Killing Sex To Save It

The conjugal act. I wince when I hear that phrase or see it in print. It is a wooden expression that trumpets discomfort with sexual expression, even distaste. A standard textbook phrase, it reduces marital sexuality to genital activity and an exchange of body fluids. The shrinkage is subtle but real.

Last month, Chiesa broadcast an encomium to Neocatechumenal families. It regretted their omission from vocal participation in the Synod because “they are the most engaged in putting the model of Catholic marriage into practice.” It printed an ostensibly confidential extract of a catechesis developed for internal use by Fr. Mario Pezzi, the Neocatechumenal Way’s high priest.

His attention to the centrality of the family is welcome. Less welcome is the language Fr. Pezzi uses in support of that centrality.


Aristide Maillol. Desire (1906-08). ©Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

Fr. Perri quotes José Noriega, of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Study on Marriage and the Family, on the superiority of The Way. Noriega praises The Way for its “rediscovery of the holiness of the conjugal act.”

This is buttressed by co-founder Kiko Argüello’s assertion: “Responsible parenthood means accepting not to limit the number of children, it means accepting the plan of God.” In other words, Argüello rejects the contraceptive intention of what the Church refers to as natural family planning.

Set aside the unscriptural assumption that marriage is ordained to produce as many children as a woman can bear. The magisterium has never determined the number of children a couple should have. Neither has it invoked any commandment that couples have as many as physically possible.

Stay, for now, with rediscovery of the holiness of the conjugal act. The phrase repels in its priggishness and its implications. The rediscovery celebrated here skirts the premises of ancient fertility cults which sacralized sex and promoted fecundity. Seeking sanctity through sex takes us out of the gospels and drops us—at an acceptably Christianized angle—into The Golden Bough.

The mutuality of marriage occurs in countless ways: across a dinner table, in the kitchen, on the phone. It encircles everything from holding a job to holding one’s tongue. Conjugal self-giving embraces a universe of kindnesses, cautions, strains, and accommodations that make up a shared life. True conjugal acts are too many and various to list. Marital grace dwells in the totality of a life lived in tandem. For some, it abides in simply holding things together.


Cagnaccio di San Pietro. Onion Tears (1928). Camera di Lavoro, Trieste, Italy.

Holiness inhabits the individual, the person who acts. The schoolbook “conjugal act” is one of others that we, the embodied, perform. It is neither more nor less holy than the act of cognition, digestion, or any other bodily activity. Nor is it the only drive subject to the will. The vital processes of alimentation and elimination are each conducted within a framework of learned control.

Noriega’s wording, too easily mistaken as pious, is essentially pornographic. Like pornography, it falsifies sex. It strains to make sex ethereal, an attribute visible mainly from the planetary distance of the Vatican. Angelized sex is pornography’s mirror image.

Every animal species engages in coitus. Only human beings engage in lovemaking. We are the only ones who can bring to sex tenderness, intelligence, consideration, delicacy, playfulness, even humor. (“Happy combat” Michael Novak once called it.) Lovemaking is an activity of the whole person. But Fr. Pezzi will have none of that:

There is no love without the cross. So “making love,” as young people say, is pure falsehood. This is not a matter of love but of concupiscence, of attraction, etc.

These are the words of an executioner, accusatory and miserly. They are also askance of the mark. There is no life without the Cross.

Married or single, loved or unloved, we all live in the shadow of the Cross. The solitude of it is acute, inescapable. Aversion to the solace of sexual attraction denies the generosity of divine intent. Derision for the deep longing inherent in that phrase making love adds nothing to the Church’s credibility in sexual matters.


Jules Adler. Rough Weather on Open Seas: Sailors of Etaples (1913). ©RMN-Grand Palais, Paris.

With non-conjugal sex fast becoming the norm, the vocabulary of moral theologians and homilists could benefit from a taffy-pull. Evangelization originates in compassion for the world, not disdain for it. Language that suggests sexual desire is an obstacle to self-giving love convinces only stranglers who equate spousal sanctity with the reductionist duality of abstention or pregnancy.

The sexual revolution succeeded. Young people are unmoored and adrift in a permissive wilderness. If the Church is to lead them toward a humane understanding of the gift of sex, her spokesmen must first respect it for its intrinsic goodness, not solely for a procreative function shared with every species on the planet. Their counsel has to acknowledge sexual desire for the sweetness that it is—a fructifying promise—before it can plausibly direct it toward covenanted love.

I sorrow for any couple condemned to performing conjugal acts.

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Father Delp: A Postscript

The life and witness of Alfred Delp are less familiar among First Things readers than I had thought. Several wrote to say they had not heard of him at all. Others asked why he should have been executed for refusing to resign from the Jesuits. Father Delp’s own letter, written from his cell to fellow Jesuits after sentence had been passed, answers that question. The letter contains the marrow of the man, the grandeur of his steadfastness and greatness of heart. The words themselves are grace-bestowing:


Dear Brethren,

Here I am at the parting of the ways and I must take the other road after all. The sentence has been passed and the atmosphere is so charged with enmity and hatred that no appeal has any hope of succeeding.

I thank the Order and my brethren for all their goodness and loyalty and help, especially during these last weeks. I ask pardon for much that was untrue and unjust; and I beg that a little help and care may be given to my aged, sick parents.

The actual reason for my condemnation was that I happened to be, and chose to remain, a Jesuit. There was nothing to show that I had any connection with the attempt on Hitler’s life so I was acquitted on that count. The rest of the accusations were far less serious and more factual. There was one underlying theme—a Jesuit is a priori an enemy and betrayer of the Reich. So the whole proceedings turned into a sort of comedy developing a theme. It was not justice—it was simply the carrying out of the determination to destroy.

May God shield you all. I ask for your prayers. And I will do my best to catch up, on the other side, with all that I have left undone here on earth.

Towards noon I will celebrate Mass once more and then in God’s name take the road under his providence and guidance.

In God’s blessing and protection,
Your grateful,
Alfred Delp, S.J.

It is left unspecified what Delp meant by his reference to “much that was untrue and unjust.” But the comment is of a piece with earlier, generalized confessions of unworthiness for his own lapses. Humility sharpens toward the end. And the harrowing end in which he found himself —to which he surrendered himself—left no room for pietistic evasion:

The devil. Yes there is not only evil in this world, there is also the evil one; not only a principle of negation but also a tough and formidable anti-Christ. Man must give thought to the fact that he must distinguish between the spirits. And to the fact that wherever self is stressed—as in strength that glories in its own might, power that idolizes itself, life that aims at “fulfilling itself—in its own way and by its own resources, in all these, not the truth, but the negation of truth may be suspected.
And there is only one thing a man can really do about it—fall down on his knees and pray. Only after ten long years—ten years too late—do I fully realize this.

You and I are awash these days in devotional writing. Mass market piety drips like sugared water down the page. The pamphlet press smiles and strokes. But Delp’s writing is of another order entirely. His words were formed at the edge of the precipice, death grinning in his face. There is a fragrance to these prison meditations. The odor of his own dying was in his nostrils as he wrote. Yet he did so with a sublime conviction—“Trust life. .  .  . God lives it with us.”—for which I have no gloss. I can only genuflect.

Advent With Alfred Delp

Before bishops take possession of their dioceses they are to take an oath of fealty either to the Reich Representative of the State concerned, or to the President of the Reich, according to the following formula: “Before God and on the Holy Gospels I swear and promise as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich . . . . In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and the interests of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts which might endanger it.”
                                                                                           Article 16, Reich Concordat, 1933

Two books hold pride of place on my shelves. They stand next to each other, never separated in my possession or my thoughts. One is Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness: the Life and Death of Franz Jäggersttäter. Its twin is The Prison Meditations of Father Delp, with an introduction by Thomas Merton.




                                                                               Fr. Delp, on trial at Gestapo headquarters.

Jägerstätter, a farmer and married father of four, resisted the advice of his own bishop in defying the Third Reich. Delp, a Jesuit and editor of Stimmen der Zeit, was associated with the Kreisau Circle dedicated to re-Christianizing society upon the collapse of Hitler’s regime. For challenging the collective delusion of their era, Jägerstätter was beheaded in Brandenburg prison in 1943; Delp was hanged two years later at Plötzensee.

Both were cremated by official order, their ashes broadcast on the wind. The Reich took care to leave no martyr’s relic to venerate, no burial place to mark. Jägerstätter was beatified in Linz in 2007; Delp, not so. (John Paul II passed over him for the more prominent Rupert Mayer, S.J., when he beatified Edith Stein in 1997.)


Franz Jägerstäter


For the moment, stay with Fr. Delp. We are in Advent now. And no one has written about the liturgical season as powerfully as he, a man who came to see life itself as a continuous Advent. Manacled in his cell, he could write only when his fetters were secretly unlocked or loosely fastened. Awaiting death, he had time only for the essentials: the question of man and the renunciations that awaken him to his true purpose. In God alone does man become fully man and find his End:

Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake to the truth of himself. . . . The kind of awakening that literally shocks man’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. . . . Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.


The gallows at Plötzensee. Photographed in 2011, this is where Fr. Delp was hanged.

Delp reflects on three symbols bearing the Advent message: the voice crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, and Mary. Here, the herald angel:

Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up an down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord’s coming to redeem the world and deliver it have quite a different and much more vivid meaning. And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: “Be of good cheer. The Lord is near.” A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor . . . It would be impossible to endure the horror of these times—like the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enough—if there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. . . .

The angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God’s questions and proclaim the wonders of him with whom all things are possible.

In the mounting loneliness of his cell, Delp addresses himself to you and me (“if ever these pages find you”):

Let us kneel and pray for clear vision, that we may recognize God’s messenger when he comes, and willing hearts to understand the words of warning. The world is greater than the burden it bears, and life is more than the sum-total of its grey days. . . . We must be our own comforters. The man who promises hope is himself a man of promise, of whom much may be expected.

Offered a reprieve if he resigned from the Jesuits, Delp refused. Instead, he held hope—even into his last hours—than the Russians would advance on Berlin in time to release him. “Can’t history come a little faster?” he asked the prison chaplain. On his way to the scaffold, Delp told him: “In half an hour, I’ll know more than you.”

In the shadow of execution, Delp kept a steady eye on the way spiritual questions masquerade as cultural or political ones. And he spoke down the decades to what lies concealed in our own Advent, caught in history’s labyrinth of cause and effect:

Among all the protagonists in the tragic drama of the modern world there is not one who fundamentally cares in the least what the Church says or does. We over-rated the Church’s political machine and let it run on long after its essential driving power had ceased to function. It makes absolutely no difference, so far the beneficial influence of the Church is concerned, whether a state maintains diplomatic relation with the Vatican or not. The only thing that really matters is the inherent power of the Church as a religious force in the countries concerned.


The guillotine was a fixture in Reich prisons. This, in Plötzensee, was identical to Brandenburg’s.

As Merton reminded, Delp died for his Church, obedient unto death. For that reason, we approach his words with heightened attention and deep respect. And the words are sober, unsentimental. These are among the hardest:

A Church that makes demands in the name of a peremptory God no longer carries weight in a world of changing values. The new generation is separated from the clear conclusions of traditional theology by a great mountain of boredom and disillusion thrown up by past experience. We have destroyed man’s confidence in us by the way we live. We cannot expect two thousand years of history to be an unmixed blessing and recommendation. History can be a handicap too.  .  .  . At some future date the honest historian will have some bitter things to say about the contribution of the Churches to the creation of the mass mind, of collectivism, dictatorships and so on.

Six months of beatings, hunger, and solitary confinement stripped him of patience with facile pieties and the shelter of easy gestures. He read a little Eckhart every day, advancing alone into what Johannes Metz termed a mysticism of open eyes.

Seven decades separate Delp’s Advent from ours. His era is over. Yet its desolations, presumptions, and perils survive in other guises. His legacy is a living thing that cries to be heeded. On Christmas Eve, 1944, he scratched into the wall with shackled hands: Trust life. We do not live it alone. God lives it with us.

mmletters.ft@gmail.com

Our Paleolithic Brother & His Art

The hand is the window on to the mind.
—Immanuel Kant


Early man is our brother, body and soul. We beckon to him down the void of time, craving a glimpse of that epochal moment the human creature confessed, in his being, the image and likeness of God. A Paleolithic premise of ourselves, he gestures back; he signs to us with the work of his hands. Whatever meanings—part discovery, part projection—we pull from his works, one thing is indisputable: Our brother was gifted with an aesthetic sense. And grace of hand was well within his capacities.


Panel of horses facing each other. Chauvet Cave.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams for the second time. I immersed myself in it to erase from mind, if only for an hour or two, the squalor of Ferguson and a power-and-race crazed president.

Filmed in 2010, the documentary is an enraptured tour of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France. Discovered twenty years ago, the cave is twice as old as the famed caves at Lascaux and Altamira. Chauvet’s wall drawings are about thirty five thousand years old in radiocarbon years. A smaller, second wave of activity followed some five thousand years later.

Cave is a glorious movie. I am glad not to have seen it in its original 3-D version. The impact of these Stone Age images is stunning enough without inflating the element of spectacle that, invariably, becomes an end in itself. My laptop condenses the poetry of Herzog’s camera. It mutes the opera  of big-screen entertainment to penetrate the obscurity of our beginnings with a suitable hush.


Lions chasing bison. Chauvet Cave.

Hibernating bears used this cave for thousands of years before man put his mark on it. A primeval landslide sealed those marks in a long, solitary slumber. The beauty of these drawings, their elegant lines and careful shadings, chastens that strain of our own contemporary art trumpeted for its presumed revival of the vitality of primitive forms. Those Paleolithic cave drawings available to us testify to an inherent love of workmanship independent of whatever function they might have served when they were made. 


Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled (1981). ADAGP Image Bank.

The word function is key. The Wagnerian sweep of Herzog’s own artistry is in service to what he calls “ecstatic truth.” But what truths these drawings reveal is open to debate. Herzog acknowledges their ambiguity with a typically modern question: “Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artist over the abyss of time?”

Substituting vision for function, the filmmaker bestows on the makers of these works a self-consciously expressive, individualistic component. Ahistorical, that ingredient is the modified fruit of modernity and leisure. It is an unlikely factor in the precarious lives of ambush hunters and food gatherers during harsh centuries of glacialization. But what function did they serve? E. H. Gombrich asserted the prevailing opinion seven decades ago in The Story of Art:

Among these primitives, there is no difference between building and image-making as far as usefulness is concerned.  .  .  . Images are made to protect them against other powers which are, to them, as real as the forces of nature. Pictures and statues, in other words, are used to work magic.

It is easy to patronize rude ancestors who cannot testify with up-to-date eloquence. It is harder to remember that man’s primordial sense of enchantment—that same intuition of the numinous we bring to the sacraments—coexisted with his rationality. It did not displace it; if it had, we would not be here. It is hard to know that, though, from popular enthusiasm for retrospective condescension.  One introduction to Chauvet describes the natural bridge over the Ardèche River, running close to the cave, as something that was likely considered a “symbolic animal” by Paleolithic passersby. Maybe. But it could as easily have been considered a handy way across the gorge.  Another modern voice-over chirps that the bridge “would have been an impressive sight to Paleolithic residents.” It still is.



Herzog’s seductive presentation of the cave as a “lost cathedral” gilds the accepted interpretation. But before surrendering altogether, it is beguiling—in its own way—to keep in mind Josh Billings’s old caution: “Why is it that so much of what everybody knows just ain’t so?” 

Without denying received wisdom, we can still ask whether more than a single motive was in play in Paleolithic art. The dynamism of the Chauvet images upends any exclusively magical or runic one. These are not static symbols but life-like animals in motion. Horses gallop. Two rhinos butt heads. Lions stalk prey. A bear bends his head to the ground, as if foraging. Why such rambunctious emphasis on movement? Chauvet’s compositions delight in clamor and tumult.  They evidence no interest in stylization. Only an inexplicable panel of red ochre palm prints suggests ritual purpose or the sensibilities of priestcraft.  Its cavalcade of species conveys the zest of the pursuer together with the admiration of wary cohabitants. 

I love this bear. It was drawn with regard, even tenderness. Snuffling for berries or tubers, it does not display the posture of an object of veneration. Whatever else it might have represented in the day of its making, it comes to us as mortal, eking livelihood from a hardscrabble world:


Head of a bear. Chauvet Cave.


Our early brothers had the same need we have to instruct the young. How did they do it? Even if we grant them language, did they have syntax? We can guess but all we know for sure is they had pictures. And pictures are instructive. 

It is not just whimsy that makes me wonder if prehistoric drawing had a possible tutorial function, among others. Chauvet, with its chambers, fireplaces, and—so crucial—solid roof, would have served beautifully as a classroom. We moderns project PowerPoint presentations onto walls or proxies for them. Aboriginal instructors had no screens, no blackboard. They worked straight on the wall. Imagine a huddle of little boys being initiated into the hunt before joining adults on the risky business of a kill. (A young boy’s footprint survives on the floor of Chauvet.)


Rhinoceroses in combat. Chauvet Cave.

A fantasy, perhaps. But I am fond of it. One reason it appeals to me is that it offsets, without evicting, unquestioned insistence on religious function alone. Dominant association of the primitive with the religious yokes the two together in facile accommodation to secular self-congratulation. Religion is for cavemen. We are past all that now, thank God.

Herzog made an appearance in last year’s The Unbelievers, a talking-head paean to biologist Richard Dawkins, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and the New Atheism in toto. His interview lent celebrity support to celebrity detractors of religious belief. Watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams again, this time in the wake of that interview, Herzog’s euphoric embrace of the cave-as-cathedral leaves behind the scent of atheism-for-aesthetes. Atheists, too, bow to beauty where they find it.

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A Tale of Three Centers

Transparency is more appealing in concept than in practice—at least as it applies to backstage doings at the Sheen Center.

Judging from email responses, the Sheen is a great yawn to readers of First Things. No grand Truth is at risk in the matter. No heady policy positions. The only truths in play are those gnarled and spotted ones of human designs. Besides, mention of co-founder and erstwhile director Michael Hull points to disagreeable details better left in the dark. Do we need another scandal? Let’s not feed anti-Catholicism. Please, can’t we all just stick to the smiling aspect of things?


Scene from The Way of the World (1901). Museum of the City of New York.

Yes, of course we can. And we do. The genteel tradition persists bi-weekly in Catholic New York. House organ of the New York Archdiocese, the sheet is an amiable blend of public relations and parlor talk. Reading it reminds me of Sinclair Lewis’ description of William Dean Howells: “He had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.” If Catholic New York were really a newspaper, it would lift the fog of picturesque edifications long enough to inquire into the Sheen’s costs and—most interesting—its original intentions.

Apparently, Cardinal Dolan inherited the Sheen project from his predecessor. Cardinal Egan and his protégé Msgr. Hull purportedly collaborated on the original concept, with the chancery in the loop. If what I am told is accurate, plans initially included a permanent space for the Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility.

A pro-life clinic founded in 2009 by family physician Anne Nolte, the Gianna opened under the sponsorship of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Its prenatal care programs provide medical support to the region’s crisis pregnancy centers. As its name suggests, it also aids women seeking to conceive or to practice Church-approved family planning methods..

When St. Vincent’s declared bankruptcy in 2010 the Gianna lost its angel and needed lower cost space than it already occupied in mid-town. The Sheen, still taking shape, was a likely place to house the sponsorless Gianna. No such accommodation happened.


Illustration for Theatre World (September 1927) by Bovey.

Hosting the Gianna would have been an inspired use of archdiocesan property. Why? Because the Sheen, at 18 Bleecker Street, is next door to the Margaret Sanger Center, a prominent Planned Parenthood division at 26 Bleecker.

What happened to that reputed first intention? Are reports of it accurate? Or does the truth lie in claims that the Sheen meant only to provide temporary housing for the Gianna Center? Or maybe not at all? The story gets murky. All that is clear is that the Sheen arrived strictly devoted to the performing arts. And Gianna, committed to live performances of another kind, has found a new sponsor in St. Peter’s University Hospital, New Brunswick, and is again operating at its initial location on 40th Street just off Fifth Avenue.

 This past January, Cardinal Dolan appointed Dr. Nolte to his Pro-Life Committee. Was the appointment a consolation prize of sorts? Last week, the cardinal presided over a fundraising gala at the New York Athletic Club to kick-start the Gianna’s regeneration uptown.


Illustration for Theatre World (January 1926) by Bovey.

Lord Acton was as hostile to secrecy-on-high as to the corrupting influence of power. Addressing his cautions to the Church, he descried bureaucratic secretiveness on grounds that it degenerates keepers of the secret: “Nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.” Good will—what Santayana called “the great American virtue”—is not enough.

At stake in the evolution of the Sheen Center is the way the chancery oversees and uses the monies it solicits from you and me. The archdiocese is obliged to account for its management of parishioner donations. Disclosure to donors is a moral obligation that is especially keen while parishes are being closed or merged. At the same time, transparency would help distinguish between the demands of evangelization and the ambitions of men seeking a stage.

I am caught here in futile wondering about the road not taken. Gianna’s presence within the Sheen could have placed a damper on the Sheen’s rental income. It might also have saved lives. Saved some, touched or unsettled others. It would have witnessed—in stone—to alternatives to the abortion “services” offered by the friendly, caring staff next door. (The Margaret Sanger Center has recently expanded its hours. The Sheen, meanwhile, set about re-renovating its theater space as soon as it opened.)

Transparency is its own justification. The men who instruct us in Truth cannot be slippery about lesser truths on which so much depends. Credibility is the linchpin of evangelization, now as ever. There is nothing new about it.