Love is not selfish: A Catholic Vision of Sexuality

A talk given at St Dyfrig’s, to the parish RCIA group and to visitors from the Gospel of Life Group.

In this talk, I want to set out the Catholic Church’s vision of sexual relations. It’s very easy to get the impression that Catholic Church is suspicious of sex: it bans its priests from marrying, famously tells couples not to use contraception, and seems to hold its nose at the very idea of sexual intercourse. BUT: there is actually a Catholic vision of sexuality which is very beautiful, but demanding on those who choose to practice it. That’s what I want to set out for you today.

I am going to make two assumptions about you, the listeners, in this talk.

The first is that you are people who sincerely wish to be followers of Jesus Christ. You want to know what Jesus taught, and when it is a challenging demand, you will do your best to live up to it. You know that Jesus was a teacher with high ideals, but who showed great compassion towards those who failed to meet them.

The second assumption is that you are willing to give the Catholic Church a hearing. Jesus appointed Peter as head of his apostles, and in the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself, the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, inherits the authority given to Peter. When moral questions arise which go beyond the subjects which Jesus treated, it is the duty of the Pope to build on the teaching of Jesus and give a reasonable answer to today’s world.

When the Pope, or any spokesperson for the church, is trying to engage with the secular world, with media and with politics, they will try to use arguments about what is good for human beings and for society, rather than pointing to what the Bible says. An unbelieving world will only listen to arguments which stand on their own authority. But we are here today as believers, so I will not confine myself to arguments which might impress the secular world, but I will be happy to stand on the authority of what God has said to us through Scripture.

We could spend a lot of time on the Old Testament – for there are many specific rules about sexual conduct in the Hebrew Bible. But we believe a complete understanding of the Bible is only possible in the light of the life and teaching of Jesus, so let’s start there – what did Jesus himself teach about sexual matters?

NO ADULTERY (=Don’t break your promises)

Two of the Ten Commandments concern adultery – one simply says “Do not commit adultery”, and another warns against coveting your neighbour’s wife. Nothing controversial here, for it is the very nature of marriage to promise to be faithful to a particular sexual partner. Unsurprisingly, Jesus endorses the commandment against adultery on many occasions.

[Mt 5:27 & 19:18; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20]

In tonight’s talk, we will be identifying many actions as sinful. We must remember that Jesus came to save sinners, not to condemn them. John’s Gospel gives us a beautiful story of a woman caught in adultery – we are not told what happened to the man, who she was presumably caught with! Jesus does not deny that the Jewish law requires her to be stoned; he simply asks for a sinless volunteer to cast the first stone. When none can be found, he tells the woman, mercifully – “Neither do I condemn you – but go and sin no more.”

[Jn 8:1-11]

NO DIVORCE

Jesus went further than condemning adultery, though. According to the teaching of Moses, divorce was permitted, and divorcees could marry anyone other than their original spouse.

Jesus claimed the authority to reverse this teaching. “Moses allowed you to divorce,” he said, “because your hearts were hard.” He doesn’t mean that the Jewish people were unfeeling, for in Jewish metaphor, you feel with your guts – the heart is the place where you think. Jesus is explaining that God’s people didn’t understand God’s requirement which was present from the earliest chapters of the Bible. “From the beginning of creation,” said Jesus, “God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body. They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. What God has united, man must not divide.”

[Mt 5:32 & 19:9, Mk  10:11&12; Lk 16:18; quoting Gn 2:24]

The whole Catholic attitude to sexuality, therefore, is rooted in the text which Jesus himself saw as the root: God’s plan for humanity is that men and women form committed couples in which the two become one flesh. That “becoming one flesh” was so irreversible, that for Jesus, no legal process could prevent a subsequent relationship being adultery, as long as the first partner was alive.

[Mk 10:11&12; Lk 16:18]

Jesus did give one exception – in Matthew 5:32 & 19:9 he said he was not speaking of a situation described by the Greek word porneia. We do not have a sufficiently clear understanding of the words for particular kinds of sexual sin in the Greek language, to be sure what he meant. The traditional interpretation of the Catholic Church has always been that this was meant to exclude relationships which Jewish law said were forbidden and therefore not valid marriages in the first place. [Note that John the Baptist was imprisoned primarily for criticising a ruler for entering a forbidden marriage: Mk 6:18.] Other Christian churches interpret this passage differently, but they are trying to understand the meaning of the Greek term from a standpoint hundreds of years later.

AVOID LUST – PRACTICE PURITY OF HEART

We understand the Lord’s teaching better when we notice that he not only condemned adultery, but challenged his followers to a life practicing purity of heart.

In Matthew’s Gospel: “I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell.”

In Mark, Jesus combines this with warnings about sinning with the hand or the foot – one possible interpretation is: when you are aware of sexual temptation, don’t look, don’t touch, and don’t even go there.

In Luke, Jesus tells us that our eyes allow light or darkness into our very being, implying that a lustful look can corrupt the core of who we are.

We can draw many conclusions from these teachings. Clearly Jesus would not approve of pornography – we are not meant to use sexual images for personal gratification. Neither should we entertain the merest possibility of pursuing an adulterous relationship. We might notice that a particular human being is attractive. We can, in such a case, give thanks to God for the beauty of a particular example of his creation! But when we choose to pursue what we have noticed, then we have engaged our will in pursuing that which is forbidden to us.

The Church does not oppose the use of nudity in fine art, but the question we must ask of any sexually explicit image is this: is its main purpose to stir up feelings of sexual arousal or gratification in the viewer? If it is, then the image should not have been made, and certainly should not be viewed.

[Mt 5:27-30, 15:19; Mk 9:43-48, 7:21; Lk 11:33-36]

CELIBACY

It was expected, in the culture where Jesus lived and taught, that a Jewish man would get married, and remain married to one wife. Unusually – and especially so for a Jewish teacher – Jesus himself was not married. He taught his disciples that some of them would experience a call to remain unmarried and this would be a sign that there was something more important than being married in this earthly life – total and radical commitment to God. “Not everyone can accept this,” he said – it was a special call, a vocation, for those who could.

St Paul, responding to a request for advice from Christians in Corinth, wrote that he felt it was “better” for a person to remain unmarried, so they could give their maximum attention to the Lord (that is, to prayer and the practical work of the Church), but that a person should marry rather than burn with unfulfilled sexual desire.

[Mt 19:10-12; I Cor 7:1-40]

Once the Catholic Church was legalised in the fourth century, it became possible for communities of men and of women to live publicly as celibate communities of Christians – the first monks and nuns. Later, other forms of religious life grew up – from the thirteenth century, friars – communities of men who travelled from place to place doing the work of the church, and at the end of the seventeenth century, apostolic sisters: religious women who worked outside the protection of a cloister. It is part of the very nature of these religious orders that full membership requires celibacy in order not to be divided between married duties and the work of the order, although many orders have a mechanism for lay people, who may be married, to be affiliated as “oblate”, “third order” or “secular” members. It is also possible for women, but not men, to make a direct vow of celibacy into the hands of a bishop and join the “Order of Consecrated Virgins”. Such a woman becomes an icon of the church as bride of Christ, devoted to him alone.

Celibacy is not an essential requirement for ordination as a deacon or priest, though only celibates can be appointed bishop. Married men may be ordained deacon, but by virtue of their ordination they become living icons of Christ, the servant of the Church. Should his wife die, a deacon is not free to remarry for this would be a counter-sign: he would be taking time and energy now available to the Christian community and pledging it exclusively to a particular relationship. In rare cases, the church will grant an exemption for a deacon to re-marry when he finds himself the sole carer for a child or an elderly relative.

The story of how priests in the West became required to be celibate is complex and combines theological and practical motives. When a priest was married with a family, there were difficult questions about the inheritance of property and how easily a bishop could re-assign him to different duties. Local rules permitted or forbade priests to be married in different parts of Europe. Only in 1139 was the requirement for priests to be made celibate made a universal rule of the church. In subsequent centuries, breakaway churches in the Middle East, India, Eastern Europe and North Africa returned to union with the Pope, and they were allowed to keep their custom of ordaining married priests: being in union with the Bishop of Rome was clearly more important than insisting on clergy being celibate. We see the same process at work today in setting up an Ordinariate – a structure in which former Anglicans can accept the headship of the Pope yet keep using their familiar prayer books and have married men as priests.

The rule at the moment in our country and throughout the Western world is that only celibate men can be trained and ordained as Catholic priests. The reasons are still theological and practical. Theologically, every celibate priest is a sign that the Lord, the Lord’s work, and the Lord’s people are SO important that he is willing to devote his whole life-energy to this cause. Practically, the church does not have the resources to pay men the just wage that a father of children requires to support his family.

MARRIAGE AS A SACRAMENT

Not only is celibacy a sign – marriage is also a sign. Jesus used many parables where he spoke of himself as a Bridegroom, and the New Testament letters say that the relationship between Jesus and the Church is mirrored by that between a husband and wife.

When two Christians are married, the marriage is a sacrament. The couple should be mindful that through the way they love one another, they will teach their children and their friends something about the faithful, self-sacrificing love which Jesus taught us in his words and actions. Because Jesus will never abandon his Church, a Christian couple can never divorce – that would be a counter-sign. But it requires a very mature Christian faith for a couple to consciously embrace the message that their marriage is also an ongoing act of Christian witness. When two Christians marry, as followers of Jesus they are expected to understand that marriage is a lifelong commitment “for better, for worse”, and they are pledging to be loyal to one another whatsoever happens – including disability, betrayal, or abandonment.

When a Christian marries someone who is not baptised, the church says the relationship is not a “sacramental bond” but a “natural bond”. Building on special rules given to the Christians in Corinth by St Paul, the church says that a “natural bond” can be set aside when the relationship has broken down, and one of the partners wants to enter a new marriage which will help themself, or their new partner, practice the Christian faith. This special permission is called a Pauline or Petrine privilege, depending on the exact circumstances.

In Wales, we often find the situation where a Catholic has been married to a person who was technically an Anglican, because they were christened as a baby, even though that person never practiced any faith as an adult. The sacramental bond exists whenever two baptised persons have made marriage vows to each other, so sadly, an unbreakable bond exists in these cases and the Pauline or Petrine privilege does not apply.

[I Cor 7:12-15; Eph 5:21-33]

There is one further consequence of marriage being a sign: any man and any woman, together, represent a symbol of fertility and the possibility of begetting new life. This means that the union of a man and woman, who for reasons of age or disability cannot conceive a child, nevertheless remains a symbolic union pointing to new life. For this reason, the Catholic Church can and does marry couples unable to conceive, with an option to omit prayers for fruitfulness. A civil partnership between two people of the same sex cannot symbolise natural fruitfulness in this way.

ONLY UNTIL DEATH

What if a woman has married more than once? Whose wife will this lady be at the Resurrection? Opponents of Jesus tried to catch him out, but Jesus taught clearly that marriage only lasts for a human lifetime. There is no marriage in heaven – for once we are in heaven, he is the bridegroom, and each one of us, collectively, we make up the Church which is his Bride. But that does not mean there will be any less love in heaven between two people who have been married on earth. It means that their friendship is no longer exclusive, so all of us who get to heaven will enjoy a depth of friendship and communion with one another which we can only dream about on earth.

The main practical consequence is that Christian marriage ends with the death of one partner. The widow or widower who remains is free to enter a new marriage and there is nothing improper about doing so.

[Mt 22:23-33; Lk 20:27-40; Rom 7:1-3]

NO POLYGAMY

Jesus lived in a Jewish culture under the control of the Roman Empire. Polygamy was not part of the Roman culture, but there were notable examples of polygamy in Jewish history: Jacob having two wives and two slaves through whom he bore the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the Kings of Israel – for reasons more to do with politics than romance – having harems of many wives.

You will not find an explicit statement in the New Testament that Christians must practice monogamy, but it was the clear understanding of the early Christians that this was the case. Remember that Jesus used “two shall become one flesh” as the cornerstone of his sexual teaching, and that implies an exclusive relationship. Christian leaders were told, in the New Testament letters, that they must have been “married only once” – though this is ambiguous, as it could exclude remarried widowers as well as polygamists.

The 2nd Century “Letter to Diognetus” comments that Christians “share their meals but not their wives”.

[I Tim 3:2 & 12; Titus 1:6]

When Christian missionaries take the Gospel to lands where polygamy is practiced, there are great practical problems involved when a man who is already practicing polygamy wishes to become a Christian. He must live as the husband of only one wife, yet make just provision for all his family members.

[Catechism 2387]

THE GREAT COMMANDMENT

At this point, we have exhausted the teachings which Jesus gives specifically about marriage and sexual relationships in the Gospels. There are a few more specific points in the New Testament letters and in the Old Testament which we will pick up shortly. But there is one more thing from the Lord we cannot ignore: the Great Commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourself. The word Jesus uses is agapé, which means the kind of love which chooses the other person’s well-being – a radically unselfish love. This applies to relationships in general, but it applies especially to relationships with friends, with family members, and most crucially, with one’s spouse.

[Mt 22:35–40; Mk 12:28–34; Lk 10:25–28.]

Before he became Pope, Blessed John Paul II wrote a treatise called Love and Responsibility in which he explored what the commandment of unselfish love might mean in the context of sexual relationships. While both men and women are vulnerable to the same kinds of temptation, he concluded that the most likely trap for a man to fall into, is that of using a woman’s body as a means for his own sexual gratification.

The most common trap for a woman was likely to be that of building up such an idealised picture of a man she loved, that the real man would never live up to the ideal. Tensions would develop in any relationship not grounded in the reality of the man’s human limitations and weaknesses. The selfishness here is the woman’s temptation to focus on “what I want” instead of “what I’ve got”.

Because the basis of John Paul’s teaching is a simple principle, “unselfishness”,  it is accessible to secular debates with groups who do not recognise the authority of the Bible.

MODESTY

It is difficult to discuss modest dress without being drawn into the kind of debates often heard in secular media. One side of the argument suggests that if a woman dresses provocatively, she is “asking for” sexual attention; the other insists that men must take responsibility for their own actions and there must be zero tolerance of harassment of women. A third element might be the position that enforced Islamic dress for women represents state-sanctioned oppression in male-dominated cultures. Conclusion: because in the West we value individual freedom and require consent for intimate acts, a woman is free to dress as she pleases, and her choice of dress can never justify unwanted male behaviour.

The Church engages with the issue at a higher moral level. The starting point is certainly that each individual person should be free to choose how they dress. But, asks the Church, what should influence the person in deciding how to exercise that free choice? Once again, we are reminded of the command to agapé love. The person dressing (be they male or female) should be mindful of how their appearance will affect other people. Among those “other people” are both Christians, and other men and women of goodwill, who are choosing to fight an inner battle for purity of mind. We recall that restraining lustful thoughts was an important commandment of Jesus; and such thoughts arise unbidden at the sight of an attractive human body. One’s choice of wardrobe should therefore be a compromise between the desire to display one’s own beauty and a selfless decision not to provoke too much temptation in any onlooker battling for purity of mind.

If you should visit the churches of Rome, or certain other major Christian shrines, you will find that they they have a strict dress code. Visitors to God’s houses are expected to abide by God’s standards.

[I Pt 3:1-7]

SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE

What does the Bible say about sex between two people, neither of whom are married? In this case, these is no adultery, no breaking of promises. The Gospel says nothing directly, but we note that two have become “one flesh” without promising to establish a permanent relationship. This creates a spiritual and emotional bond in a context where the couple has not yet agreed to maintain it.

Here we turn to St Paul, who uses strong language to tell the Corinthians that the human body is not meant for sexual immorality; it is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Your body, you know, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you since you received him from God. You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for. That is why you should use your body for the glory of God.

The word used by St Paul to refer to “sexual immorality” is a Greek word closely related to “porneia“. Bible scholars disagree over its exact meaning – does it encompass all forms of pre-marital sex? It is clearly a different word from that used to refer to adultery, and is subtly different from the word for prostitution, but nothing further can be stated with certainty.

[I Cor 6:12-20]

There are good practical reasons for avoiding pre-marital sex. The more often a person establishes a new sexual bond, the weaker that bond becomes – the same mechanism that allows us to become addicted to various physical pleasures also allows us to become “addicted” to a partner, and like other addictions, the body builds up a tolerance level which makes later experiences less powerful. Also, for women in particular, a deep psychological wound can be created by having multiple relationships of depth without permanence.

For any couple who are not physiologically infertile, sex, even when protection is used, always carries a risk of conceiving a child. If contraception is used, it is often not properly employed; and even when the instructions are followed perfectly, it can fail. The probability of conceiving a child may be very low, but in those few cases where a child is conceived, an act of huge moral significance takes place. If the couple have not made an explicit commitment to form a family unit within which any child will be welcomed – and when this is done publicly, we call it marriage – then the conception of a child becomes a crisis. What is to be done? Adoption? Abortion? A shotgun marriage? Abandonment by the father, leaving mother to bring up the child? For the Catholic Church, every child is so precious that the potential parents of a child should never allow themselves to be in that position in the first place.

If a couple have been faithful enough to abstain until marriage, and once married they discover that they cannot consummate the marriage, the Church can grant a dissolution of marriage. The permanent sacramental bond made by the vows in church is not sealed until the couple’s first marital intercourse.

DATING AND COURTSHIP

There is very little specific advice in the Bible or in official Catholic teaching about dating or courtship. A man and a woman sharing a social event should be clear about whether their encounter is a simple meeting of friends, or a relationship exploring the possibility of romance. All that we have already said about selflessness in relationships also applies to dating or courtship. A romantic relationship should only be pursued with someone who is eligible to become your spouse (i.e. not already married, not closely related to you, sufficiently mature).

Expressing affection is a natural and appropriate part of a dating relationship; prior to marriage, the partners should seek to express their feelings for one another but not deliberately stir up sexual arousal. This requires honesty between the partners as they learn the limits of how they can express affection without going too far; it also builds an excellent foundation for life together where they will need to continue to communicate their love for one another in many ways in addition to intimacy in the bed-chamber. There is no simple answer to the question “how far can we go” but one part of the answer is clear: not as far as the underwear!

There is one further factor which a Christian should consider when dating: how are you going to live out your faith in your future married relationship? The Greatest Commandment is to love God with all your heart – so love for God is supposed to rank higher than love for your marital partner. If you share the same religious outlook, all well and good, but if not, there will be tensions in future between faithfulness to God and to your spouse.

When two Catholics marry, they can establish a truly Catholic family. Significant occasions can be celebrated by attending Mass (or even having a house Mass), or requesting an appropriate blessing. There is a shared language of family prayer, a rhythm of holy days and name-days based on patron saints. God can be honoured in the rhythm of family life. Much, other than the centrality of Mass, can still be achieved when two committed Christians of different traditions wed to form an inter-church family. But if one partner is not a Christian at all, then there will be a spiritual loneliness for the Catholic spouse who must spend the early years of the relationship praying alone, and then must educate children in the faith without the witness of the other parent practicing. Not for nothing did St Paul warn against being “unequally yoked” with a non-believer; and for the same reason, before a Catholic can wed a non-baptised person, a special license is required from the local Bishop’s office. In Wales, these are normally granted as a routine matter, but the procedure does create a moment to challenge the Catholic spouse about the difficulty of being faithful to God in such cases.

[II Cor 6:14]

PROSTITUTION

St Paul clearly shows disdain for prostitution in his writings – “How can you take Christ’s body and join it to a prostitute?” In his world, prostitution had pagan religious significance and so the sexual sin was compounded by being an act of pagan worship. Today we might be more concerned about prostitution because of sexually transmitted diseases and because of the social and economic conditions which seem to trap unwilling women into such a lifestyle.

Ultimately, the serial relationships of a prostitute are not compatible with God’s original plan – that two people (only two) become one flesh as husband and wife. Yet we remember that prostitutes were among the sinners that Jesus was accused of socialising with: his mission was not to condemn them, but to raise them to a more dignified lifestyle through forgiveness of past sin.

[I Cor 6:15-20]

SEX WITHIN MARRIAGE

At last we come to the one context where the Catholic church approves of sexual intercourse – within marriage. There is a longstanding thread of thinking throughout Catholic history, which has never been adopted as official teaching, which saw sexual intercourse as rather shabby, not worthy of human beings made in God’s image, and something that should only be tolerated due to the practical necessity of sustaining the human race. Or, one step up from this, the opinion that the only good thing about sex, in God’s eyes, is that it creates children. The name commonly associated with this teaching is St Augustine, who ranks as a great teacher of the faith, but – since he was not a Pope – not someone who defines Catholic teaching in a way binding on later generations.

Twentieth century popes, beginning with Pius XI, were quite prepared to teach that, quite apart from the begetting of a child, expressing mutual love was a good enough reason for a couple to have sexual intercourse. To this John Paul II added his concern that it must be done unselfishly. Marital intercourse was meant to be not so much a way of saying “I love you” as “You are loved by me!” Each partner should seek not their own pleasure, but their spouse’s.

Mutual consent is expected. It is possible for sexual intercourse between two spouses to be rape, if one withholds consent. But St Paul also says “don’t deprive each other”. If withholding sexual consent becomes a common way of exercising power in a marriage, something is wrong which needs to be talked about.

What kind of sexual acts are legitimate for a married couple? The Church doesn’t get into specifics but offers a general principle: anything which is designed to prepare a couple for an act of sexual intercourse “open to life” is OK – even if in a particular case things go awry, by reason of an external interruption beyond the couple’s control, or a misjudgement of timing. There is no reason reason for the couple to feel guilty, as long as they were not deliberately trying to avoid full intercourse. But anything meant to substitute for full intercourse misses the mark, and anything which feels undignified probably is.

At risk of stating the obvious: Sex produces babies. That’s what it’s for! At a biological level, sex exists in order to allow species to reproduce, and to maintain genetic diversity. At a theological level, sex exists to allow a couple to become “one flesh” both in their relationship, and in the begetting of children who are made from both parents. In the ancient world it was believed that the child was entirely contained in the father’s seed, but somehow shaped by the mother’s womb. Now we know that 50% of the core genetic code is contributed by each parent, with additional influence from the mother due to mitochondrial DNA and to epigenetic factors in the womb.

There is no 100% effective method whereby a fertile couple can have sexual intercourse with the guarantee that no baby will be produced. Therefore, a married couple must always be willing to accept the gift of a child if one should result from their marital intercourse. And the expectation of children is an essential aspect of marriage – if a fertile couple presented themselves to a Catholic cleric and said “We want to get married, but we’ve decided never to have children,” that cleric could not authorise a wedding. Openness to children is an essential part of marriage; and even for a couple infertile by reason of age or disability, there is always the theoretical possibility of God working a miracle… for the Bible presents us with the remarkable stories of the aged pregnancies of Sarah and Elizabeth!

[I Cor 7:1-7]

CONTRACEPTION

In the 1960s, Pope Paul VI found that the Catholic Church had to address questions about new methods of contraception. The Pill had been invented, and in the climate of the 1960s there was a new willingness in society at large to discuss traditional ‘barrier’ methods of preventing pregnancy. The Pope commissioned a group of scholars to produce a report, but received a split verdict. A majority of the members felt that it was not a problem for a married couple to use chemical or barrier methods of contraception, as long as they were open to conceiving children at some point in their married relationship. A minority were concerned that it was sinful to obstruct any act of sexual intercourse.

The root question was the morality of impeding the fertility of a particular act of sexual intercourse. Was it acceptable to God for a couple to do this? Paul VI ruled that because part of the God-given purpose of sex was to beget children, any active rejection of this was a rejection of God’s plan, and therefore an act of rebellion against God – a sin. The following year he published Humanae Vitae, which spelled this out, while acknowledging that it was right and proper for a couple to limit the number of children they bore by recourse to abstinence. Critics expressed concern that the argument presented was simplistic: “This is the way the world works, so we shouldn’t interfere with it.” Such logic, on its own, would seem to prevent human beings using any kind of technology to make the world a better place.

The future Pope John Paul II, then Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków, was one of the scholars involved in the commission and the drafting of the encyclical, but did not have final editorial control. In his writings before and after becoming Pope, he offered a different way of understanding why committed Catholic Christians should not use contraception.

  • To use contraception is fundamentally selfish: often it is motivated by a desire for one’s own pleasure rather than one’s partner’s; and even when this is not the case, it is selfish towards the child which might otherwise have been conceived as the fruit of the act. This falls short of the agapé love which is required of the followers of Christ.
  • Sacraments are always symbols which enact what they symbolise: baptism cleanses sin by washing with water, confirmation imparts the Holy Spirit by anointing with oil, etc.. As the climax of the sacrament of marriage, sexual intercourse has a symbolic meaning which represents the total gift of one person to another, and the willingness to become one flesh. To actively prevent conception is an act which says “we do not want to become one flesh today” and therefore desecrates the sacrament of marriage. The sign and the action are opposed to each other, and this is unworthy of Christians.

The points above barely do justice to the complex thought of John Paul II which have been explored at much greater length under the title Theology of the Body.

NATURAL FERTILITY MANAGEMENT

Although Paul VI rejected chemical and barrier methods of contraception, Humanae Vitae accepted the principle that couples should space out the births of their children and limit the size of their family according to their particular circumstances. The encyclical endorsed one method as morally acceptable: periodic abstinence from sexual relations based on awareness of the wife’s menstrual cycle. Early methods of applying this were referred to as ‘calendar counting’ or the ‘rhythm method’; critics disparagingly called it ‘Vatican roulette’. Nowadays a more sophisticated approach is offered: through awareness of her temperature, the stickiness of her cervical mucus, and her hormone levels, a couple can get a very good indication of when the wife’s body is in a fertile or infertile phase. When the method is used properly, NHS statistics show that the rate of unexpected pregnancies is comparable to that of other methods.

Traditionally, this approach has been called NFP, or Natural Family Planning, and there are various local resources to help couples to learn it. The Catholic Bishops of Australia prefer to refer to it as Natural Fertility Management and this title is significant: NFP can help couples improve their chances of conceiving, when this is desired, as well as minimising the possibility when pregancy is to be avoided. The title reminds us that whenever a couple choose to have intercourse, they are embracing one another in accordance with the wife’s state of fertility: the marital act says “I totally accept you with the gift of your fertility” or “I totally accept you in the temporary condition of your infertility” according to timing. There is never an act of blocking fertility in NFP – in the infertile period, there is nothing present to be blocked. Practicing NFP requires self-restraint on the part of both spouses, but as we have seen, selflessness and self-restraint are Christian virtues to be fostered in all relationships.

It is also noteworthy that breastfeeding tends to prevent a mother’s fertility cycle becoming active again in the early months after childbirth, so breastfeeding mothers also have the possibility of using the Lactational Amenorrhea method.

WORLD POPULATION

Sooner or later, Catholic discussions about family planning run into the question of world population. This tends to go in one of two directions: liberal Catholics concerned about social justice but uncommitted to the official teaching on contraception will use the limits on the world’s resources to say: “See! The Church has to change its teaching because without contraception, the planet is going to run out of resources to sustain us.” Faithful Catholics committed to maintain the church’s anti-contraception stance will often deny that there can be a problem of world population: “God has commanded us to be fruitful and multiply – every new child is a new creature created for eternal life and pleasing to God – why worry, when God will provide?”

As Catholics, we are called to be good stewards of the world God has entrusted to us. We cannot ignore the very real limitations on our planet’s ability to feed its population, and to generate energy for the technological lifestyle which most of humanity enjoys or aspires to. We have not yet arrived at the catastrophic limit of resources that has been feared ever since Malthus pointed out the possibility in 1798. Nevertheless, we know that it is not feasible to bring up the whole of the developing world to the living standard enjoyed by the Western world. A Catholic couple could legitimately reach a decision that they should limit their family to two children or even only one child as their contribution to the common good of humanity.

At the same time, we do have a clear command from Scripture: “Be fruitful and multiply” – coupled with strong teaching about the nature of marriage as being open to life. Those who grew up with positive experiences in large Catholic families may wish their own children to experience the joys of having a larger number of brothers and sisters.

In 1994, John Paul II stated that “while population growth is often blamed for environmental problems, we know that the matter is more complex”. In the same letter, he warned that:

…all propaganda and misinformation directed at persuading couples that they must limit their family to one or two children should be steadfastly avoided, and couples that generously choose to have large families are to be supported.

In 1998, the Vatican noted that many developed countries are now failing to replace their own populations, and rely on immigration to replenish the labour pool, not least to care for the elderly. The Church’s concern was twofold: that this would cause instability in Western societies, and that the low birthrates were a symptom of state policies which explicitly or implicitly discouraged families from being open to the begetting of children or, worse, controlled population in more aggressive ways.

The official position of the Catholic Church, then, is that the decision on how large or small a family to raise is a matter of conscience for the individual couple, and that no state restrictions should be placed on their decision. Neither should states attempt to dissuade couples from bearing children.

As for the question of whether a couple should bear more or fewer children, it is a question of discerning between incommensurable goods. There are strong moral reasons for bearing more children, in obedience to the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. There are also legitimate concerns about the planet’s capacity to sustain such a large population which might cause a particular couple to have fewer children, in the name of social responsibility – and this is also rooted in Scripture, in the command to become stewards of the Earth. A further concern, for Western couples, is that although the planet might benefit from fewer children, the economy of their own nation might benefit from more. These are all good motives, and because they each depend on different kinds of values, they cannot be measured against each other. Ultimately, each couple must discern, through prayer, which good choice God is calling them to make.

INFERTILITY

In 1978, Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, was born in England. Since then, many new technologies to assist fertility have been developed. In 1987, the Vatican issued an instruction, Donum Vitae, giving the Church’s response to this. One statement in the document succinctly sums up the Catholic position:

[Every] child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage.

That is, all four acts (not just the last) belong within marriage. Every child has a right to know, and be raised by, its natural parents, and to be loved by them. Of course circumstances will arise, through the death of a parent, or if a child must be adopted, when this cannot be realised – but this right implies a duty on every sexually active adult to only conceive a child once in a permanent relationship which will give that child a loving family.

Most forms of infertility treatment introduce a third party. Donor eggs or sperm may be brought in; a surrogate mother may provide a womb. These violate God’s intention that two people, and only two, intentionally become “one flesh”. Further, the normal approach to in vitro fertilisation (IVF) results in the production of surplus embryos which will never be implanted in a human womb. UK law gives a measure of protection to such embryos – but not to prevent their destruction, only to require red tape around their handling. In this talk, with its focus on sexuality rather than on human life per se, I am not treating of the questions around abortion, euthanasia and embryo experimentation; suffice it to say that from a Catholic perspective, every human embryo has the dignity due to a human being from the moment of its conception through to natural death, and must be treated accordingly.

There remains the “hard case” where an infertile couple wish to use their own eggs and sperm for IVF and make a specific demand that no spare embryos should be created. Is this acceptable to the Catholic Church? No. There is still a third-party intervention whereby conception is achieved by the medical technologist rather than in the marital embrace. Once again, the church looks back to the root from which Jesus drew his teaching: “The two become one body. They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. What God has united, man must not divide.” The act of conceiving a child, bringing into being a life made in God’s own image, is a sacred act: the marital bed becomes an altar on which the sacrament of marriage is renewed. It is in the very nature of sacred things that we do not disturb or re-design them. What God has united is not only husband to wife, but the conception of a child with a loving act of marital intimacy. Human beings are not free either to seek intercourse without accepting the measure of fertility present at that moment, or to achieve fertilisation without sexual intercourse. This is a hard teaching, and a couple will only understand it if both are committed to live out God’s law regardless of personal cost.

Is medical technology powerless to help infertile couples in any moral way? No! Any technique which assists natural conception, but does not replace it, is welcome. In 2008, in the light of further technical developments, the Vatican issued Dignitas Personae stating clearly that:

…techniques aimed at removing obstacles to natural fertilization, as for example, hormonal treatments for infertility, surgery for endometriosis, unblocking of fallopian tubes or their surgical repair, are licit. All these techniques may be considered authentic treatments because, once the problem causing the infertility has been resolved, the married couple is able to engage in conjugal acts resulting in procreation, without the physician’s action directly interfering in that act itself. None of these treatments replaces the conjugal act, which alone is worthy of truly responsible procreation.

Natural Fertility Management can also help, by allowing a couple to become more aware of the wife’s bodily cycles and so maximise the chance of conceiving. Recourse to prayer is also important – the Bible offers three stories of infertile women – Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth – who receive the blessing of a child in more or less miraculous circumstances, and in Hannah’s case, she was not elderly, simply barren, until the gift of a child was granted through prayer.

Ultimately, some infertile couples will not be blessed with a child. A good spiritual director will remind a couple that a child is always a gift to be hoped for, never a right to be demanded, and that prayerful acceptance of infertility will be, for some couples, the “for worse” which they vowed to accept on their wedding day.

HOMOSEXUAL ACTS AND MASTURBATION

Both Old and New Testaments condemn intimate acts between two persons of the same sex. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are the clearest statements in the Hebrew Bible, but Old Testament sources always raise the complex question of which Jewish laws should be kept by Christians, and which were abolished by the death of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, St Paul declares that neither active nor passive partners in homosexual acts can inherit the Kingdom of God. Jesus never explicitly spoke about the subject, but the answer is clear when we remember that for him, the clear statement of God’s plan was that a man and a woman should become one flesh. John Paul II would remind us that there is a profound selfishness about sexual intercourse which is not, at least symbolically, open to new life.

There are occasions when the official teaching documents of the Catholic Church use language which is theologically precise but which backfires when it moves from the domain of theological specialists to that of the popular press. Such a débacle occurred in 2000 when the Vatican declared that Protestant groups are “not churches in the proper sense”, because in the technical sense used by theologians, a “church” is a diocese headed by a bishop who has been ordained by another bishop through an unbroken line back to the 12 apostles. A similar awkwardness is caused by the Church’s official statement that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered”. All that this means is that there is an order to nature (i.e. sex produces babies) and that homosexual acts do not conform to that order. It is not meant to be insulting, but is often read as such.

The same document uses identical language to speak of masturbation: this is also intrinsically disordered, because a body’s sexual organs are not being used for their proper purpose.

In 1986, the Vatican issued a further pastoral note to bishops on the care of homosexual persons, noting that because homosexual acts were disordered, then a consistent desire towards such acts, a homsesexual orientation, was also intrinsically disordered. Again, this is not meant to be insulting, merely a statement that what the individual desires is contrary to the biological and theological purpose of sexual intercourse.

The Catholic Church in no way desires that persons of homosexual or bisexual orientation should be discriminated against in any way as individual persons. Vatican policy states explicitly that Christians must oppose unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. No one should be turned away from the services offered by the public or private sectors because of their sexual preferences; no-one should be bullied because of their sexual preferences or indeed, because of their sexual actions.

The only restrictions which society should place on homosexual persons are those which flow directly from the fact that homosexual acts are immoral. Therefore a hotel has no legitimate reason to refuse two men a table to dine together, but might legitimately refuse a double bed. Special care needs to be taken of children of a formative age; Vatican policy is concerned that if children were adopted by same-sex couples, their development would not be shaped by a clear understanding that God’s plan for human beings is to find fulfillment in heterosexual marriage.

[I Cor 6:9, I Tim 1:10]

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE & CIVIL PARTNERSHIPS

In Britain, same-sex couples have been able to register civil partnerships since 2005. Such partnerships give the same rights over inheritance, taxation and next-of-kin issues as would be obtained by marriage. There is currently an active consultation about whether to change the law to define some or all kinds of legal same-sex partnerships as “marriage”. The principles of non-discrimination on grounds of both gender and of sexual orientation is now firmly established in UK law: against this backdrop, the whole debate is looked at in terms of “Why can’t I marry so-and-so”, and if the answer is “because they’re the wrong sex” it comes across both as homophobic and as sex discrimination.

The Catholic Church prizes marriage because it is a social arrangement which gives SECURITY AND IDENTITY to the children borne within it. It’s true that there are many same-sex couples who could form a life-partnership and offer a stable environment to a child, but they cannot offer that child a total and exclusive identity. Sooner or later, that child will learn enough about human biology to realise that part, if not all, of their genetic makeup comes from another person. The child will start to ask: Who am I? Who chose to call me into existence? Who am I related to? How alike am I to my biological parents?

Marriage should exist for the sake of the child, not the sake of the couple. Where a Catholic vision of marriage imbues society, social conventions will apply pressure to couples not to beget children until they are married, and to stay together and work through difficulties arising in the course of the marriage. This will not prevent all marital breakdown, of course, but it does weight society in favour of children growing up under the care of the two people who chose to bring them into existence, and of whose genetic stuff they are made.

At present, the Learning and Skills Act 2000 requires that pupils in England and Wales “learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”. If the legal definition of marriage were to be changed then schools would immediately be required to teach that same-sex relationships were an important (and therefore desirable) context for the raising of children.

Why should marriage be open to infertile heterosexual couples, but closed to same-sex couples who wish to adopt? Where heterosexual marriage exists, there will always be cases where a couple find themselves childless. Whatever perks the law grants to couples, as opposed to parents, will also benefit childless couples. Such perks are to be understood as side-effects of a system geared to benefit potential parents, not as rights unjustly denied to same-sex couples. It is difficult to imagine how a system could deny perks to long-term childless couples without cumbersome means-testing which might also require indelicate questions which offend human dignity.

For a succint summary of the problems with the Government’s current proposals from a Catholic perspective, I recommend this short blog article by Rev Stephen Wang.

TRANSGENDER ISSUES

Human gender identity is not always clear-cut. There are at least three distinct kinds of ambiguous gender; it is useful to recall that the vast majority of human beings either have cells with two X chromosomes (XX) and are anatomically female, or else have cells with one X and one Y chromosome (XY) and are anatomically male.

  • Chromosomal abnormality (aneuploidy): cells might be XO (only one sex chromosome), XXX, XXY, XYY or XXYY. In all cases the presence of a Y makes the anatomy somewhat male, and its absence, somewhat female.
  • Developmental abnormality (intersex conditions): although the person’s cells contain normal XX or XY chromosomes, something goes wrong during the growth of the child and the sexual organs do not develop normally. In extreme cases it is difficult to identify the child as clearly male or clearly female at birth.
  • Gender Dysphoria: although a person’s cells and anatomy clearly exhibit one gender, the person feels (psychologically) that they belong to the other gender.

UK law now allows a person to legally change their gender, and re-assigned gender is a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equalities Act; schools are required to accommodate this. Some schools are even considering giving young primary school pupils briefings about tolerance of same-sex relationships and persons undergoing a sex-change; I have advised a governor of a Catholic primary school in England about the relevant requirements of the law and the faith.

In such cases, the Catholic Church looks again to Genesis and reads that “God created human beings male and female”. Therefore, even when there is some kind of developmental abnormality, it is of a person who is male or female; the church cannot recognise the existence of an “intersex” gender which is neither. In the cases of abnormal chromosomes, the basic maleness or femaleness is usually apparent. Where a baby with ambiguous organs has been assigned to one gender, but later proves to be the opposite, then the church can simply recognise the “true” gender which was there all along. But in the case of gender dysphoria, the church would call upon the person to accept the gift of the body which God had given them and learn, albeit painfully, to accept the truth of who they are.

FINAL REMARKS

Before I conclude, I ought to acknowledge that a very small number of my colleagues have betrayed the high values of sexual purity which the Catholic Church stands for. I am ashamed of what they have done. Statistically, a celibate priest is less likely than a married man to sexually abuse children. Catholic clergy are no more likely to be sexual abusers than men in any other profession. But there is indeed a greater scandal involved when an abuser is a priest: he has violated vows of celibacy, contradicted his role as a moral leader, and failed to keep the high standards which the community rightly expects of him. The problem is not that the Church’s principles are too high, but rather, that a sinful human being has failed to keep them.

A great deal of information has been presented in this talk. The Church’s teaching is coherent, but detailed, and it may be useful to remember that:

  • A vow of permanent marriage made to God by two baptised Christians is binding for life.
  • In Catholic moral theology, a good end cannot justify use of immoral means.
  • It is more important to be free to worship God as a Christian (love of God) than to maintain a natural marriage bond with someone who opposes God (love of neighbour).
  • It is more important for clergy to be under the authority of the Pope than to be celibate; so concessions to allow married clergy are made if this is the price of helping non-Catholics become Catholic. A celibate priesthood remains the ideal.

When Jesus set out his demanding teaching against divorce, he pointed out that God’s chosen people had failed to understand what had been asked of them by God, since the beginning of humanity. In this talk, I have tried to help us attain an understanding of the wonderful, but demanding, Catholic vision of sexuality which flows from that root. I would offer three headings which summarise that vision:

  • Sacredness
  • Selflessness
  • Self-restraint

The Church celebrates sexual intercourse within marriage as the completion of a sacrament; it is holy, and the marital bed is an altar. But this comes with a price: sacred things are not to be trifled with. The dignity of the human sexual act is such that it must be carried out in purity, or not at all. We worship God by an act of profound obedience when we allow two bodies to become one flesh in accordance with God’s law, and we act as co-creators, with God, when we beget new life.

Selflessness, otherwise known as agapé love, is the greatest commandment of God concerning our human relationships with one another. The human sex drive (lust, eros) has a great capacity to cause a person’s actions to become selfish; only a strong conscious determination to maintain selflessness can keep sex pure. Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that the selfless and selfish forms of love are always present together, to some degree, in this earthly life.

Self-restraint is the watchword of all human relationships. Within marriage, restraint is needed to avoid marital rape. A special kind of restraint is needed when using natural fertility management to avoid becoming pregnant. Another kind of restraint is needed when married couples are tempted to adultery. Restraint is needed when a particular friendship might otherwise become an inappropriate romance. The theme of self-restraint has occurred time and again in our treatment of relationships, and this is hardly surprising, for it also has an old-fashioned name: chastity. The full meaning of chastity is: “not seeking more intimacy than is appropriate for this relationship at this time”. All Christians are required to be chaste, and the “vow of chastity” made by members of religious orders is strictly a vow of celibate chastity.

Every human being is precious, valuable, and deserves to be loved. Every person has the right to know their identity – and as an integral part of this, the identity of the two people of whose cells they are made. Sometimes human tragedy prevents this taking place, but we should not employ social engineering to deliberately create alternatives.

You, dear reader, are made in God’s image and are precious to him. If you have ever committed sexual sin, God wishes to offer you spiritual cleansing in return for sincere repentance. Your body is on loan to you, from God, for one human lifetime. Your only true spiritual fulfilment will come when you embrace the path God has set before you, of willful or circumstantial celibacy, or of intimacy with a partner of the opposite sex within marriage. May God bless you on the journey.