Sex and the Catholic Church

Vic Stenger

In 1958, Pope Pius XII gave this glorious image of the family:

Virtues flourish spontaneously in homes where a baby's cries always echo from the crib. . . . The series of happy pilgrimages to the baptismal font is not yet finished when a new one to confirmation and first Communion begins. . . . More marriages, more baptisms, more first Communions follow each other like ever-new spring times. . . . Their [the parents'] youth never seems to fade away, as long as the sweet fragrance of a crib remains in the home, as long as the walls of the house echo to the silvery voices of children and grandchildren.

 Imagine what the world would become if only the Catholic portion of the human race followed the Pope's teaching, with every family producing a baby each springtime. The earth would soon be covered with a layer of Catholics out to the orbit of the moon! Fortunately, few families, Catholic or otherwise, practice what the Church has traditionally preached, that human sex is sinful and not to be performed except for the purpose of procreation.

One of the greatest popes of all time, John XXIII, had tried to bring the Church into the modern world. He astounded everyone by not demanding traditional papal authority to institute changes. Instead, in 1962, he called together only the second Council of bishops in Church history, asking it to clear the path to the future. Unfortunately, John died a year later and his successor, Paul VI, proved more in the typical papal mold.

John had formed a commission to advise him and the Council on birth control. It was clear that Catholics almost universally disobeyed the wholly impractical Church laws on birth control, often with the quiet assent of their pastors. This commission continued its work after John's death, and was making a serious attempt to reconcile the undeniable facts of modern family life when they were shut down by Paul in 1964.

On July 25, 1968, Paul VI issued his final world on birth control, in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. This followed long tradition, condemning sexual intercourse not specifically intended for procreation. The Pope asserted: "It is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it."
This echoed the words of Cardinal Newman: "The Church holds that it were better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extreme agony, than . . . one soul . . . should commit one single venial sin." Yet, as Paul also followed his more recent predecessors in breaking significantly with ancient Church teachings on sex.

Why is the Church so adamant about birth control? Most assume that this results from some biblical injunction, that Jesus directed the faithful that using condoms is sinful. Actually, the word "condom" appears nowhere in the Bible.

Church abhorrence of sex traces to the teachings of St. Augustine. Known as the "Great Sinner" and a slave to lust until his conversion in 391, the young Augustine is reported to have prayed, "Oh, God, give me virtue - but not yet." Of course, when he finally became virtuous, it was with a vengeance. Perhaps, if Christianity's greatest theologian had not had so many male hormones, today's world would stand a better chance of controlling population growth.

But Paul VI had another reason for leaving the teachings of his recent predecessors unchanged. A pope cannot overrule a prior pope without undermining his own position. The Catholic Church has rested its claim to authority on the supposed unbroken succession of Bishops of Rome from Peter. Forget that Peter was never Bishop of Rome. Facts are never very important in religion. (Perhaps Jesus was just making a pun when he said "Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build my church." In Aramaic, the word for both Peter and Rock is Cepha.)

Not all popes in the line of succession have had a prudish view of sex. Sixtus IV, who built the Sistine Chapel, licensed the brothels of Rome, bringing himself an extra income of 30,000 ducats a year. Alexander VI had ten illegitimate children, and surely broke some kind of record sleeping with three generations - his mother, his mistress, and their daughter (the infamous Lucrezia Borgia).
But the most influential popes, notably Gregory the Great, followed Augustine's lead in declaring all sex, for whatever reason, a sin. More recent popes have broken with this teaching, but quietly so that they still can lay claim to an unbroken chain of authority, with few noticing that they had already severed the chain themselves.

Take the current notion of infallible papal authority on matters of morals. This was not declared until the First Vatican Council in 1870. And, many currently required beliefs, are equally recent, For example, the Immaculate Conception of Mary was not decreed until 1858, contradicting the teachings of a number of earlier popes.

So too with the current official position on sex. Recognizing that asking a husband and wife to have sex just twice in their lifetimes - to fill their zero population growth quota - is wholly impractical, the Church has in recent times allowed sex by the rhythm method. While still light-years away from actual marital practice, even among most Catholics, this compromise is also light-years away from the tradition that the sexual act is always sinful, even when performed for the purpose of begetting a child. The Church cannot hide from its most fundamental teaching, that all humans are born with the Original Sin commited by Adam when he succombed to the temptations of Eve.

The Church has changed, but glacially, as the rest of the world has moved with the speed of an Alpine landslide. It continues to insist that it, and it alone, possesses absolute truth. However, in order to maintain at least the appearance of eternal constancy, it has painted itself into a corner. Since absolute truth is eternal, Catholic leaders, with the unique exception of Pope John XXIII, have resisted all but the slightest change. What change they allow must be so slow as to go unnoticed by the great majority of the faithful. The Catholic Church continues to fight against all forms of birth control except the rhythm method. Modifying this teaching would hardly go unnoticed.

The Church, and its fundamentalist Protestant allies, label themselves "pro-life." But they demonstrate a willingness to allow all life on this planet to be extinguished before they will back down from what they have chosen to interpret for the rest of us as an eternal law of God.

Most of the historical material for this essay was obtained from Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy by Peter de Rosa (Corgi Books, London, 1988).