Exploring the meaning of sex and family.
“Why is it,” said Jessica, my long-time friend, a non-observant Church of Scotland member, “that the Catholic Church won’t just, er, enter the modern era? Why are they so obsessed with sex?”
Um, I thought, here we go. We were sitting in a coffee place in Edinburgh, trying to catch up from our busy lives. Even though our lives have taken different paths, Jessica and I go back a long time. I took a deep breath.
“For the same reason that traditionally Jews forbade pre-marital sex, and sex outside marriage,” I said evenly. “After all, Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism.”
She looked at me, astonished. Like me, Jessica is 30 years old. She has a good financial job in Edinburgh. I’m a stay-at-home mum, thanks to the hard work of dedicated husband. Jessica and I have been friends since our school days, and even went through Edinburgh university together.
“Where did you get that idea?” she asked incredulously.
“Well, Jesus was a Jew, and the people who originally followed Him were mostly Jews. In fact, most of the non-Jews who joined the Christian sect two thousand years ago were people who frequented Jewish synagogues in Asia Minor,” I said.
She looked even more perplexed. “Okay, let’s say you’re right…”
“…it’s not me saying this,” I interrupted, shrugging diffidently. “It’s just archaeology and research—you know, ‘science.’”
She regarded me with suspicion for a moment and asked, “Okay, okay. So why did these ancient Jews or Christians or whatever—why were they so strict about sex?”
“Well, the generally accepted view is that this is the way they survived. The pagan world that they lived in was rife with sex cults—even the temples of the ancient gods were used as bordellos. Temple prostitution was common.”
“Yeah?” she said, looking interested.
“Yup. And women were big-time sex cultists. The Bacchantes—who worshiped the god of wine, Bacchus—were mainly women. They used to drink themselves crazy and invade rural towns and city neighborhoods. At one point, they were officially banned.”
“Wow,” she said, drily.
“Yes, and of course sexually transmitted diseases were everywhere. And there was no treatment for any of them, so people died horrible deaths, often in the streets of big cities.”
“Sounds awful,” she said.
“It probably was. So you can understand why Jews and Jewish Christians would stress continence so much.”
“’Continence’?” she asked, wrinkling her nose quizzically.
“Yes, literally the ability to keep oneself ‘continent’—to discipline one’s sexual activity to take place only within marriage. Many say that this—plus their attitude to life—was what kept these small cults going through the centuries. The Bacchantes, er, died out.”
“What attitude to life?” she asked, cautiously.
“Well, the Roman pagans were also very big on exposing unwanted babies—leaving them to die. Christians and Jews considered this practice abhorrent. Life was precious,” I said, looking at her, not without irony.
To no avail. She shook her head, not getting it.
“Okay, so what does this have to do with my question? Why is the Church stuck in the Middle Ages?”
“These attitudes toward sex—keeping it within the married state—are extremely old,” I replied cautiously. “And they are not limited to Roman Catholicism. All the old forms of Christianity—Orthodox, Coptic, Syro Malabar—all have the same belief. As of course do orthodox Jews. That is my point.”
“Right,” she said. “And they are all stuck in the past.”
“Okay,” I began, slowly. “What exactly do you think has changed about human sexuality since the, er, past?”
“Well,” she said, regarding me somewhat incredulously, “of course they didn’t have modern science.”