“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 LifeSiteNews.com 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.
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