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1 January 2008
Christianity And Sex
by Paul Aitken

A Roman Catholic friend of mine once described her first orgasm as a wave of extreme pleasure followed by an even larger wave of extreme shame. When she described this to her then boyfriend (also Catholic) he responded, "Welcome to the world of sex, baby." While my friend later married, and remained faithful, she could never shed the shame that accompanied orgasm.

Christianity is not the most prudish religion in the world. Certain sects of Islam, notably Wahabism as practiced in Saudi Arabia, win gold in that category. But even in Saudi Arabia, where any form of public sexuality is completely repressed, married women are permitted and even encouraged to shop at "women only" lingerie stores. In Islam, sexuality, within the confines of marriage is something to be celebrated and enjoyed for its own sake.

The same can't be said for Christianity. While you're not likely to find many modern pastors or priests coming down hard on non-procreative marital sex, this is to some degree acquiescence to modern sensibilities. Throughout most of Christian history, marital sex has been seen as, at best, a necessary evil. Christianity may be the only religion to regard the very sensation of sexual pleasure as sinful.

How did it come to this? How did a religion based on tolerance, love, forgiveness and a rejection of rigid piety come to be twisted into a mindset that equates orgasm with sin. Is this what Jesus wanted? Most people who study the New Testament would say no. Jesus never intended his teachings to make my friend feel bad about coming. Jesus, as represented in the four Gospels, actually had very little to say on the subject of sex. He was against adultery and divorce. He did suggest obliquely in Mathew 19:12 that chastity was preferable to marriage but he certainly didn't dwell on the idea. Within the confines of marriage, Jesus was cool with sex. The oft quoted "A man and woman shall become one," while later interpreted as a reference to the singularity of the marriage was actually a reference to what was to be expected in the marital bed.

So, is the anti-sex theology that eventually pervaded Christian thought merely a harsh misinterpretation of Jesus' teachings? Well, yes and no. While Jesus clearly never thought conjugal sex was sinful he did introduce a radical idea that was to haunt Christianity into our present age. According to Judaic teaching, sin required action. Evil was as evil does. But according to Jesus, sin lay in its very contemplation. He was very direct about this. The idea that feelings or thoughts by themselves could be sinful was a pretty radical notion. If my friend wanted someone to blame for her feelings of orgasmic guilt she would have to start with the big man himself.

But while Jesus expanded the definition of sin he clearly never meant to suggest that conjugal sex was sinful. So how did this notion become incorporated into Christian theology? A lot of people blame St. Paul for this. Paul himself was celibate and clear in his preference for celibacy over marriage. But Paul was also wildly inconsistent - his letters to various churches were composed to deal with immediate problems and were never intended to be read as a theological treatise. He also advocated marriage for those who might fall prey to temptation ("It is better to marry than burn with desire" – Corinthians 1:7). He also clearly states that married couples should not deny each other. If we want to learn the roots on conjugal sin we'll have to look beyond Paul.

A good place to start would be with an ascetic named Anthony. Anthony is not mentioned in the bible and is all but forgotten to history but he is a lynchpin in setting the direction that Christianity took. Born in Egypt in 250 C.E., Anthony took to Christianity with unprecedented zeal. He took seriously, Jesus' edict to "sell everything and come to me." He sold everything and went out into the desert and lived an existence of near total denial. Word spread of the crazy hermit and soon he was joined by eager young Christians seeking to imitate his asceticism. Anthony fled from his admirers earning the nickname "Monacos" (one who is alone) from which we get the words monk and monastery.

The early followers of Anthony were the wellspring of the monastic movement which more than any other defined Christianity as it entered the dark ages. It is this monastic ideal that gave birth to the philosophies of Jerome and St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries, who along with St. Ambrose are known as the Latin Church Fathers. It is the writings of these men more than any other, more than Paul or even the teachings of Jesus, which determined the attitude of the Catholic Church towards sex for the next fifteen centuries.

All three in differing degrees thought marital sex to be inferior to chastity, although Augustine found it impossible himself to maintain a chaste lifestyle, a defect that led him to view humanity as inherently corrupt. He believed that the apple in the Garden of Eden represented sex and that Adam and Eve were turfed out of paradise because they caved into the carnal impulse.

Of the three, it was Jerome who was the most hard-ass in his view of marital sex. Like Anthony before him, Jerome was a total ascetic. He considered all sex to be unclean. Virginity was the ideal. Marriage was good as long as those inside the marriage remain virgins. Jerome based his views on a selective reading of the scriptures and on cold logic. From the pen of Jerome we get this:

"It is good," he (Paul) says, "for a man not to touch a woman. If it is good for a man not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil."

So marital sex was slightly good but mostly evil. It's no mystery why Jerome felt this way. This guy spent 34 years living in a cave outside Jerusalem. He was obviously a nutjob. But the greatest mystery is why his writings had such influence.

I know what you're thinking. What about the command to "be fruitful and multiply." Didn't God want us to have sex? Well, the thinking at the time was that the multiplying had already happened. These were the end times, the second coming was nigh and further procreation was probably unnecessary.

Of course, as the centuries went by and the end times didn't come, it was clear that procreation was necessary. So marital sex was sanctioned as long as it was intended to be procreative. Already have ten children and don't want any more? No nookie for you. Some theologians restricted permissible sex even further. Sex was to be abstained from on Fridays in memory of his death. Saturdays in honor of the Virgin Mary. Sunday in honor of his resurrection. Add to this the ban on sex forty days before Easter, Pentecost and Christmas, the times when your wife was in menstruation or pregnant (and therefore incapable of conceiving) and you were lucky to play hide-the-salami more than twice a year.

While the Catholic Church has withdrawn from these extremes it remains adamant that sex be potentially procreative. Sex is not intended for pleasure. Pleasure is merely the by-product. The Protestants are a little more forgiving but that's merely a nod to modern sensibilities. Martin Luther was as down on sex as any good Catholic.

What would Jesus say to all this? Hard to know given how little we know about the man but it's not difficult to imagine that his jaw would drop if he knew how his teachings would eventually be interpreted.  

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