Tag Archives: celibacy

More Sex and Christianity.

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.

Covington, Kentucky, USA

Covington, Kentucky, USA

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.

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

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.

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

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.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

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.

Spain

Malaga, Spain

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.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

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, most of whom were women, are estimated to have been executed as witches in Europe. 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.

Advertisements

Sex and Christianity.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch recently narrated a TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity. I found the series excellent, although, in truth, it did not tell us very much that is not already known by millions of reasonably intelligent and/or widely read people. However, what is astounding is that the knowledge and understanding contained within the TV series has not already had a profoundly beneficial impact on Christian thinking about sex. Might it have a beneficial impact in the near future? I am not sure, because closed minds are resistant to accommodating what is true, particularly if the truth conflicts with what people assume are truths contained in scripture.

I am so impressed with what Diarmaid MacCulloch had to say in the first episode of the series that, below, I paraphrase the main points in his argument. If, by paraphrasing, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

Comments in brackets are my reflections on what was originally said.

Guisborough

Ruined monastery, Guisborough, United Kingdom

Churches in the West have never been able to agree what to say about sex, and such disagreement has turned sex into an obsession. Issues such as contraception, homosexuality, women in the priesthood and clerical child abuse have long caused immense controversy, just as today immense controversy rages within Christianity about same-sex marriage and whether women should be ordained as bishops.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) turned sex from biological necessity into a vice, from a pleasure into a sin.

According the the gospels, Jesus said very little about sex. He spoke in favour of monogamy and against divorce, and, when asked by a crowd of people if they should stone a woman thought to be guilty of adultery (Jesus is alleged to have said that only those who are themselves sin-free can cast a stone. The crowd broke up when it was obvious no one was sin-free), he made it clear to the woman that she should not sin again (we can therefore assume that Jesus thought adultery a sin). Perhaps of far greater importance than his pronouncements on sex is that Jesus appears to have thought that forgiveness and mercy are far more important than just about everything else (as the story just mentioned would seem to confirm).

Early Christian attitudes toward sex were shaped by Judaism, the religion from which Christianity emerged, and Greek and Roman civilisation. Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation were male-dominated and, although Jesus challenged some of the patriarchal attitudes enshrined in contemporary Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation, it was not long after his execution that Christianity became as patriarchal as the worldviews from which it emerged.

Near Tercan, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, near Tercan, Turkey

Jesus, himself a Jewish male, knew full well that contemporary Judaism was preoccupied with the survival of the Jewish people because of how the Jewish people were so often subjected to persecution and massacre (persecution and massacre were suffered partly because Judaism required its followers to subscribe to a monotheistic conception of the divine, when, as far as we can tell, all other Middle Eastern religions were dualistic or polytheistic). Reproduction of the Jewish people had become a sacred duty, so much so that procreation was the main object of marriage. However, sex was something that could be enjoyed, but within marriage alone. Divorce was possible, but, as a general rule, for specific reasons only. However, the reasons for divorce favoured men and disadvantaged women.

It would be a mistake to paint too glowing a picture of sexual attitudes within Judaism because the patriarchal assumptions of the time meant that husbands possessed their wives. Also, the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah suggested that women were nothing but trouble. Outcome? Women had to be controlled and confined as much as possible to the home where they had to “serve” their husbands. Moreover, the Jewish people engaged in polygamy, which, although increasingly uncommon with the passage of time, was not outlawed until the 11th century. Celibacy and adultery were unacceptable and homosexuality an abomination (more so among men than women). Put rather crudely, sex within marriage was wonderful, but sex in all other circumstances was unacceptable.

The Greek and the Roman world views affirmed sexual pleasure whether such pleasure was heterosexual or homosexual. Concubines existed, as did male and female prostitutes. Older Greek men of high social standing befriended younger males to teach the younger males how they could prosper in wider society, and such relationships invariably involved sexual encounters that were deemed normal and acceptable.

However, a very different line of Greek thought began with Plato who believed that a great gulf existed between the body and the soul. He said that reality and everything that was important to humankind related to the soul, while unreality and everything that was unimportant related to the body. The world of the flesh, which embraced the sexual impetus, was false, worthless and wicked. Plato advocated “denial of the flesh” and, in the fullness of time, this became a basic instinct in Christianity. Plato’s concern for the “pleasures of the flesh” played a key role in encouraging Christian celibacy and monasticism.

Aristotle built on Plato’s thinking by developing a distinction between what he thought were “natural and unnatural practices”. Such practices applied to the sexual domain as to all others. Aristotle believed that male semen contained a complete unborn child in embryo and a male needed a woman only to incubate the semen as it developed into the unborn child. Aristotle argued that to “spill” male semen for other than reproductive purposes (e.g. in masturbation, in sexual encounters with other males) was to engage in the “unnatural act” of murder.

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

With all these sometimes contradictory ideas about sex and sexuality around when Jesus was alive, it becomes clear that Jesus was relatively radical in his thinking. For example, it can be argued that his commitments to monogamy and life-long marriage were designed to enhance women’s rights at a time when they had very few rights. Moreover, Jesus posed other challenges to patriarchal attitudes in so far as he seemed to encourage women, some of whom existed on the social and sexual margins of society, to play an active role in the religious sect emerging prior to his execution. It is also worth noting that, according to the Bible, women were the first people to be aware of Jesus’ resurrection, and they are described as deacons not long after his execution.

What we can say with confidence is that, if the New Testament is to be believed, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and very little about celibacy, even though both these matters assumed disproportionate importance in Christianity after his execution. Conclusion? jesus is not representative of what was to become a sexually repressive religion.

Paul, who at one time was called Saul and engaged in the brutal persecution of Jesus’ followers, can be blamed for steering Christianity toward a more sexually repressive outlook, but only because Christians who followed him took his writings out of context and ignored some of the positive statements attributed to him.

Paul has a lot to say about sex in relation to the city of Corinth, which, at the time, would appear to have been a place where people lived in a most uninhibited manner. It was the alleged “sinfulness” of many of the Corinthians, and the fact that Paul thought the end of the world was not long away, that led him to suggest that marriage had no point to it and celibacy would ensure no one engaged in fornication. But Paul is also on record saying that marriage between a man and a woman is good and that, within marriage, a man and a woman are equals. He also praises a number of women deacons and calls a woman in Rome an apostle. However, Paul says that women should not speak in houses of worship, which would seem to negate their chance to officiate during ritual practices, and this statement has been used to this day by many Christians as the reason to deny women a leadership role in churches.

Taken collectively, Paul’s pronouncements on matters sexual are, at best, contradictory. Christians in some denominations have ignored the pronouncements that point toward gender equality to deny women the same opportunities as men. Paul denounces male and female homosexuality, but there are only two New Testament verses of about forty words that refer to same-sex relations. Forty New Testament words out of 200,000 are used by many Christians as an excuse for homophobia.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) ignored Paul’s more positive views on sex and emphasised celibacy and hostility to homosexuality instead.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

The celibate lifestyle of monks and then nuns first appeared in the 2nd century (among hermits living in isolation in very barren parts of Egypt and Syria), but there is nothing in the New Testament about monasteries, monks or nuns. A significant part of what was to become mainstream Christianity therefore has no support in the Bible. The inspiration for monastic lifestyles derived from Syrian merchants who travelled to the east where they encountered Hindu holy men who gave up all their material possessions and Buddhists who lived simply in monastic communities. Individuals known as hermits first took to a life in which they denied themselves comfort and pleasure, sometimes in desert regions. In Egypt, Anthony played a key role in making such self-denial popular, so much so that by the beginning of the 3rd century celibacy and chastity had more prestige among Christians than marriage and sex.

It was toward the end of the 2nd century that literate Christians began to rewrite early Christian history to emphasise the value of virginity and, in the process, it was not long before Christians sought to remove any taint of sex from the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

In that only two of the gospels mention it, the virgin birth of Jesus cannot be regarded as a fundamental article of faith for Christians. This is even more the case in that the two gospels mentioning the virgin birth seem rather confused about whether it took place. For example, much time is spent exploring Joseph’s family tree. Why do this unless it is to confirm that he is Jesus’ father? Also, the author/authors of Matthew’s Gospel refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which sits oddly with the idea of a virgin birth.

Gospels such as that of James which did not find their way into the Bible place more emphasis on Mary’s virginity than the four gospels that are canonical, and they also say that God intervened in the conception of Mary herself! Of course, the idea that Mary was conceived without sin has become a very important Roman Catholic idea, but it is not an idea that derives from the New Testament.

What is perhaps the second most important story in the New Testament for Christians, that of Jesus’ birth (the most important story is the story of Jesus’ resurrection), does not therefore involve sex at all! And what of the “problem” posed by Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Jesus’ siblings are explained away as Joseph’s children from a marriage preceding his marriage to Mary.

The shift from the merits of marriage to the merits of celibacy were accentuated by Clement of Alexandria, for whom sex could be engaged in only for reasons of procreation, and Origen, who castrated himself so as to make it impossible to satisfy any urges he might have to engage in penetrative sexual acts. And the shift in favour of celibacy helps to explain why the early Christian churches did not elaborate a wedding ceremony. Marriage remained a civil ceremony for many centuries and the churches did not seek to interfere in the matter. It is only Christians of a much later time who felt it necessary to establish a grip on the institution of marriage. Given Christianity’s relatively late interest in marriage, one begins to wonder whether some Christians today have an interest in the institution merely to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to partake in same-sex marriage!

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Emperor Constantine’s change of heart toward Christians in 312 opened the way for Christianity to become a world religion with immense power and wealth (and in the process a religion that once suffered persecution found itself in a position to persecute others). And, as its power and wealth increased, it could promote its views on sex wherever its influence spread.

At a time when the wealth and the power of the Christian churches was rapidly increasing, Jerome tried to remain true to what he thought Christianity was all about, simplicity in faith and avoiding the temptations of the flesh. He said that sex was bad because it endangered your salvation. For this reason, virginity was best. Jerome played a key role in ensuring that, despite opposition from other Christians, celibacy and chastity were deemed superior to marriage and sex, and he had an important ally in Augustine. The idea began to emerge that all sex is intrinsically evil and sinful, even in marriage for reasons of procreation. Hence the idea that all children are born into sin and that their sinfulness must be overcome. At the same time, males elaborated the idea that women were sexually unruly temptresses as well as inferior to men (is it not always the case that those who are already vulnerable and denied opportunities enjoyed by others are scapegoated and vilified? Humankind is God’s supreme creation? Pull the other leg and quickly).

The collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to the collapse of Christianity, even though, when the empire collapsed, Christianity was intimately associated with Roman power and prestige. Christianity endured, offering certainty in an uncertain world. Christian values gradually became the dominant values in the Western world.

In the 6th century, monks in Ireland began to turn their attention to the sexual behaviour of the laity around them. They developed many penitentials based on what they perceived to be unacceptable sexual practices. Those who indulged in such sexual practices were required to undertake penances that differed depending on the seriousness or extremity of the unacceptable act. In the fullness of time, such penitentials led to the confessional, which significantly increased Christianity’s ability to shape and control society.

The writings of some of the Irish monks are full of rules relating to sex and sexuality. The rules are so thorough that, in any given year, people could engage in sexual acts for about only a hundred days (and such acts had to be between heterosexuals who were married). Precise penalties for unacceptable sexual acts soon became the norm and such penalties were issued in the confessional.

The penitentials first elaborated in Ireland became for five hundred years the means to impose a rigid Christian sexual morality on large swathes of the Western world. As never before, an institution was invading people’s lives, and in relation to the highly personal matter of sex, which the churches thought to be sinful. Those who transgressed in relation to sexual matters should be made to feel considerable shame and guilt, and the penalties relating to such acts were often very extreme.