I saw two different movies about Catholic nuns last week. The first was the White Sister (1933), a sound re-make of a 1923 silent film about a woman who becomes a nun after thinking her beloved has died in a war, only to have him return and unsuccessfully beg her to renounce her vows. The second film was the Nun’s Story (1959), starring Audrey Hepburn as a nun who does eventually renounce her vows, although due to ethical compromises under Nazi occupation, not romance. Having seen quite a few unsatisfying movies about nuns tragically losing love as a direct result of their vows and nothing else, it was a relief to see a nun finally kick the habit for any reason.
This struggle of nuns and priests was a very popular narrative conflict in old Hollywood. In the Garden of Allah (1936, but also preceded by silent versions in 1916 and 1927) a monk flees a monastery but in the end returns after his devout wife discovers his past. In the British film, Black Narcissus (1947), one sister goes mad in a remote Himalayan convent when she forsakes her habit for a man, only to find her love unrequited. Like the White Sister, a misunderstanding causes a woman in Green Dolphin Street (1947) to retreat to a convent and then spurn her lover when he tries to find her again. In Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957), a nun stranded on a Pacific island with a marine remains faithful to her vows, even though her sexually frustrated companion harshly points out there’s no point in her being a nun in those circumstances. By this time, America’s admiration for people sacrificing happiness and human companionship for ecclesiastical asceticism had visibly eroded to the point that the Nun’s Story could be told, and then just a few years later Julie Andrews could easily leave a nunnery in the Sound of Music (1965) without controversy or public outcry. Since then, the depiction of nuns in film has ranged from the comical to the sinister, but rarely the sympathetic.
While society has undeniably changed around the Catholic church–and even internally as the current priest shortage would indicate–the Vatican appears to show little interest in relaxing their tradition of celibacy less than 1,000 years old (which is practically at the Catholic church’s foundation if one considers its real origin to be the Great Schism of 1054). While I’m outspoken in my criticism of the Catholic doctrine of clerical celibacy as well as the dangers of anybody taking their sex advice from celibate clergy, I think the real danger is the Vatican’s obsessive priority of this manufactured rule over more pressing moral issues, a general phenomenon which I think can also be observed in other religious groups that over-emphasize sectarian distinctives.
First, to establish this moral context, let’s picture the spectrum of moral authority from relative to objective. Relativism says that an act can be right for some but wrong for others, so that morality is relative to the individual. In the middle is subjective morality which is dependent on personal opinion or belief. On the other pole is objective morality, which is based on an independent or objective point of view. Therefore, mapping various Catholic positions in this spectrum:
- To say it’s wrong for clerics to have sex even in marriage, but not for laypeople is relative morality.
- To say birth control or homosexuality are wrong because a church or sacred text says so is subjective morality.
- To say it’s wrong to have sex without the other person’s consent is objective morality.
I charge that the Catholic Church has a history of advancing their relative and subjective morality to the point of neglecting universally-appealing objective morality. A Catholic priest who marries must leave the priesthood, however the Catholic priests who raped children were not expelled but simply shuffled around to different parishes. Disgraced Archbishop Robert J Carlson claimed during a deposition that he wasn’t sure he knew sex with a minor was a crime at the time that he covered up his church’s sexual abuse. The Catholic Church is known first for being the church that forbids priests to marry, and second for being the church that harbored child molesters in its clergy. But it’s not just the Catholic church that’s guilty of this, It seems the more specifically sectarian people become, the less concerned they are about objective moral absolutes and focus instead on relative and subjective morality absolutely.
The dangers of prioritizing subjective over objective morality were demonstrated this year when Alabama failed to prosecute a man who raped another man because the only legal instrument available to the prosecution was an anachronistic sodomy ban. You see, in that state rape was narrowly defined as sexual assault against a member of the opposite sex, so they had no means to prosecute a same-sex crime other than laws that made all same-sex intercourse illegal, even though such laws had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003. Alabama’s inability to prosecute rape on the basis of consent rather than relative to gender is indicative of a fundamental legislative failure to recognize right from wrong.
The Republican Party seems to run into trouble every time one of their members even talks about rape. Todd Akin is back in the news, still trying to redeem his infamous “legitimate rape” comment. GOP congressional candidate Richard H. “Dick” Black famously questioned whether marital rape should be a crime, leaving no question to his moral compass. Unfortunately, rather than have a desperately needed internal conversation about rape, the GOP now tries to avoid talking about the issue altogether. Yet just like the Catholic Church, the GOP’s objective moral lapses don’t prevent them from devoting substantial attention, resources, and taxpayer dollars on subjective moral policy. The Republican Party is the party known first for being the anti-gay party, and second as the party that doesn’t seem to know what rape is. They still haven’t understood that the reason they lose every same-sex marriage ban that goes to court is their ongoing failure to present a single objective reason to support their case, not some imagined anti-Christian conspiracy of so-called “activist” judges. Until conservatives can answer the question of why they think homosexuality is wrong in terms independent of belief, it will be merely subjective reasoning that cannot stand up as the law of the land. Even their nonreligious arguments against same-sex marriage tend to reflect a flawed morality: their preferred “slippery slop” argument that gay marriage will lead to pedophilia or bestiality suggests they don’t quite understand the moral difference that separates sex between consenting adults from sex with a minor or animal that cannot give consent. It seems they’ve resigned themselves to this losing position by instead choosing to frame the debate as a question of “religious freedom.” But freedom of religion is the weakest defense to determine public policy, because at its core freedom of religion is the freedom to believe things that are wrong. After all, if people only believed things that were right or true, there would be no need for freedom of religion in the first place.
Of course, this isn’t to say that subjective morality has no place and that Catholics and other conservatives must abandon it altogether. Consent certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all to sex ethics, so responsibility and chastity (not to be confused with celibacy) are still important. The church can cling to clerical celibacy as long as men are still willing to submit to that rule, but they certainly can’t expect to go on deciding public policy that affects nonbelievers with reasoning that only has meaning to believers. It should have been completely unnecessary for Pope Benedict to have to say that condoms “may be” acceptable in stopping AIDS; I have to add that it shows just how out of touch church leadership is with reality in that the extreme example he cited here was a male prostitute, a subliminal victim blaming message. The church seems ignorant or unconcerned with a generation of AIDS orphans in the third world, who contracted the disease simply because their mothers had no access to antiretroviral therapy, and now that they are grown up may likely enter serodiscordant relationships which would otherwise be perfectly in line with Catholic dogma. Fortunately, if the difference in Catholic birth rates in the developed world compared to the undeveloped world is any indication, Catholics seem to be following common sense over the church’s immoral teachings when they have access to contraception.
Something conservatives do need to change, however, is this deplorable neglect of objective morality. If Catholics are going to continue to preach for lifelong celibacy and against birth control, then I expect their archbishops to know and teach that raping a child is wrong, as loudly or louder than they preach against other sins that aren’t even criminal offenses. As the Republican anti-gay agenda is doomed to fail, they should focus on learning what rape is and improve sexual assault legislation. Christianity ought to have been the voice of objective morality in the wilderness of postmodern moral relativism, but churches have been too distracted by self-interested moral and political motives instead.