“Finding God in the Erotic”: Fr Donal Godfrey

The Christian faith in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, are widely perceived as being inherently anti-erotic, and hostile to the idea of sexual pleasure, of sex outside of procreation. The perception is well-founded in historical fact. Some early theologians praised virginity as an ideal even inside marriage, at a time when the expectation of the imminent parousia created a belief that humanity had no need to procreate. Later, the insistence on clerical celibacy arose in part from an idea that sexual intercourse the night before celebrating Mass was inappropriate, as somehow defiling and unclean. The imposition of compulsory clerical celibacy in turn led to a distinct two-caste system within the Church, with the celibate clergy seen as more “pure” than those laity living normal sexual lives.

The perception is soundly based in history, but not in Scripture, or even in Catholic theology. There is nothing in Scripture that is inherently hostile to sexual love, and much to celebrate it, notably the Song of Songs. Notable mystics such as St John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and numerous others have described their prayer in notably erotic (even homoerotic) imagery. Since the Reformation, Protestant theologians have recognised that the value of sexual love within marriage. Even the Vatican overturned centuries of tradition with Humanae Vitae, recognizing for the first time that sexual intercourse has a unitive as well as a procreative value.

Ecstasy of St Teresa (Bernini)

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Increasingly, theologians (Catholic as well as Protestant) are going beyond this to acknowledge that there can also be a specifically spiritual dimension to the erotic: the Presbyterian Chris Glaser, for instance, has written movingly on how the attempt to deny either the sexual or the spiritual in life impoverishes the other, while by embracing both, each strengthens and enriches the other.
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