Catholics and Sex

Mary Eberstadt, writing in First Things, trumpets The Vindication of Humanae Vitae, while Gerald Naus, reverting to liberalism after a couple of years declaring “the Cafeteria is closed,” heaps scorn on Catholic teaching on sexuality.

Humanae Vitae was the 1968 encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI upholding traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality (as stated in the 1930 encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii). Both are written by moral theologians for moral theologians trained in that form of discourse that feels comfortable speaking of sex as the “conjugal act.” For example, from the latter document:

The second blessing of matrimony which We said was mentioned by St. Augustine, is the blessing of conjugal honor which consists in the mutual fidelity of the spouses in fulfilling the marriage contract, so that what belongs to one of the parties by reason of this contract sanctioned by divine law, may not be denied to him or permitted to any third person; nor may there be conceded to one of the parties anything which, being contrary to the rights and laws of God and entirely opposed to matrimonial faith, can never be conceded.

If Catholics are alienated by the way the celibate hierarchy speak of sexuality, perhaps it isn’t just their celibacy that is the problem (cf. Earl Butz’s famous comment), but the very language that they use to speak of something that most couples refer to simply as “sex,” or “making love” (not to mention certain archaic Anglo-Saxon expressions). Add to this the Magisterium’s insistence on its own authority, and, well, you get the situation in today’s Catholic Church where most Catholics who know of Catholic teaching choose to ignore it (sometimes making reference to conscience, sometimes not).

Enter John Paul II–or the man who would become known by that name, Karol Wojtyla. He started out his priesthood ministering to college students and other young adults. They had been ripped from their Christian roots by Nazism and Communism, and their lives showed it. His ministry was spent in the mountains with them, and in kayaks; he listened to their stories, he was there as the fell in love and struggled with their relationships; he sought to reconstruct both a philosophical framework for their lives and to illuminate them by the light of the Gospel. His reflections, bringing together his study of philosophy and his companionship along their journeys, resulted in his 1960 book, Love and Responsibility, his play of the same year, “The Jeweler’s Shop” (later made into a film staring Burt Lancaster), and, when he became pope, a lengthy series of talks known as the “theology of the body.”

What John Paul II was able to do for Catholic young adults was to take the question of sexuality out of the realm of esoteric moral theology and ecclesiastical positive law, and place it within the realm of lived human experience as illumined by Scripture. He spoke of love and responsibility, of sex and orgasm. I spoke of this at a 1999 conference sponsored by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston.

Protestants should be grateful to Wojtyla’s work in this area, because he seeks to root discussion of marriage and sexuality within God’s act of creating us male and female (instead of in questions of “rights” and “freedoms”). He recovered the Biblical understanding of the unity of the human person, and the goodness of sexuality. Yet he wasn’t able to pull away from the Catholic church’s embrace of paganism–I refer to its acceptance of Plato’s understanding of the soul, immortality, and purgation after death. And he retained the Catholic understanding of the distinction between clergy and laity, and the gradations of authority, which had been given a Neoplatonic foundation thanks to Pseudo-Dionysius (e.g., “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy“). The things that excite young adults are the Biblical aspects of Catholic teachings–the things that frustrate people today and cause them to ignore it are more often those derived from pagan metaphysics.

Not every Christian today accepts the Biblical account of creation, sadly. They reinterpret Scripture according to Darwin or their own lust, and justify all manner of acts and relationships that prior generations were united in rejecting. But Genesis must be our starting point. It shows that the physical world did not come into being through or after the fall, but was created good by a loving Creator. It shows that human sexuality is part of our being as we came forth from God’s hand, and the free, mutual giving of self to the other that we call sex is one of two Edenic blessings that remain after the fall (the other being the Sabbath). From this basis the New Testament compares the relationship between husband and wife to that between Christ and the church, argues for the exclusivity and permanence of the relationship, and affirms that “marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled.”

But what is remarkable about the Bible is that within these confines, very little is said about what behaviors may be right or wrong–lying with someone of the same sex is clearly wrong, and contrary to God’s intent; incest is wrong; adultery and fornication are wrong; sex during a woman’s period is wrong in the Levitical law. But nothing is said about any of those other things that trouble so many people. Have we invented any new sexual behaviors? A glance at the frescoes of Pompeii would suggest we have not. Here is where the Catholic Church misstepped–by seeking to enforce on married couples legislation devised by those who felt they had a higher calling than marriage, a legislation rooted not in Scriptural teaching, but in abstract philosophical principles.

Unfortunately, those who reject these human laws too often go on to reject the Scriptural norms and principles as well, and Scripture’s understanding of man and woman as created in the image of God.

Let’s stick with God’s Word. Where it speaks, let us hold firm. Where it is silent, let’s not impose on married couples laws of human origin.

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