The second part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity was so good that I cannot resist providing a summary of what he said. If, by summarising, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.
During the first thousand years of Christianity, Christians converted sex from something Jesus hardly ever discussed into a sin. Sex became something shameful and women were described as temptresses driven by uncontrollable sexual desire.
From the 11th to the 16th century there were two “revolutions” in Christian thinking. The first “revolution” saw the churches take control of people’s lives, minds and bodies as never before. The second “revolution” was the Reformation, which resulted in many Christians rejecting papal authority and the Church in the West splitting into two. However, by the end of the 16th century Christianity’s grip on sexual morality was stronger than ever.
It was in the 11th century that the Roman Catholic Church sought to micro-manage people’s sex lives, and such micro-management began with the institution of marriage.
For the first thousand years of Christianity people did not go to churches to marry. For all that time marriage was a civil contact between a man and a woman. However, in 1073 a new pope emerged on the scene, Gregory VII, who wanted to take control of the institution of marriage. His desire to control the institution of marriage occurred at precisely the time that wealthy and powerful men wanted to ensure that their wealth and power benefited their heirs; such men wanted to ensure that all their world goods were inherited by their oldest son.
The problem of inheritance was predicated on the fact that wealthy and powerful men had a tendency to produce children with different women and their sons would therefore dispute who was the rightful heir to their father’s possessions. Outcome? The Roman Catholic Church would co-opt the best referee of all, God, to determine who was the rightful heir. The Church would declare marriage valid so that men would know that the legitimacy of their heirs was beyond challenge. In so doing, the dynasty would be safe.
This turned out to be a neat deal sealed by the clergy and the nobility. People now had to be married by a priest. Inevitably, this significantly increased the power, influence and, eventually, wealth of the Church, especially once the Church had drawn up laws saying precisely who people could and could not marry. The Church soon found itself in a position in which it could approve or veto almost every marriage across the West. However, for a hefty fee the pope would grant special dispensations to side-step the laws!
By such means the clergy came to control society more effectively than in the past and, in the process, the Vatican became very rich. The Church now had a legal stranglehold on sexual expression. Moreover, by the end of the 12th century marriage had become a sacrament. Marriage therefore became an unbreakable contract with God in the same way that baptism and communion were already such unbreakable contracts.
But control of the institution of marriage confronted Christians with a dilemma. Since the time of Augustine all sex had been deemed sinful, even within marriage. Tension lay between approval for marriage as a sacrament and marriage tainted by sexual desire. The dilemma meant that, when the clergy first conducted wedding ceremonies, they were held in the porch leading into the church. Marriage would lead inevitably to sex, sex was sinful, and those who would soon commit sin should be excluded from the interior of the church itself.
However, by the end of the Middle Ages most of the wedding service was conducted inside the church in front of the altar. By that time, therefore, the Church had finally adopted marriage with enthusiasm. The central institution of Western society was now unmistakably a Christian sacrament.
Attention soon turned from marriage to the sex life of the clergy. Until the 11th century, a large number of the clergy were happily married and had children. Until then, monks and nuns represented the “benefits” of celibacy; there was no such insistence that the clergy should also be celibate. However, Gregory VII wanted the clergy to renounce sex. He and other leading figures in the Roman Catholic Church thought that married clergy were offensive/an affront to God. But married clergy also posed a threat to the wealth of the Church in so far as their wives and children had to be supported. Church wealth was finding its way to the priests’ off-spring rather than staying in Rome.
In 1139, a council of bishops meeting in Rome declared clerical marriages were universally unlawful and invalid. Clergy had to embrace the “highest Christian ideal” of celibacy. But one unforeseen consequence of this was that the clergy soon began to see themselves as superior to everyone else. They saw themselves as set apart from those who engaged in the sin of sex. The clergy began to look down on the inferior members of the laity, especially women.
It was not long before the misogynistic inclinations within Christianity led to women being defined as threats to the holy places. For example, Durham Cathedral (in what is now the UK) became a Benedictine monastery and women were forbidden to enter the main body of the nave. A ban on women in cathedrals became quite common in many parts of Roman Catholic Europe. The ban operated at a time when women were rarely granted a public voice so their protests/objections could easily be ignored.
The only places where woman were in charge were nunneries/convents. Some nunneries/convents had large libraries and celebrated female scholars. But from the 12th century nuns were increasingly excluded from the world of learning. Why? Because intellectual life began to prosper at its most innovative in universities, but entry to the universities was restricted to males alone. In time, of course, it was in the universities where the clergy, doctors, lawyers and other most important figures in society received their education and training, but all such important figures had to be male.
As a general rule the all-male clergy did not raise objections to the exclusion of women from learning. In response to being denied scholarly opportunity women inclined toward mysticism, which did not require access to books. It was not long before women in nunneries/convents in many parts of Europe began having visions, and some of the visions were of a sexual nature. Some women had erotic visions involving Jesus.
Such sexually charged mysticism was one of the few outlets for women’s voices in the Middle Ages. Women were otherwise kept silent within the walls of the nunnery/convent or by their husbands within marriage.
By the 13th century the Roman Catholic Church had taken control of marriage, made the clergy celibate and largely silenced women’s voices. It had boosted its power and influence by intruding in people’s private lives to an unprecedented degree. Sexual desire, even for your partner in marriage, was a sin. The Church disapproved of all sex, even sex within marriage.
But many ordinary people ignored a lot of what the Church taught about love and sex. Even during the Middle Ages there was a lot of sex, and not only within marriage. Medieval Christians celebrated adultery, so much so that they turned it into great literature. There was also a lot of same-sex love. The Medieval period was a golden age for gay poetry and monks were among those who wrote such poetry. Moreover, many members of the clergy indulged in the “sin” of homosexuality.
People engaged in so much sexual activity outside marriage that, in an effort to control such “unacceptable” behaviour, the Church began to set up and licence brothels. Where the Church managed such institutions its wealth increased significantly. This became yet another way that the Church tried to control how, when and where people could have sex.
But the Reformation inaugurated a change.
The Reformation was set in motion in 1517 by a celibate Roman Catholic monk called Martin Luther. The Reformation not only led to the emergence of many Protestant churches, but also to changes in attitudes toward sex.
Luther challenged the idea that you can enter Heaven only by accepting the Church’s offers of confession, penance and forgiveness. He came to the conviction that God alone can decide whom to forgive. This meant that all the Church’s ceremonies, confessions and promises that good deeds will get you to Heaven were worthless. They were a sham.
Luther issued a challenge to papal authority when he shared with the public his 95 theses. But he also challenged Church teaching on sex. He thought of sex as a fundamental gift of God and it was there for everyone to benefit from. Sex was not just for the procreation or children; it could also be enjoyed. He also said that marriage had never in fact been a sacrament. It was a civil contract between a man and a woman who loved each other, a contract that could be broken by the husband or the wife. Following Luther’s lead the Protestant churches introduced divorce, which fundamentally altered how Western society viewed marriage.
The Protestant churches also rejected the insistence on clerical celibacy. Luther saw celibate clergy as a potential danger to society, partly because such clergy felt they were superior to those who engaged in sex, and partly because celibate clergy often succumbed to sexual temptation, invariably in ways detrimental to others. Luther said that all clergy should marry to avoid problems of sexual temptation.
It was not long before the clerical family became a model for non-clerical families to emulate in the emerging Protestant communities. The wife of the clergyman became a valued member of Protestant society and, of course, there was no equivalent to her in Roman Catholic Europe.
Inevitably, the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Protestants as dangerously heretical, not least for their “progressive” views about sex. The Protestant view that people should be encouraged to enjoy sex within marriage seemed especially shocking to many Roman Catholics, and their worries about what the Reformation had unleashed seemed confirmed when some Anabaptists, a “radical” group of Protestants, began to indulge in promiscuous sex in Switzerland. Some Anabaptists, noting that many marriages in the Old Testament were polygamous, introduced polygamy.
The Anabaptists also caused the Roman Catholic Church great alarm because they said that only adults who knew what responsibilities and commitments they were assuming should partake in baptism. Of course, this challenged over a thousand years of Christian tradition in which Christians baptised babies at fonts. To deny baptism to babies was to “dynamite” the Christian foundations of Europe (even though Jesus had not been baptised until he was himself an adult).
In time, Roman Catholics and Protestants united to suppress some of the excesses that the Reformation had unleashed. Roman Catholics and most Protestants felt that the “sexual revolution” had got out of hand.
In response to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church launched a holy war against the Protestant churches. In 1545 it convened the Council of Trent, which began what came to be known as the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation dealt with some of criticisms levelled against the Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s 95 theses, but it was also an opportunity to impose even more controls on the laity and clergy. The celibate clergy were described as superior to the fallen laity and celibacy was enforced among the clergy as never before.
One beneficial outcome of the Counter-Reformation was that the Roman Catholic Church engaged in social work to assist the poor and supported the opening of many schools. In time, however, the opening of schools had unforeseen and tragic consequences. Why? Because celibate clergy who succumbed to sexual temptation played a key role in educating children and young people and/or running the schools.
Calasanz was one of the first Roman Catholics to open schools for poor children and young people (many such Roman Catholics were known as Piarists) and it was not long before he was in charge of a growing number of such schools. However, it soon became apparent that the headmaster of one of Calasanz’s schools in Naples was sexually abusing the boys for whom he was responsible. The headmaster had influence in the Vatican and, to rid the school of the headmaster’s malign influence, Calasanz had to promote him to another post rather than dismiss him altogether (the headmaster’s new post was one that gave him even more access to children and young people). The scandal was hushed up and all incriminating documents burned.
The pope knew about the sexual abuse of boys in Naples but did nothing. This was an extraordinary failure of power and trust. Amazingly, the problem of the abuse of children and young people in the Roman Catholic Church has persisted into the contemporary era, as has the cover-up of such abuse, the denial that it happened and the excusing of those responsible for it.
While the sexual abuse of children and young people by members of the Roman Catholic clergy could sometimes/often be ignored, adulterers, fornicators and homosexuals among the laity were punished all over Europe as Roman Catholics and Protestants tried to outdo each other as they imposed what they deemed “acceptable” in relation to sex and sexuality.
All expressions of the Christian religion in the West viewed witches as agents of sexual disorder and therefore persecuted them. Christians thought they were destroying Satan when they persecuted people said to be witches. Inevitably, the great majority of those accused of being witches were women, and a thousand years of Christian misogyny was given full and violent expression through their persecution. Some 60,000 people are estimated to have been executed as witches in Europe, the great majority of victims being women. Most victims were widows or single women who lacked a husband to protect them. Moreover, most women confessed to being witches only following threats and torture. Their confessions condemned thousands of innocent people to a dreadfully painful death, one often brought about by burning.
Such was Christian Europe’s mania to control sex and sexuality that Roman Catholics and Protestants killed thousands of innocent people. Protestants began by challenging celibacy and freeing marital sex from the taint of sin, but they agreed with Roman Catholics that sexual transgressions such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality threatened the very fabric of Western society.