In the summer Meanjin of 2007, novelist and former Catholic priest John Bartlett explored the interplay of religion and sex.
The animal is often the pre-stage of the god.—Carl Jung
I have often thought that if the practice of religion could be a purely disembodied, ethereal experience, we would find the task a lot easier. Western religion, at least, just can’t seem to make up its mind what to do with the body—repress its incessant voice or transform sexual expression into some sort of semi-religious activity. Both repression and incorporation currently have their adherents.
Christian fundamentalist Churches, such as Hillsong in Sydney and Paradise in Adelaide, continue to attract many young people despite imposing conservative sexual prohibitions such as no sex before marriage. For others, yearning for a more body-affirming spiritual belief, Christian ritual has become empty and oppressive. At the 2001 Census, more than 20,000 people in Australia identified as pagan and, according to sociologist Douglas Ezzy, this might include about 10,000, many of them young, who call themselves ‘witches’. They celebrate bodily pleasure as part of a religious experience, sometimes worshipping nude and even occasionally with ceremonial sex.
No matter where we direct our gaze, it seems that religion in the West is still burdened by the weight of this body-soul dualism.
When I was preparing to be a Catholic priest in the 1960s, theological training was firmly dedicated to repressing and controlling bodily desire and humiliating the body and its demands. I still recall the bizarre advice given by our professor of Moral Theology, who warned us about situations to avoid during our summer holidays: ‘If you are in a group of people and a woman falls over, don’t ever pick her up. Let someone else do that. Otherwise it may lead to an occasion of sin.’
There were further admonitions about riding in cars alone with women but, strangely, nothing about picking up men who might fall over. Perhaps it’s unjust now to caricature the sexual education given in those days to student priests but it certainly indicated a profound and disturbing misunderstanding of human sexuality and the principles of human development.
Somehow, despite my own sexual immaturity, I managed to slip through the cracks in seminary training and it was not until I graduated as a priest and journeyed into the real world that my own sexual awakenings began. Emboldened by my training and buoyed up by my own ideals, I was determined to avoid intimacy but quickly discovered that loneliness was the price I paid.
I was a Catholic priest for eighteen years. I taught what the Church demanded.
I warned about the dangers of desire and repressed it in myself. Now I live as an openly gay man in a satisfying relationship that has lasted for more than twenty years, much more in touch now with my sexual needs and desires but no less spiritual in my yearnings. I’m still passionately on a spiritual pilgrimage, still suffering a nagging mystical ache, which won’t go away. I can hardly believe that—nurtured as I was in a strict Catholic family, educated by nuns and brothers—I now champion sexual and erotic expression as a part of spiritual maturity.
Much in the Christian tradition has been uncompromising on the separation of body and soul. The soul was something noble and pure and the body somehow inferior, a potential enemy that threatened to hijack the soul and drag it down into sinfulness and guilt. Accordingly, the body needed to subjugate its own longings to the higher spiritual good, virginity became the highest vocation in the Church and chastity the prerequisite for holding official positions. Homosexuality was merely an aberration—and is even now regarded as a moral perversion by the dominant religions of the world.
Of course this anxiety over the body is not an attitude that surfaced overnight in the Christian tradition; it drew on various Roman or Jewish beliefs and proscriptions and further evolved over several centuries. In other parts of the world (notably Egypt, Greece, India) contrary customs and attitudes to the body had already formed or were developing. Some religions celebrated the phallus as a symbol of creative energy, even elevating it to the status of a god that was powerful enough to dispel dark and demonic forces. Tantra is one of several esoteric traditions found in the religions of India, with both Hindu and Buddhist forms. In this tradition, sex is a means to release the divinity that lies within. For a Tantrik the purpose of sex is not the orgasm per se but the moment of thoughtlessness that one experiences at the peak of orgasm. Did such religious and cultural traditions have an understanding of the human condition that Christians on the whole have papered over?
Peter Brown, in his monumental study The Body and Society, argues that the second and third centuries A.D. witnessed two silent revolutions that would determine the future development of religion in Europe and the Near East—the rise to dominance of the rabbis within Judaism, and the creation of a strict division between clergy and laity in the Christian Church.
In the Judaic tradition, women had already been excluded from the central rabbinical activities, and there were growing taboos surrounding bodily functions such as menstruation, intercourse or night-emissions. Meanwhile, there was a growing trend in the Christian Church for the clergy to be defined in part by adherence to celibacy. The body and its needs were increasingly perceived as a barrier to legitimate religious experience.
In his Apologeticus, written at the end of the second century, the Christian convert and theologian Tertullian lauded chastity as a prime virtue. By the fourth century, when Ambrose was bishop of Milan, the dualism of body and soul was well established within Christian tradition. For him (in the translation Brown provides), the body was ‘a perilous mudslick, on which the firm treads of the soul’s resolve might slip and tumble at any moment’.
A generation later, such utterances would provide Augustine with support for his belief that there was an intimate relation between the act of intercourse and the transmission of original sin—a belief that would help determine the future direction of Catholicism in the Latin West, consolidating its position regarding a body-soul dualism, and one that would eventually find its way into the religious traditions of much of modern Europe, America and Australia. Despite these strictures, the late eleventh and twelfth centuries were in some senses periods of greater openness and tolerance in European society with regard to sexual expression. In his (admittedly controversial) book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, historian John Boswell argued that this was a time when experimentation was encouraged and new ideas on sexuality and spirituality were eagerly sought ‘in both the practical and intellectual realms of life?
A huge volume of literature of this period attests to the fact that twelfth-century clerics, both monastic and secular, such as Saints Anselm and Aelred, supported and were involved in highly passionate (and possibly erotic) friendships. However, despite these tendencies, the tide was already turning against such attachments in official quarters as well as against the idea or practice of clerical marriage, which the First Lateran Council in 1123 declared invalid. The tension between a natural expression of the sexual and what ecclesiatical authority considered sinful remained a part of Catholic history and still exists in more or less oppressive forms.
Another former priest, who entered the seminary at the age of twelve, recently explained to me how he eventually left the priesthood because he felt his emotional life was at risk, caught as it was between these twin demands. For fourteen years he had struggled to honour his commitment to celibacy and had then attempted ‘to continue my life and work as a priest without burdening myself with more of this struggle, to be sexually active when and how appropriate opportunities offered’. Many clerics still remain within the system, having made similar compromises, but there’s still the burden of dealing with feelings of guilt, dishonesty and hypocrisy, hardly the basis for a mature and fulfilling life. This former priest acknowledges that ‘a large proportion of the twenty-seven years since I resigned from the priesthood has been spent in restoring some sort of balance in my emotional, physical and sexual life’.
Much in the Christian tradition (and not just in the Catholic Church with its persistent adherence to clerical celibacy) regards the body and its desires as an impediment to spiritual progress. Sexual needs, if not completely repressed, must be circumscribed by rules and strictures and given full expression only within a structured context, a union that is strictly heterosexual. Eroticism has never been something to celebrate for its own sake. The rigidity of ecclesiastical authorities on this matter is out of step with newer scientific and social understandings of the role of sexual health and maturity in our lives.
The presumptions of Tertullian, Ambrose and Augustine cannot stand up to the forensic examinations of modern psychology and the discovery that mature sexual development is a strong component in a wider human maturity. Of course celibacy, willingly embraced as a preference, does not always impede this wider maturity, though from my observations and experience it does so more often than not. I left the priesthood (and the Church) in the 1980s because I realised that my struggle to uphold the ideals of celibacy had led me into depression and paranoia.
I was successful in repressing the possibilities of intimate relationships but in the process, my loneliness and rage became overwhelming. Surely Yahweh the allpowerful God of the Old Testament, let alone the more loving God of the New Testament, did not expect me to live this sort of life.
I came across the writings of Carl Jung after leaving the Church. He was a man who regarded the ‘inner’ journey as life’s greatest adventure. He called that search ‘the process of individuation’, and for him it had to involve the integration of the ‘shadow’, or repressed, shameful elements into our lives. To deny these ‘shadow’ elements would lead to unhappiness, as my own life seemed to verify. Jung believed that the work of’individuation’ was essential for sanity and, by association, spiritual growth. At that time, my own greatest fear—and guilty desire—was to be sexually intimate with another man. I still feel gratitude to my counsellor at the time, who encouraged me to follow this desire through to its conclusion, to embrace the erotic rather than flee from it. This advice turned my seminary training on its head and enabled me to overcome despair and unhappiness.
My new spiritual journey involved integrating the shadows in my own life, not denying them but tracking them down: anger, desire, sorrow, lust. I kept a diary of my dreams and gradually learnt to identify these ‘shadow-people’ as new and welcome companions. I grew to be at ease with my sensual and erotic feelings and not to repress them.
In my novel Towards a Distant Sea, which was published in 2005 and partly based on my own experiences, I explicitly addressed the dilemmas of a young, idealistic, yet sexually and emotionally naive priest, dispatched to a tropical outpost and cast adrift in a violent and sensual world for which he is unprepared and ill-equipped. One reviewer described the story as ‘a struggle between the priest’s physical and spiritual nature, magnified by the heat, humidity, carnality and casual sensuality of his new home’.
My journey is not unique. Earlier this year a group of former priests who had been members of the order in which I worked surveyed as many of their former companions as they were able to contact around the world. Nearly two hundred former priests replied and shared their reflections on the reasons they had left. The overwhelming majority recognised the psychological damage they had been inflicting on themselves by repressing expressions of intimacy and sensuality. One of them, Brendan, admitted that as a priest he had been a worker who did not allow people to get in the way of his work:
I worked hard but did not really belong to anyone and no one belonged to me.
Celibacy protected me from the harsh realities thatflowfrom being emotionally attached to others and from having to trust another implicitly and sufficiently to surrender to him or to her, the power to hurt, damage or even destroy me.
Another former priest, Frank, now married with his own family, admits that he was simply scared of women: ‘I kept my relationships very much at the superficial level, holding women at bay by making jokes and putting them down.’ Part of his fear, he says, was that ‘I was very easily aroused sexually in the company of women and really saw them as a threat to my continuation in the priesthood.’
Gary is another former priest and a friend from seminary days. He says that he ‘went through psychic hell to the point of emotional breakdown to avoid my sexuality’. He has come to believe that the ‘subtle (or not so subtle) authoritarianism of the Church rests on the repression of sexuality and keeping this in place by guilt and shame’. The experience, he says, helped him to turn his pain into ‘making a contribution to people’s personal and social well-being’. He now works as a psychotherapist and a Bioenergetic therapist, a body-centred approach to therapy founded by Alexander Lowen, a student of Wilhelm Reich, who in the 1920s and 1930s went so far as to argue that sexual repression is an essential step in creating fascist and authoritarian societies.
I would certainly argue that the historical repression of the erotic in Western society has contributed to the development of an enormous pornographic industry, where women in particular become the currency of exploitation. By repressing the erotic we have given it a role greater than it deserves. Sexual desire, because it is such a powerful drive, is open to exploitation by abusers and others for selfish or commercial purposes. I also believe that the rule of celibacy enforced upon sexually immature men as a prerequisite of clerical service has played a major role in the terrible epidemic of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy unable to escape the time-warp of adolescence.
‘Look into the face of the beast and know he is my brother—myself,’ Frances G. Wickes urged in a book she published more than forty years ago and that introduced me to the implications of Jung’s psychology for the spiritual search. For Jung, the search for a spiritual meaning and the journey to mental and spiritual maturity are one. A healthy dose of the sensual and erotic, integrated into life, was to lead to my new understanding of God. I now believe that the spiritual human being is also a sensual, erotic being, and each facet depends on the other. By integrating the erotic into our lives we become more complete, more spiritual.
Unfortunately we still live with the inheritance of institutional religion’s ‘blind spot’ regarding the body. By repressing rather than celebrating bodily desire, some established religions remain uneasy, equivocal, even resistant, about facing such pressing issues as contraception, abortion, the role of women, gay rights, the prevention of AIDS and overpopulation. A fundamentalist interpretation of religion, be it Christian, Jewish or Islamic, with its underlying denial of the sensual or erotic, threatens to impose a new version of Tertullianism demanding repression, not celebration, of the sensual, erotic part of our nature. This would be at our personal and collective peril.