Holy Sex!--Introduction and Part 1.1

No one could ever accuse Dr. Popcak of laboring under, in a phrase former President George W. Bush memorably coined, the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations.  Here is what Dr. Popcak promises, on the first page of the Introduction:

In Holy Sex! you will discover what it takes to celebrate a toe-curling, eye-popping, mind-blowing, deeply spiritual, and profoundly sacramental sexuality--a sexual relationship that is both fully sensual and fully equipped to move beyond sensuality so that it can become an authentically transformative, spiritual encounter.  Heaven will be wedded to earth as you and your spouse walk the path toward becoming Infallible Lovers, the kind of lovers who can infuse their marital lives with a passion that reaches biblical proportions.  Literally.

Wow.  Those are, needless to say, pretty bold claims.  And I will confess, right up front, my skepticism.  That skepticism is based, in part, on stories I have heard from many conservative Catholics.  These stories tend to go something like this.  First, the couple in the build up to their wedding get super fired up about the idea of having sex, particularly given the transcendent, spiritual spin put on it by Theology of the Body types.  Then, the wedding night comes, they have sex, and they find it to be awkward, uncomfortable, and not a tremendous amount of fun--especially for the woman, but also for the guy.  Over the next few months of the marriage, it gets a little better, but it remains awkward, and certainly lacks that transcendent dimension.  At this point, disillusion and recrimination set in.

Because, here is the thing.  In addition to the mental, emotional, relational, and, yes, spiritual, aspects of sex, sex is also a skill.  Like all skills, the vast majority of people start out bad at it, and they get better with time and practice.  There is no shame in this at all, or at least there shouldn't be.  But you have to recognize that this is a reality.  And, also like all skills, people would benefit from knowing some of the "tricks" to the skill, in order to make that learning curve a little less steep.

So, for newly married couples (especially those that are coming into their wedding night as virgins), it seems to me that solid advice would be to say:

"Look, the first couple of times, or even the first couple dozen times, are probably going to be awkward and somewhat uncomfortable and not feel all that great.  That's normal, and it will get better over time.  So, be patient with each other, be open to trying things, approach it with a sense of humor, and enjoy the experience of being together.  Oh, and here are a couple of very concrete, 'technical' suggestions to help the learning process along."

Instead, we get these expansive promises of how good sex will be, as well as a framing that sex is fundamentally (and maybe exclusively) about spirituality.  As a result, if things aren't working out for the couple, not only are they Doing It Wrong, but they are Doing It Wrong in a spiritual sense.  That makes the problem both harder to deal with (because, by looking at the couple's spiritual state, they might be looking in the wrong place) and raises the stakes.  Bad Times all around.

Anyway, that is the perspective by which I approach this book.  My hope is that Dr. Popcak will address the more prosaic, concrete elements of sex as opposed to focusing exclusively on the spiritual dimensions.

In any event, the book is divided into four parts, each with a number of chapters.  The first part sets up the idea of "Infallible Loving," which Dr. Popcak sets out as the Right Way to do sex.  Part Two deals with the qualities that make up Infallible Loving, while Part Three provides the specific advice for putting Infallible Loving into practice.  Part Four deals with troubleshooting problems that might arise.

Chapter One of Part One is essentially an extended argument that the people who think they know what Catholics think about sex, especially if they think Catholics are anti-sex, just don't know what they are talking about.  To personify this idea, we are treated to the device of the National Association of Conventional Wisdom on All Things Catholic ("NACWATC").  If I know my somewhat cliched literary devices, and I think I do, I suspect we will see quite a lot of "NACWATC" going forward.

In service of this device, we are given "Two False Ideas Attributed to the Church."  The first of these is what Popcak calls "The Mediterranean Approach," which is essentially that as long as you are a "good person" and perform your "religious duties," then it doesn't matter who you have sex with and under what circumstances.  It's opposite is what he refers to as the "Anglo-Irish approach," consists in viewing sex as something that must be handled with extreme care and viewed with suspicion, lest one fall into sin.

Several problems are immediately apparent.  First, these are not so much ideas attributed to the Church but ideas held by members of the Church.  After all, people in Mediterranean countries are predominantly Catholic, and the idea that the French and the Italians are somewhat laissez faire about affairs and stuff like that has very deep roots (originating far before, as an example, the French and Italians stopped attending church in large numbers in the last 50 years).  Likewise, as Popcak makes clear in the description of the "Anglo-Irish approach," many Catholics actually look upon sex as at least suspect, if not actively bad.  So, these are ideas that are inside the Church, not imposed from the outside.  Unless of course one takes the position that people that hold the "Mediterranean" and "Anglo-Irish" approaches are not "real Catholics," which is (1) theologically problematic; and (2) a blatant example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Second, I don't think anyone really attributes the Mediterranean fallacy to the Catholic Church.  I suppose that if you looked hard enough you could find Protestant authors criticizing Catholicism for the licentiousness of the French.  But to a modern, American audience (for whom this book is written), I suspect you would have a hard time finding people who associate "Catholicism" with "promiscuous sex" or "affairs."  Catholicism has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, of being anti-sex, as seen by the whole concept of the NACWATC Popcak started us with.  In the public mind, Catholicism is entirely associated with the "Anglo-Irish approach."

The whole notion of the Mediterranean approach is a bit confused.  There is no question that the basic idea that there are people that view sex as morally neutral is a real phenomenon, including among Catholics and Christians.  And that idea is associated with the Mediterranean countries, even if that is perhaps a bit of stereotype and a caricature.  But Popcak sees the Mediterranean approach as a what he calls "low church gnosticism."  Gnosticism, for those not familiar with the term, is a basket of ideas that have existed alongside, and sometimes as a part of, Christianity since the beginning.  One of the key ideas of gnosticism is that the material world, especially the body, is essentially a prison for the spirit.  In some of its historic forms (which Popcak, somewhat bizarrely, calls "high church gnosticism"), gnosticism viewed sexual activity of any kind as improper, as it was reveling in the prison of the body.  In other words, classical "high church" gnosticism viewed sex as completely bad, while the Mediterranean approach views sex as a priori morally acceptable.  So, the Mediterranean approach is exactly like classical gnosticism, except exactly the opposite.

Popcak tries to justify this link by asserting that the hallmark of the Mediterranean approach is that it views the body as not important enough for sex to have moral consequence, in the same way gnosticism viewed the body as inferior to the spirit.  That seems to stretch the definition of "gnosticism" beyond any reasonable bounds.  Moreover, I think the practitioners of the Mediterranean approach see widespread sex as not morally problematic.  That's not at all the same thing as viewing the body as unimportant; in fact, if the Mediterranean practitioner is basically a hedonist, he or she might view the body as the only thing that's important.  I don't think that the Mediterranean approach really has much to do with gnosticism at all.

Popcak's section on the "Anglo-Irish approach" is much better.  He points out that the 17th and 18th Century Jansenist movement--a morally strict, quasi-Calvinist version of Catholicism--was eventually condemned as a heresy by the Church in the 18th Century.  He also points out that Jansenism was deeply suspicious of sexual activity, and that Jansenism had a large influence in Ireland, which in turn had a large influence on the American church.  All true.  His presentation seems to suggest that everyone in Ireland was a Jansenist heretic, which is untrue.  Extreme forms of Jansenism were condemned, but as often the case the more moderate and nuanced forms stuck around inside Catholicism and influenced the Irish church.  It is this quasi-Jansenism, and not full blown version that was condemned, that had the effect of instilling negative attitudes about sex.

Still, it is good for Popcak to acknowledge that there are anti-sex elements within Catholicism.  This is not some unfair characterization imposed from the outside, but a reality that exists inside the Church.  And Popcak is clearly critical of this strand within Catholicism, even if he tries to present it as outside of official Church teaching.  So, that's good.  Frankly, he should have just talked about the Anglo-Irish stuff and forgot about the Mediterranean foray.

Next up, Chapter Two, where (as a free preview), we will be introduced to Infallible Loving, and its evil, Wario-like doppelganger, eroticism.


Erin said…
I am making in an official task to use the phrase "wario-like" to describe something this weekend.

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