The Evolution of the View of Sex and the Body in Catholic History

The Evolution of the View of Sex and the Body in Catholic History

Sexuality has been an ever-present topic considered by the Catholic Church. In particular, the way that sex itself and the body have been perceived within the Church’s history garnersattention even today. From Genesis came a foundation for the denial of the body, which influenced the view of sex and marriage for the early Christian Church and had continued into the 1960s. However, in recent years, a new movement has arisen to redefine the laity’s view of the Church’s teachings and the argumentation used in sexual morality, providing a response to these cultural changes and the previous perceptions held.

Historically, the Church has been notorious for propagating a negative attitude towards sex and the body. Regarding the body, the naked human body is described in the Bible as something shameful, something worth concealing: after the Fall, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and madeloincloths for themselves” (Genesis 3:7)*. This verse has commonly been interpreted to indicate potential for the sin of lust that can arise from looking at the naked body. However, this pattern of potential vice being punished with the associated body part continues into the New Testament.For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out,” or “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” because “it is better [...] to lose one ofyour members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matt. 5:29). This view has been interpreted as Jesus emphasizing the goal of heaven and spirituality over the body and suggesting that the body is a hindrance to holiness or pathway for vices, if not bad in itself. Even before Jesus, the body was seen from a more spiritual perspective as sicknesses and natural bodily functions, such as leprosy and menstruation, were seen as unclean and worthy of societal isolation. Thus, the early Christian Church carried a negative view of the body, and consequently a degrading view of sex, from these types of interpretations.

*This and all following Biblical references come from the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition Bible found on 

During the period of the early Church, the view of sex was heavily influenced by both the Church and key theologians of the time, such as St. Augustine of Hippo. During the first century of Christianity, virginity, or celibacy held mostly a political role against the state; however, in the second century, their perspective began to become more widely accepted, as “both men and women could attain sanctity by giving up sex,” and by the fourth century, the view of abstinence had grown so popular that it was “acceptable and common” (Cahill 173). The Church’s pushagainst sex was extremely influential; by linking their view against it with holiness, the Church changed the view of society against sexual union. However, Clement of Alexandria was cited by Cahill as defending the married laity and argued that there was no difference between those who abstained from those who participated in the conjugal vows (173). Despite this argumenthowever, this is a view that has continued to today’s modern time, where you hear many religious, who are abstinent, being considered more holy, many saints glorified for their sexual purity like St. Maria Goretti or St. Philomena, and it is seen as a more “pious” decision to waitfor sex or abstain completely.

Influential writers at the time regarding issues related to sex included Saints John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine of Hippo. For example, St. John was an advocate formarriage, but only for the sake of “the difficulty of sexual control;” sexuality then was not seenas something natural or holy, but rather a pest that must be contained (Cahill 174). Although he argued for marital equality between spouses, St. Ambrose also argued that virginity could create sexual equality between men and women; thus, he continued to promote the glorification of virginity (Cahill 174). However, Cahill marks the most influential writer for the “positive doctrine of marriage” and the “surrounding [of] sex with the aura of shame” to be St. Augustine, due to social factors occurring at the time, such as the rise in “extremist, gnostic forms,” and also from his own personal sexual experiences (175). Unlike St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine moves towards a more positive view of marriage, but maintains the more negative view of sex. Evidently, as the glorification of virginity has risen, the importance of marriage must be remembered; however, the view of sex itself has retained an “aura of shame” and marriage is more the solution rather than out of desire. It was not until the early the Middle Ages when St. Thomas Aquinas argued that marriage should be seen as a “friendship cemented by sexual intimacy,” in conjunction with an elevation of virginity for holiness; however, he avoided any“crude denigration of marriage and sex” (Cahill 178). Thus, only around the Middle Ages did the view of marriage contain a more positive view of sex within it; before, the view of sex had been largely negative with this view remaining more prominent in thought than St. Thomas’ revolutionary argument.

This view of marriage, celibacy, and sex continued up to the 1970s and is still being debated about today. While shown to not be a new view, the prior generation of Baby Boomersbelief has been that the Catholic Church has dirtied sex and sexuality overall, as there is the common belief that it teaches sex as merely an end to the means of reproduction and anything of a bodily pleasure is inherently sinful. According to Dr. Todd Waller, who was a teenager around this time and is a lay member of the Church, “the type of teaching from priests” regarding the “perspective of sex and the sexual environment was very shameful” (Interview) This included, however, not only sex, but also sexuality, the view of the body, and in relation to his Regarding the effect of these teachings on his adult life, he explained, “I think that my adult values around sexuality have been formed through a lot of counseling with a therapist,” which he originally went to from his experience in Calcutta with Mother Teresa (Interview). However, Dr. Waller is not the only person struck by this view today. Dr. John Portmann writes that “as a Catholic schoolboy, I feared sex would trigger my downfall. [...] Sex threatened my eternal reward and earthly success” (Sex and Heaven). Evidently, the Church’s teachings on sexuality have been incorrect at best, and damaging at worst, not only in regard to the effect on society, but to the private, individual lives of people as well.

However, more recently, conscious action has been taken to restore the Church’s imageof sex, or rather, to clarify the Church’s position of sex and provide a new interpretation toBiblical passages. I personally can recall being a child and sex being considered a topic; however, as early as middle school, the teaching of sex in my community began to change and be more positive because of movements, like the Chastity Project that arose from St. John PaullII’s Theology of the Body. Perhaps St. John Paul II’s 1979-84 work was a major catalyst for the change in opinion for many, as he redefined and “redeemed,” in some people’s view, theChurch’s perspective of the body, sex, sexuality, and marriage through a series of 112 addressesthat have now come to be known as his “Theology of the Body” (Pope John Paul II, 1-2). International speaker Jason Evert, the founder of the Chastity Project, is just one of manyresponders to the Pope’s call to action. He has written numerous books and given speeches tonearly 100,000 students per year, sharing with them the reinterpretations gleaned from what St. John Paul II said.

One of the strongest points that these reinterpretations have made has been theclarification of the word “chastity.” In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), chastity isdefined vaguely as the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the innerunity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (2337 CCC). This definition, however, does little to combat any harmful views against sexuality, nor does it give much guidance on what is meantby “integration of sexuality.” Therefore, a key element in this battle has been clarifying what is meant by “chastity” and how it is different than the previous extreme of overly-strict prudism of the Victorian era and the current extreme of over-promiscuity. By demonstrating this, the speakers allow for more healthy views of sexuality and sex to grow**.

**Unfortunately, explaining the new concept of chastity is beyond the scope of this paper. However, resources can be found at and by searching for more information regarding Theology of the Body.

Overall, the Church’s position on the body and sex has evolved over the course of itshistory. For hundreds of centuries, the Church maintained a negative attitude against sex, justifying it with Biblical references. Up until the 1980s, sex and the body have been taught as dirty and unclean, while virginity and marriage were upheld, with the former regarded as a holier course of life and the latter, a means of sexual control. However, due to the influence of St. JohnPaul II’s Theology of the Body series, this opinion has been readdressed and elucidated. Thus, the view of sex and the body has grown tremendously and will hopefully provide more positive outcomes in the lives of the current generation than in their predecessors.


Works Cited

“Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Vatican, Part Three Life in Christ Section Two The Ten Commandments Chapter Two "You Shall Love Your Neighbor As Yourself" Article 6 The Sixth Commandment. Accessed 9 Dec. 2018.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle, and Cahill Lisa Sowle. Sex, gender, and Christian ethics. Vol. 9. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Evert, Jason. Chastity, The Chastity Project,
Jones, Madeline, and Dr. Todd Waller. Personal Interview. 3 Dec. 2018.

Pope John Paul II. The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). The Catholic Primer, 2006, https://stmarys- The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). From the Weekly Audiences of His Holiness September 5, 1979 – November 28, 1984. Accessed 9 Dec. 2018.

Portmann, John. Sex and Heaven: Catholics in bed and at prayer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.