Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Daniel Maguire on Catholicism’s "Long History of Demeaning Sexuality"

I share today a second excerpt from Daniel Maguire’s book Whose Church? – A Concise Guide to Progressive Catholicism. In this excerpt Maguire explores historical Christianity’s “dreary view” on sexual pleasure and its “noxious impact” on Western culture.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. For as Maguire notes, “Christianity and Catholicism, in spite of their long history of demeaning sexuality, have resources to rethink the beauties of sexual pleasure, and some of the healthy moral energies of these traditions are being revived and developed.” Indeed!

Maguire will be in the Twin Cities this Thursday, October 21, speaking on the topic, “Why You Can Be Catholic and Support Gay Marriage.” It’s an event that’s being sponsored by Catholics for Marriage Equality MN and taking take place at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis. (For more details, click here.) Copies of Whose Church? – A Concise Guide to Progressive Catholicism will be available for purchase at St. Mark’s on Thursday evening.

If you’re in the Twin Cities, I hope you’ll be able to attend this sure-to-be insightful presentation by one of Roman Catholicism’s most preeminent ethicists.


The inability to face our sexuality, in Western culture, is to a great extent religiously grounded, with historical Christianity bearing enormous blame. The Jewish forebears of Christianity were often more sensible about sex and, in the Song of Solomon, could even sing paeans of praise to its many pleasures. Christians choked on all of that and saw sex in the direst of terms, and this dreary view has had a noxious impact on the history of the West. . . .

Augustine, the “Brooding Neurotic”

Many thinkers come and go, making nary a blip in the movement of history. Augustine, the fifth-century bishop of Hippo in Africa, was not one of them. He had a gifted pen. His Latin was exquisite, and he had a well-cocked eye to his impact on history. He made sure that multiple copies of his writings were made. He succeeded, and some of his worst ideas were the most successful. After enjoying sex for a number of years, he took an anti-sexual turn and seemed thereafter hell-bent on making sure no one else ever enjoyed it.

Augustine saw sexual passion and sexual pleasure as the conduit for a kind of spirituality stigmatizing “original sin” that was passed on to all our children. So heinous and infectious was the passionate pleasure of parents that led to conception that each little newborn was spiritually blighted and in need of redemptive baptism to cleanse its little soul. (Had Augustine known of cloning he would have loved it. Then the baby could be born clean as a whistle, uncontaminated by any parental sexual pleasure.) Small wonder some speak of “ecclesiogenic psychoneurosis.”

Augustine’s horror of sexual pleasure actually made him get silly. Augustine misunderstood the biblical creation stories of Genesis as referring to a past paradise that existed, somewhere in the Middle East, until the first humans were expelled for their sins. Actually, those stories are a poetic picturing of what life could be if we rose to our moral and aesthetic potential. It could be a paradise where we and nature live in harmony in a social order knit together with compassion and justice and beauty.

At any rate, Augustine was asked whether in this “paradise lost” there was sexual activity. He allowed that there would have been, to permit reproduction. People then asked if there would have been sexual pleasure in paradise. None, said he. Some practical people raised the question as to how in the world men could get their penises readied for action without sexual pleasure. Augustine’s answer: by sheer willpower. After all, he noted, even in our current fallen state some people can move one ear (and the truly gifted, two ears) simply by willing it. Surely men could have elevated their penises in paradise with a hefty act of the will.

In a triumph of common sense, the doubters continued to doubt. Augustine, with his back against the wall, was driven to find new examples of feats of the will. He turned to flatulence, noting that some people could produce it by mere willpower: “Some can produce at will odorless sounds from their breech, a kind of singing from the other end.” Alas, all of that to defend his compulsive and sick rejection of sexual pleasure and delight.

Augustine, then, is a major culprit in the Christian attack on sexual pleasure. He gave us a major theological root for sex as “dirty.” And this root dug deep, then spouted upward and spread like a kudzu vine.

Through most of Christian history, sexual pleasure, even in marriage, was long thought to be sinful. And the rule was: the more pleasure, the more sin. William of Auxerre in the thirteenth century said that a holy man who has sex with his wife and finds it hateful and disgusting commits no sin. He added, with poignant regret (and a bit of insight), that “this, however, seldom happens.”

The twelfth-century Petrus Cantor opined that sex with a beautiful woman was a greater sin since it caused greater delight. His point was debated, however. His contemporary Alain de Lille demurred, saying sex with a beautiful woman was less sinful because the man was “compelled by the sight of her beauty,” and “where the compulsion is greater, the sin is slighter.” (Taken to its logical extreme, this would justify the rape of overwhelmingly beautiful women.)

Catholicism decided that only celibate hands can administer the sacraments. The message is clear: sexuality is incompatible with sexuality. Sex is dirty, spirituality sublime. (Recent scandals among Catholic clergy relate to this taboo. You can’t just declare a whole class of people sexless and expect it to work. It would be like trying to elevate your penis with pleasure-free willpower.)

So it came to pass that Catholics and other Christians pumped a lot of bad notions of sex and sexual pleasure into Western culture. Let that be candidly admitted.

. . . One might think that the puritanical horror of sex has been dissipated in a culture where sex is used ubiquitously in the marketplace to promote sales, and frenzied pornography abounds. However, as theologian Grace Jantzen observes, this obsession reflects the historical Christian obsession and is really “the same preoccupation, turned inside out.” The addiction to pornography is fueled by discomfort with sex. It has been suggested that pornography might dull our feeling for the other – in effect, killing love.

So it would seem that religion and sex are not happy bedfellows and that religion has nothing to offer but cruel taboos. Surprise! That is not the case. Christianity and Catholicism, in spite of their long history of demeaning sexuality, have resources to rethink the beauties of sexual pleasure, and some of the healthy moral energies of these traditions are being revived and developed. At the same time, as the interest in “spirituality” is rising, links are being discovered between the sexual and the sacred, and sexual and religious interests are moving in new and fascinating tandem.

For the next installment in this series, click here.

For more of Daniel Maguire’s thoughts, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
Daniel Maguire on the Progressive Core of Catholicism
Honoring (and Learning from) the Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchus

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
What Is It That Ails You?
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Making Love, Giving Life
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 1)
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 2)
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Poem
Italian Cardinal Calls foe New Vision of Sexuality
An Austrian Bishop’s “Radical” Call for Reform
Getting It Right

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