tradition contradicts another which takes the creation story in Genesis for its source. God declared that what he had created was “good,” all of it, and this includes bodies. Matthew Fox took this idea as the beginning for his theology of creation spirituality.

Jesus did not discuss sexuality in the Gospels. And although there is an otherworldly character to many of his reported sayings (particularly in John which shows Gnostic influences), the message to any sincere reader today is decidedly thisworldly. The way to the Kingdom (now, in this lifetime) is by loving God and neighbor, and we do that by taking care of others, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless (Matthew, chapter 25).

The sexual abuse scandal has knocked the Church to its knees, but without the kind of repentance that would indicate a change of heart. It continues to maintain misguided and downright wrong ideas about sexuality. Because sex outside procreation is sinful, it must be repressed. And any first-year student of Freud knows that the repressed always returns with a vengeance. For generations, young candidates for the religious life have embarked on a life of celibacy with few tools other than repression. And we see the results today in countless stories of sexual aberrations by priests and nuns. Homosexuals and lesbians, drawn to a life of service to God and neighbor, are doubly condemned. Parents and sexually active young people, faced with unwanted pregnancies, have ignored the “pro life” teachings of the Church in numbers comparable to the un-churched. Once the respect for Church tradition has been compromised, can the edifice survive?

And finally, the Church’s historic misunderstanding of sexuality has led it into comparable problems involving gender. It should be obvious today that to conceive of God as father is culturally and linguistically based. Likewise, Jesus set no rules in the Gospels for which gender might perform the role of priests in the Church (which he did not clearly originate). Despite the customs of the time, women were involved at all levels of the early Church, and Mary Magdalene can be reasonably called the first apostle because of her presence at the empty tomb. Only many years later did men take control of the Church. Continuing attempts to justify an all-male priesthood are embarrassing, to say the least.

Why stay in such a fallible Church? Because I enjoy the companionship of good people who are seeking the mystery of God, and because the liturgy and the sacraments feed me on my journey. This morning as the congregation held hands and prayed the Our Father, I laughed to myself and imagined us as the community of the hairy palms, all of us struggling to live full-bodied lives, illuminated by the light of the Holy Spirit.

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