In the last year, the sexual revolution that started in the 1960s has gone into a new gear: gay marriage tipped into the mainstream, Canada overturned all its laws against prostitution and a federal judge declared the laws against polygamy in Utah unconstitutional. Nothing, however, had the impact of Pope Francis, who started his papacy last summer with a ceasefire in the war on homosexuals and then turned his focus on the poor. But while the Pope's statements have been much discussed and debated, the sequence has been mostly ignored—and it's the sequence that's revealing, the most dramatic possible example of the hidden connection between sex and politics we have seen in centuries.

I hesitate to write this down. I don't want to be glib about the Pope. Maybe it's the four years I spent in Catholic school or my general awe at his saintliness—washing the feet of the poor! Embracing the deformed! Forgiving those who trespass! I didn't want to rope him onto my own little hobby-horse just for the sake of a notion.

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Then I came across this startling article about Jesus's penis. Written by Lee Siegel and published in The New Yorker's book blog, it details the argument art critic Leo Steinberg made 30 years ago in a book called The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. Having noticed that in many Renaissance paintings of Jesus, the genitals had been "painted over or touched up to make them look like a mere blur," Steinberg looked more deeply and found "dozens of paintings and drawings in which Christ's genitalia are indisputably a central thematic concern." "There are paintings of the Christ child touching his penis and of the Virgin handling the infant Christ's penis," he wrote. "In some pictures, the Christ child exhibits his genitals in a style similar to Venus displaying her sex. Again and again, we see the young God-man parading his nakedness, or even flaunting his sex in ways normally reserved for female enticements." In many paintings of the three kings at the manger, one of the kings leans down to examine the baby Jesus's penis. In some especially surprising works, "the divine Father touches his Son's penis."

Not only that, but in many paintings of Christ on the cross or lying dead in Mary's arms, Jesus had an erection.

What to make of all this? Steinberg's argument is that when the Franciscans began to emerge as an order in the 13th century, following centuries of scorched-earth warfare against homosexuals and fornicators to overthrow the lusty ways of ancient Rome, the followers of the original Francis began to emphasize Christ's nakedness as a symbol of his humanity and "joined compassion to an acceptance of the role of sexuality in human life." Their motto was nudus nudum Christum sequi, or "follow naked the naked Christ." And joined to this surprising ideal was "a radical call to cast aside worldly wealth and belongings and acknowledge the fragile, fallen nature of all men and women."

The result was 300 years of Jesus porn.

Okay, that was glib. The result was actually 300 years of fleshy metaphysics in paint and sculpture. Or, as Steinberg put it, "One must recognize an ostentatio genitalium comparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum." Meaning that "showing the penis" is related to "showing the wounds," a connection made especially vivid by "the many representations of the Christ child's circumcision" that intentionally echo the crucifixion as "the blood of Christ's penis is fulfilled in the blood from Christ's wounds." (By no small coincidence, medieval comedians loved to make wordplays on the "erection" within "resurrection"—see The Decameron, where Boccaccio calls the the tent pole in a horny monk's robe the "resurrection of the flesh.")

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All this began to change during the Protestant reformation, Steinberg argued. Under the pressure of schism, a defensive church made Christ increasingly less fleshy—an idea instead of a body, a set of rules instead of a living God. But since the whole point of Christianity is that God so loved the world He sent His only begotten son to become flesh, this left us with what Steinberg called (echoing Flannery O'Connor) a "Christianity without Christ." The result was increasing hatred for the very world God so loved; after all, if the church was willing to denature His body with discreetly placed blurs and shadows, what would it be willing to do to the bodies of ordinary men and women?

All of which resonated with my core beliefs: that people use sexual judgment (and judgment in general) to separate themselves from the world, to lift themselves above the smells and stains of the body; that power and money are related attempts to rise above the weakness of the flesh and become as gods; that politics grows more divisive and cruel as a thousand petty-cash-empowered godlings lose all sense of humility. Only that can explain how taboos about sexuality took central place in the same religion that gave us "let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

But still, that's my hobbyhorse, and I left Catholic school many years ago. So I kept stalling.

Then, over Christmas, I started reading a book about farming by the Christian agrarian and poet, Wendell Berry. I knew that Berry believes a good farmer has to love his land and know it intimately and that this loving relationship to the land is a holy act, all fairly uncontroversial expressions of monistic spirituality.

So imagine my surprise when he started to connect the soil to the body. "At some point we began to assume that the life of the body would be the business of grocers and medical doctors, who need take no interest in the spirit, whereas the life of the spirit would be the business of churches, which would have at best only a negative interest in the body," he writes. But such a specialization is a kind of original sin itself. "The isolation of the body sets it into direct conflict with everything else in Creation. You cannot devalue the body and value the soul—or value anything else."

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In Berry's holistic mind, hatred of the body connects to everything from factory farming to animal abuse to the crisis of the modern church. "For many of the churchly, the life of the spirit is reduced to a dull preoccupation with getting into Heaven. At best, the world is no more than an embarrassment and a trail to the spirit, which is otherwise radically separated from it. The true lover of God must not be burdened with any care or respect for His works. While the body goes about its business of the destroying the earth, the soul is supposed to lie back and wait for Sunday, keeping itself free of earthly contaminants. While the body exploits other bodies, the soul stands aloof, free from sin, crying to the gawking bystanders: 'I am not enjoying it!'"

But as Berry points out, "Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for its resurrection."

Which brings us back to Pope Francis and the sequence of his remarkable turn from judgment to love, from the war on sex to a focus on the poor. My argument is that he had to stop the war before he could wage the peace because the people who are so obsessed with abortion or homosexual "sin" simply will not—cannot—love the poor. On the contrary, taking a hard line on sexual "morality" allows them to brush aside the pedophile-priest scandals and enjoy their satin vestments and magnificent mansions while millions starve. I thought I was being all radical and transgressive, but Berry, sweet-natured Christian farmer that he is, seems to take this idea for granted: "Contempt for the body is invariably manifested in contempt for other bodies—the bodies of slaves, laborers, women, animals, plants, the earth itself. Relationships with all other creatures become competitive and exploitive rather than collaborative and convivial. The world is seen and dealt with, not as an ecological community, but as a stock exchange, the ethics of which are based on the tragically misnamed 'law of the jungle.'"

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As he continues, he sounds exactly like Pope Francis denouncing trickle-down economics in the astonishing "no to an economy of exclusion" section of his Evangelii Gaudium.

The Pope: "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. ... Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own."

Berry: "This 'jungle law' is a basic fallacy of modern culture. The body is degraded and saddened by being set in conflict against the Creation itself, of which all bodies are members, therefore members of each other. The body is thus set to war against itself. Divided, set against each other, body and soul drive each other to extremes of misapprehension and folly … by dividing the body and soul, we divide both from all else. We thus condemn ourselves to a loneliness for which the only compensation is violence."

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The sequence matters. If we're ever to reconcile God to man or capitalism to "greater justice and inclusiveness," we first have to see the erection in the Resurrection.


John H. Richardson is the author of My Father The Spy, In the Little World and The Vipers Club.

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Photo by Semilla Luz/Flickr