“Eros is … that force which ‘does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved.’ Is there more ‘mad eros’ than that which led the Son of God to make himself one with us even to the point of suffering at his own the consequences of our offenses? … Let us look at Christ pierced on the cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God’s love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God Himself who begs the love of His creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us.” — Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten letter, 2007
The experience of God described in relation to sexual ecstasy is by no means a new or unique idea, nor one that has never been explored or depicted in art or teaching. Consider Bernini’s sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy, or Ron Hansen’s remarkable book, “Mariette in Ecstasy,” both of which deliver a compelling, undeniable narrative of sensual engagement within spiritual mysticism. Better yet, one could read Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts on the “mad eros of the cross,” noted above, or read his encyclical letter “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”), wherein he writes extensively on eros, recognizing that “eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine (No. 5) … . Yet eros and agape — ascending love and descending love — can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized” (No. 7).
The sexual and the spiritual do not exist exclusive to each other but will frequently commingle, particularly within the experience of mystical contemplation. Further, it is obvious that one can communicate that reality very well without going into biological or gynecological descriptiveness that is off-putting to many and inspires an interior squelch when done badly — especially when done badly by a priest, which is the case with then-Father, now Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández’s recently uncovered 1998 publication, “La pasión mística: espiritualidad y sensualidad” (“Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality”).
In response to questions about the book, Cardinal Fernández has explained that he “was young” when he wrote it and would not write it now.
All right, young or old, we’ve all written stupid things. Because that’s true, and because we are a church of mercy, one tries to bring a merciful eye to the cardinal’s excuse. But beyond the muddled writing, the section describing his conversation with a 16-year-old girl — in which he encourages her to share a crypto-erotic fantasy set on a beach of kissing Jesus Christ all over his body — moves beyond cringe-inducingly bad writing and into the realm of what is deeply disturbing. It forces questions about whether this priest was testing boundaries, whether he was grooming a soul put into his spiritual keeping along the lines of Jean Vanier and Father Marko Rupnik — two men who used their spiritual influence over others to parlay discussions of the mystical Godhead (very advanced and often confusing spiritual study) into exploitative sexual activity meant to reflect the action of the Holy Trinity.
Was the cardinal in fact grooming a very young, ardent soul? We can’t know, and therefore I would never make that accusation. But, if nothing else, the discovery of this book, particularly in the year 2024, must prompt us — all of us, together as church — to ask such discomfiting questions so we may become better trained in recognizing grooming behaviors. This is what must be done if we are ever to rid the church of those who sexually prey upon the spiritually vulnerable of any age.
Humans are sexual, sensual creatures, and Christians ought not be put off by discussions of eros in their lifelong exploration of the Triune God and God’s intimate engagement with the entirety of our beings. But such exploration must be done with delicacy and imagination and with as few mentions of “penises as hard and straight as spears to wage war on vaginas” as is humanly possible.
My own opinion is that there is nothing wrong with imagining God’s engagement with the beloved, or extrapolating that into an image of human conjugal love, provided it leaves no one in confusion about what is being communicated — what is meant by the idea. Perhaps most importantly, it must not detract from what Catholicism teaches, or be misconstrued as an invitation to argue against those teachings.
This can be done, I think. In my 2013 book “Strange Gods,” I actually delved into the God/eros question myself, imagining God’s love words to the Israelites when they demanded an earthly king (1 Sam 8:19-21), writing:
“My love and my law are not enough? You need a corporeal king? All right then … I love you so much that I will incarnate and surrender myself to you. I will enter into you (stubborn, faulty, incomplete you, adored you, the you that can never fully know me or love me back), and I will give you my whole body. I will give you all of myself unto my very blood, and then it will finally be consummated between us, and you will understand that I have been not just your God but also your lover, your espoused, your bridegroom. Come to me, and let me love you. Be my bride; accept your bridegroom and let the scent and sense of our love course over and through the whole world through the church I beget to you. I am your God; you are my people. I am your bridegroom; you are my bride. This is the great love story, the great intercourse, the great espousal, and you cannot imagine where I mean to take you, if you will only be faithful, as I am always faithful…”
It’s quite possible that my imagery back then made some people uncomfortable, and their sensibilities should certainly be respected. But I continue to believe that we must share what we have gleaned of God, in all our limitations — but with great care for all persons, particularly the vulnerable, and in the best possible way.
Elizabeth Scalia is outgoing culture editor for OSV News.