Roman Catholics: The Issue of Imprimatur

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In 1951, a French priest named Marc Oraison was awarded the highest possible mark at Paris' Institut Catholique for a doctoral thesis entitled Christian Life and Problems of Sexuality. After it was published as a book, Abbe Oraison was summoned to the Holy Office at the Vatican, where, he recalls, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani and Giuseppe Cardinal Pizzardo counseled him that the best methods for preserving sexual purity are a good diet and fear of sin. As Abbé Oraison wrote in Le Monde: "Twice Cardinal Pizzardo repeated to me, 'For purity—fright, spaghetti and beans.' " Then Cardinal Ottaviani told the French priest that his book had been placed on the Index of Prohibited Books.

The Second Vatican Council has since abolished the index, but that does not mean the hierarchy has stopped discouraging books it does not like, especially those written by priests. Though the Holy Office has been renamed Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, conservative Cardinal Ottaviani remains in command, and he can still induce bishops to withhold the imprimatur—or church seal of approval—from books touching on theology and ethics. Last week, consistent with a policy announced in June of assisting bishops to "maintain vigilance over the printed word," the Vatican again asserted its authority. It took a hard line toward both Paris' Abbé Oraison and—many miles away—a California priest-author who has been publicly arguing with his cardinal archbishop.

Are Erotic Thoughts Dirty? Now 52, Abbé Oraison continues to write prodigiously on sex. A onetime surgeon who was ordained at a comparatively ripe 34, he is a Freudian fundamentalist. Oraison campaigns for a new church morality, believing that the old approach imprisons man in a network of actions either "permitted" or "forbidden" and is psychologically valid only for a child. He holds that man is not the servant of moral codes but vice versa.

Oraison's latest tangle with the Vatican is over The Human Mystery of Sexuality, a current French bestseller which carries a bishop's imprimatur. The 158-page book focuses on what Oraison terms "the primordial importance" of sexuality to identity, ridicules moralistic language that censures erotic thoughts as "dirty," and is remarkably tolerant of masturbation. Cardinal Ottaviani has told the French bishops to withhold the imprimatur from any future works by Oraison on sex and psychoanalysis and to bar him from lecturing on morals in French seminaries.

Ottaviani's office will let the abbé defend himself at a hearing. While the order against his work amounted to a stamp Of disapproval, it was not—as probably would have been the case before Vatican II—outright condemnation.

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