Despite the evidence of my implausible last name — customer-service staff refuse to believe it, force me to repeat it two and three times, and sometimes even argue, “It can’t be spelled like that!” — the provenance of my Catholic faith is Irish American, courtesy of my catechetical mom. Whatever specifically Croatian quirks dad had going into the marriage were quickly worn away. (Indeed, since he’d learned the “Our Father” as a boy from Irish Christian brothers, he always said the prayer with a notable brogue.) Somehow, over the decades, he even began to look Irish, to the point where I started describing him as a convert. Indeed, I’ve come to think that being Irish American is a religion unto itself — particularly after attending the wedding of a friend. She and the groom were both third generation, and neither had traveled extensively in Ireland. I doubt either could quote more than a poem or two of Yeats’s. And yet, their nuptials were accompanied by a kilted bagpiper, conducted in a church named for an Irish saint, by a priest from the Old Country, whose sermon was all about . . . Ireland.
I can’t speak for everyone with an Irish-American mom — not that they’re used to getting a word in edgewise — but I really did grow up thinking that sexual sins weren’t merely the worst forms of evil but, aside from foul language, the only ones. I’ll never forget my mother sitting with her box of Entenmann’s, happily munching away to a video of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 as some psychopath opened a teenager’s head with a coroner’s saw. When the dying teenager spluttered the F-bomb, mom sighed and wondered aloud, “Now why’d they have to ruin a perfectly nice movie with that kind of filth?” This incident made me wonder how many IRA terrorists walked away from their bombs with clear consciences — then trooped off to confession for impure thoughts.
I’ve written elsewhere that Irish-American sex guilt can only be matched by Jewish race guilt:
Two basic forces driving fallen human history: sheer lust, and rank inequality. Feel compelled to suppress one, and (unless you’re a saint) you’ll probably give yourself a pass on the other. . . .
Historically, such differing attitudes have helped shape American culture. They gave us lots of Irish cops, and lots of Jewish shrinks. (Not too many Irish shrinks; Freud famously said that the Irish were the one race “for whom psychoanalysis seems to be useless. It simply has no effect on them.”) Jews formed the ACLU; Irish the Legion of Decency. Jews went on Freedom Rides; Irish held Draft Riots. Think of Father Coughlin. And Woody Allen.
All kidding aside, in a poignant moment, my mother once admitted concerning marital sex, “I mean I enjoyed it, but I never stopped feeling guilty about it.” To which I muttered silently, “Poor dad.”
In the course of the doctrinal crack-up that occupied the 1970s, mom had much less trouble with the bruited idea of ordaining women than that of married priests. “I don’t want to take Holy Communion from a married man,” she said with a puckered face. “That’s disgusting.” What can one say to that, apart from, “Mom, I think they probably wash their hands“?
But the lady was on to something. My friends at the Melkite parish I like to attend (whose wonderful pastor is married) have reminded me that clergy in that rite are expected to abstain from marital acts on the eve of singing the liturgy — which nicely explains why Eastern rite churches don’t offer daily Mass. There’s something deeply . . . anthropological going on in the attempt to separate the rites of sacrifice from the acts that transmit life. Perhaps it’s akin to the explanation I once heard for keeping milk separate from meat: “You don’t want to mix up the principle of life with that of death,” my Jewish friend explained between bites of his cheeseburger. And that seemed to make sense.
While we know that the Mass is a source of eternal life, the priest’s role is still a sacrificial one. He stands in the person of Christ and offers in unbloody form the corpse of Christ in atonement for sin — which we duly troop up and consume. Perhaps the reason most of us like our liturgies brief and banal is because it helps us forget how creepy it all is on certain level. Even Romans whose amphitheaters were full of orgies and snuff productions were authentically appalled to learn about the Eucharist. No wonder that the first time people got the chance to reinvent Christianity, almost every branch of Protestantism reduced the Eucharist to some sort of gray, symbolic ritual. They also did away, I’d like to point out, with clerical celibacy; it was no longer needed.
There’s a deep tension inbuilt between the aspirations of a Faith whose highest clergy — all bishops and monks, and most of its priests — imitate the virginity of Jesus and His mother, and the ordinary, life-affirming desires that motivate marriage. The Church has fought over the centuries to uphold the special perfections of the celibate state without lapsing into world-despising Gnosticism. It helped that, historically, Gnostics tend to set really deranged ideals — like universal celibacy, sometimes crowned by suicide — then throw up their hands and allow the laity to engage in every kind of perversity.
In recent decades, we have heard far more than we used to about the virtue of Chastity as practiced within a marriage — faithfulness to the spouse, openness to life, and self-sacrificing love between the spouses. Pope John Paul II made a point of canonizing thousands of married laymen — even those who weren’t martyrs, or Catholic monarchs personally responsible for the conversion of their nations. And this is all to the good. We need more role models of Chastity than poor Maria Goretti, or monks who tamed their flesh by wearing hairshirts and refusing to bathe.
Still, I know that I’m not the only person who feels a little . . . squeamish when speakers wax eloquent about the Theology of the Body. I’m perfectly comfortable with the Church’s traditional discussion of Chastity: that it’s part of the virtue of Temperance, designed to restrain a biological drive within the bounds of reason and charity. Couples owe each other a marital “debt,” which if refused can put one or both parties into the occasion of mortal sin. (And the Church managed to say all this long before the invention of the Internet.) The marital act of love is not “merely” the method for generating new human souls, but also the ordinary means of grace within the sacrament; in other words, sexual intercourse is to being married what saying Mass is to being a priest.
In the stricter (“perfect”) form of Chastity, the clergy and religious are called to a sterner discipline, inspired by Christ’s example to wed themselves not to a single person but to Christ and His Church. Hence their calling is in some sense truly higher — and their falls the more abysmal, in case you don’t read the news.
What makes me squirm in my seat is when Catholic writers try to compensate for sexual attitudes like . . . well, those I grew up with by laying really heavy emphasis on the theological realities of marriage — more emphasis than ordinary human experience will bear. It may well be true, as one Theology of the Body writer likes to emphasize, that in some sense marital intercourse helps both partners to enter into the “inner life of the Holy Trinity.” But is that kind of thinking . . . sexy? I’m single, so readers can correct me here, but the last thing I want to hear about on my wedding night is Trinitarian theology. If the Sorrowful Mysteries make lousy foreplay — sorry, Mom — the Joyful ones won’t do much better.
It may be that we can’t use much New Testament material here — since its protagonists were mostly, for good reason, virgins. The Old Testament, with its overriding concern for producing more healthy Jewish babies, might make better grist for marital meditations. Fatherly Abraham; lusty, penitent David; exquisite Esther . . . Perhaps these saints are the ones we need to invoke as we enter the marital bed. Let’s think of the saintly celibates in the morning, as we change crappy diapers, soothe deranged teenagers, and schlep off to work at ridiculous jobs to pay all those bills. At such times, living on a pillar might not sound all that bad.