Like most reporters, I keep a rolling list of story ideas that have floated across my radar screen and that I might pursue if time and energy allow. Normally I hold onto a set of three or four such ideas for a few days, then file them away and start over.
Here are a few items on my list right now:
- In Kenya, the Catholic bishops have denounced a new set of government regulations for religious bodies which, among other things, require clergy to submit certificates of good conduct and training in theology. The measure is aimed at Kenya’s growing threat of Islamic radicalism, but the bishops worry that the fear of extremism could be a pretext for curtailing religious freedom.
- In Malaysia, the head of the Pan-Islamic Party has accused Christian missionaries of using money and charity projects to make converts, and a Muslim cleric on local television recently accused Jesus Christ of preaching violence and hatred. In many parts of the world, such comments can be hints of a looming bout of anti-Christian persecution. (Christians are a little more than 6 percent of the country’s population of 30 million.)
- In Zambia, the bishops’ conference has warned against violence in the run-up to elections in August, calling on politicians to stop using “vulgar language” and demanding that the police be impartial rather than suppressing the opposition. It’s a good example of how in many parts of the developing world, religious groups are the most effective expressions of civil society.
- In the United States, Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who chairs the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent separate letters on Jan. 20 on behalf of the bishops to Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice urging them to build on the nuclear deal with Iran to pursue long-term peace in Syria and across the Middle East.
Those ideas are apart from the Vatican and pope stories I actually have covered over the past few days, ranging from the strategic partnership between the Vatican and Iran to the pope’s commitment to travel to Sweden in October to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
All this came to mind on Wednesday when I gave an interview to a German TV production company working on a documentary in connection with next year’s anniversary. Most questions were about ecumenical relations between Catholics and Protestants, but we began with this: “Why has the Catholic Church always been so obsessed with sex?”
Strikingly, the question wasn’t whether that’s true, but why it’s so, reflecting one of the most common raps against the Catholic Church.
Thinking about the stories I was tracking at that moment, I had to choke back the instinct to snap, “What Church, exactly, are you talking about? It’s certainly not the one I cover.”
Instead, here’s what I tried to say.
- First, it’s true that whatever Church officials say on sexual morality often attracts more attention than anything else, but to some extent, that’s a reflection of contemporary society more than of them. Especially in the West, issues such as abortion, contraception, and gay rights form the front lines in the wars of culture, so Church positions in that arena are destined to be polarizing and much-discussed.
- Second, it’s also true that many Catholics, both in the hierarchy and at the grassroots, attach a priority to these matters, especially abortion. Many bishops and pro-life activists in the United States see the anti-abortion push as the historical equivalent of the abolitionist movement against slavery in the 19th century: the transcendent moral cause of the era.
However, that position is less about sex than it is about defending human life. In any event, to call abortion a priority is not the same as suggesting that Catholicism is incapable of caring about anything else, which is the working definition of what it means to be “obsessed.”
If you actually look at the various fronts on which Catholicism is engaged around the world — where it invests its time and treasure, both at the top of the system and the bottom — the reality is closer to what Pope Paul VI told the United Nations in 1965, when he said that the Catholic Church sees itself as an “expert in humanity.”
That was a bold claim, but if we define “expert in humanity” simply as a descriptive term for a Church with a wide range of moral and political concerns, then it fits like a glove.
By the way, this broad agenda is hardly a novelty of the Pope Francis era. You could spread a timeline of more than 2,000 years of Church history on a wall, put on a blindfold, and randomly throw a dart at it, and no matter what historical period it lands on, the same thing would have been true.
Today, it almost doesn’t matter which humanitarian or social cause you choose — religious radicalism, growing gaps between rich and poor, women’s rights, immigration, childhood obesity, basically anything at all — and you’ll have no problem finding Catholic bishops speaking on it, Catholic movements mobilizing on it, Catholic religious orders working with people who have been disadvantaged by it, Catholic schools promoting reflection on it, and on and on.
Quite often, you can find wildly contradictory impulses on the same issue at all those levels of the Church.
Thus when people wonder why the Catholic Church is “obsessed” with sex, perhaps the question needs to be rephrased.
Maybe the real curiosity isn’t why the Church talks or acts only about sex, because that’s an incredibly easy assertion to falsify. It’s why so often that seems to be all people hear or see.