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Losing My Religion

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 OPINIONS

        

One of my first crushes was on Jesus. I thought he was handsome and kind, but distracted and lonely; good in thought and deed, but the worst kind of hard-to-get imaginable. Jesus was probably a template for the guys I have fallen for since; those with overbearing dads and Messianic tendencies toward self-exile. They can be somewhat intimate with many, though never fully intimate with one. Jesus had a hot body too, very rock-star skinny, and he was constantly half-naked. My dirty mind would wander under that loincloth, linger for a moment, then dissolve into a confused mist. I couldn’t imagine what hung dormant underneath — I just knew the Virgin Mary’s unsexy outfit and super-calm demeanor did nothing to draw me into her boring camp.

    

My friends and I used to practice kissing on Jesus’ life-sized statue in the cemetery across from the church. He was so often molested that you could see the pink-stained cement showing through the white-wash paint. When I tell non-Catholic friends about these dirty forays, they cringe in disbelief. But other Catholic girls understand because sex, for us, would never be a reality until blessed matrimony. Necking with Jesus at the age of ten was more about love than foreplay. It was benign and silly, not sexual and thrilling. And totally normal to us.

    

During this time, when thousands of priests stand accused of sexually abusing children and teenagers, I often think about these innocent interpretations of love. Recently, in the marbled Vatican halls, papal sycophants were heard tsk tsking The Amoral Americans. Their culture is soaked in sexual images. Americans place such huge premiums on sex. But it’s the other way around. The Catholic Church is soaked in sexual imagery: Catholic schools are named after the Holy Conception, Mary is never without her virginal moniker, everyone’s on their knees, wine flows freely, and Jesus Christ is tongued and swallowed on a weekly basis. It’s the Catholic Church that places a huge premium on sex, simply by banning it outside the confines of marriage.

    

American pop culture has often remarked on the church’s twisted sexual hypocrisy. Lou Reed and Billy Joel extolled the virtues of Catholic girls, of adolescent flesh bursting out of plaid skirts and tight white shirts, and many of us lived up to the stereotype. We grew up to be sexual provocateurs, because in our religion, there’s no half-way. Catholicism teaches that women are holy vessels to be worshiped and adored, or filthy temptresses to be fucked and avoided. As girls, we knew that once we started down that sordid path, there was only one way to go: hell, which is in the general direction of down. Hence the fact that Catholic girls are infamously great at giving head. How else to preserve the sanctity of virginity? How else to explain Madonna’s early appeal? Camille Paglia was the first to point out that Madonna used Catholic imagery to talk about sex; wearing those rosaries and crosses as thrillingly subversive accessories, she brought a pagan, backwards religion into the realm of shiny, pop culture.

    

Years after my crush on Jesus dissolved, along with my spiritual connection to Catholicism, our parish priest, Father J., left town in a cloud of sexual scandal. He allegedly molested some boys I knew, boys who’d never make these things up in the small, working-class town where I grew up. One boy, a neighbor, who was considered slower than his brothers and had endured years of taunts from kids like me, found solace as an altar boy. He was the first of six boys to come forward, claiming that Father J. molested them on a regular basis. Father J. was questioned by the church, released, then fled home to Malta before any formal investigation took place.

    

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest turned therapist, has spent four decades studying sexuality and abuse among Catholic priests. His numbers dovetail with other studies that claim nearly half of all priests are, or have been, sexually active. About a third are gay: half of them actively so. But with whom? Each other, and post-pubescent boys, it seems. In the course of his research, Sipe administered psychological tests; he found that most Catholic priests have the average emotional and sexual maturity of a thirteen-year-old. Sipe claims priests mostly target sad, needy kids between eight and thirteen, because that’s with whom they psychologically relate, and consequently spend much time. Some priests were abused themselves, so they repeat the cycle, but most simply never advance beyond adolescence because celibacy doesn’t exactly foster sexual growth and maturity.

    

I now understand why I never wanted to be around priests all that much. The ones I’ve known, like Father J., were unintellectual, uninteresting and childlike. They hugged too much, smiled too easily, and nodded too readily, like black-clad, sacral Teletubbies. Their facial expressions floated between squinty, Robin Williams fakery and wide-armed, Michael Jackson creepiness. And who can blame them: preaching celibacy and virginity until marriage is inherently infantilizing, a set of rules simple to understand but impossible to follow. The church must abolish celibacy so that priests can finally grow up. Let them fuck other consenting adults legally, because we now know they’re hiding more beneath those holy robes than sacred, throbbing hearts.

    

What’s being overlooked here is that celibacy is not an organic Christian tenant. Jesus did not preach celibacy, and there’s no proof that he lived by it. Celibacy is a medieval concoction, an eleventh century papal land-grab, which prevented property from being passed down to a priest’s son and has enjoyed a phony endurance for eight ignorant centuries. There is an irony here: Celibacy law may have made the Vatican rich, but victims of sexual abuse are now suing the Catholic Church for billions.

    

For guidance on how to handle the current crisis, the Vatican need only note how the Protestant, Anglican and Jewish faiths are coping with their respective sex scandals. Oh, right, they don’t have any. Those religions, though endorsing piety, do not endlessly obsess about sex, nor do they ask their clergy to take an impossible vow like celibacy. Those religions probably attract healthy-minded, sexually mature adults who enjoy physical expression and release with consensual partners who are not children. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church will continue to attract the sexually confused, stunted and ashamed to its blessedly shrinking ranks.

    

I used to defend my affinity for Catholicism as a kitschy hangover from my youth, when memorizing prayers, songs and psalms was comforting and fun. It made me feel a little holy back when I needed to belong to anything other than my own screwy family. But today I find sex and shame to be sorry bedfellows. When a religion tells you that a little masturbation will guarantee you a spot in hell, you have to laugh. How can you tackle the more challenging aspects of Catholicism, such as celibacy and sexual orientation, when you’re told a bit of diddling will result in eternal damnation? Catholic shame nearly crippled me; I can only imagine it hits devout, homosexual teens even harder. They’re in love with a church that clearly hates them. For them, celibacy must be a weird panacea: maybe they can pace, chant, and pray away their demented thoughts! Lord knows, I tried. Problem is, you’re kneeling in front of a naked hottie, tortured, because of you and your rotten lust.

    

I’ve never wondered what type of person I might have become had I remained a virgin for my worthy husband. Nothing about that woman intrigues me, in all her pious obedience; a “good” girl who listens to her “wise” priest. But smart women walked away from the church long ago in droves, and it’s too bad. The church needs vital women now more than ever, to bust up the male propensity towards hierarchy and stoicism, which have contributed to the church’s current perverted state. And frankly, Jesus never struck me as the type to live with hypocrisy or to live without passion, risk and worshipful babes.

 

©2002 Lisa Gabriele and Nerve.com, Inc.