Sex and Religion

Ascetical practices, including limitations on sex, are quite common in the world’s major religions, and often go beyond what would be expected from a purely ethical standpoint. It’s worth examining how – and why.

In Buddhism, the attainment of a state of enlightenment is essentially connected with freedom from desires. And sexual desire is considered one of the most persistent and challenging of desires to be confronted by most persons. Celibacy, as practiced by Buddhist monks, is thought to be the ideal form of purification, most conducive to spiritual enlightenment.

In Hinduism, the rechanneling of sexual “energy,” especially through celibacy, is prescribed by gurus as the means to greater intellectual and even physical prowess. The celibate Hindu yogi, freed from sexual Kama, is held to be in an optimal state for the habitual worship of God. The famous yogi Paramahansa Yogananda taught that married couples must practice moderation, and that celibacy is almost a prerequisite to attain maximal knowledge of divine love in a union of friendship.

But Hinduism is a religion of strange contrasts, as indicated, for instance, by the Kama Sutra, which appears to many Westerners to be a pornographic sex manual, possibly composed by some previous incarnation of Hugh Hefner.

Mahatma Gandhi, who took a public vow of celibacy in his thirties, was an example of the extremes that sometimes turn up in Hinduism. Towards the end of his life, he undertook a “last yajna (ritual)” to achieve sexual purity, an “experiment,” which he admitted was “dangerous” – sleeping naked with various young women without being sexually aroused. Gandhi claimed that success in this would grant great spiritual powers, but Hindu spiritual leaders and his followers criticized him for such “spiritual extremism.”

In Islam the “limitation” on sexuality is one that would probably be acceptable to many males – restriction to a maximum of four wives, but with the possibility of the addition of slave girls, and, in some jurisdictions, “temporary marriages.” In Sufism, an Islamic offshoot that emphasizes transcendence and the attainment of mystical states, celibacy is sometimes recommended. But Sufis are considered heretics by many mainstream Muslims. And Mohammed himself, when questioned about celibacy, answered, “there is no ‘Monkery’ in Islam.”

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Peter Wenzel, c. 1800 [Vatican Museum]
‘Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden’ by Peter Wenzel, c. 1800 [Vatican Museum]

In Catholicism, the recommendation of celibacy is partly for practical reasons, particularly suited for ministers of the Gospel. St. Paul tells his followers, “I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided.” (1Cor. 7:32-33) He compares himself to Peter and the other apostles, and Jesus’ “brothers” – James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas – who were accompanied by women, possibly wives (1Cor. 9:5), but maintains that he and his associates avoid hindrances to the Gospel by foregoing this privilege.

In the early centuries of the Church, it became clear what sort of “hindrances” would emerge from the family dynasties created by priests, bishops, and even popes. For example, James Hitchcock in his history of the Catholic Church comments: “Pope Silverius was the son of Pope St. Hormisdas (514-523) – fathered before Hormisdas was ordained – and Gregory the Great was the grandson of Pope Felix III.” And this was just the “tip of the iceberg.” In the 11th century, celibacy in the Catholic Church was made universally mandatory. Concessions regarding celibacy were made, however, for Eastern Rite churches in union with Rome.

But the emphasis on celibacy was not just for practical reasons. Even more important, in analogy with Hinduism and Buddhism, the faith-inspired goal was to facilitate spiritual progress. Thus St. Paul writes (1Cor. 7:34) that the unmarried person is able to concentrate on “the things of the Lord” and on being “holy both in body and in spirit” – in contrast to the married person, committed to a spouse and necessarily involved in secular or family affairs. But he recommends to those who are married (1Cor. 7:5) that they practice periodic abstinence from sexual intercourse to engage in prayer.

Among many saints, celibacy is often seen in the context of spiritual espousal, patterned after the relentless pursuit of the divine Lover depicted in the Biblical Song of Songs. St. Teresa of Avila, as a prime example, was favored with the “espousal” of her soul to Christ, in a “mystical marriage.” And St. Catherine of Sienna in her Dialogues is assured by God the Father that it is possible for some souls to attain such union with the divine that they never lose the sense of the presence of God.

The present perception of sexuality within Catholicism is, of course, weighed down with the issue of contraception – a practice that was condemned by most Christians until the infamous Lambeth Conference of 1930, in which Anglicans led the way for relaxation of prohibitions of contraception among almost all Protestant denominations. The Catholic response, of course, is encapsulated most dramatically in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, Humanae vitae.

In my book, Ethics in Context, I include a chapter on the difference between ethics and religion in formulating the “good.” I discuss the “family resemblances” of the major religions, and argue that in general religion goes beyond ethical concerns about right and wrong; religion is oriented subjectively towards personal integration and harmony with the highest good, and objectively towards communal/societal integration and harmony.

In Christianity, the “subjective” orientation takes on the aspect of union with God, the “objective” orientation consists in the Church, constructing on earth the foundations for the Kingdom of God. Needless to say, in any religion, lack of control of imperious sexual desires is a major obstacle to developing personal harmony, and seriously diminishes one’s spiritual sensitivity. And though the world seems to have forgotten it, as we see daily in the news, sexual excess is an inevitable obstacle to harmonious relationships in families, communities, and society, including religious organizations.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • Michael Dowd

    Excellent article Professor Kainz. The unrestrained pursuit of sex has caused so many problems that it is a wonder that some drug company hasn’t developed a compound to restrain it, a kind of Viagra for virginity.

    • Rusty

      I believe saltpeter is reputed to have that effect, and there are apocryphal stories about its being infused in the food of soldiers during wartime…

      • Craig Payne

        And also in the food of professional football teams during training camp (just rumors, of course).

        • Bro_Ed

          Nope. The only anaphrodisiac that works is sulfur-denial.

      • GaryLockhart

        That’s an urban legend. There’s no objective data proving that sodium nitrate is an anaphrodisiac

  • Manfred

    Back when the Church was Catholic, missionaries went out to the East in order to convert the indigenous peoples from” darkness” to the One, True Faith which ALONE can bring salvation. The area around Goa in India was converted by St. James the apostle! The Philippines were converted to Catholicism by missionaries originally from Spain.
    In 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote CASTI CONNUBII in response to the Lambeth /Conference. Leo XIII had declared in the late 19th century that Anglican orders were not valid as they hasd removed themselves from the Apostolic Succession. After Vat. II, it was the protestants who first “ordained” women, something no “religion” had ever attempted before in history. Protestantism and the other 40,000 “christian” sects are irrelevant Frankly, so is much of catholicism.. Only Catholicism teaches the Will of God in the proper use of our sexuality as it is Christ who will judge each and EVERYONE of us, even though one doesn’t “believe” in Him. All other religions are man-made constructs under the aegis of “the prince of this world.”
    BTW, Islam, which I do not believe was menrtioned, encoiurages polygamy, citing four as the ideal number of wives for one man.

    • GaryLockhart

      “BTW, Islam, which I do not believe was menrtioned(sic), encoiurages(sic) polygamy, citing four as the ideal number of wives for one man.” Manfred

      The sixth paragraph of the article reads:

      ‘In Islam the “limitation” on sexuality is one that would probably be
      acceptable to many males – restriction to a maximum of four wives, but
      with the possibility of the addition of slave girls, and, in some
      jurisdictions, “temporary marriages.” In Sufism, an Islamic offshoot
      that emphasizes transcendence and the attainment of mystical states,
      celibacy is sometimes recommended. But Sufis are considered heretics by
      many mainstream Muslims. And Mohammed himself, when questioned about
      celibacy, answered, “there is no ‘Monkery’ in Islam.”’

    • Howard Kainz

      Yes, I did mention Islam. I don’t think it’s quite correct to refer to all other religions as “man-made.” Thomas Aquinas speaks of a religious instinct which is natural — e.g., the instinct to sacrifice of Abel and Melchizedek and Noah, prior to the advent of revealed religion.

      • Manfred

        The examples you cite, Abel, Melchizedek and Noah all pre-date Christ but all were in communication with God’s Will. How did Cain know he had sinned by killing Abel? Who told Noah to build the Ark and how to build it? Melchizedek was the high priest offering sacrifices in the Temple. How did Adam and Eve know to hide in the Garden from the .Lord after they had disobeyed? Judaism is just a convenient memory of a Faith, which was true in the past, but has no relevance today. Does anyone believe that Justices Ginsburg, Kagan and Breyer, all Jews, give a hoot about the Torah when they vote for abortion and Sodomic “marriage”? The 40,000 Christian sects all spring from Catholicism and their “truths” are limited to the imaginations of the members themselves.
        I missed the Islam item entirely. My apology. But Islam is a Jewish-Catholic heresy which is incoherent and not in any way”divine”.

      • lwhite

        There are only two religions inspired by God. The Mosaic Law and Catholicism. All other religions are merely the ideas, or philosophies, of men.

        And contrary to what Vatican II teaches, the Mosaic Law was superseded by the New Law of Christ.

        • Howard Kainz

          According to the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, “the Church is the new people of God.” That sounds like supersession.
          The Mosaic Law and Christianity are revealed religions, but, as Aquinas says, the religious instinct is universal. Thus St. Paul (Acts 17:23) sees the Athenian shrine to the “Unknown God” as the groundwork for his own preaching: “What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you.”

          • lwhite

            The Church is the congregation of all those who profess the faith of Christ, partake of the same Sacraments, and are governed by their lawful pastors under one visible Head. The members of the Church on earth my be divided into those who teach and those who are taught. Those who teach, namely, the Pope, bishops and priests, are called the Teaching Church, or simply the Church. Those who are taught are called the Believing Church, or simply the faithful.

            That is the definition of Church, according to the perennial teaching of the one, true Catholic Church.

            Yes, there is a universal religious instinct but there is only one, true Church, established by Jesus Christ and that is the Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation. That has been the perennial and constant teaching of the Catholic Church so the new definition implemented in the merely pastoral Second Vatican Council is false and no Catholic is obligated to believe something which is false.

          • Howard Kainz

            I don’t quite get your objection. You don’t agree with the V2 statement that the Church is “the new people of God” superseding the Mosaic Law?

          • lwhite

            Read paragraphs 839 and 840 of the Catechism of the Conciliar church. 839 speaking about the Jewish people states the “gifts and the call of God are irrevocable”, i.e., the Old Covenant is valid. 840 states the Jews are still waiting for the Messiah – and does NOT refute this. Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have both either written or publicly stated this heresy.
            As for the term “people of God”, it was invented to correspond to the blasphemous teaching that everyone was redeemed by Christ and thus will be saved. The only real people of God are those who profess the one, true Catholic faith and strive to live that true faith in perseverance.

          • Howard Kainz

            It’s a fact that Jews are waiting for the Messiah, but it’s also a fact that the Messiah has also come. Stating the facts about Jewish expectations is not heresy. And #840 of the Catechism states that the Jews are in error for not knowing or understanding Christ Jesus.
            Your approach seems to be extremely selective, looking for heresies.

          • lwhite

            I don’t have much trouble finding heresies. They are numerous.

  • Stanley Anderson

    Here is one of my favorite GK Chesterton quotes. It is from his book on St. Francis of Asissi:

    …What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was
    coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among the elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex
    ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago.

    • lwhite

      G.K. Chesterton-his common sense is so uncommon today.

      I can only imagine what he would write about the world today where, not only dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions have exceeded those in his time, but the very nature of the human species is being denied.

  • James Farfaglia

    Thank you Howard for this fine article.

  • Great article. I have to say, the Catholic Thing has been having a winning streak with a string of pretty good essays this week.

    Catholics certainly need to have a better understanding of celibacy, particularly in our sex-saturated world. Kainz does us a service by placing the Catholic tradition of celibacy alongside other religious traditions. It gives evidence that there is a direct connection between the body and the soul, especially in terms of purity and self-control.

    We’re blessed to have celibate priests singly focused on their vocations to preach the gospel and minister to their congregations. Preserving the virtue of chastity has allowed the Church to weather the storms of the sexual revolution better than most other religious communities, but we must double-down (all Catholics practicing chastity, not just priests) if we hope to flourish once more and save wayward souls.

    • Sheila

      Please note: chastity is not the same as celibacy. even in marriage and having sexual relations, chastity is a part if it. Being chaste is like being holy. There can be unholy (unchaste) sex in marriage. Selfish couples using and lusting. And then there is holy sex in marriage. Holy marital sex is beauty itself and is God breathed. Full of love, respect and unselfish giving. Open to children. Plus a lot more. I pray thus in our Church. Dear priests…teach this to our young people. Teach this to those planning to get married. Be not silent. God’s intent for marriage must be saved.

  • Fr Kloster

    It is worth mentioning, whenever celibacy is discussed, the fact that the Catholic celibate clergy cannot be threatened or blackmailed by the loss of their family.

    Whenever atheistic/totalitarian regimes outlaw the faith, they often threaten the clergy. The Orthodox clergy cooperated with the KGB in Russia, the Catholics did not. The proof? Every Catholic Church was confiscated or closed in Russia and the Orthodox held nearly all their churches. In wartime, the Catholic clergy were almost always on the front lines tending to the spiritual needs of the grunts. The non-Catholic clergy not so much; because they had families.

    • lwhite

      Thank you Fr. Kloster for bringing up an aspect of Catholic celibate clergy that hardly anyone ever addresses.

      Considering the world today, I can imagine there is going to come a time when history repeats itself and the Catholic clergy will once against have to be on the front lines tending to the spiritual needs of the grunts.

  • James Swetnam, S.J.

    I suggest that Professor Kainz read Stefan Heid’s “Celibacy in the Early Church” published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco in 2000. This a translation from the German original published in 1997. This book may lead him to modify some positions taken in his informative article – James Swetnam, S.J.

    • GaryLockhart

      A worthwhile read for all Priests and male religious is:

      The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Father Christian Cochini S.J., Ignatius Press, 1990

      The book was originally published in French with the title:

      Origines apostoliques du celibat sacerdotal, Dessain et Tolra, 1981

  • Sheila

    What a great article. Once again I learn something new. This time it is about others who choose to practice celibacy outside of our own Catholic Church. Amazing. Celibacy in mind, body and heart takes practice in living a chaste and pure life and is one of the most blessed gifts God has given to me. Even though I did not deserve it, but I desired it. God and I worked together to attain this grace. It has literally changed me into a new woman. It has taught me humility, forgiveness, and mercy towards others and self. I am so happy to be alive and set free to follow Christ wherever He will take me…no matter what. I am not a nun, but a single celebate. And dare I say Christ my King graces me as I continue to exercise these spiritual muscles. Thank you to Jesus for gifting us with this miracle of celibacy.

  • LawProf61

    I personally wish the Church could find some happy medium when it comes to sex. I compare it to eating. Preparing food and a wonderful meal are among life’s great joys. Eating the wrong things or eating too much causes innumerable problems. Fasting – lightly and occasionally – also has health benefits. But no one says, “Your life would be better if you never ate at all.”

    While it’s true that an individual human can certainly live without sex, the race cannot survive without it. And if we argue – as we should – that it belongs in marriage, then it ought to be celebrated as the source of joy it can be. I know that there are papal encyclicals that do just that. But they are somehow lost in what seems the larger message: a dour attitude about sex, a grudging tolerance of its necessity, absurd pronouncements about permitted “positions” and the like. And while I understand the reasons behind at least one category of church leadership that is celibate, I think that confining all priestly leadership to celibacy only contributes to the problem.

    • Howard Kainz

      Many think that NFP is the “happy medium” you are looking for.

    • lwhite

      Comparing food to the union of two bodies, holy temples of the Lord, in communion as one flesh in the marriage of one man and one woman, would be like comparing a tree to a human. Both are living things but are not similar.

      The unification of the bodies of the “one flesh”, designed by God specifically to unite them in communion with Him and to propagate and sustain the human species, has never resulted in it being a “dour attitude about sex, a grudging tolerance of its necessity, absurd pronouncements about permitted ‘positions’ and the like” by the Church, but certainly is the attitude of fallen man who does not recognize or rejects the truth that the purpose of “sex” is procreation.

      “The problem” as you see it in the Church teaching about celibacy isn’t a problem for the Church which has clearly articulated its position for centuries based upon the Truth of Scripture and Tradition, and thus is only a “problem” for those who stubbornly refuse to submit to the Truth.