At the end of 1949, Paul Chanson published a book called The Art of Loving and Marital Continence. He was a well-known French Catholic intellectual. The book sang the praises of “the reserved embrace” (Synergy). It sent shock waves throughout the French Catholic world of France and Belgium. The work divided both clergy and laypeople preoccupied with morality within marriage. It suggested a way for intercourse to promote harmony in marriage and limit births, rather than simply facilitate procreation.

Thanks to abundant archival material, a paper article called The Chanson Affair documents the controversy. The debate lasted more than two years. Finally, the Holy Office in Rome promulgated a Monitum (warning) in June 1952. It suppressed Chanson’s concept, which fell into obscurity.

Reading the history of The Chanson Affair is both fascinating and heart breaking. Many priests giving pastoral care to couples recognised that families were struggling emotionally and financially. They realised families could be helped by this method of careful and controlled love making. Yet the Church censored Chanson’s work and thereby missed a golden opportunity.

The Chanson Affair made me reflect upon my own family. My mother’s best friend Anne had married a Belgian Catholic around that time. I have no reason to think Anne had heard about this revolutionary movement around 1950. It is unlikely she shared news of it with my mother, but the point is, she very nearly could have.

Some Family Background

My parents were devout Catholics, but in retrospect, weren’t altogether happy in their marriage. I was born in the UK in the late 1950’s, the fifth and last child. What do you do when a husband wants more intimacy but the wife fears another pregnancy? As a good Catholic, my mother turned to the parish priest for advice. My father meanwhile, a keen intellectual, read every book under the sun looking for solutions. He also indulged in substance abuse; alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs. Those were the accepted coping mechanisms of the day to ease distress. My mother sought help from the priest to deal with the resulting unpleasant behaviour. Meanwhile she battled on, juggling work and family obligations. Money was always tight and the needs of a growing family seemed endless.

The clergy encourage Catholics to bear their burdens in silence. It’s supposedly good for the soul. Some would say she should have left. Her cry was where could she go with five children? She probably still loved my father deep down too despite all. Divorce was almost unheard of at that time and came with a cloud of shame. Sadly, my father died at an early age, probably by his own hand due to a drug overdose. That caused various emotional problems for the family. They remain unresolved, just suppressed. My mother never married again.

Had my parents known about the Chanson method of lovemaking in the 1950’s, they might well have tried it. Maybe they could have spaced out births. Maybe they would have had fewer children so that they could afford a reasonable lifestyle without constant money worries. I know I sound like a turkey voting for Christmas because I may never have been born. But I wish my parents had enjoyed more harmony in their married life.

Crisis within the Catholic Church

“The Chanson Affair” article reveals much about the crisis that Chanson caused within the Church. This was due to his proposal that married couples master the “reserved embrace.” Pope Pius XII was disgusted by any mention of physical sex at all. He did not accept the valid theological justification for Chanson’s practice. Instead he ignored all the evidence of its beneficial impact. He condemned the ‘form’ in which it had been presented by Chanson, not the content. Chanson had dared to extol the sensual harmony made possible by the practice. It’s no wonder he’d tried to sell the many subtle physical pleasures of this unfamiliar practice. Given that people would initially find it hard to believe that there are advantages to not seeking for orgasm. Why was the pope so aghast at the mention of sex? Did something happen to him when he was a child? Who knows?

What is clear is that by rejecting the “reserved embrace” or Synergy, the Church passed up an opportunity of inestimable value. Chanson’s enthusiasts could have inspired the world to enter a new era of happier love lives and more effective family planning. What a missed opportunity.

Legality of the Monitum today

Is the Monitum still in force today? Maybe, maybe not. It seems such warning can lapse over time. If it has not lapsed, what would it take today to make the Catholic Church repeal its warning to the clergy to steer clear of this practice? Why can’t a lay person or group of them guide the hierarchy in an area of sexual practice in which the inexperienced clerics themselves are forbidden to engage? In any other area of life, it would not be acceptable for those with no experience of a beneficial behaviour to forbid that behaviour to billions of people. Modern day science supports Chanson’s method; it is a form of sexual meditation with physical, mental and spiritual benefits. Is it time for a change to Church doctrine?

“Hitler’s Pope”

Why did a faction of priests, bishops, cardinals, and a pope known as “Hitler’s pope” (Pius XII) because of his willingness to overlook Hitler’s outrages, believe that they alone had spiritual authority to evaluate the practice? Might the Church meet its believers’ needs better and gain credibility if the beneficial results of Synergy became more apparent? One can only hope that the current pope and his congregation of bishops are willing to tune up their spiritual hearing aids going forward to gain insights about Synergy-type practices. It would help if they evaluated the actual evidence of practitioners of Synergy, women included, and not just listen to Catholic married men.

I am glad that I somehow found the courage to avoid following Catholic doctrine on sexual intimacy in the way my faithful parents had done and the way so many other friends and family have done too, with relatively unhappy outcomes. Instead I chose to march to the sound of a different drum, the one of the reserved embrace. Reliance on the Synergy approach has made my life infinitely happier and allowed me to enjoy a truly remarkable and productive loving relationship. My greatest wish is that as many people as possible will take a leap of faith and experiment with this method for themselves, just as Paul Chanson and those he inspired did back in the day. It will not compromise their faith, only strengthen it.

 


 

See also:

Art D’Aimer et Continence Conjugale by Paul Chanson (1949)

The Chanson Affair (1950-1952): Marital Continence or Catholic Eroticism?

’Étreinte Réservée: Témoignage des Époux by Paul Chanson (1951)