I have often wondered how the Catholic Church can be so terribly wrong whenever it turns its attention to sex. Invariably, I get back to Augustine, the Church’s first philosopher and the one who shaped its position for the past 1600 years.
Augustine has some guiding positions from which his sexual morality stems:
- Although he never reasons that the sin in the Garden was sexual, he asserts that its immediate result is sexual shame. This occurs when the sexual organs act up, or don’t act, in line with the intention of the will. Our first parents clothed themselves in embarrassment at this bodily disobedience;
- If our first parents had not sinned, there would not have been any bodily rebellion. They would have had sex in the Garden but only as a voluntary act. No sexual desire would have counterdicted or propelled it. They would have appreciated children as an advantage and seen sexual intercourse as the appropriate means to that end. Thus would they have sex. At that point they might have experienced sexual desire, but no way as the initiator of sexual activity, and no way at odds with, or overcoming of, the will;
- Original sin, therefore, is transmitted through the rebellion of sexual intercourse following upon our first parents’ disobedience. All children are conceived through intercourse tainted by the rebellion of sexual desire. All children inherit this sexual rebellion. Thus does original sin pass on from generation to generation. Augustine needs his doctrine of original sin as the necessary cause for Christ’s redemptive mission to save humankind from sin. Christ alone can and must save all humans born out of sexually tainted disobedience;
- Sin always mars sexual expression. Only marriage blessed by the Church makes sexual activity simply a venial sin. But in addition the honorable state of marriage forgives this sin. However, Christian marriage may only include sexual intercourse engaged in for the purpose of producing offspring. That alone redeems it. Attempted for any other reason, sin occurs and marriage does not absolve it.
The Church has embraced Augustine’s position on human sexuality. It quite logically, then, concludes the following:
- Masturbation, motivated by sexual desire and divorced from any intention to have children, is always sinful;
- Pre-marital sex, performed in a non-matrimonial state and one not suited to raise children, is always sinful;
- Gay and lesbian sexual activity, having no possibility of conceiving children, is always forbidden;
- Birth control, the active hindering of the production of children, is always sinful because the intention of having children and actively seeking their birth must be present;
- Sexual intreraction in marriage that does not aim at, and include the possibility of, producing children is sinful. Forget about oral sex, anal sex, cunnilingus, sexual activiity just for pleasure or as expressions of love: all of these treat one’s wife as a prostitute, with whom one never morally seeks offspring;
- Abortion is always sinful as the sexual intercourse that produced the conception either did not will children in the first place or it repudiates that intention, thus denying the original purpose.
One could speak volumes in disagreeing with both Augustine and the Church echoing him. Since that surpasses the intention here, the following may be alluded to briefly.
In the early Middle East, the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures honored both gods and goddesses. Their gods ruled publicly, authoritatively, politically and hierarchically; their goddesses dominated the realms of social relations and culture. Gradually, the roles of the goddesses diminished; the gods assumed the areas formerly alloted their feminine consorts. Jewish monotheism finally extinguished not only the roles of the goddesses but the dieties themselves. The one God took to Himself the roles of the displaced masculine gods; He placed the role and responsibilities of the former goddesses into human hands. The primal disobedience in the Garden flows from the human race growing up, assuming responsibilities formerly exercised by the goddesses. This happens through the action of a woman, Eve. She with Adam mimicked Prometheus who snatched fire from the control of the gods and suffered for his arrogance. By their action Eve and Adam grew up, turned into adults, and stood co-responsibly before God.
With their sin, Adam and Eve became individuals in their own right. Previously, Adam as a man would have ruled in the areas reserved for males, Eve in those dominated by females. Now, however, both have equal charge over human growth and development, as individuals and in community. They now covered themselves, not because of sexual shame, not because of some projected sexual rebellion, but because their physical differences would signal an inequality which they no longer had. Augustine spoke out of a developing hierarchical world bent on re-establishing male control and female subordination through a male-only consecrated priesthood.
Moreover, Augustine embraces a contradiction he does not resolve. Against the Manichaeans he maintains that God created human beings, male and female, and saw that they were good. But against the Pelagians he emphasizes human sinfulness and the need for Christ’s salvific action. He locates that sinfulness in sexual desire and sexual feeling that precedes any movement of the will. No matter his likely protestations and the denial of his apologists, for Augustine sexual desire and sexual feeling end up, in themselves, as bad, not good as declared in Genesis.
His account of prelapsarian sex strains credibility. Can we even imagine our lucky parents coming to the conclusion, without sexual desire or sexual attraction, to make an unaided and solely rational choice to have sex, the one with with the other, just to have children, and not because they desired to engage in this pleasurable activity with another person?
Augustine, finally, had no conception of mutual love as being the driving force behind sexual activity. For him the couple has sex either for conception or to forestall other forbidden sexual activity: the choice of kids or the prevention of burning! The Church, at least, does not forbid married couples to have sex when physical conception is unlikely or impossible: during pregnancy, during infertile periods, because of physical capacity caused by illness or accident, after late middle age. At least logically, Augustine should forbid sexual activity in all these situations.