From the original article on January 1, 2022, by ormulus.
In every great religion it is possible to distinguish two parts. The first, which may be called mystical or eternal, faces towards the high, and aims to establish a certain relationship between man and the spiritual and transcendent. The second part, which may be called “social” or moral, consists in a complex of norms and rules for conduct in daily life. While the first is the essential part, and forms the imperishable nucleus of every religion, the second is, in a certain sense, accidental and changeable, because it is influenced both by the diversity of peoples and societies, and by historical contingencies.
It is important to make this distinction for general orientation, and it is also in the interest of the religious tradition itself. Indeed, when in moments of crisis, when criticism shows the relativity and mutability of certain norms and precepts to which had been attributed the status of divine law, this distinction prevents such criticism from blaming the superior part of a religion which truly looks towards the high.
This premise is necessary to discuss the problem to which we wish to dedicate some brief considerations, that is, the problem of the concept of sex proper to the religion which has come to predominate in the West. This conception suffers from a confusion of domains which is characteristic of Christianity, and which the efforts of theologians have only managed to avoid in part. It is a confusion between the norms which have an ascetic goal, and as such are intended for a small minority, and the norms which should instead prevail for the world and the masses. If we consider other religions – for example, Judaism, the ancient Persian religion, Islam, Brahmanism – as regards the second domain, they have been far from preaching against and condemning all that concerns natural order. Insofar as nature was here conceived of as a divine work, the law given to those who live in the world aimed at the sacralization of every activity, of every impulse and every institution, that is, at a reference towards the high, which, in a certain way, transfigured and gave a spiritual ground to everything man did. What Christian apologetics says about the “paganism” of the non-Christian and pre-Christian religions, attributing to them a subjection to all that is “nature”, is simply fantasy; it is known to every student of the science of religion that, in those cults, rites and sacred rules accompanied every event in life, whether individual or collective. And the same is true of all that relates to sex and woman.
In Christianity, notably in this last regard, things have gone differently. In this it is quite clear that there has been an attempt to introduce norms into life in the world which are only valid and sensible for the ascetic plane. As for examples, we are spoilt for choice. The precept of loving one’s enemy, of turning the other cheek, of taking no care for the morrow, of imitating the flowers in the fields and the birds in the sky, and so on, up to the point that certain of today’s Catholics, in a mood for “openings to the left” have desired to see a Christian justification of pacifism, and of socialism, if not of communism itself. All these norms and rules may be valid in a discipline which calls for ascetism and “holiness”, but are certainly not for anyone who lives in the world. It is not just that society is not ordered according to these norms, but that they render any society impossible. And indeed, if Christian states have existed, there does not exist any Christian state any longer, that is, one informed practically and rigorously by the overworldly principles of evangelical morality. Now, the same thing may be said regarding sex. Sex may be condemned, and restraint placed as an ideal from the ascetic point of view. To make this a rule for life in the world, however, is an absurdity. Once again, this is to confuse two distinct domains. In various ways, theologians have tried to attenuate this dualism between the natural world and the supernatural world which was characteristic in early Christianity. But in respect to sex, they have remained in a hybrid, paralysing position: a moralistic prejudice towards sexuality, or rather a kind of “theological hate” for it. The strict relationship between sexuality and sin is a characteristic which has never been lost and which has come to predominate in the West, and which puts it in contrast with the other creationist religions mentioned above. Indeed, as we have noted, these religions took care to sacralize sexuality, not to repress and stigmatize it.
The procreative function was often glorified by these religions as a reflection of the divine creative power in man. For every Christian it would seem blasphemy that Islam provides for divine invocations for during the sexual act, that ancient Iran even promised divine graces to the one who gave the utmost ardor in the sexual embrace, that the well-known Hindu formulae made cosmic and sacral symbols present in the union of the sexes, and so on. And that is to leave aside currents, like Dionysism, which in the ecstasy of sex recognized mystical possibilities. We know that Plato himself put the impulse of eros next to various kinds of divine, prophetic, and initiatic enthusiasm.
If we said that there was not a trace of this in Christianity, the rebuttal would be that it recognizes marriage as a sacrament. But even here the hybridism we have just mentioned is to be seen. First, marriage as a sacrament is a late development in the Catholic tradition. It took this form only towards the 13th century and was obligatory as such only after the Council of Trent. Furthermore, marriage is conceived of by Christianity as a pis aller, as something expedient due to human weakness, because, as St. Paul says, “it is better to marry than burn with passion.” Otherwise, it is chastity, abstinence that are the ideal: not the “sacred union”, but the “chaste union”. What kind of union that would be no-one knows.
What is confirmed in the idea that the only end of marriage is procreation, that is, only the most naturalistic or biological purpose that sexuality presents: but indulging this for any other purpose, even in a married couple, would be a sin. It is obvious why the character of the sacrament conferred on marriage does not lead to any change of plane, nor does it – as in the already mentioned orientation about ancient sacralization – lead to other, spiritual dimensions, to the sexual experience taken in itself; it leaves it as mere necessity of nature, and has, in the end, a social importance: it upholds the system of a society which happens to be monogamous (even here the relativity of the purely social and moral part of religion is to be seen, as the Old Testament notoriously allowed polygamy), seeking to strengthen it by means of the indissolubility of marriage.
The confusion of all of this has meant everything belonging to sex becomes wild through repression, with much hypocrisy, until the barrier is overcome. So it is that today we are witnessing a kind of unleashing of all that is linked to sex and to woman, in the most primitive, pandemic, and dangerous sense. That is why some revisions of relationships between spirituality and sex are called for.
From Il Popolo Italiano, 8th September 1957