Let’s Talk About Sex (Follow Up)

This is the entire follow up post to my article about changing the conversation on sex.This was originally only posted at Real Catholic Love and Sex, but then I realized that some people might have problems posting because of internet filters. I have enabled comments, for anyone with this issue.

When I posted the original article, I noticed that a lot of the Catholic conversation on sex was very legalistic and focused on technical issues. I asserted that Catholics should change the conversation on sex.

And boy did I ever get a lot of conversation about sex! Some people agreed with me, others disagreed with me. Some were very informative. All were respectful and civil.

So, what I have learned?

Good Catechesis is Essential

Growing up, I didn’t hear anything about Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. I knew the Church frowned upon premarital sex. I had some vague idea that contraception wasn’t officially approved, but I was pretty sure there was a loophole.

The first time I heard why the Church opposed contraception, it was presented as a negative. Contraception was sinful, led to divorce and abortion, and was causing the downfall of Western Civilization.

When I first heard all the teachings on sexuality, they were presented as a series of rules based on this Natural Law reasoning. It was even in Question and Answer format, just like the old Baltimore Catechism. It was a list of things we should do because they are virtuous and a list of things we should not do because they are sinful. The only explanation given was because the Church said so and as good Catholics, we were to obey the Church.

The Baltimore Catechism fell out of favor because although it was good at teaching children the details of the faith, without showing them the big picture, it was easy for children to get confused about what the Catholic faith is all about. It was easy to think that Christianity was just a series of rules where you have to earn God’s love.

But Christianity is a love story. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical, God is Love.

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should [not perish, but] have eternal life” (3:16).

God loves us unconditionally. Although we may refuse his love, we need not earn it, nor worry about Him withdrawing it.

To have a truly Catholic view of sexuality, one must view sexuality in the context of this love story and our relationship with God. Love is never legalism.

Because God loves us, he wants us to succeed. God wants us to love better. Catholics believe God’s grace can change people to enable us to grow in virtue and come closer to him. That’s why He gave us the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

But we cannot do it alone. If we try to follow the law without God’s help, we will be miserable and we will fail.

Natural Law Arguments Against Contraception Aren’t Convincing

Traditionally, the Catholic teachings about sex were not based on the relationship we have with God and each other, but were thought of as coming from the Natural Law.

St. Thomas Aquinas

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the purpose of sex is procreation, therefore, a reasonable man would not want to use his sexuality in a way that contradicts procreation. Deliberate wasting of semen was a serious sin. However, sex that did not lead to conception “by accident”, such as if the woman were infertile, was no sin because the spouses did not intend to frustrate the process.

Aquinas, though a brilliant theologian, was limited to the science of his time. He had a very different understanding of the nature of semen than modern science does. He had no understanding of the menstrual cycle or times of infertility.

Aquinas paid little attention to female sexuality.  He condemned male masturbation as worse than rape(!) for wasting the seed, but did not address female masturbation at all. His idea of the purpose of sexuality being only for procreation, fails to address the clitoris, an organ which serves no other function than female sexual pleasure.

The Catholic Church has progressed since the middle ages, and Aquinas’s writings were never official doctrine. Still, Aquinas’s logic is the basis of the modern Natural Law understanding of Catholic sexual ethics.

The Church recognizes correctly recognizes the bonding the spouses as a second purpose of sex, but insists that the bonding aspect cannot be separated from the unitive aspect.

Modern science also seems to have found a third purpose for sexuality: Sex is good for your health. Regular orgasms bring health benefits. This is especially true for women, although the concept is nothing new.

With modern understandings of reproduction, is non-procreative sex really that immoral? With the bonding and health purposes of sex, is it that unreasonable to engage in non-procreative activities when regular sex is not available? These are reasonable questions and an Natural Law argument alone cannot answer them.

That being said, the Natural Law arguments against sterilization are common sense, though less often presented. Note that the birth control pill and other forms of hormonal “contraception” are not really “contraception” at all, but temporary chemical sterilization.

The problem with sterilization is that healthy human reproductive system is designed to reproduce. Surgically or biochemically altering a working reproductive system to have more sex is very unhealthy and seriously disordered. This alteration has multiple unpleasant health consequences, from annoying to deadly, whether chemical, bioactive, or surgical, for men and for women. Charting your cycle and avoiding these side effects is good for your health and good for your marriage. Additionally, treating fertility as a disease to be medicated is a profound negative social statement about our bodies. This is why I believe fertility awareness is good for ALL couples, not just Catholics.

Confusing the argument against contraception with the argument against sterilization weakens both.

Understanding Theology of the Body is Critical

So, how does sexuality fit into our relationship with God? How do we few sexual ethics as driven by something more than just nature and reason? Does our sexuality have a deeper purpose?

In the late 1950s a young Polish priest recognized that the old Natural Law arguments were resting too heavily on Church authority and convincing fewer and fewer people. So, he set out to rethink the reasoning behind the teachings. Instead of starting with nature and reason as Aquinas did, he started with the human person.

What is the ethical way to treat our fellow humans? The dignity of the individual makes it unethical to use others as objects for our own ends. What is the meaning of love? Love must be self-giving. It is acting in the best interest of the other. To use is the opposite of to love. The purpose of our sexuality is to love, not to use. An ethical use of sexuality is one that “uphold and affirms” the dignity and value of other persons. Using psychology and ethical reasoning, he re-explained the reasoning behind Catholic sexual teaching. The result is the book Love and Responsibility.

Pope Paul VI invited him to be on the Papal Birth Control Commission, but Communist authorities in Poland kept him trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps Humanae Vitae would have been better drafted (and better received) had he been there.

The priest became a bishop, then a cardinal, and eventually Pope John Paul II. One of the first acts of his Papacy was to present a series of lectures called “Love in the Divine Plan”, or Theology of the Body.

Pope John Paul II

If Love and Responsibility is the “reason” side of John Paul II’s philosophy on sexuality, Theology of the Body is the “faith” side. The lectures cover the following topics:

  • The Original Unity of Man and Woman [before The Fall];
  • Blessed are the Pure of Heart;
  • The Resurrection of the Body;
  • Virginity for the Sake of the Kingdom (consecrated celibacy);
  • The Sacramentiality of Marriage; and
  • Reflections on Humanae Vitae.

The central question of Theology of the Body is that if we are, as the Catholic Church teaches, a unity of body and soul created in the image and likeness of God, then what do our bodies teach us about God? Likewise, what role do our bodies play in living out the gospel in our lives?

A full discussion of John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body are beyond the scope of this blog post. But John Paul II changed the question:  The proper use of our sexuality is not one of nature, but one of vocation. Theology of the Body does not contradict Aquinas, rather, it further develops Catholic doctrine on sexual morality.

The question Catholic sexual ethics attempts to answer is how do we use our sexuality and our bodies for “the good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them”? (Ephesians 2:10). Such an question demands not just a series of rules about what we should and should not do, but a lifestyle based on showing love: to our neighbors, to our spouses, to God, and to society.

See, don’t they look happy?

Because loving and giving of ourselves is what we were created to do, only in using our sexuality consistent with these purposes can we find true sexual satisfaction and true happiness.

When we want to use our sexuality in a different way, this is often a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes the problem is primarily physical. But we should not mistake a “scratching an itch” to satisfy a physical urge for the total self-giving and communion of persons that God has called us to. In fact, knowing that the fullness of sexual expression in a marriage may not be prudent for unusually long periods of time may be a prompt to better learn her body or to seek medical attention.

But in other cases, struggles are the sign of deeper psychological, relational, or spiritual problems:

  • Is the couple using sex to get intimacy because they have not fully developed their sexuality?
  • Does the couple have an inappropriately strict view of chaste behavior? For example, married couples should remain close, even when abstaining from sex. Engaged couples should be growing in closeness in preparation for marriage.
  • Are individuals or couples using the pleasure of orgasm as a drug to escape the problems of life?
  • Are there sexual issues in the marriage that make sexual satisfaction difficult during the infertile phase?
  • Does one spouse not respect the body of the other, seeing the other spouse as “legitimate” means to an orgasm?
  • Is one spouse unusually afraid of pregnancy to the point of being fearful of sex?
  • Does the person have a negative view or sexuality, thus failing to see understand the concept of how sexuality can be an instrument of love and not just a physical act?
  • Does the person have a negative view of women’s bodies, thus failing to understand the value of the self-knowledge of fertility awareness?
  • Is there a misunderstanding about the nature of God and our relationship with Him, leading people to view chastity as a negative, enforced by an angry God?
  • Does the person have unresolved issues from past sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse?

When struggles bring issues to the surface, it can be painful and difficult, but it also makes them apparent so that we can deal with them.

As St. Augustine once said: “God does not command the impossible but while He commands, He warns you to do what you can and to ask for the grace for what you cannot do and He helps you so that you may be able”. Sometimes God’s grace works by pushing you to seek professional help.

Not All Abstinence Messages Are Created Equal

Another part of the problem is that sometimes Catholics get confused by non-Catholic messages that are superficially similar, but in reality are very different than what the Church teaches.

For example, when I was a teenager, a common tactic to convince young people to abstain from sex before marriage was to compare those who had sex before marriage to licked Oreos/dirty spit cups/unsticky tape. These tactics were most common among evangelical Christians, but were also used by some Catholics and even secular groups, especially in 1990s where abstinence based-education was often driven by fear of HIV/AIDS.

Such fear-based tactics are both theologically and psychologically problematic and, while well intentioned, sent the wrong message.

Instead, the Catholic concept of “chastity” is a positive message. It is one of self-control and self-mastery, not repression and denial. Indeed, viewing sexual morality as a series of prohibitions and obligations without the context of a loving relationship, both with others and with God is a guaranteed recipe for misery. Abstinence is a behavior and virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a virtue. Chastity is not saying “no” to our sexuality, but saying “yes” to it in a way that is truly loving.


Catholic teaching on sexuality is more than just a series of rules or technical requirements, but is a way of using our sexuality to be the people God created us to be. Unfortunately, the teaching has been poorly presented, often misunderstood, and occasionally mixed with non-Catholic beliefs.

Furthermore, from those of us who were raised with the overly simple “Jesus loves you” catechesis of the 1980s and 1990s, to those who were catechized with rules without explanation, like was common before Vatican II, many of us don’t really understand the big picture of the Catholic faith.

The solution to this is to learn what the Catholic Church really teaches.

Theology of the Body is critical to understanding Catholic teaching. Unfortunately the writings of John Paul II that are accessible to us are the English translation of a Pole speaking Italian on very dense theological matters.  So most of us will need some help.

Edit: I recommend Men and Women are from Eden by Mary Healy as a basic introduction to the topic and an excellent alternative to Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners.

Love & Responsibility Foundation and Fr. Roger J. Landry have some great resources on the subject. Dr. Edward Sri’s series on Love and Responsibility is an excellent summary of the rather dense book. Many people like Christopher West, although I, personally, am not a fan of his style. The Family Honor program teaches parents how to communicate this message to their children, with age appropriate material for children to teens.

Because Catholic sexual teaching can only be understood in the context of ALL Catholic teaching, you may need to brush up on that, too. Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals are fantastic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an authoritative source for what the Church actually teaches and can be found at the Vatican’s website. For something a bit easier, a new youth catechism, YouCat, was released in 2011.

Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is incredible. We’re going through this in Adult Religious Ed (what the parents do during CCD) and I’ve learned something new every week.

This is the Year of Faith, so I encourage everyone to learn more about their faith. Think of it as something good to do for Lent.

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