Most people would not consider Catholicism a religion of sensuality. But the problem is not with the idea of sensuality in itself, but what we mean by sensuality. For most people, sensuality is often exclusively connected with sexuality. And this is a valid connection. However, what I mean by sensuality here is not so much the sexuality associated, but rather the idea of something that appeals to the senses, to the five senses, touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Catholicism is unparalleled among religions for best tapping into those five senses.
There is a physicality to Catholicism that has always appealed to me. It is a tactile religion. You go to confession, and confess your sins to another person, who is acting in persona Christi. You actually eat and drink the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. You bless yourself with holy water. You kneel and pray in different liturgical ways, using your body in an act of prayer. For Catholics, (as well as Orthodox) you exercise both your spirit and your body in liturgical worship.
I have always believed that Catholicism, despite the difficulties of some of its teachings on human sexuality, has always been much more in tune with the natural rhythms of life, and sexuality, than other religions. There is an earthiness to the Church’s teachings on these matters. The prohibition against contraception, however unpopular in today’s world, is basically an acknowledgment of the fundamental realities of life, that we cannot go on as race, society, culture or nations, without procreation. Sex cannot ultimately be separated from this fact without consequences. The current population implosion in Europe, and the dire consequences it portends, is a testament to an entire people turning away from the natural rhythms of sex and fertility. As others have pointed out, it was Catholicism that made marriage a sacrament, a holy thing, and lifted sexuality to a new level of meaning hitherto unheard of. Christianity sanctified married sex and turned it into something holy. Most happily married couples would probably concur about the sanctity of sex in such a context.
This understanding of human sexuality and the primacy of procreation is also a type of sensuality. It is natural. It is time honored. It is imbued with wisdom. The State cannot take care of us; in the end, it is only our blood, our family members, who truly care for us. I wonder what life will be like in a few decades when the aging, childless populations of the Western world are suddenly at the mercy of impartial, health care bureaucrats. They do not care at all for your well being; rather, the aged will be looked upon as financial burdens to be disposed of as quietly, quickly and cost efficiently as possible.
Catholic art, especially of the Renaissance variety, is filled with this sensuality. It is this link with the physical world that gives Catholic art its special sensuality. Great Catholic art is unabashed in its celebration of beauty. Even though the Madonna is a sacred image, she is always portrayed as beautiful on Catholic art. To the painters of the time, influenced by the growing neo-Platonism of the Renaissance, physical beauty was often a reflection of spiritual beauty. And why are there so many Holy Families, or Madonnas and Child? Is this not a type of celebration of an earthy fertility, the word made flesh? There is nothing more primal to sexuality than a mother and her child. It is, after all, what sex is ultimately about, procreation. The family, that most physical of social institutions, is the great focal point of much of Catholic art, as it was of the overall society at the time. It is an interested contrast to our own fragmented family lives today.
It was also the Catholic Church that patronized the very artists who returned Western art to a type of naturalness in form that had not been since the end of Classical antiquity. And yet many of these artist who produced great Catholic works of art, also produced art that was controversial, such as Botticelli or Michelangelo. Some of these works were considered at the time, and for many centuries afterwards, and even today in some quarters, pornographic. Why? Because they depicted the beauty of the human body. They painted nudes. And as we know from our own cultural schizophrenic reaction to nudity, this is still a difficult subject for most people to handle, even in art.
So I enjoy this aspect of Catholicism, at least the type of Catholicism that is not tainted by the neo-Jansenist, puritanical strain that often affects North American Catholicism. It is a physical, earthy type of Catholicism, yet one that is still rooted in the spiritual truths of the faith. It is, at least as art and liturgy are concerned, a celebration of beauty for the sake of beauty, and a beauty that ultimately derives spiritually from God.
Interesting read. I’m not persuaded by your portrayal of Catholicism, but it’s enjoyable to read the views of a sympathetic believer (as you seem to be?).
//Catholicism is unparalleled among religions for best tapping into those five senses.//
I would be very wary of such “best of” assertions. Have you read “The Senses and the English Reformation”? Here’s a sample from its back matter:
“By looking at what English men and women thought about sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, The stereotype that Protestantism was not sensual, and that Catholicism was overly sensualised is wholly undermined. Through this examination of how worship was transformed in its textual and liturgical forms, The book illustrates how English religion sought to reflect changing ideas surrounding the senses and their place in religious life.”
Besides that, I would be interested to see how Catholicism compares to Taoism, Chan, the various Buddhists sects and Japanese Zen (for example). I think that a devout appreciation of the five senses is more human than religious, and can be found in a large variety of religions and beliefs.
//The current population implosion in Europe, and the dire consequences it portends, is a testament to an entire people turning away from the natural rhythms of sex and fertility.//
However, the same evidence also works *against* Catholic strictures, and to much worse and more dire consequences than population *decrease*. Overpopulation leads to disease, hunger, poverty, etc… I’m not sure what dire consequences population decrease portends, but it won’t be as dire as overpopulation. In pre-literate cultures, the natural rhythms of sex and fertility include birth control. Aboriginal women don’t pop out a new baby every nine months. I find Catholicism’s idealization of sexuality incredibly naive and, in today’s world, destructive.
//The State cannot take care of us; in the end, it is only our blood, our family members, who truly care for us. //
But “to care of” and to “care for” are two different things. One may have children who “care for” their parents, but who are not be able to take care “of” them simply because they don’t have the resources. And there are elderly who don’t want to be taken care “of” by their children, but who *do* want children who love them. I think this is a bit more complicated than you’re making it. We no longer live in Tang China. Many elderly prefer insurance to the care of their children. Unfortunately, private health insurance bureaucrats already see the elderly as “financial burdens to be disposed of as quietly, quickly and cost efficiently as possible.” This is why we need the state to intercede – insofar as the state represents the interest of the people rather than the interests, solely, of profit. To imply that the solution to elder care is, well, more children, seems to ignore a great deal. For example, all those children will one day, themselves, be elderly. They, according to your logic, will also need a commensurate number of children to take care of *them*. The population explosion will be geometric.
// It is, after all, what sex is ultimately about, procreation.//
Unless you’re a human being. We are thinking animals. Sex is, ultimately, what we make of it.
Lastly, it’s true that the Catholic Church (despite its dogma) provided essential patronage to Renaissance artists, but I would be wary of concluding that Catholicism shaped the direction art took. The tastes of the Catholic Church tended to fitfully follow, rather than lead.
Racer X said:
Thanks for the comments.
“The Senses and the English Reformation” sounds quite interesting. I will definitely have to check that out.
A comparison between Catholicism and other religions would be interesting with respect to the use of the senses. I don’t have enough knowledge of those religions to make any sort of accurate statement though. When I think of Catholicism, I tend to compare it to the more sparse type of Protestantism found in North America. Spanish Catholicism is especially rich in sensory allusiveness. You are right that the use of the senses is something common to all religious experiences, but I think Catholicism perhaps has harmoniously integrated the use of all those senses in a way that other religions have not.
As far as population decreases in Europe, and in the world in general, although not necessarily a bad thing, it can be problematic. Large industrialized societies need a young workforce to keep the machinery of those societies going. If they are not producing those populations on their own and importing large foreign populations to do the work, this can create social problems down the road. Or at least that is the theory. I suppose time will tell. But I think in Europe there are now large populations of people who are not assimilated into European society, and are in many ways hostile to those host societies. But again, I suppose time will tell. I don’t pretend to be any sort of authority on such matters.
As far as art, yeah, I would say the Church did not push the direction of the art, rather, the art drove itself. The Church provided patronage at an important stage. I would say however that the influence of St. Francis of Assisi was important in the development of humanistic art. St. Francis emphasized the sufferings of Christ, Christ in his human form, in a way that had not been done before. It came at a time of cleavage between the Eastern and Western Churches, and to this day the Orthodox still use more abstract forms of religious art and are suspicious of the naturalistic forms in Western religious art. So St. Francis helped to introduce the notion of the human body, human suffering, into a religious dialogue that up until that time emphasized nearly exclusively the divine nature of Christ. For instance, it was only after St. Francis that you began seeing what is quite common today, an image of Christ suffering on the cross.
This is all quite complicated though, so I am sure I have left out quite a bit! Again, thanks for the comments.
//St. Francis emphasized the sufferings of Christ…//
That’s a very good point. It’s interesting to see how different spiritual outlooks have informed art in various cultures. My affinity is with Eastern thought, philosophy and spirituality. I’m not a religious person. When it comes to art, I find I’m more moved by secular work than pointedly sacred. Much great Japanese and Chinese art is deeply imbued with Taoism, and the same through Chan and Zen, but the subject matter is secular.