As we examine what the Catholic Church really teaches about sex and why her teaching is important, we recall that this teaching comes out of twenty centuries of human experience and faith conviction rooted in both our human nature and God’s Word.
The Church has the responsibility of passing on all that she has received from her Lord. What the Church boldly and confidently passes on is good news. Far from being oppressive and negative, Catholic teaching on human sexuality is a supremely positive and more authentically human option. What the Church wants is not to deprive people, but for them to know authentic freedom and the good of the fullness of love for which they are made, a genuine love which unconditionally seeks the good for the other. What the Church also wants for people is something better than what our coldly utilitarian culture provides, leaving people bound to their desires, rather than the masters of them.
Remaining true to her commission by Christ, the Church presents the received teaching reflected in the Judeo-Christian tradition and found clearly affirmed in the Ten Commandments and by Jesus, who reminded the Pharisees that when a man and woman join together, “they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:3-6). This is also highlighted in the nuptial blessing in the rite of marriage during Mass. Here we recall that in the beginning God created mankind in his own likeness, creating man and woman so that they should no longer be two but one flesh. This union of man and wife is so holy a mystery that it symbolizes the marriage of Christ and his Church.
The Church joyfully gives voice to the truth that human sexuality as God created it is of the highest good, that is, when it is a gift of self in love that is free, total, spousal, faithful and open to being fruitful. “The only ‘place’ in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, 11). When sex takes place in an inherently temporary relationship, outside of marriage, then it becomes contrary to human dignity – exploitive and lustful by its very nature. The pleasure of the moment, perhaps with an insistence of love, is fleeting and it leaves one unfulfilled and alone, especially when the other gets up and walks out.
There is a type of sin that over the centuries has been designated as a “deadly” or “capital” sin, which, of course, the Church must stand against in favor of the good. For example, the Church is not against enjoying a good meal, but it is against gluttony. The Church is not against people having possessions, but it is against avarice. Likewise, the Church is not against sexual activity, but it is against lust. In other words, what the Church opposes is not anything that is good, but the misuse of the good.
It should go without saying the Church leaders and members are fully aware that sexual activity is taking place outside the bonds of marriage with great regularity. Increasingly the age of sexually active young people is lower and lower, in no small part given the mores or lack of them in our culture. But just because lots of people are doing lots of things does not make all of those actions good. There is an old adage that the prophet is judged not by how successful his message is, but how faithful he is to the message. And that is true of Catholic teaching.
The Church clearly is not against sex or sexual activity, but it knows the true place for sexual activity is within the context of marriage. The Church is not against the good that human sexuality represents – the Church celebrates a sexuality of love – but it is rightly against a sexuality of use, the exploitive quality that sometimes accompanies sexual activity, where people are treated like sexual objects, used as merely a means to an end. On the other hand, the teaching on chastity is a celebration of human sexuality in its proper understanding, that is, as an authentic manifestation of love.
The message of the Catholic Church on human sexuality and chastity is challenging for some, but properly understood, we see that it comes out of the same frame of reference as what the Church has to say about the welfare of people, social justice, peace, the sanctity of human life, care for God’s creation, and the redemption of mankind in Jesus Christ. Each of these teachings goes back to our basic understanding of what humanity is – they all promote and protect the fundamental dignity of the human person, who is made for love and truth and called to life in the Spirit.
This is the third in a series.