At the apogee of his creative activity God “created the human in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them”. They are to cling to each other and to become one flesh, to be fruitful and to multiply. And, at the beginning, they were not ashamed.
So our sexuality is at the heart of our identities as human beings, a major reason why we are created as we are. But why were they not ashamed? Because before Original Sin, each was a unity of animal nature and spiritual nature – integrated, complementary and so under proper control. There was no reason to be ashamed.
It is all very different today. Shame is familiar to us. Freud taught us how deep our sexuality penetrates our beings and our motivations at both conscious and unconscious levels. We even dream sexually – a recent study has shown that around eight per cent of the dreams reported by both men and women are directly sexual in their nature.
I do not need to rehearse the prejudice against sexuality which has been apparent in the Church over the centuries; it is well known – as our opponents are happy to remind us. It is more instructive to look at the possible reasons, and perhaps derive a better basis for a more nuanced view.
Of course there is a relatively superficial but nevertheless immediately practical issue. Sexual behaviour has consequences. A few moments of pleasure have historically often led to a lifetime of disaster. Even today I suspect that parents of teenagers think first of the possible consequences, and only secondarily of the moral aspects.
But the deeper reason takes us back to Adam and Eve. In some ways I think the term “lower nature” is unfortunate because it leads to a contempt of our animal aspects. It emphasises the war between our instinct and our spiritual aspirations. And we forget that such a war was never intended. A supposition of theology used to be that the sexual drive was so strong, so intoxicating, that it stripped us of control. In arousal we became less than human beings – even within lawful marriage.
And with this came shame, and, only too often, disgust. It is no surprise that a celibate clergy – assailed, as we all may be, by a strong sexual drive, but without a lawful outlet – would convert that into a disgust which induced a negative aspect. Only that, I would speculate, can account for the vehemence with which sexual sins have traditionally been attacked. We might contrast this with the relative tolerance shown by Jesus: the man in whom the physical and spiritual elements of his nature were fully integrated.
Key events in western culture, like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, are well recognised – but the event which started round about the Sixties was far more fundamental. Any nature documentary will show that the life-cycle of different species is centred on the capacity to breed. From the Sixties, and with increasing effect, human beings in general succeeded in separating sexual activity from fertility.
The parallel is not exact because human breeding is not the sole purpose of our sexuality. Indeed the Adam and Eve story makes it clear that their sexual fruitfulness finds its source in love, companionship and unity. The marriage act rarely results in conception and the need for a stable relationship to buttress the care for human young is evident. We were made for love, unqualified commitment and fruitfulness. We remove any of these elements at our peril. I speak of fruitfulness rather than fertility because good marriages, including those which are naturally infertile, are fruitful in many ways. The ideal is to grow towards the fullest integration of all these characteristics – to restore the wholeness of body and spirit which God intended.
Meanwhile, the world is travelling in the opposite direction. The expression of the sexual instinct, separated from permanent commitment, has become an end in itself. The appeal at almost every level is the stimulus of the sexual instinct taken on its own. And because it is on its own it reverts to being no more than our lower nature: it is little concerned with morality, but highly focused on recreation and sensual pleasure. Cruelty in many forms is forgiven because “love” excuses all. Sexual love, which is a gift of God, has been appropriated by the Father of Lies.
Those who are truly called to celibacy are seen as freaks. Those who reserve their sexual expression until and unless they can express it in marriage are regarded as unnatural. Yet to be true to the deeper understanding of the meaning of sexual love is the only way to be fully natural.
We are all in danger of being contaminated by the superficial values of our society – and I by no means exclude myself. The sexual instinct is so powerful that its integration is a continual struggle for most of us. It can be very much a matter of two steps forward and three back. I do not care much for the loaded word “sin” – except in its Scriptural etymology: “missing the mark”. But we have to take a continual uphill journey, through grace, to turn that into at least three steps forward and only two back. The Church was once highly prejudiced against sex because it was so bad. But now we value it because it is so good.
But I must not be too solemn. Remember the story of the young monk who asked the oldest monk at what age his sexual temptations ceased. Back came the quavering voice: “When that happens, young man, I’ll tell you.”
Do you think I have interpreted Genesis correctly? Are we in danger of being contaminated by society’s views? And how do you react to the Pope’s remarks about condoms and HIVAIDS in sub Saharan Africa? We have all read the condemnation in the secular press. Do you agree?
Catholic newspaper articles often compliment the truth of the Cathochism’s teaching on human sexuality (in the searching and enriching way of the above) to serve the inner “battle for purity” and its continual need of refreshment.
The Church’s teaching on sexual matters may be beyond our accomplishment but perhaps that’s the point; if the IDEAL is not provided then how high should we bother aspiring towards chastity?
Eastern religion tends to provide a similar vision of detachment from feckless physical desire but “negativity” is only associated with Western spiritual celibacy (which tends to be synonymous with “repression” rather than release from a host of social and personal ills). Religion only really fails in this sphere when the positive invitation becomes a coercive regimen and chastisement fails to gently nurture and encourage.
I believe that almost every area of the Catechism constitutes a more revolutionary vision of everyday accomplishment than anything to have endured since the 60’s and to dwell on a somewhat precise matter; the concept of placing a fraction of a millimetre of latex between short-lived pleasure and the (potentially interminable) destiny of self and others seems to be the most reckless and superfluous folly of the modern era!
In ‘sub-Saharan’ scenarios, as elsewhere, condoms are perhaps only incidental to the sin that prompts recourse to them, so for Catholics who give in to temptation, the greater departure from the mirage of perfection has already ensued. Maybe the unpastoral issue of condoms would increase the likelihood of “proximity to proclivity” but equally, it seems that Pope Paul VI’s prophesy of the “sexual anarchy” which would result from a contraceptive culture remains largely unfounded given the surprising level of (drunken) restraint throughout town centres on friday nights.
I recall reading somewhere ( trivial pursuits perhaps,) that the biggest sex library in the world is held in the Vatican! I wonder if someone has read it all.
Indeed the Bible itself could be described, at least in part, as something of a sex manual.
The Church has a duty to give us the ‘ideal’, anything less than this and we soon descend into a mess of imponderables, and excuses and self justification for all kinds of sexual deviances.
Would there be any Aids or STD’s or broken marriages and families if the ‘ideal’ was a reality? None of these ‘ills’ would exist if we kept the Church teaching of a sexual life of one man, with one woman, for all their natural lives, in a loving marital relationship where we put the other person of the marriage before ourselves.
This ‘ideal’ is not unattainable, or beyond our accomplishments, ( indeed many do attain it, Catholic or not,) its just that we give ourselves a whole list of reasons for not even trying.
We have had a spate of ‘addictions’ where every type of sexual behaviour outside of this ideal is given its own excuse, one of which is ‘addiction.’
Addicted to prostitutes, infedelity,multiple marriages et al.
If addiction doesn’t quite fit then there is a whole host of other excuses that do.
Failure to live up to an ideal is no reason to give up on it especially when many people do recognise it as the ‘healthy choice’ and live their lives accordingly.
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
True, the ideal is not unattainable, but is probably attained about as often as our Lord’s precept, “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”.
The perfect is the enemy of the good, but “My power is made perfect in infirmity”. Thank God for that.
On the subject of AIDS, condoms, and Africa; the proportion of Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is, I think, only about fifteen per cent of the population; (please correct me if I am wrong). For that reason alone, it seems doubtful whether allowing the use of condoms would have much effect on the incidence of AIDS. Furthermore, many of the critics of the Church’s position seem to assume implicitly that Catholics are obeying the Church in the matter of condom use, while at the same time disobeying the injunction to keep to one spouse and refrain from promiscuous conduct. Does this seem likely?
The poor Holy Father seems to be damned these days no matter what he says. The remarks about the use of condoms have been widely condemned, but little understood.
What Pope Benedict XVI was saying was perfectly reasonable and sensible. HIV and other forms of sexually transmitted infection (STI) would not be passed on so readily if people did not engage in promiscuous behaviour, if they were chaste or were exclusively faithful to just one marriage partner. Condoms can encourage people to be promiscuous, increasing the risk of STI.
On the other hand, if people insist on behaving in a sexually irresponsible way – having sex frequently with many different partners, for example – then the use of condoms may be justified prophylactically, as in such a context, they do reduce the risk of STI. They do not eliminate it, however.
The only way to eliminate the risk of HIV and other STIs is to follow the Holy Father’s advice, and observe chastity, if one is not married, or remain faithful to one marriage partner, if one is. The viruses and bacteria cannot thrive if they are not given the opportunity to pass from one person to the next, it’s as simple as that.
Surely the most obvious feature which differentiates humankind from animals is the wearing of clothes, and clothing almost always covers the pudendal (the word means shameful) region – so it is not simply a protection against cold in the absence of natural fur.
Therefore; is ‘shame’, particularly sexually oriented shame, a specifically human feature?
I know of no scientific study of this subject.
Quentin explicitly links this to Genesis 3:7 “Then the eyes of both of them were opened any they realised that they were naked. . .”.
Now:- “From the Sixties, and with increasing effect, human beings in general succeeded in separating sexual activity from fertility.”
Curiously this seems to have had the effect that ‘shame’ is no longer associated with sexual activity (? as a result of eliminating what Quentin tactfully calls “the consequences” ).
Horace, I think shame does still exist. I accept that society countenances a wider range of what were formerly taboos, but there are still activities which are unacceptable. But your comment prompts a question in my mind: what is the difference between shame and modesty?
Shame is described as a self-conscious emotion. To experience such emotions requires at least a sense of self – which is presumably why it is not seen in animals. Such emotions, I am told, may be observed in children as young as 3 years old.
Modesty is to do with external behavior. It is clearly related to shame but the relationship is complex. It might perhaps be called the external manifestation of internal virtue.
The kind of shame that Quentin discusses in this blog entry is related to sexual activity. Sexual activity is obviously not ‘bad’, it is seen throughout the animal kingdom and is necessary for the continuation of the human race.
But humans are gifted with free will and may indulge in excessive and uncontrolled sexual activity which is, at least potentially, seriously harmful and therefore ‘bad’.
It is the self-conscious recognition of this ‘badness’ that gives rise to shame.
Nevertheless humans have a very strong sexual drive and fear of this, together with the fact that uncontrolled sex feeds many other vices, has perhaps led the Church in the past to over-emphasise the ‘badness’.
I doubt if celibacy, per se, has much to do with it. As I see it, celibacy in the Western Church is largely inspired by the example of St Paul, who was always anxious not to be a burden to his fellow Christians, as well as the fact that he could not have devoted himself so wholly and entirely to service to his fellows and to spreading the Gospel, if he had to consider also his duties to a wife and family.
The difference between shame and modesty?
Modesty is primarily a way of behaving. Shame is a feeling (which may or may not be demonstrated in behaviour). One wouldn’t talk about somebody feeling modest, but we certainly do talk about people feeling ashamed.
As regards Horace’s point about animals not feeling shame: while I’m inclined to agree, I have seen dogs appear to show shame, e.g. when told off by their master/mistress for engaging in forbidden behaviour such as stealing food or attacking the postman.
Pope JPII had a few choice words about sexuality, in his teaching of the Theology of the Body. Unfortunately, I can’t remember any quotes off the top of my head.
I do remember one paraphrasing that shame exists as a means of protection. The self-focus that resulted from original sin led to a horror of one’s own imperfections, which necessitated covering up those parts of us which seemed most imperfect. The sacrament and the blessing of monogamous marriage temporarily removes the shame at our imperfections, by shifting our focus to the loveliness of the beloved.
So, the difference between shame and modesty may be that shame is a response of the egotistical self to the realisation of its own silliness; modesty is a respect shown to the shame of others, and is a by-product of chastity (which is respecting the limits of knowledge and experience). And someone like the stripper calling herself Ditta von Teese, while she might be called shameless, is really only immodest (a rather Victorian word).