I am often asked: “How can you be Gay and Catholic?” Sometimes I want to respond by saying: “How can I be a philosopher and Catholic?”
For me both of these questions are essentially related because at their heart they both ask how a thinking person can belong to a community of faith. To my questioner I most often respond: “The real question for a Catholic is not ‘How can you be Gay and Catholic?’ but how can you be a Catholic and have sex at all?” I don’t mean this response facetiously or rhetorically. I really mean it!
The teachings of the Catholic Church on human sexuality are not primarily based on the Christian Scriptures. Rather, they are based upon the thinking of Stoic philosophers and upon the experience of the early Christians with the obscene sexual practices of Roman society.
Contrary to Hollywood fantasies, the Romans were sober, puritanical folk. Roman epicureanism, for example, does not endorse indulging the senses or luxuriating in bodily pleasures. On the contrary, it is an ethical system for disciplining the senses in order to avoid pain and create tranquility. Roman stoicism, as can be seen in the writings of Cicero, likewise champions the heroic harnessing of desire to benefit the common good.
The Roman poet Martial (1st century C.E.) satirized the Roman stoical hostility to masturbation in an oft-quoted passage in which he accuses his friend Ponticus of weakness of character and mass murder when he holds his ejaculate in his hands. (Roman stoics believed that semen carried ‘little men,’ homunculi, in its fluids.)
Perversely, Roman philosophical stoicism was contradicted by Roman sexual practices. By the Second Century of our Common Era (C.E.), Christians lived in a Roman society that slaughtered the newborn, especially female babies, that sexually abused slaves, that employed abortion as the primary form of birth control, and that, simply put, understood and used sex as power, as a way to dominate and exploit another person. In this context, the Roman Church developed a deep suspicion of human sexual desires and a low tolerance for any abuse of the gift of life, steadfastly opposing all forms of genocide and infanticide, and, in the process, conflating masturbation, birth control, and homosexual acts with un-natural behavior.
This philosophical suspicion of human appetite was matched by the religious ideal of the martyr who through chastity and celibacy gives witness (the original meaning of the word ‘martyr’) to the imminent coming of the reign of God, whether in one’s heart or in heaven or on earth. At the time of Jesus and of the early Christians, even Judaism (which today proudly embraces a positive attitude toward human sexuality, procreation and life-in-the-world) was riddled with eschatological and apocalyptic sects that separated themselves from the world and preached a life of chaste celibacy and rigorous asceticism.
The Roman Church fused the religious ideal of the martyr with the stoical ideal of the philosopher saint into the Catholic ideal of the celibate monk who free of distraction contemplates God and works for the common good. In Western Christianity this ideal became the norm for all Christians. Not just monks.
This reactionary posture to human passions in general and to human sexual desire in particular so dominated Western Christian thinking that Augustine of Hippo, putatively the greatest Christian thinker of early Western Christianity, had a hard time accepting the idea that sexual intercourse, even within the sacred constraints of Christian marriage, was NOT tainted by sin. Augustine’s suspicion of sexual intercourse was so profound that he even theorized that ‘original sin’ is somehow communicated to the conceived child in the act of sexual intercourse.
Unfortunately, this chaining of eros, based in fear and reaction, has shackled Catholic thinking in sexual ethics. The idea that every act of sex must intrinsically and without any obstacle lead to the possibility of conception has prevented the formation of a truly Christian and truly human understanding of our sexuality, based on a scientific and rational study of the human person (both animal and spiritual) and on the principles of the Gospels.
01 MAY 2013
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.