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Center for Action and Contemplation


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Gender and Sexuality: Week 1

Thursday, April 19, 2018

What is marriage and what is its purpose? As a priest, who has tried to be faithful to my vow of celibacy, I may not be the most qualified to comment, but I feel a responsibility to clarify some of the confusion and misunderstanding that have led to pain, exclusion, and often abuse.

Again, I’m borrowing from Diarmuid O’Murchu’s insights on gender and sexuality within a historical context. For a full explanation (with rich footnotes), please see his excellent book Incarnation: A New Evolutionary Threshold. From the Aristotelian perspective, “human sexuality is defined as a biological capacity for the procreation of human life. It is a biological imperative, existing solely for one purpose, namely human reproduction. And it seems to belong primarily to the male . . .” [1] as we saw yesterday.

O’Murchu continues:

The ensuing sexual morality considered all other forms of sexual expression to be contrary to nature and sinful in the eyes of God. And since procreation was the primary goal, any suggestion of pleasure or human fulfillment from sexual intimacy was considered an aberration.

From a Catholic perspective it is worthy of note that marriage was not elevated to the status of a sacrament till the Council of Trent in the 16th century.  Going back to the time of the Roman Empire, most Christians were married in the same way as pagans, in common-law or “free” marriages. Christians were usually married in simple public ceremonies without any license or written agreement. Later on, after the reign of the Christian Emperor, Justinian (527-565), Christians were married in more formal civil ceremonies . . . ; though prayers and blessings were sometimes added to the ceremony, marriage was not a sacrament of the Church and it did not directly involve the Church. . . . Only after the Council of Trent was a ceremony compulsory for Roman Catholics. [2]

During and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church seemed to realize the inadequacy of the Greek view of marriage—solely for procreation—and began to recognize another obvious element to the definition of marriage: intimacy and mutual support. Unfortunately, institutions have a hard time keeping up with such an evolution of thought, even though this is rather obvious. O’Murchu sees this time characterized by “the paradoxical mix of breakdown and breakthrough”:

Sexual abuse flared on several fronts, often involving children, adolescents and vulnerable adults. Sexual deviancy, promiscuity and the extensive spread of pornography were deemed to be the primary culprits. Virtually nobody named—and still fail to do so—the explosion of sexual repression, buried deep in the human psyche over several previous centuries. It is the legacy of that repression that still continues to haunt our contemporaries, and particularly those of a religious background. Responsible incarnational redress will not be forthcoming till that deep psychic woundedness is acknowledged, named, and subjected to a more discerning and compassionate analysis. [3]

Conservatives are so afraid of false expression (and they are right), and liberals are so afraid of unhealthy repression (and they are right), that it is going to take us a while to discover our sexual center and balance.

[1] Diarmuid O’Murchu, Incarnation: The New Evolutionary Threshold (Orbis Books: 2017), 130. O’Murchu references scientists and other scholars throughout; please see his book for a full exploration of this topic.

[2] Ibid., 130-131.

[3] Ibid., 132.

Image credit: Study for the Libyan Sibyl (detail), Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1510-11. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The body is a sacrament . . . a visible sign of invisible grace. . . . All our inner life and intimacy of soul longs to find an outer mirror. It longs for a form in which it can be seen, felt, and touched. The body is the mirror where the secret world of the soul comes to expression. . . . The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. —John O’Donohue
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