Controversial book promotes ‘deeply flawed’ of mystical union, says theologian

(OSV News) — A recently resurfaced book by the Vatican’s doctrinal head is “deeply flawed” in its portrayal of mystical union with God, a theological expert told OSV News.

“La pasión mística: espiritualidad y sensualidad” (“Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality”) — written in 1998 by then-Father and now Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith — bills itself as “an invitation to the world of passionate love that hides in the depths of our being.”

Published while then-Father Fernández was an “expert” of the Argentine bishops’ faith and culture commission, the 94-page volume — published by Mexico-based Ediciones Dabar — explores what the author calls “the sublime paths of mystical union, until reaching a point in which we seem to touch the impossible.”

Three of the book’s chapters explicitly discuss orgasms, with the final chapter titled “God and the couple’s orgasm.” Another passage recounts a 16-year-old girl’s “passionate encounter with Jesus” that includes caressing him on the beach and kissing his mouth.

In a Jan. 8 interview with Crux, the cardinal — who has also come under fire for his 1995 book “Heal Me with Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing” — dismissed “La pasión mística” as a naive effort “that I certainly would not write now,” and said the book was no longer available in print, having been canceled shortly after publication.

But the work, which can still be found in part and in whole online, still “poses a real danger to read,” said Dominican Father Jaroslaw Kupczak, a theologian and director of the Center for Research on the Thought of John Paul II at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow.

While the human-divine relationship has long been likened in many respects to that between lovers, Father Kupczak — who spoke with OSV News by telephone from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington — said that “La pasión mística” is “filled with serious theological and anthropological mistakes.”

For starters, the book muddles the true meaning of Christ’s incarnate nature and its implications for humanity, he said.

“The authentic encounter with Jesus — both during the time when he was alive and met with the Apostles and other people during his life in Israel 2,000 years ago, but also now after his resurrection, when we encounter Jesus in faith — it’s always a sacramental encounter,” said Father Kupczak. “In this sacramental encounter, the visible is only an entrance to the invisible.”

As a result, “the bodily dimension of Jesus opens to us what is really important here: the divinity of the Savior and of … God, the redeemer who saves us,” Father Kupczak said.

He said that the “pseudo-mystical” experience of the unnamed 16-year-old girl cited in the book — who was “basically engaging in an erotic encounter with the masculinity of Jesus” — represents something “totally strange to Christian tradition.”

The book offers “a very naive, superficial understanding both of pleasure and of love,” he said.

Pleasure in the text is “understood primarily as bodily pleasure or even sexual pleasure, sensual pleasure,” said Father Kupczak.

In contrast, “Love and Responsibility,” written by Karol Wojtyla (later St. John Paul II) — who had been a student of German phenomenologist Max Scheler — displays a more profound grasp of pleasure as “an analogical notion,” Father Kupczak said.

“We have in our lives a multiplicity of pleasures, lower and higher,” he explained. “We have bodily pleasures, but here we have psychological pleasures, we have esthetical pleasures (such as) listening to music, and we have spiritual pleasures. Concentrating in our encounter with Jesus, with God on the sensual pleasure of orgasm is (self-)absorbed.”

Father Kupczak noted that “the higher examples of pleasures … sometimes require us to renounce the lower pleasure,” as seen when humans forego “the pleasure of food, the pleasure of sleep, the pleasure of sex” for a “higher pleasure.”

“La pasión mística” also falls short in its definition of love, which in the book is “almost totally identified with erotic love,” he said, to the neglect of love in its aspects of friendship (“philos”) and faithful, selfless service (“agape”).

That reduction to a “very superficial” view of love as largely eros risks “a very dangerous understanding of our road to unification with God,” said Father Kupczak.

In Christian thought, “love has always been seen as the highest stage of long roads — of growing in faith, of receiving a certain maturity of personality, of overcoming our own weaknesses, of overcoming our own sins,” he said.

Ancient Christian tradition “portrayed Christian growth as a three-stage story,” marked by purification, illumination and then union, said Father Kupczak.

In the purification phase, “we understand that we are sinners” who reckon with a “fundamental division in the human heart,” he said.

That division centers on a “disordered desire,” or concupiscence, “that is present in all of our desires — bodily, psychological and spiritual, but mostly, and in the most forceful way, in the sexual desire,” said Father Kupczak, noting that St. John Paul had extensively analyzed this issue in his theology of the body, his teaching series on love and marriage given at general audiences between September 1979 and November 1984.

Father Kupczak said that those who excuse the writing of now-Cardinal Fernández with the fact that Cardinal Wojtyla wrote “Love and Responsibility,” published in Polish in 1960, are “deeply mistaken.” Even though the future pope wrote about the sexual act and used the word “orgasm” several times, the context and reasons for it were fundamentally different, and discerned around the marital sexual act in theology of the body, he said.

“The primary role of the theologian is not to get into the physiology of sex; those specializations are for lay professionals. Though they shouldn’t be of course totally ignorant of human sexuality, priests should not become couples’ sexual counselors,” Father Kupczak said.

In the second stage of Christian development, that of illumination, the individual gradually grows “in the school of faith,” said Father Kupczak. “It takes time to learn God’s things, to discover his mysterious ways.”

Only after those two stages is a person prepared for the third stage of unification with God, he said.

Father Kupczak also said he was “deeply disturbed” by a passage in the book that states: “Let us remember that the grace of God can coexist with weaknesses and also with sins, when there is a very strong conditioning. In those cases, the person can do things that are objectively sin, but not be guilty, and not lose the grace of God nor the experience of his love.”

Although church teaching allows that in some cases “the culpability of the sinning person may be diminished by a lack of knowledge, by weakness, by lack of proper education, by certain external difficult situations,” said Father Kupczak, “still, a person who does objectively sinful things should first of all be formed, taught and corrected.”

“We do not say lightly, ‘That’s OK,’” he said. “It’s much more complicated.”

The unnamed teen girl cited in the book “should have been corrected” and properly educated by its author when she shared her experience about Christ, said Father Kupczak.

“I am sorry for readers who, for lack of knowledge or lack of instruction in the Catholic and Christian tradition, could really take this book as an introduction to the proper way of approaching God, because it is not,” he said. “It’s a book of very dangerous simplifications.”

Gina Christian is national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X at @GinaJesseReina

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