Last week we looked at the categories of gluttony and avarice; today I turn our attention toward the Penitentials’ treatment of lust and attendant sexual sins. As with last week’s treatment of gluttony, the monastic authors saw the fall into sexual excesses as destructive of the will. The majority of commentaries did not analyze sinful acts, preferring to draw from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which condemned adulterers and homosexuals.
Hugh Connolly has attempted to categorize sexual sins found in the Penitentials, and he begins with “natural fornication.” In terms of the punishment prescribed, there was no difference in fornication whether it was of heterosexual or homosexual nature; the prescribed penance was three years of fasting. Distinctions of severity appear in terms of clerical rank and marital state. Finnian makes a difference between a cleric who “loses his crown” (i.e., virginity) and a serial clerical fornicator. In both cases the penance or satisfaction entails fasting and abstinence (presumably from meat); the habitual clerical offender is stripped of his clerical office as part of his punishment.
The violation of a woman in vows was considered much more serious than the violation of a single woman; similarly, the violation of a married woman was more serious than that of a single woman. It is interesting to note that that while the act of illicit sexual activity is constantly considered a serious sin, the gravity rests upon the circumstances of the coupling. Some of the specifics of the sins give us an interesting view of the times. A man who leaves his wife and family and takes monastic vows would sometimes go back to her home to resume sexual contact. The Penitentials treats this case as though “he had been a cleric from his youth and sinned with a strange girl.” (Connolly, 81) The sin, Finnian explains, is against the sanctity of the vow. A man who commits fornication while married must abstain from sexual intimacy with his wife for three years.
Sexual relations between married men and female slaves was sinful, the penalty being a year’s fasting and abstinence from spousal relations for one year. I noted wryly that some feminist websites accuse certain writers, notably Finnian, as unduly harsh on women. However, it does seem from Connolly’s text that in discussion of marital abandonment, the innocent party—man or woman—was expected to help a repentant spouse by not engaging in sexual union.
The term “unnatural fornication” is applied by Connolly to several types of sins: homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, and incest. The penalties for homosexual acts varied from seven to two years, again depending upon the difference of a one-time offender or a habitual practitioner, and the age of the parties involved, men or teens. Clerical homosexuality carried a ten-year penance and a prohibition against ever living again with his partner (presumably another cleric.) There was recognition that teenagers and even children engaged in homosexual acts with each other, and their penances were significantly reduced from adult offenders.
With regard to masturbation, a great deal of attention was paid to whether the individual had brought upon himself the pleasure that led to ejaculation. The occurrence of nocturnal emission seems to have been a dilemma to confessors; in the fourteenth century the Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, would actually write a treatise about priests’ offering Mass after experiencing a nocturnal experience. The grades of guilt and penance are too lengthy to enumerate here, but we saw last week that monastic spirituality put a high premium on self-control. Authors also discussed sexual arousal of children and teens at play.
Bestiality or sex with animals is condemned across the board. As we might expect, the penances vary along lines of vocation and age. The literature devotes considerable attention to fellatio or oral sex. The penalty could be as high as four years, seven years if habitual. The writers considered the act a defilement of the lips and apparently make little distinction as to the sex or rank of the parties involved. The sin of incest—sex between closely related parties—is deemed sinful by the Penitentials that treat of it. Sexual intercourse with one’s mother incurred a three-year penance. Columbanus, however, treats of the subject in our contemporary meaning of “child abuse,” where penalties could extend as long as seven to fifteen years.
The Penitentials go on to treat of a number of unclassified sexual sins, including kissing, impure thoughts, immodest words or actions, love potions or aphrodisiacs, etc. Connolly does not treat of birth control, but the subject does come up in other treatments of the age. Reproductive science of this era was primitive, but there was a sense that positions during sex acts might induce or lessen the odds of pregnancy. Monastic moral teaching would have seen an intention against pregnancy as a violation of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply.
This will be my final treatment of the Irish Penitential era, which extended till about the end of the first millennium. In summary, it is important to give credit to the Irish monks of this age as the first to do two things: (1) to organize Church thinking on sin for the advantage of the celebration of Penance; and (2) to treat sin through the medium of virtue, to correct loss of personal control with the acts of restraint and self-sacrifice that would lead to replacing a tendency toward a particular sin with an inclination toward its opposite virtue or value.
In the time it has taken me to type this, the temperature on my desktop thermometer has dropped from 122 to 109—I have attained a more agreeable spot in hell. And no hot coffee now!