»  National Review Online

May 3rd, 2002

  The Missing Element


I have been reluctant to write anything about the current travails of the American Catholic church because it's not my church. Religion is, as the U.S. constitution wisely recognizes, a private matter. To insert oneself into the internal troubles of a church you don't belong to seems impertinent — like stepping into a family feud.

In any case I am not sure I can attain the required degree of objectivity. I was raised in the English religious tradition, one component of which is a mild fear and loathing of the Catholic church. I won't say that I was given Foxe's Martyrs to read at age six and taught to refer to the Pope as "the Scarlet Whore of Rome," but I did grow up with a general impression of the Catholic (we always said "Roman Catholic" — the Church of England considers itself to be the Catholic church … but that's a long story) church as a slightly sinister affair, flint-faced Jesuits in purple cloaks striking terror into the hearts of ignorant Irish peasants, and so on. If you saw the movie Monty Python's the Meaning of Life, you will know the kind of mindset I am referring to.

Every sperm is sacred,
Every sperm is great,
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate …

Etc. etc. Exposure to the world, and especially to the culture of Catholic Europe, washed away most of the hostility, though I am still not in the market for indulgences, thanks very much.

It follows that I do not have much to say as to what the American church should do in its present crisis. I do, however, have one or two "background" comments to make about the larger social environment in which, and partly because of which, priests are going astray. I hope Catholic readers will not think I am interfering in matters that don't concern me. To those that do so think, I shall say: "To the Pope broken bells, to Saint James broken shells! No Popish vile oppression, but the Protestant succession! Confusion to the Groyne, hurrah for the Boyne!" And if that doesn't bring out the shillelaghs, I shall sing "The Sash My Father Wore," followed by a rousing chorus of "Protestant Boys."

The fundamental problem underlying these church ructions is of course the sexual revolution. For the past 40 years we — we in the Western world — have been living in a culture that in one respect has been strikingly different from any other that went before: a culture in which sex is an open topic of discussion, display and amusement, even among polite people, and (not, of course, coincidentally) in which the social "cost" of sexual misdemeanor is at a historical low — in which, in fact, the very notion of "sexual misdemeanor" has pretty much evaporated.

Now, I count myself a fan of the sexual revolution, though with some reservations. It needs an effort of the imagination, and a good deal of reading, to understand how much sexual misery there was in times past. The early sex researchers (like Magnus Hirschfeld, whose Berlin Institute of Sexual Science, 1919-33, had the motto: "Love and suffering are sacred") uncovered vast deserts of pain, despair and cruelty arising from a lack of understanding about sex, and from misguided attempts to regulate sexual behavior through laws and social proscriptions.

On balance I am sure that women suffered more than men under that dispensation. Below the middle classes — and even in them, prior to 1914 — women had few options in life other than to get married. If the marriage was a sexual disaster for some reason, there was very little a woman could do, other than endure her misfortune in silence. There is a very touching sketch of such a situation in that brilliant movie Topsy Turvy.

Men suffered too, though. The common forms of male sexual dysfunction could not be discussed — even, usually, with a doctor (supposing you could afford a doctor for such a non-life-threatening ailment). A man, and his partner, just had to put up with them. Homosexual acts were criminal almost everywhere, and young boys were taught, by solemn authority figures, that masturbation would make them blind and mad. My mother once told me that her entire "official" sex education consisted of the following words, spoken to her at the time of her first menstruation by her own mother: "Keep yourself clean and stay away from men." (Did she have any idea what Granny was talking about? I asked her. "No, not a clue.")

The easy-going atmosphere of today is, by any sane standards, an immense improvement on all that. As is ever the case with human affairs, though, when great evils are successfully suppressed, lesser evils come up in their place. Our society has its own sexual discontents and discordancies. They pale by comparison with what our grandparents — the unlucky ones among them — endured, but they are vexatious none the less. One of them, I think, is the fallacy (so I believe it to be) that everyone ought to have a sex life, and that people with no apparent sex life are either physically disabled, or mentally disordered, or hiding some guilty secret. Charles Péguy remarked that: "It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive." Neither, I think, in our own time, would it be possible to compute the number of lies told and follies committed because of the fear of appearing insufficiently enthusiastic about sex. As has often been said: our great-grandmothers would have died rather than admit that they enjoyed sex, a woman of our own time would die rather than admit that she doesn't.

Men, too, have to show unqualified enthusiasm for the entire sexual-revolution package, or be marked down as eccentric. A couple of years ago, on a different web magazine, I published an article in which I spoke disapprovingly of a certain sexual practice much favored by, though by no means restricted to, male homosexuals. I got a large e-mail bag disagreeing with me on the subject, and lauding the joys of the practice in question. Well, chacun à son goût; as Jane Austen observed, there is nothing more mysterious than other people's pleasures; but the interesting thing was the tone of those e-mails. It was one of derision. How could I, an intelligent and sophisticated person, deny myself and my partner this particular variation on the Act? How could I, and why should I, deny myself anything in this sphere of activity? What kind of repressed, seething, frustrated, starched-collar tight-lipped puritan was I? Did I have some weird religious hang-up? (Me! An Episcopalian!!) What was wrong with me?

This is the sexual atmosphere of our time. I repeat: I am certain it is better than what went before. Still I can see that it must be oppressive and uncomfortable to many. Plenty of people, after all, are not much interested in sex. Among women, I suspect there is some high proportion — I am speaking of something in the range 20 to 40 per cent, in their prime adult years — who would not mind living without sex altogether. The corresponding proportion of men is surely not so big, but still not negligible. I recall the English song-writer Bunny Lewis, famous for grumbling that: "Just because I have no interest in sex, people think I'm queer." (This was in 1970s London showbiz bohemia, when nobody would have cared one whit if he had been queer.)

The old order used to accommodate such people much better than we do now. In an old country church near my home town in England there is a huge stone wall tablet commemorating a village woman of the 17th century who had "lived all her life a virgin." This, apparently, was thought to be a wonderful and admirable thing, well worth putting up a tablet for. Elizabeth the First was likewise admired for her restraint — she even got a state named after her on this account. There were famous male virgins, too: my old pal Abbot Pafnuty of Borovsk in the 14th century, who lived into his 90s, a virgin to the end, and considered all the holier for it. (Oddly, his namesake — wellnigh his only namesake — was that Bishop Paphnutius who stood up at the Council of Nicea to argue against the idea that already-married men who became priests should be required to abstain from intercourse with their wives: "Not all men can bear the practice of strict continence, neither would the chastity of their wives be preserved …" I note in passing that the Greek word he used for "continence" was apathy.)

Yes, there really was a time when the words "confirmed bachelor" could be said without a snigger. There were even secular professions — university lecturers at some British colleges, and teachers at some private schools — in which men were forbidden to marry. Extramarital outlets of every kind were strongly disapproved of, if not actually illegal. Even simple knowledge of sex was discouraged. (More successfully in America than in England. Bertrand Russell, visiting the U.S.A. at the end of the 19th century, was pestered by men who were baffled to know what it was that Oscar Wilde had done.) In that world, the idea of a celibate Catholic priesthood did not seem particularly strange. Probably a lot of men, having taken the temperature of their own sexuality and found it low, decided that the priesthood would be a suitable occupation. Certainly the converse happened: it seems highly likely that Thomas More, who was deeply devout, chose the law rather than a clerical profession, exactly because he did not feel he could be celibate. The most heroic cases, of course, were those men who knew themselves to be highly sexed but who took orders anyway, determined to conquer their natures, for the sake of Christ.

I said "heroic" (and had better add that I reserve this adjective for those who succeeded in their conquest); most people of a modern sensibility would say "nuts." Now we are in a different world. A young American man of today who found he had little interest in sex would feel ashamed for thus deviating from the norm, and would seek "counselling," or therapy, or medication. A young man who found himself normally or highly sexed, but decided to embrace celibacy as a challenge, would be regarded by most people nowadays as weird, if not mad. He would also face far greater temptations, and receive far less support, than his counterpart of fifty or a hundred years ago: the mountain he had set himself to climb would be higher today, and steeper.

If that young man were of a homosexual inclination, he would have a whole extra set of problems on entering an institution that required him to be celibate. The older social order, in which homosexuality was shameful, barely mentionable, and illegal in most jurisdictions, would have been working with him; the new order, which seems to be on the point of declaring that homosexuality is actually better than the other thing, works all against him. The arguments for priestly celibacy are — and I admit this with some surprise, having just looked at them with real attention for the first time — quite robust, and well grounded in scripture. They are not just, as my Anglican schoolteachers told me, a way for the church to avoid having to finance wives and children. This aspect of the institution depends, however, on some support from the larger society, in which, after all, parish priests must live. That is the element that has gone missing. Whether clerical celibacy is even tenable without it, is, it seems to me, an open question.