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Understanding Sex

February 24, 2018 | (2,282 words)

In the Fall of 1960, still one full year shy of turning seven and achieving the age of reason, my formal classroom education commenced that September under the watchful eye of a small handful of Catholic nuns.  These women entered the consecrated life of their own accord, taking religious vows in the form of the evangelical counsels: poverty, obedience, and chastity.  Such vows were always made with a particular “order” or religious community, of which there were several at the time.  Our local parish school happened to benefit from the work of the IHM nuns.  The full name of their order was Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

They were housed together in a building known as a convent, which sat on the grounds of our local parish church, pledging to live simply and share their resources with other members of their community.  More importantly they chose never to marry, in obedience to what God called them to do in this world.  This allowed them to offer their undiluted love to a chosen field, and lucky for us, in this case that field turned out to be education.  They taught in a school building that was also on the parish grounds, mere steps from their front porch.  They attended morning Mass, before reporting to work each day.

They devoted their lives to teaching the young daughters and sons who came from families and neighborhoods much like their own.  They taught the children of their own sisters and brothers, and of the husbands and wives who lived next door, and down the block.  Then as these women aged, their students turned into the grandchildren of those same family members and one-time neighbors.

It was a good time to be a little kid from a Catholic home.  The symmetry of it all was a beautiful thing to behold, even though we had no idea what the word “symmetry” meant.  The IHM sisters who taught us were like an advanced specialized unit of the faith, reinforcing and improving upon what our parents were teaching us at home.  If you were straying from the straight and narrow, there was literally no escape.  It felt like those nuns had a hotline to your house, because they seemed to know just what area of instruction you were most in need of.

Of course, religious sisters have not gotten much positive reinforcement from contemporary culture in recent years.  They have been stereo-typed in popular entertainment as either excessively mean, or socially inept.  In my youthful experience, though, neither the former nor the latter opprobrium applied.  These women gave off an unmistakable air of the highly accomplished, who took their jobs very seriously.  If one may be allowed the use of a little schoolyard vernacular, these nuns in their full habits really had their shit together.  They were able to keep us on our toes at all times, the better to improve our learning comprehension.  This was no small feat considering the seventy-odd students in some of our classrooms.  Yes, it’s true, part of their unique skill set involved being able to muster an appropriate degree of sternness when the situation called for it.  With so many kids packed into those rooms, it frequently required nerves of steel to keep the more rambunctious among us in line.

All of which is to describe a world that no longer exists.  Local parishes no longer have convents where nuns live together in community.  Local parish elementary schools are no longer bursting with young charges, staffed by such religious sisters.  And our children and grandchildren no longer experience the symmetry of a Catholic education that was once commonplace.

My class bid farewell to this inspiring tableau in June 1968.  Most of us continued on to the regional Catholic high school located much farther from home, which required a student population from a wide geographic area to support the physical plant, and where each gender was taught in separate wings of an imposing, three-story building.  This arrangement expressed a quaint notion that has since been dubbed obsolete, namely, that boys and girls flowering into puberty together pose a distraction to one another in the learning process.  The IHM sisters were still plying their trade at our regional high school, but their talents were now focused solely on the girls, as we boys were being taught by priests, and a few laymen.

This represented quite a change, but the biggest change of all was in the world around us, outside of school.  As teenagers we found ourselves surrounded by nasty shrapnel from the head-on collision that had recently occurred between the Church’s traditional teaching on sexual mores, and a sexual revolution in the popular culture that was by then well under way.

Though we did not comprehend the full context back then, what we were dealing with could be described as an unfortunate misappropriation of a few select Vatican II (1962-1965) slogans, such as “open the windows of the Church,” since we can be secure in the knowledge “the Church has nothing to fear from the modern world.”

Too many in the Catholic Church, from the hierarchy, to those who led orders of priests and women religious, to everyday adult lay people, took these off-hands remarks by John XXIII as he convened the grand conclave known as the Second Vatican Council at face value.  We interpreted these catch-phrases as a call to action, and decided it was high time to “get with it.”  In the late 1960s the overriding sense of wanting to keep up expressed itself in many different areas of Catholic belief and practice, but the most immediate and formidable aspect of this mood revealed itself in the realm of personal sexual conduct.

Overnight our prized legacy of elementary school education dispensed by the capable and caring IHM sisters was cast aside as irrelevant, or worse.  That educational agenda included the typical courses of academic study, but extended in a special way to the manners a young man was to display at all times, and most especially when the fairer sex was involved.  The model of one day growing up to fall in love, get married, and raise a family was replaced with a jarring insistence to engage in sexual activity RIGHT NOW.  Postponing sexual gratification, and restricting such activity to the covenant of marriage, was not a virtue as we had been taught, but rather a serious impediment to mental health.

Instead of referencing the angelic doctors of the Church, or pre-conciliar pontiffs, many in the hierarchy, many leaders of religious orders, and many adult Catholics were suddenly enthralled by the appearance of rebel theologians, who were making headlines by contradicting the traditional rules of sexual engagement that Paul VI affirmed in Humanae Vitae (July 1968).  As teenagers, of course, such high-brow concerns swirled above our heads.  But the controversy had a traceable trickle-down effect, and our malleable minds picked up the pertinent cues.

Many of these same consecrated leaders and influential lay people also fell under the spell of modern psychology, represented by renowned practitioners such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rodgers, and William Coulsen.  Their work constituted the intellectual justification for the widespread questioning and subsequent rejection of certain key components of long-held Church teaching.

These three specific experts were, sadly, welcomed into some of our religious communities to give seminars and conduct encounter groups.  This had a Trojan horse effect, as it would be fair to say their brand of psychology harbors an outright hostility toward the idea of chastity, defining it as a sign of arrested development.  Repeated exposure to this train of thought achieved its covert objective, undermining/decimating the vocation of many an otherwise unsuspecting priest and nun.

Again, as knock-about teenage kids we were not tuned into the nuts-and-bolts of the debate, and did not give much thought to why some of our brightest, most vital clergy and women religious were no longer among us.  All we knew was the onus against certain previously questionable behavior seemed to have been lifted.  It was as if we had sort of been given permission to look at Playboy magazine.  And if you had a girlfriend, having sex with her no longer relegated you to being that lone and often ostracized high school couple, as in a prior generation.  You were now in the vanguard of your class, looked up to as having it all going on.

Many of us did not really have a girlfriend at that age, though, and most of us were not having sex, even if we did.  As a result, the genus known as “good Catholic boys” endured waves of ridicule about being psychologically hamstrung by “Catholic guilt.”  This phenomenon, we were regularly informed by the cognoscente, held us back from a) enjoying ourselves, and b) developing into a more complete, “actualized” human being.

The sexual revolution was thus elevated to a mountain-top pedestal as an unassailable good.  It was the latest gift bestowed upon us by modernity, with no negative ramifications attached to its often reckless machinations.  Traditional Catholic teaching on appropriate sexual conduct lost all purchase.  It was jettisoned as completely unworkable, considering our active testosterone that could not be denied.  And more to the point, the teaching was jettisoned as thoroughly unnecessary, as that testosterone should never have to be denied.

This new sexual paradigm has obviously been carried forward across the decades and still holds sway.  As a society we no longer place restrictions on “sexual expression” of any kind.  Yet one immediately confronts the flaws in this construct when contemplating those intermittent complaints of sexual harassment emerging in recent years against certain high-profile men.  Which then became a rash of similar complaints last Fall.  And now, a few short months later, the percolating groundswell has turned into a raging torrent.  Fifty years on, we are just now learning what is good for the goose has apparently not always been good for the gander, at least not from the perspective of the gander.  Permission to indulge our every desire, our every fantasy, has coarsened us and made us numb to the feelings of others.  Especially the feelings of those random women we latch on to as objects of our gratification.

The celebrated novelist Philip Roth has carved out a successful literary career for himself by cataloging male sexual desire and its many manifestations.  Now eighty-five years old and officially retired from writing, he was recently asked what he thought of the current moment, with so many women (and a few guys, one should add) coming forth and accusing so many highly visible men of sexual harassment and abuse.  In an interview with Charles McGrath that consists of prepared responses to submitted questions, appearing in The New York Times Book Review of Sunday, January 21, 2018, Mr. Roth responds as follows

“I am, as you indicate, no stranger as a novelist to the erotic furies.  Men enveloped by sexual temptation is one of the aspects of men’s lives that I’ve written about in some of my books.  Men responsive to the insistent call of sexual pleasure, beset by shameful desires and the undautedness of obsessive lusts, beguiled even by the lure of taboo – over the decades I have imagined a small coterie of unsettled men possessed by just such inflammatory forces they must negotiate and contend with.

“I’ve tried to be uncompromising in depicting these men each as he is, each as he behaves, aroused, stimulated, hungry in the grip of carnal fervor and facing the array of psychological and ethical quandaries the exigencies of desire present…  I’ve stepped not just inside the male head but into the reality of those urges whose obstinate pressure by its persistence can menace one’s rationality, urges sometime so intense they may even be experienced as a form of lunacy.  Consequently, none of the more extreme conduct I have been reading about in the newspapers lately has astonished me.”

Here Philip Roth does a commendable job outlining just why the Catholic Church took the time to develop its teaching on intimate, interpersonal behavior in the first place.  The point of this teaching is to help one cope with the undeniable reality of the erotic furies Mr. Roth so ably delineates, above.  It’s not a matter of trying to keep us from the experience of intense physical pleasure, as our many avatars of liberation contend.  It’s meant to illustrate for men the value of painting inside the lines, as it were, and helping one to avoid the ever-present temptation to veer off course.

Yes, the overarching idea is to maintain one’s integrity and honor one’s vows, as sin darkens the mind and prevents a closer encounter with the truth.  If that explanation is a tad too theological for your secular taste, then try this one on for size: The teaching is meant to guide our thoughts and actions so that a wanton pursuit does not become a menace to our rationality, and ultimately deteriorate into a form of lunacy.  These deleterious extremes form some of the fixed coordinates of human nature, about which Philip Roth and the Catholic Church are in complete agreement.

Turns out the fondly remembered IHM nuns of my youth had a handle on this subject all along.  They helped lead us in right paths by virtue of their implacable example.  if only more people, especially those in the public eye, had the benefit of such example in their formative years.  And if only young Catholics who were first initiated into this eternal wisdom by these consecrated women did not casually discard it as time passed by, so as to make a tenuous peace with the careless and inconsiderate modern world.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
February 24, 2018

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