Sean Moncrieff: You can’t be holy and have a sex life
The church needs to keep sex at bay; as if too much sex, certainly too much nice sex, could overwhelm religious belief
It’s not clear why the church dislikes sex so much, other than it always has. Photograph: iStock
It will be interesting to hear what Pope Francis has to say for himself at his big gigs this weekend. Given that it’s all about families and Family Values – whatever they are – he may well mention the S-word.
Yeah, here we go again: the anti-Catholic media making out that the church is obsessed with sex. The usual rebuttal to this is that it is society that’s actually obsessed with nookie, and as any regular Mass-goer will tell you, the subject is rarely mentioned from the pulpit.
Which is true. It’s not obsession, more like the church needs to keep sex at bay; as if too much sex, certainly too much nice sex, could overwhelm religious belief, and eviscerate Family Values. Whatever they are. And this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), the papal encyclical that gave Catholics a do-and-don’t guide for bedroom activities. Given all that, it would be weird if he didn’t mention sex.
For generations of Irish people, this is of more than academic interest. Long before the grotesque revelations of clerical child abuse, the Irish had to endure a religion and religious-run education system that sought to inoculate them against sexual desire by teaching them disgust for their own bodies. Sometimes this worked. Sometimes people struggled through it and overcame the self-hatred. But it always came at a cost. It damaged countless people.
It’s not clear why the church dislikes sex so much, other than it always has. St Paul was notoriously anti-sex. In the fourth century, Saint Jerome declared “marriage populates the earth; virginity populates heaven”. And while there were practical reasons for enforcing celibacy on the clergy, abstinence from sex was always regarded as a more ‘pure’ state. But most famously, the woman who gave birth to Jesus was a virgin, and according to Catholic belief remained that way for the rest of her life. Holiness and a sex life are consistently depicted as incompatible.
The ’60s happened
But then the ’60s happened. Oral contraception happened, And the response to that was Humanae Vitae. And while it accepted that you can limit the size of your family and that physical intimacy was part of (straight, married) relationships, it was allowed only within specific limits: “The sexual act must retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
In other words, you can use the rhythm method, but you can only have sex of the most vanilla kind. (If you don’t know what that means, Google it. Some exciting times may lie ahead for you.)
Humanae Vitae was a set of rules about sex that demonstrated a cosmic-sized ignorance of sex itself: that it can be performed in a number of different ways, in different circumstances, in different moods. It can take five minutes or five hours. And once both parties freely enter into it, it is limited only by their imagination and physical stamina. It is one of the most life-affirming and joyous activities human beings can indulge in. It’s an integral, vital part of being human.If you believe in that kind of thing, you could say it is a precious gift from God. Yet the organisation that claims to represent God thinks it’s largely disgusting.
In fairness to Francis, he has tried to edge the focus past the rules and towards a celebration of passion in (straight, married) relationships. In 2016, he published a document titled Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) that acknowledged some of the friskier parts of the Bible. Yet even here he reaffirmed the Humanae Vitae view that “no genital act of husband and wife” (eww) “can refuse the meaning” that sex is still essentially about baby-making.
Tomorrow, half a million people will go to see a man who apparently knows less than the average 16-year-old about an integral part of the human condition.
Isn’t life odd?