I drove through Listowel one time on holiday. It was an important place in my mind because I knew that the playwright, John B Keane lived in this town. John B is famous in Ireland as the wise and comical publican wrote plays about Irish life and reflected his fellow countrymen and women back to themselves in ways that they could recognise and admit to and laugh about. Seeing how well he was doing, publishing and selling books about ordinary local life, a customer in his pub said to him, ’You’re a clever man, John B. You listen to all our talk in here and then you write it down and get us to pay for the privilege of reading it.’ Ireland, religious and cultural, was the subject of John B’s late night ruminations and his writing revealed to us the narrow-minded and cruel habits that were abroad in the country.
In that same town just lately a retired priest, home from America after forty-two years ministry over there, has stood up in the local church and issued a blanket condemnation of all the sexual lifestyles of the modern world, with the added bonus of direct entry into hell for all who live in these ways. It is a very black and white attitude that he takes and reminds us of the church in which he and I and many more grew up. In those days only the married could indulge in a sexual life, and anything before marriage or outside marriage was forbidden under pain of mortal sin. Marriage itself was spoken of as being a kind of reluctant concession that sadly had to admit the force of the sexual instinct. We needed it for procreation of the human race, but apart from that noble purpose, it was frowned upon.
It is also true that in those days sexuality was as much practised as at any time in history, but it was never spoken about in public or in private. Today I was watching a YouTube show of Pam Ayres, who very humorously related how life in her village went on with people referring to things sexual in oblique and mysterious terms. It didn’t do to talk about it explicitly. Things aren’t wonderful now but at least we are talking.
This seems a good moment to quote the Roman writer, Terence, who said, ‘Homo sum humani nihil a me alienum puto.’
‘I am human: I consider nothing human is alien to me.’ In recent times we have been challenged to think very differently about human sexuality, and that challenge remains. We don’t now everything and we don’t understand everything fully. But for the Church publicly, and especially from the inspiring lead of Pope Francis, the days of blanket and simplistic condemnations are over.
In my early days as a priest I used to wonder why did Jesus not say anything about sex. He could have solved all our difficulties for us. But nowadays I think Jesus said plenty and enough about everything in life for us to make our way peacefully enough. He spoke about things we know about – love and faithfulness, patience and kindness, toleration of differences. We don’t have to pronounce on everything that happens in this world. In many ways it is good to let life be.
People are always on the journey, the journey through life, trying to understand and to discover what it all means. Everyone is searching for love. The church and its ministers are there to help on that journey. Fulminations about hell and damnation are no way to go about helping others find their way to God.
3 November 2022