Faith and Reason: A mould made by old men in Rome: In the second article in a series on Christian sexual attitudes, Monica Furlong argues that church leaders abuse their power in attempting to fit people's behaviour to their own ideal.
Saturday 14 August 1993
You would be wise to be heterosexual for a start, because if you are not you will come in for a lot of unwanted 'compassion' and talk about loving the sinner and not the sin. And if you are heterosexual you are by no means in the clear. Masturbation is out, and so is pre-marital sex; and post-marital sex, if the Romans have their way, is not about high jinks in the bedroom but about relentless conceiving, as the sequel to Humanae Vitae will shortly be making clear. You are not allowed too much bounce and high spirits around the whole thing, and certainly not any adventure, or what a gay friend of mine likes to call 'escapade'.
Sex is the Christian version of Procrustes' bed, the instrument of torture belonging to a monster of antiquity, who stopped hapless travellers on the road and compelled them to lie down on a piece of his furniture. Not to rest, however. If they were too short for the bed he stretched them on the rack until they fitted, and if they were too big he recklessly chopped off any overhanging bits. Procrustes, apart from his sadistic need for control, was unable to forgive anyone that did not fit his ideal. He was as mad as a hatter, of course, and his madness took the form of insisting that everyone must be alike, that they must fit his idea of what a person should be.
The trouble is that, sexually, we are not alike. What turns me on may leave you absolutely cold, your fidelity may be a total impossibility for me, and old X's celibacy may be a mystery to both of us. Sexuality emerges from deep springs in our personalities, the Artesian wells of human love and longing to which none of us has the key, and we would do well to be humble and tentative in the face of this powerful mystery, and above all not to imagine that what suits us may, or should, suit others.
Sexually, we come in all shapes and sizes, all of them innocent at first, all of them seeking warmth and affection and closeness, until distorted by shame and fear and greed.
One of the odd things about Christian statements on sex is that they have a way of insisting that even if we are not like their blueprint, then we should be, or at least should pretend to be. To spend much time listening to people in distress is to discover the sort of unbearable pressure the Christian bed of 'oughts' imposes, even in these supposedly permissive days.
This woman masturbates, and though she thinks she should not, she cannot stop; this young man feels he 'oughtn't' to be attracted to other men; that Catholic priest is having a secret affair; this Catholic couple practises contraception but keeps quiet about it; these two women live in a sexual relationship but daren't tell their parents. They do these things, in opposition to what their churches teach them, because they are driven by huge needs which they could not always articulate and which the churches would not listen to if they did articulate them because (I quote the words of the Church of England General Synod) 'they fall short of the ideal'.
Oh, that blasted ideal, which is not about affirming people as they are but about always making them feel inadequate and ashamed. The word for such a tyrant is 'idol' not 'ideal'. It is fuelled by a monstrous arrogance, similar to that of Procrustes, so that the Pope or General Synod or the Methodist Conference (recently making itself look exceedingly foolish about homosexuality) think they have the expertise to prescribe for the deepest and dearest emotions in other people. To some of us their monstrous egotism is a much more alarming symptom than any of the forms of human conduct they deplore. It is about the abuse of power.
And, of course, it is about dishonesty. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for 'binding on men burdens too great to be borne' with their fiddling regulations about ritual purity, regulations that only the comfortably off had time and energy to obey. The sexual burdens that the churches bind on men and women are built on a shameful hypocrisy, and a conspiracy of silence, because as 'everyone knows' the 'rules' are widely flouted. How many Roman Catholic priests have led totally celibate lives? How many clergy in any of the churches are practising homosexuals? How many Christians have affairs or practise masturbation?
Gossip, and occasional surveys, indicate that many break the sexual rules, and that the more exacting and painful the rules are, as in the case of celibacy or contraception, then the more widely they are broken. But discussion of this underlying pain is suppressed like a bad smell. Gentle understanding and empathy are less prized in the churches than sexual control and conformity.
Encouragingly, though, there are signs that Christians no longer believe that father is always right, nor that they must be silent before his ignorance and narrow-mindedness. The procession of Catholics who have publicly declared recently that they think Humanae Vitae is simply wrong, the brave gay groups who insist that it is possible to be both Christian and gay, the women who have decided that only they can decide whether they have the strength and resources, physical, psychological, and economic, to bear a child, Catholic priests who campaign for a choice about celibacy, are all in the noble tradition that valued truth above all things. In the early church Christians died horribly rather than sacrifice to the Roman gods, since they saw that the witness of Jesus demanded truthfulness and a refusal of hypocrisy. In the 17th century dissenters suffered imprisonment, loss of home and possessions, and every sort of public disgrace, rather then hypocritically pretend to 'conform' to what they believed was untrue.
The right to make love as best one can may not, at first sight, seem as splendid as these great battles of the past, yet it has a strong similarity to both of them. It is about wresting power and control away from those who have abused it, and insisting that we know better than they about the matters on which they are so exceedingly dictatorial.
That takes enormous confidence, courage, self-control, wisdom. What makes it more possible is the perception of what a terrible mess the old men in Rome, and for that matter the old men who lead the Church of England or the other churches, have made in a whole series of crucial understandings about life.
Distrusting women (this seems general in all the churches), they have unwittingly subscribed to a version of sexuality that is about power and not about reciprocity, and we see this sado-masochistic view writ large in the underworld of pornography where the currency is distorted sexuality. Surely we can do better than this.
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