The premise of this passionate book is that the Catholic church has placed issues of sex center stage and holds heaven "hostage" against those who do not observe dictated stances toward things sexual. According to the author, how we worship appears to be less important to God than how or whether we have sex. Portmann is most interested in issues of homosexuality, but his discussion includes the status of women (assigned, says the author, to the junior varsity bench of the church team), the ordination to the priesthood of persons other than celibate males, and the problems associated with sexual misconduct among the clergy.
It is the author's premise that Rome hates sex, particularly gay sex. A quick survey of the list of official saints confirms that he is likely correct in his observation that "The Vatican squirms at the thought of canonizing the sexually active," (22) but he is incorrect in his implication that official canonization is the benchmark of whether someone is in God's grace at death. In much of the book the distinctions between church teaching and what preoccupies those in the media about church teaching are not clearly made. While many of readers will likely share the concerns that Portmann raises, some would take issue with his strong assertion that the church's only issue in morality is "proper" sexual activity. Perhaps he, too, has bought into the media concentration on sex talk from the Vatican that seems to overshadow other important teaching.
Much is made in the book of the church's advancement in its attitude toward those of other faith traditions, particularly the Jewish tradition. Portmann argues that the official church has softened its stance "to allow Jews to go to heaven" but enduringly does not treat its own homosexual members with the same indulgence. His chapter title "Better a Straight Jew than a Gay Catholic" states his strong opinion.
The Achilles' heel of the book, in addition to the lack of congruence between the title and the content (This reviewer expected from the title that the book would be about the connections between the experience of God and sexual expression) is that Portmann, while engaging in some pretty serious Vatican bashing, gives official teaching more power than it deserves. Portmann's "church" is narrowed to those who stand in judgmental authority. Only Rome's voice is important. Such a stance allows little room either for the sensus fidelium or the authority of God. It reflects, it seems to this reviewer, a pre-Vatican II pyramidal approach to church.
While Portmann hints at the development of thinking and the need to listen to the "signs of the times" which give a much more positive attitudinal and doctrinal approach to such issues as Jewish relations—he devotes a large section of the book to this issue—he does not develop well the grounds on which such new teaching in sexual areas could be based. There are a significant number of instances where his approach seems unnuanced. Perhaps the reviewer's reaction is based in the snobbery that comes from being a moral theologian. Portmann, a philosopher, rightly has a different agenda.
In fact the church has advanced, even in official teaching, well beyond seeing marital sex merely as conjugal debt. Even Humanae Vitae goes beyond procreation as the only legitimate end of marriage. It is disappointing that Portmann has fallen into the convenient trap that many do in this regard. While I share his deep and appropriate concern about the issues raised, I think his hyperbole does little to advance the cause.
Overall, the book is readable and passionate. Many readers will resonate with the author's pain. His self-revelation in the concluding chapter of why he was moved to write the book is a poignant testimony to what many who continue to fight battles for change from within the church likewise feel.