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?