Attitudes to Sex


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    For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
    Genesis 3:5



    Since the earliest times Christians have experienced difficulties with sexual matters. One of the first difficulties was that of Jesus" own sexuality. It has often been asked whether he had ordinary conventional sexual desires. Some scholars have suggested that he was married , while others, including some bishops, have suggested that he may have been homosexual*. In all probability we shall never know. Early Christians made great efforts to find and destroy records giving details of anything of which they disapproved, or that did not explicitly support their image of what Jesus should have been. From a few remaining documents it is possible to conclude that Jesus" interest in certain disciples may have been more than spiritual. There are for example references to nude baptism in a letter from Clement of Alexandria *, all night private initiation ceremonies, and a disciple explicitly identified as the one whom Jesus loved*. Whatever Jesus" sexual orientation might have been, the Early Church soon developed an extreme distaste for all matters associated with sex and women. St Paul is well known for his views on these matters. It is not difficult to find examples of Paul advocating sexual abstinence:


    The baptism of Jesus. Baptistery, Ceiling mosaic, Ravenna, Italy (detail). Late fifth century.


    Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
    1 Corinthians 7:1

    I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.
    1 Corinthians 7:8

    At an early stage sex was associated with evil, and virginity with goodness. No such connection is made in the gospels, though suggestions of it find their way into other New Testament writings (e.g. Revelation 14:3-5). The link is attributable to the predisposition of the men who fashioned the early Church. Their view was that human bodies, especially the sexual organs, were filthy and degrading. They regarded sex as a punishment for Adam's sin. As Gibbon said of them:

    It was their favourite opinion that if Adam had preserved his obedience to the Creator, he would have lived forever in a state of virgin purity, and that some harmless mode of vegetation might have peopled paradise with a race of innocent and immortal beings*.

    One twentieth century ex-pastor sums up the New Testament outlook in less guarded terms:

    The New Testament is the work of neurotic philistines, who regarded human sexuality not as a source of joy, but as a source of anxiety; not as a means of expressing love, but as a means of expressing sin*.

    Apocryphal writings from early Christian times describe sex as "an experiment of the serpent"* and marriage as "a foul and polluted way of life"*. According to one Gnostic view women were wholly creations of the Devil, as were men from the waist down*. Such views enjoyed considerable currency in the early Church. The extremity of the opinions of Church Fathers is well illustrated by the man who exercised such a great influence in the early centuries of Christianity, Origen of Alexandria. He castrated himself because he thought that by denying himself the possibility of temptation he could be assured of a place in Heaven*. He was apparently relying on a biblical passage:

    ...and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake ...
    Matthew 19:12


    The Serpent in the Garden of Eden, represented as a woman (Lilith)
    Entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

    The practice of self-castration seems to have become common in early times, and it became necessary to curb the practice. The First Ecumenical Church Council, held at Nicæa in 325, excluded from the Christian priesthood men who had castrated themselves. However, there seems to have been some ambiguity to the acceptability of the practice. In later centuries God was given to sending angelic surgeons to carry out spectral castrations on holy men as they slept, apparently as a special favour*.

    St Augustine of Hippo had for nine years embraced the Manichæan religion, which taught that all flesh was inherently evil. These views, it seems, were easily accommodated by Christianity for he proposed, without any evidence, that no sexual intercourse had ever taken place between Joseph and Mary, and that sexual continence was the highest good in marriage*. To him concupiscence, as manifested in lust, was the root of sin, and this proposition forms an essential element of Roman Catholic doctrine to this day. As a Catholic theologian has noted:

    That sin declares itself mainly in the realm of sex remains the view of the celibatarian Catholic establishment and is rooted in Augustine's antisexual flights of fancy*.

    Women in the Church seem to have been generally despised, except when they were large contributors to church funds or when they proved useful for missionary work. There were numerous Fathers of the Church, but no Mothers of the Church, certainly not after later Fathers had edited the texts. The views of another of the Church Fathers, Tertullian, on women were fairly typical:

    Do you not realise that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil's gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child's play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die*!

    Here is St John Chrysostom:

    What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature painted with fair colours!.... *

    And St Jerome:

    As long as a woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman, and will be called a man*.

    Jerome regarded cosmetics to be poultices of lust* and considered that marriage was tolerable only because new virgins were generated as a result*. Women were gateways to the Devil, the way of evil, the sting of the scorpion. As one modern biblical commentator has noted "The letters of Jerome teem with loathing of the female which occasionally sounds deranged"*.

    St Ambrose (339-397) held views similar to those of St Jerome and St Augustine, and it was primarily through their combined influence that Church views on sexuality developed in the way that they did. So it was that in early Church art Satan was often represented as being female, so too the need to emphasise the virginity of Jesus" mother. It was simply too much to accept that Mary might ever have indulged in such a sordid practice as sexual intercourse. St Augustine said that sexual intercourse was fundamentally disgusting, St Ambrose that it was a defilement, Tertullian that it was shameful, and St Jerome that it was unclean; in the views of other leading figures it was unseemly (Methodius) and filthy and degrading (Arnobius)*. For St John Chrysostom the loss of virginity brought trouble and death*.

    The views of these early Church Fathers determined the path taken by Christianity. As Pope Gregory I asserted "Sexual pleasure can never be without sin"*. Pope Innocent III enlarged on Gregory's views: "Who can be unaware that marital intercourse can never take place without lascivious ardour, without the filth of lust whereby the seed conceived is sullied and corrupted"* The great theologian of the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus, considered sex to be an evil and a punishment, and he described it as filthy, polluting, nasty, shameful, unwholesome, spiritually debasing, vile, disgraceful, demeaning, brutish, corrupt, depraved and infected*. He held that too much sex led to senility and death*. His famous pupil, the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, characterised marital intercourse as repugnant; it was filth, a stain, foulness, vileness, degeneracy, a disgrace and a disease*. It was boasted that Aquinas, wearing his magic girdle provided by angels, would not so much as speak to a woman except under compulsion*. Views such as these found their way into the widely influential Malleus Maleficarum, the witch-hunters" handbook, which in Part I, question 3 confidently asserted that "the power of the devil lies in the privy parts of men",

    Other religions do not share Christianity's obsession with the sinfulness of sexual activity. This photograph shows a frieze from a Hindu temple at the Khajuraho Group of Monuments in Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India. The thousand-years old monuments are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


    Christian theologians and teachers are still characterising genitalia by terms such as "vile" and "obscene". The Christian concept of sin stems from the teachings of men with unusual, sometimes pathological, sexual attitudes. It was they who invented the notion of Original Sin — a sort of disease associated with and transmitted through sexual activity. Until recent times the Churches have consistently talked of sex in terms of sin, never in terms of love. Marriages were contracted for financial, dynastic or political reasons among the property-owning classes, with no evidence of love before the marriage. This was entirely in line with orthodox Christian belief, in which there was no need for love to play a part in marriage — indeed it could be sinful if love did play a part — this was one reason that medieval churchmen so hated the troubadours. According to some theologians, experiencing intense passion for one's own wife amounted to adultery*. Up until the 1980s, marriage services of Churches in the Anglican communion reflected traditional ideas, identifying three reasons for marriage: procreation, the avoidance of fornication, and mutual society.

    First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

    Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such per sons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

    Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

    (The Form of Solomnization of Matrimony, 1662 Book of Common Prayer)

    Romantic love was not considered a requirement, and indeed traditional Christian weddings were arranged marriages, not love matches.

    The Roman Catechism still echos the traditional line on the "gift of continency". The section on the sacrament of matrimony states that really it would be desirable for all Christians to remain unmarried. As canon 277 of the 1983 Roman Catholic code of canon law affirms: Celibacy is a special gift of God.






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    § The gospels do not say whether Jesus was married or not, and since it would have been remarkable for a Jew of his age not to have been married, many scholars take their silence as prima facie evidence that his marital status was normal, i.e. married.

    §. Rumours about Jesus" sexuality filtered down the centuries despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress them. Christopher Marlowe for example held that Jesus had committed sodomy with his cousin John. The Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore, in the 1960s, seems to have been the first respected ecclesiastic (rather than the first scholar) to have stated that Jesus being homosexual was "an explanation we must not ignore".

    §. See Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, Harvard University Press (1973). On pp 175-176, he points out that nude baptism was later prescribed by Hippolytus in his Apostolic Tradition, xxi, 3, 5, 11. It is also significant that in the earliest Christian art Jesus is invariably shown naked at his baptism. The Adamites, an early Christian sect who favoured nudity, were suppressed. Again, the stated objective "to follow naked the naked Christ" cited by St Francis of Assisi also seems to have an ancient provenance.

    §. For example John 13:23 and 19:26-27.

    §. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin, p 288.

    §. Joachim Kahl, The Misery of Christianity (English translation by N. D. Smith), p 75.

    §. Acts of John, fragment J266 {cited by Reay Tannahill, Sex in History, p 129}.

    §. Acts of Andrew, Vatican MS fragment v J352.

    §. Reay Tannahill Sex in History. p 129.

    §. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 6:8. Origen's interpretation was not accepted by the later church. The Old Testament view was that men with injured genitals were not acceptable to God (Deuteronomy 23:1). As this view was accepted by later Church authorities, Origen denied himself the possibility of being canonised.

    §. Several cases of angelic spectral castrations are given in Malleus Maleficarum, Pt II, q1.

    §. Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p 77 citing Børessen, Subordination et Equivalence, p 101.

    §. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 75.

    §. Tertullian, Disciplinary, Moral and Ascetical Works (New York, 1959), translated by Rudolph Arbessman, Sister Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin A Quain, SJ, and quoted in Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p 58.

    §. St John Chrysostom in his homilies on the Matthew gospel, written around AD 390 (Matthew 19:10), explaining why it is not good to marry, cited by Malleus Maleficarum, Pt I, q6.

    §. St Jerome, Comm. in Epist. ad Ephes. III, 5

    §. John Coulson (ed.), The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary (New York, 1958), p 398.

    §. St Jerome, Letter 22, to Eustochium, A Selected Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, translated and annotated by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 14 vols. (Oxford, 1890-1900).

    §. Armstrong, A History of God, p 145.

    §. Tannahill, Sex in History, p 130.

    §. John Chrysostom , De virginitate 14; In gen. hom., 18, 1.

    §. Responsum Gregorii, cited by Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 122-3, 133 and 159.

    §. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 141, citing Innocent III, Commentary of the Seven Penitential Psalms, 4. Innocent seems to have based his ideas on Psalm 50:7.

    §. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 159, citing Leopold Brandl, Die Sexualethik des heiligen Albertus Magnus (1954) pp 45, 61, 73, 79, 80, 82-3, 95-6 and 216.

    §. Albertus Magnus, De animalibus 1.9 tr. 1, 2 and 1.15 tr. 2, 6, cited by Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 160.

    §. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 170-1.

    §. Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt II, q1, citing the Formicarius of Nider.

    §. The phrase Omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est was for example cited with approval by the theologian Peter Lombard (circa 1100-1160), Sententiarum, Book 4, Distinction 31, Chapter 5, "De excusatione coitus.". The idea originally came from Xystus (or Sextus) the Pythagorian writing on Adultery. C. S. Lewis (The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition ( London: Oxford University Press, 1936): p. 15. translated it as: "Passionate love of a man's own wife is adultery."


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