Sex and the Sacred

By Maguire, Daniel C. | Cross Currents, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Sex and the Sacred


Maguire, Daniel C., Cross Currents


At a meeting of scholars from the world's various religions, a Chinese scholar reported that in China now they are starting to put free condoms in hotel drawers. Mustering as straight a face as I could I said: "We don't do that in the United States. Instead, we put Bibles in the motel drawers on the assumption that if a couple come to have sex and find the Bible, they will read that instead." With an equally strained straight face, the Chinese scholar asked: "Have you any data on this experiment?" I replied: "Yes, a very high rate of unplanned pregnancies."

This story is a tale of two cultures. In this nation there is no possibility of putting free condoms alongside the mouthwash and shampoo provided in motels and hotels. It would offend our theocratic and Puritan sensibilities. In many ways, the United States is a functioning theocracy. The First Amendment hides this fact from view.

Let us sing praises to the First Amendment. Its purpose was not to banish religion from life; its purpose was to ensure that public policy will not be made by alleged divine inspiration but by reasoned discourse. In areas of sexuality and reproduction, the First Amendment has failed. Alleged divine inspiration is national policy on embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Even when national policy and constitutional law permit women to choose abortion, the theocratic culture rebels and manages by harassment, political pressure, and terror to make abortion unavailable in more than 80 percent of the nation.

The inability to face our sexuality, in Western culture, is to a great extent religiously grounded, with historical Christianity bearing enormous blame. Augustine saw sexual passion as the conduit of original sin, so heinous and infectious that the passion of parents that led to conception befouls the souls of newborns. Ambrose said the worldly marry but the children of the Kingdom of Heaven refrain from all fleshly lust. The Penitentials--early medieval books listing sins and their appropriate penances--prescribed that during times of prayer and on religious feasts, there must be no sexual activity. Thomas Aquinas conceded that marriage was a sacrament, but he said it was the least and last of the sacraments because it had the least spirituality. Sexual pleasure, even in marriage, was long thought to be sinful. And the rule was, the more pleasure, the more sin. William of Auxerre in the thirteenth century said that a holy man who has sex with his wife and finds it hateful and disgusting commits no sin. He added, with regret, "this, however, seldom happens."

The twelfth century Petrus Cantor opined that sex with a beautiful woman was a greater sin since it caused greater delight. His contemporary Alain de Lille disagreed, saying sex with a beautiful woman was less sinful "because he was compelled by the sight of her beauty," and "where the compulsion is greater, the sin is slighter." Taken to its logical extreme, this would justify the rape of overwhelmingly beautiful women. Catholicism decided that only celibate hands can administer the sacraments. (In her textbook of Christian sexual pathology, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church, Uta Ranke Heinnemann chronicles the attitudes that suffused Christian history). The message is clear: sexuality is incompatible with spirituality. Sex is dirty, spirituality sublime. That is the legacy of much of Western culture.

Not even gentle masturbation could escape this indicting negativity: it has taken a cruel beating. The first psychiatry textbook published in the United States said that masturbation "produces seminal weakness, impotence, dysury, tabes dorsalis, pulmonary consumption, dyspepsia, dimness of sight, vertigo, epilepsy, hypochondriasis, loss of memory, manalgia, fatuity and death." Other experts thought this listing incomplete and added that it caused senility, stupidity, melancholy, homosexuality, suicide, hysteria, mania, religious delusions, auditory hallucination, conceit, defective offspring, and eventually racial decay. …

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