One of the many bons mots of Archbishop Fulton Sheen was: “What the Church gives up the world takes up.”
By that he meant the Church often (all too often) fails to appreciate the value of her patrimony, foregoes it under pressure to conform to the world, only to discover that “the world” has picked up on the discarded treasure. Lately, I have been considering how that is very much the case with many aspects of the Church’s approach to human sexuality prior to the Second Vatican Council. Now, I know some will remark that the Church had a serious “hang-up” on sex in those days. Indeed, a joke highlights this accusation: A man confesses to his Irish pastor, “Father, I killed my mother-in-law, embezzled a million dollars from my company, and masturbated.” To which, the priest replies, “You did what?” The follow-up is a stern reprimand about the importance of purity. To be sure, there were some Jansenists in the pre-conciliar Church – and yes, particularly among the Irish clergy – but I must say that was not my experience of Catholic moral theology in the 1950s and 1960s.
My Catholic schooling began in kindergarten in 1955, which is also when my education in chastity began. Up to and including First Confession and First Holy Communion, we were always encouraged to be pure. I am not sure we actually knew what constituted “impurity,” but we knew we didn’t want to “go there” because that would be displeasing to Our Lord, His most-pure Mother, and our guardian angel.
Around sixth grade, presentations on the sixth and ninth commandments (then eagerly anticipated by pre-pubescent kids) gave substance to the meaning of purity and impurity. We were to avoid “dirty” magazines, movies, jokes and language for these were occasions of even graver sins and also indicators of an uncultured lady or gentleman. Sexual intercourse was referred to as the “marriage act,” hence, not to be experienced by anyone who was not married (very logically). Fornication was also wrong because it could (and often did) lead to out-of-wedlock pregnancies, which were harmful to both mother and child. Masturbation was a perversion of the sexual faculty, which was intended to unite and seal a couple’s love and to bring forth new life. Immodest dress was an indication of a desire to attract attention to one’s sexuality and led others to lustful thoughts or even immoral acts. Adultery was a sin against one’s marriage vows, a betrayal of one’s spouse and an assault on the family. At high school dances, the Sisters separated partners too close for comfort with the witty, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit!” Divorce was presented as a double offense – against the family and against society at one and the same time.
Same-sex activity was never even mentioned. That said, contrary to assertions of people such as Jesuit Father James Martin, there was no persecution of people with same-sex attraction. Indeed, if a boy in grammar school appeared somewhat effeminate and began to be teased by other boys, the nuns punished the offenders, sent them to the parish priest for further discipline, and consoled the boy who had been hurt.
My only reservation about our Christian formation in sexuality is that a well-reasoned apologetic for the positions was generally lacking. We got the Scripture verses on which the various positions were based, as well as the practical reasons for observing the norms (e.g., you’ll get pregnant; you’ll get a disease; people will think ill of you) – but not an explanation that would hold up under the attacks of the sexual revolution of the late-60s and 70s.
For a number of years, I was a rather frequent guest on the Larry King Show when King needed someone to provide “balance” for one of his many unbalanced anti-Catholic guests (not a few of whom were Catholic). On one such occasion, Larry King expressed dismay that Catholics are so guilt-ridden. I responded thus: “There’s good guilt and bad guilt. If I lunged at you and stabbed you right now and felt guilty about the act in short order, that would be a good sign. If I failed to experience guilt, that would be an indicator that I was a sociopath!” I went on: “Judas and Peter both sinned against Our Lord. Both were remorseful. Judas’ guilt led to suicide; Peter’s guilt led to repentance.”
On another occasion, King asked with angst, “Does God really care about what a man does with such a small organ?” I replied that either sexual activity is nothing more than two dogs in heat or it is what Sacred Scripture says it is, namely, a type of sign of the sacrificial love of Christ for His Church. Furthermore, that while one should not and cannot be defined exclusively or primarily by one’s sexuality, that faculty and identity are nonetheless constitutive elements of one’s identity. I went on to note that disordered sexuality often leads to much more serious sins and crimes.
Coincidentally, at the time of that show, two stories dominated the news. O. J. Simpson’s murder trial had its roots in adultery; a South Carolina mother had drowned her two sons because her live-in lover didn’t want the boys around. And who can forget how King David fell from grace? His voyeurism (an early form of pornography) caused him to lust after Bathsheba, then to commit adultery with her, then to have her husband killed to cover up the adultery and pregnancy. So, I think that God does care about such things.
Now, let’s take a look at some of these positions the Church presented with clarity and conviction fifty years ago and for which she was considered benighted.
• Obscene language was sinful and offensive; now people lose their jobs for such activity under the rubric of “sexual harassment.”
• “Dirty” books, magazines and movies were sinful or at least near occasions of sin; now pornography is a multi-billion dollar business and a major cause of marital breakdown and, in the Scandinavian countries and Japan, of a lack of desire to engage in normal sexual activity.
• Artificial birth control, according to the “prophecies” of Pope Paul VI would bring in its wake an increase in fornication and adultery, treatment of women as objects, and the lead-up to abortion; no one can deny that this has all happened in spades.
• The Church’s condemnation of fornication was sneered at as the last remnant of Victorian prudishness (although St. Paul had a few things to say about it seventeen centuries before); now we see that promiscuity (especially of teens) rather frequently leads to serious psychological problems, including suicide. And how can any reasonable person presume that a young person involved in (perhaps) hundreds of “hook-ups” (often beginning in the “tweens”) is an apt candidate for a stable, permanent and exclusive commitment in marriage?
• Out-of-wedlock pregnancies were guaranteed not to occur by abstaining from sexual intercourse until married; today such pregnancies rival those of the married, with tragic results bountifully documented for mother and child alike.
• Masturbation was seen as a sign of arrested development (something even Freud held); narcissism now reigns supreme.
• The Church’s Legion of Decency was mocked as a modern reincarnation of the Inquisition; when the Church (regrettably) abandoned that institution, Hollywood had to come up with its own (inadequate) version of film ratings.
• The Church’s traditional approach to clergy sex abuse was to consign the offenders to monasteries, but then psychologists informed us that those men could be reactivated; we have seen the results of that counsel.
Political observers often argue that Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 because of a single question he suggested to the American people, in reference to the Carter years: “Are you any better off today than you were four years ago?” A variation on that question can be directed to society-at-large in this way: “Fifty years into the sexual revolution, are we any happier, more fulfilled and better off than we were before?” Honesty would compel a resounding “No!” I think that question needs to be the starting point for engaging the present generation in a sincere conversation about sexual morality.
The new cardinal of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, in a recent interview, opined that although the Scandinavian countries have gone about as far as possible into sexual license, there now seems to be an openness to discuss (and not outright dismiss) the Catholic and biblical view of human sexuality. Is something similar on the horizon in the United States?
As such a conversation moves forward, the critical point must be made that an act is not evil because God says it is so; rather, God says it is evil because it is. St. Augustine, who knew all about deviant behavior, concluded that God’s commandments are given to us because God is intimior intimo meo (God is closer to me than I am to myself). Which is to say that He knows me better than I know myself. The good God does not present the Ten Commandments (including the sixth and ninth) as so many sand-traps to ensnare us and drag us down to Hell. The commandments are God’s blueprint for human happiness and fulfillment. The Psalmist knew this well when he sang:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps 19:8-10)
However, there is an element of lordship involved in all this as well. Every good psychologist maintains that every human person must choose some person or value outside himself to serve. In choosing to serve only ourselves, we submit to the cruelest master of all. In choosing to serve Christ, we submit to the kindliest Master of all.
The first course I had in the program for my licentiate in sacred theology from the wonderful Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., was taught by the biblical scholar, Father Francis Martin. During the second or third week of the course, it was announced that Pope John Paul II had withdrawn the license to teach Catholic theology from Father Charles Curran. A Protestant student in our class asked Father Martin if he was embarrassed by the papal action against one deemed by many to be the foremost American theologian at the time. A leader in the Catholic charismatic movement, Father Martin replied: “We Christians echo St. Paul in saying that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ That means that Jesus is Lord of my whole life or Lord of none of it. There can be no areas carved out free of His lordship. Jesus is Lord of my head, of my eyes, of my hands, of my feet – and yes, of my genitals. And that is what Charlie Curran finds hard to understand and accept.”
We need to ensure that young Catholics presently in our schools can declare with total honesty and enthusiasm, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!