Praying for Sex

A 140-year-old organization in London called the “Catholic Truth Society” has published a new “Prayer Book for Spouses,” containing among other things a prayer to be recited by couples before engaging in sex. The prayer runs as follows:

Father, send Your Holy Spirit into our hearts.

Place within us love that truly gives,
tenderness that truly unites,
self-offering that tells the truth
and does not deceive,
forgiveness that truly receives,
loving physical union that welcomes.

Open our hearts to you, to each other
and to the goodness of your will.

Cover our poverty in the richness
of Your mercy and forgiveness.
Clothe us in our true dignity
and take to Yourself our shared aspirations,
for Your glory, for ever and ever.

Mary, our Mother, intercede for us.


It’s too easy to come up with jokes about this (like, whatever happened to a simple “Oh God!”?) What’s more interesting is the light it sheds on Christian totalitarianism, which seeks once again to impose itself on one of the unholier joys of life.

From the very beginning Christianity has been anti-sex. Jesus understood human nature and was as explicit as he could possibly be in suggesting that the elimination of all differences between the sexes was the correct prescription for rigid chastity. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” Jesus says in Matthew 19:12. “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

The castration theme is repeated in the Gospel of Thomas, unearthed at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Though not included in modern Bibles, it appears to be at least as old as the four canonical gospels, and there is no reason to treat it as any less accurate a reflection of what Jesus said: “And when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male be not male nor the female female…then will you enter [the kingdom].” Thomas goes on to relate that “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

Jesus also criticized marriage as sexually tainted: “The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage.”(Luke 20:34-35) Theologians can explain away all they want, but the man said if you want to go to heaven, don’t get married—full stop.

Paul, who shaped Christianity even more than Jesus did, allowed for marriage only grudgingly. In I Corinthians 7:1-2 he says: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” In the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul mimics the beatitudes while urging abstinence between husband and wife: “Blessed are those who have wives as if they did not have them, for they will be the heirs of God.” He later arouses complaints on the missionary trail: “We do not know who he is. But he is depriving young men of their wives and virgins of their husbands, by saying that ‘You will not be raised from the dead unless you remain chaste.’”

Paul was not alone in this. In the Acts of Peter,

A very beautiful woman named Xanthippe, the wife of Albinus, a friend of the emperor, also came to Peter with the other ladies and kept away from Albinus. Being in love with Xanthippe, he became enraged and wondered why she no longer slept with him, and raging like a beast he intended to kill Peter, for he perceived that he was the cause of her leaving his bed. And many other women delighted in the preaching concerning chastity and separated from their husbands, and men too ceased to sleep with their wives, because they wished to serve God in chastity and purity.

Albinus used his friendship with the emperor to get Peter crucified (upside down), much to the relief of the husbands of Rome.

Modern theologians will be quick to point out that the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thecla and Peter are not currently accepted as Christian authority. But the point is to realize the widespread early Christian teaching that sex was disgusting, unholy, and to be avoided as completely as possible and then to examine why this idea lost steam.

In the second century Tertullian declared marriage to be a moral crime, “more dreadful than any punishment or any death.” It was spurcitiae, meaning “obscenity,” or “filth.” A hundred years later, Origen didn’t stop at proclaiming matrimony to be “impure and unholy, a means of sexual passion.” In fact, he took Jesus up on the call to chop off his own testicles. For their part, Jesus and his followers believed the end of the world was imminent, so they saw no procreative advantage to sex. However, after three hundred years passed without the world imploding, that particular prophecy was quietly back-burnered. Still, there was no question but that chastity was more pleasing to God, which is why the Council of Nicea ordered clergy to abstain from sex and marriage in 325 CE—directly contradicting Paul himself, who wrote to Timothy that it was permissible for a bishop to have one wife [1 Tim. 3:2].

Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in today’s Algeria, was a prolific author at the turn of the fifth century who knew quite a bit about sex and whose twenty-two-volume City of God set the intellectual table for the Middle Ages. The title meant what it said: Augustine’s vision was of strict God expert control over every aspect of human life. “It is You,” he wrote of the Church, “who make wives subject to their husbands…You set husbands over their wives; join sons to their parents by a freely-granted slavery, and set parents above their sons in a pious domination…You teach slaves to be loyal to their masters…You teach kings to rule for the benefit of their people, and warn the peoples to be subservient to their kings.”

Augustine kept a concubine for fifteen years and refused to marry her even after she presented him with a son. When his mother found him a suitably rich bride (who was only eleven years old), he told his mistress and their son to get lost. Yet, during the interval before the scheduled wedding, he took on another concubine to while away the hours. Augustine never did get married. Instead, he decided that sex—“this diabolical excitement of the genitals”—was evil in itself, and thus became a certified God expert. He used the word “diabolical” advisedly, to mean that the devil himself was involved, which he thought must be the case because sexual excitement was not controllable through will power: “At times, without intention, the body stirs on its own, insistent; at other times, it leaves a straining lover in the lurch.”

Letting the devil control your body was so awful, decided Augustine, that everything thereby produced was tainted as well. Thus commenced the concept of original sin—the idea that the guilt of Adam and Eve is transmitted to all newborns through the lustful act of procreation. If the sin is not washed away by the Church’s sacrament of baptism, the child won’t be admitted to heaven. Over the centuries, millions of Christian parents whose children died before they could be baptized were tormented with the further psychological agony of believing the souls of their infants would suffer till the end of time because of their neglect.

Nothing in the Bible even remotely suggests a concept like Augustine’s original sin, and no baptisms in the Bible were administered other than to consenting adults. But original sin and infant baptism turned out to be immensely convenient for leaders seeking to exert their control over humanity from the moment of birth, so they caught on quickly. As the Middle Ages unfolded, the Church spread its tentacles. Sex was banned on holy days, and fasting during Lent applied to more than just food. “Excessive” fun with your spouse even during permitted times was frowned upon, because of the lack of self-control this implied. Sodomy, the blackest of crimes, was broadly defined to include not only same-gender relations, but also oral and anal sex and other unnatural adventures such as having the woman on top. A mere parish priest was not authorized to forgive a sin so heinous, but would have to pass the case up to his bishop.

Naturally, it was difficult to persuade people to confess such sins, especially when they knew it would not remain between themselves and their priests. Instructional manuals were written for priests on techniques for coaxing out proper confessions, so that the sins could be forgiven. One suggested a direct approach: “The natural mode, when a man clings together with a woman, is always with the man above and the woman laying beneath. Have you done otherwise? If you have, don’t be ashamed to say.”

Not everyone thought that shame was the chief cause of unconfessed sin. Robert Mannying, in his fourteenth-century poem, Handlyng Synne, feared that parishioners might not realize the gravity of their crimes, and urged them to confess their masturbation and wet dreams because “it may be much, that you think is small.”

Yet another reason why women were reluctant to tell all in the confessional is that quite a few priests used the precious information about which women were more promiscuous than others to their own advantage. Most cases of this sort never came to light, but we do read of the fourteenth-century parish priest Pierre Clergue of Montaillou seducing Beatrice de Lagleize when she came to make confession. John Scarle, a parson in fifteenth-century London, bedded a number of female parishioners after threatening to reveal the lurid details he had learned in the confessional. The confessional was also an ideal venue for identifying willing young boys, as Arnaud de Verniolles calculated when he offered to serve as a confessor even though he had not been ordained as a priest.

The Church administered a sacrament called extreme unction to the dying, as sort of a booster shot of holiness right before approaching the pearly gates. One had to be extremely careful, though, because so much extra holiness could take away certain cherished functions should the patient survive. Mannying’s Handlyng Synne notes: “But many one thus hope and say / Anoint him not unless they should die / For if he turn again to life / He should lie no more by his wife.”

When the Protestant Reformation broke out in the sixteenth century, a few eccentrics read their Bibles, noting the absence of any reference to original sin or the need to baptize infants. The Protestant John Calvin quickly cracked down on this heresy, insisting that the sex act “defiled and polluted” every child in God’s sight even before it saw the light of the day; a newborn infant is a “seed-bed of sin and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God.” Infant baptism opponents in Calvin’s Geneva were routinely executed. Martin Luther chimed in 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.”

The Reformation ended the monopoly of the Catholic Church, which soon realized that numbers created strength, and that procreation was its ultimate weapon. Especially in places like the Irish province of the United Kingdom and the Quebec province of Canada, where the hierarchy viewed itself as leading an oppressed minority, parishioners were urged to breed with abandon, and even taboos like sex during Lent were quietly dropped. Quebec imported shiploads of Catholic orphan girls who were married at fourteen and fifteen years of age, and a penalty tax was imposed on bachelors to fund the award of prizes for the largest families. An official celebration was announced in 1946 when statistics were released showing that mothers in the Québecois parish of Notre Dame D’Herbertville averaged 12.6 children per family.

The Church’s frantic opposition to contraception stems from the fact that it facilitates everything bad about sex while eliminating the one spark of good. The same bias is evident in the Church’s discomfort at the prospect of remarriage for widows, who (on average) are past childbearing age. Pope Pius XII in 1957 explained that “Though the Church does not condemn a second marriage, she expresses her predilection for the souls who wish to remain faithful to their spouses and to a perfect symbolism of the sacrament of marriage.”

Which gets us back to the conundrum of the new foreplay prayer for couples. St. Jerome warned us to “Regard everything as poison which bears within it the seed of sensual pleasure.” The prayer baptizes and pre-cleanses a dirty act, extracting some of the poison from it. It cautions the participants that whatever pleasure they are about to enjoy comes not from each other, but from upstairs—and through the intercession of Mary, an odd choice since the Church insists she never engaged in the act herself. Or maybe not so odd, if the objective is to instill proper guilt.

What ties all this together, from castration through today’s new prayer? Megalomania: the arrogance of “experts” on how God works and what God wants us to do. They feel diminished if any aspect of human behavior escapes their purview, from our sexual activity to what we eat and drink to how we interpret empirically observed fact. More than diminished, they feel threatened: admitting lack of divine guidance in any area of human activity opens the door for a competing, more knowledgeable expert to horn in.

The humanist revolution of the past 350 years has surely made life more challenging for the God experts. The appeal of doing what makes sense to produce a happier life, rather than obeying what they say is God’s will, grows increasingly difficult for them to stifle.  So they strategically retreat, inch by grudging inch, to the point where not only can sex be decontaminated by a short prayer, but the prayer itself can omit all reference to procreation as the “purpose” of the act. Just remember: those howling to spend your tax money on abstinence education while preaching the evils of same-sex relations are the spiritual descendants of the castrators, the marriage-haters, and the original sin fabricators of the “good old days” of godly rule.

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