In writing of sensual pleasures, Thomas Hobbes observed that “the greatest” is “that by which we are invited to give continuance to our species, and the next by which a man is invited to meat, for the preservation of his individual person.” From more than one perspective, Hobbes had his priorities straight. Parents, on more than one occasion, have given their last bite of food to their offspring, and laboratory rats have been known to starve to death while stimulating their erotic “pleasure centers.” Sex trumps eating every time.

For many pagans—modern as well as ancient—sexual desire is a straightforward affair summed up by Wilde’s maxim that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. The Greeks were candidly pragmatic in their approaches to sex. Solon, the austere Athenian lawgiver and moralist, was only one among many who alluded to the delights of pederasty. Erotic passion was, for most of the ancients, a temporary insanity to indulge and then be rid of. Sophocles, a terrible rake even by modern standards, confessed that old age had freed him from a terrible master.

The most compelling image of sexuality was the Roman poet Lucretius’ description of dogs locked in an unbreakable coitus. Ancient philosophers, however badly they might have behaved, generally agreed that sex was a distraction from a career of serious study and virtuous living. Since many philosophical sects, e.g.. Epicureans and Pythagoreans, functioned as religious communities, the urgent demands of sexual desire could seriously disrupt the harmony of the brotherhood. (In more recent times, the leaders of various sects, like Oneida perfectionists, Shaliers, and the Unification Church, have used sexual control as an important tool in controlling their communities.) It was in such a context that the early Christian Church began to shape its own not quite peculiar teachings on sex.

The most astonishing thing to moderns about the New Testament’s statements on sex and marriage is the apparent hostility to eras in all its forms. To the ancients, however, such statements would have seemed like Stoic commonplaces. What is actually surprising is the Scriptures’ openness to marriage and the family. While a life of celibate devotion is viewed as the spiritual pinnacle, marriage is not only confirmed by Jesus but it is also strengthened by his explicit condemnation of divorce as an indulgence granted temporarily to fallen man. The family of the New Testament was not, it should be added, some new institution. It was, in fact, the boilerplate patriarchal family that endured until recent times. Wives and children are to obey husbands and fathers who are, in turn, instructed to cherish and provide for their dependents. The status of woman is, however, implicitly improved, since the mother of Christ, in some sense, counterbalances the degradation of Eve. Sex, so far from being taken lightly, is revealed as possessing a spiritual dimension. Fornication is not merely impure or morally wrong, but, in the view of St. Paul, it creates a spiritual bond between the sinners.

Chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within, submission of wives to husbands, and reverence for the mysterious gift of life—how strange these notions sometimes seem in the nonage of our world. But when we tally up the consequences of our sexual innovations—family dissolution, adolescent suicide, and venereal diseases so terrible that the plagues of Egypt seem like hay fever—when we consider such consequences, the sexual teachings of the Christian Church begin to sound like common sense. Nowhere, outside of Catholic Poland and the Southern Baptist Convention, has the church spoken more plainly than in Ireland, and it is with high hopes that a Christian picks up Love Is for Life, a pastoral letter issued by the Irish bishops for Lent 1985. Those high hopes are dashed by the very first sentences of the very first page.

There are few things in life more beautiful and more exalting than the experience of love between man and woman. When a young man and woman are attracted to each other, their love arouses the deepest emotions, the highest expectations, they have ever known. For them, nothing seems to matter but their love. Nothing seems impossible to their love. For each of them, the other is “the only you there is.”

What sort of language is this for celibate gentlemen to indulge themselves in—the erotic sentimentalism of “True Confessions” magazines. Unfortunately, the entire letter is replete with such sweet nothings as “sexual union says I love you, in a very profound way.” The bishops might take up a profitable second career in writing greeting-card messages.

It is not only the sentimentality that mars Love Is for Life. There is an unbecoming trendiness about the whole production. Sex, they declare, is a “means of communication”; they welcome the more wholesome aspects of the sexual revolution like “a new openness in discussion about sexuality, and an absence of unhealthy feelings of guilt or shame.” Worse, they endorse the aims of feminism and declare war on the idea of “male superiority.” Homosexual acts are, of course, sinful, but they support the campaign to vindicate the rights of “homosexually-oriented persons,” etc., etc.

There is a sense in which sexual acts are a form of communication, and talking dirty is always a great deal more fun than feeling guilty. Women and homosexuals are sometimes mistreated, of course, but the bishops appear by their statements to endorse (a) a social science view of morality; (b) the liberation of women from biblical and Catholic “stereotypes”; and (c) special legal status for self-declared deviants. (Even in Ireland they don’t persecute secret, much less inactive homosexuals.)

The Pastoral is not all bad. Pornography, sterilization, and abortion are all declared to be evil, and the bishops even come out against sin, but it is with a faltering voice. They are clearly uncomfortable with anything as apparently hard-and-fast as Genesis, which they fear contains “colorful accounts of creation” which “may seem naive to modern ears, and suitable only to the mentality of a pastoral people”; but, the writers assure us, these tales “convey profound theological truths” like, for example, the equality of the sexes.

What is striking about the Irish bishops is not just the severe limitations on their knowledge and methods, but their squeamishness in the face of the facts of life: They appear to believe that traditional sex roles are mere cultural artifacts, and they are not in the least disturbed by the modern obsession with sexual pleasure. Does every culture devote such resources to erotic pleasure? We used to be told that repression was responsible for an unhealthy interest in sex. Well, we have had a sexual revolution that has liberated women from chastity and men from shame. We go openly to singles bars, massage parlors, and pornography theaters, but our sexual fervor may hardly be said to be subsiding.

It is possible that sex is like the drug habit which William Burroughs once summed up memorably in the formula: “The more you have, the more you want.” One of sociobiology’s central insights is the genetic basis for the different sexual strategies of males and females. While women invest large amounts of energy into producing a single egg per month and in bearing and rearing a few children in a lifetime, males by contrast are capable of begetting a hundred, indeed, thousands of children with comparatively little effort. It is in women’s interest (or in their genes’ interest) to be coy. For men, the advantages of fidelity are not so obvious.

In a primitive state, sexual opportunities are comparatively limited. If a man is to reproduce himself, he must be alert to sexual signals in the same way that he responds quickly to meat, sugar, and salt—all of which are bare necessities. In civilized circumstances of plenty, we are still responding with the alacrity of impoverished savages. We destroy our teeth and digestion with soft drinks and potato chips, stuff ourselves with meat to the detriment of heart and blood vessels, and gaze longingly at the parade of young women—draped and undraped—we meet on the street, in bars, or in the pages of magazines. An impulse that is healthy, so long as it is generally stifled, becomes a destructive poison as soon as it is readily available. We have learned that much, at least, from the sexual revolution which the Irish bishops are so reluctant to condemn. Perhaps we may also learn that even at the lowest level of enlightened self-interest, “It is better to marry than to burn.”


[Love Is for Life: A Pastoral Letter Issued on Behalf of the Irish Hierarchy, by Thomas Cardinal O’Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh; Kevin McNamara, Archbishop of Dublin; Joseph Connane, Archbishop of Tuam; and Thomas Morris, Archbishop of Cashel; Dublin: Mount Salus Press, Lent 1985]