As you may or may not know, I began classes again at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family (i.e. the Institute) this past week, and I’ve already been struck by something so novel that I’ve been inspired to write a blog post about it. We had been discussing our society’s moral and sexual climate, and my professor made the following provocative statement: “The Catholic Church is now the only institution openly defending the integrity of human sexuality, when just a century ago, it was considered its most notable opponent” (paraphrased). It was a particularly shocking statement, with intense implications, but on further reflection, I’ve decided that my professor was absolutely right. The Catholic Church really has gone from being the (perceived) enemy of human sexuality to truly being its greatest proponent. My, how things can change in just a few decades.
I’m going to go right ahead and admit that what I’m about to write is a stereotype that does not in any way describe the true position of the Catholic Church at any point in history, but unfortunately, it was a stereotype that was embraced by the majority of people. It might not have been true in terms of Tradition, but I suspect that the stereotype arose because of some ill-conceived notions of the faithful at the time. Even if the Catholic Church as such did not hold these ideas, many of its members did. And since Catholics are the greatest representation of “the Catholic Church,” it should be no surprise that so many people believed this damaging view of human sexuality. They had little reason to believe anything else.
This negative view of human sexuality is a pretty old one, and it’s not completely false. Throughout history, there have been several notable Christian thinkers and Church fathers who have struggled with the idea of human sexuality. Even if they did not outright condemn sex as a sin (even within marriage), they were fairly silent about the topic for several centuries. It cannot be denied that it took some time for the Church to develop a healthy, full theology of human sexuality. Human sexuality has not always been recognized as the good that it is. At different points in history, sex has been identified as being an evil, albeit a necessary one, and sinful. It is only recently that it has been overwhelmingly affirmed as a good that is proper to marriage. It is no cause for shame, and no secret to be kept. For the first time ever, the Church is loudly declaring that sex is good. Sex is beautiful. Sex, and the children that might be conceived through it, are physical manifestations of the love that spouses have for one another. When a man and a woman want to proclaim before both God and man that they want to give themselves totally to the other person for the rest of their lives, they get married. Then they have sex. Then they have children. It’s the natural course of human history, and not evidence of man’s fallen state. Marriage, and its consequences, have all been blessed by God. That includes the marital act. And if you were wondering, that’s just another name for sex in its proper place.
The Catholic Church has not always been the best proponent of the marital act and human sexuality, but it has come a long way since its shadowy beginnings. St. Augustine has often been the scapegoat for all theologians who were a little apprehensive about the human sexual appetite, and discussions on St. Augustine and sex can often become incredibly impassioned. While St. Augustine was not the misogynist, sex-hating monster that some make him out to be, he wasn’t completely pro-sexuality either. In defense of his position, one must consider Augustine’s background. As most people know, he was not always a stand-up Christian, and he was a rather promiscuous young man. He understood how perverted the sexual appetite could become if it wasn’t properly governed. He even went so far in his Confessions to suggest that his mother should have arranged for an early marriage that would have provided a more disciplined and favorable outlet for his sexual passion. As often happens, once converted, St. Augustine overcompensated for his past sinfulness, and quickly slid from one side of the sexual spectrum to the other. While he had once been promiscuous and excessively focused on fulfilling his sexual desires, after his conversion, Augustine might have excessively warned against that which had caused him to sin so often: his sexuality. While he might have been wrong to do so, we must have compassion for a man who is simply trying to avoid those occasions of sin that once plagued his life.
Even though St. Augustine is often depicted as hating sex, he actually affirmed the value of marriage in several ways, most notably in his writing and sermons to married couples. He affirmed the goods of marriage: procreation and the continued existence of the human race, a remedy for concupiscence, and the growth of the relationship between man and woman. In truth, he often defended the sanctity and dignity of the married state. Even so, St. Augustine, like many others, was apprehensive about the sexual drive itself because it was so often linked to temptation and sin. As often as they affirmed the goodness of marriage, they also wrote to warm men and women about the dangers and temptations associated with human sexuality. Naturally, our society, which loves sex (supposedly) but hates marriage (definitely), would only ever focus on St. Augustine’s hesitancy, transforming it into passionate hatred, and would completely ignore his affirmations of marriage.
Of course, our modern liberal society is not the only one to blame. Catholics have their fair share of responsibility as well. If we fast-forward a few centuries, we come to a time when St. Augustine’s supposed dislike of sex had been embraced by the majority of Catholics. A few years back, some of my classmates stumbled upon an article that can only be defined as a set of rules for sex for all good Catholics. Some of them were sensible- for instance, “do not have sex before marriage” and “do not engage in oral sex,” but others were just downright absurd- like “do not have sex within 24 hours of receiving the Eucharist” and “do not have sex on Sundays.” We thought it was a joke, but it seemed real, so we did some research and were shocked to discover this rather embarrassing period of Catholic history. For several decades, it was not so much that Catholics hated sex, as they seemed to be ashamed of it. By the time we got to the end of the list, we were all wondering: when can people have sex? Trust me, according to those rules, it must have been a pretty rare activity.
The list seemed laughable, but it was a devastating testimony of a culture terrified by sex. Their goal was to have it as rarely as possible, while still maximizing the chances of having children. It seemed as though Catholics were being told that marriage was only for those whose sexual drive was too strong to become “eunuchs for the Kingdom” (Matthew 19:12), and even if you do get married, marriage was a game of figuring out the proper balance between minimizing sexual intercourse while maximizing the chance of procreation. The Catholic Church suffered under this dominant view that sex was necessary, but was also frowned upon at the same time. It was something that married couples had to do, but this didn’t mean that they needed to take pleasure in it. In fact, it was probably viewed as ideal if couples didn’t take pleasure in it. Sex was performed out of a sense of duty. To most people, sex was not a good in and of itself, but was only a means to good ends: children, relationship, and a remedy for sin.
Granted, just because many Catholics held these ideas doesn’t mean that they were promulgated by the Church herself. Even if it was preached from the pulpit, this fear and distaste for sex was never proper Church doctrine. The Catholic Church, as always, affirmed the goodness of marriage and the procreation of children, but she continued to be silent on the goodness of human sexuality in and of itself. While the Church never said anything against it, she didn’t have much to say affirming it either. She was overwhelmingly silent on the matter.
And then there was a voice crying out, and suddenly the entire Church was awakened to the beauty of marriage, human sexuality, and the marital act. That voice belonged to St. John Paul II, and he unceasingly affirmed the goodness of these things. For the first time in history, not only did the Catholic Church affirm marriage, but she affirmed human sexuality as well. We have all been created male and female, we were all reminded. And we were created in the image and likeness of God. These two facts cannot be separated. Our masculinity and femininity say something definitive about our relationship with God. We are reminded that God has given us His own life so that we might live and bear fruit, just as a man gives himself entirely to his wife, who gives herself to him out of love. This love is fruitful, often taking the form of children, but always taking the form of a bond of love between the spouses that unites them. Their love bears love. In addition to that, we are reminded that we are all called to give ourselves back to God in return so that He might bear fruit through us. God’s love for us is fruitful, and procreation is a physical symbol of that love, a constant reminder of the love that God has for us when we look at another human being. We are all the product of love, the fruit of God’s love for man and of our parents’ love for one another. In marriage, God actually permits man and wife to take part in that life-giving love. This is the beauty of marriage, the beauty of sexuality, the beauty of sexual intercourse and procreation. But our world has ceased to see the beautiful. We have become blind to it, accustomed to the depravity that our modern society has forced upon us.
The Catholic Church arose as the defender of human sexuality at the very moment when the world began to despise it. Ironically, this aversion emerged during the season of “free love.” Promiscuity abounded, transforming sex from something beautiful into something trite and meaningless. This was all done in the name of love, but if anything, this season of “free love” only succeeded in destroying that which it most cherished. Raised on high, deified even, sex could no longer stand. Forced into a place that it was never meant to inhabit- a place reserved for God alone- sex crumbled, taking human sexuality with it. Just as Augustine had done centuries earlier, modern society began to shun sex. It stripped it of all its meaning, divorcing sex from its marital context, until it ceased to be the sign of love that it once was. It became the “meaningless sex” that our society is so accustomed to, at home in a culture of one-night stands where it “doesn’t mean anything,” and in a world where the only good sex is “safe sex.” But sex is never going to be safe, not the way our society views it. As long as it has no meaning, sex can never be safe. And sex will never have meaning unless it is within marriage. Marriage gives sex the meaning that it longs for. Couples who have sex outside of marriage will yearn for the same unity and indissolubility that marriage promises, but they will only ever get a shadow of the truth. They will want to give themselves completely to their beloved for all time, but they cannot do it. Sex is meant for love that will last forever through the grace of God. But without that grace, there is no meaning. And thus we are left with meaningless sex.
Man deserves better. He dreams of more. He still makes promises of endless love, promises that he cannot hope to keep, promises that he will inevitably break. Man cannot make such a promise on his own. Only God can offer this ‘forever dimension.’ Man can only try to imitate it, and he will eventually fail. He can only keep up the charade for so long. Man cannot sustain such a love by himself.
When St. Augustine abandoned his former life of promiscuity, he did so with the full knowledge that the life that he had led was only a shadow of the life that God promised him. He also understood that his life of meaningless sex was a mockery to the beautiful plan that God has ordained for man and woman. Consequently, he spent the rest of his life affirming the goodness of marriage and warning against the temptations of the flesh, which can so easily destroy this beautifully fragile symbol of God’s love. Rather than risk this destruction, he repeatedly warned against these temptations and challenged man to rise above them. For him, this generally meant forsaking sex for the sake of the Kingdom. For St. John Paul II, this meant allowing Christ to truly work through our marriages to reveal the love that God has for man. While man will always fall short, God is capable of revealing Himself despite our shortcomings. We might be flawed, but we are not so broken that we can no longer reveal God to the world. We have been healed by the blood of Christ, and we are strengthened by the grace of God. Every married couple has been given the ability to communicate Christ’s love for the Church to the world.
Our society is not completely stupid; it also recognized that mankind is extremely proficient at stripping sex of all meaning. It has succumbed to the fact that we will always deface it, and it spends all its energy preaching the importance of “safe sex.” Our society has lost hope. It does not believe in redemption. It does not believe in mankind. It assumes that we will be satisfied with safe sex, with meaningless sex. It assumes that we will settle for one-night stands and passionate flings with a very quick expiration date. It assumes that we are not capable of anything more, of anything deeper. It has transformed us into primitive beasts of an androgynous nature that derive pleasure from sex, but no deeper meaning. It no longer matters if there is commitment. It no longer matters if there is love. It no longer matters if it’s a man and a woman. It no longer matters if there can be children born of this union. None of that matters anymore. Sex has been reduced to two (or more) people engaging in sexual acts that give them pleasure. Sometimes they seek commitment first. Sometimes they seek love. Sometimes they wait for marriage. Sometimes they are open to future children. But none of this is intrinsic to the act. None of it is innate to sex. Sex is meaningless until we impose meaning on it. But without meaning, it has no value.
The Catholic Church has become a voice crying out to a world that has forgotten what it means to hear. Man is capable of so much more than the world assumes. He is capable of true love, of fully giving himself to another person through the grace of God. His love can be a participation in the love of Christ, and it can be a symbol of the fruitfulness of the love God has for us. Our love can be life-giving and love-producing. We will not be able to pretend forever. There is meaning in this world. There is meaning to be found in our sexuality, in our marriages, and in our sex. Nothing is truly meaningless, no matter how hard we try to make it so. We cannot really strip this life of all its meaning. We cannot really make sex meaningless. We can only create more broken hearts, more tears, more pain. But the Catholic Church is inviting us all to remember that there is hope. Our hearts can be healed, our tears can be wiped away, and our pain can be eradicated. We just have to believe. We have to believe that our bodies mean something, that our sexuality says something about who we are. We have to believe that marriage is not just a social contract that can be established and later broken, but is a sacrament that will last for our entire lives. We have to believe that sex really is a giving of ourselves, and a receiving of the other. We have to let these things be what they were always meant to be. We have to stop trying to strip these things of their meaning, or else trying to impose on them a definition that is not theirs. If we can just let them be, we will finally be happy. We will no longer be afraid of the truth. We will see beauty again, and we will know how much we are loved by God. We will find our voice so that we can proclaim the truth, united with the Body of Christ. Do you have what it takes to open your mouth?
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!