“Finding God in the Erotic”: Fr Donal Godfrey SJ

The Christian faith in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, are widely perceived as being inherently anti-erotic, and hostile to the idea of sexual pleasure, of sex outside of procreation. The perception is well-founded in historical fact. Some early theologians praised virginity as an ideal even inside marriage, at a time when the expectation of the imminent parousia created a belief that humanity had no need to procreate. Later, the insistence on clerical celibacy arose in part from an idea that sexual intercourse the night before celebrating Mass was inappropriate, as somehow defiling and unclean. The imposition of compulsory clerical celibacy in turn led to a distinct two-caste system within the Church, with the celibate clergy seen as more “pure” than those laity living normal sexual lives.

The perception is soundly based in history, but not in Scripture, or even in Catholic theology. There is nothing in Scripture that is inherently hostile to sexual love, and much to celebrate it, notably the Song of Songs. Notable mystics such as St John of the Cross,Theresa of Avila and numerous others have described their prayer in notably erotic (even homoerotic) imagery. Since the Reformation, Protestant theologians have recognised that the value of sexual love within marriage. Even the Vatican overturned centuries of tradition with Humanae Vitae, recognizing for the first time that sexual intercourse has a unitive as well as a procreative value.

Ecstasy of St Teresa (Bernini)
 Increasingly, theologians (Catholic as well as Protestant) are going beyond this to acknowledge that there can also be a specifically spiritual dimension to the erotic: the Presbyterian Chris Glaser, for instance, has written movingly on how the attempt to deny either the sexual or the spiritual in life impoverishes the other, while by embracing both, each strengthens and enriches the other.

Yet there remain vocal lobbies within the Church which continue to howl in protest whenever any churchman dares to speak of sexual pleasure in anything but negative terms, or to say publicly what so many people know from experience. So it is that the California Catholic Daily can hardly hide its glee that Fr Donal Godfrey is no longer serving as executive director of University Ministry at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco: among the black marks the CCD holds against Fr Godfrey is a homily he once delivered on this theme, which was later published at Gay Catholic Forum (where it is still available on-line).I am grateful to California Catholic Daily for this: as so often when they squeal most loudly about something they find objectionable, I took care to seek out the text that upset them, and was glad that I did. (I am equally grateful to them for drawing my attention to another useful homily by Fr Godfrey,“The Call to Come Out”, which  likened Jesus’ calling Lazarus to come out of the tomb to same-sex attracted persons “coming out of the closet.” That homily was also published in the “Gay Catholic Forum.”

Fr Godfrey’s homily on the erotic was based on the Gospel passage in which the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. As he points out, this was an attempt by the Pharisees to trap the Lord in a controversial question about sexuality and quotations from Scripture – but Jesus does not see sexuality in the clinical, impersonal terms of the Pharisees. His message is much gentler. This leads on to a more extended reflection on the value of eros in our spiritual lives.
Here is the opening of the homily:
The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”  They were testing him.  He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?”  They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”  But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
In the house the disciples again questioned him about this.  He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”   (Mark 10:2-12)
Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel is caught up in a religious conflict about sexuality and some people who quote scripture at him. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
And so it is interesting to see how Jesus deals with this situation.
Jesus wasn’t a biblical conservative. But he wasn’t a biblical liberal either.  He expected something important from the scriptures, he expected to be challenged and surprised by God and he also expected that when you are challenged and surprised by God some of the details in the sacred scripture will have to go, because they will be revealed as concessions to our hardness of hearts.
Read the full text at Gay Catholic Forum

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