ROME – A Catholic cleric around 60 gets a major Vatican gig, where, among other things, he issues controversial pronouncements on sexual morality. At a certain point, it’s revealed that years before, he wrote a book in which he dealt with sexually explicit topics such as orgasms, creating scandal among sensitive souls who believe it’s inappropriate for a celibate priest to traffic in such erotic themes.
I might very well be talking about Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, who’s currently in the eye of a media storm for a book he published 25 years ago titled La pasión mística: espiritualidad y sensualidad, meaning, “Mystical passion: spirituality and sensuality.”
In fact, however, the reference is to St. John Paul II and his 1960 book Love and Responsibility, which formed the basis for a series of catechetical lessons on human sexuality between 1979 and 1984 and which would become known as his “Theology of the Body.”
Over the past 48 hours, an orchestrated campaign among conservative critics of a recent Vatican declaration on non-liturgical blessings of same-sex unions has spotlighted the 1998 book by Fernández to suggest that he has an overly libertine and dubious approach to matters of sex, potentially raising questions about the underpinnings of the Dec. 18 declaration he authored, Fiducia Supplicans.
The gist of the criticism is that the explicit language in that 1998 tome, which features whole passages devoted to the contrasts between male and female orgasms, suggests a clerical figure with an unhealthy obsession with sex.
While Fernández told Crux that it’s a book written while he was young and one “that I certainly would not write now,” nevertheless critics have called for his resignation.
Here’s the thing: If a Vatican official who explores the dynamics of orgasms should, ipso facto, be disqualified from office, then such a standard would exclude not only Fernández but also John Paul II.
Much like Fernández said his 1998 book came out of conversations with young couples about their relationships, then-Fr. Karol Wojtyla developed his reflections on sexuality in the context of teaching at the Catholic University of Lublin and acting as a mentor to his Rodzinka, or “little family,” of young people. Both works came when the clerics were young; Fernández wrote La pasión mística when he was 36, while Wojtyla originally published Love and Responsibility when he was 40.
For all those now professing dismay at the explicit fashion with which Fernández treats orgasms, it’s worth taking a look at how the young Karol Wojtyla dealt with the same subject, at a time and place when the taboo against open discussion of sexual topics was infinitely stronger than the Argentina of the late 1990s.
For the record, the word “orgasm” appears seven times in the English translation of Love and Responsibility, “orgasmus” three times and “climax” ten times.
At one point, for example, the future Pope John Paul II argues that to the extent possible, men and women should aim for simultaneous orgasms during sexual relations, a conclusion proceeded by a remarkably detailed analysis of the differing dynamics of sexual arousal in men and women. In another passage, Wojtyla even discusses the phenomenon of a woman faking an orgasm, situating it in the context of a need for ongoing sexual education – a stance which, in itself, was fairly daring by the prudish standards of pre-Vatican II Polish Catholicism.
Of course, Fernández’s most vocal critics, most of whom would describe themselves as devotees of John Paul II, are uncomfortably aware of these parallels, and are taking pains to deny or minimize them. Traditionalist Catholic commentator Peter Kwasniewski, for instance, quipped that while John Paul elaborated a “theology of the body,” Fernández instead has served up an embarrassing “theology of the bawdy.”
In a more serious vein, here’s how Kwasniewski put the point in a Jan. 9 social media post:
“Anyone who tries to equate Wojtyla and Fernández, or even suggests that they are somehow working on the same kind of project, is guilty not only of self-exposure as an intellectual ignoramus but also of slandering Wojtyla and giving Fernández a ‘get out of jail free’ card, which is the last thing we ought to be doing for the author of Amoris Laetitia and Fiducia Supplicans.”
And therein, one suspects, is the real bottom line: This furor isn’t actually over a book that’s a quarter-century old, and which contains treatments of sexual topics that, whatever one makes of them theologically, are hardly unprecedented in terms of graphic detail, as the example of John Paul II makes clear.
Instead, the row is about current events, meaning the doctrinal content of this pontificate and Fernández’s role in developing and defending it, most recently his über-controversial document on blessings. That’s a legitimate matter for debate, and Catholics of intelligence and good will obviously can, and do, reach strongly differing conclusions.
Were it not for the contentious dynamics of this papacy, however, it’s doubtful anyone ever would have heard of La pasión mística or its admittedly coarse and, frankly, occasionally cringe-worthy formula. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, chase down the quote from the 15th century Egyptian theologian … ‘nuff said.)
This fight, in other words, isn’t really about the Fernández of 25 years ago, but the Fernández of today. In that context, dusting off his earlier rhetoric on orgasms may be titillating, but … well, let’s just say it’s not exactly where things reach a climax.