No Holds Barred: Religious sexual repression and the Pope

Great crises often bring forth great men and it is my firm hope that the new pope will, with God’s blessing, rise to the occasion.

Pope Benedict boards a plane at Ben Gurion 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Pope Benedict boards a plane at Ben Gurion 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Whoever the new pope is, he will have the chance to address the 900-pound gorilla staring down the Catholic Church, namely the constant sexual abuse scandals. I am a Jew who wishes to see the Catholic Church flourish. I count myself fortunate to have met Pope Benedict prior to his resignation and remember his humility, graciousness and warmth. As I travel the world I am awed by the global network of schools, orphanages and hospitals run by the Catholic Church. No other world body even comes close.
But much of that is being eclipsed, be it fairly or otherwise, by the seemingly never-ending sexual scandals that bedevil the Church. Even in the brief interregnum between the announcement of Benedict’s resignation and its taking effect, we witnessed the sudden resignation of the leader of all Britain’s Catholics, who confessed to a 30-year history of abuse.
The Jewish community is likewise not immune to sexual scandals; in the New York area we recently witnessed the tragic story of a rabbi found guilty of abusing a girl and being sentenced to 130 years in prison. This followed several other stories of rabbis or religious Jewish teachers being found guilty of child abuse.
When I published Kosher Sex in 1999, I did so not in the hope of addressing sexual repression in religion. Precisely the opposite was true. It was to a secular, mainstream, and sexually liberal society that I offered a philosophy of how sex could recapture its power to induce emotional intimacy. My purpose was to demonstrate how sex is a motion that brings forth an even greater emotion, and that there are specific sexual techniques, like eyes-open sex, that serve as emotional threads bonding husband and wife to one another, as opposed to the empty physical experiences some couples have today that lack both passion and intimacy.
But within a few weeks of publishing the book I began receiving a steady stream of emails, nearly always with pseudonyms, from very religious couples around the world, both Jewish and Christian, asking for specific advice about curing sexual dysfunction in their relationships.
They wrote to me because the answers they were getting from their clerics often lacked a human dimension.
Many Christians were being told sex is mostly for procreation and many Orthodox Jews were being told that nearly everything is forbidden in the bedroom. Both groups were being misled. The Bible makes it clear in Genesis that sex is primarily for intimacy rather than children: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother. He shall cleave to his wife [a clear sexual euphemism] and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This pivotal idea is echoed in the Bible having no word for sex other than “knowledge.” So why were religious couples being consciously misled into believing that passionate sexual expression was mostly circumscribed and that sex had to take place in the missionary position in the dark? Fraudulent sexual teachings in religion have destroyed countless lives and extinguished countless marriages.
Worse, false and repressive piety may also be the cause of some of the aberrant sexual behavior we are seeing in otherwise Godly men and women. Is clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church one of the prime things that leads to abuse? No-one knows fully. Is sexual suppression in some religious Jewish circles, that could never be countenanced by Jewish law, the reason that more stories of abuse are emerging? Nothing can be said for sure. There may be other, stronger forces at work.
But this is certain: sexuality strikes to the very heart of the human condition. A healthy, positive and fulfilling sex life in marriage is not a luxury but a necessity which the Bible recognizes in innumerable instances and which forms the basic narrative of so many Biblical marriages, like the famous story of Isaac being “sexually playful” with his wife Rebecca.
It is beyond the scope of this column to examine the many historical and theological reasons that the Catholic Church made clerical celibacy obligatory rather than optional about a millennia ago. Less so is my purpose to preach to another faith about what their basic tenets ought to be. But it is my purpose to make clear that any religion that bases itself on the Hebrew Bible cannot escape the Bible’s healthy encouragement of carnal intimacy being the central staple of a husband and wife’s loving connectedness.
When Kosher Sex was first published I experienced severe attacks from some rabbinical colleagues who thought the subject unseemly. But where were married couples supposed to learn about sex? From a rabbi, or Hugh Hefner? From Biblical and Jewish sources or Internet porn? Thirteen years later the book is standard issue for countless religious Jewish and Christian couples who are marrying, even though the religious market was not the readership for whom it was written.
But it is essential that more rabbis, priests and pastors start teaching their congregants of the glories of sex in marriage and the need for physical desires to achieve their fullest satiation within the confines of a loving and committed relationship. A man who is in love with his wife and concentrates his fullest erotic attention on her is living a holy life.
The tenth commandment makes it clear that we are not to covet our neighbor’s wife which, by direct implication, means we sure as heck ought to be coveting our own. We don’t need more horror stories of husbands who are porn addicts or religiously committed teachers and counselors taking advantage of their charges.
As the world’s foremost religious figure, no-one can do more to address carnal repression in religion than the new pope who, if he chooses to ignore the sexual crisis facing the Church, will be abdicating his responsibility of leadership. Great crises often bring forth great men and it is my firm hope that the new pope will, with God’s blessing, rise to the occasion.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. He is working on his next relationship book, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Tags Catholic