Monday, October 15, 2007

What Is It That Ails You?

Recently, I was asked what I thought of the poster used to advertise this year’s Folsom Street Fair, an S&M event held annually in San Francisco. Truth be told, I would not have heard about this fair, let alone its controversial poster, if it wasn’t for the Catholic League. How strange is that?

The poster, depicting S&M-clad men and women reenacting the Last Supper as depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci, has clearly got on the Catholic League’s proverbial goat. Yet I’d take the League’s foot stamping much more seriously if it wasn’t so blatantly selective in its outrage.

I mean, check this out: over at, Dan Savage has collected a number of parodies of Da Vinci’s famous painting. It’s truly a bizarre collection, and leaves one to wonder: Where’s the outrage from the Catholic League over all of these other depictions of the Last Supper? Aren’t they just as “blasphemous” as the one that comprises the Folsom Street Fair poster? Did Catholic League president Bill Donahue rage against The Simpson’s take on the Last Supper (both of them!), the zombie Last Supper, Marilyn Monroe’s Last Supper, or Big Bird’s Last Supper? Why are gays – or those perceived to be gay – singled out by Donahue for his special brand of spluttering indignation and wrathful fury?

S&M “perverts”: Products of the Church?

Dan Savage has an interesting theory related to this whole controversy, one that ups the ante (and no doubt threatens to break the back of the Catholic League’s poor goat!) by daring to make a link between Catholicism and S&M.

It’s a link that has already been made on these pages by “Gay Species,” in response to
this previous Wild Reed post. It was also recently confirmed by a friend who, knowing someone in the S&M scene, assured me that, “Yes, Michael, there really are a lot of former seminarians and priests into S&M.” (Quick! Fetch the smelling salts!)

Savage, who grew up Roman Catholic, articulated his perspective on the whole Folsom Street Fair poster controversy after he declined an invitation by Fox News to debate Donahue. However, he shared his thoughts on on what he would have liked to have said to the Catholic League president.

Here’s part of what he wrote:

A lot of folks are kinky not to annoy Catholics, but because they’re Catholics. We worship a man that was tortured to death two thousand years ago. And what do we call that grisly execution again? Oh, right: The Passion. Catholic children are herded into Churches where we kneel in front of life-sized representations—some more realistic than others—of a hot dude in a diaper nailed to a cross. Catholic teachings are full of stories about gruesomely martyred saints. I was told as a child that suffering was noble, that it brought you closer to God. Nuns told me that Jesus hung on the cross for three hours, that he suffered and died for my sins (the sins of a seven year-old!), and that I should “offer up to the Lord” whatever momentary discomfort I was experiencing.

Catholic children are also told over and over again that our Father in Heaven loves us—but that he’s also designed this place called Hell where we’ll be sent if we’re naughty and where we’ll be subjected to unspeakable physical torments for all eternity. If we’re only sorta bad our loving Father will send us to purgatory where we’ll be subjected to somewhat milder physical torments for a few dozen centuries—just long enough to cleanse us of our sins. Because pain and suffering can do that—it can make things right, it can purify you.

Oh, and what are the biggest sins? They all seem to be sexual ones. Pre-marital sex. Homosexuality. Adultery. Masturbation. God created us horny but God hates sex. Really hates it. Gee, it’s almost like God was setting us up for failure… it’s almost like God was looking for an excuse to punish us…

Confession, contrition, pain, torture, torment, sexual hang-ups—hello, Bill? S&M perverts aren’t born, they’re made. And your church pumps them out by the hundreds of thousands. (1)

Yes, to be sure, Savage’s style is intentionally confrontative and annoyingly flippant, but do you know what? I think he’s definitely on to something.

The Roman Catholic Church is deeply dysfunctional when it comes to its understanding of human sexuality. In fact, I totally agree with former Catholic priest and author Eugene Kennedy when he says that this dysfunction is the Church’s “unhealed wound.”

The “unhealed wound”

According to Kennedy, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, in their support and promulgation of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, unconsciously reenact the myth of the “Grail King” Anfortas, who, in his seeking of the Holy Grail, kills the eastern Knight who is symbolic of nature. Yet in the course of this battle, Anfortas (who serves as a symbol of “the spirit”) is inflicted with a great and terrible wound, one that is incapable of healing until someone asks the simple question: “What is it that ails you?”

The meaning of this popular myth, says Kennedy, is quite simple:

When, for whatever hope or creed, we slay Nature, that is, everything that is natural and healthy about us, including our sexuality, we injure ourselves grievously, inflicting a wound that, remembered in many legends, is always sexual. In slaying Nature, as many strive mightily to do in seeking the illusionary Grail of spiritual perfection, by divinizing the spirit and demonizing the body, we not only wound ourselves sexually but salt the wound so that it does not easily heal. The French say that the person “who tries to be an angel ends up a beast.” It is just another way of describing how we commit sacrilege against ourselves when, in the name of whatever extrinsic spiritual ambition, we plunder, by force or fasting, the wholeness of human personality. (2)

For Kennedy, the “most obvious display of the unhealed wound in the Church as Institution is found in the attitudes and statements about homosexuality.” (3) Contrary to the findings of both science and human experience, this natural variant of the God-given gift of human sexuality is described by the Vatican as being “against natural law,” while homosexuals themselves are said to harbor an “intrinsic disorder.”

Ironically, such negative teaching comes from an institution whose priesthood is filled with a disproportionate number of gay men – men instructed to despise and repress their sexuality and the sexuality of others like them.

There may well be a dysfunctional and damaging “homosexual subculture” within some seminaries and even the wider Church, as some so-called traditionalists like to claim. But any dysfunction and damage stems not from the homosexual orientation per se, but from the Church’s persistent demonizing of this orientation, this aspect of nature.

Whereas it’s acceptable for straight seminarians and priests to talk about their struggles and issues as sexual beings, many gay seminarians and priests feel unable to talk about their sexual issues in a similarly upfront and healthy way. Many harbor a legitimate fear of being hounded out of the ministry to which they feel called. There’s also the fear of being stereotyped, to the extent of even being accused of pedophilia. And, of course, there’s a limit to how often one can stomach hearing one’s sexuality being described as an “intrinsic disorder.”

Furthermore, the Church encourages and rewards secrecy and repression on the part of its gay seminarians and priests. And when the consequences of such unhealthy repression surface in dysfunctional behavior of one form or another, it’s the homosexual orientation that’s to blame, not the culture of secrecy, denial, and repression. It’s all very sad and pathetic, as this recent news story documents.

Two opposing extremes

Of course, while ever it’s mired in its own dysfunction, the Church will be incapable of being a credible moral witness for either its members or for the wider world. And, to be sure, in a world where sex is shamelessly commodified and trivialized, a credible moral witness is sorely needed.

Yet as far as I can see, the current teaching on sexuality by the Vatican, and the S&M antics that take place on Folsom Street, represent two opposing extremes, two desperate responses to that same “unhealed wound” brought about by western Christianity’s arrogant attempt to separate the Creator from creation. For as Eugene Kennedy reminds us, in promulgating the false notion of a divided universe, the Church, to this day, is “defining itself over against the world, and opening a rift between intellect and emotion, as well as body and spirit, from which it has not yet recovered. Nor have we. The Church lives in anguish because its wound is unhealed, as is the wound it transferred to the universe.” (4)

Kennedy is adamant that “the racks of pornographic magazines [and, I’d add, the S&M posters and street fairs that many find offensive] are not the bold standards of Satan as much as . . . the white flags of people worn out, rather than renewed, by the sexual revolution; people desperately and almost pitiably unsure of their sexual knowingness or personality integration.” (5)

Unasked questions and missed opportunities

In light of such profound insights, my initial reaction to the Folsom Street Fair poster was not one of knee-jerk condemnation. Rather, this particular depiction of Jesus’ last meal with his friends raised a number of questions for me: Who came up with the idea of the “Last Supper” theme for the Folsom Street Fair poster? What drew this person to choose this particular image and theme? After all, I really don’t think the primary reason was to piss off the Catholic League!

Another intriguing question: In this particular image of the Last Supper, reenacted as it is by people who find and experience a sense of connection and community through S&M, can a longing be discerned for that broader sense of community, that universal welcome, acceptance, and healing embodied in the original Last Supper scene and, moreover, in the life and message of Jesus?

And what of the sex toys and other S&M paraphernalia? What is being conveyed by their inclusion into the Folsom Street Fair depiction of the Last Supper? Is such inclusion suggesting that connection and intimacy – with one self, another, and even the sacred – can be experienced through sexual relationships focused, not on biological procreation, but on playfulness and pleasure?

Yes, the outfits and devices featured in the Folsom Street Fair poster are extreme, as is an understanding of human sexuality that focuses so much on playfulness and pleasure that those involved are themselves reduced to sex toys, to narrow roles and mere objects. Yet is not such a narrow expression of sexuality reflective of one extreme end of a spectrum?

And at the other end of this spectrum do we not find the rigidly uncompromising teachings of the Vatican? These teachings, after all, narrowly insist that the only sex act that is morally acceptable is that which takes place within the context of heterosexual marriage, and which is always open to biological procreation. Here, too, are not people in danger of being reduced to narrowly defined roles and objects - the end and sole product of which is reproduction?

Are these two extreme (and thus limiting) positions on the spectrum of human sexuality offered by Folsom Street and the Vatican our only options as sexual beings?

And then there’s the presence of women in the Folsom Street Fair’s depiction of the Last Supper, not to mention a black (and bare-chested) Jesus! What part do they play, I wonder, in fueling the Catholic League’s moral outrage?

These are the questions that are raised for me as a result of the controversy generated by the Folsom Street Fair poster. I see this controversy as an opportunity, not to pontificate and condemn, but to examine and explore our notions and understanding of human sexuality as Catholic Christians.

I also see it providing an opportunity to ask each another that simple yet powerful question: “What is it that ails you?”

I’d ask this question not only of the attendees at the Folsom Street Fair, but of the blustering Bill Donahue, and of the glib Dan Savage.

And I’d ask it of myself, aware as I am, of the conflicting emotions, needs, and desires stirred within me by the Folsom Street Fair poster, and thus the issues and questions this provocative image has the potential of raising for all who take seriously the complexity of human sexuality.

What if . . . ?

Towards the end of his book, The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, Eugene Kennedy ponders: “Were the Institution, through its enormous pastoral capacity, to lower its voice and ask, ‘What is it that ails you?’ would the response be one of relief or rebellion?” (6)

Kennedy goes on to suggest that if this question was posed, “the tension that now exists between the Institution and these countless number of humans struggling to understand and integrate their sexuality might not disappear, but it would lessen markedly. What would the Institution lose if, instead of issuing statements, such as those about the ‘objective disorder’ of homosexuality, it sat, as a good pastor might, and willingly listened to the world and its sexual woes? The impulse of millions to set themselves against the authoritarianism of the Institution would be softened because the organization would be dropping its controlling stance so that the defensiveness it generates would be greatly reduced. What might the Church as Institution learn from the experience, confused and contradictory as it always emerges, of ordinary human beings who seek healing for their own sexual wounds? Healing, perhaps not with the completeness of a biblical miracle, but healing nonetheless, would follow in both the Institution and in the People who would know it now as a Mystery of understanding and reconciliation.” (7)

And what if part of this understanding and reconciliation involved taking to heart Sobonfu Somé’s observation on the “intimate connection” between sex and the sacred? Writes Somé: “People who are desperately drawn to sexual activity are, in many ways, men and women desperately trying to break into the spirit world. Their desire indicates a deeply rooted belief that something greater exists . . . [If one] looks beyond the obvious sexual craving [what is revealed is] the need to reconnect with a force that can heal.” (8)

Of course, due to its own deep dysfunction, its “unhealed wound,” the Roman Catholic Church (not to mention the hysteroid Catholic League) is incapable of facilitating such “reconnection.”

This important work of reconnection is being done, however, within the Catholic tradition – just not by those invested (and thus mired) in what Eugene Kennedy terms “the Institution of the Church,” that part of the Church that is yet to fully acknowledge the extent of its own “unhealed wound.”

No, the healing work of reconnection with the sacred is being carried out, not by those within the hierarchy, but by those at the grassroots, by individuals and organizations open to the transforming love of God within all types of human contexts and relationships. They are people and organizations who are prepared to listen and learn, prepared to gently and lovingly ask that crucial question, “What is it that ails you?” And we’re prepared to ask it not only of those who frequent events like the Folsom Street Fair, but of ourselves and of the exalted leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Without doubt, the seeping sexual wound of both the Church and the world cries out to be healed. And healing is possible. Yet it won’t come through angry admonitions and holier-than-thou condemnations. It won’t come from an institution that, in its woundedness, suffers delusions of grandeur, declaring, for instance, that it has, here and now, all the answers we need.

No, authentic healing requires a commitment to the embodiment of a truly loving and pastoral response to that which ails each one of us; it requires gentleness and humility, an awareness that we are still very much on a pilgrimage of discovery, and that God’s loving call to integration and wholeness is present and discernable throughout the vast and varied realm of human sexuality.

Let the listening and the healing begin!

1. Savage, D. That Folsom Street Fair Poster., September 26, 2007.
2. Kennedy, E. The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001, p. 24.
3. Ibid., p. 204.
4. Ibid., p. 36.
5. Ibid., p. 205.
6-7. Ibid., p. 206.
8. Somé, S. The Spirit of Intimacy.

Image 1: Folsom Street Fair Web Site
Image 2: FredAlert

Recommended Off-site Link:
Queering the Last Supper by Kittredge Cherry.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic League’s New Poster Boy?
What’s a Conscientious Faggot to Do?
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal and Reform
The Blood-soaked Thread
Hyprocisy, Ignorance, Promiscuity – and “the Love that is the Center of Catholic Christianity”
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Keeping the Spark Alive: An Interview with Chuck Lofy
The Many Forms of Courage
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality
The Sexuality of Jesus


Unknown said...

The poster, depicting S&M-clad men and women reenacting the Last Supper as depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci, has clearly got on the Catholic League’s proverbial goat. Yet I’d take the League’s foot stamping much more seriously if it wasn’t so blatantly selective in its outrage.

You forgot something, Michael. You don't have Miller Lite advertising in your image nor does Savage have it in his images.

I don't know Donohue. But I suspect the size of his organization is such that he is not able to go up against everybody.

But when one of the biggest brewers in the country subsidizes such anti-Christian childish parodies, why he knows that he can get a priceless amount of free publicity for his organization and his causes out of the print and electronic media.

And I for one will no longer be drinking MGD.

Anonymous said...

I'm confident that Dan Savage knows more about the aetiology of paraphilias than I do (which I feel is my good fortune). However, those individuals I have known to prefer paraphilias nearly universally do so (1) for fear of intimacy, (2) were abused as children (by priests, for example), and/or (3) had familial environments where the subject of sex itself was repressed or regarded with loathing.

A fourth source tends to be those "bored" with (4) vanilla homoeroticism. In these cases, excessively promiscuous encounters, repetitive sexual acts, and turning men over like bon-bons desensitizes them to their extraordinary pleasures of homoeroticism, so they turn to "turbo-charged" behavior. Indeed, my thesis of why queer evolved from being gay is that sensuality, affection, and intimacy have been removed from many men's natural homoeroticism.

While doing some pre-collegiate studies in the Berkeley area, I had the opportunity to use a seminary's library for research on weekends. I was even an overnight guest, under the oversight of a brother proctor. Brother Marc and I would have done "it" sooner, but I assumed his "vows" were something he intended to keep. But right before his retreat for the Summer, he could no longer refrain, and combustion followed.

I have never experienced such a guilt-ridden individual in my life. An absolute sweetheart, handsome and bookish, committed to working with children, and convinced of his calling -- I let it slide. But for years thereafter, he would contact me through my relocations and beg for my forgiveness. The man was gay, for heaven's sake. I could not have been more delighted that he was my first and in a monastery, no less.

He left the Order, and seven others followed, but Bro. Marc remained intensely guilt-ridden, even more so when I refused to forgive him. How utterly unhealthy that had to be (he much later came to terms with himself), and I am quite sure is a passionate and caring lover.

His Order was well-known for its gay clergy, but it got out of hand, and its reputation as a religious bathhouse did raise a few eyebrows. Parishioners didn't mind, but the episcopacy frowned upon it. After a time, the Provincial decided to make a distinction which I find utter casuistry in one sense, and utterly brilliant in another sense.

Gay men do not have sex, a point I had made thirty years ago. Sex is necessarily between male and female for reproductive purposes. Whatever two gay men do together, it ain't sex. It ain't procreative. But it can be loving, and yes, involve sexual and erogenous aspects of the body.

Since these religious men take the typical vows, chastity was understood to be preclude all sex. Viola! My distinction fostered a new understanding. Men could do other men and still keep their vows of chastity, because it was not "sex." I bet this approach appealed to many gay men who really had a religious calling, but then a subsidiary problem arose. How to integrate one's homoeroticism and religious life? Are other's just "fuck buddies," or what if intimacy and affection develop?

(Here's where how many angels can dance on heads of pins might come in handy.)

I have no idea how this dilemma was resolved, but the fact that one feels a need to go through this line of acrobatic thinking at all illustrates what I mean by sexually dysfunctional and repressed. Rather than confront homoeroticism directly, here's a religious order going through Jesuitical reasoning to accommodate gay priests. I think it was a German theologian Bernard Haring who called this the sin of scrupulosity. Ergo, the (5) cause of paraphilia is sexual scrupulosity. How can one be intimate with another while going through an algorithm to ensure the conclusion fits with accepted premises?

Many gay catholics are not paraphiliacs -- indeed, in my travels to catholic countries it is almost never seen. Only the U.S. and Germany seem disposed toward it. One priest speculated this repressive atmosphere is because Irish priests did the America's missionary work (he was Indo-Asian), but his point may be valid. The repression does not have to be accompanied by physical self-discipline, merely that the entire subject is treated as taboo, vile, immoral, devilish -- which, when finally acted on, is taboo, vile, immoral, and devilish.