Dr Pravin Thevathasan reviews
Civilizing Sex, by Patrick Riley
Civilizing Sex, by Patrick Riley
T & T Clark - ISBN 0 567 08766 2 - £16.99
Civilizing Sex is a profound examination of the impact on civic life of sexual behaviour. It argues that the virtue of chastity is essential to the common good and to the very survival of society: Sex is not merely a private matter.
The lengthy introduction is really a philosophical primer of the Thomist variety on the subject matter. The goods of marriage, the idea of the family, the role of the state are all carefully defined and examined:
"Man and wife 'by themselves' constitute a family, since in reality, if only in potency, there is no such thing as man and wife by themselves. When you say husband, you say father, when you say wife, mother."
The introduction is followed by a study of the Decalogue, western civilisation's most basic political document. With the establishment of the covenant, a sacred society is established, bound together by worship of the one God. Each commandment, including those related to chastity, is shown to have had a civic function. They were essential to the survival of the nation. Interestingly, it is argued that the ninth commandment is not simply a prohibition of lustful thoughts but is a condemnation of active attempts by one man to put another man's wife within his own power.
In the Old Testament, the prophets repeatedly called the people to abandon polytheism, linked as it was to prostitution, and to return to the worship of the one God. They had fought to defend family life against the sexual hedonism and child sacrifice of the Canaanites.
Riley notes that the Jewish family was governed by four basic principles derived from the Talmud:
1. Sex was seen as a gift of God to be cherished and used only according to His laws.
2. Parents had obligations to bring up the child according to these laws.
3. The child, in turn, was obliged to honour his parents as long as they live.
4. The home was intended to give each individual in it the opportunity to fully develop his personality.
Catholic teaching on the family is remarkably faithful to its Jewish roots.
The Canaanite temptation was followed later by hedonistic influences from Greece. The Greek polytheists tried to cajole the Jewish upper classes away from the worship of the one God through homosexuality - one of the reasons which led to the Maccabean revolt:
"The vile Jason sent envoys to bring three hundred silver drachmas for the sacrifice to Heracles" (2 Macc 4:19). Heracles was a symbol of homosexual desire.
Riley notes that the model for the early Christian is, naturally, Jesus Christ. Christian Marriage was to be inspired by a self-sacrificing love of the kind Christ had shown on Calvary. There was repeated condemnation of abortion as a sin that stems from sexual licence, leading, according to Clement of Alexandria, not only to the destruction of the child but to all human feeling:
"Wealthy women expose their new-born children and instead take pet animals, preferring irrational creatures to rational."
Riley ends his fascinating work by investigating the variety of dualistic religions that threatened Christianity: Gnosticism, Manichaeism and, above all, Catharism. Since an evil God created matter, procreation was regarded as sinful and chastity worthless. Marriage was regarded as no better than fornication and fornication was no worse that marriage:
"The Manichaean aversion to offspring, with its dismissal of chastity and its reliance on contraception, is strikingly like modern anti-natalist ideology."
The study ends with the middle ages, but the evils that plague us today are seen to be repetitions of the errors of old. Children may not now be sacrificed to Canaanite Gods and population controllers may not call themselves Catharists, but the culture of death has always threatened mankind in one form or other.
Civilizing Sex is powerful and convincing argument against the notion that sex is just a matter of individual choice.
© 2002, Pravin Thevathasan, All Rights Reserved
Theotokos Catholic Books - Book Reviews Section - www.theotokos.org.uk