Defending the Faith of our Fathers!


The Desacralization of Venus

By Christopher Derrick

From Sept 12, 1981 Issue of America


This question of contraception and Humanae Vitae is getting to be a bore, and worse. It tries to hog the stage, it obtrudes itself most divisively into every kind of dialogue and debate, as though it wanted to be seen as the primary question of all religion. We never began our Latin Creed by singing "Credo in contraceptionem," with or without a preceding "Non." But an observer from outer space might sometimes get an impression that we did and still do, one way or the other, and in whatsoever language.

It is like an obsession and a new one. People have been arguing about religion since time began, but seldom with so monomaniac an emphasis upon a single point of morality. Alternatively it is like a wound or sore, one that festers and refuses to heal. The patient certainly seems feverish and very largely because of this particular suppuration.

It is always good, therefore, to see a doctor getting to work on that wound or sore, especially if he is so notable a specialist as John H. Wright, S.J., whose prescription has recently come before us (AM., 3/7/81). He writes lucidly and temperately and, as he explains, "not with the intention of winning a debate but of bringing peace to the church and strengthening the credibility of the magisterium, both' of which are of enormous importance to the common good of the faithful." Anything offered with that twofold intention must have our goodwill.

But how is the patient likely to respond? Will Father Wright's medicine work? I would not wish to cross swords with him, even if I were competent to do so. None the less, it seems to me that for all practical purposes, he leaves the question very much where he found it, so that the patient's temperature will remain high. What he proposes, although with great subtlety, comes fairly close to the old idea that we should transfer this whole question from the realm of precept to the realm of counsel. So far as material guilt is concerned (formal guilt, personally incurred by individuals, is some-thing else), contraception would then be-come rather like the just war-always regrettable, always a sad second-best, but not always and automatically a mortal sin.

This proposal can be discussed on its merits. What I cannot see is any possibility that it would fulfill either of Father Wright's intentions. The only magisterium that it would strengthen is that of a certain vocally dominant theological trend of the time, and that's always been a shaky kind of magisterium. It would have made us into Arians in the fourth century and Catharists in the 13th. Upon any more substantial concept of the teaching church and its reliability, the effect of Father Wright's proposal could only be destructive: It is so clearly not what we were told by Humanae Vitae, or by Casti Connubii before it, or by the whole moral consensus that lies behind both encyclicals. You don't strengthen anyone's credibility by saying that he has been seriously and insistently wrong in an important matter and for a very long time.

On the one side, therefore, Father Wright's proposal will seem divisive and un-Catholic rather than irenic. But it is also likely to provoke objections on the other side as being arbitrary and censorious. Many of us are hostile to the traditional notion of magisterium which I have just mentioned: It is no rare thing to find Humanae Vitae cited as the reductio ad absurdum that renders it untenable.

Given that viewpoint (which I do not share), it might be felt that Father Wright is still entangled in an archaic hang-up from which all sensible people should have escaped by now. He suggests that while we should stop calling contraception an automatically mortal sin, we should still look upon it as a necessary compromise with evil, much as we would look upon the most just of all possible wars. But why should we see it as an evil at all? What is wrong with contraception? Unlike war, it does not hurt anyone. It is done in private and does not offend public decency. It is practiced and recommended by many whose Catholic loyalty and devotion and virtue cannot otherwise be questioned. It eases some obvious kinds of stress and is widely reported to promote love and family happiness. In this crowded world, some see it as a public duty calling, therefore, for the moralist's approval. In what more negative s should it concern the moralist at all? Should not the church keep its intrusive nose out of the marital bedroom, neither roaring there like the Papal lion nor cooing there with Father Wright's more dove-like but still disapproving voice?

He might thus suffer the curse of the peacemakers and find himself shot at from both sides. In the meantime that wound or sore would continue to fester: The peace of the church would be as distant as ever.

Can we do anything for the patient? One dreads the thought of surgery. I would like to prescribe an infallible antibiotic, but I don't possess such a thing. What I want to propose is not a remedy but an exercise in diagnosis. When some disease proves intractable over a long period, its nature may need reconsideration.

In my belief, this question cuts deeper than is commonly supposed. Its pastoral, moral and ecclesiological aspects are obvious enough. But underlying these, there is, I suggest, a more radical disagreement, religious rather than moral in nature. It concerns the assessment of our physical sexuality. The old Catholic tradition goes along with most premodern humanity in seeing this as something sacred; most present day people, many Catholics included, see it as something profane. Hence, as so often when people argue from different and unconsciously-held premises, we get cross-purposes and bewilderment rather than simple disagreement. Each side reasons soundly from its own premise and is baffled by the perverse-seeming ideas of those who have reasoned soundly from the other. It is just such a baffled bewilderment that we observe in fact. I have mentioned one familiar version of it: "What on earth is the Pope talking about? What is wrong with contraception, for heaven's sake?" But we also find its converse: "Whatsoever the Pope may say or not say, how can Christian people favor so gross a perversion and impiety?"

This diagnosis occurred to me, not for the first time, while I was reading Father Wright's article. "It is only if we suppose a kind of sacred structure to the act itself . . . that . . ."-and so forth; but dismissively, as though there were nothing at all to be said for something that natural humanity has mostly taken for granted, the divinity of Venus, whose sacredness is indistinguishably that of love and that of reproductive fertility.

Could there really be something sacred about our physical sexuality and its deployment in action? Most peoples have believed that there is, often with such questionable consequences as temple prostitution and the ritual orgy. Such a perception needs careful handling. Even on the most favorable assessment, it does not-while still unredeemed-provide us with a basis from which any moral proposition whatever can be inferred as though by logic. But should it be dismissed out of hand?

If I disagree with Father Wright about this, it is not in order to prove him wrong but iri the hope of forwarding his own declared purposes at another level. The metaphorical divinity of Venus is a concept that can do something for us and not only in the matter of contraception: It can provide us with a conceptual and imaginative frame-work within which we can better understand the whole Catholic tradition about sex. We may not then come to agree with the Pope, or (for that matter) with Father Wright. The pastoral and moral and ecclesiological questions will still remain. But they will be less clouded by that bewilderment. We shall be able to see more clearly what the Pope and his predecessors have been talking about.

Let us therefore pay closer attention to the possible divinity of Venus, the possible sacredness of the genital and especially the female functions. About all this, our pagan forefathers undoubtedly talked much non-sense and practiced much obscenity. But they may have been onto something.

This possibility, if taken seriously, will involve us in a somewhat unfamiliar but useful mode of thinking. That basic dichotomy between the sacred and the profane is a necessary tool of thought for the student of comparative religion, but it is only present to the average 2shsntury mind in a rather insufficient version.

We Catholics certainly use the word sacred from time to time, but we have mostly forgotten its semantic complexity, the polarities that lurk within it. As seen in depth, the sacred is something that allures us but also frightens and repells us. In The Idea of the Holy Rudolf Otto called it a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, and it may be the first adjective that needs the emphasis. It's become a shade unfashionable, nowadays, to say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. One kind of easy piety addressed the "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild," who now tends to become the man for others, the supremely good guy. It is uncomfortable to think that He is also the dread Judge, who may one day fling you and me out of His sight. But we do at least remember such polarities. Few of us, however, remember the further polarity by which "sacer" can mean holy but also accursed, as can "hagios" and the corresponding words in various other languages, so making sacredness into a dangerously double-edged thing. As most widely understood, it always includes some element or threat of the daemonic.

It is an elusive concept as well, perhaps as irreducible as goodness, truth and beauty. However powerfully we apprehend it, we can hardly define it except in terms of its opposite, the profane. This is whatever we find in front of the temple, "pro fanum," and therefore outside it, whatever has no importance or meaning of the specifically religious kind.

But the sacred, if rather undefinable, is easily identifiable by people's responses to whatever they see in that light. These are typically responses of awe, of simultaneous attraction and fear, and of carefully con trolled behavior that will often be ritual in nature. There will be exact and traditional rules, there will commonly be some veiling or concealment, and the sacred may need to be discussed in a special tone of voice, perhaps in a special vocabulary, even in a separate and hieratic language. All of this must naturally seem arbitrary by the standards that govern our handling of profane things. We can stare boldly at these; we can discuss them without restraint; we can handle them in any way that suits our immediate convenience. But men are never casual or permissive about anything that they apprehend as sacred.

All this goes for the particular sacredness of Venus, under her various local names. We echo it whenever we speak of venerating anything at all. It is a momentous sacredness, concerned with tile roots of life and renewal and therefore with love. Its resonances are widely seen as involving the moon, the sea, the land and its fertility. And here, too, there is an element or threat of the daemonic, not only at the moral level. Even today, while Venus s us most powerfully, she frightens us as well. Her allure is obvious and widely proclaimed, but the psychotherapists tell us sad Stories about the anxiety and stress that she can generate, even or especially in the most liberated. This polarity within her finds expression in all the early religions and mythologies. She is undoubtedly fun, "laughter-loving" in Homer, but dangerous, too. It wasn't for nothing that she took Mars, god of war, to be her lover. As Earth-Mother, she is our womb but our tomb as well: as Aphrodite or Freya, as Inanna or Ishtar or Astarte, she calls us to battle and death as easily as to love. As Shakti the Mother, she may well turn out to be Kali the Destroyer, the Terrible.

She offers well-known rewards and naturally occupies a central part of our attention. But her handling is a serious matter. It has not always been moral by Christian or even by decent pagan standards. Far from it; But it has always been given the religious kind of importance. You have to be careful with her, you must follow the prescribed patterns. One does not trifle with love.

Some such view of our physical sexuality, lofty but alarming too and often exacting, is what comes naturally to a very large proportion of natural humanity. We might therefore give a new twist to a much-disputed expression and include it within the natural law, despite screams of scholastic protest.

Then along came the church, rejecting the cult of Venus as it actually existed, but only to correct and confirm it at a higher level. From being what Mircea Eliade calls a hierophany, Venus would now be promoted into an actual sacrament, a presence and a mode of action of the One, the Dying God or Mortal-Immortal of whom the old paganisms could only dream. Her holiness was thus to become greater, not less, and would make itself felt throughout our very incarnational, even carnal, faith and worship. A Catholic cannot recite his creeds without mentioning begetting and conception and birth. He cannot say the "Hail Mary" without mentioning the female generative tract, or the "Te Deum" with-out praising his Lord for seeing there nothing of the daemonic, nothing to abhor. And when it comes to our own spring-festival of resurrection and new life, we use a sexual symbolism as blatant as anything that ever featured in an archaic fertility-rite. (I wonder how many of us notice that we're doing so, at however exalted a level of new meaning" It's a shade less explicit than it used to be. We still have the cosmic marriage of male candle with female water. But the priest is no longer told to breathe upon the fruitful water in the form of the Greek letter psi, the archetypal yoni. The basic symbolism remains, even so, however piously we avert our attention from its natural meaning.)

Against all this, there's the familiar jibe that our church was essentially antisex from the start. It is offered with less confidence nowadays. Even St. Augustine is conceded to have had a more complex mind than was once supposed. But it has some plausibility, especially if one sought the mind of the church in theologians rather than in Scripture, defined doctrines and accepted ritual. The positive attitude just indicated is not precisely what we find in the Fathers, even when at their least misogynistic.

I think it has to be conceded that the Manichaean germ has always lurked in our Catholic bloodstream, sometimes noisily, though it was always there as an alien and enemy thing, a heresy-trace. But quite apart from that, if our early writers put so heavy an emphasis upon the negative side of Venus, they may have had good practical and pastoral reasons for doing so. That is what most of us need to be reminded of, after all. Her positive side has always been obvious to one and all, but is not the whole story. In heightening the sacredness of Venus, the church was also heightening her daemonic potential and needed to warn us accordingly. We would be playing for much higher stakes under this new dispensation.

I would be going out on a limb, however, if I attempted to deny the presence and power of obsessively antisexual attitudes in numerous and influential Catholic writers. These attitudes have been exaggerated and also misunderstood, but they existed all right. But the fact is hardly relevant to my present subject. Even at their negativistic worst, those writers still gave Venus the religious kind of importance. They still located her within the realm of the sacred, however angrily they pushed her towards the daemonic pole of that realm. I do not think they ever reduced her to something profane or trivial, to be handled casually and as one chooses. That irreligious mistake was left to others. It recurs constantly, permissiveness as an alternative to total horrified chastity, in the long and complex history of the various Manichaean-type sects and movements, Catharist and Albigensian and so forth. It was never a Catholic thing. When people tell me that the church is hostile to sex, I like to remind them of the girl who got into trouble with medieval ecclesiastical authorities by reason of her contumacious virginity.

I am not the only one who detects a strongly Manichaean-type flavor in the dominant secular culture of our time, and even in its effect upon the Christianities. Our generation certainly repeats that same irreligious mistake about Venus, her allbut4otal desacralization being one of the most conspicuous phenomena of the day. At one permissive extreme, this great goddess, is cut down into something like a consumer-good, an element within our affluent standard of living, going along with the big cars and the big steaks. She can even become a mere game, a sport, an amusement. Few Christian thinkers go all the way down that Playboy road, though many of them are clearly uneasy about where they ought to stop and why. But there is a clear and powerful tendency, extending to many of those who are otherwise orthodox and moralistic and even puritanical, to desacralize Venus in a slightly different way.

What I have in mind here is the common tendency to throw all one's emphasis, in matters of sex, upon what happens at the undeniably important level of psycho-logical development and personal relationship. Love is stressed and rightly, but always with the implication that it is only one's neighbor, one's spouse, sometimes one's "sex partner," who needs to be loved.

As a literary man, I am distressed by the flatulent language that tends to be used in this connection, as when we read how the happy couple are going to fulfill their potential and mature into fully shared person-hood, with the dreaded spectre of "meaningful" always haunting the scene. But as a thinly-baptized pagan, I am much more deeply shocked by what is there implied and sometimes spelled out: the idea that what happens physically is of little or no religious importance, that Venus has now become wholly profane and calls for no particular love or "pietas." We must love one another, but we can do as we please with her, contraceptively or otherwise: Why on earth not?

It is in terms of her desacralization that I interpret the big change that has recently come upon us. Let us not forget what a big and recent change it is. Catholic tradition declares the wrongness of contraception to be a matter of natural law, and many people now explode with bafflement: "It doesn't seem very natural to me!" But it has seemed natural to a great many people who were hardly under the Papal thumb: to Freud, for example, and to Krafft-Ebbing, the Boswell of perversion, and to Gandhi and Bernard Shaw and many an-other. Anglicans officially took it for granted until the Lambeth Conference of 1930, and C.S. Lewis emphasized it in his novel That Hideous Strength. Only recently has it come to be seen as a peculiarity of the Roman Catholics, and indeed of the most hidebound and Ultramontane among them. Some people even talk as though in Humanae Vitae, Paul VI was wishing upon us all an unprecedented and private hang-up of his own, rather as though some Pope were to tell us, out of the blue, that it was a mortal sin of the worst kind to eat cheese. The innovation actually was not on his side.

I see it as one element within a much wider innovation, a change which has taken place at the rock-bottom religious level, that is to say, in people's apprehension of the sacred and not merely in their morality. Society as a whole has moved steadily into the secular city. As compared with their very recent ancestors, most people now apprehend the sacred more weakly, much less certainly and within enormously reduced areas of their total experience. Perhaps it is only death that retains full sacredness and is still treated accordingly. There is an obvious sense in which the dead body is mere refuse or garbage, but no known society treats it as such. It has to be disposed of in some ritual manner, even among the Communists, even among our most materialistic selves.

Much has been written about this general process of desacralization, though seldom with much direct reference to Venus and what it does to her. There are some angles from which it can be seen as a beneficent process. Some would argue that sacredness is best forgotten. It was an essentially prescientific concept, a fictitious quality that primitive man projected onto whatever he found strange or mysterious or unmanageable. If he responded to the supposedly sacred by rituals and regulations, he was simply making the familiar use of compulsive or obsessive behavior to reduce anxiety. This reductionist view of the matter will perhaps suffice for the materialist. It will hardly suffice for those of us who believe in the supremely Sacred.

But even among us, there are some who reject the whole dichotomy of sacred vs. profane as being essentially pre-Christian. What they hope for is a deprofanation of all things, rather than its converse. Is not all being good in itself? Is not the whole creation now risen and transformed into the shared holiness of Christ? Can anything now be described as profane, in the sense of having no religious importance? Or conversely, can we not now hope for a Christianity without religion and even without God? Let us at all events try to blur and minimize that fatal dichotomy or apartheid between the good things-the sacred, the explicitly religious and even ecclesiastical things - and the bad things - the profane, the secular and unimportant and even nasty things. Nothing is more sacred than anything else!

Tendencies in that sense are clearly visible in the Christianities, even the Catholicism of today, and with some theological justification. But I see them mostly as a desire to jump the gun, a kind of impatience with the psychological and other facts of our present condition in this mixed-up world. We shall doubtlessly forget that dichotomy and apartheid when at home in patria, but I don't think we can do without a careful version of it here in via. We apprehend qualities by contrast, and we therefore need to find sacredness in. particular concentrations if we are to find it at all - as we find it, for example, in the seven objective hierophanies proposed for us by the church, though elsewhere too. The danger is that in so far as we lose sacredness, we shall lose meaning as well, a fact that has its liturgical as well as its sexual topicality and that also casts light upon the high incidence of despair and violence and suicide in the secular city.

We could do with a recovered sense of the sacred in general, not only in respect of Venus. But I am here concerned with diagnosis, not with any possible medicine of my own preference. I only offer a perspective, a suggestion of what will really be at issue between us when once again, and so tediously, Humanae Vitae comes up for discussion. Father Wright wants that question transferred from the realm of precept to the realm of counsel as far as our primary attention is concerned; I would like to see it transferred from the realm of morality to the deeper realm of religion, of reverence towards the sacred, a realm in which it will be High Priests who speak with authority if anyone does.

No moral principle would be either established or undermined thereby, or not directly. But this reorientation of the mind would at least enable us to see why our Supreme Pontiff feels qualified to pontificate in such matters, and why so many should consider his voice worth hearing. If sex is a wholly secular and profane thing, it lies beyond the Pope's competence. He should leave it to the doctors and the psychologists and the demographers and, above all, the people directly concerned. But if Venus is a goddess, in any real sense of that clearly metaphorical expression, she lies very much within his field. So her possible divinity is what we ought to be arguing about, not contraception, which is clearly alright if she is a profane and trivial kind of thing.

Cleverer people than myself will be able to specify the full Christian meaning of all this, the exact sense in which she (or, perhaps, any other pagan "god") might be said to die and rise again in Christ and so attain real divinity as a partaker in His. This could be part of what we mean when we call "matrimonium" or sexual reproduction a sacrament. Our sexual morality would then need to have its vertical as well as its horizontal component, involving the first Great Commandment as well as the second, God (dare I say Venus-in-God?) as well as one's neighbor. It will then become more apparent why "It doesn't hurt any body" is insufficient as a clinching argument. The same could be said of spitting at a crucifix.

Will this approach make our Christian love-life altogether easy? No; nor will anything else. But I think I have indicated the sense in which it is a thoroughly natural approach to the matter.

Let us remember that we live most unnaturally in these affluent but tensed-up cities of ours, and may thus be blind to what others have perceived without difficulty. Our remote ancestors were pagans and quite possibly savages. But they were not total fools and, like ourselves, they had to come to terms with sexuality in one way or another. I suggest that where the primary question is concerned, they should be allowed their vote.