Picks and pans at Slate
This morning, making my usual reading rounds, I saw two articles at the online magazine Slate I wanted to recommend to you all — and then, when I went back to look them up, a new headline made me reconsider the whole idea. So first I’ll tell you about the two stories I think you should read, and then we’ll move on to the one I’m not so happy with.
First, Dahlia Lithwick’s analysis of the Sarah Palin phenomenon is as good as any I’ve come across — and I’ve read as many as I can find. I find the subject oddly fascinating, and I think Lithwick has put her finger on what’s capturing my attention. Palin constantly complains that the “media” is “filtering” her, misrepresenting her, preventing her from getting her message out — and yet, as we’ve seen again and again (and most dramatically last weekend), the more control Palin has over her message, the less sense she makes. It’s a tension that seems unsustainable, but is proving surprisingly durable.
Speaking of things that thrive in adversity, Clint Rainey investigates how the “Prosperity Gospel” is managing in these lean times. In today’s market, you might think a preacher like Joel Osteen would have trouble convincing people that “God wants to give you your own house.” But those same economic troubles can create an eager audience for the broader “prosperity” pitch: “God wants to make your life easier.” Who wouldn’t like the sound of that?
I don’t know enough about the world of Osteen et al. to say with any confidence whether Rainey is being fair. This third Slate story makes me much less confident than I would normally be…
Now, Slate’s contrarian, provocative (and more than occasionally misrepresentative) headlines are a known quantity. So I didn’t automatically balk at the front-page teaser for William Saletan’s latest column: “New Study Reveals: Vatican Should Be for Masturbation.” (It’s illustrated, tastefully, with a stock photo of a box of tissues.) I expected to find something a touch more nuanced when I followed the link. Unfortunately, in this case, the front-page hed is basically accurate. Here’s how Saletan starts things off:
Does God want you to masturbate?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, masturbation is “intrinsically and gravely disordered.” That’s because “sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.” If you aren’t making babies, you can’t play with the equipment.
Well, no, actually. That’s a common enough caricature of what the Catholic Church teaches about sex in general and masturbation in particular. But it takes a particularly casual commitment to accuracy to repeat that caricature immediately after quoting a sentence from the Catechism that debunks it. Argue with the Church’s teaching against masturbation if you like — God knows you won’t be alone. But I don’t think you have to accept that teaching to see that this isn’t an accurate representation of it. And if you don’t understand, or don’t care, what that teaching actually says, then you probably shouldn’t use it as a hook on which to hang a quick and smirking analysis of a scientific study. There’s more:
The Catechism defines masturbation as “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.” But if stimulating your organs promotes fertility and family formation-—the “procreative and unitive purposes” of sexual pleasure, as stipulated by the church—-is it OK to enjoy it? By my reading, the answer is yes. “Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure,” says the Catechism. Quoting Pope Pius XII, it points out that God “established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment.”
I don’t need to tell you that’s not exactly the “gotcha” quote Saletan thinks it is. I find this piece dismaying because I have a lot of respect for Saletan — he’s generally more careful and usually thought-provoking (which is different from cheaply provocative). And he’s been a powerful voice in helping advance the discussion of abortion and other “life issues.” Knocking around the Catechism like this isn’t going to help him speak to religiously motivated people on this or any topic. And it only confirms the prejudices of those who already have a cartoonish notion of what Catholics actually believe, about sex or anything else.