e-mail us


A wondrous dance of sex and spirit


The Catholic writer and psychologist Eugene Kennedy said recently that “unless we get our sexuality right, we won’t get our humanity right, and if we don’t get our humanity right, we won’t get our church’s sacramental life right.”

The burden is on a healthy sexuality.

Truth is that most Catholics I know continue to struggle with their sexuality. We’ve been off balance for so long that even when we’re balanced we don’t trust ourselves. Attitudes toward our bodies cause many of us unbearable pain. Our negative attitudes lead us to think we are unlike others and incapable of truly being loved. In reality, more often than not, we are just one more piece of clover in the pasture.

We Catholics have our sexuality stories to tell. They make a point. Here’s one of mine. During my sophomore year in high school, a Jesuit priest, days before a prom, offered a group of us in the high school cafeteria this advice: “Men,” he said, quite authoritatively, “most of you will dance with girls Friday night. If you get too close expect at some point to get aroused. Watch out. Whatever you do, don’t give in to the pleasure. Remember that the second you give in, it’s a moral sin. You could be damned to hell for all eternity.”

His words lingered and, of course, focused our teenage attention more than ever below the waist. Dancing became an excruciating wrestling match between mind and flesh, with damnation in the balance: “Oh, no! … I’m not enjoying this. … I’m not enjoying this. …Oh, God, save my impure soul!”

I chuckle now. But it’s also sad. If anything, the priest, whatever his intentions, only enhanced a view of woman as sex object. My children did not grow up with such detailed admonitions, and I marveled at how they all mingled, boy and girl, so much more naturally. I saw real friendships cross gender lines.

We must get our sexuality right. It is at the core of our humanity. It forms the images of our spirituality. It rests beneath our religious communities and their experiences. I am cautiously optimistic we are up to the task. Good and caring people are focused on the challenges as never before.

In 1995, I wrote Sexuality and Catholicism (George Braziller) to understand how Catholics got sexuality wrong. I discovered that Jesus said virtually nothing about sex, reached out to women, listened to them, felt comfortable among them. Above all, he respected them.

I learned our church’s teachings on sex are not rooted in the gospels, but have been shaped by Hellenistic culture and its exaggerated dualism: pure soul and vile body. I learned our church’s attitudes toward women were formed by writers who denied women had souls, saw them as inferior, and their bodies as fouled by sin and punished with menstruation.

No wonder male celibates were seen as responding to a higher call. However, this is the 21st century and, as a married man, I find the perpetuation of this thinking offensive and destructive to the church. It should be rooted out.

Most Catholics I know have rejected many of the old absolutes and are beginning, tentatively, to embrace a wondrous and intricate dance of sex and spirit. However, we still lack signposts for the road ahead. These will come out of gospel reflection and a more open sharing of our love-inspired sexual experiences.

Are we ready to baptize the erotic in our lives? Are we capable of cultivating and sharing the male and female in each of us? Can we see our endless and seemingly uncontrollable desires for intimacy and physical union as mere foreplay to total union, male and female, in God?

Finally, a heaven I can relate to.

Kennedy again: “We must understand our humanity and Catholic sacraments are all sensual, sexual and spiritual at the same time.” When is the last time you heard that in church?

Lacking women’s voices, we have hobbled, as church, on one leg, pondering our sexuality. Now that leg has collapsed. If you have doubts, pick up a newspaper and read the first story you come to about the church.

We are passing through darkness. So much attention on unhealthy sexuality covers the liberating message of the gospels. We read too little of Christian compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

The good news is that during this difficult period fresh voices are speaking out. Women are writing theology. Couples are speaking of their sexual experiences. Catholic moral theology, though in seeming hibernation, is preparing itself for reconstruction.

What is required is an attitude of openness and exploration -- and trust in the Spirit.

Expressed or not, we are coming to sense our sexuality and spirit are one, with each transfusing the other. The mystic writer Fr. Edward Hayes, in Prayer Notes to a Friend (Forest of Peace), writes that our bodies are “soul-saturated and awesomely beautiful.”

“Whenever you become conscious of your body while dressing or bathing,” he says, “pray a wordless prayer that you will never desert your body, nor any parts of it, for some artificial state of holiness.”

Another signpost of life, healing and healthy sexuality can be found in Tender Fires: The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality (Crossroad) authored by Franciscan Sr. Fran Ferder and Fr. John Heagle, co-directors of Therapy and Renewal Associates, a counseling and renewal center near Seattle.

The authors write that the three traditional Greek love forms, agape, philia and eros, have for too long been separated and placed in a hierarchical order with agape, selfless love, at the top, philia, the love of friends, in the middle, and eros, physical and emotional love, at the bottom.

Ferder and Heagle connect all three, seeing them flowing “from a fundamental moral disposition.” In this new context, Christian sexuality is grounded in what they call a “passionate reverence” for all people. “This inner way of viewing relationships,” they write, “is ultimately a graced gift of God that enables us to stand before other people -- whether they are strangers we meet on the street or our most intimate lovers and friends -- with a spirit of openness and reverence.” Read this book and taste, at long last, healthy Christian sexuality.

The popular culture looks to self-help books for sexual advice. Religiously motivated people come to sexuality at an entirely different level, seeking to understand and cooperate with God in creation. The rewards of getting it right reach from personal health to sacred communities with rich sacramental lives still beyond our imaginations.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002