Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Church and Sex

A Facebook friend wrote to me and said that while she understands and appreciates so much about the Catholic Church, Church teaching on sex is something that just doesn't "feel" right.  She was raised in a liberal environment where she learned that whatever consenting adults do in the bedroom is their own business.  And, in addition to that, her "nephew" is in a long-term committed relationship with his boyfriend, and she has trouble seeing what's wrong with that.

It occurred to me that some of what I said in reply might be of interest to many of you.  Here it is ...

I, too, was raised in an environment with a liberal attitude toward sex.  My big problem with Church teaching came after I became Catholic.  I struggled with what had been presented to me as "no artificial contraception" - which makes no sense.  We're not Christian Scientists who shy away from Bactine, why would "natural" contraception be allowed, but "artificial" condemned?  Finally, after much thinking and research, I concluded that the adjectives "natural" and "artificial" are misleading.  The Church simply says, "If you don't want babies, don't have sex."  So-called "natural" family planning is simply a way of determining when "not to have sex".  
But until that distinction became clear to me, I could not see Church teaching as a whole.  It made no sense and seemed arbitrary.
In your case, you are a bit younger than I am and it seems my generation was the last to have somehow inherited a natural revulsion to sodomy.  So you are in a position where you have to think this through because it does not "feel" right to you.  In that way, you have a similar journey to mine.
And the first thing I would say is to echo Pope Francis - begin with love and not condemnation.  If your nephew has a close male friend and the two of them love one another, that is a great blessing.  The fact that sexual activity between them cannot be an expression of that love has to do with nature, which is another word for the limitations or form established by God.  Nature, for example, has a teleology, or a goal for which it is designed.
In the case of sex, the teleology is obvious.  Our sexual organs are designed for reproduction.  It's obvious that any use of them that thwarts the possibility of reproduction is "perverse", literally "turning away" from their design.
Now we like to think that we have the ability to do what we will with God's design.  We can re-design nature at will.  But a very deep message of God's revelation to us is that only by doing what He made us to do can we find joy.  If we are designed for a purpose, we must fulfill that purpose, which is ultimately to serve Him, and mediately (by means of) the situations and people in which and among which He's placed us.  
And since we're fallen, there's a split between our true design and the corruption of that design.  So we don't always "feel" like finding ultimate joy His  way, we'd rather find an immediate thrill our own way.  I don't "feel" like getting up most mornings, like being kind to people throughout the day, like sacrificing for my wife and children.  But I do anyway (most days!) because I have learned, by experience, that this is the way God has designed things to make me most joyful, and to help others.
It's all about the nature of love.
Love entails self-sacrifice.  Love is the cross.  If love is following our desires and only that, we make a hell of life.  Look at people who follow their own desires and who are heedless of the design and limitations God places on love - they become promiscuous, they become drug addicts, alcoholics, spoiled, hateful people.  
If your nephew is in a mutually monogamous relationship, he recognizes some built-in limitation to nature and God's design.  One must ask then, if we are happier being true to one another and not cheating on each other by sleeping around (an arrangement which is far less "natural" than straight sex would be), then why does sex suddenly become merely consensual?  If we recognize that love is good in so far as it makes us loyal, then why is love bad if it makes us honor the ultimate design for which it is made - procreation and the family?
By the way, be wary of pop-Catholic "theology of the body" promoters like Christopher West.  There's a lot of nonsense there.  Focus on one question - what is love?  Why does it always entail sacrifice?  What is the meaning of the Incarnation and Jesus on the cross?
Those things will help you see sex in context, leading you not to condemn your nephew, but to see that if he really wants to love his live-in partner, the kind of abuse that is expressed by sodomy is no way to show it.  It may not be your job to tell them that, but if you come to see it yourself, you'll be growing in your ability to understand what love is - and that's what this is all about.


Anonymous said...

I just heard that Christopher West is coming to St. Louis.

Dr. Eric

Kevin Tierney said...

The problem with West is that he has a lot of good. But unfortunately, there's a lot of bad there, and it all comes from some flawed views: namely that TOB is somehow "unique" in Church history, and that nobody was really covering this stuff before John Paul II.

That's a bunch of nonsense on stilts. To paraphrase South Park "Leo XIII already did it!" He was talking about how our creation as male and female was ordered towards "delight in the creator" That's basically the "nuptial meaning of the body" using different words. So when you read these older sources, they provide interesting insights, and they refute many of the ideas West has about "mature purity", nudity and the like.

Del said...

Beautiful work, Kevin! I do hope that your friend comes to see the opportunity in that conflict between "What I feel" and "What Christ's Church is teaching." This is not a time to trade "judgment" and "rejection." This is an invitation to really THINK, and so to come to the TRUTH.

The Truth sets us free. It is embarrassing to carry on one's life the a wrong understanding of reality.

And thank you for this insight: There was a time, not too many years ago, when divorce, homosexuality, contraception and abortion were "icky" things that no one would ever want to see a loved one become involved with. Much like one would not want to see her niece working as a prostitute.

If our culture continues its current trend, we may struggle to explain to the next generation why prostitution is still evil, even if the young person is not able to "feel" anything wrong about it.

Karen said...

Do you really see love as only sacrifice? If being married makes you miserable, why did you do it? I'm sure your wife is not thrilled knowing that you think she and your kids are burdens to be endured, and that you get no pleasure in their company.

Kevin Tierney said...

The only love that is worth it is sacrificial love. All other loves inevitably lead to that that sacrificial love. And far from a "burden", people find true freedom.

He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.

Kevin O'Brien said...


I did not mean to imply that I don't enjoy sacrificing for the sake of my wife and kids. I simply meant to put it in context. You have rather seriously misunderstood me.

Only such sacrificial love is true love, and only such sacrificial love is worth it, and only through such sacrificial love do we find meaning in life.

I am not miserable being married, and my wife and kids are more than just a burden.

How on earth could you misread me this badly??? Nobody else seems to have.

Well, I hope I cleared things up.