Contraception, masturbation, homosexuality… Throughout the 20th century, Western societies experienced a major evolution in their sexual mores. The Church, for its part, has largely remained inflexible on its teaching, and has sometimes been able to harden its tone, as Martine Sevegrand, historian of contemporary Catholicism, shows in her latest work The Sixth Commandment. The Catholic Church and sexual morality (France, 20th century) (Presses universitaire de Rennes, 294 pages, 25 euros). A fascinating historical dive into 20th century Catholicism, which sheds light on many issues still largely at the heart of debates in the 21st century Church.

Martine Sevegrand: It ultimately boils down to a fairly simple idea: for Catholics, the only authorized sexual activity consists of potentially fertile sexual relations between spouses. The rest is prohibited. Any sexuality outside of Christian marriage is of course prohibited, as are deliberately infertile sexual practices.

To designate the latter, the Church uses the term “onanism”, which refers to the “crime of Onan”, mentioned in the Bible. His brother having died without an heir, Onan must raise descendants for him. Now, “each time he united with his brother’s wife, [Onan] let the seed be lost on the ground so as not to give posterity to his brother. What he did displeased Yahweh, who put him to death,” we read in Genesis (Gen 38:9-10).

From this episode, the Church concludes that God condemns any sexual activity that cannot lead to potential procreation. Masturbation is therefore prohibited, as is the practice of withdrawal – or “coitus interruptus” – which has been a widely used contraceptive method in France since the 19th century.

This traditional sexual morality is not new, since it was already taught to the faithful, during sermons or in the confessional. However, the Church insisted even more on the subject in the first decades of the 20th century. Books and brochures were then distributed, conferences were organized and Father Viollet (1875-1956) founded a Christian Marriage Association in 1918.

There are several reasons for this focus on sexuality. The first stems from the loss of political power of the Church, evident in France since the law of 1905 [on the separation of Churches and State], which pushes it to concentrate on the private sphere, in which it can still exert its influence.