Resurfaced Cardinal Fernández Book Prompts Concerns

The comparison between spiritual experiences and sexual orgasms has raised serious concerns among scholars, such as Father Thomas Petri, the president of the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies.

null (photo: Daniel Ibañez/CNA / EWTN)

Some Catholics have raised serious concerns over both the tone and theology of a recently resurfaced sexually explicit book written by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández in the 1990s.

Cardinal Fernández, who serves as the prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote the book, titled Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality, in 1998. At the time the prelate was in his mid-30s and had been an ordained priest for more than a decade.

Although Cardinal Fernández has not disavowed the content of the book, he told Crux that he “certainly would not write [the book] now” and that he took it out of print shortly after it was published because it “could be misinterpreted.” He added that he wrote it for young couples “who wanted to better understand the spiritual meaning of their relationships.”

The book contains numerous sexual themes, which are then related to experiences one has with God. Cardinal Fernández opines on what he calls a “kind of ‘mystical orgasm’” and describes the differences between the sexual experience of men and women.

In the chapter “The Road to Orgasm,” Cardinal Fernández expands on the analogy by citing “inebriating experiences of God” experienced by saints, such as the religious ecstasy of St. Teresa of Ávila upon her death, which he describes as “sensual.”

Later he describes these experiences as “a kind of fulfilling orgasm in our relationship with God, which does not imply so much physical alterations but simply that God manages to touch the soul-corporeal center of pleasure, so that a satisfaction that encompasses the entire person is experienced.”

‘Sexualizing Our Spirituality’

The comparison between spiritual experiences and sexual orgasms has raised serious concerns among scholars, such as Father Thomas Petri, the president of the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies.

Father Petri told CNA that the suggestion that divine intimacy — such as that experienced by St. Teresa — is “experienced like a physical sexual climax” would seem to “denigrate the experience.”

“It’s hard to believe God would specifically incite the sexual arousal and sexual climax,” Father Petri added, noting that St. Teresa was a cloistered nun who was called to detach herself from any sexual desires.

Kelsey Skoch, who provides coaching and mentorship on chastity, contrasted some of the content in Cardinal Fernández’s book with the message in St. John Paul II’s teachings about the theology of the body.

Skoch told CNA that the theology of the body “takes our sexuality and looks at it as a gift from the Lord” and added that “our sexuality is created by God” and is “a gift and is sacred.” When experienced properly “as a fruit from the love within a marriage,” she said, it “should go along with our spirituality” and “can imitate divine intimacy in a way.”

However, she noted that this is different from what Cardinal Fernández appears to do.

“He sexualizes our spirituality, so it’s kind of the inverse [of theology of the body],” Skoch said.

Father Petri similarly noted that the book’s depiction of sexuality and John Paul II’s theology of the body “differ in a number of ways.” He said that although husbands and wives should “have pleasure and delight” during the marital act, he noted that this is not the primary focus. Rather, the focus is “the communication of the love for the husband and wife for the sake of life.”

In addition to the differences in theology and approach, Father Petri also pointed to a major distinction in the tone used in Cardinal Fernández’s book, noting that John Paul II often uses euphemisms and “he doesn’t speak so graphically about the marital act.” He said a priest should not speak in a way “that would scandalize the faithful or that would harm their piety.”

“This is why [Fernández] had withdrawn the book,” Father Petri said. “He understood that this could happen.”

Skoch agreed, saying that Fernández is “too descriptive” and the graphic language is “unnecessary and imprudent” and can be “problematic due to the reader’s takeaway.”

She added that “it’s very easy for all of this to get misconstrued,” which “[Cardinal Fernández] himself has said.”

Throughout the chapters focused on sexual activity, Fernández typically avoids specifying that he is speaking about these relations within the confines of marriage.

Failure to Recognize Damage of Pornography

One part of the book also discusses Cardinal Fernández’s perceived distinctions with regard to the extent to which men and women are aroused by “hardcore pornography” without clarifying the Church’s objection to pornography or discussing its negative effects.

Father Petri said that when discussing pornography, it is important to convey that it is “destroying relationships [and] destroying marriages.”

Skoch noted that this section in particular could cause confusion because “it falls short in clarifying and condemning” pornography.

The book also briefly mentions homosexuality, stating that the “joyful experience of divine love” will not necessarily “free me from all my psychological weaknesses” and uses the example that “a homosexual will [not] necessarily stop being homosexual.”

He then cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that the imputability and responsibility for a sinful action could be diminished or even nullified in some circumstances, such as ignorance, habit, or psychological or social factors.

“Let us remember that God’s grace can coexist with weaknesses and even with sins, when there is a very strong conditioning,” Cardinal Fernández says. “In those cases, the person can do things that are objectively sinful, without being guilty, and without losing the grace of God or the experience of his love.”

Father Petri said this “could be true with any sort of sexual vice,” but added that “I don’t think you lead with that … and it’s not an excuse.” He said that addiction could mitigate or eliminate culpability with sexual sins but that one should work to prevent that addiction.

The resurfaced book was not listed on the official list of Cardinal Fernández’s publications, which was circulated by the Vatican when Pope Francis appointed him as the head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. However, Cardinal Fernández said in an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE that the pontiff was aware of the book.

“I knew that, in the midst of polemical issues, they could use old things like this book,” Cardinal Fernández said. “I had informed the pope that this could happen when he proposed to me this position for the second time, but this was already clear to him and he also knew about this book.”