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Searching the church for answers on sex

The Unauthorized Guide to Sex and the Church; Carmen Renee Berry; W Publishing Group: 320 pp., $17.99 paper Living the Celibate Life: A Search for Models and Meaning; A. W. Richard Sipe; Ligouri: 166 pp., $16.95 paper

December 26, 2005|John D. Spalding | Special to The Times

AS a leader, Jesus gave lots of instructions. Pay your taxes. Turn the other cheek. Don't judge others, lest ye be judged. Go out and teach all nations, but take nothing more with you than a staff, sandals and one tunic.

Yet for all his concern about how his followers comported themselves, Jesus said little about how they should behave sexually. Which may be one reason why Christians are so divided on, and often confused about, issues ranging from homosexuality and abortion to sex education, in vitro fertilization, masturbation, divorce, sex outside marriage and virginity.

As these subjects continue to roil Christians, two books shed some much-needed light on sex and spirituality. In "The Unauthorized Guide to Sex and the Church," Carmen Renee Berry examines the sexual issues confronting Christianity today and outlines where each major denomination stands on them. The book will undoubtedly help some who haven't made up their minds on sexual matters, especially young Christians; one sample chapter title is "The Church Fathers Freak Out About Sex." But it may give the most benefit to those people who think they have all the answers.

Offering a broad historical survey, Berry emphasizes that Judeo-Christian sexual morality is not a "concrete, set-in-stone code of conduct upon which all Jews and Christians have agreed -- a misconception most often promoted by Christians themselves." What religious folk consider acceptable sexual practices have been defined and redefined over the millenniums. The ancient Israelites, for example, policed sexuality with strict property and purity laws, which Jesus then rejected. And whereas early church fathers were celibate and viewed purity as "the absence of sex altogether," Berry writes, Luther insisted sex should be enjoyed and that marriage, not celibacy, is the preferred state for most of God's people.

The gold standard for Christian thinking about sex, Berry says, should always be Jesus, who elevated intentions above specific activities. And though he offered few sexual dos and don'ts, Berry lays down the law on at least one issue: sex and the single Christian. "As a single person," she writes, noting elsewhere that she's never been married, "I am very sad to announce that there is not a shred of biblical evidence or legitimate Church tradition that gives any credence to having 'righteous' sex outside the context of marriage.... If you're not married, you're supposed to be celibate."

But as A.W. Richard Sipe argues, celibacy can be just as valid and fulfilling a way of life as marriage. In fact, celibacy and marriage have more in common than one might think.

Like marriage, celibacy "takes practice, fosters self-knowledge, involves the capacity to relate, and the ability to endure deprivation," Sipe writes in "Living the Celibate Life." And neither marriage nor celibacy is principally about sex: "They are relationship-centered or they are not real and enduring."

Sipe's book is a thoughtful exploration and defense of celibacy (he wrote it partly in response to the Catholic sex-abuse scandal that has brought into question mandatory celibacy for priests), and it's unique among celibacy books because he approaches the subject from the "point of view of the natural" -- that is, human experience -- rather than from a theoretical or theological perspective.

In other words, Sipe, a former priest and the author of seven books on religious celibacy, views sexual development as a process that "involves the deepest physical, psychic, and spiritual capacities of what it means to be human."

That's why priests who think of celibacy merely as a prerequisite to ordination are bound to fail, as are people who view celibacy as a negative. Why? "Because these persons will subject themselves to an inevitable self-deception, thinking that if they can rid themselves from the start of any sexual thought, word, desire, or action then they are celibate," Sipe writes.

Practicing celibacy successfully, on the other hand, requires one "to be able to tolerate, think through, struggle with all sexual thoughts and desires, and to ask and answer the question: What do these sexual thoughts and desires mean for the individual and about him or her?" Indeed, self-knowledge is one of the rewards of celibacy. And in a culture so saturated with sex yet simultaneously so confused about it, perhaps less sex and more self-knowledge is just what we all need.

John D. Spalding is the editor of and the author of "A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City."

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