An Essay On Everything, Not Just Brandon Davies and BYU
It’s quite ironic that in my double-life on Twitter, the account ostensibly devoted solely to college sports (and nothing else) became the account that has forced me to “out” myself to a readership I wanted to shield from my political and religious views. When I comment on sports at @MattZemek_CFN, I have always wanted to make my comments solely about sports, leaving politics out of the equation. Yes, in my columns for College Football News, I have injected (and will continue to inject) politics into the equation at times, but I’ve done so only when I’ve felt it absolutely necessary to make an important point with a maximum amount of impact. Now, however, it seems that it’s pointless to maintain the division between Twitter accounts. The Brandon Davies-BYU story has made such segregation virtually impossible.
Please pull up a chair, then, and make sure you have a good 30 minutes of free time before you read this essay. If the Davies/BYU story and its myriad implications are to be discussed in an adult manner, a few 140-character tweets certainly won’t suffice. Moreover, confining this issue to premarital sex or out-of-wedlock births would also fail to do justice to the real center of this conversation: life, and more specifically, how it can be lived in full.
If you are pressed for time, or if you’ve been moved to think about BYU’s honor code (as it pertains to premarital sex, not caffeine or other matters of lesser import) in a deeper way and want outside reading to inform your evolving perspective, may I suggest that you read about the life of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in depression-era New York on May 1, 1933. The Long Loneliness is Day’s powerful autobiography. Love is the Measure, by Jim Forest, is regarded as the definitive biography. In 2003, Rosalie Riegel collected remembrances of Day in the book Dorothy Day: Portraits By Those Who Knew Her. It would satisfy my curiosity to know how many of you have even heard of Dorothy Day, because in many ways, she forms an important root of this larger conversation about sex, the healthy society, and the flourishing of the human person.
Let’s give the (very) short story about Dorothy Day for those not interested in further study: She grew up as a radical journalist, a communist and anarchist. She drank and partied wildly with other writers in big-city environments during the heady times that marked the first quarter of America’s 20th century. She had an abortion and would not have lived very long on the BYU campus – let’s put it that way. However, the birth of her first child in many ways shocked her and created a wellspring of powerful feeling that led her toward Roman Catholicism, away from the beliefs of friends and – over the course of the following decades – her foremost lover, Forster Batterham. (This is a clue to the title of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.) Day’s life encompassed quite radical and seemingly counterintuitive positions; she acquired the appearance of a liberal protestor on economic and foreign-policy issues, but she grew into a quite orthodox Catholic whose style and manner of worship cuts against so much of the prevailing liberal sentiment against organized religion. Day, as a Catholic, was an immensely complicated person, and that’s the jumping-off point to my story and the deeper layers of context behind L’Affaire (or affair?) Davies.
No, Catholics don’t have a monopoly on truth… or evil… or complexity. It’s the same for any group (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, anyone). However, what I can say as a Catholic myself is that Catholicism doesn’t fit neatly into one political or ideological framework. The same Church that is staunchly opposed to abortion is just as adamant in its support of illegal immigrants. The same Church that presided over decades of abuse of minors in multiple continents is supportive of labor unions. The same Church that has undeniably presided over profound persecutions in its long and tortured history is also the same church that inspired Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and prophetic modern-day voices such as Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser, my foremost spiritual guides and a pair of men who would (I dare say) make a lot of secular lefties think that maybe religion can still be done well after all. Catholicism is a complicated realm, and it’s because I inhabit it that the Brandon Davies story absolutely requires a delicate, multi-layered unpacking.
Let’s now step back on a number of levels and see this story in its fullness: In many ways, the overarching theme of this piece – for people of all faiths and viewpoints, all races and creeds and ways of life, all ideological and political worldviews, and all forms of intellectual architectures – is that one act/statement/effort in one realm of human activity cannot be so easily equated with a larger opinion/verdict/attitude toward other realms of life. Last night’s Twitter rant – like the productive discussions that followed it – was still necessarily limited by time and space, not to mention Twitter’s snack-size method of content delivery. Here is an extended attempt to do justice to all the responses I received last night… responses that transcend the narrow context of Brandon Davies with one woman in one relationship.
The first thing to appreciate about the BYU honor code (and the strong reactions it has generated) is that it needs to be separated from the Mormon Church at large. Similarly, the behavior of Brandon Davies needs to be separated from BYU’s larger purpose in instilling the honor code in the first place. This is where last night’s discussion became fragmented and ran far afield. Let’s now try to arrive at a better understanding of each other and – more importantly – progress as human persons who have different life stories and – hence – unavoidably different perspectives on what it means to live a full and well-ordered life.
The individual act of having sex outside of or before marriage can be done well, faithfully, and honorably. Was Brandon Davies’s behavior inherently or objectively wrong? No, it wasn’t and isn’t. I don’t get (or have) the right to make that call. Similarly, I don’t get to say that premarital sex is objectively or inherently wrong. It could very well be that Davies and his girlfriend have established a relationship built on solid ground. None of us – critics or supporters – truly knows, but if indeed a young man and woman express their sexuality with care and delicacy, surely no wrong or harm is being committed.
The foremost tension point in this particular discussion is that a truly flourishing society should involve the free choice of the best and most ideal behavior, behavior conducive to social goods. As you can see, there are two components to that sentence: free choice and ideal behavior. The Brandon Davies story is understandably (even rightly) sensitive and contentious – we all saw how much critical mass the story acquired on Twitter last night, and how quickly it surged to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness – because it so powerfully exposed deeply-rooted tension points in American society. Without assigning views or outlooks to any one political or religious group, it can be said that there are considerable strains of thought in America that are fighting for centrality and primacy. One such strain is the libertarian strain, in which the individual person, unfettered and fully autonomous, should choose for his/her own life course. Another strain holds that the common good is the foremost goal of society and that, given our dependent nature as human persons, our institutions and laws should facilitate communal flourishing.
Are you beginning to sense the larger reasons why the BYU honor code has all of us talking and has formed such a profound outpouring of necessarily emotional (but thoughtful and soulful) commentary?
Just wait – the landscape of immense social and cultural fragmentation is only beginning to be outlined.
All of the above tensions get multiplied by a factor of 1,000 when one then realizes that the foremost competing strains of America’s three spheres of life – the cultural, the spiritual, and the political – get turned in different directions depending on the relevant institutions involved. When the center of a public debate is a religious institution, the American Left and the American Right, by and large (not every lefty or every righty, but a predominance thereof), acquire one very distinct set of views. When the center of public debate shifts to a governmental institution or outlet, a very different set of views emerges. It is something of a generalization, I admit, but generalizations – like clichés – do indeed possess a certain amount of truth at their core. So it is in politics, culture and spirituality.
Liberals and conservatives in America see institutionalized churches and governments in very different ways when said churches and governments exist and/or agitate beyond an intimately local level. Just a little bit of reflection and observation should lead anyone – Left, Right, or Center (or beyond those frames of political labeling or understanding) – to the not-very-controversial conclusion that liberals (secular or religious) will generally view the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church with the same levels of antipathy that American conservatives will generally reserve for the Federal Government. Whereas liberals will (again, it’s a generalization, but one with a fundamental amount of truth) angrily tell Church and Government to “get out of my bedroom,” the conservative will tell Government to “get out of my wallet and my workplace.” Whereas liberals have a deep distrust of institutionalized religion, conservatives – especially religious ones – worry that Christianity (in particular) is losing a foothold in this country. On a number of fronts, liberals and conservatives might share the same distrust of Church or Government on a national (even global) scope and scale, but the roots and reasons for such suspicion will often be diametrically different.
I, for instance, think Barack Obama’s a horrible president because his use of predator drones makes him a war criminal, a man guilty of excessive force in violation of international law and the specific prohibition of disproportionate force. (His courting of and obedience to the likes of Wall Street power brokers and life-destroyers Larry Summers and Robert Rubin also damns him in my eyes.) Conservatives intensely dislike and disapprove of Obama with just as much vigor as I do… for reasons that are 180 degrees different. Same disapproval; entirely different reasons. This dynamic quite definitely exists with Americans’ attitudes toward churches and governments. What we reserve our anger for; what elicits our strongest responses; what commands our moral center differs markedly from person to person, and the Church-Government split illustrates this most profoundly.
Having established this broadly-outlined parameter, let’s appreciate why the Brandon Davies story is so unavoidably tangled and messy. Let’s now try to sift one argument from another, and one verdict here from one verdict over there.
The BYU honor code fails in that it restricts free choice on a certain level. That point is not in dispute. Then again, when a person such as Brandon Davies freely chooses to submit to that code knowing full well the consequences of premarital sex if he were to engage in it, it’s not as though free choice is being completely eroded.
The BYU honor code was stringently enforced in this case, eliciting the reasonable and heartfelt response from some quarters that there’s no room for forgiveness, mercy or redemption. That’s a valid point. BYU is aiming to promote ideal behavior, but those of a certain libertarian viewpoint (not all forms of libertarianism, mind you, but some) are making the understandable claim that Brandon Davies – like any young person – needs to be allowed to learn and grow from his own sexual choices. It’s not as though sexual behavior and expression can be uniformly enforced and regulated in mass society. It is indeed true that good theology – Christian or any other religion – demands that choices be free. Without the free choosing of virtue, virtue doesn’t really exist. “Conscripted or forced virtue” is an oxymoronic statement. That point is not only reasonable; it’s valid and weighted with real-world truth. Jesus did not force people to act in certain ways; he strongly challenged and encouraged the people of his time, but he didn’t hold people at theological gunpoint. If you are a critic of the BYU honor code, the stringent nature of its enforcement, and of my defense of BYU for this subset of reasons, you’re making the right response. You’re offering the best and most salient criticisms under the sun.
Now, with that having been said, let’s balance the discussion. Rightly noting the deficiencies of squelching human agency and autonomy – especially in the realm of something so powerfully personal and intimate as sexuality – should not lead one to then say that BYU’s honor code and its enforcement are creating a net-negative effect in the larger stream of culture. Hundreds of thousands of abortions (if not millions; I’m using very conservative numbers as a starting point) take place in America each year. No, I’m not trying to start an abortion debate here; I’m merely noting that more than a few abortions occur in America. Whether you support abortion rights or not, it should be nearly unanimous (I know one Twitter follower who disagrees with the following statement…) that the reality of an abortion’s occurrence is a sad event… no, not (universally) in the sense that a woman had access to the abortion procedure, but sad in the sense that, at some point, a pregnancy acquired the dimensions of a crisis or burden and not the dimensions of a joyful reality, of a life about to be brought into the fullness of existence and with a good chance of flourishing. (Remember, human flourishing should be kept in mind as the ultimate goal of all of this…)
In some cases, an abortion occurs because of rape. In some cases, biology interferes and causes a threat to the life of the mother, as was the situation in that noted Phoenix incident at St. Joseph’s Hospital (the place where I was born in 1975) which caused Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted (the kind of bishop that gives Catholicism a very bad name and justifies all the secular-liberal gripes with the Church) to severely overreact and paint the Church as the raging hypocritical monster it often is on matters of sexuality.
In some cases, an abortion occurs because a woman just doesn’t think she can provide for her child. In some cases, an abortion occurs because the biological father runs away. Whatever the reason, something sad, something lamentable – not cause for moral judgment, but something simply to weep about (as John’s Gospel 11:35 reminds us) – takes place. Very simply, then, BYU – for all the ways in which its honor code militates against the free choice of a life course and of the behaviors that give shape to it – is trying to promote that other part of the well-lived life and the well-ordered society. The free choice part might be lacking, but BYU is aiming to enshrine and establish ideal behaviors in our society.
Please, secular liberals reading this essay, can we agree on this much? Can we agree that hard sociological data and empirical statistical evidence point to better life outcomes for two-parent households (not straight two-parent households; different issue!!!!!), in-wedlock births, and stable marriages? Can we agree with Christian conservatives (and former basketball star A.C. Green, who was laughed at and scorned more than admired for his public pronouncements on this subject) that abstinence is a generally good thing?
Look – as a liberal Catholic (a self-described “Vatican 3” Catholic who is very much in favor of a substantial overhaul of Church procedures and practices, and whose favorite pope is John XXIII, aka Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli; look him up), I’m not only aware of institutional Church hypocrisies, outrages and sins committed against (and in the name of) sexual morality; I condemn them in the strongest terms possible, to the extent that I am fully in favor of substantial reforms in the Church. (Women priests? Yes. Allow birth control at the immediate/night-of/morning-after level? Yes. Those are highly unorthodox positions for a Catholic to take.)
Moreover, beyond specific issue positions – and this may surprise those of you who engaged me in discussion last night – I would not argue with anyone who claims that the institutional Catholic Church no longer deserves to be taken seriously on matters of sexual morality. Given that the Mormon Church – which, at its highest institutional levels, shares a fundamental conservatism with the Vatican – worked very hard to enact Proposition 8 (the anti-gay marriage measure) in California, I don’t regard the Mormon Church as a foremost authority on sexuality, either. (Polygamy is a separate issue that’s beyond the ability of this discussion to either contain or meaningfully address. Just note that I’m aware of its presence as a complicating factor here for a lot of readers.)
However, as the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth, to say that institutional churches and church structures should not be taken seriously DOES NOT MEAN (yes, it needs to be in caps because of the degree of emphasis I’m injecting into this point) that the core principle pushed by a belief system is wrong or deficient.
Catholics who are aware of the Church’s recent history (in Church terms, “recent” means the past three or four centuries) know that the intense and polarizing disagreements about sexuality in the Church stem from Pope Paul VI’s 1968 birth-control encyclical Humanae Vitae (this is another thing to look up if you really want to learn about the tension points at work in the Brandon Davies/BYU honor code story). Talk to priests about this (I have), and you’ll get lots of different reactions, but the consensus is that the papal letter beautifully expresses the highest ideals of what human sexuality should be and can potentially become, all while failing to allow for the messy parts of human sexuality that demand common-sense measures, measures which can prevent out-of-wedlock births, crisis pregnancies, and all the truly worrisome outcomes that either lead to abortions or to lives brought up in disadvantageous positions (poverty, single-parent households, undereducated households, divorced/fragmented households, etc.). The failure of Humanae Vitae is in many ways the failure of organized religion over an extended period of time: It espouses a truly noble, good and beautiful set of beliefs and ideals on paper but fails to supplement that vision with an accordingly appropriate dose of realism about human behavior on a mass scale; the result of such a gap between theory and reality, between theology and real-world policy, is in so many ways the gap that’s being exposed in the BYU-Davies episode.
Yes, large-scale church structures have a great deal to answer for (and repent for, and apologize for, and make amends for). Yes, to briefly detour from sexuality and broaden the critique even more, religion – through its extremist manifestations across multiple faiths – has caused a great deal of harm throughout the centuries. (One should add that since religion is ostensibly supposed to be dedicated to the project of bringing humanity closer to God in relationship, the sins committed by religion carry a sting worse than the sins of governments; this is a source of legitimate liberal angst and fury that conservatives need to be aware of. The woundedness of liberals who either grow up atheist/agnostic/secular or become ex-Catholic/ex-Christian/ex-mainline-churched individuals is one of the core reasons for our immense politico-ideological divide in America. If this unavoidably painful reality was ever addressed in cross-boundary conversations over a sustained period of time, our nation would heal. I guarantee it. Alas, this is a different discussion for a different day… gotta wind this puppy up.)
HOWEVER… all the sins of organized, institutionalized religion do not mean that the reality or necessity of institutionalized religion should be lowered in the public’s estimation. Much as the debate between “big government” and “limited government” is a false one, so too is the debate between “institutionalized/organized religion” and its absence. We don’t need a certain size of government; we need good governance from leaders who are competent, skilled, ethical, moral and virtuous. We don’t need to sustain the current structure and the attendant moral rot (with all its latent hypocrisy) of Pope Benedict and all the other enablers of sexual abuse over the past 40 years of Vatican machinations, but to argue for sweeping reform in institutional Catholicism should not be seen as tantamount to saying that the Church’s sexual teachings are completely baseless and without merit. Critics of the Mormon Church should keep that same distinction in mind. These and other churches are trying to promote wise, sober, responsible behaviors that lead to life in full, life that has a maximum chance of flourishing, life that is birthed in contexts where two people have arrived at a firmness and strength of commitment; a place of appreciable financial security (not total, but appreciable); a mutual sharing of enduring values; and a fully considered, ripened, multi-textured love that will enflesh the Scripture which says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I (Jesus, God incarnate) in the midst of them.”
There are clear value-negative actions and realities to decry in this world: Violence, abuse, thievery, fraud, hypocrisy, and so forth. Churches – including Catholic and Mormon institutions – have plenty to repent for, but while the institutions and the organized structures suffer (because they’re led by imperfect beings, just like you and I), the need for coherent religious teachings doesn’t cease to exist. Nor does the need for good leadership in these churches, and for good people of faith to model their creeds in the best and most life-affirming ways possible.
The Mormon Church does a number of things that I, as a Catholic and (separately) as a liberal – disagree with. This doesn’t mean the promotion of abstinence from premarital sex is wrong. The Catholic Church does a number of things – including, even especially, in the realms of sexuality and gender – that I strongly disagree with. This doesn’t mean that the promotion of abstinence from premarital sex is wrong, a net-negative or even value-neutral policy/aim/goal. (And no, in case you’re wondering, the U.S. Federal Government has no business using money to promote abstinence…)
I’ll wrap this up with, ironically enough, a sports reference that will hopefully provide a proper parallel through which to frame this larger discussion as you carry it with you in your own circles. In American culture, fans often reserve their worst critiques and their most vigorous outpourings of both intellectual and emotional energy for teams that lose championship games. The 1990s Buffalo Bills are a punching bag and have been as much for 20 years. The 1980s Denver Broncos and 1970s Minnesota Vikings acquired similar reputations to the point that their fans preferred to lose in the conference championship round so that they wouldn’t have to endure another Super Bowl loss. This dynamic holds true in many other sports; I dare say, virtually every sport. “Second place is the first loser” and its cousin statement, “(Player/Coach X) can’t win the big game – he’s pathetic!”, have acquired enormous centrality and primacy in our sporting discussions over the past few decades. Being second-best – which, in the narrow confines of on-field sports performance, is undeniably positive in almost every instance – is viewed by a preponderance of public sentiment as negative.
As I tell readers of my college football columns who bash coaches that lose in BCS bowl games or BCS championship games (Frank Beamer and Bob Stoops come to mind), “If you really want to rip someone; if you really want to identify a lack of quality in on-field results, rip the teams that truly underachieve. Rip the UCLAs, Clemsons, Pittsburghs, Ole Misses, Texas A&Ms (post-R.C. Slocum and Jackie Sherrill, of course) and Arizona States of the world. Put Virginia Tech and Oklahoma 70th or 80th in your queue of criticisms.”
In other words, don’t view what is (narrowly and locally) virtue as sin instead; don’t reserve the balance of your anger for a policy that - in its own small context - is virtuous, even if there’s a large and undeniable backdrop of hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness and intolerance on the part of the (corrupt/rotten/wayward) institution promoting said policy. You don’t have to take institutions seriously when they betray the public trust (Catholicism) or fight for things (anti-gay marriage) you intensely disagree with (Mormonism). You should respect an individual effort/aim when it does indeed try to bring about what is – as any credible sociologist would tell you – a good social outcome: the (never guaranteed but certainly likely) stability of the American family and of children born within it. That’s what BYU’s honor code is about. That’s why the school suspended Brandon Davies, in a larger attempt to educate its students about the philosophy it wants them to buy into and apply to their own lives.
By all means, regard organized religion as guilty of many sins and as unworthy of being taken seriously. Please, though, don’t regard all acts/pronouncements/exhortations of a deeply flawed ecclesial superstructure as flawed (inherently or situationally) just because said ecclesial superstructure IS flawed.
Jesus lived a great and noble life. Do the failings of Catholics and Mormons (and various Protestant/evangelical pastors, many of whom are closet gays and have reinforced the reality of sexual hypocrisy from the pulpit) mean that Jesus’s teachings are less worthy of being followed? Does this point – the center of the Left-Right divide in America on most, if not all, issues – begin to sink in? Maybe it can’t just yet, but I hope that your act of wrestling with this essay (and your attempt to look up the names mentioned periodically within it) will eventually lead you to that place.
POSTSCRIPT: As I arrive at the conclusion of this impromptu essay, generated by the fires of an endlessly layered issue with so many tentacles and offshoots that extend into so many aspects of human life, I realize how little ground I’ve covered. I realize that as much as I’ve written today, there are only so many things one can talk about. You are not only welcome, but encouraged, to continue this conversation. My e-mail is email@example.com. I will be especially free to engage you in further dialogue on Wednesday, April 6, when NCAA basketball (men and women) finally comes to an end. -MZ