An Inquiry.

Andrew Szebenyi
Le Moyne College. 2010.

 

There is a conflict between the way I was brought up as a child in Hungary and my personal experiences of life today in the US. I identify my education with my religious culture which provided me with many good directives, but also with some deeply rooted dysfunctional ideals and mindsets. The dysfunctionality of these ideals and mindsets show up now in the experiences of real life. The conflict is rooted in the moral theology of the times of my childhood, notably a deep negativity and mistrust toward the human body, supported by certain traditional principles without adequate rational explanations. Other sources of conflict are the cultural biases which are obviously wrong and include matters of centuries long injustice, arrogance, ignorance, and worst of all, the condemnation and rejection of some of God’s created given, of which God clearly said, they are good. (Genesis, chapter 1.) The purpose of this brief essay is to unmask and face up to these unexplained dysfunctional principles and distorting cultural biases, and find some remedy that can heal the damage they have caused. Of course, these matters of conflict are elusive and never quite tangibly clear, having been immersed into the ever boiling cauldron of use and abuse, and unconsidered consequences in the lives of many.  Nonetheless,  I am hopeful that conflicts can be resolved and the damage repaired.

As a starter, I would like to reflect upon an extreme form of negativity about the human body deeply rooted in our cultural history. Apart from some half-hearted efforts in art to the contrary, I have experienced this negativity in many forms. Take, for instance, the situation when someone knocking at the door of another asks the question before opening the door, “Are you decent?”. What is implied here is that the human body without the cover-up of clothing is indecent. Or in more heavy matters, consider the ideals of virginity and chastity which have been placed before me when I was a child as the norm of life to be realized under the penalty of eternal damnation. When I was thirteen years old, I was very much involved in gymnastics. One day we built a pyramid, one boy standing on the shoulders of another. Being a strong kid, I was on the bottom. The pyramid collapsed and one of the boys fell on me and broke my leg. For weeks I was lying in bed immobilized by pain and a heavy plaster cast. That was the time when my Mom, probably at the recommendation of her brother, a Jesuit priest, gave me a book to read written for boys by Tihamer Toth. I still remember the title, Tiszta Férfiuság (Chaste Manhood), which identified holiness with becoming and being asexual. According to this view, all sexual feelings, thoughts, and acts are to be suppressed and condemned and considered to be sinful, dirty, and demeaning. The painting of St. Aloisius was placed before me as the image of the ideal, holding a bunch of white lilies intended to symbolize the purity of the chaste. All this, of course, produced a disharmony in me between my developing biological realities and my Christian ideals. By the way, flowers, including the lilies St. Aloisius was holding in that painting, are actually the most blatantly exposed genitals of plants. And they are quite beautiful. I personally prefer those which are more colorful and smell nicer than white lilies.

What I recall from my childhood about virginity is that it was raised above all other states of life. Who is a virgin? A person who had no sexual experiences of any kind. A virgin is comparable to an unopened flower. The vow of chastity provides the framework and a lifestyle of remaining in this virginal state for life, innocent and holy, unspoiled by lust. It is assumed that virginity is a form of childlike innocence far from the coarse and disgusting sensualities of lovemaking and child bearing. St. Augustine (354-430) wrote, “Lust requires for its consummation darkness and secrecy; and this not only when unlawful intercourse is desired, but even such fornication as the earthly city has legalized. . .  What!  does not even conjugal intercourse, sanctioned as it is by law for the propagation of children, legitimate and honorable though it may be, does it not seek retirement from every eye?” (The City of God. Book 14, Chapter 18.) There is a certain amount of pagan, Neoplatonic dualism in this statement separating body and soul, condemning one and extolling the other. This dualism becomes even more clear in another quote from St. Augustin: “Those famous men who marry wives only for the procreation of children, such as we read the Patriarchs to have been, and know it, by many proofs, by the clear and unequivocal testimony of the sacred books; whoever, I say, they who marry wives for this purpose only, if the means could be given them of having children without intercourse with their wives, would they not with joy unspeakable embrace so great a blessing? Would they not with great delight accept it?” (Sermons on the New Testament.  Sermon 1, paragraph 23.)

Why this negativity about the human body in general, and about human sexuality in particular? Are these not God’s creations of which God said, as we read in the book of Genesis, they are good? Is procreation not a divine command? Then why this negativity? Why this fear?

And there is another twist to this unfortunate state of affairs. The distortion of human relationships between the genders by a cultural bias. To put it bluntly, the bias is the patriarchal, male chauvinistic mindset going back through the centuries to the time of the book of Genesis and beyond. In the first chapter of Genesis we read that God first created Adam. In the second chapter we find that Adam was directly formed by God, that is, not  born from a woman, and that the first women, Eve,  was formed from him to provide him with company, and alleviate his loneliness. The point of Genesis is, of course, to make a monotheistic statement about creation, but this statement is made in terms of the language of the time, which was totally male dominated. The line of descent was given, therefore, as God, a male, created Adam, a male, and then He, that is God, made Eve, a woman, from and for the male. This male centered framework of thinking was the only available language at the time the book of Genesis was written. Today we call this way of thinking unjust, ignorant, and the cause of untold abuse and misery that has been going on for a long time through many centuries. Today, such a mindset is destructive and sinful. It is not the statement of creation that is in need of correction, but the cultural bias of the time in which the creation statement has been presented.

One of the consequences of male dominance was the deep rooted double standard for men and women. This double standard is obvious in the book of Genesis, not just in terms of origin, but also in terms of whom to blame. At the time of temptation it was Eve who tasted the forbidden fruit first and then she gave it to Adam who also tasted it. Confronted by God, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent, a possible symbol for the male penis. And then their eyes were  opened and they realized that they were naked, so they attempted to hide their nakedness. In other words the woman is the temptress for the man. She is the one who brings him down from the lofty heights of the spirit into the dirty and sweaty jungle of despicable carnal desires. In all this, we experience original sin as the cultural distortion of the created given.

Consider this for double standard. When the Pharisees wanted to catch Jesus in his speech they placed him in a dilemma by bringing a woman to him who was caught in the very act of adultery. According to the law of Moses she was to be stoned to death for her sin, a most painful form of capital punishment. (John 8:2-6) The man who had intercourse with her was not even mentioned, his crime was unimportant in comparison to her crime. Or consider this. According to ancient tradition, a virgin girl was looked upon as an unspoiled good who could then be traded in marriage by her father to a suitable future husband. After the transaction, in which she had no voice, she became the property of her husband, who could do with her very much as he pleased. Her duty was to serve him, and bear his children, preferably sons.

Among many other forms of “man-made” misery, we are locked into a dysfunctional negativity and shame about the human body, and into an equally unhealthy and distorted male centered power structure of human affairs. This statement just about describes the dark side of my early cultural environment, shared by many of us.  Would it be possible to break free from this, learn from the past, and build a world that is truly rational, and joyful?  Let us, at least, talk about that. What I propose here are some possibly helpful insights, open for dialogue, of course. As to their worth and direction? Time will tell.

First proposal: The created given.

All that God created is good and holy and clean. The purpose of all created given is to support the many forms of life to be and to become according to God’s creating plan. As we receive what God has made, we should try to understand it, enjoy it, and make good use of it with appreciation and gratitude . What is evil is the abuse of God’s created given. And abuse means a way of use that causes harm to oneself or to others. The human body is a created given and we should never be ashamed of it but appreciate it in its totality and in all its parts. At present, we attach importance to the way we dress, putting on a show as we cover up and hide our real self and treasure, the human body.

In ethology we use the expression, habituation, to name a process of learning that reduces the originally large number of unspecified stimuli to a few functional ones. The classical example of habituation is the story of the crouching behavior of chicks of ground nesting birds. The nest is in an open field but the chicks are well camouflaged against predators flying overhead provided they crouch low and become motionless whenever a predator appears above. First they respond with this behavior to anything that flies overhead, be that a non predatory bird, or even an inanimate object such as a dry leaf blown by the wind. As time goes on they become habituated to the more common objects, but will still crouch and become motionless if a rare object appears, such as a predator. How does this example enlighten our present issue? We hide the sexual nature of the human body, and we don’t talk about it. We say, “Out of sight, out of mind”, which, of course, contradicts the realities of healthy physiology and development. In other words, we prevent a normal habituation process to occur, and the multitude of rather general stimuli remain effective in provoking sexual responses in a highly sensitised environment. This may not have been dysfunctional in a world of the past where the maximization of reproductive success was necessary to balance high death rates. In our world, however, where reproductive restraint is required to balance a runaway population growth, habituation could be quite beneficial by reducing sexual responses to a functional few, and so creating a situation that is more open to rational control.

Second Proposal: Fruitful life.

One might say that the combination of need to maximize reproductive success, and the restrictive and negative mindset about the human body has been behind the idea that the sole purpose of sexuality is procreation. Such alliance today is damaging. Just as the genital organ has more than one function, human sexuality is also multifunctional. In a marital relationship, in addition to responsible procreation, one should also be concerned with loving and functional relationships in the family and in society, and one should also consider matters of physical and psychological health of oneself and others. To maintain faithful marital relationship, and at the same time to practice responsible family planning, the use of adequate contraception is necessary. The nature of contraceptive method belongs to the free choice of the parents. They are the best judges as to what is adequate and most suitable in their lives and culture.

Does the above statement contradict tradition? It does not, if we understand tradition in terms of pastoral care for the well being of the people in any given time and circumstances. One should realize that a restrictive and negative mindset may not consider the biological realities of the natural given but may impose an often dysfunctional and by now destructive principle from an unchanged and unadapted past tradition. The fundamentalist static statement that “If it was good enough for David, it’s good enough for me” does not consider that circumstances do change, and so is our understanding of the world within and all around us. Our world is not static but is in a process of adaptive changes according to actual and not theoretical needs. In the same way, creation is not just an event of the past but is an ongoing process, and our proper response to this process should be guided by the spirit of aggiornamento or adaptability proposed by the second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

How does this apply to our practical understanding of human sexuality today? In our present world, where reproductive restraint is an ecological imperative for the sake of survival, the inadequacy and the error of reducing the many forms of relationship oriented sexual behaviors to the exclusively procreative ones becomes obvious. The support and source of the lifelong, dedicated, loving, and faithful relationship of husband and wife, and the provision and maintenance of a stable, caring, and nurturing environment of family life for the children by mother and father, are made possible by ongoing sexual bonding. Only a small part of this lifelong relationship is taken up by the biological act of procreative intercourse. In other words, a child is not just the product of one particular evening, but far more the fruit of a lifetime based on the ongoing sexual relationship of Mom and Dad. The pleasures and joys of this bonding relationship are sacred in their own rights.

 

Third Proposal: Balance.

It would not express adequately our full appreciation of God’s creation if we were to look upon what I call here “the created given” as an unchanging and to us external work of art that is simply there to be admired. The most wonderful part of the created given is being alive, in motion, and in an amazingly complex, ever adaptively changing and yet balanced sets of relationships of interdependence in terms of mutual needs. All these are certainly present in human relationships, such as in the relationships within families, between peoples, between the human race and all other living beings in the biosphere of the earth. Our task is to love, support, and understand life, and become the knowing and active agents in this complex balance  of interdependence. In the scientific world, we call this understanding the science of Ecology.

In 1944, a small herd of twenty-nine rain deer were introduced onto St. Matthew island in the North Pacific. The natural predator of the rain deer is the wolf, which was not introduced. The largest predator on the island was the fox, and it had nothing to do with rain deer. The island provided a lush vegetation and the herd increased in number to about 6000 within 21 years. This many was way beyond the carrying capacity of the  island, and coupled with a rather severe winter, the population crashed. Through starvation, the population was reduced to 42 sick animals which eventually also died. (D. R. Klein. Journal of Wildlife Management, volume 32, of The Wildlife Society. 1968.) The question remains what would have happened if a small number of wolf, the natural predator of the rain deer, had also been introduced to the island. On the main land the pray of the wolf is the old, the sick, and the very young. A healthy rain deer can outrun the wolf, and the very young is protected by the behavior of the herd. In this way, on the main land, both, the predator and the prey survive and remain in balance.

We can learn from this example. The idea that survival means the domination and destruction of one life form by another is totally unnatural. The key to survival is the balance between the many divers forms of life. For good life, for a life that can be maintained in time, we all need each other in a state of balance. The predator cannot survive without the prey, and the prey cannot survive without the predator. In any natural situation there is balance if birthrate and death rate are even for each of the many interdependent populations, keeping the size of them well within the carrying capacity of their resources. It is under these conditions of balance, that the rich diversity of life is maintained on earth through the many millions of years.

The same lesson applies well to our own situation. All through history, until the last century, the human population was in balance. Birthrate and death rate were close to equal, and in terms of resources, the size of the population was well within the carrying capacity of the earth. In order to maintain this balance, because of high death rate, we had to keep our reproductive success at its biological maximum. This need through the centuries created the tradition and the firm belief that every sexual act must lead to, or at least must be open to procreation. During the last century the many discoveries of the medical sciences reduced death rate significantly, while birthrate has not been adjusted, because tradition opposed the now needed reproductive restraint. The result of this dysfunctional neglect was the six fold increase of the human population within a century to a still growing 6.7 billion, representing a situation of dangerous imbalance. Let us remember that balance is survival, and imbalance is extinction. Therefore, today, any realistic idea about love and respect for life should include the understanding and the effort that we do need to achieve balance within the carrying capacity of the earth. This can be done by completing an already started world wide demographic transition equalizing birthrate and death rate through adequate reproductive restraint. And for this, we need a thoroughly revised and functional moral theology on human sexuality that is in harmony with present needs.

 

Fourth Proposal: Matters of love and reason.

Consider for a moment the following case. A couple got married at the age of 25. They loved each other very much. They did want to have children and they wanted to provide a beautiful and secure and stable family life for them. Because of reasons of ecology, and their financial situation, they aimed to have two children. They wanted a boy and a girl, but two girls or two boys would have been just as good. During the first year of their marriage the wife became pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful little girl. Two years later she became pregnant again and a little boy was born. At this time they were 28 years old. After the second child, the wife started to use the pill, and her husband the condom. She could not make use of natural family planning because her cycles were irregular, and their relationship was threatened because of the unpredictability of safe days. In spite of all these precautions, she became pregnant again at the age of 32. They did not want to have an abortion, and a second little girl was born, but this time with some complications. That was when the husband, talking it over with his wife, chose to have vasectomy. This made them free from the need to use any ongoing contraceptive method. They remained sexually active and deeply bonded to each other through the years while the children grew up, and in a less intensive way for the rest of their lives. The husband died at the age of 82, and the wife eight years later at the age of 90.

A bit of calculation shows that in the above example, out of the 57 years of married life, three years were intentionally procreative, while 54 years were sexually active but intentionally non procreative giving a ratio of 1 to 19. Was their choice of use of contraceptive means to restrict and regulate the birth of their children justified and morally acceptable? Even as early as the 1960s, the second Vatican council recognized the need for reproductive restraint according to the conditions of the time, and it was also recognized that the way to achieve this restraint was not through the breaking off of the sexual intimacy of married life, because that would imperil the quality of family life and the faithfulness of the conjugal bond. This is what we read in the documents of the council on the  Church in the modern world (Gaudium et Spes) in paragraph 51: “This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married life harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where, at least temporarily, the size of their families should not be increased. . . . But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, it is not rare for its faithfulness to be imperilled, and its quality of fruitfulness ruined.” What remained to be clarified at the time of the council was the means to achieve the necessary reproductive restraint. The only point that the council stated specifically was that taking of life through abortion is morally not acceptable. As to the difference between the circumstances of the 1960s and our present times is the realization that we are dealing here, in addition to personal needs, with an ecological imperative, the need to balance birthrate and death rate for the sake of our survival, and consequently the expression of the council document, “for the time being”, refers to a period of time longer then just a single lifetime as it encompasses several generations. For the sake of not playing games here, one should add that the most important aspect of the selected method should be its functional adequacy and its preference in the many diverse conditions of different peoples. 

As to the contraceptive methods available today, one should realize that none of them are totally failure proof, and also each may have unwanted side effects, physical, social, and psychological. In addition, some methods labelled contraceptive may actually be abortive, because they do not prevent conception but the implantation of an already fertilized ovum.  Because abortion is not a contraceptive method, and because contraception may fail, any sexual activity that involves intercourse should be protected by the promise of a stable and nourishing environment for children, such as provided by marriage and the family. Instead of silence and denials, parents and schools should talk about these things openly, and so prepare children well for their adult lives.

Is it wise or realistic to try to limit legitimate avoidance of pregnancy to a single category of methods, specified as the various forms of natural family planning? In view of personal as well as cultural circumstances, the answer to this question should be, No. Among other reasons, these methods are inadequate for women whose reproductive cycles are irregular preventing the accurate prediction of the time of ovulation.  In addition to this uncertainty, the natural spontaneity of love making is an  essential character of a healthy marital relationship and should not be sacrificed to regimentation.

 

Fifth proposal: Matters of health of mind and body.

Human sexuality is a created given, we experience it as a God given natural phenomenon. The nature of this experience is cyclic in terms of hormonal changes resulting in the build up of sexual tension in need of release, which is obtainable through the pleasure of orgasm. In the procreative context, such orgasm is experienced during intercourse. Otherwise, release may be obtained through masturbation, a concept loaded with cultural negativity. In the traditional mindset, where all sexual must be channelled toward procreation for the sake of survival, the former is extolled and the latter condemned. In our century, for ecological reasons, the traditional mindset has become dysfunctional because it provides no other release from sexual tension than procreation. To live in a world of high sexual tension without resolution may represent a health hazard for many in terms of personal and social well being. Consequently, for pastoral reasons, we are very much in need of a revision that renders moral theology functional for our time. One should add that according to present medical opinion, masturbation for the sake of release of sexual tension, is not harmful in any way, and it can be beneficial.  What may be  damaging is the feeling of guilt provided by the traditional mindset. We should also remember that the proper response to fear of abuse is not the denial of all use, because that in itself is also a form of abuse. Just as overeating is harmful, so is not eating enough. The question in this inquiry is whether such understanding should also be applied to sexual tension as well. I wonder about the possible connection between the build up of unreleased sexual tension and such destructive behaviors as irresponsible intercourse, rape, prostitution, and child abuse. Could such behaviors be defused and the harm they cause avoided by an obviously simple and natural release of sexual tension through masturbation? Should one consider such release as no more than a matter of health through personal hygiene?  Or are there other ways to diffuse sexual tension? Some may call this tension “energy” that can be “sublimated” into creative work, sports, success in a career, and so on. Can these assumptions be proven for general use, or are they just empty assumptions without any real evidence?

In a real world, to live in an intense environment without release takes its toll on well  being and health for sure. In terms of the needed reproductive restraint, which means two children in most families, and without other release than procreation, most of the lives of the married and all the lives of the unmarried would be reduced to this world of constant stress, which would be certainly unnatural and damaging. For the sake of ecological as well as pastoral concerns, solution to this problem about means to obtain relief is very much needed. I did my best in this inquiry to suggest a solution, the only available one as far as I could find. To say no to it without giving functional alternatives is to speak in meaningless empty words.

 

Sixth proposal: Relationship.

As to healthy relationship, consider the following case histories. In the diocese of Syracuse, because of priest shortage, and because of diminishing financial support from a shrinking faith community arose the necessity of closing and merging parishes. The choice as to which churches will remain open and which ones will be closed is a difficult and painful one. It is hard to lose a a church, a source of strength and consolation, to which one has been attached and accustomed through a lifetime. One can say that I have been baptized in that church. I got married in that church. I know the people there through the many years, we prayed together. And now all this is gone. In some instances the resistance on the part of the parishioners to closing a parish escalated to a really bad situation. Take the example of St. Mary’s church in Jamesville NY. The parishioners resisted the closing of their church by having some people in the building all the time. One day the police arrived and ousted them. One of them asked a police woman if she had a warrant to do this. The answer was, “I do not have a warrant, but I have a badge and a gun.” This is certainly not a way to close a church. Other places were more successful. Take, for instance, the merging of Our Lady of Solace parish and St. Therese parish in the south-east side of Syracuse NY. The choice as to which of the two churches will remain open fell on St. Therese’s. The merging process started with many problems, and yet it became a great success. What made a difference was that the people at St. Therese church did not say to the parishioners of Our Lady of Solace, “Come, you are welcome in our church”, but “Let us make a new church together”. The whole place received a new name, All Saints church, and was transformed with the help of a new caring pastor and many helpers.

How does all this apply to matters of relationship in a family, and among friends? The answer to this question is very simple. One should not say, “You are welcome in my life”, but “Let us make a new life together”. Love is the foundation of all healthy and fruitful relationship, and to love someone means that the happiness and well being of the other is one’s own happiness and well being. All this becomes meaningful in the realities of the natural created given.

 

Seventh proposal: The homosexual orientation.

It should be clearly stated at the very outset of considering homosexual orientation that it is a natural given. The uncertainty about the development of such orientation is a sign of ignorance on our part, and not an excuse for prejudiced maltreatment or lack of respect of any sort. It can be said that homosexual orientation is a biological reality of interaction between both, genetic and environmental factors. As always, the genetic factors provide a range of possibilities, while the environment of development determines where within this range the trait will be expressed. The overall result in the population is a bimodal distribution of sexual orientation.

To illustrate the nature of such bimodal distributions, consider the case of laterality, or handedness. Provided we measure handedness from performances which are least culturally influenced, we obtain in a sufficiently large sample a bimodal distribution where there are very few who are right handed in all tasks, or left handed, or totally ambidextrous. In such a sample, it is important to minimize the cultural bias which looks upon right handedness as the norm. The  cultural bias in favor of right handedness goes way back in history. In the Roman times the word “dextera” meant the right hand implying dexterity and readiness for social contact, while the word “sinistra” meant the left hand which was mostly hidden and used among others for demeaning tasks of personal hygiene. It is only more recently that the right hand and the left have been given a more equal status. Handedness is a natural given and should be accepted as such. The same should apply to sexual orientation.

Some people may say that homosexual orientation cannot be natural because it does not contribute to the propagation of the species. This is a rather biased statement, because survival implies far more than just increase in numbers. In a social context, individual contributions, apart from reproduction, may be significant in terms of the survival of the group. In addition, such orientation can be beneficial for the group in terms of balance which is then genetically maintained. The amount of genetic variation in a population is a good example to illustrate such balance. The amount of genetic variation mirrors the dynamic nature of the environment. To be adaptive, stable environment requires less variation than a changing environment. Mutations are the ultimate source of genetic variation, but recombination, that is the shuffling of genes in individual genomes, is the more significant and the more immediate source. The viability of the recombinants is decreased by chromosome inversions. So we have two factors, one increasing the other decreasing genetic variation. These two factors are in balance close to a practical optimum according to the nature of a given environment. In human terms, death rate is not the only factor to control unlimited growth, and those who can have children should be grateful to those who cannot.

I believe that our sexual nature in any form of orientation is a natural given, and, therefore, a created good, that should be accepted and respected without bias. A caring society should provide a framework of expression of relationships in its given natural meaning. After all, every human person has the right to love and to be loved. The witchhunt against homosexual orientation must stop.

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