By Vexen Crabtree 2015
Throughout its history, institutional Christian rules on sex, sexuality and gender roles have been weirdly obsessive. Doctrine has been clearly written from a male-only point of view, with a suite of specific demands for female clothing1 and prohibitions against anything other than overtly heterosexual male behaviour. From the second century onwards, a range of Christian movements emerged which hated sex and all things sexual2. A stream of writings from the Church Fathers and other senior Christians denounced sex in every way possible; it was evil and Satanic, and must only be indulged in when resistance was impossible, and only with your wife for the purpose of procreation. Alongside those of St Paul, these writings appear from the very beginning of Christianity, and can still be found in many modern Christian churches, highlighted by the doctrine of the celibacy of Catholic clergy. Some key verses from the Bible include Galatians 5:17, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and Revelation 14:4. This Christian abhorrence of sexual human nature became very influential throughout the West3 from before the lead-up to the dark ages until the modern era in which Christian power has waned.
The misguided anti-carnality message has been responsible for more sexual dysfunction in adult males than any other force of history. Statistically, Christians divorce more frequently than atheists and non-religious folk4. Christian clergy and institutions have been under scrutiny after two decades of horrible scandals involving child abuse. The cases have been shocking and numerous, with no end in sight to their uncovering5. The effect of organized Christianity battle against birth control has had a deleterious impact on the control of sexually transmitted diseases and has been instrumental on speeding us all towards an increasingly overpopulated planet6. Intolerance against homosexuality has harmed the wider community, but also forced many Christians into needlessly secretive and guilt-ridden lives. Thankfully, the majority of modern Christians live in a secular manner and don't observe traditional teachings.
The First Few Centuries:
“Christianity was still managing to create a very unhappy sexual climate which made ordinary people rush in droves to adopt extreme and even eccentric solutions.... time and time again, from the 2nd century on, heresies have sprung up within Christianity which say that sex and the body are evil. [...] One of these heresies was Catharism [but] the first of these anti-sex heresies, however, was Encratism which sprang up during the 2nd century. It produced a number of scriptures, like the Acts of Thomas and the Acts of Paul, which all say that sex is degrading and that it is only celibacy which will bring us to the Kingdom of Heaven. These scriptures were read and enjoyed for a long time by perfectly orthodox Christians. [...] That these texts were read by non-Encratists for centuries, who found nothing extraordinary in the idea that sex is evil and that married couples must abstain from 'this filthy intercourse' (Acts of Thomas xiv) shows that the average Christians were getting a very negative image about sex. Indeed it is difficult to see how Encratists different from the Orthodox. When the Acts of Andrew says that marriage is a 'foul and polluted way of life', is that really very different from St Jerome's remark: 'If we abstain from coitus we honour our wives; if we do not abstain, - well, what is the opposite of honour but insult?' (Adversus Jovinian I,7)? When the Encratist Acts of John says that sexual intercourse is 'an experiment of the serpent... the impediment which separated from the Lord,' we are getting very near to the eventual Orthodox view which linked sin and sex.”
“Whereas in Late Antiquity, sexual renunciation was valued as part of a male ethics of self-mastery, by the 5th century AD, Christian ideals promoted virginity and sexual abstinence for men as well as women. [...] Sexual desire came to be blamed for binding humans to their worldly obligations to spouse or children. It prevented them from concentrating on spirituality in furtherance of the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and preparation for the afterlife. [...] Celibacy and purity came to be valorized, whereas sex and desire became policed. [...]
A key influence in this development was Augustine (354-430 AD), one of the founding fathers of Western Christianity, whose gloomy teachings developed the influential doctrine of "original sin" which presented sex as the cause of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden narrated in Genesis. Augustine declared that sexual intercourse in paradise would have taken the form of "a gentle falling asleep in the partner's arms" had Adam and Eve not fallen prey to carnal desire, and that "lustful sex is the enemy of God".
The Middle Ages and Dark Ages
“The Penitentials (guides for the clergy about how to judge the various sins of the faithful) show that in the early Middle Ages the Church was trying to enforce total abstinence on married couples. Sex was forbidden while a woman was pregnant, menstruating or breastfeeding, which was very prohibitive considering the extreme frequency of pregnancy, because, of course, contraception was forbidden. Sex was also forbidden during Lent and Advent, on Ember days and also on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It was also forbidden before receiving communion. By the time a virtuous and law-abiding couple had found a spare Tuesday which did not fall into any of these forbidden periods they were probably sexually paralysed. [...]
The later Middle Ages added some refinements to the list of forbidden days. Different writers and sermons recommended different days but the list was formidable. Thus sex was forbidden: on Thursdays in honour of Jesus' arrest, on Fridays because of his death, on Saturdays because it is Our Lady's day, on Sundays because of the Resurrection and on Mondays in commemoration of the dead.”
“Marriage was all the more viewed with suspicion due to the dangers of the temptations of the flesh, which reflected the works of the devil. As Pope Innocent III formulated this dilemma in the 13th century: "everyone knows that intercourse, even between married persons, is never performed without the itch of the flesh, the heat of passion and the stench of lust". The Protestant theologian Martin Luther shared this distaste for marital intercourse, declaring that "had God consulted me in the matter, I would have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay".”
“In England between the 13th and 16th centuries ... up to 90% of the litigation handled by church courts was about combating fornication, adultery, sodomy and prostitution. The punishments were often savage. When the Reformation got going in the mid-16th century, the zeal for rooting out illicit sex went up another notch. Harsh new national laws were passed, such as a statute in 1534 that made buggery a capital offence. In 1552 a revision of canon law meant that adulterers could face life imprisonment or exile. Sexual transgressors were often whipped, publicly humiliated and even branded. [...]
The assumption in early modern England that sexual persecution was essential to good social order was not unlike that of the more conservative Islamic republics today. It was partly rooted in religion and the looming threat of hellfire. It was also a product of patriarchal attitudes that saw women as the property of fathers or husbands.”
Thankfully, from the Enlightenment, Christianity lost much of its power in England, and in Europe, and the strict condemnations now fall onto deaf ears. According to Oxford historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala, who specializes in canon law, the key driver behind that change "was the spread of religious tolerance and nonconformity, which eroded the church's authority"10.
Many Christian institutions still fight "the good fight" against sexuality. One modern example is the success of the Shaker community in the USA, whose members live in chastity - men and women's accommodation were separated, even those of married couples11. But the main and obvious beacon for the anti-sex nature of the Church is the Catholic Churches policy of chaste clergy. To rise above the laity to the class of god's holy representatives on earth, you have to completely abstain from sex. This Christian abhorrence of sexual human nature became very influential and was partially a reaction against "Judaism, which disapproved of abstinence"3. This misguided message has been, as we will see later in this text, responsible for more sexual dysfunction in adult males than any other force of history.
The rates of child abuse and sexual abuse within the Christian priesthood are confusingly high. No other Human institution, from schools to children's homes, have such high rates. There must be a cause of this level of sexual dysfunction within Christian churches. Christian teachings on sexuality are pre-scientific, very simplistic and assert some plainly impractical things about sexual behaviour. Faulty doctrine leads to people attempting to bend their sexualities around inhuman ideals.
Many priests, kept celibate and removed from society, fail to develop a normal, adult, healthy sexuality. Sipe bemoans that "the celibate/sexual system as it exists fosters and produces, and will continue to produce, at a relatively stable rate, priests who sexually abuse minors. [...] Civil and criminal lawsuits are bound to continue for some time as there has been no fundamental change in the celibate/sexual education system, and the functional and structural aspects of the system remain firmly in place"12.
Although celibacy is loosely based on Biblical exegesis, it has not always been a required part of the Christian priesthood - it was only made compulsory in the twelfth century. Even St Augustine said it only should apply to a limited number of people.
“St. Augustine, bishop of the North African town of Hippo at the end of the fourth century, is commonly cited as the primary expositor and advocate of clerical celibacy. [...] But he was careful to say that this solution was both personal and God-given. He insisted repeatedly that celibacy should neither be universalized for all committed Christians, nor should it be admired as the result of intransigent will power. Augustine's followers, however, did not heed his cautions. [...] They claimed celibacy as the "higher way." Ignoring his insistence that sexual abstinence is a gift, not the result of teeth-gritting willpower, celibacy developed into a requirement for all Catholic clergy.”
Miles, M. PhD
By forcing the priesthood to accept a lifestyle that is inhuman, and doubling that with teachings on sexuality that are pre-modern and sometimes plain weird, the Christian church may well be fostering the dysfunctions that it tries to fix in society: its broken idealism has resulted in itself becoming a worse brute than the non-religious society it wishes to minister its teachings to. Thankfully, many priests reject the Churches stance on sexuality. Sipe furnishes us with studies, starting with the pleasing fact that Professor Eugen Drewerman estimates that one third of German diocesan priests are living with women. This has been the case for the span of known Christian history, too:
“A noted sociologist, the late Joseph H. Fichter, S.J. [...] says this situation "implies out-of-wedlock partnerships. Some of them are brief love affairs, others are long-term relationships. [...] When Ignatius Loyola assigned the first German Jesuit, Peter Canisius (1521-97), back to Germany to spearhead the reform of the Catholic clergy in the wake of Luther's influence there, the young Jesuit found 90% of German priests living in concubinage. Perhaps today's transgressions of celibacy seem a significant improvement against the sixteenth-century practice. [...] In a random sample study of stress on Catholic priests in South Africa, Father Victor Kortz found that 43.1% were involved in a friendship or love relationship and that 37.7% had terminated such a relationship within the previous 2 years. In 1994 he asserted that these relationships had all the qualities of sexual affairs.
No one has seriously challenged similar estimates of American clergy sexual involvement with women. Regional and national churches can make their own assessments. Whatever the number, women are abused in significant numbers by men who maintain their status and privilege within the celibate system while they relegate their women to the status of a backstreet wife.”
The strain of maintaining, in public, a celibate demeanour whilst in private continuing to live life as a normal sexual adult results in many priests leaving the priesthood. Studies conducted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have determined that 10% of priests in the United States leave the active priesthood within 5 years of ordination, 25% leave within 25 years of ordination - most of them to marry. The strain of those who remain in a system that attempts to manipulate human sexuality around otherworldly ideals is one of the reasons why those priests who stay in are much more likely to become child abusers than non-priests.
The Church Father, Augustine, is without a doubt one of the most influential thinkers in Christian history. He taught that sexuality is compulsive and uncontrollable, that once you feel certain impulses, you simply cannot resist. With teachings like these being taught to Christians, it is no wonder that the entire flock has developed such worrying rates of sexual abuse. For if Augustine says that sexuality is uncontrollable, then, that is less the reason to bother to behave well!
“Who can control this when its appetite is aroused? No one! In the very moment of this appetite, then, it has no 'mode' that responds to the decisions of the will... Yet what he wishes he cannot accomplish [...], lust rages in the mind [... and] often opposes its whole combined energy to the soul that resists it.”
“'This diabolical excitement of the genitals,' as Augustine referred to sex, is evidence of Adam's original sin which is now transmitted "from the mother's womb," tainting all human beings with sin, and leaving them incapable of choosing good over evil or determining their own destiny.”
Thankfully, the general consensus amongst everyone not tainted by Augustine, is that we are actually quite capable of mastering our sexual impulses in all situations, and that we are responsible for our own actions. But the influence of Augustine and other traditional Christian theorists have had a horrible impact on the morality of some individuals.
The Anglican Communion, a combination of national Anglican Christian churches covering the glove, has been embroiled in a series of internal debates resulting from the reaction of traditionalists against modern tolerance and liberality. The old-school biblical obsessions over sexuality and gender roles are at odds with modern, liberal churches like the Church of England.
Powerful anti-modern groupings such as Reform and FCA16 have been gradually pushing aside mainstream Christian structure with their own fundamentalist staff. The result is that many churches are opting to come under "missionary bishops" from African churches rather than their own national hierarchy. One key tactic is to withhold earnings and money from their diocese, creating financial pressure with the aim of making mainstream Christian churches more conservative. They boycott ordinary Church hierarchies and conferences and attend their own independent setups.
In 2017, for example, a Church of England community in Jesmond, Newcastle, consecrated a Bishop from an external Anglican organisation in defiance of its Church of England parentage.
“For the last 20 years or more, the received narrative has been that black African churches would supply the “missionary bishops” who are supposed to call the Church of England back from its tolerance of gay people, yoga classes and other unbiblical abominations. The Rwandan, Kenyan and Nigerian Anglican churches have all mounted similar raids on the Anglican church in the USA. [...] The church in Jesmond has been absolutely central to the schism since the early 1980s, when its vicar, David Holloway, was one of the earliest and noisiest campaigners against homosexuality. [...] Reform now has its own theological colleges, its own flying bishop and its own funding.”
Most of these gradually developing schisms have at their source disagreements surrounding the matter of sexuality and gender.
“The progressives and traditionalists... have been in each other´s hair for several years, mostly over issues which originate, so to speak, below the belt. The hot-button issues all have to do with sex and gender: the ordination of women as priests and consecration as bishops; the ordination and consecration of gay men and lesbians; the blessing or marriage of same-sex couples; and abortion. [...] The last straw for traditionalists came in 2003, when Gene Robinson, an openly gay man with a live-in partner, was elected as Bishop of New Hampshire. The traditionalists have been going ballistic ever since, with schism a real possibility.”
Sociologist and theologian Peter L. Berger18
The traditionalist camps are growing in power as the Western world becomes less religious and the remaining flock are the more hardcore adherents, meaning that mainstream Christianity over time is regressing back to its nastier stances on sexuality.
Abrahamic religions have contributed to the most negative and destructive attitudes towards sexual issues, especially homosexuality. Christian and Islamic communities and organisations are the most vocal assailants on any legal or societal moves towards tolerance and equality. The liberal wings of some of these religions have adapted to the wide (European) acceptance of homosexuality. Many traditional religions reject the scientific, medical and psychological knowledge that we have gained about sexuality and regard homosexuality as "unnatural", a "choice" or a "moral evil". These religions are themselves immoral and evil in their attitude, causing hatred, bigotry, violence and oppression in the name of God. Homosexual communities have become accustomed to the ranting of religious fundamentalists and traditionalists, and this causes a strong anti-religious resentment amongst them.
My page "Homosexuality in Animals and Humans" by Vexen Crabtree (2013) opens with the discussion of homosexuality as found in the animal kingdom in order to highlight its natural, universal nature. If God created sexuality, then it created homosexuality as a natural and normal part of sexuality, just like it created all the other sexualities and genders found in nature. Monotheists should either police the entire animal kingdom, or give up their irrational aggressions against homosexuality in humans.
For more, see:
Divorce statistics are sometimes a shock for Christians. The average divorce rate for born-again type Christians (27%) and others (24%) are both higher than that for atheism, which is 21%19. Empirically, atheists are more devoted to each other and commit to more stable relationship patterns than theists, yet the theists are the ones who say they stand for family values. Christian theologians have themselves expressed concern over their own rates of divorce and other marital problems such as wifebeating, which are mostly the same as the rates of non-Christians - and stricter Christians have worse rates20. There is a saying that those who shout loudest are the least capable. The Christian Churches shout loudly about love but... atheists are more capable. Seriously though, perhaps it is that atheists only get married if they're sure, while Christians feel pressurized so sometimes marry prematurely in relationships that aren't permanent. Christian culture can exert unnatural pressure on relationships.
Christian clergy have been under much scrutiny over the last two decades after a long series of scandals involving sexual child abuse21. The cases have been shocking, wild, numerous, public, and they keep on rolloing on with no end in sight. Recently, an Australian fundamentalist pastor was jailed for incest and child abuse after spending the 1990s sleeping with his own two children in order to 'educate' them. Many cases have been settled out of court, some priests have quit, and some have committed suicide. Police and Western authorities have despaired, because they thought that the Christian churches were good place for children (hence governmental support for faith schools, etc). The situation is so bad that the police have called for routine checks of all priests. No other employer or community has such massive problems with sexual immorality than do Christian organisations; and it seems the stricter they are in their beliefs, the worse their transgressions are.
Christian Churches are often defensive about their views and effect on society, and they have often claimed that claims of sexual abuse (despite the evidence of abuse uncovered by police investigations) are actually attempts to discredit the church, rather than victims finally finding the courage to speak out. Many of the scandals have centered on the way that the Church shuffles accused priests around and hides allegations, even of priests that have been previously convicted in a court of law, often putting them back into supervisory contact with children. The Economist writes in 2002 after Catholic Cardinals and the Pope convened a meeting to discuss the issue, that "dismaying to Catholics is the fact that the hierarchy, in protecting such priests, plainly cared more for the institution of the church than for the souls of its children"22. Smaller denominations have just as many problems with balancing self-interest and morality: in 1989 the Jehovah's Witnesses' international HQ "issued a top-secret instruction to keep known child sex abusers in the congregations a secret" but the letter was eventually uncovered by a Court of Law23.
The abuse has occurred in communities large and small, in private homes and in church. In 2008, the Pope was apologizing again, this time in person to President Bush, about the extent of the child sex abuse in the Catholic Church24 in the USA, and the Canadian prime minister made an official apology to his indigenous population, because "between 1870 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children were wrenched from their homes and sent to Christian boarding schools, where many were sexually and physically abused"25. Not even schools have been safe from the secret violence. The worst frequency of abuse has been when Christians themselves live with other Christians.
In 2010 the Pope met with German senior Catholics to discuss 170 child abuse cases by German priests, and German Bishop Robert Zollitsch apologised again to victims of the abuse.26
In 2001, "the Pope sent an apology by e-mail for a string of injustices committed by clergy in the Pacific nations, which included priests and missionaries forcing nuns to have sex and then abortions" -- "Pope denounces 'evil' sex priests" (BBC News 2002)27
"2% of the priest population can be classified as true pedophiles with a three to one preference for boys. This gender attraction is reversed in the general population. [...] 4% of the priest population become sexually involved with adolescents"12.
Father James Porter victimized 200 minors in the 12 years between 1960 and 1972 when he was active in the priestly ministry. Many of his victims report violent rape, cruel humiliation, and punishment that can only be described as sadistic. [...] One priest who "saw" Porter rape a child defended him, when confronted by a parishioner, with response, "Father is only human." [...] In 1993 he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 years in prison for a portion of his offenses.
Many priests, even those sent for psychiatric treatment for child abuse, are kept in positions of authority in the Church28. Maybe because the Church is lacking so many priests, and to expel them all would be too damaging to the structure of the Church.
More than a dozen suicides by priests facing public exposure of their sexual activity were recorded between 1990 and 199329.
8 solicitors representing 8 firms say that the "Catholic Church is incapable of stopping abuse and must be called to account. [... They] have written a letter to The Times (17 January) saying that the Church is still covering up crimes by priests and is incapable of policing itself. They call for a full public inquiry not only into the Catholic Church but also into the Church of England". The solicitors said:
From cases we are handling currently, we are aware of some 41 Catholic priests who have been convicted of serious sexual offences in the recent past. Yet these very same organisations, particularly in the Catholic Church, have persistently ignored and in many cases covered up complaints of abuse [...] and we believe these are the tip of the iceberg. The culture of cover-up has been embedded in the Catholic Church for decades if not centuries.
On 2011 Sep 23, the IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union) spoke at the 18th session of the UN Human Rights Council, condemning the Vatican "for attempting to undermine democracy and human rights by insisting that child abuse cases be judged under the churches' own rules of canon law rather than the laws of the state"30.
For a shameful exposé of the scale of this problem, see:
Much of the sexual abuse within Christian churches is internal, for example between priests and student priests, including seniors ignoring and reprimanding juniors when they complained of sexual abuse, and widespread admittance that the seniors themselves had such experiences as juniors. "After reviewing 473 priests or histories of priests who have [abused children] seventy to eighty percent of priests who sexually abuse have themselves been abused as children, some by priests. Furthermore, a high percentage of those who later abused youngsters - whether or not they themselves were abused as children - were in effect given permission for such activity by a priest or religious superior who himself crossed the sexual boundary with the priest abuser during the time he was studying for ordination. Ten percent of priests report that they were approached sexually by a priest during the time of their theological studies"31.
Current edition: 2015 Aug 30
Last Modified: 2019 Oct 30
Parent page: Christianity
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The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(1986) The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West. Subtitled: "Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West". Published by Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London, UK. A hardback book.
(2011) Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA.
Bussey Professor of Historical Theology at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA. In Sipe (1995) foreword.
(1995) Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis. Published by BunnerMazel Inc., New York, USA. A.W. Richard Sipe is a retired Roman Catholic Priest. Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Chair of the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institution, Minnesota, USA. (Biblio detail correct as of 1995). The Amazon link points to a modern book by Sipe on the same topic as the one referenced here. A hardback book.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
Church scandals prompt action. Business Insurance (1994 Jan 02) p1. In Sipe (1995) p8.