This is the third in a series of introductory essays on the document “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” the preparatory catechesis for the eighth World Meeting of Families which will take place in Philadelphia next September 22-27, 2015 with Pope Francis. The first essay on the first chapter is here. The essay which introduces the second chapter is here. This essay introduces chapter three, “The Meaning of Human Sexuality.” You can get a copy of the catechesis itself here.
“Chapter III: The Meaning of Human Sexuality” gives us a basis for understanding the virtue of chastity as lived either in matrimony or through celibacy. These two states in life are discussed in more depth in chapters four through six of the catechesis.
Rational animal sexuality
Sex is the bodily act by which new animals are conceived. God has designed this act to be desirable and enjoyable so that animals will procreate.
But for human beings, sex is never just a physical act, because we are never just physical beings. We are rational animals. Sex is always a spiritual act, because we have souls. We have reason and free will to govern our physical acts. Reason and will are the basis for our being able to be in communion with other human beings and with God.
Like all forms of human love, sex is designed by God to be a communion of life and love. In our case, sex is also cooperation with God to bring new children into the world, because he directly infuses the rational soul of the new person at the moment of conception.
So, both the unitive and procreative purposes of sexual intercourse—bonding and babies—are gifts from God. The love between spouses is a gift because it is the love of two rational animals who got their souls from God. The child who may be conceived is a gift because he gets his rational soul from God.
Human sexuality is good for these reasons, but it is not just good because of its connection with rationality. It is also good, because it is a physical, bodily act. Chapter three reminds us of the goodness of God’s physical creation. All physical things come from God. They reveal something about God’s goodness and glory.
God joined himself to matter in the Incarnation of Christ.
Matter is the basis of the Sacraments through which physical things become vehicles for God’s grace to us.
We can bless and honor other persons and God through our practice of the corporal works of mercy when we come to the physical aid of others. These are some of the reasons we can call creation itself sacred.
The human body is especially sacred, because it is the temple of the human soul. Through our physical bodies, we express our inner selves. However, the human body is even more sacred when it is also the temple of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us through Baptism.
Man is male and female
God has made “man” to be either of two sexes, equal in dignity. Men and women are interdependent and complementary. Masculinity needs femininity and femininity needs masculinity. We are born male or female, enter life as a son our daughter, become a brother or sister, and are called to fatherhood or motherhood.
The “partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons” (36). That partnership can make possible other communions: the communion between a child and his parents, then communion with brothers and sisters, then relationships with extended family, neighbors, friends, and ultimately friendship with God.
All this underlines why human sexuality is so good.
Like all good things, sex can be misused. Sex is especially prone to misuse, because it is so powerful and because we are wounded. People can use other people in conditional and temporary ways to selfishly satisfy an appetite – thus the meaning of the vice called lust. Sometimes people let themselves be used sexually in order to be loved, but discover that they only become more wounded.
Chastity is the virtue that honors and protects human sexuality by placing it where it belongs, in an exclusive and life-long covenant of “love, care, fidelity, and openness to children” (38). The married live conjugal chastity. “Chaste celibacy,” the other way that people can live chastity, “concurs that sexual intimacy belongs in the context of love, care, and fidelity” (38).
Having established the basic principles of human sexuality, the catechesis will now move on to two chapters on sexuality in marriage and one in regard to celibacy. As St. Ambrose said,
There are three forms of the virtue of chastity: the first is that of spouses, the second that of widows, and the third that of virgins. We do not praise any of them to the exclusion of others” (38).
Photography: Kelli Ann Cresswell