The only intriguing sex-related story in the last month came courtesy of Shu Guang Girls' Senior High School in Hsinchu City. After completion of what the Catholic school calls a "life science course," these children will be given a card which they sign and carry around like a credit card to affirm their commitment to sexual abstinence until they are married.
Setting aside the contentiousness of telling minors that adult pre-marital sex is a sin, the Catholic establishment seems to be oblivious to the reality of Taiwanese society. The average age for marriage for men and women in this country is almost 30, which means the Church expects its adult flock -- and millions of other Taiwanese, if at all possible -- to live sexless lives for most of their youth or else be branded as sinners. Little wonder, then, that a number of academics and officials have frowned on the school for its fundamentalist approach to sexuality and its aping of US-style evangelism.
The Catholic Church is no doubt concerned about the large number of abortions that take place in Taiwan. But the nature of programs targeting students like those at Shu Guang Girls' Senior High School is symbolic, not practical. Hardliners in the Catholic Church are resolutely hostile to women controlling their own sex lives free of Church interference. Pope Benedict XVI shows no signs of backing away from this, and it is instructive that of all of the themes that the pope could have chosen to discuss in his first encyclical, he chose "love."
Preaching abstinence is a minor issue, yet minor issues are the only kind that the Catholic Church seems to openly and aggressively pursue in its attempts to craft Taiwanese society.
Throughout this country's history, the Catholic establishment has worked on the margins, lacking the personnel to make a substantial mark on the community. It was not until the late 1940s, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government fled to Taiwan, that Catholic missionaries -- mistreated and expelled by the Chinese Communist Party -- arrived in large numbers. Beholden to their KMT hosts, they remained "neutral" and largely silent at a time when great injustice was being inflicted on the Taiwanese population. It took the rival Presbyterian Church to stand up and fight for justice for the Taiwanese.
In the new millennium, the Vatican's lack of enthusiasm for Taiwanese and its willingness to dump Taipei for Beijing is merely an extension of its desire to regain its footing in the "real" China, and therefore should surprise no one. For the Vatican, as for blinkered "Sinologists" of old, Taiwan's days as a microcosm of pre-communist China are over, and the Vatican is somewhat impatient to return to the main game -- even if the government it courts continues to persecute many Chinese Catholics.
Taiwan's government can hardly be credited for its attempts to keep the relationship with the Vatican afloat -- the Ministry of Foreign Affairs probably doesn't know the difference between the crucifixion and the Catechism. But symbolism can matter just as much to Taiwanese people as to the pope and his advisers. And poor symbolism can corrode the Vatican's moral authority to the point of inviting mockery. Benedict's sworn opposition to moral relativism will amount to nothing if the Vatican swims in it en route to Zhongnanhai.
By the time the girls of Shu Guang high school have grown into adulthood, the moral authority of their "true-love abstinence commitment card" may well ring rather hollow. In all likelihood, the Vatican will have symbolically left their society behind, clutching the yuan equivalent of thirty pieces of silver.
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