Any Catholic who has attended a parish fundraiser is familiar with the concept of a so-called “Chinese Auction”: One buys a round of tickets, surveys a table laden with baskets of cheer, baby items, sports memorabilia, and other tchotchkes, and then drops a ticket or two into paper bags near selected items. Most of the time we drop our tickets thoughtlessly, because there is nothing on the table we really want, but every once in a while a particular bag garners a slew of tickets; there is something of value to be brought home from there.
The vast wasteland that is the Internet, and the comment boxes and social media threads into which we drop our mostly dubious pearls, is a bit like that. We surf around, throw a comment here, hit a retweet there, and most of it has meaning only in the moment; we don’t really want anything of the thread—not even feedback or a response; as with the fundraiser, we’re just milling about, mostly entertaining ourselves while making an appearance.
As with the auction, though, there is always that one thread that collects more commentary than most, and we throw our words into it with a little more interest, if not expectation. Sometimes, to our great surprise, even if the thread is not resolved, something is nonetheless brought home.
Such a thing recently happened to me, on Facebook. Someone had posted an article about a Catholic pastor at a San Francisco parish who removed a portrait of His Holiness Benedict XVI because of complaints by parishioners that “Pope Benedict had made hurtful and hateful statements regarding the LGBT community.”
There followed a mostly thoughtful online debate, including helpful links to quotes by Benedict which seemed to belie the charge, and some discussion as to whether the pastor’s suggestion to his flock that “forgiving people’s shortcomings, including the pope’s, makes it easier for me to forgive my own shortcomings” was the deepest lesson to take from the incident.
After recognizing that it is a common thing to hate what one does not understand, but also—especially in our secularizing world—an increasingly common practice to willfully resist understanding what one has decided to hate, a consensus was formed: A church that so regularly preaches on the dignity of the human person “needs to listen to the gay community.” There seemed to be a mirroring agreement—albeit a vague one—that yes, the gay community needs to listen to what the Church is saying, too.
All well and good, but the thread became for me less of a tchotchke bag and more of a personal prize when a cleric said, “I think that any of us would struggle with being told that some aspect of our humanity—as creatures of God—was intrinsically disordered,” and a layman shot back, “My desire to overeat, my desire to drink to excess, my desire [for] fornication, my desire to swindle people out of money for my own gain are also intrinsically disordered.”
And there it was—the intrinsic disorder that is part and parcel of desire when it so profoundly permeates our lives as to separate us from God; desire that stands between us and God until it becomes the idol in God’s place. Suddenly, in the course of a minor Internet thread, I was face to face with my own intrinsic disorder.
As someone who struggles with food—too often losing the battle and gaining the weight—I found that something rang true in that layman’s response. Whether I act on my food urges or not, they are always with me, and the gluttony in which they find release is certainly as detrimental to my soul as any “sin against chastity.”
I am “intrinsically disordered” when it comes to food, and it doesn’t really matter how I became so. Whether it is due to a genetic pre-disposition, or a habit of psychological buffering—or some combination of nature and nurture—the fact remains that I am disordered, and I must deal with it. Every day. Sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by tempted minute.
Up to now I have done a very poor job of dealing with it, largely because until that moment of clarity, I had not recognized the disorder. Like most same-sex attracted persons, I had thought of my battles and defeats in terms of weakness, shame; discipline, programming, and willpower; there was no connection to the transcendent, so how could I ever transcend myself?
We are told that the phrase “intrinsically disordered” is hurtful or hateful, and yet I find the words ironically healing; they give me precisely the hook into that transcendent understanding (and into notions of original sin and even idolatry) that I have been missing. Far from taking any offense at the idea that I am “intrinsically disordered,” I am actually consoled.
In identifying my disorder as “intrinsic”—that it resides within me as naturally as the marrow in my bones—I understand that there is no point in attempting to further fool myself or run away from myself; I am released from self-hate, shame, or defensiveness. At the same time, I am now and forever obliged to acknowledge—with every temptation—that I am disordered, and within that acknowledgement to then choose whether I will serve the disorder, at the cost of Heaven, or serve God.
In choosing God, I will have to both rely on God and actively work toward obedience to what is natural in his law, rather than what is natural to me. This is no small thing. It is a daily tension between my love of God and my love of an idol intrinsic to me—original to me.
My intrinsic disorder is my own mysterious original sin; it works ceaselessly—like an ever-ready serpent—to pull me away from God. It demands that I throw myself daily into the outstretched arms of grace, or be lost.
Eden, itself. Not a bad take-home from a tchotchke thread.