Dialogue: Are Paul, the Bible, & Catholicism Against Sex?

Dialogue: Are Paul, the Bible, & Catholicism Against Sex? February 11, 2020

This exchange took place on my blog, underneath the article, Dialogue: Is Catholic Virginity an “Anti-Sex” Viewpoint? Words of anti-theist-type agnostic 90Lew90 will be in blue. Words of fellow Catholic Susan Schudt (who earned an MA in theology and MS in chemical engineering) will be in green.

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It’s clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that Paul takes a dim view of sex, seeing it as unfortunate at best, and that marriage is an exculpatory measure against the sins of lust and fornication.

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the joys of sex. It’s interesting that you had to dig out the Song of Solomon to find some romantic verse. The New Testament is deeply anti-sex and Catholicism has erected a cult of virginity. I’m sorry, but I don’t know how it can be seen any other way.

Christians believe that the entire Bible is inspired revelation from God, so it’s irrelevant and downright silly: this notion that I had to “dig out” the Song of Solomon in order to find a presentation of sexuality in the Bible. It’s in there. There are all sorts of things in the Bible. If the biblical worldview was supposedly so “anti-sex” these passages in Song of Solomon simply wouldn’t be there.

Are we to take it, by the same logic, that the biblical worldview is “pro-war”?

Forgive me, but you really do have to “dig out” the Song of Solomon to find anything romantic in the Bible among the myriad injunctions against sexual relations of this kind or that, and the reams of bloodcurdling accounts of wars, and rape, and murder, etc.

The Song of Solomon is a practically a needle in a haystack. And it is clear, is it not, that Paul takes a dim view of sex, and much of Christian sexual morality is derived from Paul.

We are to take it that the Bible is not pacifist (a different proposition from “pro-war”). I’ve written about it (way back in 1987).

Right, so in answering whether or not the Bible is anti-sex, you dig out the Song of Solomon. One representation of romantic sexual love, in this supposed guide to life from the heavens. One. Given the centrality of sexuality in human life, one would have thought there might be a bit more about it than a single love poem.

There is plenty in Christian doctrine, and perhaps Catholic doctrine especially, which is anti-sex, whatever way you cut it. The framework within which human sexual relations are supposed to take place is restrictive to the extent that it can’t realistically be expected of healthy, fully-functioning people. Healthy intimacy between people, playful sex in all of its manifestations is not only discouraged, but is presented as Satanic, not least by Paul in 1 Corinthians.

It is important to understand 1 Corinthians 7 within the context of the crisis Paul was addressing, as well as the fact that it is one of his earlier letters. From 1 Corinthians 7 to Ephesians 5 provides a wonderful example of Development of Doctrine (it doesn’t lose its proper substance, moves towards a greater understanding of the truth of Jesus Christ, and never betrays the fundamental nature of previous teachings). The marital covenant, and thus intercourse, images the union of Christ and His Church, and is therefore holy.

This old chestnut. Isn’t it ever possible to take anyone at their word in the Bible?

Looked at plainly, Paul takes a dim view of sex in that passage. We might speculate that he thought the End Times were imminent, but since that proved not to be the case, and all we’re left with is Paul’s views on sex, it remains clear that he took a dim view of sex.

That dim view carries through undiminished into Christian tradition. Call it “development of doctrine” or whatever. Christians, for all their obsession with sex, do not celebrate sex. At all.

I am also not sure how you reconcile your understanding of Paul with verse 14: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.” This is through marriage. Even in the context of the chapter your understanding of Paul’s ‘dim view’ is suspect. Marriage (and what goes on within it) leads to sanctity, plainly.

A note on marriage: Marriage is not sex. Marriage is a sacrament in itself. It is by the sacrament that the unbeliever is “made holy”, through the union with the believer in the eyes of God/the Church. Even at that, the Catholic Church has its preconditions, as I’m sure you’re aware.

Sexuality is fundamental to Catholic marriage and its sacramentality. “The two shall become one flesh.” We hold that the primary purpose of marriage (and sex) is to produce children): if this is possible. If someone is infertile, that’s different; it’s not willfully choosing not to procreate. So sex is not separate from it. Nice try, though!

Marriage is clearly nothing more than an exculpatory compromise so that if one must have sex, then one can have an outlet for it without falling into sin.

It is also made clear that it would be best for all involved if they could just remain celibate — or even better, a virgin.

“I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am.”

The moral is: If you must have sex. Get married. If you can go without, do so.

It couldn’t be more clear.

You don’t understand Paul’s basic point in 1 Corinthians 7 (I agree with Susan’s insightful comments). His central point is found in three verses:

7:7 (RSV, as throughout, except for one passage below from NIV) I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

7:17 Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. . . .

7:20 Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.

For Paul (and for God: for all who believe the Bible is inspired revelation), each person has a calling, which includes the married vs. single states and also vocation and estate in life. Each person ought to determine what their calling from God is, and abide by it. This is the basis of our celibate priesthood. We believe that certain men were called by God to lead a celibate life: a life of (as Paul puts it) “undivided devotion to the Lord” (7:35).

It’s very practical, realistic advice. Paul was just arguing in 7:32-34 that the married man understandably wants to “please his wife” whereas the single man who wants to be in ministry can give undivided attention to God. Hence, in Catholicism we have this notion of priests and religious (nuns, etc.) being “married to the Lord.”

So all Paul is saying is that each person should figure out what state he was called to. This is not “anti-marriage” or “anti-sex” in the slightest, or your so-called “dim view.” If it is “anti” anything, it is “anti-not following one’s calling.”

We do believe that consecrated celibacy is a higher state, because of the sacrificial renunciation involved. But it doesn’t follow that we look down on marriage or sex. Marriage is a sacrament, which means that it gives grace to the couple. And there are passages about spouses helping to save each other.

Paul also gets into the practical, realistic business of sex drives and urges. If someone struggles with an undue passion or possibly lust as well, then Paul states matter-of-factly: “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” This is not anti-marriage or anti-sex, either. It’s simply stating the obvious. In a (biblical, Catholic, and traditional Protestant and Orthodox) worldview which holds that the only lawful moral sex is in marriage, between a man and a woman (open to procreation), this is self-evident. There is no option (morally) to simply fornicate and leave it at that. Sex belongs in marriage and the commitment inherent therein. So if the natural passions and drives (which are never condemned in Scripture; only lust) are present and increasing, then it is wise to marry.

As Susan also mentions, you have to look at Ephesians 5 also:

Ephesians 5:25-32 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
[26] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
[27] that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
[28] Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
[29] For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
[30] because we are members of his body.
[31] “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
[32] This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church;

1 Corinthians 7 was ultimately about one’s calling in life, whereas Ephesians 5 is describing marriage and its purpose, and it is described as the man loving his wife as Christ loved the Church (dying so that anyone who accepts His grace and follows His commandments can be saved), and loving her as he does his own body. And they “become one flesh.” How that is somehow not the most positive, glowing view of both marriage and the unitive, life-giving sexual component of it, is, I confess, a mystery to me.

If you are going to make claims about what Paul thinks, you have to look at all his epistles, not just one chapter of one (that itself doesn’t prove what you claim, anyway; quite the opposite, as I shall proceed to demonstrate).

Even in 1 Corinthians 7 there are “sex is great!” elements. St. Paul strongly implies that married couples should should have sex often and flat-out asserts that each spouse “owns” the other’s body:

7:3-5 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. [4] For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. [5] Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.

Anti-sex? A dim view of sex, or thinking it is bad and evil? Hardly! It’s the exact opposite.

Genesis 2:24-25 expresses God’s plan for human sexuality and marriage:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. [25] And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

They were to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28; repeated in 9:1 and 9:7 with regard to Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law).

We also see explicitly sexual passages like these:

Proverbs 5:18-19 (NIV) May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. [19] A loving doe, a graceful deer– may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love. (translation is similar, including “breasts” in KJV and NASB and other translations)

Hebrews 13:4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled . . .

I disagree that there is/was ever a dim view about sex within marriage from Sacred Scripture or the Tradition of the Church. You have misunderstood, as many have. Sex within marriage has always been considered holy. Perhaps its holiness is something the world cannot fathom (and therefore the misunderstanding of the Christian viewpoint), because for the world sex is something that is desired for its own sake (pleasure), rather than for the sake of self-giving love that images God and is fruitful. To not see sex through the eyes of faith and reason is to be blind to its sacredness and celebration in Christian marriage. Development is not to have a new idea. It is to have a deeper understanding of what is.

I’ll get to it [i.e., my long, in-depth reply above]. In all of my reading — and I’m not reading biased sources, what would be the point? — nobody at all, ever pretends that Paul is “pro-sex”. I’m prepared to make concessions, I’m prepared to be charitable if necessary, though I’ll be clear where I am being charitable. But really, if you’re going to take the frankly daft line that Paul was “pro-sex”, I already feel disinclined to give this the effort I had intended. That Paul was “pro-sex” is just not supportable.

Reply to my long comment, then. I look forward to what you say. Simply repeating an assertion over and over (which is basically what you are doing) is not even rational argumentation (and I’m sure, is one of the logical fallacies). But if this is the beginning of your opting out of discussion, then I will take that as a forfeiture in our little debate. There is an old saying: “a man convinced against his will, retains his original view still.”

It is indeed a logical fallacy (what you have been doing). It’s the argument by repetition, or argumentum ad nauseam:

. . . (also known as: argument from nagging, proof by assertion). Description: Repeating an argument or a premise over and over again in place of better supporting evidence. [source one / see also a second source]

I’ll see your logical fallacy and give you an absurdity: Trying to pretend that Paul was “pro-sex”. Sorry, but that’s just taking it way too far. There is simply no way you can retrofit enthusiasm for sex into anything Paul said, whatever the context or impact of a newer, more accurate translation. It is just plainly absurd. It’s as clear from what he didn’t say as much as what he did.

I’d prefer it if this didn’t descend into pettiness. If you’re going to continue to push this absurdity, count me out.

I see. So you have no answer and no longer wish to continue what I thought was a construction and helpful discussion. In any event, I do sincerely thank you for what has occurred thus far, and especially for maintaining your cordiality, and not bringing it down to the usual level of atheist or agnostic vs. Christian discussion (i.e., rank insults and name-calling and pure condescension, which usually occurs, and on both sides).

Take care, and I hope you comment in the future on my blog. Perhaps we can discuss other things that (for you) do not attain to the level of “plainly absurd.”

It’s as clear from what he didn’t say as much as what he did.

Not to nitpick, but for the sake of logic, this is also a fallacy: the argument from silence, or argumentum ex silentioRational Wiki describes it:

An argument from silence is an informal fallacy that occurs when someone interprets someone’s or something’s silence as anything other than silence, typically claiming that the silence was in fact communicating agreement or disagreement.

The fallacy is an argument from ignorance and an informal fallacy.

I’m busy at the moment. I’m scribbling marginal notes on a hard copy of your longer post. You’ll have to bear with me while I put together a response. It’s not exactly top of my to-do list, you’ll understand!

Did you change your mind? You just stated 52 minutes ago that my stated view was “absurdity”, and “count me out.”

Cool. I’ll await your reply and add it to the new posted dialogue if and when it is posted (and of course I will counter-reply, if you offer something beyond argumentum ad nauseam and argumentum ex silentio).

I have a question for you — do you think the marital embrace is holy? I don’t read Paul like you read Paul… at all. The holiness of marriage is all through Sacred Scripture, OT and NT. Marriage is not sex, true…but sex belongs in marriage alone, and is sanctifying in marriage alone. Paul knew that. I think he would ask you to go read Ephesians 5 as an answer to you, but who am I to speak for Paul? I think he said what he needed to say to the people who needed to hear it. And I think his words are timeless through the centuries in the Church’s teaching. Marriage and all that goes with it is holy, and it has been “from the beginning.”

Frankly, who cares what you think about some arbitrary ritual rule carried over into Christianity from the superstitions of an even older cult?

Ephesians 5? Ah yes, the bit that sanctioned God knows how much marital rape. Great stuff.

That is your jaded, absurd “take” on Ephesians 5. There is nothing whatever about “rape” in there. The man must love his wife like Christ loved the Church (dying for her). Jesus didn’t rape His Church, or His own body (see 5:28-29).

So you would say, I assume, that there are Christians who have taken the subjection verses and abused them as a pretense to rape their wives. Yes, of course. There are always nuts and fanatics and evil people who will abuse any and all passages of Scripture (just as you do yourself!). That doesn’t make the passage itself evil and wicked. It simply doesn’t teach what you claim it does.

Please interact with my long comment. This is not the place for you to merely spew garden variety, warmed-over, half-baked atheist talking-points. I’ll put up with some of that, but not on a sustained basis, including ignoring relevant, on-topic replies to what you have already stated.

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Related Reading:

Is Premarital Sex Morally Wrong? Why? (A Dialogue) [3-18-00]

Sexual Revolution: Not “Liberation” But Societal Tragedy [8-6-01]

Christian Sexual Views and Support from Sociology (Discussions About Christian Sexual Morality and Marriage with Atheists) [12-8-06]

Q & A: Catholic Sexual Morality and Contraception [1-1-08]

Does St. Paul Sanction Premarital Sex (1 Cor 7:36)? [11-21-09]

Dialogue with Atheists: Sexist, Misogynist Bible? [9-20-10]

1 Corinthians 7:36-38: Is it About a Fiancee or a Daughter? [1-31-14]

Virgin Birth & Perpetual Virginity: “Anti-Sex”? [5-21-14]

Woman-Hating Catholic Church?: Reply to an Atheist [10-1-15]

Is Bestiality a Secular Sex Reductio ad Absurdum? [12-21-15]

Catholic Sexuality: A Concise Explanation & Defense [12-29-15]

Catholic Sexuality: Cordial Dialogue with an Agnostic [12-30-15]

Mutual Submission & Headship: Contraries? [5-3-16]

Natural Family Planning: Anti-Sex & Anti-Pleasure? [1-23-17]

Forbidding Marriage? Consecrated Virginity & the Catholic “Both / And” [9-13-17]

Dialogues on the Sexual Revolution & Weinstein’s Victims [10-14-17]

Sex and Catholics: Our Views Briefly Explained [National Catholic Register, 2-2-18]

Epstein and Weinstein: The Fruit of the Sexual Revolution [11-4-17; rev. 7-19-19]

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