Saints and Sexuality

April 26, 2014

As the whole world knows by now, former pontiffs John XXIII and John Paul II are about to be officially recognized by the Catholic Church as saints. According to Catholic doctrine this means, among other things, that these persons are worthy of being venerated as models of heroic sanctity. Also, they can intercede for you before God. You know, you can’t just walk into God the Father’s office to ask for something. He’s the chairman of the board! No, you get a saint to slip him a note so you can get a couple of minutes of the boss’s time.

Some, including some Catholics, have questioned whether John Paul II deserves this honor. His biggest virtue appears to have been a good grasp of marketing. Unlike his predecessors, he understood the value of publicity and the need to maintain contact with the Church’s base. Is there any country he didn’t visit? No question, he did a good job of raising the Church’s profile. Balanced against this, however, is his willful neglect of the Church’s pedophilia crisis—which was brought to his attention as early as the 1980s—as well as his adamant refusal to reconsider any aspect of Church doctrine and his censoring of any theologian who dared to question the Church’s teaching on any subject. If he had taken as hard a line against pedophile priests as he had against dissenting clerics, thousands of children would have been spared abuse. Instead, while he chased people like Father Charles Curran away from their teaching positions, he continued to embrace sexual predators, such as Father Marcial Maciel. Accusations against Maciel were made as early as 1997; John Paul II ignored them.

But John Paul’s specific failings are a symptom of a larger problem, which is the Catholic Church’s continuing failure to understand and accept human sexuality.  Interestingly, the Church’s roster of saints highlights the Church’s aversion to sex. The overwhelming majority of saints are virgins or individuals who had renounced sex. In the Catholic Mass, only a handful of female saints are mentioned. In addition to the Blessed Virgin Mary, there are Agatha, Agnes, Lucy, Cecilia, Perpetua, and Felicity. All but the last two had taken vows of chastity. And regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary —well, her title says it all. The mother of God obviously couldn’t be soiled by the nastiness of sex. On the male side, until recent times, almost all saints were monks, priests, or men who had given up sex. The grudging attitude of the early Christian Church toward sex is exemplified by the words of St. Paul that marriage is permissible for those who can’t control their passions, but celibacy is better. 1 Cor. 7.

In theory, the Church has become more accepting of human sexuality, and it has acknowledged that married people are as worthy as those who are celibate. But sex itself, for itself, is still regarded as illicit. Sex is a good thing only for married couples and only when it remains open to procreation. From this dim view of sex stems the antiquated, and harmful, doctrines of the Church on contraception, masturbation, and same-sex relations. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by John Paul II, same-sex relations are “acts of grave depravity.” (para. 2358). Masturbation is “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” (para. 2352). And, of course, although marriage is fine for those who can’t do without, priests are still expected, against their natural inclinations, to forego any sexual pleasure. If we had married priests, or at least priests who were encouraged to masturbate to relieve sexual tension, we almost certainly would have had fewer victims of priestly abuse.

When we have a pope who finally recognizes that human sexual desire is not a bad thing, that sexual relations between loving couples is a good thing, whether they’re seeking to produce a child or not, and that there’s nothing inherently evil about masturbation, then maybe we’ll have a pope who’s worthy of admiration, if not veneration.  Until then, I think I’ll pass on the celebrations of canonization. No John Paul II posters, key chains, or Pez dispensers for me.

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