Wine and Kisses: The Church Addresses Sexual Sin

The recent controversy in England and Wales over sex education in Catholic schools has exposed the basic difference dividing Catholics on the approach that should be taken to what John Paul II has called the “aphrodisiac of culture” of the west. One party seems to believe that the traditional teaching of the Church on sexual morality is no longer credible. The other believes this teaching is an important “sign of contradiction” that should be unfurled like a banner in the Church’s confrontation with the modern world.

Nor is the difference limited to the question of sex-education alone. There is a suspicion among what one might loosely call “traditionalist” Catholics that the Bishops of England and Wales (Scotland has its own Bishops’ Conference) lean toward the unorthodox in areas like ecumenism and catechetics, and are less than whole-hearted in their support for the stand taken against dissident theologians by Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II in Rome.

Why should such suspicions exist of a body of unquestionably sincere and conscientious men? The first reason is a lack of concrete information as to what the bishops actually believe. The idea of “communion” has made it obligatory that they should speak with one voice, and they do this through sometimes bland consensual statements issued by the Bishops’ Conference. It causes consternation on the rare occasions when a bishop (usually Maurice Couve de Murville, the Archbishop of Birmingham) steps out of line.

The other way in which they disseminate their teaching is through their agencies like the Catholic Institute for International Relations, the Department of Christian Doctrine and Formation, or the Catholic Education Service. When objections are made to the apparently unorthodox teaching of a particular document, such as the bibliography accompanying the pamphlet Education in Sexuality published by the Catholic Education Service, the critics are told that the bishop nominally responsible had not actually read the offending books that were recommended in his name.

There are further straws in the wind that cause dismay to those in Britain who believe in the Church’s established teaching. At a recent national Catholic “event” at the Barbican conference center in London, a panel chosen by the Bishops’ Conference to discuss the state of the Church included Dr. Jack Dominion, who over the years has called for a change to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. “It is my personal view,” he wrote in his Proposals for a New Sexual Ethic, “that the Church is not right in its attitude to masturbation . . .” and there is “a profound reason for reassessing the moral categories of fornication and its meaning.” It is said that no one on the panel was prepared to defend the teaching of Humanae vitae.

Then there is the case of Clifford Longley, a Catholic columnist for the Daily Telegraph who last year was invited to prepare a paper to assist the Bishops of England and Wales on retreat in Cumberland. Without doubt, Longley is an able journalist and a mellifluous writer. It is said that he is admired by Cardinal Hume; but it is the same Longley who wrote in Why I am still a Catholic: “I share none of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude on contraception, divorce, abortion, and religious education of my children.” This was written some years ago, but there is evidence that Longley’s position has not much changed; and so the confidence placed in him by the bishops is hardly likely to reassure suspicious traditionalists that their pastors can tell the difference between a sheepdog and a wolf.

The question of sexual morality is perhaps the most acute because the Church’s teaching on this question is indisputably rejected in good conscience by large numbers of otherwise loyal Catholics. Most commonly, parents ignore the teaching of Humanae vitae on contraception while the children ignore the Church’s strictures against masturbation and premarital sexual relations. Moreover, a climate of opinion exists in Britain, as in the United States, that considers it bigoted to condemn homosexual relations, and psychologically damaging to the young to label masturbation a sin. Equally, it is deemed offensive to the increasing numbers of children living in single-parent families to suggest that the two-parent family is a God-given norm. It is this climate of opinion that is reflected in the books recommended for further teaching in Education in Sexuality.

This list was subsequently rescinded, but one excuse made for its initial inclusion was that the books in question were for the guidance of Catholic teachers, not the children themselves: but as a former professor of moral theology at the Beda College in Rome wrote in the Catholic Times, “Many Catholic teachers of deep faith and great integrity . . . are, nonetheless, surprisingly ignorant of even fairly basic moral doctrine and its justification. They are entitled to help and detailed guidance.”

It is the lack of such guidance in the pamphlet itself that has lead to the suspicion that Bishop Konstant, the chairman of the Catholic Education Service, was using proxies to express his own unorthodox opinions. This has been emphatically denied. It is pointed out that Bishop Konstant was one of the episcopal authors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in which the Church’s traditional teaching is clearly restated. Nor do any of the other bishops of England and Wales openly question the Church’s teaching as is done in the United States. Indeed, when necessary they will restate. When a bill was placed before Parliament to lower the age of homosexual consent, for example, Cardinal Hume was unambiguous on the Church’s teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts as opposed to the homosexual condition.

However, it is also possible that the Cardinal’s tolerant temperament, and his particular kind of spirituality, has led to a strategy that, being only half-understood, gives rise to some of the present confusion. In a revealing sermon he preached in Westminster Cathedral last September, he called for a fourfold witness — through holiness, through faith, through love, and through the liturgy. “See how those Christians love one another” should be the cry of the secular world. This seems to suggest that evangelization is to be effected through a form of osmosis: there was no place, he said, for stridency in the Church.

Remembering the riots provoked by St. Paul in Ephesus, one is entitled to wonder whether such a strategy would have been effective in the early Church; and whether the reception into full communion of one royal duchess and a number of Anglicans disenchanted over the ordination of women can be seen as a mark of signal success midway through the decade of evangelization. But this option for a non-polemical witness, like the cautious tone of the Cardinal’s statement on homosexuality, may also suggest how defensive many bishops feel about some aspects of the Church’s teaching, particularly concerning the question of sexual sin.

Certainly, the unambiguous statements made by the Pope on these questions rarely finds an echo in the Catholic cathedrals of England and Wales. Almost never is reference made to Pius XI’s encyclical on marriage and sexual ethics, Casti connubii, published in 1930, the year in which the Lambeth Conference of the Church of England decided that artificial contraception was no sin.

Reading Casti connubii, one is struck by how pertinent the encyclical still is to the situation we face today. It demonstrates that our present predicament is not the consequence, as some suggest, of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but was already present in the decades following World War I. If one makes allowances for the odd archaism, and for the unfashionably confident, polemical, even strident tone taken by the Pontiff, one can recognize that what is now more so was, even then, the same.

The encyclical is worth quoting at some length. “It is not now only in secret,” wrote Pius XI,

or in the darkness, but openly and without any sense of shame, that the sanctity of marriage is treated with derision and contempt. The spoken and the written word, theatrical performances of every kind, novels, love-stories, humorous talks, cinematograph films, broadcast talks — all the latest inventions of modern science are used to this end. On the other hand, divorce, adultery, and the most shameful vices are glorified or, at any rate, depicted in such colors as to make them appear free from all blame or infamy. Books are published, impudently advertised as scientific works, but often in reality having nothing more than a vernier of science to recommend them more easily to the notice of the public. The doctrines they contain are proffered as the marvelous products of the modern spirit, a spirit described as single-minded in its search for the truth and emancipated from the prejudices of former times. And among these old-fashioned prejudices they count the doctrine which We have expounded on Christian marriage.

The advocates of the new doctrines . . . claim that the laws, institutions, and customs by which marriage is regulated, having been established only by the will of men, are subject to that will alone, and therefore can be made, changed, and abrogated at man’s desire. . . . The power of generation, they maintain … can be used outside the limits of wedlock as well as within them, and without any regards to the end of matrimony. It follows that the licentiousness of an unchaste woman would enjoy practically the same rights as would the chaste motherhood of a lawfully wedded wife.

Following the lead of these principles, some have gone to the length of inventing new types of union which they suggest as being more suited to the conditions of the modern man and the present age. In these they see so many new kinds of marriage: the temporary marriage, the experimental marriage . . . eliminating the indissoluble bond . . . and excluding offspring, unless the parties choose later to transform their cohabitation and intimacy into a fully legalized marriage.

There are some even who demand legal recognition of these monstrosities, or at least want them to be tolerated by public usage and institution. It does not seem to occur to their minds that in such things there is nothing of that modern “culture” which they vaunt so highly; that they are, in fact, abominable corruptions which would result even in civilized nations adopting the barbarous customs of certain savage tribes.

From the perspective of the mid-1990s, Pius XI seems somewhat like King Canute, railing against the incoming tide. Unquestionably, “the temporary marriage, the experimental marriage, the companionate marriage, excluding offspring, unless the parties choose later to transform their cohabitation and intimacy into a fully legalized marriage” describes precisely the kind of liaisons entered into in blithe good conscience by innumerable young Catholics today.

Again, it was not just popes like Pius XI who foresaw such a development. In his novel Death of a Hero (1920), the English writer Richard Aldington dismisses marriage as “a primitive institution, bound to succumb to the joint attack of contraceptives and the economic independence of women.” Philosophers like Bertrand Russell advocated “trial marriages” for students who had already turned away from the moral precepts of the world’s monotheistic religions to embrace those of modern prophets like Karl Marx, Bernard Shaw, and in particular, Sigmund Freud. In his Guide to Modern Thought, C.E.M. Joad, professor of philosophy at London University in the 1930s, wrote: “Most modern people have a nodding acquaintance with the theories of Freud. They suffer from ‘inferiority complexes,’ ‘sublimate’ their desires and are victims of ‘neuroses,’ while young men, anxious to evoke suitable responses from the young women they desire, exhort them to get rid of their repressions.” This popular employment of the terminology of psychoanalysis corresponds to and reflects the wide area of its influence.

“Religion,” he went on, “has lost its old dogmatic assurance, or, in so far as it retains it, palpably loses hold of the modern mind . . . while in the sphere of morals the contemporary generation increasingly refuses to subscribe to the sexual restraints and taboos of the last. . . . It is notorious today, that heavenly rewards no longer attract and infernal punishments no longer deter with their pristine force; many people are frankly derisive of both, and, seeing no prospect of divine compensation in the next world for the wine and kisses that morality bids them eschew in this one, take more or less unanimously to the wine and kisses.”

But psychoanalysis, as Joad recognized, has affected man’s attitude to the actual moment of passing experience more directly than through the skepticism which it has engendered in regard to the traditional, inhibitory morality. To distrust of the old doctrines of prudence and prohibition adds a positive doctrine of the obligation to experiment, with the result that many young people regard self-expression as a primary duty, and count repression, at least in theory, as the only sin.

In Britain, where there is a deeper skepticism about psychoanalysis than there is in the United States, those unfamiliar with the work of Freud have frequently assimilated his ideas through the work of D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence was deeply influence by Freud, and reverence for Lawrence, first promoted by the Cambridge academic F.R. Leavis, dominated the English Literature faculties in the universities and polytechnics in Britain in the 1960s and 70s, forming the minds of a whole generation of students who in turn went out as lecturers and school teachers to form the minds of the generations that followed. In this way it came to be accepted without question that sexual restraint was both psychologically injurious and morally wrong.

How, given this climate of opinion, should the Church defend, or even promote, chastity, when even among Catholics the word itself frequently provokes derision, if not outright disgust? Paul VI tried in Humanae vitae to ask people to ponder the intrinsic significance of the sexual act — its potential to engender another human being with an immortal soul — but has been undermined by the “rehabilitation” of sexual love as an end in itself by psychologists like Dr. Dominion.

It is not that Dominion denigrates marriage, quite the contrary, but he does represent a tendency found in Catholic specialists on sex education to present the Church’s teaching as a “vision” or an “ideal,” not a norm. Yet, if one looks closely at what is revealed in Scripture about sexual relations between men and women, it is clear that while celibacy may be regarded as a particular vocation, chastity is integral to human nature as such. Christ commends those who become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. In considering divorce, however, He does not just forbid it or condemn it, but points out that it is impossible. “From the beginning of creation God made them male and female . . . the two became one body.”

This suggests that somehow marrying is intrinsic to the sexual act itself. In reading the account of the first, aboriginal marriage between Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, one is struck by the erotic nature of Adam’s cry: “This, at last, is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh.” St. Paul, too, like Christ, refers back to Genesis when warning the Corinthians against consorting with prostitutes. “As you know,” he wrote, “a man who goes with a prostitute is one body with her, since the two, as it is said, become one flesh.”

John Paul II points out in Mulieris dignitatem that the Book of Genesis “constitutes the immutable basis of all Christian anthropology,” but there is an aspect of its account of the marriage of Adam and Eve which he does not discuss in that apostolic letter; yet it is one, it seems to me, that is central to our understanding of chastity.

Eve, the woman, is given by God to man at man’s request: as St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians, woman was made “for the sake of man.” The gift is not woman in the abstract, or women in the plural, but one woman, Eve: and it is this one woman that is flesh of his flesh. Thus the sin in the transitory encounter — the love affair that either precedes or follows another love affair, that may or may not turn into a long-lasting relationship, or even a marriage, is (1) that it is taking God’s gift on trial like a piece of merchandise from a shop; and (2) that it is an act of infidelity to the one woman given, or to be given, by God; or, in the case of a woman, to the one man to whom a woman is or will be given by God; and so is in essence the same as adultery.

This extrapolation by means of biblical exegesis is confirmed by the way in which men and women who break up after a “relationship,” or husbands and wives who divorce, so often find themselves unable to make the clean break in their own minds that they expect to follow the legal rupture and the actual separation. A form of commitment or engagement remains, either in the form of an abiding hatred or a lingering love. As old Prince Bolkonsky says to his son Andrei in War and Peace, one cannot unmarry.

But is the fractured heart the worst that is to be feared from the “serial monogamy” that has become the norm today? What of St. Paul’s teaching that “the wages of sin are death”? As Professor Joad recognized in the 1930s, “infernal punishments” weigh little in the balance against the wine and kisses. If few people believed in damnation in the 1930s, fewer still do so today. The British novelist, David Lodge, himself a Catholic, believed that English Catholics lost their fear of Hell some time in the early 1970s. If adultery, for example, is still regarded as a sin, it is not because it is a breach of one of the Ten Commandments, but because it is perceived as a cause of unhappiness to the deceived spouse, or it endangers the stability of family life and so the welfare of the children.

But Scripture does not warrant this sociological calibration of sin. If a man so much as looks at a woman lustfully, Jesus warned his disciples, “he has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” adding soon after that “if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away, for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell.”

Now if one works on the assumption that Christ meant what He said; and if, as I have suggested, all forms of unchastity are really one, with fornication and adultery two sides of the same coin, then “the temporary marriage, the experimental marriage,” like the adulterous liaison, must surely incur the risk of damnation.

The defense for sexual sinners faced with judgment may be that they were encouraged by liberal pastors to follow their conscience, and their consciences told them that what they did was no sin. It may not be enough. First of all, there is the unambiguous teaching of the Magisterium on these matters, clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and emphasized time and again by the Pope. Secondly, as St. Francis de Sales tells us in his Introduction to a Devout Life, “St. Catherine of Sienna saw among the damned, many souls grievously tormented for having violated the sanctity of marriage . . . not for the enormity of the sin, for murders and blasphemies are more enormous, but because they that commit it make no conscience of it and therefore continue long in it.”

It is interesting to note that the “violations” to which St. Catherine refers are not infidelities but licentious acts between husband and wife. Any warnings given to the young must apply equally to those among their parents who blithely ignore the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of certain forms of contraception.

More awesome still may be the judgment that awaits the liberal pastors. “If I say to a wicked man: ‘You are to die,” says the Lord in Ezekial, “and you do not warn him; if you do not speak and warn him to renounce his evil ways, and so live, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” There may be a high price to pay all around for the wine and kisses.


  • Piers Paul Read

    Piers Paul Read is an acclaimed novelist and non-fiction writer.

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