For a long time, the argument about the supposedly sexually repressive nature of Catholicism went like this: Sex is a powerful, beautiful, and deeply important part of human life; to ask us to deny our sexual impulses is to ask us to deny a transformative part of human experience. It’s a critique at work in some of the most important literature of the last century: it’s in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in D.H. Lawrence’s oeuvre. It was what “Make love not war” meant when it was still possible to say such things without irony; a time when “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” was understood as tied to meaningful—even transcendent—experiences and before all three were rendered innocuous, and utterly free of intrinsic meaning, by that little adjective “recreational.”
In recent years, however, the critique has shifted. It says, in short, “What’s the big deal?” I recall reading the combox of a Catholic blog a year ago and, while I no longer remember either the blog or the post, I remember coming upon a comment that went something like this: “The problem is that you Catholics take sex so seriously.* It’s just not that huge of a thing.” The comment unsettled me, but it’s taken me some time to figure out why. In an unexpected turn of events, the Church is suddenly the D.H. Lawrence of the world. That is to say, it’s one of the last places you can find where sex is still understood as a potent and transformative part of being a human being.**
In his biography of St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton diagnosed what he saw as the dangers of his own age:
The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago. […] We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase “a garden”; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old parson pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let any one who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would once have stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.
Chesterton’s horror at the worship of sex in an ancient society which arranged even its garden landscapes around the potency of a phallus seems downright quaint now—not because we’re now “enlightened” enough to know that such explicitness is not “obscene and monstrous,” but because the Greeks and Romans still found sex, found something, worthy of worship. Temple prostitution may—and should—strike the Christian as perverse, but one can’t help but say “But at least they had temples.” Even if sex, as Chesterton puts it, became a “tyrant” and crowded out anything else, at least its tyranny was still understood as “sacred.”
What we have now is something much darker than what Chesterton shuddered at: it’s not that we worship sex but that we’ve lost an understanding of what it even means to worship. That is to say, we’ve lost an understanding of what it would mean to consider anything—even our own desires—as something that transcends us, as something beyond a mere possession of the self. To worship is to recognize that there’s something beyond your self worth acknowledging. For the ancients to place a phallus in the middle of their gardens was, in quite a literal way, to take something that appears to be a possession of the self and to put it outside the self, to make it (again literally) larger than the self.
Joyce seems particularly instructive in this regard, writing as he did in the throes of the neo-paganism of High Modernism. The final half of A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, Joyce’s largely autobiographical novel, dramatizes the sexual awakening of Stephen Dedalus, the novel’s young protagonist. After a period of regularly visiting prostitutes, Stephen hears The Most Terrifying Hellfire and Brimstone Sermon Ever™—it’s a chapter long and could only come from the age in which Jesuits had worked the genre into a high art form. Terrified, he returns to the Church, makes a guilt ridden confession, and contemplates the priesthood. It all falls apart, however, in a epiphanic and indeed orgasmic moment where he catches sight of a girl wading:
—Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.
He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame, his body was aglow, his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.
Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!
As the “outburst of profane joy” makes clear, Stephen’s traded in one religion for another, one ecstasy for another. The conversion is complete when he tells a friend, in response to his query about whether Stephen will be going to an Easter mass to make his mother happy: “I will not serve.” With his non servium he has chosen his part, there with the “angel of mortal youth and beauty.”
It’s a commonplace nowadays to note how Catholic Joyce’s work is in spite of his expressed hatred for the faith of his youth. It was something that Joyce himself already knew; Stephen’s friend notes: “It is a curious thing […] how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” It’s hard to imagine young Stephen’s project—to save youth, mortality, and sexuality from the deadly clutches of the “pale service of the altar”—even being attempted today, for such a decision involves taking things like God and ardent youth seriously, even if only to abandon one to embrace the other. To believe in sacrilege is still to believe in the sacred; only the believer can truly blaspheme. Nowadays, it’s hard to even read the block quote above aloud without a touch of irony.*** If, as a society, we collectively jettisoned the fetters of the Church, we also jettisoned its sacredness.
When I was younger, Joyce and Lawrence and even Kerouac spoke to me, convincing me of the goodness and importance of sexuality, while the religious environment I was raised in tended to regard sexuality—especially female sexuality—as “dirty.” It came as some surprise then when, after many years of “sexual freedom” in which sex still felt dirty but never quite felt important, that I found in Catholicism a new chance to take sex seriously, to recognize its power and its importance, its true risks and its true rewards. To find, in short, a chance to grant it transcendence without trying to make it support that transcendence from within itself (as Joyce, God bless him, tried). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way. The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” All human generations proceed from this union.
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.
The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and integrality of the gift. (¶ 2335-2337)
Now, I’m 30 years old and single. I don’t know if it will ever be my lot to be married. The wonderful thing about not having made a religion of sex qua sex is that it does not become, in itself, the end all and be all of existence and ergo the thing without which life is meaningless. At the same time, the beauty of having a religion that understands marriage and its sexual expression as a “way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity,” is that it allows one to recognize and honor its sacredness, even if that honoring is manifested through celibacy. In this context, celibacy becomes not a denial of sex and sexuality but a gesture of the highest respect for it, an indication that this is something worth taking seriously. And chastity—whether expressed through celibacy or through marriage—represents “an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom” (2339), which allows us to move away from a purely self-centered posture and towards an awareness of our obligations to the other. Indeed, the Catechism says that “Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor” (2347).
All of which is to say, in short, that in a strange turn of events the Church has come closer to the ethos of her critics than might be imagined. Not because the Church has moved, but because the world has, and its movement has revealed how much closer the Church was to recognizing the sacredness and importance of sex than its critics may have realized.
*I can’t help but recall Sebastian’s exclamation, in Brideshead Revisted, that what made it so difficult for him to like Catholics was that “they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people.”
**This is not to suggest, of course, that the Church’s message hasn’t been twisted in terrible ways even by people within it; in fact, I’ve written in the past about how “purity culture” ends up objectifying women every bit as much as the more obviously sexually exploitative mainstream. This is certainly also not meant to deny the terrible hypocrisy that members of the Church have engaged in on issues of sex and the truly abusive behaviours that have sometimes been hidden behind that hypocrisy.
***There is at least one major literary exception to this general movement away from taking sex seriously: the conclusion of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has the sexual awakening of his novels’ major protagonist coincide with the collapse of an oppressive heaven. It is notable that this type of claim seems to survive best in our own time within well-written children’s literature, for it is the last refuge of enchantment in a disenchanted modernity.