‘The mind’s road to God always begins in the sexual appetite.’ St. Bonaventure
Entering the Vatican can be a disorienting experience, like crossing the gates of the Parthenon to discover it is still in use. Clattering along in my diminutive rental Fiat on winding cobblestone streets, past looming monasteries and hasty trim men in flapping cassocks, I feel I’ve traveled into a monosexual medieval citadel. Fearful of losing an authority that extends far beyond its political borders, the Vatican stands frozen in time. The world’s smallest sovereign nation, and only theocracy, is home to an efficient post office, a 20-language radio and TV station, a publishing press, and 2,000 bureaucrats whose prevailing task is to regulate the private lives of 900 million Catholics.
My personal task is to find out how these men--the supreme priests, the chosen among the chosen--manage their own sexualities. As a woman, I am an anomaly here, hardly encouraged to intrude into this all-male professional club. But, like 60 million American Catholics and many more millions of other Americans, I have long felt the Church’s weighty influence on my life. Even as I pace these streets, I perceive the Vatican not as part of the city of Rome, but as the source of the prototypical Christian morality--an integral part of my visceral daily life. So, helped by local introductions and my firm promise to thoroughly disguise their identities, I’ve come to talk to its law-keepers. I want to know how sexual repression affects those who serve it, and what they do about it.
The Vatican’s high-powered, frustrated population has only one sanctioned outlet: confession--a sacrament that teaches priests to keep the Church’s secrets (as confessors) while keeping no secrets from the Church (as confessees). The compulsion to hide nothing from a system shrouded in sanctioned secrecy is the peculiar genius of the Catholic faith. Guilt and denial bind its people together with sober intimate chains that unregulated sexuality could loosen. All the Vaticaners I meet open up to me with a willing urgency that reflects this ingrained habit of cathartic verbal release.
The Monsignor teaches Canon Law, manages “moral affairs in the Vatican,” and likes vintage champagne and wild strawberries for lunch; like St. Jerome, the infamous misogynist who mostly counselled and chastised aristocratic women, Monsignor likes to surround himself with attractive, rich, educated, or titled Catholic women, on whom he bestows his friendship as a blessing.
One such radiant, devout American expatriate provides our introduction. Our lunch at her small sunny villa is refined, gracious. The women fuss over their blackclad rumpled dignitary. The air pulses with confused hormones, birds chirp, flower arrangements scent the rooms. I realize the priesthood offers a life of uninterrupted courtship--an exciting showdown of desires and wills that never culminates and so never needs to end. It seems a pleasantly chivalric way to live, but juvenile.
Pot-bellied and exuberant, stooping with enviable unselfconsciousness, communicating with twinkling beautiful eyes and air-chopping gestures, Monsignor strikes me as the quintessential man of pleasure. So I ask him how, in a country where the most popular T.V. game show has the players strip their clothes for points, can Vatican men stay sexually controlled. Unlike his native Boston, the Vatican is a Mediterranean country. Isn’t it harder to abstain where sex is omnipresent? Monsignor nods affably. His answer is not the coy denial I expect. “Roman culture,” he agrees, “unlike the Anglo-Saxon, tolerates contradictions. It’s taught me to accept my nature as well as my faith.” The women listen in rapt silence. We’re drinking antique Dom Perignon and are served platefuls of heavenly pastas. Wild berries in homemade pear sorbet and aged monastic port await for dessert.
Monsignor thinks it is time to bring priestly sexuality into the open. “Celibacy is discipline, not doctrine,” he explains; “you don’t have to believe in it to be Catholic. It’s just one of the laws that run a large institution. For years our priests married. Orthodox priests still do. For the last 30 years we’ve had married deacons and married converted Anglicans. No one in Church today cares about priestly marriage. But massive organizations take a long time to change. The Vatican recognized the earth is round just two years ago,” he chuckles, clinking champagne glasses with us all.
“It will change in my lifetime,” he adds, “but for now, we must respect celibacy.” Does that mean that for now all priests are asexual? “No, the Church knows that you can’t not be sexual, because you are sexual. Celibacy means no marriage. Chastity or continence means not having sex, and that’s discipline for all Catholics.” I bypass that preposterous issue. So are you allowed to masturbate? I persist. “I would have thought as a feminist you wouldn’t encourage that sort of thing,” he taunts me. But masturbation is better than nothing, I argue. “It’s nice to get the parameters right,” he jokes on. The women moan and rearrange their bodies, utterly besides themselves with discomfort. They’re afraid for him. For themselves, they are afraid of facing his palpable maleness this openly.
To our hostess’s unfeigned shock, I next ask him if he is a virgin. “I was three months from being married to this girl I loved for five years, “ he answers convivially. “I still love her. She’s still not married. She gave me up. She’s been living with a chap. I think she realized, even though I did not realize, that my heart wasn’t entirely hers, because of this other thing--God. I hated her for it for a long time. I joined the clergy, and I’ve learned to respect her enormously. I suspect that decision cost her her happiness. She’ll go to heaven for that.” I think: religion is the ultimate justification. It has justified conquest and genocide, romantic failure and sexual rejection. It’s common for a broken heart to lead a man to find refuge in the priesthood, where he can avoid being hurt ever again, where life’s parameters are safely narrow, and freedom of choice and personal responsibility are moot.
After coffee, the women tacitly leave the two of us alone on the velvet couch. With only a few tangible inches and my taperecorder between us, Monsignor crosses his legs langorously and laughs brusquely, throwing his head back--a man at ease in his flesh. “One of my jobs is to be moral advisor to priests who fall in love,” he volunteers. “Just because you fall in love, you don’t need to leave the Church. Most priests can love the opposite sex without jumping into bed. The problem is when, in the nuptial covenant with his people, a priest mixes his symbols and deceives himself into sexual rather than spiritual union, to show God’s acceptance.A priest can easily elicit sexual responses in church members, just as psychiatrists do in their patients. To take advantage of that is unethical.”
He admits there are no official Vatican statistics on priestly sexuality. “Like there are no cases of pedophiliac priests in Italy that we know of,” he explains. “Of course there must be--it would be most unnatural if there weren’t. But here they are not reported. I’d say 30% of local priests have mistresses. Italians don’t care. They don’t want their priests to seem unvirile, actually. This paranoia with sex is an AngloSaxon problem, very Protestant. Unlike older cultures that have learned to separate society from faith, America suffers from the contradictions between its amoral capitalism and its religious mores; for this reason it now clamors for reform. In Rome I live in my own flat; I’ve had my [female] cousin stay with me a lot. It’s like the difference in the way I drive my car in the States and in Rome: here no one respects the rules. No one has argued about contraception in Italy for 30 years. They use it, they clap for the Pope, they see no inconsistency. The Pope tries his best, but he knows life is complex and priests are lonely. When you are critically lonely, you look for solace--in drink, or woman, or now a man.” I ask if in private the Pope condones the normal sexual failings he publicly condemns. Monsignor laughs again: “The Pope says: ‘There’s an awful lot under this big tent.’ Outside the sexual bit, the Pope is very liberal. He laughs at the ironies of the Church. He has convinced people he’s conservative because it makes him more effective. He knows the facts of human nature. But he fears that if you allow one thing, you’ll lose hold of everything.”
In fact the Pope, angered by his inability to control America’s ‘endemic’ scandals, has stonewalled the issue of priestly sex, even as polls confirm that half the American clergy (and 80% of young priests) favor the option to marry. As a result, while America’s Catholic population has risen drastically since the 60’s, the number of diocesan priests has fallen by 26% and of seminarians by 80%. More than a thousand American priests resign each year to get married. Tens of thousands more have applied to be released from their vows and spend years waiting for a response from the logjam of the papal bureaucracy. Today the Association of Catholic Priests and Their Wives counts 80,000 married priests--20% of the total active clergy--who stand ready to resume service. But because of the official apathy, most priests forfeit their vow without leaving the Church in which they have invested their lives, unless they are exposed. Monsignor calls these “management problems.”
I have been here a week and I am deeply surprised by how disenchanted Vatican insiders are with their own celibacy vow. The Monsignor is not an exception. Papal infallibility notwithstanding, everyone I speak to claims that John Paul II’s death will signal the end of proscribed priestly celibacy. These priests don’t claim that ‘to be carnally minded is death’ (Romans, 8: 5). Instead, they claim that the bans on abortion, birth control, homosexuality, women’s ordination, will be relaxed when priests openly join the rest of the human race in accepting the tribulations of sexual experience.
What they don’t discuss is that, in practice, the end of celibacy is already at hand. Experts estimate that 2% of Catholic priests sworn to perpetual celibacy achieve it.1 At any given time, 20% are involved in sexual affairs with women, 6% are having sex with minors, 8% are experimenting sexually otherwise, and anywhere from 30 to 60% are actively or inactively homosexual. The carnal lives of the Church’s self-chosen celibates are the ultimate proof of the dysfunction of its moral autocracy. From 1982 to 1992, 400 American priests were publicly reported for molesting minors; thousands were reported for seducing adults. Given the scandals exposed by the U.S. media in the past decade, the news has ceased to shock, confidence in the Church has declined, insubordination has increased. The Church insists on official cover-ups to save the social esteem of the priesthood. Because the Church uses its priests as moral examples to control the laity’s libido, to acknowledge priestly sexuality would be to open the door to sexual anarchy. So the hierarchy still advocates a morality that dates back to St. Augustine, the Manichean libertine who converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and then eloquently equated sex with perdition; Augustine’s belief in the moral impotence of humans prevailed because it confirmed the need for universal papal moral domination.
Father John’s students rave about his dedication, honesty, and genius. As the Vatican’s chief Latin scholar, John translates the Pope’s writings and encyclicals into the official Latin. He is fluent in eight languages. He is also a black sheep who criticizes the Pope for ‘ruining Catholicism’. Monsignor describes John as an alcoholic iconoclast, the son of a poor Maine plumber who joined a monastery as a teen to escape a career in plumbing, and now “lives in a bare cell alone with Cicero.”
I am waiting for John to come out of his towering moldy monastery.I examine the stone walls, afraid of raising suspicions, until the massive metal gate is raised and a fit middle-aged man exits, holding an empty big jug of wine he’s just shared with his Latin class. He wears blue-jean shirt and pants from J.C.Penney. “My uniform,” he slurs. “After 27 years, they still give me a hard time here about jeans; ‘With the Pope down the hall from me,’ I say, ‘You have worse problems, so shut up!’”
At first, John is viciously aggressive. “What is your problem?” he keeps sneering about my desire to interview him. He has a beer gut, a ramshot strut. His half-shut eyes see the world with generic disdain. He’s the 55-year-old spitting image of a West Village queen: he roars in laughter, speaks in aphorisms, squints at passersby, and squeaks when excited.He’s nothing if not provocative
We sit at a dusty sidewalk table in the nearest trattoria, and after we get our drinks and he sufficiently intimidates me by bombarding me with personal questions, he takes off: “Augustine’s word for the original sin is concupiscentia: lust for sex, power, possession--not sexual lust in isolation. Does the Pope stress that? No! Augustine says empathy is the solution. Does the Pope do that? He threatens. Augustine is blamed these days only because of the silence of most Christian writers in addressing sexuality.” If the Church can revise its views on slavery and witchcraft, or repeal the Latin Mass and the mortal sin of eating meat on Friday, why can’t it re-examine clerical and secular sexuality? “It’s this terrible idea that we’re special because we’re celibate. I call it our Deformation. The Pope thinks he was chosen by God to bring unity to the Church and he mistakes unity for uniformity. But he grew up in Communism--Marxists are more repressed even than Catholics.” I watch John rage at me, the outsider, for forcing him to defend his Church, and rage at his Church for its inert rigidity, for carelessly ‘impending human growth.’ “If there’s not room for everyone in the Church,” he says, “there is room for no one. The next Pope has to redefine our morality. They’re afraid if you pull out one or two bricks, the whole edifice will fall! So it’s falling already. The Scrip-tures don’t talk about sex! The Church is teaching many things for which we have no foundation! That gets me. As for the value of our God-given tradition--hey, we were sure the earth was flat!”
He peppers this fevered speech with screechy gossip. He mentions a Cardinal who is HIV-positive; brings up the Pope’s youthful erotic verses; says Italian dioceses have funds to support priests’ illegitimate children. He tells me stories about a priest who strangled his boyfriend, about a director of the Sistine choir who died in the arms of a prostitute, about a protest march in France by mistresses of priests, a bishop in Switzerland who announced he was to be a father and 75% of the public supported him even as the Pope defrocked him. In between these relished indiscretions, he makes the childish sign of sealing his lips. But he can’t quench his semi-ecstatic urge to speak out.
“Modern Catholicism,” he says, “does not enlighten. At best, it protects.” From what? He ignores this, as all of my attempts to establish a reasonable flow of question and answer. “Priestly sex is the most serious crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation,” he goes on. “The lawsuits cost my Michigan diocese $7 million. But I have sympathy for my brethren: when I made my vows at 16, I didn’t know what the hormones might do to me at 60. I’ve had dozens of classmates who ran off to marry nuns late in life. I have 90 brothers in my monastery here. I see a lot. And in my room, I have no one to talk to.” John’s order takes a vow of silence; inside the monastery, no one chats.
I doggedly try to access his personal experience. Can priests help admiring pretty girls in the street as they would admire springtime blossoms, etc.? “For me, abstinence is freedom,” he retorts, and I realize he is a virgin. “My sexuality is nongenital. I’m free to do what I want, admire what I want, because I take chastity for granted. Nothing can trap me. For me it solves problems--like these clothes, I know what I wear every day. No sex means no complications, no ambivalence. I like not being attached. Sex is ownership: I don’t want to possess a car or a house, so when I hear people talk this way (‘I want him,’ ‘You’re mine’), it’s scary. But mine is not the typical Vatican way.” I ask if some people may be genetically predisposed to chastity. “But you don’t have to renounce sex to communicate with God!”he illogically fires back with his flair for argument. “Most people would say the opposite: an injection of sex might help you find God, considering the way we’re made.”
When we part, John calls after me in a faint voice that echoes through the deflating purple Roman dusk: “When you visit the Vatican, you’ll see why Luther had an epileptic fit at St. Peter’s!”
Truly, I’ve never been surrounded by such a relentless evocation of naked flesh as I see in the Vatican palace: every magnificent inch of ceiling, staircase, floor and wall is an unapologetic display of homoerotic imperial art. At the other extreme of this decadent overstimulation is the accumulation of Memento mori slogans (the Remember Death Catholic staple): Death--the great equalizer, the ultimate democrat--hovers ominously over the lapis cherubs and gilt pineapples. I have been told that the seventh floor of the Vatican’s basement contains the largest collection of pornography in the world--including hundreds of drawings and paintings by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and other masters, which were acquired to keep them away from general consumption and have never been catalogued or seen. According to my sources, the Vatican remains one of the biggest consumers of porn in the world.
I am on my way to the Vatican library to meet Mark, a married defrocked priest from New Jersey; but as I go from room to room, I get so dizzy from the avalanche of color, curvature, texture, epic musculature, of the hunger driving Popes to loot and hoard, that by the time I reach the library I feel nauseated, as if I’ve been struck by the Stendhal syndrome (‘dizziness and palpitations due to aesthetic overload,’ an illness first experienced by the French novelist in the church of Santa Croce).
Mark is a balding, stocky, bearded Italian-American in a cheap suit, gold cross, and oversized glasses. I find him playing choral Mass on a computer. I need fresh air, so he takes me to a nearby Trappist monastery that makes and sells ‘the world’s best’ eucalyptus liqueur and chocolate. As we sample them, he says this is the site of St Paul’s martyrdom: when his head was severed, it rebound-ed thrice, causing the three fountains we see to spring up. I say that every square inch of the Vatican hosts a macabre holy legend, but he cuts me off. “This is truth, not myth,” he tells me reverentially.
Mark and I end up in his rented marble-floored squalid walk-up, where I meet his plain, soft-spoken wife, Laura, and share antipasto and chianti on their decrepit marble verandah. Laura is shy, subdued, wide-eyed. Mark is big, voluble, fervent. They tell me they met in church functions in N.J. and, unexpectedly, fell in love. Their relationship stayed secret for three years. Mark cried every time after they had sex and promised never to touch her again. They devised schemes and bargains to keep him celibate--like not drinking alcohol, staying outdoors, or going only ‘so far’--until Mark would break his own abstinence with a flimsy excuse, and then blame Laura for letting him lapse.
The affair was unworkable. Mark was a good priest who loved his Church and hated ‘cheat-ing’ on her. But, sexually, he was a 14-year-old in a man’s body: naive and unruly. Laura bore the burden of his guilt with patience. When her diaphragm failed, Mark refused to accept her pregnancy. Then he had a revelation: God had sent him a child as a message against sexual shame. He decided to marry Laura and join the crusade to end enforced celibacy. He says having a family made him complete: “I believe in the principle that I am still a priest. I feel chaste. I think knowing a woman makes a man a better, more compassionate priest. ” Before he met Laura at the age of 35, Mark had suffered from spontaneous emissions.He had never masturbated; yet he could sit in the library or his room and experience ejaculation with no physical movement; he had erections while saying Mass and even spontaneous ejaculations while consecrating the host. It had shamed and troubled him, for his conscious thoughts were always on his prayer. After meeting Laura, they stopped. He now thinks it was an expression of his love of God. “A person’s body and soul,” he says, “do coincide.”
Mark is in the Vatican researching the history of celibacy for a book he hopes to publish. He says Augustine did not advocate priestly celibacy any more than Christ or the Apostles; he only paved the way by identifying sexual desire as proof of, and penalty for, the original sin. Whereas early Christians understood the tale of Adam and Eve as a lesson on free will and procreative responsibility (as Adam and Eve left Paradise, God encouraged them to populate the earth), Augustine read it as a tale of our carnal bondage transmitted through intercourse from generation to generation. Even those of us who are not Christian or who treat the Bible as literature, live in a culture indelibly shaped by this one man’s reading of a text written down by Hebrew tribes thousands of years ago.
Clerical celibacy was not enforced until the 11th century during Pope Gregory VII’s reforms. The Pope’s primary objective was to stop priests’ families from inheriting Church lands at a time when abbots and clerics were passing religious property to their sons, and simony--the selling of ecclesiastical offices--was a bustling business. Mandatory celibacy conferred an air of superiority on the clergy and helped consolidate the Pope’s moral authority and geopolitical prestige, so it stuck.
The ironic result of the sexual prohibition, Mark says, is the tolerance of clerical homosexuality by the homophobic Church. “The seminaries desensitize us to the norms and foster effeminacy and gender segregation, so men turn to each other for intimacy. This system produces the prissy gay bishops who recruit for priests in peep shows. I don’t mind that gays don’t ‘transmit life’. I mind that they cultivate a politics of dishonesty in the Church. I met a monk here who left the Church because his duties included procuring male whores for his Monsignor. 80% of sexually abusive priests were abused at seminary. De Sade learned whipping and sodomy from his Jesuit teachers. Celibacy is a serious disability for the priesthood. The Church won’t even commission boards to monitor its priests. I call it our Hypocracy. I’m not allowed to officiate because I married, but I know a pastor who picks up truckers at diners, gets beaten up, and in the morning says Mass and confesses people. Any priest who keeps his sex life secret keeps the right to serve. Yet the Vatican will strip a theologian of his teaching license if he advocates optional celibacy, even if he lives a chaste life. The system is crumbling under its own corruption. The Pope can’t know these facts and not shudder.”
I spend some days reading at the library, and this is what I learn: even the most cursory history of Christianity reveals sexual repression is irrelevant to Christ and his vision of Heaven on Earth, and relevant only to the historical ambitions of political and religious leaders. Until the late antique period Christians viewed the flesh of Christ as continuous with human flesh. That was the genius of the faith: in the conception, birth, and death of Christ, every human physiological process was reaffirmed. Christ’s incarnation expunged the ‘disorder’ introduced into the human body by Adam’s fall; it was our allegoric victory over death. As Christianity came to dominance, it switched its emphasis away from life, toward the democracy of death. Synods and encyclicals transposed Christ’s vision of a non-authoritarian society onto the promised society of Heaven, so they could justify suffering in this world. Entry to that afterlife was kept in the hands of the hierarchy who bartered it at will and often for profit. Most of these distortions happened because the totality of the Jesus movement became infected by the Greco-Roman puritanism which espoused the dichotomy between body and soul, and by the Stoic ethic which reacted to Roman decadence by advocating a ‘boycott of the womb’. As Christian leaders emulated pagan doomsday forebodings, Porphyry’s phrase, ‘Shame at being in the body,’ came to represent Christian piety; Jesus’ message of freedom came to mean ‘freedom from the body.’
Before his conversion in the 4th century, Augustine had belonged to the Manichean sect which practiced continence and saw the sexual instinct not as a merciful gift by God that helped Adam overcome death, but a demonic possession of the world, a permanent evil present in all humans, a token of mindless bondage to the animal cycle of mortality. Anxious to make himself a place in his new faith, and to expiate his guilt for keeping a longtime mistress, fathering a son with her and banishing her for a society wife, Augustine passed these old-world fatalisms into Christian society by defining sexual drive as poena reciproca, a punishment on Adam’s descendants. Augustine’s theology was predicated on one line from Genesis: ‘And the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew they were naked.’ He narrowed theology to the paradigm of the ‘indecent’ summa voluptas of orgasm, which escaped the limits of the conscious self that knew God.He theorized that sexual pleasure infected the conceived child with eternal damnation: sex and the grave stood at each end of every human life and between them roared a cascade of misery, ignorance, malice and violence. His damnation of the moment when Adam and Eve made their wills independent from God, gave the Popes reason to abolish free will. Many learned bishops and monks challenged his reading, but they were denounced as heretics. Disobedience became the cause of evil, and sex its manifestation. Christians who disagreed were excommunicated, tortured, burned, sent on far-flung penances, or imprisonned.
Theologians went so far as to preach that ‘isolation from sex’ was a reason Christ had come to earth.
The reason Christians came to live in fear, just as they had in Roman and Pharisean times, was the Church’s other deviation from Christ’s radically egalitarian teachings: the creation of a monarchic bishop system and all-male priesthood. The first step toward this despotism was the establishment of a permanent priesthood that acquired disciplinary powers and took over the duties, tiaras and pomp of emperors. The second step was the declaration of the primacy of the Roman bishop who replaced the collective bishops as the supreme head of the Church. The final step was papal infallibility, proclaimed in 1870 with the stroke of a Pope’s pen, that effectively turned the Vatican prelate into God.
Father Matthew is a 38-year-old gay sex addict from Los Angeles, thin, neat, reticent. He is a highly educated priest slated to become President of a major American Catholic University. He also knows the seedy meat racks of every European capital, takes DepoProvera (a female contraceptive used as a sexual appetite suppressant), receives psychiatric therapy, attends Sex Addicts Anonymous and seasons his staid discourse with infantile recovery-speak such as ‘stinking thinking’ and ‘attitude of gratitude’. He pronounces his words carefully, as if they were exotic and potentially explosive.
The Monsignor thinks Matthew should leave the Church before he becomes a litigation risk: “If he can’t rid himself of the addiction, he should rid himself of his celibacy vows,” he tells me. “His faith can’t help him. Homosexuals can’t help being sick. He takes a wonder drug, he goes to Gay Anonymous; he picks up men there too. I can’t get it. For the sake of an orgasm, he’ll risk arrest, assault, VD, public shame, his career. And he looks like a wimp to me--not a man I’d play rugby with.” Nevertheless, Matthew has such a God-given talent for fundraising that the Pope knows him by name.
I never learn Matthew’s real name. We meet clandestinely in a posh suburban Roman restaurant near the catacombs. He is tan and stylish in sandy turtleneck, linen blazer and pants; his hair is impeccable, his shoes spit-polished, his body language so comatose that I can’t imagine him lustful. Does he practice safe sex? I ask. “AIDS would be the end of my addiction and the start of my martyrdom,” he replies, forcefully and surprisingly, exposing the size of his despair. “Priests with AIDS are well cared for. They’re ‘out,’ accepted. I’m more tortured now. I literally can’t trust myself.”
It seems to me self-defeating to isolate one’s sexual behavior and regard it as separate from the rest of him, I say. I think sexual addiction is a new medical confirmation of our vague sense that sex is foreign and lethal. Many of us feel some shame about our sexuality, but we try to overcome it. If we embrace the Catholic paradigm that sex is a sickness, we’ll inevitably experience our primitive urges as a compulsive disorder rather than a natural need. Isn’t it an act of hubris to believe that we can control or even fathom human instinct? To me, desire is what makes the world go round.
Matthew says it’s too late for him: he learned that sex is a pathology at a very early age; his brain is ‘programmed to read the effect of natural opioids on the medial forebrain bundle’ as negative --the signal he gets is that he’s engaged in risky, painful behavior. Drugs like Prozac alter the levels of these signals but not their interpretation. He tells me about the 1978 discovery of naturally occuring transmitters that are released by brain neurons and produce chemical changes that correspond to psychological disorders. The general view in the media is that chemical imbalance causes psychological problems, but as Dr. Avram Goldstein, a pioneer in the area, has written, ‘in the final analysis psychology is biology’--which means that our cultural values determine our biological responses.
Matthew’s guilt is compounded by the fact that his sexuality is in conflict with the value system of his faith, and by the Christian teaching that one’s sexual behavior is under one’s control. Unlike laic addicts who get caught in compromising affairs and use addiction as a de facto justification, Matthew sees his powerlessness as a spiritual failing. “I never stop fighting it. I live like St Anthony in the desert.” But doesn’t he think sexual pleasure can be ethical, even holy? “Not in my lifetime,” he responds. So what’s the penalty for violating his vows? “None. Unless you count eternal hellfire.” I ask if he believes in hell. “Yes,” he replies matter-of-factly. This sounds incongruous coming from a man who believes in neurotransmitters. Does he hold the Devil accountable for his condition? “Some times metaphorically. Most of the time quite literally,” he mutters. That ignores personal responsibili-ty, I protest. “Oh, but that’s why Catholicism has been a successful religion for so long,” he tells me.
He claims the homosexual contingent in the Vatican is huge. “This is the best hiding place,” he says. “I wanted to see you,” he continues, “to tell you how upsetting it is to people like me that sexuality is at the forefront of our ecclesiastical discussion. We argue about divorce or the pill--petty meddling. Even in this bloodiest century in human history, Catholic doctrine views humanity’s crimes as being committed in the bedroom. Carnal sin has superseded all sins because the Church knows that, if it can control the innermost desires of kings and plebes alike, if it can persuade people not to be sexual, there’s nothing it can’t control. But the emphasis on sex obscures larger sins, like usury, which is the basis of our capitalist system and has made us debt slaves with credit cards, mortgages, deficits. There are many grave sins we overlook because sex throws sand in our eyes and distracts us. The poor get poorer, the rich richer, nuclear arsenals get larger, the planet gets more destroyed. I believe in the salvation of every soul. At gay bars, I preach to clients. Catholic means everyone. I believe in the sanctity of the Pope, his being the Church. But this has to be the last Pope of his kind.”
Jesus saw the spirit as inextricably joined with the body. He made his teaching physical. He whipped, groaned, sighed, kissed. He broke the levitical taboos of cleanliness and purity which regulated dealings among people: he touched the blind, the dead, the lepers, the whores, the bleeding women, the forbidden castes. He trusted body language, invited intimacy, used his spittle to heal. The Christ of the New Testament is irrepressibly inclusive and physical, and fearlessly attuned to reality.
In his farewell meal, he showed that body and soul are one, as he incited us to partake of his being. ‘Take and eat, this is my body which is given for you.’ As St. Thomas observes, Christ didn’t say, ‘This bread is my body,’ but ‘This is my body,’ indicating that ‘this’ is bread no longer--it is his flesh. There is nothing puritanical in this rite of shared ingestion. Its vocabulary is sexual. It is Christ making love to us. Inside his bride Church, he is incarnate Presence. By swallowing the Eucharist, we become united with the mystery of the material elements and resurrected through it: ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up’ (John 6:54). The hallowed feast evokes our universal essential bond to the physical world, reminding us that we emerge from nature and return to it and for the short time when we remain a part of nature, we sustain our life by assimilating it into ourselves. ‘Take this.. and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood.’ In its essence, Christianity is hedonic: its priests lead our communion with the ineffable mysteries of nature.
So it is still shocking how soon after his deification the body-restraining taboos Christ abhorred were reinstated by his Church. As Jesus the iconoclast was turned into Jesus the icon, his Church became the new body of Christ. The Gospels give less attention to his martyrdom than his miracles; but his Church capitalized on the pain of his crucifixion to hold us in fear of all physical being through centuries of worshipping the aesthetic of loss. The sexual body became so taboo that, even in our postFreudian world, we dread the deranging effects of lust and seek our pleasure in secret, associating bodily desire with an inexpressible transgression. But the distinctive feature of Christiani-ty remains that our God was embodied, which confirms and heals our bodily nature. Unlike Zeus or Yahweh, Christ was human, birth to death. God’s becoming flesh was and is the greatest scandal.
Luke, a student of John’s, is a Franciscan instructor of Bible Semiotics at the Angelico University. He has scrubbed angular looks, high pale cheekbones, a nervous shyness around the lips. We mett at the idyllic courtyard of his monastery, populated by laurel-wreathed statues of monks. What persuades a young man in the late-20th century to lock himself up for six abstinent years to study theology? I ask. He mentions the passions of saints, writhing Pentecostals, Christian erotic psalms, ‘all the fun of sublimation’. He ends up quoting Kant and Hegel, and, as he proceeds from thesis to antithesis, he decides to illustrate his point with a Schubert sonata. All of a sudden, I find myself being hushedly rushed through the sanctum, up creaky oak stairs, and into an old white cell adorned only with a metal cross and a portrait of the founder of the order. I get seated on a tattered armchair across from this monk’s carefully made narrow bed, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Luke clicks off the Mac on his rickety desk, puts on the CD, procures cheap wine from a mini fridge. We listen, sip and nod until the bottle is empty. He recites poems. He mentions a friend who tried to kill himself in his cell last week. As the alcohol saturates my empty stomach, I shut my eyes momentarily.All at once, his tongue lands in my mouth. He is staring at me with a vigilant expression that seems to be preparing for the best and for the worst, fearing both. His kiss is expert. His body is not touching mine. To protect us both, I pull away and say, “I thought priests couldn’t do that.”
In a whirlwind, he apologizes profusely, already looking ahead to his absolution like a binger craving a purge. He gathers my belongings and sneaks me out. Midnight hour has struck and no visitors are allowed in the Vatican cloister, least of all a woman; so I crouch below the dashboard of his Fiat until we pass the Swiss Guards flanking the city gates in their Michelangelo-designed uniforms.
After we cross the Tiber, I ask if he resents his celibacy. “It’s a fact,” he says looking straight ahead, “like the sun rising East. I fall in love, but I love God more; I’d rather be the beloved than the lover.” I think sex is a divine unmasking, I say, holy communion. I say more: Sexuality is an instinct as primal as religion, and complementary to religion. Our rituals are meant to ensure fertility. Fighting nature is a product of human vanity, not of divine inspiration. To me, any systematic demonization of the flesh is anti-life and anti-Christ; an atrophy.It would only take a natural disaster to send us back to the caves where we started off, fornicating vehemently for our survival; then all our conceited moralizing about who’s allowed to lie with whom, when and how, would be revealed for the absurdity it is.
Luke returns that the Pope recommends abstinence even for married couples as a source of peace and bliss. I protest that, in real life, most people use sex to express love and to feel bliss. Luke reads me the litany of rules: Demanding sex from a spouse outside the purpose of procreation is a venal sin. Lustfully exciting a spouse is a mortal sin. Coitus-interruptus, masturbation, nighttime ejaculation--any squandering of semen--are ‘very grave’ sins. After breeding, total continence should be practiced. So, like a pornographer, I say, the Pope defines sex as degradation. Luke is looking scared.
I can’t sleep that night. I worry about harming the men I’ve spoken to. Then I decide that the Church is starting to honor the human body. The Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus are affirma-tions of the body. Christ teaches not pain, but transformation. I pray his Church can find the courage to transform itself and transcend its legacy of suffering. Until then, the Christian martyrs of our day will be men like Matthew and Luke, or Fathers Gauthe and Fontenot of Lafayette, Ill., who molested 100-200 boys each: they are the lost souls, sociopathic sacrifices to the Catholic cause of control.
In the end, money may be the driving factor for Catholic reform: America’s $500 million in official losses from child molestation lawsuits is six times the Vatican deficit; this doesn’t count the costs for the rehabilitation of convicted priests, the transfers of accused priests, dispensation agreements with harassed minors, men and women, sex therapy costs for the clergy, etc. As local officials assure me, the Vatican will bend to financial reality because “ultimately it is a bureaucracy, and what greases this wheel is ambition, backstabbing, and budgetary needs.” It occurs to me they may as well be discussing the U.S. government or military, not a spiritual fraternity, when a few stoically call the Vatican “the city with the most faith in the world--because so many priests lose their faith here.”
The next day I run into the Monsignor in his black mufti buying the New York Times by the Pantheon. He shakes my hand warmly and says, a kind smile lighting up his sensual face, “You met Luke.” Flabbergasted, I quickly slip into the indigenous secrecy and shame; I mutter ignorance. “He couldn’t help himself; you moved him,” he adds. Monsignor’s brotherly instinct is to shield his priest, so he remakes Luke into the ingenue led astray by my charms. And I say nothing. I feel guilty. I realize this is why so few sexual ‘victims’ of priests speak up; this is how otherwise decent priests can run adolescent sex rings and convince themselves they’re not being sexual. We have no words for it.
Copyright © 2020, Art Against All. All Rights Reserved.
Enjoy 10% off my entire store, which includes paintings, flags, collages, books and more!