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.