“Outside of condemning adulterous behavior,” writes Timothy Egan for The New York Times, “Christ never said anything about whom you could love.” His piece, “The Catholic Church is Sick with Sex,” reads like a harangue fit for a local tabloid, though it reflects what many liberals in America want to think.
Egan trots out Pope Alexander VI for his scandalous private life, and Julius II, and, apparently only to show that the Church is miserably benighted and not for anything pertinent to her teachings on sex, Pius IX.
Egan also engages in the de rigueur establishment of his credentials, telling us that he is/was Catholic, and was taught by fair-minded Jesuits. But he doesn’t know anything and doesn’t care to find out.
I don’t have room to rehearse every falsehood and fallacy and bigoted refusal to entertain contrary arguments, or to trouble himself to find out what they are. “Women should be priests,” he says. “Duh.”
But since a lot of Catholics repeat that canard about Jesus not saying much about sex, let us actually look at what he does say. Jesus scandalized the people in two ways: by his infinite mercy toward sinners, and by his mercilessness toward sin.
His apostles were puzzled to find him speaking to the Samaritan woman, but they and others were downright dismayed when he raised the moral bar as high as heaven. “You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28)
That’s not just a condemnation of behavior. Jesus condemns the attitude of the heart whether or not it is consummated. It fits with all of the rest of Jesus’ breathtaking and – without the grace of God – impossible exhortations, summed up so: “You, therefore, must be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus never winks at sexual immorality, nor does he place it in a special category, as lighter or more pardonable than other kinds of sin. When the Pharisees complain that his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating, Jesus rebuked them, saying that the food that goes into a man does not defile him, but what comes out of the man does.
His metaphor is scatological. The food that goes in comes out the natural way. But what comes from the heart is what really defiles: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” (Mark 7:21-22; emphasis mine)
Notice that lewdness and fornication and adultery are all fellows in a grab-bag of bad things, including slander, coveting, envy, pride, theft, and murder. Jesus is not saying that fornication is as bad as murder. He is saying that it is bad, as murder is bad. It defiles you in the heart. It smells worse there than the other stuff smells on your body.
Things get better. When the Pharisees invite him to enter the debate over licit cause to divorce your wife, Jesus sweeps the debate aside, appealing behind and above the Law of Moses, which had granted concessions to men because of the hardness of their fallen hearts.
He appeals to creation and the Creator’s intention before the Fall: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matt. 19:4-6)
Paul understood the point, and insists upon it, following Jesus’ lead in twice citing the verse from Genesis. (Eph. 5:31, 1 Cor. 6:16) Jesus was preaching to Jews, while Paul was going forth to baptize the nations. Jesus did not need to preach to Jews against forms of sexual madness that had gripped the pagans, no more than Isaac Jogues had to preach against cannibalism to Frenchmen.
Besides, the argument a fortiori applies. If thoughts about sex with a woman to whom you are not married are forbidden, even though God made us male and female in the beginning, then we needn’t ask about behavior between a man and a man. The Law of Moses condemned such behavior in the severest terms, and when Jesus wants an exemplum of evil against which to judge the unbelieving cities, he turns to Sodom and Gomorrah. (Matt. 11:23-24)
But Paul was preaching to pagans, for whom all manner of sexual vices were a way of life. They were like the Iroquois who had to cease eating human flesh. So Paul does not simply condemn homosexual behavior. Like Jesus, he turns to Genesis and the consequences of the Fall, the darkened mind and the perverse will.
Therefore men do what is unnatural both theologically and sexually. They exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for images of corruptible men, and worse – birds and beasts and snakes; and to punish their folly God abandons them to their vile affections, as they violate the structure of creation and their bodies, women with women and men with men.
Paul lists those sins in a roll of others, a roll that sounds like what Jesus said to the Pharisees, for pagans were “filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Rom. 1:29-31)
But now they are to walk in the light. A wholly new way of life is held forth to them, in concord with their created nature. So Paul preached to pagans what Jesus preached to the Jews.
Maybe someone at The Times might deign to read the Bible once in a while?
*Image: The Angels of Sodom by Gustave Moreau, c. 1890 [Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris]