A Reading from the Prophet Sheed…and a Mystery, and a Musing—All on Sex

I think the title counts as what is called in the cyber world, clickbait. Anyway…

Frank Sheed (1897–1981), the great Australian Catholic publisher, apologist and missionary to England and America, manages the feat of being orthodox without being pious, and of being comprehensive without being complex. He was also, and often, remarkably prescient.

His ecclesial autobiography, The Church and I (Sheed and Ward, 1974), charts his life in relation to the Church, its heroes and villains, its triumphs, and its crises. So what he writes about “The Church and Sex” (chapter 16) still reads as fresh and relevant as it must have back in 1974. I will cobble together some sections below, much as the lectionary often does with its scripture. But whereas the lectionary often does that to pull some punches, my purpose here will be to allow no breathing time between each punch:

In maintaining its teaching on sex, the Church throughout the ages has had plenty of trouble from human nature and its cravings. But apart from divorce and contraception, people had in a general way accepted the moral standards their ancestors learned from the Church. It seems only yesterday that agnostics and atheists—Thomas Huxley for one—were rejecting as scurrilous any suggestion that they were not as deeply committed as any theist to the highest sexual standards. Now we find ecclesiastics, including some of our own, almost equally indignant at any suggestion that sexual standards should be maintained! One Catholic society informed its members, “For Christ the only sin is legalism”…

There is today no discernible public feeling against self-abuse or fornication or prostitution or adultery or wife-swapping or sodomy or lesbianism or abortion… The word “lust” is no longer heard—its territory has been taken over by “love.” A couple of strangers casually linking their bodies in a bus station are described as making love: in fact they are making lust…

If the standards were not always—or often?—observed, they were accepted. Was the acceptance of any value? I think it was of solid value. The individual making his won struggle against his craving body has no chance at all in a society where no one attaches importance to purity or fidelity. The one test held to cover all the uses of sex is sincerity, which in practice may mean nothing more than the urgency of the craving. It is a maxim of the English law that the King can do no wrong. Now sex is king…

…nobody thinks about sex. People long for it, ache for it, drool over it, dream about it, but longing aching drooling dreaming are not thinking… Decisions are made by the desire, the blood, the sex organs. Feeling is all. Yet sex-at-will quite obviously does not bring freedom but the certainty of servitude…

The one who boasts that he can barely totter from one woman to the next seems the very essence of virility, mastery, maturity. It is an illusion. The craving grows stronger. But strong cravings do not mean strong men.They eat into strength. That sort of sexing may be great fun. But there is no sophistication or maturity in doing what any alley cat can do, no mastery in being mastered, no virility in being unable to say no…

In the almost agony of craving for physical release, the other party can too easily become a mere object, depersonalized into a piece of machinery for the relief of one’s own tension, humanity barely there. When Jesus lists fornication among “the tings that defile” he may well have been thinking of these two facts of life—the self reduced to a craving, the other person reduced to a convenience—which are plainly evil, whether or not one believes in Jesus or believes in religion at all…

I could go on, but you can see how much of what he wrote 43 years ago still has utter relevance (except perhaps for that late 60s/early 70s craze for wife-swapping—does that still happen?).


Now for the mystery. A few pages on Sheed talks about how unhelpful many of the books preparing couples for marriage had been: all piety and no practicality. Some still came to the marriage bed on honeymoon night with no idea of what to do or why. So an archbishop asked him to prepare a more practical and helpful book on marriage and conjugal relations:

We translated from French a most admirable book, in which the bodily union was explained and the spirituality of marriage wonderfully shown. The archbishop said he could not possibly grant his imprimatur: it was too outspoken: could I not “modify” it? I answered that this would mean leaving out sex altogether: but as God had not left sex out of marriage, I didn’t see how we could. The book was not published.

Does anyone know what this book was? Is the manuscript of the translation still in an archive? Would it serve today? If anyone can answer these questions, please do put me out of my misery.

Lastly, the musing. Sheed wrote as a married man, and a father. It strikes me that he writes with the more force because of that fact. He takes orthodox moral theology and seasons it with experience, a potent mix, and convincing. It strikes me that married permanent deacons could perform a valuable ministry in supporting marriage and family life in a parish or university chaplaincy. Perhaps they should. Does this happen anywhere already? Has it been effective?

I leave you with Sheed’s reference to the erotic poet Swinburne and G K Chesterton. Swinburne had written in a poem of,

The lilies and languors of virtue
And the roses and raptures of vice

Swinburne had an obvious prejudice for the vice. To this Chesterton replied by poem, ending it,

If you think virtue is languor
Just try it and see.

Sometimes it takes gutsy humanity not to descend to the couplings of alley cats.


Join the Conversation

  1. Read the whole of Humanae Vitae, not just the contraception bit, and it is seen as equally prescient.

  2. I also thought about the prescience of Pope Paul VI when reading the excerpts.

    Chesterton once said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

    The same could be said about Humanae Vitae.


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