Sex Matters
The Riches of the Catholic Sexual Tradition

By Sidney Callahan
National Catholic Reporter
March 19, 2004

What are we going to pass on to future generations when it comes to Christian sexual morality? Many riches exist in our Catholic sexual tradition, but these goods have been obscured by theological infighting.

Conflicts over questions of gender, homosexuality and the morality of reproduction distract us. On the birth of a new millennium, it is vital for the church to clarify issues presented by new medical knowledge and evolutionary biology, but heated arguments aren’t edifying. (Full disclosure: I have been a frequent player in these debates)

Worse still, the horror and shame of the sexual abuse scandal among Catholic clergy can turn Catholics off the whole subject of sexuality. Many Catholics have given up on efforts to reconnect their human sexuality and Christian discipleship. Admittedly the secular culture offers little of substance or spiritual guidance, but (many think) what else is there?

Quite a lot, actually. Our ever-reforming tradition gives us good and heartening news about sexuality, without jettisoning the realistic prudence of the past.

The good news

Christians affirm that human sexuality is God’s good creation and it matters. We are our bodies. The body-mind unity insisted upon by modern science is no news for Christians. Believers in the resurrection of the body know that human beings are not ethereal souls floating through this life. Human beings are embodied creations that will live forever corporally transformed. No disdain or disregard for the flesh can be accepted by those who believe God becomes fully human in the Incarnation.

Whatever we embodied folk do “in word or work,” we do for the glory of God, and sexuality is definitely included. Minute by minute we are co-creating our eternal selves through all of our actions, thoughts and fantasies.

At long last Christians are getting over the old dualistic suspicions of sexuality, emotions and bodily emissions. Jesus spoke against the purity taboos that declared individuals unclean. How could female menstruation and placentas be considered unclean when Jesus cured the blind and the deaf by prayer and spit?

It was the involuntary nature of embodied sexual responses that most worried St. Augustine and company. Having a new understanding of the way the brain and body work, we see how adaptive much of our involuntary responses can be. Think of the immune system or perceptual processes. Moreover, the best things of life just arrive from God as gifts. Love and pleasure are not achievements of the will.

The involuntary ecstasies of orgasm can now be seen as good; they are not little deaths but signs of the wonder of birth. Once you affirm that God lovingly gives GodSelf to the world in Christ with nothing held back, you validate ecstasy. Total, complete self-giving acts of love imitate God. The high joys and pleasure of loving sexuality can be seen as a preview of the graced communion of heaven. Traditional images of the kingdom as the marriage of the Lamb and a wedding feast affirm this truth.

The marvelous thing about sexual communion is that while it is an ongoing conversation, it includes more than words can tell. Love and mutual assent are marked by touch, gesture and shared emotions. Sex can be seen as a form of high play and celebration. Like all communal play, sexuality requires courtesy and tactful care for one another. Before a dive into water, its depth must be assessed. Once in the swim, love can heal the fears of bodily rejection that often wound human lives.

Married people have experienced the truth that unity and love are recreated by sexual intercourse, and now theologians name this process as the recall and celebration of the marital commitment. In an intimate, loving marital friendship, two become one. Just as the celebration of the Eucharist recalls and reinstitutes our essential Christian relationships of communion, so does sexual lovemaking.

The mystery of Christ being one with the whole church and simultaneously living within each individual is also reproduced in marital union. Two individuals give to each other and yet increase and grow as individuals within the common relationship. It is another of God’s win-win games. The fidelity and staying power of the marriage commitment give solid ground and enough space and time to get your act together and learn to love.

Naturally one of the greatest gifts of sexuality is children. The wonder of babies begins the world anew. Sex is nature’s way to spur evolution onward and to ensure the parental caretaking that higher animals like ourselves require. The sexual pair bonding strengthens mutual parenting and also produces kinship ties. Families formed through mating provide care for the sick and old as well as for survival of the young.

Happily, Christian claims go far beyond a reductive biological focus on (sex as a means of) survival. Humans possess free will and the ability to make promises and stick to them. Only self-conscious selves can practice fidelity, focusing upon the future and the well-being of others. Keeping commitments strengthens the trust of a group. God can be praised for giving married persons the power to be faithful and to keep on loving.

Religiously vowed celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom is also part of the human sexual repertoire. Those who direct all their sexual energies to religious praise and service of God bear fruit in a community’s life. Vowed celibacy is a witness to the power of the unseen reality of the Spirit.

In an earlier day dedicated religious celibacy was considered superior to marriage as the best way to holiness. The second-class status of marriage arose partly because of the underlying prejudices against the body and women. This unbalanced view has officially been corrected. But sometimes whiffs of prejudice against marital sexuality waft about in the rhetoric. When theological sources speak of “mere genitality,” the phrase resonates with the purity taboos of old. No one who attempts to live a sexual relationship of love and genital generosity is going to use an adjective like “mere.” Sometimes celibates seem to deny the specific focused power and programmed development of human sexuality by trying to blur or subsume sex into the larger category of embodiment. Clarity is better served by seeing human bodies as consisting of more than their sexual powers. A mother nursing her child is an act of embodiment but not of sexuality; an aged sick person being fed is partaking in embodied relationship but not a sexual one.

Another important gift of the Christian sexual tradition, often flouted in practice, has been the assertion of moral equality between men and women in their sexual practices and rights. The body is for God. This demand for equality was a revolutionary move that has taken centuries to become accepted. Christians freed women and men from the bondage of subordinating their sexuality to the family lineage, the state’s need for manpower or the market. The vocation of dedicated female virginity was particularly important for giving women’s bodies intrinsic dignity. Women flocked to Christianity in response.

The requirement of equal individual assent to marriage also attacked the family and the state’s power over sexuality. Of course we are so used to ideals of autonomy, free consent and equality between the sexes that we hardly notice this positive Christian sexual tradition -- until we confront cultures where women are controlled and oppressed. And with the concern for women’s condition, we are forced to face the dark side of human sexuality.

Realism and prudence

Since sexuality is so good and so central to embodied life, it follows that sexual powers can be distorted and misused. All powers and goods can be abused. Religion, the family, the gift of language can be used for evil ends; and the human condition includes sexual abuse, sexual torture and sexual exploitation of the vulnerable by the dominant. In the same way, selfish aggression, greed, domination and war have always afflicted humankind. Evils also feed upon each other. AIDs ravages the undeveloped world just as the sexual traffic in women and children exploits a society’s sexism and poverty.

The Christian tradition has been realistic about the fact that greed and sexual desire can distort human thought and behavior. The drive for sexual gratification has always produced the self-deception that can affect the will or blind the conscience. It is no accident that ascetics striving for holiness take vows of abstinence as well as poverty and obedience.

Sexually active persons today who seek to reconnect their sexuality with Christian discipleship will have to develop new and appropriate examinations of conscience. To be innocent as a dove, a modern Christian has to be shrewder than a serpent. If sexuality is a fundamental language of the body, I can ask whether I am speaking truth, or even the whole truth? Do I mean what I say and do what I mean? Have I indulged in willful ignorance about the effect of my sexual behavior on myself and others? And so on. As always, the practice of justice, care, courage and responsibility produces sexual virtue.

Deploring past prejudices of the church toward sexuality doesn’t justify ignoring the present pitfalls in a culture that trivializes, markets and exploits sexuality. Sexual dangers may have been overemphasized in our past ascetic traditions that disdained sexual embodiment and ecstasy, but then earlier Christians were dealing with Caligula’s orgies, slavery and the horrors of the Roman empire, which were followed by barbarian invasions. Today only the naive can deny the harmfulness of sexual abuse, sexually transmitted disease, abortion, prostitution, rape, harassment and other sexual evils. Yet there is still hope for a better future.

Moving to a balanced future

A living tradition responds to the Holy Spirit and changes. The authoritative sources for development are scripture, church teachings, reason, liturgical prayer and experience. Certainly, human experiences of the dark side of sexuality have shaped past vigilance and suspicions of sexuality. Christians, especially the parents of adolescents, may have to struggle against their fears in order not to let pessimism rule the day.

Central moral teachings on sexuality reflect the natural consequences inherent in group life. Lies, cheating, adultery and selfish exploitation breed hate, distrust and social chaos. Prostitution soils the spirit; lust degrades; promiscuity debases emotions and breeds disease and motivates abortion.

But the positive experiences of Christian disciples trying to be responsive to the Spirit in active sexual lives has not yet become fully articulated or accessible to the community. Unfortunately, the way the church is currently organized leaves little opportunity for hierarchical celibate leaders to listen to the experience of lay Christians. The sense of the faithful has been more or less silenced.

Another ironic condition that suppresses the good news of Christian experiences of sexuality is tactful courteousness. Mature persons do not wish to publicize their intimate sexual experiences of joyful love. The vulgarity of current tell-all media displays makes this point. Have these poor people no sense of privacy, family loyalty or self-respecting behavior?

Thus, the bad news is publicized and the church hears little of the good news. For example, a point I have never heard mentioned anywhere before is the parental hope that one’s adult children have turned out to be good lovers, and tender, playful sexual partners. This particular vindication of one’s embodied life and childrearing must remain hidden, since it would violate the privacy appropriate to family life.

But sexual development and marriage preparation will continue in and out of the church and the Spirit blows where it wills. Truth has a way of dispelling falsity while love casts out fear. Perhaps those working out their sexual salvation in new and uncertain sexual situations have the most to give to other seekers. Peers can help peers as various marriage and sexual education programs have found.

After 50 years, I know how to be a faithfully married spouse and I think I understand how one can live a vowed celibate religious life. But what will discipleship mean for the single, or young career women desiring marriage, or a divorced father, or a young gay person? How does one make a transition and search for love while you remain committed to commitment?

Surely the witness and character of those in the Christian community are going to be decisive in the church’s achievement of sexual balance. There is also the resource of the creative imagination to be counted on for vicarious experience. Scripture lights up God’s core truths, and novels, poetry and movies provide complementary sources of insight, as art always does. The Spirit leads us gradually but surely in every dimension of life. The educated heart learns to laugh, and playfully rejoice in sexual gratitude and stay steadfast to the truth of promise keeping.

Sidney Callahan is a psychologist, teacher and author. She and ethicist Daniel Callahan have been married for many years.


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