The media and general culture reduce sex to the commonplace and present us with a depersonalized view of sex. Often it is portrayed as no more meaningful than a recreational activity. It is often presented as normal for two people who are attracted to one another to go to bed with one another without any discussion of commitment to one another or the possibility of pregnancy.
The teachings of the Catholic Church were ridiculed and disregarded as antiquated and repressive. Contraception, once denounced by Martin Luther and practically all Christian denominations, was no longer taught to be sinful. Rather it was seen as socially responsible. Large families which were previously looked upon as a blessing were frowned on by the majority. Divorce, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion rates skyrocketed. After the carnage wrought by these changes, it’s time to take a second look at what the Church actually has to say about human sexuality.
There are some obvious negative consequences of premature sexual activity, such as the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, an unintended pregnancy and the difficult choices that incurs or the emotional trauma associated with premature sexual activity, but my focus will be on the dignity of sex and God’s plan for human sexuality.
Contrary to the distortions we often here in the media, the Catholic Church teaches that sex is a beautiful gift created by God. He designed it to be an expression of love between a husband and a wife that is open to the transmission of human life.
At the root of the current cultural divide is how we view the human person. There are two basic competing philosophies in the world today. One sees man as the result of a blind process of evolutionary development. The other, while not discounting the possibility that God made use of the process of evolution, says that man is made in the image and likeness of God. He has a supernatural origin and destiny. One philosophy sees man simply as little better than a barnyard animal, incapable of controlling his impulses. The other sees man as being capable of discipline and love.
How we view man will obviously affect the way we view the nature and purpose of human sexuality. A person who sees man as simply a material being, will view sex as purely biological. Is sex simply an appetite like the need for food, water, emptying waste products, etc? Or does it have a spiritual dimension?
Those of us who believe in God believe that God is the designer of our human body including our sexual organs. There is a certain design to the human body. It follows that where there is a design, there is a designer. We believe that God is all good and everything he made was good. Sex is something beautiful and good when we follow God’s plan for sex.
Sex is part of the original creation that God found to be very good. (cf. Genesis 1, 31) The purpose God has for sex has been taught through revelation, but it can also be discerned by reflecting on the natural law. It has tremendous significance because it involves the transmission of a human soul. The main purpose of human sexuality is first for the procreation of children and the continuation of the human race. Secondly, for the mutual benefit of the spouses. Sex is meant by God to be an expression of total self-giving love between a husband and a wife.
We are not completely material, nor are we completely spiritual, as if only our souls are our true self. Our bodies are not just machines that our souls are using. Catholics believe in the resurrection of the body. This means we’ll have bodies in heaven, but they’ll be remade – perfect, immortal and indestructible.
The body must be treated with reverence and respect, even in death. Because human beings are a composite of body and soul, we can express ourselves spiritually through the body. Because of this sex can never be purely biological. There is a language expressed in sex, even if our words say something different. The language says I love you; I give myself to you without holding anything back; I commit myself to you for life; I open myself to the possibility of having children with you. Sex before marriage is really a lie. The couple’s body language says I give myself to you completely, but they are unwilling to make the commitment to each other that true love requires.
Far from denigrating sex, the Catholic Church teaches that sex within marriage is actually holy. The marriage of Christians is a sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “The matrimonial covenant by which man and woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole life is by its nature ordered to the procreation and education of offspring. This covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.” Through Christian love given and received God gives the marriage partners a sharing in his life and helps them grow in grace and spiritual maturity. Physical intimacy becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion.
A sacrament is a physical sign instituted by God to give grace. Every sacrament has a physical element. In the sacrament of matrimony the physical element is the husband and wife themselves who pledge their mutual love to one another before God.
God says it is not good for man to be alone. We find fulfillment by existing “with someone” and even more “for someone”. Married love is fulfilled in openness to the other person and in self-giving. Love in marriage surpasses friendship. In marriage, man and woman make a total donation of themselves to each other under God.
It is within marriage that God wills that human life be conceived, grow and develop. This does not mean that children conceived outside marriage are any less valuable in the eyes of God. Yet they begin life with a handicap. They have been done an injustice. Of course, it would be a far graver injustice for them to be deprived of life for this reason.
Love is expressed by man in a self-giving unity of body and spirit. Masculinity and femininity are complementary gifts. The human body with the person’s masculinity and femininity is not only the source of fruitfulness and procreation, but includes the “nuptial’ attribute that is the capacity of expressing love; that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and by means of this gift fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.
Each of us was created in the image of God with a capacity to love and be loved. God created us male and female with the intention that man would form families which also reflect the image of God as a Trinity of persons. In the Trinity the Father makes a gift of himself to the Son. The Son gives a gift of himself to the Father. The Holy Spirit is the personification of the Father and the Son.
In the family, the husband is called to make a total gift of his self to the wife. The wife is called to make a total gift of herself to the husband. The children are intended to be a personification of love between a husband and a wife.
All love flows from God. Christ reveals man to himself. Christ shows man his dignity and teaches him to love. The basic message of Christianity is: Humanity is loved by God. God calls us to share his love with others. Love is the vocation of every human being. Every human person is called to love as friendship and self-giving. By loving others we become free of our tendency to selfishness.
Love involves desiring the good of another because they are worthy of love. In a healthy loving relationship each considers the good of the other as his or her own good.
We first learn about love through our parents who in a sense take the place of God. Love involves giving ourselves to another. Love helps us grow and mature as persons. True love builds up the good of persons and communities. A good healthy, loving family will have an effect not only on the family members, but the whole community.
True love is demanding. The source of the beauty of this love is its demanding nature. That is why true love builds up the true good of man and allows it to radiate to others. St. Paul gives us the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13.
True love in marriage as designed by God must be:
1.) Complementary –between a male and female
2.) Exclusive and faithful - no other sexual partners, not even by mutual consent
3.) Enduring, lasting until death
4.) Total – without holding anything back from the other
5.) Open to the transmission of new life
True love must imitate the love of God. God’s love is forever, so too the love of husband and wife must involve a permanent commitment that lasts until death; a bond that remains despite the passing of feelings over time.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches:
It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.' But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5, 31-32)
Later, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees whether it was permissible to divorce their wives. Jesus replied by saying:
"Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate."
They said to him, "Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss (her)?" He said to them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery." (Matthew 19, 4-9)
God’s love is generous and open to life. So also the love of husband and wife must be open to the transmission of life. Otherwise, sex is no longer what it was intended to be – an expression of total self-giving.
True love will be open to the transmission of life. Married couples are called by God to be generous in the planning of their family size. Methods of family planning must be in accord with God’s law and his plan for marriage and human sexuality.
Contraception is wrong because it deliberately impedes the procreative power of actions that God designed to assist him in bringing forth a new human life.
Contraception is also immoral because the conjugal act was designed by God to be symbolic of a total, mutual self-giving of one partner to the other, but when they contracept, the couple holds back the gift of their fertility.
Pope Paul VI’s Predictions about widespread contraception would lead to:
1.) Conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of standards of morality. The young especially would be tempted.
2.) Man would lose respect for woman and treat her as a mere object of pleasure
3.) It would be a dangerous weapon in the hands of public authorities with no heed for a moral life.
4.) Man believing he had absolute dominance over human life and to genetic engineering.
Some mistakenly refer to NFP as the rhythm method. They charge that it doesn’t work for women with irregular cycles. Now there are newer more sophisticated methods such as the Billings ovulation method and the sympto-thermal method which are very accurate and just as effective as the birth control pill without the harmful side effects or moral consequences.
What’s the difference? It takes self-control on the part of the husband and wife. Both share the responsibility for regulating their fertility, not just the woman. Communication is improved and the woman doesn’t feel used. With NFP couples regulate their fertility in accord with the natural moral law. Here they are not acting against God’s plan, but simply taking advantage of the natural cycles that God has planned for the human body. Sometimes God shuts the door naturally. Human beings have no right to shut it.
Compare difference between NFP and contraception to getting a decent job and robbing a bank.
The love the couple gives and receives doesn’t end with them, but make it possible for them to cooperate with God in bringing forth a new human life into existence. The children are a living reflection of their love for one another.
They form a communion of love from which are able to draw spiritual riches that give a positive atmosphere for offering their children the support of education in the faith, for love and for chastity.
The virtue of chastity protects the ability to express true love and to give oneself to another person fully and in an unselfish way. Chastity is the spiritual energy needed to defend love from selfishness, aggressiveness and lust. Chastity is a difficult to practice especially during adolescence and young adulthood, but it is possible with the grace of God, especially as is available to us in the sacraments.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” Sexuality is a beautiful gift from God and is truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another in a complete, mutual and life-long gift of a man and a woman.
Chastity involves the virtue of temperance by which we regulate our bodily appetites. Chastity is not simply the repression of our bodily appetites. Rather as it is the purity and temporary stewardship of a precious and rich gift of love realized in everyone’s specific vocation.
St. Peter taught:
Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, "Be holy because I (am) holy." (1 Peter 1, 13-16)
Love is only possible when we master ourselves. We can only give of ourselves if we are freed from self-centered slavery. If we fail to govern our passions, we will be ruled by them. Love is only possible when we discipline our feelings, passions and emotions. Otherwise we can be attracted to someone else and abandon the one we love. When chastity is weakened, love becomes more selfish. Instead of self-giving, we look at the other as a means of satisfying our desire for pleasure. We can hurt the person we love by anger, infidelity, selfishness or lust – using them as an object for our own selfish pleasure.
Jesus says when we sin, we become slaves of sin. Jesus came to free us from this slavery to sin and make it possible to live holy, devout, chaste lives in this world and share eternal happiness with him in the next.
Chastity makes the personality harmonious. It matures it and fills it with inner peace. Purity of mind and body make it possible to develop true self respect and to respect others. It sees in them persons to reverence, created in the image and likeness of God.
Chastity is a virtue for everyone, but the virtue is exercised in different ways according to one’s vocation. In marriage, chastity means treating one’s spouse with dignity and respect, not as an object of lust. It also means obeying the natural moral law.
Sins against chastity include: adultery, fornication, contraception, homosexual acts, masturbation, lustful thoughts, sexually suggestive language and jokes.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches authoritatively:
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5, 27-30)
In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes:
Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones, no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Ephesians 5, 3-5)
In his First Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul says:
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6, 9-11)
Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6, 18-20)
Adultery is wrong because God designed marriage to be a faithful and exclusive covenant between one husband and one wife until death.
Fornication or pre-marital sex and living together before marriage are wrong because the couple has not pledged themselves to one another for life. They have not formed a partnership for life and therefore are not ready to bring children into the world. Children deserve to have a mother and a father who live together and will care for them. But a child never loses their dignity as a result of the manner of their conception.
Contraception is wrong because it denies God an opportunity to perform his creative action in the act that he designed for the transmission of new human life and it fails to represent total self-giving since the gift of fertility is deliberately held back.
Abortion is not a sin against chastity. Abortion is a sin against justice, because it kills a life that has already begun.
Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical The Gospel of Life,
It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the "contraceptive mentality"—which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act—are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro- abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church's teaching on contraception is rejected (n. 13).
Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment "You shall not kill". But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. Such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment (n. 13).
In vitro fertilization is wrong because God willed that children would come into the world as the result of the fruit of the conjugal act by a husband and wife.
Masturbation is wrong because God designed sex to be an act of love between a husband and a wife. Masturbation is neither an act of love, nor is it open to life.
Pornography objectifies both men and women and treats the human body as mere object to satisfy lust.
Homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law. God designed the human body so that male and female would be complementary and capable of transmitting life. Homosexual acts are not complementary and incapable of transmitting life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following about homosexuality:
2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Jesus taught that unchastity defiles a person:
“… the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile." (Matthew 15, 18-20)
Some people think the Church’s teaching contains too many prohibitions
Behind every “no” in the Church’s teaching shines a great ‘yes” to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following about chastity:
2342 Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life.128 The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.
2343 Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. "Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth."129
Chastity is a difficult virtue to acquire. If you’ve failed, have your sins absolved in the Sacrament of Penance and begin again, but know that God calls you to holiness and that chastity is possible.
Some people think young people should be told to delay sexual activity, but if you don’t use birth control. We say people are not animals. Human beings are persons and who can control our impulses.
Chastity is possible for a person who is willing to puts aside selfishness, make sacrifices and delay sexual gratification. Men are often portrayed as animals in constant need of sexual satisfaction. But man is capable of a higher love than the mere satisfaction of appetites. He is capable of friendship and self-giving with a capacity to love persons for who they are as persons, not what he can get from them.
If sex is very good and God says it is not good for men to be alone, what about priests and religious who forsake the gift of marriage? How do they find fulfillment? The vocation of consecrated life finds fulfillment in making a total donation of one’s self to God alone (1 Cor. 7) to give one’s self to God alone with an undivided heart.
Jesus was celibate and recommended this way of life to his followers:
Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it." (Matthew 19, 10-12)
Faithful priests and religious are sexual beings, but don’t have sex. They give and love in a different way by making of themselves a total gift to God and his people. They also receive love in a pure way from God and the people they serve. Sexuality is a fundamental component of one’s personality. It is the way we communicate, express feelings and express human love. Sexuality characterizes man and woman not only on the physical level, but also on the psychological and spiritual. This will have an influence on the vocation to which each person is called. The priest is an icon of Christ. He is an image of Jesus who called himself the Son of the Father. A woman is an icon of the Church whose first member is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary was open and receptive to the Word of God. All Christians are called to imitate Mary’s “yes” to God.
All vocations – marriage, single life, priesthood and religious life involve spiritual motherhood or fatherhood.
A religious sister in her care for others, prayer, wise counsel, and example becomes a spiritual mother to many children. A priest is called father since through him God gives new life in Baptism, he nourishes and sustains that life through the other sacraments. He also exercises spiritual fatherhood through his prayer, example and wise counsel. St. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians:
I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (1 Corinthians 4, 14-15)
Jesus promises rewards to his followers who live a celibate life for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19, 29)
The world needs to hear what the Catholic Church really teaches about sex. Those of us who believe this have a duty to pass this truth on to others, especially in our own families, since there are so many other contrary messages being disseminated throughout our culture that are contrary to the truth about the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of human life and the beauty and dignity of human sexuality as part of God’s plan.
In the past, even when the family didn’t provide specific sex education, the general culture supported fundamental values and made it easier to protect and maintain them. That is obviously not the case anymore. Society distorts the truth about man and woman as persons created in the image and likeness of God; God’s plan for marriage; the grandeur of the procreation and education of children; material, cultural and spiritual needs to educate in the truths of the faith, love of God and neighbor.