The sex scandals in the Church will not be completely and thoroughly dealt with until the rampant infidelity to Catholic doctrine throughout all of the Church, including the hierarchy, is rectified. Catholic doctrine clarifies God’s Revelation and defines what the faith response to that Revelation should be.
Therefore what does Catholic doctrine have to teach us about sex? To what should we be faithful? What has God revealed about sex, and what does He want our response to be to that Revelation?
This is a broad topic. This column will focus on the purpose of sex. To start, it might help to make an analogy with the purpose of food.
Over the last several decades, American society has learned the crucial role food plays in health. My dad serves as an example.
Born in 1930, Dad was typical of the middle-class men of his generation. During the 1950s and ’60s, he loved his un-balanced diet, heavy with red meat and potatoes. Fruit and vegetables were often canned or frozen. Diets included a lot of butter and salt. What was the purpose of food back then? Of course, everyone ate in order to stay alive, and there was some concern about nutrition, but there was an over-emphasis on feeling good—having a full stomach and enjoying the taste of food.
Even when Dad squeezed softball, bowling, or golf into his busy adult life of working, raising a family, and maintaining a house and yard (an adult life which began right after high school), he and his buddies drank beer and smoked cigarettes between innings, frames, and holes. They were not trying to live healthy lifestyles. They did not know what a “lifestyle” was.
All that ended in the 1980s after Dad had every bad heart condition imaginable. He then learned about diet and exercise, and, yes, about “healthy lifestyle.” Although he was not expected to see his sixtieth birthday, he was eighty-five when he went to his eternal reward, thanks in large part during those years to Mom’s help.
Like my Dad, American society has learned that feeling good should not be the primary purpose of food. Over the last several decades, we have learned that we should primarily eat in order to be healthy. Although we like our healthy food to taste good, even delicious, we realize that feeling good should be the side-effect of eating, not its purpose. In our often polarized society, here is common ground: just about everyone feels guilty when he or she eats too much junk food simply because it tastes good.
As our society was turning to having food for the right reason, however, it was turning from having sex for the right reason. As our society rejected feeling good as the primary purpose of food, it accepted feeling good as the primary purpose of sex. There are two kinds of feeling good. Both have become widespread reasons for having sex. There is physical feeling good: pleasure, fun, release. There is emotional feeling good: self-esteem, emotional comfort. Now there is no denying the physical pleasure of sex, but sex can often feel good emotionally. It can alleviate loneliness or make us feel good about ourselves, e.g., it can make us feel attractive or wanted.
The “Sexual Revolution” is the overthrowing of procreation and union as the purposes of sex in order to enthrone feeling good as its primary purpose. Artificial methods of birth control, especially since 1960 when the birth control pill came on the market, have separated sex from procreation, one of its traditional purposes. The “hook-up culture” that has grown since the 1980s has not only separated sex from procreation but also from life-long union in marriage, the other traditional purpose of sex. Even in the ’60s and ’70s, those who had sex outside of marriage tended to rationalize it on the basis that they “loved each other.” Nowadays, hook-ups do not even pretend to be about love.
However, as Mary Eberstadt, Father Sean Connolly, Janet Smith, and many others have pointed out, sex simply for the purpose of feeling good has led to the following ills, all of which were far less common before 1960: abortions; epidemic STDs and STIs; the proliferation of pornography; sex addiction; young adults not getting married; spouses being unfaithful; divorce; children born out of wedlock; children growing up without two parents raising them; and gender dysphoria.
After fifty years of generally weak religious education, how many baptized Catholics know the true purpose of sex? God has revealed the two purposes for sex, which are articulated in Catholic doctrine:
- Union, or Love: Mutual commitment to what is objectively good for each other, as expressed in the wedding vows: “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
- Procreation, or Life: The openness to sharing that love by conceiving a child, a new human being.
The essence of Saint John Paul the Great’s “Theology of the Body” is this: genital activity has been made by God to be body language. The body language of genital activity, especially its most complete expression in sexual intercourse, objectively “says”—regardless of whether those involved want it to—“I give my entire self, including my fertility, to you.” Genital activity without the purposes of love and life is dishonest communication, even a lie. As Our Lord 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” (Matthew 19:5).God wants sex—any genital activity—to take place only in a marriage between one man and one woman, where a male and a female find wholeness through their complementarity to each other. God has designed the male and female reproductive organs to fit and complete each other. The giving and receiving of the man and woman’s entire selves in marriage, including their sexual giving and receiving, share in the perfect giving and receiving of (non-sexual) love by each Divine Person in the life of the Blessed Trinity. The loving and procreative sex between a husband and wife is sacramental and beautiful.
Back to the food-sex analogy. Another curious phenomenon is that the more our society values natural food, the more it values un-natural, artificial, technologically-based sex. The more our society values organic food, food without additives or preservatives or artificial ingredients, the more it values chemical contraception, in vitro fertilization, gender-changing hormones and operations, sex robots, and on and on. While our society does not want to thwart biology when it comes to food, it does want to thwart biology when it comes to sex.
The insights of G. K. Chesterton help us understand this phenomenon. According to him, pre-Christian paganism became saturated with sex. The Catholic doctrine of sex only for union and procreation, love and life, offered recovery from the pagan addiction to eroticism. Paganism, which had hit rock bottom, was ready for Catholic sexuality. Love and life became the traditional purposes of sex in Western society before the Sexual Revolution precisely because of the West’s history of Catholic teaching based on both faith and reason.In Chesterton’s own eloquent words in Chapter VIII, “The End of the World,” of The Everlasting Man:
I do not believe [pre-Christian] mythology must begin with eroticism. But I do believe that mythology must end in it. I am quite certain that mythology did end in it. Moreover, not only did the poetry grow more immoral, but the immorality grew more indefensible. Greek vices, oriental vices, hints of the old horrors of [Canaanite] demons, began to fill the fancies of decaying Rome, swarming like flies on a dung-heap.
The urban mob became enlightened; that is, it lost the mental energy that could create myths. All round the circle of the Mediterranean cities, the people mourned for the loss of gods and were consoled with gladiators.
The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere . . . Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. . . . They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.
And in Chapter II, “The World St. Francis Found,” of Chesterton’s book, St. Francis of Assisi, he notes ironically, “The truth is that people who worship health cannot remain healthy.” He goes on to say that
What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sotted with sex. . . . The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant.
It was no metaphor to say that these [ancient pagan] people needed a new heaven and a new earth; for they had really defiled their own earth and even their own heaven. . . . They knew much better than we do what was the matter with them and what sort of demons at once tempted and tormented them; and they wrote across that great space of history the text: “This sort goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.”
Will people wake up to the logic of the Sexual Revolution, as expressed by Paul Kengor in his Takedown (WND Books, 2015)?
The current liberal/progressive standard that [all it takes to justify sex is] consenting adults . . . cannot, by sheer logical consistency, prohibit polygamous marriages, group marriages, [incestuous] marriages . . . and numerous other innovative arrangements.
How many of us will keeping telling ourselves that the “new normal” and the “modern family” will go no farther; or that no matter far it goes, it will not affect us in ways we do not want it to? How many of us will continue to not understand the consequences of Supreme Court decisions? Continue to let activists and intellectuals radically redefine marriage and family in our thinking without being aware of their efforts? Continue to believe that the neo-pagan narrative (mythology without divinity) in schools and media will not influence our own families? Do those of us who feel compelled to agree that “love is love” want our own children and grandchildren to be pro-abortion, dysphoric, sexually diseased, incestuous, or otherwise involved in the Sexual Revolution? If we tell them adults may consent to one part of the Sexual Revolution, on what basis do we tell them adults should not consent to other parts?
How much more obsessed with feel-good sex must our society become before it is ready once again to welcome the challenge of Catholic sexual doctrine and the self-control that goes along with it? How many more casualties of the Sexual Revolution must there be? Will we as a society repeat ancient history and hit the rock bottom of depravity before we turn to Catholic doctrine for sexual recovery?
Our neo-pagan, post-Christian society needs to learn what the Catholic Faith taught pagan, pre-Christian society: Feeling good should not be the primary purpose of sex but is its powerful and dangerous side-effect. Our society needs to wake up to having sex for the right reasons just as it has woken up to eating for the right reason. Let us do what we can to tell the good news: it is never too late to change and follow Christ to the Kingdom of God by obeying Catholic doctrine. Here, here, and here are resources on how to live a healthy sexuality. God bless those bishops and priests who realize what is at stake and shepherd their flocks to true happiness and salvation with a sense of urgency.