Christianity’s misunderstood view on sexuality, focus on meaning

Dartanyan Edmonds

Today’s culture criticizes the Catholic Church for many things, but most often chides the Church for its sexual ethics.  The Church’s insistence on abstinence until marriage, its prohibition on contraception, its requirement that sex acts be “marital, procreative and unitive,” etc. strike modern people as antiquated, backwards, repressive.                  

Alternatively, the modern secular view of sex is that it’s essentially whatever you want it to be—an expression of love or a play for pleasure, inside or outside of marriage, between people of the same or opposite sex—as long as it occurs between consenting adults.  There are some taboos (like incest or adultery) of course, but taboos aside, if consenting adults will it, there’s nothing wrong with it.  You have independence, you have liberty and you can do what you want with your body.  

As I wrote in my articles on the subjects, modern people argue a similar laissez-faire ethic in the abortion and euthanasia debates.  And as a Catholic, just as I found modern views about abortion and euthanasia to be fundamentally misguided about human rights and dignity, I must say the same about modern views of sexuality.  

Without a shadow of a doubt, sex is complicated.  And I wouldn’t say that the modern view of sex is completely wrong: It should occur between consenting adults, it ought to be pleasurable and expressive, and so on.  But those elements alone can’t form a comprehensive understanding about sex.  The Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant.”  

Yet I think it’s fair to say that the modern view of sex doesn’t have a servant’s disposition.  It’s more self-serving: If sex makes you feel good or expresses your feelings, it’s good—regardless of whether you have any permanent ties to the person with whom you’re having sex.  The problem that I have with the modern sexual ethos is that it reduces sex’s significance to pleasure and willpower by undercutting permanence and self-transcendence. 

 Since the advent of contraception, society has divorced sex from procreation (and by extension marriage), which makes it more accessible and desirable as sexual partners often attempt to avoid pregnancy.  Yet modern Westerners talk about and have sex as if it were an ordinary action, not much different than eating.

In some ways, sex is an ordinary action.  But its natural potential for procreation is something a bit more permanent than the ham sandwich you just swallowed.  This in and of itself, is a reason to treat it with moral gravity.  Creating human life is no small thing.  There’s something about human life that we instinctively know is special, precious and worth protecting.  The fact that sex makes this wonderful thing called life possible, therefore, makes sex special, precious and worth reserving for a permanent union that can cultivate new human life.

But if the ability to create life is serious, so is this: Sex is a sharing of your entire body with another person’s body.  As one of my friends tells me, “Your private parts are private for a reason.”  The sex organs shouldn’t be shared promiscuously. 

 The body is an integral part of the human person.  The human person is both an incorporeal personality and a body.  Humans are not reducible to merely bodies or merely souls.  We are body-soul (or body-mind) composites.  And (as I will emphasize until I’m under a rock somewhere), each of us is intrinsically valuable.  Therefore, to engage in sex is to share your very self and bodily humanity with another human person in a way that you wouldn’t in other relationships.  If we all recognized the body’s worth, it wouldn’t be hard to appreciate the beauty of saving sex for one, permanent partner.   

I agree with my church that sex belongs in marriage because sex is powerful, and when divorced from permanent commitment and true self-transcendence in lifelong dedication to another person, sex loses its meaning.  But not only does sex lose its meaning—we lose our humanity along with it.

By making sex into an act of mere pleasure, we make ourselves into objects for self-serving pleasure, not bodily persons made with dignity.  Sex should entail entirely giving oneself in a permanent, committed, life-giving love.     

My church’s sexual rules might seem arbitrary and repressive, but they make a statement that you and your body have value, that your potentially life-creating acts have meaning and sacredness and that you should save sex for marriage because you deserve a permanent commitment from the person with whom you choose to share your entire intimate being.  If your union produces children, they deserve commitment too.  Say what you will, but this view of sex isn’t anti-sex or anti-body.  It’s a serious understanding of sex’s meaning, its power, its splendor.