Sex, God, & the Supreme Court

In traditional Jewish law, if a fetus threatens the life of the mother it is obligatory, not optional, to kill the fetus to save the life of the mother. That is exactly the opposite from “official” Roman Catholic teaching.

Now suppose I were being considered for a seat on the Supreme Court. Would it be legitimate for questioners to ask whether I held by that version of Jewish law, and whether I would impose it on Jewish or non-Jewish women against their will? Would I interpret the Constitution in accord with my deepest religious values?

By my lights the question would be totally appropriate, and not at all an invasion of my religious freedom.  

(My answer would be that my understanding of evolving Torah as well as the Constitution is that pregnant women, like all other women and all other adult human beings, have moral agency: that is, they get to decide crucial moral and ethical issues about their own bodies.  But notice --  I am interpreting the Constitution in accord with my own deepest ethical/ spiritual/ religious beliefs. How could I not?)

The nomination by President Trump  of Amy Coney Barrett, a serious and pious Roman Catholic, to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the  Supreme Court, has raised a number of questions about whether her religious beliefs -- as the particular kind of Roman Catholic that she is -- belong in any discussion of whether she should be confirmed to sit on the court.

 Her supporters assert that raising such issues violates both decency and the Constitution’s prohibition of any religious test for taking office under the United States. Her opponents, quaking in their boots lest millions of Catholics condemn them for being anti-Catholic, discuss her religious beliefs only in mutters and whispers.

 I doubt that either of those responses is correct.

As it happens, my new book, Dancing in God's Earthquake : The Coming Transformation  of Religion, looks seriously at the past, present, and future of the strand of Catholic belief in sexuality that was codified by Augustine of Hippo. (I won’t call him a saint.) It is important to know that although the official teaching of the US Catholic bishops follows Augustine, there are many many Catholics who don’t. There is a magazine called, appropriately, Conscience, published and edited by committed Roman Catholics, which affirms that the importance of individual conscience in Catholic theology supersedes Augustine’ theory of sex.

Very well: What is his theory?

Augustine was obsessed with the attractions of sex. His sexual nerves were strung so tight as to thrum at the barest touch. He could not bear to be so lured, and so turned to revulsion. He saw the Bible’s vision of the earliest moments of human history through the eyes of that revulsion. 

 Augustine powerfully affected many leaders of the Christianity of his time. They must have shared much of his tightened strum of tension. Ever since, Catholic thought –and even some Protestant churches – has suggested that the mistake of Eden was sexual. According to this sexual hysteria, the sin has entered into all future humans because Adam and Eve passed it to their children through intercourse and procreation – like a permanent genetic defect carried not in the genes but by the very act of passing on the genes. Since then, a major aspect of much Catholic dogma has seen sexual pleasure or love sinful – unless it is intended to produce children.

[This painting of Adam, Eve, and Snake in Eden is by Peter Paul Rubens].

For sex is necessary to keep the human species going. So procreation -– not pleasure, not the joy of deep communion – became the only legitimate reason for sex. That meant all sexual acts not deliberately intended to procreate children are sinful: masturbation, homosexuality, the use of all means of birth control except sexual abstinence, abortion (because it ex post facto negates the sex that had produced a possible child), and even marriage for priests, the most holy bearers of Spirit --  all prohibited.

 Today, a great deal of Christian thought -- and most Jewish thought -- has refused to believe that the sin of Eden –whatever it was – made sex or sexual desire or sexual pleasure in itself sinful, or that the mistake of Adam and Eve delivered that sin into all human souls and bodies.

 When Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy affirmed that the bearer of spiritual leadership and religious wisdom could be not a single celibate man but a family – a man, a woman, and their children – it was already in body, even if not in words, asserting that sex could live in the heart of religion, not merely in its less serious followers. By insisting on male celibacy for almost all its priests and prelates, the Roman Catholic Church pursued a profoundly different worldview.

And in many countries, including the United States, the official bearer of Catholic authority – the bishops – have acted to encode this view into compulsory law. Compulsory on everyone. Not just to prohibit abortion, but to oppose the legitimacy of gay and lesbian marriage, to give an employer’s claimed religious objection to birth control much heavier weight over his workers’ own religious consciences if they choose effective birth control.

I realize that the abortion debate is often framed not in this theology of sex but as “the right of the fetus to life.”  But if that were all, why is opposition to birth control and gay and lesbian sex and marriage on the Catholic agenda? Why is not the life of the fetus weighed along with the lives of women who die from illegal abortions where abortions have been outlawed?  Why is ”life” not taken into account in regard to the tortured lives and deaths of fetuses who have incurable biological defects and whose mothers want to save them  from impossible pain? Why not focus on the last trimester of pregnancy, when the fetus is more likely viable, when Roe v. Wade held there might be some limits on the woman’s agency?

Why should Judge Barrett not be asked what her Catholicism means? Augustine or Conscience magazine?

There are other questions she should face: her appointment so close to an election that millions have already voted. Her views on government’s role in protecting workers, healing the sick, welcoming refugees, empowering the poor, controlling guns and nuclear weapons, and healing our wounded Earth (all subjects of other strands of Roman Catholic theology  -- more concerned with calming human suffering than with punishing sex). Does Judge Barrett affirm or ignore those threads?

And all while keeping in mind the aphorism of Congressman Jamie Raskin when he was still a member of Maryland’s legislature:  “We swear an oath upon the Bible to uphold the Constitution, not an oath upon the Constitution to obey the Bible.”

Shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste! -- Arthur

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If sex was not "the original sin," what was the real misdeed that the parable of Eden tried to teach us to prevent?  And how do other ancient tales change meaning as we live through the earthquakes of today?  Rabbi Waskow’s newest book is Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. Write Office@theshalomcenter.org to receive personally inscribed books. Otherwise order at Orbis Books, 1-800-258-5838. He calls it the “harvest of all my life-experience – and like a harvest, it draws on the past but to feed the future.”

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