Mystical Passion vs. Love and Responsibility

Comparisons between Cardinal Fernandez's salacious book and Pope John Paul II's brilliant personalistic book fall short in every way.

After the untimely revelation of Cardinal Fernández’s salacious book, Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality, some prominent progressive Catholics rushed to defend the beleaguered prelate. The cardinal, who was appointed head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith last September, has been a source of embarrassment and controversy for the Church, especially because of his ill-conceived and ambiguous Declaration, Fiducia Supplicans, which created a path for the blessing of couples in irregular unions. When Mystical Passion was unearthed several weeks ago, many Catholics expressed their concerns about the cardinal’s poor judgment and imprudence.

This book, which was composed in 1998, kicked up a firestorm because of its blasphemous and pornographic content. Fernández writes about the “mystical orgasm,” and in one chapter he describes an imaginary erotic encounter with Jesus, based on the experience recounted to him by a sixteen-year-old girl. Three other chapters include offensive material about how to achieve a pleasurable orgasm and the difference between male and female orgasms. He refers to a Muslim theologian’s praise of God for making a man’s sexual organs “as hard and straight as spears” for “waging war” on a woman’s vagina. Hence, it is little surprise that the book has been labeled as “hard-core porn wrapped up in a thin tissue of mysticism.” 

John Allen, editor of Crux and longtime Vatican reporter, interprets the rebuke of this book as part of an orchestrated campaign aimed at undermining the authority of Fiducia Supplicans. Allen goes on to claim that we find the same sort of graphic sexual imagery and explicit prose in one of the works of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), called Love and Responsibility. He chides conservative Catholics and argues that if they are distraught over the content and tone of Mystical Passion, they should have been equally distraught over Love and Responsibility. He observes that “Fernández’s most vocal critics, most of whom would describe themselves as devotees of John Paul II, are uncomfortably aware of these parallels, and are taking pains to deny or minimize them.”

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To make his case, Mr. Allen lays out the congruities between these two men and their books. Both works were composed when these men were young—Fernández was 36 and Wojtyla was 40. Both books were influenced by conversations with young couples. Cardinal Fernández says that the themes of his book began to make sense thanks to dialogue with young couples. Fr. Karol Wojtyla’s reflections on sexuality were based to some extent on his interactions with students at Catholic University of Lublin. 

Both books are sexually explicit in a way that might be deemed unusual for the writing of a celibate priest. As Allen points out, the word “orgasm” appears seven times in the English translation of Love and Responsibility, while “climax” appears ten times. Thus, Allen brusquely concludes that “if a Vatican official who explores the dynamics of orgasms should, ipso facto, be disqualified from office, then such a standard would exclude not only Fernández but also John Paul II.”

But is there any basis for this linkage between these two works beyond the superficial observations offered by Mr. Allen? Or is this really an odious comparison that simply impugns, however unintentionally, the reputation of St. John Paul II? If we scrutinize the facts objectively, we will see that these works have absolutely nothing in common except for the fact that they both deal with matters of sexology.  If we scrutinize the facts objectively, we will see that these works have absolutely nothing in common except for the fact that they both deal with matters of sexology.Tweet This

First, Fernández says that he was young when he wrote his book and would not write it today; he also sought to suppress its further publication and distribution. On the contrary, Karol Wojtyla never regretted or renounced what he wrote. His reflections became the foundation for his immensely popular work Theology of the Body. Liberal Catholic academics and theologians don’t particularly like Love and Responsibility because of its orthodoxy, but they have never claimed that it was pornographic or too sexually explicit. 

Love and Responsibility has been translated into multiple languages and is taught in seminaries and Catholic universities around the world. It is highly regarded as a brilliant personalistic approach to sexual morality that anticipated the libertine attitude unleashed by the sexual revolution. It still strikes a sympathetic chord with the young over 60 years after its initial publication. 

Second, Love and Responsibility contains no blasphemous material. Mr. Allen conveniently forgets to tell us that a lot of the outrage over Cardinal Fernández’s lewd tract derives from its blasphemous content, not just its sexually explicit prose. But in Love and Responsibility, there are no descriptions of a “passionate encounter” with Jesus Christ as His mother looks on approvingly.  

Finally, Mr. Allen is certainly correct to point out that Wojtyla describes male and female orgasms and refers to sexual climax. But this material appears in an appendix to the book that is called “Sexology and Ethics.” In his Preface, Wojtyla clarifies that sexual ethics is about the person and about love which is always a reciprocal self-giving. The discussion on sexology is only added to supplement his reflections on the main themes of the book. 

Thus, Wojtyla spends almost 300 pages describing the procreative purpose of the sexual drive, the nature of love, marital union, and chastity, before he writes a few pages about the physiology of sex. As he explains, it is only when we understand the procreative purpose of the sexual drive and the nature of spousal love that we can profit from the knowledge of the sexologist. His sole purpose for including this content is to help married couples “experience the conjugal act in a way that is fully-mature, with the commitment of one’s whole personhood.” 

The unifying thread of Wojtyla’s work is the personalistic norm, which recognizes the intrinsic worth of the person who must always be treated as someone rather than something. This principle forbids the mere use of another person for one’s own benefit, and this includes the use of someone as a sexual object purely for one’s gratification. With this standard in place, Wojtyla articulates three themes that serve as the central pillars of his sexual morality: the existential meaning of the sexual drive, an integral view of romantic or spousal love, and a personalistic vision of chastity. 

He argues convincingly that the sexual drive has an existential meaning because the primary end or purpose of this drive is the perpetuation of the human species. And yet the sexual drive is also the source of spousal love that leads to marriage. Thus, the sexual drive is the foundation for both love and procreation. 

Thanks to sexual reciprocity, this drive opens the way for a man and woman to fully love each other, and the sexual union formed by that love is naturally open to new life. Marital love must always be in harmony with the procreative purpose of this drive or mutual self-gratification begins to displace a full and fruitful union of persons. Moreover, thanks to this procreative meaning, there is nothing banal or ordinary about sexual activity. On the contrary, we must acknowledge the “proper greatness” associated with the sexual drive. 

But what is the nature of this love between a man and a woman that is often set in motion by the sexual drive? He describes the common elements of human love which include fondness (or attraction), longing for the other, and benevolence which open the way for the moral union and commitment of friendship enhanced by the warmth of sympathy. The most radical form of love is spousal love, which is more than willing the good of the other but “giving oneself, giving one’s ‘I.’” This reciprocal self-giving becomes a total and exclusive union of two persons, which is expressed and actualized through the sexual act. Spousal love is the pathway to the perfection of the human self that comes from the unconditional gift of oneself to another. 

The third pillar of Wojtyla’s sexual morality is his original vision of the virtue of chastity. Many people misconstrue chastity as prudishness, and philosophers tend to conflate chastity with the virtue of temperance. But for Wojtyla, chastity is the moral habit of being able to see a human being of the opposite sex with a certain moral depth and transparency so that one always recognizes that individual as a person rather than an object for use. 

Love requires the support of chastity to ensure that sexual relations are never depersonalized. Only the chaste person, who affirms the dignity of the other, is free enough from lust or disordered sensuality to make a sincere gift of himself to another. It is only after clarifying that sexual relations are the exclusive privilege of marriage as a sign and a means of that couple’s total self-donation and that all others are called to chastity lest they use another person for pleasure that the pope then treats the physiological aspects of sexual intercourse in that final supplementary chapter.

On the other hand, this rich context presented by Wojtyla as the basis for his terse discussion on male and female orgasms is not to be found in Mystical Passion. Along with its random reflections on sexual relations, Fernández’s book merely gives an account of various sexual adventures along with some thin theological commentary. Unlike Wojtyla, the cardinal does not insist that the sexual act must always be ordered to procreation, expressing the full interpersonal union of a married couple. 

Instead, he puts unwarranted emphasis on a couple’s mutual pleasure which has a “particular nobility.” Moreover, there is little reference to the Catholic understanding of marriage as monogamous and indissoluble and no attempt to explain the nature of spousal love as a total gift of one’s whole bodily self to one’s spouse. Also lacking is any discussion on the indispensable virtues of chastity and purity.  

Mystical Passion, therefore, is a shallow book with virtually no redeeming qualities and a strange and dissident vision of human sexuality. But Love and Responsibility, leavened with profound truths and philosophical insights, is a carefully crafted treatise rooted deep in the soil of Christian anthropology that presents a personalistic substantiation of the Gospel’s message on sexual morality. Anyone who perceives even a remote similarity between these two books has either not read Love and Responsibility or not understood it very well.

Author

  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of Four Catholic Philosophers: Rejoicing in the Truth along with The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

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