Of Sex and the Catholic Church

When the bishops' synod on the Christian family convened in Rome last fall, there were hopes that the Church would reform its position on such crucial issues as birth control and divorce. But, despite pleas from liberal prelates around the world, the Vatican-dominated synod reaffirmed the precedence of law over compassion.

In the midst of a general audience in the Vatican last October, Pope John Paul II said: "If a man gazes on his wife lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The statement caused an immediate sensation. Reconsidered, though, it may have been one of the Pope's more enlightened pronouncements on women and sex. John Paul had simply insisted that, in conjugal relations, a woman is the equal of a man—a subject, not an object, of sex. That is an attitude that has not flourished in the Church historically; nor does it today.

A misogynistic prejudice has pervaded the Church's moral thought down through the ages, based on the incident of Eve as the temptress in Genesis, and confirmed by the Stoic rhetoric in which the early Christian thinkers were trained. It reflected the Platonic conviction that man's proper activity was contemplation. Churchmen from Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century to Jerome and John Chrysostom in the fifth delighted in denigrating womanhood as the source of the human race's downfall.

While attributing mankind's woes to the lubricious enticements of woman, preachers with awe-inspiring inconsistency harped upon a wife's rendering the conjugal debt contracted in marriage by giving her husband the sole use of her body. That the contract worked both ways was also on the books, but little attention was paid to this consideration because it was taken for granted that the sex act had been created for the man's convenience. Most women in the Christian tradition were taught that there was something distasteful about sex. They had to submit to their husband's advances with some regularity to keep peace in the household and beget children. Few Christian wives, even the educated ones, had any idea that, biologically, the sex act was made for the woman. Fewer still seem to have achieved the earthy wisdom of the Wyf of Bathe, who said:

In wyfhode i wil use myn instrument
As frely as my maker hath me it sent,
If i be dangerous, God give me sowre
Myn housband shall have it at eve and at mowre
When that him lis com forth and pay his dette.

St. Paul's injunction "Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church" was interpreted in a mystical sense, divorced from any connection with conjugal affection and coital satisfaction. Despite the heavy use of sexual imagery throughout the Old Testament to describe the relations between Yahweh and his chosen people, Christian exegetes avoided the Canticle of Canticles as mysteriously salacious, or interpreted it in such a fashion that it reinforced a propensity for sexual asceticism in conjugal relations. This puritanical tendency infected Christian thinking from the late second century until shortly before Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Traditional teaching on sexuality had been reduced in most preconciliar moral textbooks to the inhuman prescription: "It is grievously sinful in the unmarried deliberately to procure or to accept even the mildest degree of true venereal pleasure; secondly, it is equally sinful to think, say or do anything with the intention of arousing even the smallest degree of this pleasure..."

As late as 1944, Pius XII had said: "If the exclusive aim of nature or at least its primary intent had been the mutual giving and possessing of husband and wife in pleasure and delight; if nature had arranged that act only to make their personal experience joyous in the highest degree, and not as an incentive in the service of life; then the Creator would have made use of another plan in the formation of the marital act..."

In direct opposition to that papal statement Vatican Council II declared: "[Conjugal] love is uniquely expressed and perfected within the marital act. The actions within marriage by which a couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner that is truly human these actions signify and promote the mutual giving by which the spouses enrich each other with a joyful and thankful will."

With Pope John's council, the Catholic Church had made a heroic effort to look realistically at the signs of the times. Turning its theological thinking upside down, the council decided to consult the facts of life before applying moral principles to the regulation of human conduct. It acknowledged love and mutual assistance as fundamental features of the marital union; and, while continuing the ban on sexual indulgence, it acknowledged the necessity of responsible parenthood. The council's pastoral constitution described marriage as a "togetherness in love and life," acknowledging that carnal affection was endowed by the Creator with "special gifts of healing, perfecting and exalting" the spouses in grace and charity.

Despite this achievement of fifteen years ago, a preconciliar sexophobia seems to have resurfaced within the Church's hierarchy. To be sure, the Polish Pontiff has frequently denied that a Manichaean streak of sexual embarrassment predominates in Vatican thinking, and he has attempted in the course of weekly audiences over the past year to stress the personal rather than the procreative aspect of married love. Nevertheless, the result of the 1980 World Synod of Bishops on "The Role of the Christian Family in the World of Today" has been an attempt to restore the notion of procreation as the primary end of marriage to its preconciliar dominance. At the same time, both Pope and synod ignored the pleas made by diocesan cardinals and prelates for a compassionate approach to the marital problems of their people. The synodal structure was dominated by intransigent Vatican functionaries still wedded to a pre-Copernican concept of the universe, and behind all lay the obsessive dread of hedonism—represented by sex—that still afflicts many Rome-oriented prelates and theologians.

As cardinals, bishops, theologians, and journalists descended on the Eternal City for the synod in late September, they were involved in a tradition that went back beyond the practice of the primitive Church to the administrative customs of the Roman Empire. A synodos was a meeting of roads where the civil and military governors of the colonial provinces gathered to discuss problems and policies in the light of the emperor's instructions.

Almost immediately after achieving a relative catholicity, early Church leaders found it necessary to imitate imperial practices by holding local meetings of bishops to evaluate difficulties regarding doctrine and discipline. There is evidence of this practice during the latter half of the second century. Under Bishop Denis of Corinth, around 180 A.D., a series of synods was inaugurated to deal precisely with an alleviation of the Church's rigorist attitude toward adultery and other marital problems.

The Oriental churches, particularly at Constantinople, established a so-called synodos endemousa , or permanent synod, imitated today in the sobornost of Russian and other Orthodox synodal assemblies. In these gatherings, the testimony of prelates, theologians, and lay experts regarding doctrinal and disciplinary problems is weighed in the light of tradition and of contemporary necessities under the guidance of the patriarch. Gradually a consensus is achieved and attributed to the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Only then can the patriarch make a pronouncement, which has to be in keeping with the mind of the synod.

Pope Paul VI sought to reintroduce this synodal machinery into the government of the Catholic Church immediately after Vatican Council II in compliance with the assembly's call for collegiality—the rule of the Church at the top by the bishops with and under the Pope.

The first of these triennial Roman synods was held in the fall of 1967. Its path was not smooth. Curial cardinals, particularly Alfredo Ottaviani and Michael Browne of the ancien Holy Office, sought to intimidate Pope and prelates with the charge that heresy was rife throughout the Church. But the bishops in attendance rejected this contention and achieved a substantial independence in their discussions and decisions. A permanent secretariat of elected noncurial prelates was established with headquarters in Rome to prepare for future synods.

The special synod of 1969—called to discuss the use and abuse of authority in the Church—achieved an explicit acknowledgment of the new orientation of Catholic theological thinking. The synod rejected a priori reasoning in the solution of pastoral problems; consideration was given instead to the sensus fidelium ("the mind of the faithful") in the formulation of the Church's teaching. This procedure was actually a return to the origins of Christian theology, in which the elements of the Church's ethical teaching were adapted to the cultural practices of the local communities—Judaic, Greek, and Oriental—to constitute the Christian way of life. Thus a pluralism in its ethical thinking characterized the Christian Church from its beginnings. At Vatican Council II the Eastern churches played a decisive part in their witness to pluralistic solutions for doctrinal and disciplinary problems.

It was therefore taken for granted that Pope Paul wanted the synod to develop into a true sounding board for the Church's universal self-awareness. Eventually, it was to be hoped, the assembly would grow into a sort of parliament. It would relieve the Holy Father of the present curial structure, which governs the Church through countless directives regarding the sacraments, clerical conduct, education and marriage, and so forth, to which the Pope lends his authority.

A comparative freedom of discussion was exercised by the bishops at the 1969 synod. However, with the synod of 1971, which concentrated principally on the problems of the priesthood, curial control suddenly reasserted itself. Debate on the request for optional celibacy in the Western Church was curtailed and the synodal conclusions were dictated by "higher authority" within the papal household. The curia employed similar though less obvious tactics in the synods of 1974 and 1977, which discussed, respectively, evangelization and catechesis, or Christian formation.

A political truth quickly surfaced in the postconciliar period. When Rome consulted the diocesan bishops individually, the Vatican authorities usually obtained answers in keeping with their desires. But when these prelates were assembled in a council or a synod, they achieved the courage to speak their minds. In dealing with this phenomenon, curial officials had learned to allow a free discussion of synodal issues during the general sessions and only gradually to exercise a refined guidance in the inner group discussions. By reserving the publication of the synod's decisions to the Pope, they had full control over its results.

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