Catholic Control of Sexuality

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Paphnutius is a 10th century play written in Latin by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. This play is a good example of how religious ideals permeate our everyday thinking and leave impressions on us. These impressions change how we act, think, write, etc and even dictate if we are punished. Paphnutius and Hrotsvitha are important to understanding how and why the Catholic Church control peoples sexuality. The Church is structured to self regulate its control of power through teaching its doctrine. The bible was created as an ultimate authority for truth and morality, and any contradiction to that authority threatens the power of the Church.

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Standards on sexuality for the Church present themself as a moral issue, these standards that control sexuality can seem arbitrary. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa against the Gentiles is a good example of an arbitrary argument for the control of sex. In an ever increasingly secular modern world, these texts appear radical on their treatment of sex and sexuality. Even though it is possible to recognize this, it is hard to see how we are affected by religious ideals about sexuality today.

To understand the context of Paphnutius, one must take a look at the life of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. Born sometime between 912 and 940, Hrotsvitha was a Saxon nun, playwright, poet, and intellectual until her death sometime after 968 (Hudson Pg. 431-438). What little is known about Hrotsvitha comes from her own writings about herself. The most important information to note about Hrotsvitha is that she was writing from a nuns perspective. Scholars suggest that Hrotsvitha took the vail later on in life because her writings seem to come from a place of experience and worldliness. “There is so much more knowledge of the world in these plays, so much more real human feeling than any mere servile imitation of an ancient author could account for, so much genuine passion amidst all the strange monkish thought and speculation” (Hudson Pg. 436). Modeled after Terence, Hrotsvitha works consist of metrical legends, dramas, and historic poems or epics (Hudson Pg. 439, 443). Her plays are imitations of classical works only in literary style. The content of her work “…belongs wholly to the christianized Germany of the tenth century” and represents christianity by the purity and gentleness of women (Hudson Pg. 445). Hrotsvitha herself said that object of her works is “the exhibition of female virtue in conflict with and victorious over the rude desires of the opposite sex” (Hudson Pg. 445). Clearly, her writings are influenced by the prevailing ideas that define “female virtue” that come from the patriarchal society she lives in. These ideas can be seen in her drama, Paphnutius.

Paphnutius is essentially a play about the redemption of a whore. In the beginning of the play, the hermit Paphnutius talks to his disciples about his sadness “I grieve over an injury to my Creator” (Paphnutius Scene I). After a long philosophical monologue, he goes on to reveal that the injury he speaks of is the existence of the harlot named Thais, who is of horrible impurity. Thais is said to use her womanly wiles to drive good men crazy with desire. Paphnutius then travels from the desert into town, disguised as a lover, to find Thais and redeem her soul. Once he finds Thais, he converses with her about her sins “Let us pity rather those souls whom you have deprived of the sight of God of the God Whom you confess! Oh, Thais, you have willfully offended the divine Majesty. That condemns you.” (Paphnutius Scene III). Paphnutius puts the fear of God into Thais, and almost immediately she begs for his help in saving her soul from eternal hell-fire. This scene is quite odd, for Thais doesn’t take long to listen to the hermit and believe him. She recognizes her life style as sinful only after a man of authority tells her how her ways are wrong. Thais’s eagerness to burn her wealth in scene IV is also extremely strange. She rejects her lifestyle and sets fire to everything that represents her wealth just because of the rantings of a hermit. This behavior can only be interpreted as a message that Hrotsvitha was trying to push to her audience. Clearly, she believes that sexual promiscuity is sinful and that any material wealth gained by ones sexuality is tainted. In scene V we see how dedicated Thais is to her new cause, “Paphnutius, my father, I am ready now to obey you, command what you will… I can follow you with my feet. Would that I could follow you with my deeds!” (Paphnutius Scene V). Paphnutius then brings Thais to an abby where with the help of the abbess, he puts Thais into a cell for her to conduct her penance. After three years without contact with Thais or any heavenly sign that her penance is over, Paphnutius seeks his friend Anthony to determine the state of Thais. A disciple named Paul had a vision about Thais “Father, I saw in my vision a splendid bed. It was adorned with white hangings and coverings, and a crown was laid on it, and round it were four radiant virgins. They stood there as if they were guarding the crown. There was a great brightness round the bed, and a multitude of angels.” (Paphnutius Scene XI). This vision can be interpreted as Thais’s soul finally being pure enough for God to prepare a bed for her transition into heaven. Hrotsvitha focuses on the ideal of purity and virginity in this scene. It is important that the bed is white and that there are virgins surrounding it. In the Christian religion, female virginity is put on a pedestal. There are many references to purity, not only of the body but of the soul too, in medieval texts. The play finishes with Thais dying in Paphnutius’s arms “O God Who made me, pity me! Grant that the soul which Thou didst breathe into me may now happily return to Thee. O God Who made me, pity me!” (Paphnutius Scene XIII). This whole play shows the reader the ideals that Hrotsvitha holds. Purity, repentance, and loyalty to Christ are all important. The story of Thais the harlot shows the controls religion puts on people.

After understanding the context for Hrotsvitha’s writings and after seeing an example of the religious ideals of Hrotsvitha, it’s important to understand the moral background for these ideals. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that human morality is grounded in five psychological foundations: Intuitions against harming, intuitions supporting fairness, the desirability of loyalty, respect for authority, and bodily and spiritual purity (Dietrich Pg. 78). The latter three foundations, which can be shortened to authority, loyalty, and purity, are generally held by more fundamentalist religious people. These three foundations explain why it is so important to be pure in spirit, why one must repent for their sins, and why there is so much focus on virginity. These religious ideals are important because they are moral imperatives. This explains why it was so important for Paphnutius to save Thais and why Hrotsvitha chooses to push this message to her readers.

There is a reason why the Catholic Church controls ideals about sexuality that is grounded in the very basic structure of the Church. The Catholic bible is set up as an authority. The Church needs the bible as an authority to settle every fact about the world. The Churches power rests on the idea that the mundane world is exactly as it seems and that the spiritual realms is revealed truth to which the Church has sole access (Dietrich Pg. XIV). The reinforcement of these religious ideas about sexuality is necessary for the power of the Church and the legitimacy of the religion. It may seem arbitrary to have such a strict stance on sexuality to a modern day reader. Why is Thais’s expression of her sexuality as a promiscuous women bad? Why does Paphnutius need to save her soul? Why is there such a focus on virginity and purity for Thais? All these questions are answered by the moral foundations of authority, loyalty, and purity. It is a moral imperative to repent for your sins, to be pure and virginal, and being loyal to Christ. Any act not done within the moral framework that God gave to us through the bible is sinful. Any sin that is not felt with, either by repentance or hell-fire, stands as a threat to the bibles authority and thus as a threat to the Churches power. However, not many people truly “sin” There are countless acts that are prohibited in the bible that we break every day. Eating bacon, wearing ripped clothing, and cursing your parents are all examples of sins. These sins seem very menial and without reason. The Church frames a lot of activities as sins to be inline with their moral framework.

The 17th century astronomer Galileo Galilei is regarded by many as the father of modern science. The story of Galileo is an important example that shows that the Catholic Church must snuff out any and all opposition. One of Galileos greatest contributions to the world was the discovery and creation of the heliocentric (Sun-centered) view of the solar system. The prevailing system at the time was the geocentric (Earth-centered) view which was favored by the Church. In 1633, Galileo was sentenced to hours arrest for the publication and promotion of the heliocentric view in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dietrich Pg. XIII). Galileo’s book threatened the truth of the bible and the power of the Church. Psalm 96:10 says “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved” and Ecclesiastes 1:5 says “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises” (New International Version). It took until 1758 for the Catholic Church to cancel the prohibition on books against the geocentric view and it took until 1992 for the Church (under Pope John Paul II) to clear Galileo of his “crimes” (Dietrich Pg. XIII). Just like Galileo, Thais’s activities pose a threat to the power of the Church. She chooses not to live in the moral framework that the Church provides. This explains why Paphnutius finds it an imperative to find out Thais and make her amend for her sins. Even though he isn’t an authority within the Church, he is conditioned to take offense of any supposed crime against his own beliefs. This is the self replicating power of the Church. Our own human want to defend our beliefs work in favor of any system of the authority.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa against the Gentiles was written as a guide for missionaries to convert Muslims in the 13th century (Rosenwein Pg. 429). Chapter 122 presents an argument as to why fornication (sexual intercourse between two non married individuals) is a sin. The argument he presents is an argument of contradiction, he poses that since there doesn’t seem to be any injury done during the act of fornication, it doesn’t go against our our good. He then says that fornication doesn’t even seem to injure God “For we do not offend God except by doing something contrary to our own good…” (Rosenwein Pg. 429). Aquinas then goes on to contradict this statement by proving how fornication is in fact contrary to man’s good, an injury to God, and thus a sin. The basic argument goes like this: 1) Every emission of semen is sacred and different from other bodily emissions 2) Any emission of semen of in a way that doesn’t result in progeny is contrary to the good of man 3) if this is done deliberately, it is a sin. Aquinas categorizes sins of this kind as contrary to nature (Rosenwein Pg. 430).

John DeLamater in his essay, The Social Control of Sexuality, contributes the Judeo-Christian doctrine as a source of control over sexuality. “The purpose of sexual activity is defined as reproduction… Physical pleasure of all kinds is sinful…” (DeLamater Pg. 264.). This is the same idea that Thomas Aquinas argued for, expanded to include all forms of physical pleasure. DeLamater’s essay talks about the control of sexuality specifically within America. He notes that religious doctrine indirectly effects the individual’s sexual standards and behaviors (DeLamater Pg. 264). Even though modern day America is headed in an increasingly secular direction, many of our standards are influenced by religions, not exclusive to standards of sexuality. Abortion is a highly controversial topic in America. Ever since Roe V. Wade was passed in 1973, it appeared as if America was becoming more progressive on its treatment of women and the respect for their choice. Nearly 50 years later, there is a resurgence in right leaning religious conservative values under president Donald Trump. In his book, Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America, Terry Eagleton writes that the motives for Americans tendency to rise out of bed early in the morning that most other people of the world is “… a queasy puritan sense that indulging the body by not dragging it brutally out of bed as the crack of dawn is somewhat sinful” (philosophical Christmas has origins in religion but in the modern world it has morphed into a holiday that feeds consumerism through the act of decoration and gift giving. Even though people may go to Christmas mass or display a model of the Nativity scene, the deep religious meaning of the holiday is fading away to corporate marketing for materialistic gifts. The same could be said of Easter. The focus has gone away from the resurrection of Christ to the Easter Bunny doling out candy. These examples show us that the influence of religion is very much present in todays society even though America seems to be headed in a more secular direction.

The play Paphnutius by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim gives the reader an important insight into the control religion has over sexual expression. Understanding who Hrotsvitha was helps shed light on her writings and the message she wanted to give to readers; expression of sexuality, especially for females, is sinful. Understand the dynamic the Catholic Church has of holding onto power and the self sustaining effect this control has, shows that Hrotsvitha didn’t anything out of hate for women. She simply was writing from the perspective of a nun in the 10th century. Similarly, Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa against the Gentiles from his understanding the sexual dynamics that came from the Church. These two texts may seem radical in their treatment of sexuality, but that is because we can only read them from a modern day perspective. The story of Galileo shows that the Churches actions against threats to their power come out of necessity, and that the Church may be able to eventually change in the face of fact.

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Catholic Control Of Sexuality. (2020, May 08). Retrieved from