Though I may be way off base, I wonder if part of the problem with our Church’s continual struggles with sexual maladies is indirectly connected to the unwillingness in our religious culture to openly, honestly, and lovingly discuss the sexuality of those we seek to emulate: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and many saints.
Each human person is a sexual being just as she or he is a social being and spiritual being. Fifty years ago, seminary formation programs told students that they didn’t need to be social, e.g., I saw a seminary recruitment film from the ’60s where a handsome young priest, offering a tour of his typical day lounged in a library in his black cassock from where he smiled and said to the camera: “…and here I am with my best friends, my books.” Twenty-five years ago, some seminaries hadn’t yet begun to give as much attention to true spiritual development as they did to religious and pietistic formation, resulting in many priests knowing a lot about ritual minutia but not much about Jesus—who didn’t much care for pietistic show.
Our church has, perhaps, inadvertently protected clergy who don’t want to deal with their sexuality, in part, by ignoring the sexual energy of some of our heroes. From earliest times, the Christian community held that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is perpetually virgin; she did not engage in sexual intercourse before the birth of Jesus, nor after. We believe that she was entrusted to Joseph as his wife so that Jesus would have a family but she was not entrusted to him for marital union of body, mind, and soul, as is normal for other husbands and wives, i.e., they were two unique individuals chosen for salvific roles in which we simply presume their sexual abstinence. Though we know very little about Mary, we know less about Joseph. When the scriptures refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters (using a Greek word that could also apply to cousins or relatives), some scholars conclude that Joseph may have wed before in a more traditional union in which he experienced conjugal love and brought forth other children who grew up with Jesus. In Matthew’s telling of the birth of Christ, he writes that Mary and Joseph did not have sexual relations before Jesus was born, though Catholic and most other Christian communities do not take that to be commentary on whether they had sexual relations after his birth. From The Last Temptation of Christ to The Da Vinci Code, we gasp and feign heart attacks if anyone ever suggests that Jesus was sexually charged or possessed a libido; we cry heresy and threaten excommunication when anyone wonders if Mary and Joseph fulfilled the marriage covenant and shared intimate encounters as husband and wife. Priestly formation ought to note that even the most avid reader needs to engage socially with human friends and even the most pietistic, pharisaical, or frigid celibate should realize that true spirituality inculcates passion, energy, and desire.
Former popes and other church leaders have told us that we cannot discuss the possibility of women priests or permit priests to marry. But when we are not permitted to discuss, we get worse at dialogue, discernment, and healthy debate, too. When we fail to discern, we shut the Holy Spirit out of our lives and church—and it’s not good. We’ve got to be better at identifying, and dealing with, arrested development that is often associated with pedophiles and ephebophiles; we’ve got to be more vigilant with engaging our kids’ socially, so that their virtual friends and other internet associates are put in proper place; we’ve got to stop tolerating the conniption fits and condemnation tactics of rigid, narrow-minded Catholics so that we can be more open, honest, and loving in discussing taboo topics. As an ecclesial society, we have slowly, perhaps reluctantly, advanced our social and spiritual development; we’re slower, still, with sexual advancements.
To repeat my opening statement: I could be wrong but I think we have done a disservice to all by how we portray our religious heroes’ sexuality and that, in part, is related to our ongoing ecclesial sexual crisis.