A History of Sexual Repression: What Went Wrong?
The Church has gotten things wrong before––it turns out Galileo was right and the Earth really does go around the Sun, and I’m sure Martin Luther would have a thing or two (or ninety-nine) to add to that. Frankly, it would be astounding if any institution of the size and power of the Church managed to remain as good as it was in its intention. One thing in particular, however, has given the Church––and Christianity in general––a bad name, and that is its view of sexuality.
To explore this, let’s go way back to the Dark Ages, when a hugely influential philosopher and theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, spent nine years (1265–1274) writing what became his most famous work, Summa Theologica [Theological Matters]. His work addressed major questions of the time (e.g reconciling the seemingly-opposed: faith and reason) for church authorities, scholars, and everyday people. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas used modern (at the time) philosophical and scientific thinking to lay out a context for ethics – among other things – quoting with equal authority Greek philosophers, religious scholars, and the Bible.
One of his main ideas revolved around the concept that a virtue is “good as defined by reason.” There were four types of virtue: reason in itself (prudence), the order of reason as put into operations (justice), the order of reason as put into passion to curb it (temperance), and the order of reason as put into passion to strengthen reason against it (fortitude). For Aquinas, temperance mainly related to the hardest passions to control –– the pleasures of touch, which for him consisted of the pleasures of the palate and the venereal (or sexual) pleasures.
This is where chastity comes into the picture, scientifically defined and explored for perhaps the first time. Surprisingly, Aquinas got more right than he got wrong. Following Greek thought, Aquinas believed that what was natural (i.e of Nature) was the law––this was the same concept that later led to Newton’s laws. For Aquinas, this implied (among other things) that what was done “in right reason” was thereby inherently good. Because of nature, humans experience pleasure in order to perpetuate existence: For example, we experience pleasure when we eat food, which is necessary to keep us alive, and we experience pleasure when we have sex, which is necessary to continue the species. Aquinas believed and wrote that it is a sin to abstain from something “necessary for nature’s preservation” because doing so is against the laws of nature.
In other words, abstaining for the sake of abstaining, or abstaining out of fear or aversion to the pleasures derived from such things, is wrong. It is at times necessary to abstain from a particular pleasure for health reasons, or because of one’s duty (e.g an athlete might not eat meat to slim down), and this is in accordance with nature because it is done in right reason. The body is necessary for the use of one’s reason; therefore, the pleasures of the body are also necessary, but to different degrees depending on one’s duties. (A holy person, who spends his time “contemplating Divine things” has less use of the body than a farmer, so a holy person should abstain from these pleasures to a greater extent than the farmer–– In this way, it is acceptable for the one to marry and eat much, while the other should fast and remain celibate.) In accordance with this, Aquinas expresses that the only reason one should abstain to any degree (and one should) is so that these pleasures are not used to great excess (resulting in gluttony or lust).
Aquinas praises chastity as virtue because it chastises sexual desires, moderating them by use of reason. Because the sexual pleasures are the hardest to control (and the most damaging to the Reason if in excess), chastity is one of the especially praiseworthy virtues. However, chastity is only praiseworthy in that its end (and not the mere physical act) is looking toward God. In the specific case of virgins, virginity is considered the perfection of chastity––but only because it leaves the virgin’s mind undivided between God and the things of this world.
Aquinas warns virgins against thinking themselves better than married women because it is one’s purpose (not one’s physical actions) that makes one a virgin. A married woman might be a better virgin in mind (in her attitudes) than the gloating virgin whose mind ‘wanders.’ Aquinas’ idea of chastity, celibacy, and dedication to God applies equally to men–– understanding that men, and not just women, have need for the relative-curbing of sexual desires. Like the Greek philosophers, Aquinas felt the “contemplative life” to be greater than the “active life” (just as much as Divine good was greater than human good, and the good of soul was greater than the good of the body). However, he also knew that each person must make his or her decisions based on their own Reason and duty in life.
So sexual pleasure was not evil to Aquinas, or those before him –– nor should it have been to anyone after him. No one burns in Hell for enjoying their bodies or the things of this world, and in fact, Aquinas’ numerous biblical references (especially 1 Corinthians 7) back him up 100%. Aquinas proposed nothing more in ethical behavior than the modern saying “in everything, moderation.” So what happened? It was originally understood that bodily pleasures are not evil of themselves. However, over time, the concept of curbing certain pleasures overwhelmed everything else. Chastity (and virginity especially) lost its connection from dedicating oneself to God without distractions, and became a power of its own, beginning an almost cult-ish obsession with female ‘purity’ that remains even today. Despite Aquinas’ explicit warnings, the un-pious virgin became to be held in significantly greater esteem than the pious girl with a broken hymen.
This was not helped along by the widely-held idea that what was natural was the law––which by extension meant that what was natural was also God’s intention. This had a number of major implications, but there were two of particular significance to our sexualities: Because of the obvious design (and assumed intention) of human anatomy, it was immoral and hugely sinful to have any kind of sex besides direct, penetrative intercourse, or to have sex for any reason other than the explicit production of other human beings. This was bad news not only for those of the LGBT community, but also for the rest of us: It spelled immorality for anyone with different interests, kinks, and curiosities – or for anyone who didn’t currently want to be pregnant. Additionally, high maternal death rates during these centuries (up until the mid-20th) point out the huge sacrifices of maintaining this societal attitude.
These problems were (and are) wholly societal in many ways. Those who didn’t save themselves for marriage were condemned by society; Gays, lesbians, and others have been condemned by society. The Church has supported this kind of thinking almost since its conception, and to the detriment of many – in a very unloving, unforgiving, and un-Christian way. Although huge changes have been made in recent years, there is still a lot to change: in our societies, in our churches, but––most of all––in our thinking. We have begun the process of redefining what is ‘natural;’ let us continue to do so until everyone is accepted and treated equally regardless of who or what they may be.
Sources: Choice by sexplanations. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUoPbyUvcTQ
The Holy Bible (NIV, Quest Study Bible)
St. Thomas Aquinas Biography: Theologian, Philosopher, Priest, Saint. http://www.biography.com/ people/st-thomas-aquinas-9187231
St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa TheologicTheologica. http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/