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James Carroll's Critique of Roman Catholicism's Ethic of Sex

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 24, 2018: In anticipation of Pope Francis' visit to Ireland this weekend, James Carroll, a practicing Catholic and prolific author, published "After Pennsylvania, What Pope Francis Should Say in Ireland" in the New Yorker (dated August 22, 2018):

Among other things, James Carroll says, "Earlier this month, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, responded to the [Cardinal Theodore] McCarrick case by saying, "Our Church is suffering from a crisis of sexual morality.'"

James Carroll says, "Whatever DiNardo meant his words are spot on: The problem is not merely with misfit priests and their protectors but with the entire way that Roman Catholicism has long defined its ethic of sex."

James Carroll also says that "the roots of Cardinal DiNardo's 'crisis of sexual morality' are as old as the Church itself, and reckoning with them at last defines the opportunity embedded in this calamity. Roman Catholicism's original mistake, epitomized in the fourth-century teachings of St. Augustine, was to set itself against the sexual longings of human beings, as if the sexual pairing of Adam and Eve defined 'the Fall.' The theological vilification of sexuality as the locus of sin ('Original Sin') sanctified the denigration of women, sponsored male control of female reproduction, glorified virginity, sparked ambivalence about homosexuality (officially condemned, secretly taken for granted), and planted the seeds of puritanical dread of 'concupiscence' that readily tips over into neurosis. All this shaped the Catholic imagination, while defining an essential note of the culture of clericalism as it developed, especially once celibacy became the required discipline of the priesthood, a millennium ago."

I agree with that much. Recently Stephen Greenblatt, the distinguished Jewish professor of English at Harvard University, has highlighted the decisive influence of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) in his 2017 book Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (Norton, esp. pages 98-119).

St. Augustine of Hippo was familiar with Greek philosophical thought as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle and subsequent Greek and Roman philosophers. In addition, he was immersed in numerous agonistic struggles in his day. Moreover, he was a prolific author, employing a staff of secretaries to take his dictation and prepare drafts and fair copies.

In Greenblatt's bibliography, the listing of translations of works by St. Augustine fills up almost one entire page (368-369). Of course, St. Augustine famously articulated the Christian doctrine of original sin, based on his interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Greenblatt uses the edition of St. Augustine's treatises titled On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis, the Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012). As the subtitle indicates, this volume includes an unfinished treatise that St. Augustine wrote in the year 388 CE, "one of the first works he wrote after his conversion" (110), and his later work entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis, which he began to work on around the year 400 and continued to work on "for about fifteen years" (112). As Greenblatt shows, St. Augustine was deeply immersed in the literal interpretation of Genesis.

However, even though Plato and Aristotle and other ancient philosophers did not have an explicit doctrine of original sin, Plato and Aristotle and other ancient philosophers did not think that we are born virtuous.

Greenblatt's analysis of St. Augustine of Hippo is perceptive and cogent. As a thought experiment, we should try to imagine Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden engaging in sexual intercourse -- before they fatefully ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden of Eden by God. St. Augustine tried to imagine this. For him, before there was Original Sin, there as Original Freedom for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. For St. Augustine, Original Freedom meant no sexual lust -- no stirring of our concupiscible appetites. For him, Original Sin is the root cause of our concupiscible appetites and sexual lust.

Greenblatt says, "Adam and Eve were meant to reproduce, Augustine insisted, without involuntary arousal [of sexual lust]. 'They would not have had the activity of turbulent lust in their flesh. . . . but only the movement of peaceful will by which we command ourselves the other members of the body.' Untroubled self-command -- arousal only when you will yourself to be aroused; no arousal when you do not -- was for Augustine the heart of what it meant to be free" (116; Greenblatt's ellipsis).

Greenblatt says, "To those of us accustomed to think of freedom in political or social terms, the conception of freedom as unruffled inward tranquility and bodily control seems very strange. But to someone deeply troubled by the problem of involuntary arousal, it made sense. And Augustine was certain he was not alone. He drew upon a long tradition of moral philosophy, pagan as well as Christian, that centered on the achievement of control over the self that nothing, nor even excruciating pain or exquisite pleasure, could disturb.

In Paradise, St. Augustine wrote in The City of God, Adam and Eve -- with no pain, no fear of death, no inner disturbance -- would have known perfect serenity, a serenity that was meant to extend to sexual intercourse. The coming together of male and female in the reproductive process was designed to be utterly calm. Without feeling any passion -- without sensing that strange goad, as if something were driving you forward -- 'the husband would have relaxed on his wife's bosom in tranquility of mind'" (116-117).

Greenblatt says, "This was how it was all meant to be for Adam and Eve. But, Augustine concluded, it never happened, not even once. Their sin happened first, 'and they incurred the penalty of exile from paradise before they could unite in the task of propagation as a deliberate act undisturbed by passion'" (118). To this day, the influence of St. Augustine's weird interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve reverberates in the unfortunate official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church about sex.

Consequently, Cardinal DiNardo's comment ab out "a crisis of sexual morality," quoted above by James Carroll, is spot on, as James Carroll says it is. However, as prominent as Cardinal DiNardo may be as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he is just one cardinal is a worldwide sea of cardinals.

Now, James Carroll says, "Pope Francis is hemmed in by tradition and by blinders bracketing his own vision. As his obtuse statement this week suggests, there will be no sweeping announcement of a reconstituted priesthood (married people and women ordained, full transparency of all procedures, laity empowered at every level of Church governance). Now will there be the promulgation of a reimagined sexual morality (yes to female sexual autonomy; full acceptance of homosexuals and transgender people; sex measured as love and pleasure as much as reproduction and, therefore, yes to contraception."

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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