Catholic Sex Blog

From Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire:

“The driving force behind monastic reform was an iron determination to cleanse the Christian world of its impurities…Regrettably, in accordance with chruch teaching, the most telling factor in this cleansing process was the conviction that one of these impurities from whic the world needed to be cleansed was female sexual temptation…the spectre of women’s sexual power over men haunted the medieval church with a terrible passion, as any number of sadistic stone carvings testify all too nakedly. The church had inherited from the desert fathers, and above all from St. Jerome, the conviction that the female sex represented all the snares of the world, and that the only pure way to live one’s life was to remain celibate…It remains one of the overwhelming contradictions of the Middle Ages that an ethos which was so dogmatic and doom-laden, so misogynist, so puritanical and disapproving of all the sensuous pleasures of day-to-day life, should yet have succeeded in creating so much that is the very opposite of those attitudes. What Cluny bequeathed to us is far from being the product of a hair shirt culture – in a great many fields, it is a legacy of serene beauty and sophistication that we still admire a thousand years later…it is the art of men who have seen the light, and are glorying in it.”



  1. Notrelatedtoted says

    I am by no means an expert, but it sounds as if the author is overstating the purpose behind celibacy just a bit. If he re-considered the position on celibacy, he might see that the contradiction between the ethos (albeit misconstrued) and it’s product isn’t really a contradiction at all.

    In other words, celibacy has more to do with man’s relation to God than to other men (or women, rather). In this sense, celibacy is more of a positive good than a simple privation. Is it surprising, then, that a sincere devotion to the celibate life as part of a deeper spiritual life would produce “serene beauty and sophistication?”

  2. j. christian says

    Okay, I’m still thinking about Neil Diamond songs while I try to process this, and all I can say is: There was the lesser-known monastic order at Saint Frommage du Anglais, which tried to create a legacy of serene beauty and sophistication not through celibacy, but through its love of hardcore, barely legal porn – the kind you couldn’t send in the mail. It creeped out some of the brothers, though, and their history is now lost.

    That was my best effort at a serious reply; sorry!

  3. Steve Nicoloso says

    It is often said that the good is the enemy of the best, but maybe that shoe fits on the other foot just as well. Perhaps this (admittedly embarrassing) sensibility is a case where the perfect (and usually unattainable) became the enemy of the good. Everyone is a product of their time, but that’s often just a code for not taking them seriously. And I think that’s something that an honest and faithful Catholic simply CANNOT do.

    I think we have to accept medieval Christianity as part of our heritage, as part of us, and chalk it up to yet another scandal of the universality and eternity of the Church.

    I mean it really is hard to read St. Paul on the matter. Does anyone REALLY believe it preferable/better/higher (choose one) to remain single? I don’t. I am fulfilling the highest calling I can imagine. Read the post about First Son promising his priest to replace him, and convince yourself that Matt or the Wife or the world would be better off without little Lickonas running around. You CAN’T! And the world wouldn’t be better without little Nicolosos running around either. Those of us married are right smack dab in the middle of God’s very BEST will… or at least I’ve managed to convince myself of it.

  4. AnotherCoward says

    I like the use of “First Son promising his priest to replace him” as an example of the fruit of the very best will of God for Matt and the world – that of marriage.

    Matt has kids because Matt’s married – God’s very best will. Kid promises a life of celibacy … God’s ?not? so very best will?

    Dang it, Matt, what ARE you doing to those kids?!

    Pope John Paul distinguishes in the TotB the two kinds of marriage – that of God ordained natural marriage and that of Christ sanctioned celibate pre-beatific heavenly marriage (Matt 19:12).

    The two are so different that they generally, naturally produce very different fruit. I think the fruit of the two marriages reflect their respective temporal goals: natural marriage is geared towards producing for the next generation; heavenly marriage is geared towards producing for all eternity.

    That’s not to say that married men and women cannot make the same contributions as the celibate – they can an do. But we shouldn’t be surprised that celibate men and women can and will produce works of timeless beauty – it is among their vocational duties to continually speak to us of the eternal glory we are all destined for … that we often forget between changing poopy diapers, changing wet sheets, going to teacher-parent conferences, paying bills, etc etc etc.

    As to why the monastics and celibate are able to produce such works – I don’t think it’s because they deny themselves the desires of this world … I think it has more to do with the fact they look to find meaning for those desires in God, learning how to order them in their lives, and bring them into relationship with God. Pope JP2 can make me blush sometimes in what he has to say about sex – and the man is no pervert. He is just unfearing in how he perceives God’s purpose for us as sexual beings. I’m not familiar with Cluny, but I would imagine in his own way he is much the same – he perceives and understands the purpose of something and expresses it boldly, unfearingly, tenderly, hoping to attain to something near to the infinite perfection to which he has dedicated himself.

    Thank God the celibate are there. I just wish there were more of them these days.

    Heh … I just read this over … and I realize that I’m just repeating what NRTT said. oh well. 🙂

    As to what Paul had to say – I think you have to consider Paul in context. Paul thought the world would end “any day now.” So marrying yourself to the coming kingdom of heaven now would be preferable to taking a spouse in marriage – it’d be kinda like getting a head start. So, I think it good advice, given that context. Paul also says that if you can’t do that (because, well, some of us can’t – me being one), then get married. If Paul had been told that the world was still going to be stumbling along 2000 years from when he was writing … well, I would like to think he would have addressed a few things a little differently. But it’d be wrong to say that Paul was anti-marriage. It’s just that Paul was very pro-“second coming, NOW!”, so he encourages preparing as much as possible. I could be wrong, but I think the monastics are perhaps a bit more prepared for the kingdeom of heaven than the marrieds.

  5. Steve Nicoloso says

    No AC, that’s just the way we read St. Paul because it is so obvious to us that marriage is a positive good (for future vocations, for future souls, blessings to the whole world, &c.) and the Lord seems to be tarrying. Not that I don’t read St. Paul the same way, but most of our medieval forebears did not. And they inevitably came to see marriage as second best, and sexual union as rather… erm… dirty, something at best to be sufferred as a necessity rather than enjoyed. And all that was rather un-Jewish, i.e., un-Old Testament, unearthly, of them.

    I’m not convinced that celibates are necessarily better prepared for Heaven. Marriage and family requires consistent and purposeful sacrifice when done well, and those who do it well are every bit as prepared as those (few?) who do monasticism well.

    I cannot find the reference but some medieval (or late ancient) father/mystic is quoted as saying in response to the brothers as they so often vied with one another to be seen as more devout, more mortified, something to the effect that “there are much more pleasant ways to go to Hell.”

    I think the day is coming, if it has not already come, where a new form of monasticism will be necessary to preserve a truly Catholic sensibility, and that is a secular monasticism of families and communities.

  6. Notrelatedtoted says

    Steve –

    I’m not at all clear on the point you’re making. Would you mind dumbing it down a bit for me?

  7. Steve Nicoloso says

    If I knew the point that I was trying to make, I certainly would try make it clearer.

  8. AnotherCoward says

    And they inevitably came to see marriage as second best, and sexual union as rather… erm… dirty, something at best to be sufferred as a necessity rather than enjoyed. And all that was rather un-Jewish, i.e., un-Old Testament, unearthly, of them.

    I’m going to quibble for the sake of quibbling.

    Leviticus 15:16-18

    “When a man has an emission of seed, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until evening.
    Any piece of cloth or leather with seed on it shall be washed with water and be unclean until evening.
    “If a man lies carnally with a woman, they shall both bathe in water and be unclean until evening.

    Point is … sex is dirty! DIRTY I tell you!
    For Jews, too. 🙂 And, I mean, if we were to look at the Jewish laws and views on sex and take them all for earnest … well, sex would be viewed substantially differently – namely, it’d be viewed as the right of a property owner. Not at all unlike some medieval sensibilities we read about.

    I think, Steve, you have to keep in mind what the ultimate goals are for the different marriages. To say “better” either way is wrong. To say “serves different purposes, and some purposes better than others” would be correct. And to think that medieval times are screwed up any worse than our own time I think would be a mistake. We’re on the other side of the pendulum swing as far as our cultural views of sex goes, I think.

    Have you read anything on the Theology of the Body? It goes into this seeming dicotomy between the two vocations. If you haven’t and want a quick brain dump, I’d recommend Chris West’s “Introduction to the Theology of the Body.” It’s a 100-200 pager … quick read … very informative.

  9. Notrelatedtoted says

    I heard Chris West wrote that right after he killed a drifter…

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  10. Steve Nicoloso says

    I’m just commenting here because this is a fascinating topic and I want to keep it going! I was serious about not knowing the point I’m trying to make.

    I’m NOT saying the medievals were MORE screwed up than we are… we are in very nearly every sense… Certainly 98% of the sexual congress that is actually happening (if in fact it is congress at all, i.e., and not sodomitic) in this world is morally disordered and something we’d be better off without… But that 2%… hubba, hubba, hubba!!!

    I do think that ceremonial uncleanness until evening was a very, very minor penalty… I’d be curious to see the complete list of things that required ceremonial uncleanness until evening. At any rate, Song of Songs is a veritable paean to sexual love and ancient Jews were really into having quivers full of kids… just like good Catholics are supposed to be… and stoutly orthodox Jews still do today. That’s all I meant. And no, sex is not DIRTY (and my irony detector IS in fact working, but I just gotta say it)… not dirty any more than killing an animal for food is dirty, or changing a diaper is dirty, or working for the Man is dirty.

    I definitely agree with the assertion that the vocations of marriage and celibacy are just different and not higher/lower or better/worse. This is tied up precisely in the prayer I pray with my kids every night:

    “Almighty God, Lord of the Harvest, we pray that you would call out workers into your harvest field, for we know that the harvest is great, but the workers are few. We pray that you would call young men to the priesthood, young women to the consecrated life, and young men and women everywhere to join in Holy Matrimony, living lives of self-sacrifice and raising large and godly families for your honor and glory. For we know that with each of these callings you are well-pleased, and that you’ll give us grace to glorify you in whatever situation of life we find ourselves.”

    So, yeah, not higher… just different… both absolutely necessary… both perfectly the center of God’s perfect will… But the whole point is that a strict reading of St. Paul doesn’t say that… and for vast periods of our own history, we have not believed that either… and that’s hard to deal with when you’re conditioned (quite rightly in general) to think yourself wrong and your medieval forebears correct by default!

  11. AnotherCoward says

    I heard Chris West wrote that right after he killed a drifter…

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    I get the sense I should chuckle … but it’s lost on me. Sorry. Better luck next time, though!

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