From time to time it has been suggested on this Blog that the teaching Church has shown a kind of institutionalised distaste for the pleasures which accompany sexual expression. By chance I came across some notes I had written ten years ago on the subject. These notes were accurate as far as they go, but were they fair? And if they were fair, has the teaching Church thoroughly exorcised such attitudes? No cleric would express such words today, but do they still resonate in the ecclesiastical mind? And do they contribute in any way to the rule on clerical celibacy, or indeed on attitudes towards women?
Because the change has been so gradual one has to read a complete account like that given by John T. Noonan (Contraception 1965) to realize the extent of the changes in the Magisterium’s attitude towards the use of sexuality from, for example, Pope Gregory’s view that you could only have intercourse without sin provided you didn’t enjoy it to the rich personalist teaching of Gaudium et Spes which rejoices in sexual love as an expression of the bond of marriage.
Noonan tells us, in describing Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule:“Not only is pleasure an unlawful purpose in intercourse, but if any pleasure is ‘mixed’ with the act of intercourse, the married have ‘transgressed the law of marriage’.”
There is no doubt that if the doctrine of Gaudium et Spes had been proposed in former centuries it would have been roundly condemned, on the authority of Augustine, Aquinas and the general teaching of the Magisterium. A meditation given to English seminarians in the later 17th century read:
“For the manner of thy begetting is so foule that the name, nay the lightest thought of it, defileth the purest minde, so that our B. Sauiour refused none of our miseries but onely that; and the matter so horrid, so foule, that all other dung is pleasant and greatfull in respect of it; nay we dare not in discourse giue it a name, for our owne shame and others offence…” *
A well known textbook of moral theology carried, up to 1923, the description of intercourse as res in se foeda, a thing filthy in itself; the parts of the body were commonly categorized in moral theologies into the decent, the less decent and the indecent (partes inhonestae). You can work out which. The suspicion that anything to do with sexual pleasure is somehow shameful is not confined to ecclesiastics but it seems likely that this deep laid attitude inhibited the growing clarity of the Magisterium’s vision.**
In 1930, Pius XI published Casti Connubii, and there he made specific allowance for the use of the marriage act without immediate procreative intention. The use of the safe period was cautiously permitted and, although at that time its reliability led to it being called ‘Vatican roulette’, a barrier had been crossed. This did not prevent a number of authorities taking a dim view. For example, Cardinal Van Roey, speaking at a provincial council in 1937, not only listed the extreme moral dangers to which this practice might lead but suggested that it might only be offered “to onanists to wean them from their sin”. It was not until 1951, when Pius XII spoke to the Italian midwives, that internal criticism was quelled. Nowadays, the practice is proposed as a way of perfection.
* English College of Lisbo (1663). Quoted in ‛Spirituality and Sexuality’ Philip Sheldrake in Embracing Sexuality ed. Joseph A. Selling, Ashgate (2001). This is the least offensive of the two quotes given. Sheldrake says, of this and similar passages “…there can be no doubt that negative attitudes such as these ..have had a long and damaging effect on spirituality”
** Taken from Two in One Flesh Part 1 Sands & Co E.C. Messenger (1948). The moral theologian was P. Noldin Theol. Moralis, and the phrase was excised from later editions. Messenger also recalls the dictum of an old Latin writer though he cannot recall the source: Inter urinas et faeces nascimur omnes. Following Gibbon I leave this in the decent obscurity of a learned language.