In good faith. The development of Catholic sexology in the service of sexual aggiornamento (Belgium, 1950s and 60s)
In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, re-affirming Thomistic principles as the Church’s official position on the congruence of Catholic doctrine and positive science. Outside Rome, arguably the main intellectual stronghold from where Thomism and the stern Aquinian views on human sexuality would henceforth emanate was the Catholic University of Leuven. The Belgian Church, moreover, was to play a pioneering role in the Catholic campaign set up against all ‘onanistic’ forms of sexual debauchery and excess during the early twentieth century. Its efforts, and those of the cleric Arthur Vermeersch more particularly, were key to the promulgation of Casti Connubii in 1930, whereby the Holy See sharply condemned all forms of contraception. Ironically therefore, it was at Leuven that theologians and prominent clerics began to actively call for the toning down of the Church’s stringent sexual morals after the Second World War. By 1958, the professor of Thomist teachings Leo Suenens pointed out the urgent need for the development of a Catholic sexology. Only a year later, he presided over the first Catholic International Sexological Colloquium. By 1961, having been appointed the country’s new archbishop in the meantime, Suenens founded the Institute for Familial and Sexological Sciences in Leuven, the first of its kind at a Catholic university in the world. He also successfully urged his close friend John XXIII to set up a Commissio pontifica pro sudio populationis, familiae et natalitatis in the hope of using the latest pharmacological insights to push for doctrinal aggiornamento in sexual ethics.
This paper will investigate how and why Belgian theology, so long at the forefront of moral conservatism, came to develop and instrumentalize a Catholic form of sexological science to press for more open attitudes towards human sexuality during the 1950s and 60s.