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A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving
By Gregory K. Popcak
The Crossroad Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2008 Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
SEX, LIES, AND THE REAL THING
God who created man out of love also calls him to love — the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1604; emphasis added
Walk into any bookstore and you'll find its shelves are positively pregnant with books about sex. Thanks to texts on tantric sex, karmic sex, kosher sex, sex for one, sex for several, and sexy sex for sex's sake, our culture has advanced to the point where you can do it on a plane, you can do it on a train, you can do it here, or there. Yes, my friends, you can do it anywhere — with confidence, impunity, and even, if you are so inclined, with malice aforethought.
But in the midst of the sea of information about sex, the unanswered question is "Can you do it ...as a Christian?" To which the cynic responds, "Of course not!" And this goes double if you happen to be a Catholic Christian, in which case, the cynic would answer, "Not only can you not do it, you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking about it."
The cynics are wrong.
Uber-preacher Bishop Fulton Sheen once observed that "millions of people hate the Church for what they think she teaches. But there aren't ten people who hate the Church for what she really teaches." This is never truer than when the topic of Catholic sexuality is raised. By now you've all seen the widely distributed press release from the office for the National Association of Conventional Wisdom on All Things Catholic (NACWATC). For those of you who aren't in the loop, here's a copy of that famous document:
TWO FALSE IDEAS ATTRIBUTED TO THE CHURCH
Memos aside, I suspect the majority of people would be truly surprised to discover that most of what they think of as official Catholic teaching about sex has actually been officially denounced as a heresy by the Catholic Church at one point or another. This is especially true of the two predominant categories into which most people believe Catholic sexuality breaks down: The Keep God Out of My Bedroom School and Aunt McGillicuddy's Antique Urn School.
THE MEDITERRANEAN APPROACH
The Keep God Out of My Bedroom School of Sexuality has a very impressive alumni mailing list. Think of it as the more Mediterranean, Must Leave Morning Mass Early So I Can Have Breakfast with My Mistress school of thought. People who hold this view of sex tend to believe that "as long as I am a basically good person, occupy my mind with spiritual thoughts, let Father dip into my wallet whenever he asks, and don't miss Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, I can do whatever I want with my body, because, after all, God doesn't really care about what happens with those dangly bits as long as I shake them only at consenting adults behind closed doors."
Although many Catholics past and present do hold to this way of thinking about sex, there is nothing Catholic about it. In fact, it isn't remotely Christian — even in the broadest sense of the word. This school of thought has much more to do with a kind of low church gnosticism than it does with anything Christian.
Think of gnosticism as the RonCo knock-off of Christianity. It is to Christianity what GLH2000 — "spray-on hair-in-a-can" — is to real hair: a diverse group of religious movements that grew up alongside Christianity. Although looking like the name-brand product, they are cheap and shiny, making up in marketing what they lack in substance. This, of course, is exactly why people can't get enough of them even to this day. One of the common themes uniting the various gnostic movements is the idea that the body is largely irrelevant and even undesirable. According to the gnostics, man is primarily a spiritual being, inconveniently weighed down by a slab of meat (commonly referred to as "a body") that it is our great misfortune to lug about.
The less popular, high church gnostics dealt with this dim view of the body by punishing it with extreme fasting, strict abstinence, and harsh sexual continence. And sometimes castration and suicide.
These people weren't invited to a lot of parties.
By contrast, the people who threw the best parties, what I call the "low church gnostics," were a lot like our modern-day Keep God Out of My Bedroom Schoolers. They believed that since God only really cares about our spirits, we could do almost anything we wanted with our body, especially if it involved other people's bodies. After all, since our bodies are bad anyway, why not let them do the bad things they were made to do? Although there aren't a lot of high church gnostics around these days, the low church kind are in abundance. In the contemporary world, low church gnostics are the helpful folks who argue that the Catholic Church — and really, all Christendom — would be much better off if it would just stop obsessing about sex and be what God intended it to be: a glorified social service agency that stinks of incense and good intentions.
Despite its staying power, gnosticism in all its forms has been denounced as either outright paganism or a heresy since the second century A.D. by such prominent Christian writers as Melito of Sardis (died 190 A.D.), Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202 A.D.), and Tertullian (160–222 A.D.). In fact, in an intriguing discussion between Anglican archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and John Paul II biographer George Weigel in 2007, low church gnosticism was fingered as Christianity's public enemy number one in the new millennium, for its ability both to seem Christian and to exhibit Christian piety all while undermining everything Christianity stands for as far as the body and relationship goes.
These prominent historical and contemporary Christians attacked gnosticism because, above all, Christianity is all about the body. The Christian knows that God doesn't love us just for our minds. He wants all of us. In fact, God loves us so much that he sent his Son to become one of us — body and all! For the Christian, the scandal of the Incarnation is not that it reveals our bodies to be bad, but that it shows how incredibly good our bodies are and were always meant to be (see Gen. 1:31). As the Eastern Fathers of the Church put it, the incarnation divinized Human Nature (see CCC no. 460).
Therefore, gnosticism, especially the low church variety, fails in the light of Christianity because, for all its corporeal pessimism, it treats the body too lightly. To put it in colloquial terms, there's a reason nightclubs and singles bars are often called "meat markets" — even by the people who frequent them. Rather than thinking of the body as a creation of God deserving respect, latter-day gnostics treat their bodies as bags of meat, obsolete appendages — spiritual tonsils if you will — that have no bearing at all on their dignity as a human person or their eternal life. Therefore, the body can be treated with incredible irreverence and disregard — because, after all, it's worthless.
And yet, as the old saying goes, "God don't make junk." Catholic Christians know that matter (physical creation) matters to God. God took time out of the busiest schedule in the universe to make the body and pronounce it good (Genesis 1). Then, after the fall and by means of Christ's incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection, God went through a great deal of trouble to redeem us and our bodies. Salvation history is chock full of evidence that God is virtually obsessed with our bodiliness. In fact, both the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds (if you don't profess 'em, you ain't Christian) emphasize the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, meaning not only that our spirits will be raised to glory, but also that at the end of the world we will be reunited with our glorified bodies (just like Christ after the resurrection), spending our eternity as embodied beings (just like Christ now).
Considering how much time and attention God has given to the creation and redemption of our bodies, there should be no question that God cares a great deal about what we do with our bodies and how we treat others' bodies as well. The body is of quintessential importance because, as John Paul the Great said in his groundbreaking reflections on the theology of the body, "The body, in fact, and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible — the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God and thus to be a sign of it."
Catholicism asserts that God cares about the body because his fingerprints are all over it. By prayerfully contemplating exactly how fearfully and wonderfully our physical bodies are made (Ps. 139:14), we can learn an immense amount about the nature of God himself, about God's plan for us and God's plan for harmonious and joyful human relationships. Understanding these things is essential to our happiness because if God is our maker and we are made in his image (Gen. 1:27), then our happiness depends upon our functioning according to our design. If you use a toaster in a manner that is inconsistent with its design, say, to pound nails, you don't end up with a happy toaster. In the same way, if we remain ignorant of the plan for a happy life and relationships that God encoded into the very fabric of our physical being, then we'll be doomed to function in a manner that leads to sickness, alienation, and misery rather than health, intimacy, and abundant joy.
Though God does care a great deal about our bodies and what we do with them, that does not mean that he doesn't want us to have fun with our bodies, or even enjoy the fullness of sexual pleasure. That's where the second heresy comes into play.
GETTING YER IRISH UP
Standing in contrast to the more Mediterranean, Keep God Out of My Bedroom School, Aunt McGillicuddy's Antique Urn School of Sexuality holds a more Anglo-Irish view. It grudgingly admits that sex is beautiful — in a grotesque, overdone, gothic sort of way — but above all, sex is holy and therefore, a little like Aunt McGillicuddy's antique urn, must be approached delicately, cautiously, and (ideally) infrequently. That is, "We oonly tooch it if we have to dust it, and then, only once a month er soo."
As far as the Church is concerned, the problem with this school of thought is twofold: it completely misconstrues the concept of holiness, and it overemphasizes the danger of sin hiding out behind every good thing. In the first instance, Aunt McGillicuddy-ites take Old Testament holiness and put a Jansenistic spin on it. Let me explain. In the Old Testament, holiness was something entirely "other" and "out there." God was Elohim, "God of the Mountain." He was so holy that you couldn't even say or write out his name. The holiest part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, was so sacred that only the high priest could enter it, and then only once a year. In fact, this journey to the inner sanctum sanctorum was thought to be so dangerous that before the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, his fellow priests would tie a rope around his waist so that if God decided to zap him while he was making his annual visit, his priestly colleagues could haul what was left of his toasted carcass out for something resembling a decent burial.
But in the New Testament, the Christian sense of holiness is radically different. In the person of Jesus Christ, true God became true Man. The "out there" became "right here." The utterly transcendent "I AM" became the immanent Emmanuel, "God with us." According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), "the Word became flesh to be our model of holiness." Or, as St. Thomas Aquinas expresses it, "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods" (CCC no. 460).
For the Catholic Christian, sex is holy, but not in the "touch it and die" sense of holiness. It is holy in the sense that it is the most complete and intimate way one divinized human person can give himself or herself to another divinized human person. Sex is holy because you are holy. God came to make it so. "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. ... Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people!" (1 Pet. 2:9–10). In the words of Pope John Paul the Great, sex is a "selfgift." It is the sharing of all the holiness you are with all the holiness of another.
But if this was the only problem, then the McGillicuddy-ite's sense of holiness would simply be Judaic, not heretical. Where the Aunt McGilli-cuddy School really goes wrong is that it lumps a Jansenistic sense of sin on top of its Old Testament sense of holiness. In the early 1600s Cornelius Otto Jansen, a Scripture scholar and later Catholic bishop, asserted that human persons were so corrupted by original sin that we could not actually choose anything that was good. This teaching of the radical corruption of the human person essentially denied the saving power of baptism, which Catholics believe washes away original sin. Bishop Jansen wrote a controversial three-volume treatise on the theology of St. Augustine, which essentially distorted Augustine's teachings in the service of Jansen's radically morally corrupt view of the person (which, incidentally, is most likely the source of Augustine's oppressive sexual rep in today's conventional wisdom). Eventually, after a bitter dispute with the Holy See, Jansen's teachings became a heresy so un-Catholic it had to be denounced twice: it was formally condemned by Pope Urban VIII in 1643 and again by Pope Innocent X in 1653. In his famous work Enthusiasm, Msgr. Ronald Knox summarizes the Catholic problem with Jansenism by saying, "Jansenism never learned to smile. Its adherents forget, after all, to believe in grace, so hag-ridden are they by their sense of the need for it."
In other words, rightly recognizing that the potential for abuse exists when a person encounters any good thing, Jansenists assumed that people are utterly powerless to resist the temptation to abuse good things and therefore, all good things (and for the purposes of our discussion, especially sex) should be viewed with deep suspicion and avoided if possible.
Unfortunately, then, as now, people didn't just hop-to because the pope said so. Though the Church did what it could to institutionally rout out the scourge of Jansenism, the heresy had taken hold among the people and the clergy of France. In the 1600s Ireland was sending the vast majority of its seminarians to France for training. So Jansenism spread with a vengeance to Ireland and, following the mass emigration of Irish Catholics during the potato famine, it came to America, where it became easily accepted as the Official Catholic teaching on sex by our nation of apostate Puritans. (As a side note, many contemporary American Keep God Out of My Bedroom Schoolers are simply in reaction-formation to their Aunt McGillicuddy upbringing.)
Largely because of the lingering Jansenist impulses of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholic America, Catholics and non-Catholics alike came to believe that "Catholics fear sex." But nothing could be further from the truth. Catholicism is the faith of celebration. It is the faith that invented holidays (literally, "Holy Days"). It is the faith about which the poet Hilaire Belloc famously wrote, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There is laughter, and music, and good red wine!" Catholicism is the faith that recognizes the holiness of all creation because of the miracle of Christ's incarnation. It is the faith of St. Francis of Assisi, who, when asked by his disciples whether to fast or feast when Christmas (the Feast of the Incarnation) fell on a Friday (traditionally a fast day) reportedly said, "It is my wish that on a day such as this even the walls should be smeared with meat so they may feast!" Only Catholic Christianity could hate a heresy because it "couldn't smile." And so while the world believes that Catholics hate and fear sex, the truth is even more scandalous. The truth is that the Catholic Church celebrates and esteems sex more than any other faith. By exploring what authentic Catholic tradition holds about human sexuality, any husband and wife can experience sex as God intended it to be experienced — an eye-popping, toe-curling, life-giving, profoundly sacred, and deeply spiritual union of one divinized human person with another.
Excerpted from Holy Sex! by Gregory K. Popcak. Copyright © 2008 Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART ONE CHRISTIANITY'S BEST-KEPT SECRET,
1. Sex, Lies, and the Real Thing,
2. Fool's Gold: Holy Sex or Eroticism,
3. What Are Infallible Lovers Made Of?,
4. Climbing Higher: The Sexuality Continuum,
PART TWO THE FIVE GREAT POWERS OF HOLY SEX,
5. Sex Makes Us Holy,
6. Sex Is Sacramental,
7. Sex Is a Sign of God's Love,
8. Sex Unites,
9. Sex Creates,
PART THREE THE SCHOOL OF LOVE,
10. Questions about Natural Family Planning (NFP),
11. The Infallible Lover's Guide to Pleasure,
12. The Anatomy of Infallible Loving: Setting the Stage,
13. The Anatomy of Infallible Loving: The Good Stuff,
PART FOUR OVERCOMING COMMON PROBLEMS,
14. Is There Sex after Kids?,
15. When NFP Is Too Hard,
16. You've Lost That Loving Feeling,
17. Common Sexual Problems for Women,
18. Common Sexual Problems for Men,
19. Overcoming Infertility,
21. Masturbation and Pornography,
22. When to Seek Help (and from Whom),
23. Holy Sex Is Your Inheritance,