Sex MEANS something...
I think it was Aristotle who once spoke about the nature of objective reality along these lines: “To say about that which is that it is to speak the truth; to say about that which is not that it is to not speak the truth.” You may have to read that a few times before it sinks in. If Aristotle is right and there is such a thing as natural law (and I’m convinced he is), it follows that every square inch of the universe means something. Why is that? Put simply, if there in fact exists a Natural Law (i.e. what Thomas Aquinas defined as rational creatures' "participation in the eternal law" which orders and governs the very fabric of reality) it is utterly reasonable to infer that there must be a Lawgiver who weaved this law throughout that fabric.
Such a discussion can be fascinating to ponder academically day in and day out, but oftentimes the endeavor comes to a screeching halt when there is even a hint that this universal law could apply to us. But why should it frighten us that there really could be a right way to be a human being and a wrong way to be one? I would argue that most of us don't dispute this position in some realms of human behavior. For example, we rightly say it is a fact that it is always and everywhere wrong ("inhuman") to abuse children. It is always and everywhere wrong to enslave another human being and treat him or her like a thing rather than a person. While we could think of many such examples, it's interesting that there exists one realm in particular in which the vast majority of people flatly deny such absolute moral principles could possibly exist. To even suggest otherwise prompts derision, anger, and even violence.
Not surprisingly and most unfortunately, no topic of discussion related to human nature seems to generate more heat and less light than sex. Human sexuality seems to be, for many in our culture, the only transcendent domain left – the source and summit of all meaningful human experience. But, ironically enough, this sine qua non of humanity is simultaneously characterized as merely a fun, casual activity that must be entirely divested of any associated shame, regulation, or moralizing. It is simply not permissible in our fallen culture to question the widespread view that sex is just about physical pleasure and, at best, personal connection with another consenting adult.
We use sex as the ultimate loophole for other moral issues that we are unswervingly firm in defending. We rightly criticize the pollution of the natural environment with untold quantities of harmful chemicals and waste, yet we unquestioningly fill our own bodies with hormonal contraceptives without batting an eye (mountains of research indicating their devastating effects on human beings AND on the environment be damned). We justly cry out to heaven when the most helpless in society face physical or emotional abuse, yet we scoff when anyone suggests that the most helpless creatures of all (human babies in the womb) deserve full protection of their basic human rights, especially the right to life itself. Why this disconnect? Sex. The moment you dare suggest that human sexuality has any intrinsic parameters at all, you’re instantly labeled a “hater”, a “traditionalist”, a “misogynist”, a “bigot”, etc. Anything that might require us to rethink our demonstrably misguided concept of the very nature of human sexuality is treated like exposed nuclear radiation.
As an evangelizer and theologian who is oftentimes on the receiving end of such criticism, it never ceases to amaze me and break my heart how often the Church's teachings on human sexuality are appallingly caricatured in our broader culture. I merely try to endure these frequent mis-characterizations by trying to lead the discussion to this question: What does Catholic morality really teach about the sixth commandment and respect for marriage? This is such an enormously important question to consider. Today I will merely share some insights with you that will hopefully encourage your own inquiry into the fundamentally important question about the nature of human sexuality.
In my experience as a youth minister and a Catholic high school theology teacher, I was initially excited to share all of the incredible things I was learning with my students on these issues. I soon discovered, however, that the best approach oftentimes seems to be bringing their hot button issue questions back to the headwaters, namely what God has himself revealed to us about the very nature of the human person created imago dei, "in the image and likeness of God as male and female." If you don’t do this and instead opt for always trying to tackle particular issues of sexual morality, you will very often find yourself in the witness stand while a firebrand prosecutor shoots accusations against the Church and you like flaming arrows.
Let’s briefly consider a few basic principles and call it a day, shall we? Then we can chat later! What is marriage? The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly puts forth the Catholic understanding of human sexuality, which is built on a foundation of both Scripture/Tradition and natural law. The former, obviously, requires an assent of the will in religious faith. The latter, however, is evident to any human being who is genuinely open to the truth built into the very fabric of the universe. I find that arguments regarding human sexuality that focus on the latter are oftentimes more effective among young people today, but that’s a topic for another day.
Beginning with a citation from the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism teaches, “‘The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws…God himself is the author of marriage.’ The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC 1603). For my money, Pope Paul VI’s words in the evermore historically vindicated Humanae Vitae are among the most beautiful and clear on the subject (please read this prophetic encyclical in its entirety here):
Marriage… is a wise institution of the Creator for realizing in mankind His design of love. By means of the reciprocal personal self-giving which is proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend to the union of their beings with the goal of helping each other to personal perfection in order to collaborate with God in the begetting and rearing of new lives. For baptized persons, moreover, marriage takes on the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, inasmuch as it represents the union of Christ and his Church. (8)
Marriage, in other words, is not just some social contract or some humanly-devised arrangement. The Catholic Church understands and teaches that God has given human beings a marital nature that is built into our very bodies and souls as men and women. Saint John Paul II frequently described this truth as the "spousal meaning of the body." For more on this profound understanding of human sexuality, check out the incredible work of my friend Bill Donaghy and the folks at the Theology of the Body Institute here.
What does all this mean, then? How does this have anything to do with the Church’s approach to contraception, to persons with homosexual attraction, to people who want to change their gender or young heterosexual couples cohabiting before they get married (if they do)? In a word, it has everything to do with all of these and more! We must understand that all of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality are about saying “Yes” to our authentic design as humans far more than they are about saying “No” to certain behaviors and lifestyles. Indeed, all of those “No’s” only exist in order to protect us from behaviors, however sincerely we may desire them, that are intrinsically disjointed from or antithetical to full, authentic , life-giving human flourishing.
This is only a cursory consideration of a profoundly important topic, but the principle understanding I think must be firmly established and reinforced whenever we discuss the Church’s teachings on sexual morality is this: Human sexuality, i.e. our creation in God’s image specifically as male and female, is a sign. It is not an end itself. Sex means something! It is so much more magnificent a reality than a Friday night pastime or a mere biological process. It is thoroughly incarnational. Human sex is designed by God to communicate eternal truth, namely the unifying and generative nature of the self-giving love of the Trinity.
Suppose you decide to take a trip. How would you feel if while driving from Dallas to New York the maps and signs you followed in fact led you to Los Angeles? What if your plane from London to Berlin actually put you in Buenos Aires instead? A sign’s sole purpose is to direct us to some truth or some reality beyond itself. When we misread a sign, we are understandably upset at the outcome. If, however, the sign has been deliberately distorted so as to purposely lead us to a dead end, we would rightly feel betrayed at such an injustice being perpetrated against us. Why then, I wonder, are we not more interested in bringing our most fundamental identity as beings made in God’s image (male and female) into the light of truth?
Since the Garden of Eden, the Devil and his confreres have tickled our ears with countless lies about our true meaning and purpose. “Just do what feels good!” they say, or “Love is love, right?” But demons and those poor souls whom they dupe into following them don’t know the first thing about real love. Love is always self-giving and sacrificial, period. It is always a reflection of reality itself because it comes from God who is by his very nature Love itself. To put it another way, only love that comes from Love can ever be called real “love.” Anything less is at best a counterfeit and at worst a dangerous deception designed to bring us into eternal misery. The Enemy and our fallen culture have sold us a bill of goods. The sexual revolution has radically damaged the most important human institution of all, the family, and we owe it to ourselves to learn the truth about who we really are and who we are called to be!
La Cathédrale ("The Cathedral") by Auguste Rodin, 1908
originally called L'Arche d'alliance ("The Ark of the Covenant")