Sexual Pleasure and The Catholic Church

Oct 19 2004

Leonardo Boff, Theologian,
October , 2004

It is usually said that the Catholic Church has sexual phobia, that she deals with family morals and sexuality issues with extreme harshness. And there is enough reason to say that, because the word, “pleasure” elicits anxiety in the Church and if, “sexual pleasure” is discussed, it elicits suspicions. In fact, the Catholic Church is more concerned with the renunciation than with the joyful celebration of life.

But it was not always that way. Within the same Catholic Church there are traditions and doctrines that see in pleasure and sexuality a manifestation of God’s good creation, a spark of the Divine, a participation in the very being of God. This line of thinking is well linked to the biblical tradition that sees as natural and even with enthusiasm the love between a man and a woman, with all its erotic charge, as it is so graphically described in The Song of Songs, with breasts, lips, vulvas and kisses.

This line of thought, however, did not prosper in Christianity. On the contrary, the negative line prevailed due to the powerful influence the genius of Saint Augustine (354-430) had over all the Roman Church. We will not identify here the material and socio-cultural basis that allowed this incorporation, but it is important to recognize the strongly negative character of his vision, even though when he was a young man he was sexually very active, to the point that he fathered a son, Deodato. He says in his Soliloquois: “As far as I am concerned, I think that sexual relations must be radically avoided. I recommend that nothing degrades the spirit of a man more than the sensual caresses of a woman and the intimate corporal relations that are part of the matrimony.” Can a Church that affirms human love embrace such a doctrine?

But we must not be absolutists about the strict position of the official Church. Besides that, there has always been present the other position, positive, filled with life. In fact, an ideology, no matter how incisive it may be, as Saint Augustine’s, does not have strength enough to repress sexual pleasure, because this finds its roots in the very mystery of God’s creation and, whether the Church likes it or not, it will always win out here and everywhere.

To illustrate the positive tradition of sexuality it is good to mention here a manifestation that lasted in the Church for more than one thousand years known with the name of “risus paschalis” or “pascal laughter.” It recognizes the presence of sexual pleasure in the space of the sacred, in the celebration of the Paschal festivities, the most important Christian holiday. It is about the following event, rigorously studied by Italian theologian, Maria Caterina Jacobelli in, “Il Risus Paschalis e Il Fondamento Teologico del Piacere Sessuale,” (Brescia 2004): to emphasize the explosion of Paschal joy, as opposed to the sadness of Lent, in the Paschal morning mass, the priest had to elicit laughter in the people. And he would do that using all and any means, but resorting above all to sexual imagery. He would tell risque stories, he would use erotic expressions and he would simulate obscene gestures, dramatizing sexual relations. The congregation would laugh and laugh. These customs are already found in 852 in Reims, France, and it spread throughout all North Europe, Italy, and Spain until 1911 in Germany. The celebrant would adopt the culture of the faithful in its most popular, plebeian and obscene forms. To express the new life brought by the Resurrection, this tradition would say, nothing better than to appeal to the source where human life begins: sexuality with the pleasure that comes with it.

We can say that the method is impertinent, but it shows another position about sexuality in the Roman Catholic Church: a positive, happy position.

A free translation from the Spanish sent by,
mj.gm@voila.fr, done at,
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