Sexual Evolution

(May 24, 2002)


In the 1970s it became commonplace to speak of the "sexual revolution". But what is happening today, especially in the scandals facing the Catholic Church, but in some sense, in all of Christianity and the whole world today, has more to do with an arrested psycho-sexual evolution. The whole problem revolves around dealing with this biological force, which has had so much to do with the origins of life and the development of the human species. The challenge now is how to use it in such a way that it does not end up destroying us.

About three millennia ago, the more spiritually advanced civilizations in the Far East, especially that in India, began realize that sexual abstinence could result in the redirection of this sexual energy to more spiritual goals beyond that of biological reproduction or psychological companionship. This "sublimation" of the "libido" (as Freud later termed it) accounts for the appearance of the Hindu "yogis" or other religious ascetics in India and, about five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the emergence of Buddhism, which began more as monastic order of celibates rather than as a new religion. Similar movements began in the West and Middle East, such as the Pythagoreans in Greece, the Therapeutoi in Egypt and the Essenes among the Jews. By the third century AD, Christianity too began to adopt these practices with its own monastic movement, and by the twelfth century, the Western Church made celibacy the rule for all its clergymen.

Not that this discipline has been perfectly kept. Sometimes it seems to have been honored more in breach than in fact. But, at least, down through these thousands of years, most of the world's major religions continued to respect this ideal, even if it mainly served to remind their followers that anything like remaining faithful to a spouse for a whole lifetime is possible, given God's help. Instead, what we find today, with the loss of such ideals or examples, even in some predominantly Christian nations, are divorce rates running close to 50% as in the USA and in other cases, as in Europe, such widespread use of contraception or resort to abortion that supposedly Christian populations are failing to reproduce themselves. Meanwhile, population growth in many developing nations continues to outstrip resources.

So the problem facing the Catholic Church is obvious. It is not just a question of the breakdown in the observance of clerical celibacy or what to do about declining ranks of clergy. It is a much broader issue than that. Ultimately, it is the challenge of deciding how to best lead in a world that, one way or another, otherwise seems bent on destroying itself.

In many ways sexuality is like a powerful river flooding the world, indiscriminately spawning life wherever it flows. Held back and channeled, it can work wonders, converting barren wastes into productive land. It can even be transformed into other forms of energy serving the advance of civilization and with it, the further evolution of the human spirit. Yet unless this is done most carefully and with great caution and respect for the raw power this flood contains, things can go terribly wrong. And when that happens, instead of bringing us closer to a transcendent or heavenly goal, all hell can break lose.