Catholics aren’t obsessed with sex—they are obsessed with life

There seems little doubt, at this point, that 2018 is going to witness yet another great clash over Paul VI’s encyclical—arguably one of the most contested and disputed papal texts in modern history.

Paul VI makes Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) a cardinal in 1977. [Wikipedia]

“Why are Catholics so obsessed with sex?”

I’ve been asked the question more than once; you have probably heard or seen it as well. In my experience, it has never been asked because I was talking about sex. It usually comes out of the blue, almost as though the person asking the question—a question often uttered more as an accusation than an inquiry—is, well, obsessed with what he thinks the Church is constantly discussing. The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “Why do you think Catholics are obsessed with sex?”
Him: “Well, the Church is always telling Catholics what they can or cannot do—”
Me: “So you’ve heard quite a few homilies about sex recently?”
Him: “Um, no. I’m not a Catholic. [Or: “I haven’t been to Mass for 20 years.”] I’m talking about the pope. I don’t want the pope in my bedroom.”
Me: “I don’t think the pope wants to be in your bedroom—”
Him: “Why can’t the Catholic Church just let people make up their own minds about sex?”

The point, then, is they don’t like the fact the Church teaches that sex belongs in a certain place (in a life-long marriage), comes with responsibilities (not just pleasures), and is oriented toward both unitive and procreative ends (again, not just momentary pleasures separate from marriage). I’ve also found that some people like to criticize Catholics for having too many kids and lambast the Church for making sex a “dirty” topic and “unnatural” thing. What becomes clear very quickly is the lack of knowledge about what the Church actually teaches (no surprise, that) and an equally sad lack of knowledge about the nature and meaning of sex.

Longtime readers will forgive me, I trust, if I refer again to Frank Sheed’s wonderful quip, at the start of a chapter in his 1953 book Society and Sanity: “The typical modern man practically never thinks about sex.” As Sheed explains, in words even more true today than they were six decades ago:

He dreams of it, of course, by day and by night; he craves for it; he pictures it, is stimulated or depressed by it, drools over it. But this frothing, steaming activity is not thinking. Drooling is not thinking, picturing is not thinking, craving is not thinking, dreaming is not thinking. Thinking means bringing the power of the mind to bear: thinking about sex means striving to see sex in its innermost reality and in the function it is meant to serve.

The fact is simply this: the dominant culture in the West is obsessed with sex—that is, sexual attractions and acts that have little or nothing to do with authentic love, marriage, procreation, the common good, and eternal life. And it has been for decades, during which time the Church has often been forced into a defensive stance, one that is sometimes interpreted as simply saying, “No, no, no!” (For a decidedly non-Catholic but frank history of the Sixties, the Sexual Revolution, and the culture wars, see Andrew Hartman’s 2015 book A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, from University of Chicago Press.) In fairness, there has been much to say “No!” to: the contraceptive mentality, the scourge of abortion, the steady drop in both marriages and births, the rise and acceptance of divorce, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, and, more recently, the wholesale embrace of gender ideology. And so this controversial comment, made by Pope Francis in 2013, makes some sense, at least initially and superficially:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

As I wrote at the time, the Pontiff’s remark could have benefitted from both clarity and context. But, as we have learned since, providing clarity and context is not usually a concern of the Holy Father, especially in interviews and off-the-cuff statements. Regardless, theologian Massimo Faggioli, who teaches at Villanova University, finds that 2013 comment to be of some importance in light of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. In an article posted earlier today on the Commonweal site, Faggioli writes:

The preparations to mark this anniversary suggest we will see yet more signs of tension in how different Catholics (culturally and geographically) understand Catholicism. Based on the program they released at their November gathering in Baltimore, for example, the U.S. bishops are far more excited about celebrating the anniversary of Humanae Vitae than their counterparts in the rest of the world, who seem to be looking at marriage and family with a different kind of focus. And this “enthusiasm gap” is reflective of more than just the present moment; it suggests continuation of the skirmishes within the Church that have persisted through Francis’s papacy. It began within a few months of Francis’s election, with his decision to pull back on the obsessive emphasis on sexuality.

What, then, is involved in the U.S. bishops’ “obsessive” emphasis on sexuality? The USCCB page states: “The papal encyclical, Humanae vitae (HV) written by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1968, provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life.” There will be conferences and talks on family life, marriage, the “feminine genius”, and natural family planning. The attentive Catholic will note, of course, that Humanae Vitae was written on the topic of “the regulation of birth” and that its opening sentence states: “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.” In other words, it all seems to follow rather logically and, yes, naturally.

So what, exactly, is the sources of Faggioli’s apparent frustration? In sum, he is annoyed by the “culture-war approach” he finds among certain Catholics (he highlights George Weigel’s November 2017 article “What’s changed since ‘Humane Vitae’?”) who are critical or wary of a series of lectures being given at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Faggioli offers this rather smirking take:

What’s really going on in Rome is a pluralistic and intellectually diverse engagement with Humanae Vitae; in addition to the program organized by the Gregorian, there was also the conference at the Angelicum last September. Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops have a series of events clearly focused on “natural family planning.”

And then this, which gets to the heart of the matter: “The second symptom of impoverishment is the tendency to reduce understanding of a particularly sensitive papal teaching and its reception to a particular cultural and geographic point of view, and then universalize it.” On one hand, it’s reasonable and important to consider how Humanae Vitae has been received in different countries and cultures. But it’s also worth noting the elephant in the room: the Sexual Revolution and the incredible pressure put on Paul VI following Vatican II to change Church teaching about artificial contraceptives did not take place in, or come from, Third World countries. This was, quite simply, a Western/First World issue—which has, of course, now spread throughout the world as various Western countries and institutions have worked to promote the culture of death so carefully described and so rightly denounced by St. John Paul II.

On cue, as it were, there is now a detailed report by Diane Montagna of about a December 14th lecture delivered at Pontifical Gregorian University—yes, as part of the above-mentioned lectures—by Italian moral theologian Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, who is reported to have spoken approvingly of “circumstances — I refer to Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8 — that precisely for the sake of responsibility, require contraception.”

There is much to digest, but I will just focus here on these remarks, as reported by Montagna:

Through His Paschal Mystery, Fr. Chiodi said, “Jesus … opens to the believer the possibility of acting responsibly, that is, a way of acting that responds to grace, passing through the travails of history and of evil.”

“Within this perspective,” Chiodi argued, “moral norms are not reducible to rational objectivity but belong to human life understood as a story of salvation and grace. The norms conserve the good and instruct in the way of good. But they are historical.”

This (and several other statements in the report) bring to mind warnings found in St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, as when he states:

In their desire, however, to keep the moral life in a Christian context, certain moral theologians have introduced a sharp distinction, contrary to Catholic doctrine, between an ethical order, which would be human in origin and of value for this world alone, and an order of salvation, for which only certain intentions and interior attitudes regarding God and neighbour would be significant. This has then led to an actual denial that there exists, in Divine Revelation, a specific and determined moral content, universally valid and permanent. The word of God would be limited to proposing an exhortation, a generic paraenesis, which the autonomous reason alone would then have the task of completing with normative directives which are truly “objective”, that is, adapted to the concrete historical situation. Naturally, an autonomy conceived in this way also involves the denial of a specific doctrinal competence on the part of the Church and her Magisterium with regard to particular moral norms which deal with the so-called “human good”. Such norms would not be part of the proper content of Revelation, and would not in themselves be relevant for salvation. No one can fail to see that such an interpretation of the autonomy of human reason involves positions incompatible with Catholic teaching.  (emphasis added)

Thus we come full circle, again, back to essential points in Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor, which, in my opinion, cannot be easily reconciled, if at all (as I’ve discussed before, in this November 2016 essay). There seems little doubt, at this point, that 2018 is going to witness yet another great clash over Paul VI’s encyclical—arguably the most contested and disputed papal text in history. Those who have studied the writings of Karol Wajtyla/John Paul II will be able to show that, in fact, being deeply concerned about abortion, the contraceptive mentality, and related matters is not, in the end, a matter of being “obsessed with sex,” but of being obsessed with life. (“In marriage sex loses none of its strength,” wrote Sheed, “but it serves life.”) And that this focus is rooted in divine truth—objective, unchanging truth—about the nature of man, as Gaudium et spes stated:

Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards.These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. (par 51)

Finally, at risk of stating what should be obvious: Gaudium et spes is not an “American” document and St. John Paul II was not an “American” citizen. I suggest that if Faggioli and friends wish to undermine or attack the thinking of the great pontiff, they do so openly and without hiding behind their anti-American rhetoric and passive-aggressive sophistry.

About Carl E. Olson 1063 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.


  1. Faggioli is asking us to all pretend that human sexuality is not a paramount thing in human life.

    Well it is Mr. Faggioli – and we have to deal with it – like serious followers of Jesus.

    I mean – it’s not as if the world around us is not obsessed with sex.

    Statements like this from Faggioli are indicative of people who don’t want to face reality.

  2. The schism will become deeper and wider. The bishop of Rome is fine with that.
    He has his marching orders and he will carry them out.

  3. Sex a sad word refers to one thing alone in God’s plan for human justice. The transmission of human life that Pope Paul VI so well enhances our knowledge of in Humanae Vitae. Under attack by men of far less intellect and far less faith like Faggioli, the darling of the Vatican reformer lackeys trailing behind The Great Reformer. Carl Olson exposes their deviousness, their pretentious guile. Perhaps it will spur the Faggioli types to convert. This may be trite but I’ll say it. Olson, JJ Reno, E Pentin, R Thouthat et Al are our Catholic Lone Rangers at a time the Church is under assault by knaves. I’ll add a born Catholic and self proclaimed rabble rouser and called worse to the vaunted mix Steve Skojec. Why I can almost here strains of the William Tell Overture when I read their [more smashing] articles.

  4. The real problem is, Mr. Olson (besides the fact that we have too many pictures of you!), is that … YOU HATE VATICAN II!!

    But wait … you just quoted from Vatican II to back up your argument?

    I’m sooo confused.

    All joking aside, the agenda of Faggioli, Fr. Chiodi, Cardinal Kasper, et al, is becoming more and more obvious. And I’m afraid it’s going to come to this: Do we follow the Germans or the Kazakhs, Francis or Benedict? We’ve got to make a choice, unless the principle of non-contradiction no longer holds.

    Perhaps this is why we still have two bishops wearing a white zuchetto (kind of like Gandalf and Saruman – which ‘white wizard’ should we follow)?

    • Perhaps the natural German aggressiveness that brought us two world wars has been transformed into a passive aggressive anti religious attempt to destroy Christianity instead.

    • You only think Olson hates Vatican II is because you are rationally challenged.

      People who are enthrall to the “spirit” of Vatican II ought to read the actual Vatican II documents and not live in delusion.

      • MarcAlcan, actually Mr. Olson and I studied theology together and we’re friends from long ago. I was trying a little bit of good-natured ribbing (especially about the number of his photos).

        I totally agree with you that even a cursory reading of the documents of Vatican II would dispel the myth of the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II. I was, unfortunately, one of those who ‘drank the koolaid’ of the 70’s, completely convinced of the new Church, feeling in my heart that I could sing the city of God into existence with my guitar and tambourine. But, then I actually studied theology, real Catholic theology. We immersed ourselves in the actual writings of the Church and the Magisterium. Kindof an eye-opening experience!

  5. Power and money are an obsession for many, causing more harm and damage in society than some mindless sexual fantasies. The Church is clear about the importance of respect for human life from conception to death; and how non-natural contraception is morally wrong. Pope Francis is clear on that. I worry that many rightwing Catholics who are financially well-off are unaware of the need for the Church to reach out to sinners, of all sorts, for Christ came to save them too, lest we forget. It is time to stop harping negatively about Pope Francis and see how he has reached out to so many. The Church is for all, not just a smug minority who feel pride in themselves and the higher moral ground they believe they hold. The cardinals, guided by the Holy Spirit, chose Pope Francis, and may God bless and guide the Holy Father.

    • A curious and rather confused response. Four points:

      1) Anyone who follows the news and knows a bit about human nature also knows that power, money, and sex usually go together in some way or another. See the current Hollywood scandals, or read up a bit on the multi-multi-billion dollar porn industry. Sexual fantasies may be “mindless,” but they are hardly immoral. There’s a reason that Jesus stated: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:27-28).

      2) The state of marriage in the West, overall, indicates there is a serious crisis in the realm of family, sexuality, and related matters. It’s a bit odd that you lambast “rightwing Catholics” about their concerns about such things when it was Pope Francis who called two Synods in order to address issues having to do with family life, marriage, and so forth. Go figure.

      3) Also odd is the charge that “many rightwing Catholics who are financially well-off are unaware of the need for the Church to reach out to sinners…” Apparently you aren’t aware that the vast majority of evangelical apostolates and movements in the Church are run by “rightwing Catholics”. In my experience, in my 20 years as a Catholic, the most serious evangelists and witnesses among Catholics are those more traditional Catholics who have been, at times, scolded by Pope Francis for being too “rigid” and “dogmatic.” Again, go figure.

      4) I agree with you about the “smug minority” who think they “hold the higher moral ground.” And I would argue that minority consists of bishops and cardinals from Germany, Belgium, and other northern European countries who think they can and will overturn Church teaching about marriage, contraceptives, and even homosexuality, as the last two Synods strongly indicated in so many ways

    • Popes and Cardinals are human and can be wrong! Be careful about claiming the high moral ground, especially when bucking Ste JP11

  6. “So you’ve heard quite a few homilies about sex recently?”
    Him: “Um, no. I’m not a Catholic.

    Exactly. I have never heard a homily on sex, in 12 years inside the Church.

  7. If I move far enough “right” will my urge for sex be dampened? Is it natural to ignore one’s libido? When I was young and in release classes the Nuns struck fear into our hearts by warning us not to even have a wisp of a thought on sex. That was my first earth shaking moment.

    St. Pope John II lamented on sex once by saying it was “sinful” for a husband to lust after his own wife. That was my second earth shaking event. I had a school friend that was so obsessed with sex they were threatening to call an exorcist.

    How true… Catholics are truly concerned more about sex. Reasons… they consider sex only for procreation, not pleasure. Celibacy is a dominant thought. Dealing with sex presents many minefields. Sex may be the largest reason that Catholics are not in the state of grace. Dealing with sex as a Catholic may expose one to “mortal” sin.

    • Morgan, so sorry that you never received a decent catechesis on sex. But then, there aren’t a lot of those out there.
      First, consider a definition of ‘lust.’ How about this one: lust is sexual desire devoid of God’s love. Lust leads a person toward self-gratification, never a good thing in any human relationship. Love (which some people confuse with lust) leads a person to self-donation. I’m sure you can see the difference.

      So if someone ‘lusts’ after their spouse, bottom line is they’re viewing them as a tool to satisfy their own desires. And I’m sure you would agree that we should never view people as tools – that is kind of the basis of slavery, which you would probably also agree is not a good thing to do to humans. Objectifying a person (turning a human into an ‘object’) can be viewed as ‘sinful’ just ask all those people who have come forward lately with the #MeToo movement. Maybe JPII’s quote makes a bit more sense now?

      Second, please take a few days to read and dig into and pray about Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. You may be amazed at what he actually wrote. Turns out sex isn’t just for procreation! Whatdya know! You mean that’s the actual teaching of the Catholic Church? Yeah, it’s pretty amazing when we spend the energy to look for the actual teachings.

      Third, get your hands on a decent book about the Theology of the Body. They’re all over and there’s so much good stuff about it on the internet. But be warned – it may rock your world a little. It might even challenge some of your long-held beliefs about the Catholic Church.

      • Sorry for not being an in depth Catholic theologian, Mj. Much of what I said was based on the experience of being taught by Nuns with 3ft rulers and bare knuckles Jesuits willing to take me on if I didn’t toe the line. Being a Catholic in NY, with Cardinal Spellman and having so many Protestant and black friends wasn’t easy.

        • “…Nuns with 3ft rulers and bare knuckles Jesuits willing to take me on if I didn’t toe the line.” Your posts never fail to reveal your dystopian imagination and your propensity for fabrications. You had no such experiences, and you know it. You are not fooling anybody. You know less about Catholicism than does a Hollywood director.

          • Timothy, it was not my objective to start another fight in a place full of fighters. My offering was to enlighten us all about how the Catholic Church treated sex in the dark ages.

            Were we afraid of the Nuns? Yes. And, the Jesuits, of course. Did we understand their mission? No. Did we leave classes insecure? Yes.

        • Morgan, we can’t change our past, but we can certainly do something about our future. Like I said, I’m sorry that you had bad catechetical instruction in the past. But take a chance, educate yourself with some good theology. Find out what the Church really teaches. Keep searching until you find the truth. If you need some suggestions about where to look, I’ll be glad to help. And may God be with you in your journey.

    • Are you more than your biology? And have you always been imprisoned by a superficial and scrupulous understanding of Church teaching?

  8. Carl,

    Thanks for the timely piece. I get the impression that these men (Faggioli et al.) are so giddy over what seems to them an authentically developing Church under Francis, and thus their providential existence in defense thereof. They treat the Church of Christ as a kind of political machine, and crave novelty, at least subconsciously. The faith once delivered to the saints is never enough.

    As for Fr. Chiodi, this was all surely in the making, was it not? And Francis, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, never says a word.

  9. Professor Maurizio Chiodi, a new member of the Pontifical Academy for life is using Amoris Laetitia as a springboard for contraception for “limited” cases.

    And so it begins in earnest…

  10. Faggioli’s targeting of Americans goes down well in US and European academe — which is really his core audience. A secondary group he influences are the Vatican bureaucrats aligned w Spadaro and his ilk. The very few liberal Catholics who still read Commonweal (which had fewer than 5000 total subscribers last time I checked) are really insignificant in any context. But the Western academe and a good number of the Vatican bureaucracy under Bergoglio are ravenous to tear traditional doctrine limb from limb.

    As Yogi Berra said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” but I’ll say that when Benedict XVI passes, Bergoglio will immediately start to rewrite the Catechism with Spadaro and Tucho Fernandez as editors.

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