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Should the church have a place in our bedrooms?

From the pulpit, on billboards and in a 'Catholic Kama Sutra,' the church is increasingly getting into bed with parishioners, Zosia Bielski writes. But does it belong there?

Globe and Mail Update

Father Ksawery Knotz was earnest when he told Polish Catholics married sex didn't have to be "sad like a traditional church hymn. ...

"Every act - a type of caress, a sexual position - with the goal of arousal is permitted and pleases God," he wrote in Sex as You Don't Know It: For Married Couples who Love God, published last week in Poland.

Although the Franciscan friar drew ridicule for his intimate manual, he also grabbed the spotlight, the backing of the Polish Catholic Church and sales: Dubbed the "Catholic Kama Sutra," his book quickly sold out.

The tome, the latest in a string of religious forays into the bedroom, raises the question of what role, if any, the church should play in parishioners' sex lives.

Critics say the church should butt out of the conjugal bed, arguing that celibate Catholic priests, in particular, have little experience in the matter. But others argue that the church is modernizing to combat divorce, infidelity and Internet porn, and to reconnect with parishioners.

Last November, Christian pastor Ed Young challenged married couples in his Texas congregation to have sex every day for a week. He did so from his pulpit: a stage set with a luxurious double bed.

Not to be outdone, the Daystar Church in Cullman, a tiny Alabama community, mounted billboards with the words "Great sex: God's way" along the town's rural highways in February. The ads were intended to promote the congregation's month-long sermon series on sex - the kind between man and wife - but sparked a firestorm of controversy among the town's more conservative residents.

And this November, XXX Church, a Las Vegas-based, Christian anti-porn group, will descend on Mississauga. Employing tattooed counsellors and featuring MTV-style video montages on its website, the church is devoted to healing porn addicts and edifying industry stars. Members hand out Bibles at porn conventions and hold pancake breakfasts for fallen husbands and "porn and pastries" events for aggrieved wives.

"I don't know whether you could say it smacks of hypocrisy or whether it's just a fresh wind blowing through these ancient institutions," says Meg Hickling, a nurse and sexual-health educator.

She has counselled people of different faiths for 35 years in Vancouver, and also once talked about sex during a sermon with a minister at a local United Church.

"All faith groups have been talking more about intimacy. They see people coming back in difficult economic times, but of course they would like to keep them for when things get better," Ms. Hickling said.

XXX Church founder Craig Gross said he now sees many churches of different denominations presenting annual "sex series," alongside regular therapy groups.

"People sitting in church are just average people," he says.

"Their marriages are falling apart, they're looking at porn. ... Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy, but what we do in church is pretend we're way too healthy, and that's when we get into trouble."

The issue highlights "early and late adopters" in the religious community, said Jerry Lawson, lead pastor of the Daystar Church. The United Church, for example, began its paradigm shift to marital and intimate counselling in the sixties. In recent years, evangelicals began to follow suit.

"I think there's always been a vein of the church that says we're not here just to be traditional or religious, we're here to be relevant. If you're going to be relevant today, you're going to have to talk about sex because it's everywhere," said Pastor Lawson, who has been married for 15 years.

Although his Protestant church denounces "sexual arousal outside of a husband-wife relationship" - especially non-committal "friends with benefits" and oral sex among "virgins" - Mr. Lawson's billboards drew the ire of more traditional townsfolk, who told him sex ed was the domain of parents.

"I would agree that in a perfect world every parent would take their belief system, get a good grip on it themselves and share with their children. ... I think we all know that's not going on," he said.

That the Roman Catholic church has backed a vividly pro-sex book in a staunchly Catholic country is perhaps the most surprising development of all.

It's "rather liberating to have a Franciscan friar writing about this," Vatican specialist Michael Higgins said of Sex as You Don't Know It.

"There's a lot to exorcise [with] the fear and the guilt and the shame that are often seen as the underbelly of Catholic teaching on sexuality," Dr. Higgins said. "My understanding is that he's celebrating the goodness, pleasure, delight and joy that should be a part of sexual activity, that he is not advocating a libertine approach to sexuality."

In line with the church, Father Knotz discouraged the use of contraceptives, writing they "lead a married couple outside of Catholic culture."

That stance has drawn more criticism than the friar's dubious sexual credentials.

"That raises, for many people who are active sexually, many issues," said Rev. Harry Oussoren, a United Church of Canada minister.

He is also troubled about who truly benefits from a congregational sexing up. Mr. Lawson, for one, acknowledged he's received "a couple of book offers" since his flashy billboards startled passersby in Alabama.

"My concern around that would be an ethical concern, not about sexuality, but about why that's being used to glamorize the congregation," Father Oussoren said.

And what of critics who ask what exactly a celibate monk could know about sex. (The friar said his experience came from marital counselling.)

"We often write about things that we don't have any direct experiential understanding of," Dr. Higgins said, likening it to a murder mystery writer being expected to kill.

"This could just be a wonderful flowering of the Franciscan imagination."

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