I do not know who all will read this book. It may be that future generations will have moved on so much that they cannot relate to what I experienced in life. They may well find my advice on matters of sex and love quaint or outdated.
But then, others may find it useful. So here are some of my principles.
Be open and honest about sex
If you have read the previous chapters you will know my mind on secrecy about sex. It has often been used in the past to ‘shield children from contagion by a sinful world’. As I have shown, such secrecy usually backfires. It either leads to stunted sexual relationships or a rebound in sexual excess.
Catholic traditionalists assume that silence about sex indicates psychological and spiritual health. In the sense of: ‘I keep my mind, and my home, clean from such murk and filth’. Or perhaps: ‘I don’t want to reveal in public what I think or do in private’. But the opposite is often true. Secrecy may hide an addictive preoccupation with sex. Anything you need to keep secret, it turns out, is in fact an addiction.[i]
In traditional Catholic families sex was never mentioned because it was dreaded as the ever lurking sin. The main subject matter in weekly confessions was: “I have sinned against chastity”. These ‘sins’ would range from adultery (rare) to ‘I have had impure thoughts’, ‘I have touched myself’, or ‘I looked at a woman’ (frequent). The fact that sex was the universal sin for many Catholics revealed a neurotic obsession with sex and pathological anxiety about sex.[ii]
So why not be simply frank about it?
I recall visiting the home of a Catholic doctor when I was on supply in the Dutch rural parish of Mill. I had been invited to the evening meal which I shared with the doctor and his wife and their two teenage sons. The wife was obviously in the later stages of yet another and advanced pregnancy.
When, after supper, the boys were dispatched to their bedroom, they not only kissed their father and mother good night, but also their future sibling. Mother obligingly pushed down her skirt to display her bulging tummy. The boys put their ears on it to see if they could detect a heartbeat and then kissed it.
“We are very open about all this”, the mother explained to me later. “We tell them all there is to know about sex. The whole process from A to Z. We want to avoid the hush-hush and false shame that we ourselves had to endure when we were young.”
Keep sex under control rather than repress it
God created us as we are. People with spirit and body. Our body includes God’s gift of sex to us. It includes the feeling of wholeness that comes from touching our body and all its parts, from enjoying our relationship to another person in a very physical and intimate way, from the ability of our body to generate children. But like any beautiful thing sex can be spoiled by violence.
Sex becomes sinful when it harms ourselves or others. Rather, even then the sex itself is not sinful but the context in which it operates and the damaging it inflicts. Do I need to mention examples? There can be no excuse for child abuse, the sexual slave trade or rape. But the violence may be more subtle than that. As I noticed when, a few years afterwards, I became Vicar General of the Mill Hill Missionaries with responsibility for our men working in Europe.
Father Jan Pijnhorst in the Netherlands had never made it to the missions. He had been seconded to teach Greek and Latin in a Catholic high school. When I visited him he told me in confidence that he was in a relationship with Alice, a Protestant woman who had lost her husband a year earlier. He felt torn between his position as a supposedly celibate priest and his love for Alice. He used to visit her in secret.
“Jan”, I told him, “you are not fair towards Alice. If you go on like this, you will be treating her as a mistress, a lover on the side.”
“She does not seem to mind”, he replied; but then admitted: “I am at a loss what to do.”
We examined the whole situation together. I met Alice, a gentle middle-aged mother with two sons in college. She suffered under her status as secret lover, ‘late-night paramour’ she called it. In the end I firmly recommended to Jan that he leave the priestly ministry, apply for a release of his vow of celibacy and marry Alice.
I am narrating this incident because this is the advice I have given to priests in a number of similar cases. My approach in this was different from that advocated by most religious superiors at the time. They favoured trying to save the person’s priestly state at all costs. I disagreed because it often led to dishonesty, a disregard of the individual’s personal needs and injustice towards the woman in question.
With typical Dutch resolve, Jan acted fast. Within a matter of days he had announced his intention to marry Alice to the school authorities. He moved in with her within a week. He applied to Rome for laicization – I am not sure he received a response. When I saw Jan and Alice next, a few months later, they were genuinely happy together. Unfortunately soon after that, while on a summer holiday in Spain, Jan died in a surfboarding accident on a beach of the Costa Brava.
We can also do damage to ourselves. People who are addicted to smoking, alcohol or drugs, hurt themselves. Addiction to sexual gratification does the same. This can happen, for instance, in uncontrolled masturbation and forms of pornography. Addiction in itself is a weakness rather than a sin, but – if not kept in check – may lead to sins of violence against others.
Love is larger than sex
Contemporary society breeds loneliness. It erodes the traditional buttresses to our self worth: family, parish community, cultural group, the friendly neighbourhood, companionship in the workplace. People starve from a lack of intimacy and healthy friendships. We are ‘the lonely crowd’. We are like Jean-Paul Sartre’s bus passenger standing in a queue with twenty others whom we do not know and do not speak to.
Love is the anti-dote. Genuine love frees us from loneliness by giving us intimacy and sharing on a deep level. Of course, physical intimacy plays an important part in mutual bonding. But real love gives more and demands more.
I knew Pete Foreman quite well. He had been a classmate of mine. We were ordained on the same day. While Pete worked as a missionary in India, he had fallen in love with Margaret, a religious sister. She was of Irish descent. They had agonized about what to do for almost a year before deciding to return to Europe where they got married. Although Pete was laicized by Rome, both he and Margaret felt they should continue to serve the Church as missionaries. In the end they were accepted as catechists in villages of Saskatchewan in the middle of Canada, villages that were mainly populated by native Indians.
I visited them. By that time they had three children. They lived in a tiny village outside Saskatoon sharing the poverty of the people entrusted to them. The diocese paid them a starvation level salary. In winter, they told me, everything was covered in meters-deep snow. They were in the middle of moving to the centre of town to have better access to a good school for their children. They could make the move because Pete had been promised a job as a teacher in a goal for young offenders.
“Life is tough over here”, Margaret said to me. “But we are very happy.
[i] Anne Wilson Schaef, Escape from Intimacy: Untangling the “Love” Addictions : Sex, Romance, Relationships, Harper, San Francisco 1990.
[ii] Sean Fagan, What Happened so Sin?, The Columba Press, Dublin 2008.
John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, My code for sex and love