Question: Whether it is contraceptives, abortions, divorce, re-marriage, same-sex relationships, etc., the Catholic Church, and religions generally, seem obsessed about sex, and seek to exert control over believers in the most intimate of human relationships. My question is simple: why is the Church so obsessed about sex?
Frank answers: Your question is timely because the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops opens in Rome October 4. At the invitation of Pope Francis it will bring together cardinals and bishops, lay and religious advisers, and consultors from around the world to discuss pressing issues surrounding family life, which will include issues of human sexuality. This is a hot topic in the Churches, so what the pope and a synod of Catholic bishops say is of interest to the rest of us.
But your simple question is not so simple to answer. I think the answer lies in the potent combination of the mystery of human sexuality, the nature of being human, and the way we have constructed societies historically. Only after we’ve looked at these issues can we discuss the religious investment in human sexuality.
Long before Christianity, before Judaism, even before the Old Testament was written, humanity was already “obsessed with sex.” I think that’s because the sex act is needed for procreation, and procreation is needed for the survival of the human race. Sexual desires are among the strongest urges we experience (called libido). From puberty on, as our bodies become “sexually mature,” the drive to copulate hits us all. The extra bonus is that it is also pleasurable. Our bodies have developed in such a way that the sex act also gives us a good feeling. Moreover, our brains create emotional bonds between couples engaging in sex, making the possible outcome of child-rearing more likely to be shared between two people. That’s also good for the children. Biologically, human beings have been successful as a species because we can give birth not just once or twice a year, but any time of the year. Males have sperm from puberty through old age and females have twelve different times during the year during which to become pregnant. And since the sex act is pleasurable, we seek it out at all times.
Once we move past the basics of biology, past the reasons for humanity’s sexual successes, human society comes into play. Sex is more than an intimate relationship between a man and a woman. It has social consequences. As self-aware and sentient beings, we are able to plan for and create our own futures. We are social animals and as we build our communities we need to be able to get along with one another. This applies especially to a man and a woman practicing coitus with the possibility of begetting offspring and being partners in the raising of children.
Anthropologists believe that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups of hunters/gatherers that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Once human beings started growing what they ate in one place rather than chasing after it, family life and stability became more important. Families were needed to work together in farming. Men looked for a mate who could be a helper in cultivating the land and producing offspring who could carry on the family business.
But at some point sin entered the picture and our relationships were and are not what they ought to be. Theology refers to this as “the fall.” Relations between men and women are strained. But if things get too far out of hand, we can mess up our futures and undermine the stability of our societies.
At some point in human history, it was realized that a good way to control people’s untoward behavior was through rules, and if the rules of a society were aimed at our deepest needs and desires, then the rules would be much more successful. You can see this in the Ten Commandments, which deal with our relationships to with God, our spouses, our families, and our neighbors.
Since society depends on sex for procreation and family depends on a relationship between a man and a woman, many rules developed to govern the simple act of copulation. I couldn’t even begin to list all the ways in which societies have governed sex acts. But some of the most common concern containing coitus within marriage, not having sex with immediate family members (incest), not having sex with minors (age of consent), and not forcing someone to have sex (rape).
Religion has played a big role in this because the deepest human mysteries—love, sex, and death—are regarded as being bound up with divinity. Mythologies down through the ages and across different societies speak to the divine-human relationships in these mysteries. The clergy caste—shamans, seers, priests, prophets, etc—became the ones who sanctified and therefore regulated sexual activity. We who live within the modern Western world in the wake of the sexual revolution might be inclined to think that they regulated it more for ill than for good. And since Western society has been formed by Christianity, which the secularized West seems to be trying to be rid of as quickly as possible, the “bad” aspects of religion are laid on Christianity, especially the Catholic Church.
But over against this we ought to consider that while marriages have been and continue to be arranged by parents in most societies in the world, Christian societies have promoted a consensual relationship between would-be husbands and wives, although this often created a tug-of-war between the Church and families. The Church has often served as a peacemaker and sought to bring reconciliation between warring families to preserve peace in civil society (as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ).
In the narrative we have come to accept, patriarchy, bolstered by the priestly caste, became the cultural norm, catering to the wants and needs of men first, with women being a secondary consideration. In fact, in the Old Testament women were seen as commodities (property) and this governed many laws regulating sex. At its best the Christian marital relationship reflected the mutuality St. Paul encouraged in his Letter to the Ephesians, in which he compared the relationship of husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church (which he called a “great mystery” or sacrament). Hence, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the savior…. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. For he who loves his wife loves himself.” In sum, “each of you should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:22-33).
However, even in Christianity with its love ethic, women were regarded as the weaker sex who depended on the men for protection (the ethic of chivalry). On the other hand, men still had to watch out for the feminine wiles. Didn’t Eve succumb to the serpent’s seductions and eat the forbidden fruit, and then persuade Adam to have some too?
This mythological story at the beginning of the Bible serves to explain why sexual relationships have become so difficult, and why societies have felt that sex has to be controlled. According to this primordial story, sex is tied in with sin. Didn’t Adam and Eve make aprons of fig leaves to cover their loins after they ate the forbidden fruit and realized that they were both naked? In other words, they covered their sex organs. Uncovered genitals didn’t seem to be an issue before they disobeyed God’s word. Sin became associated with sex. So any sexual act apart from the creation of children was regarded as sinful and shameful. Jesus accepted the divine institution of marriage “in the beginning” and also extolled celibacy for the kingdom of God as a high calling. But St. Paul admitted that it’s better to marry than to burn with uncontrolled passion.
This created a tension between celibacy and marriage. The ancient church regarded celibacy as a higher vocation than marriage and virginity a higher spirituality than parenting. Augustine of Hippo, who exerted a great influence on Western Christian theology and sexual ethics, discerned that while procreation through coitus is naturally required, desire (libido or concupiscence) isn’t. The fact that desire leads to and accompanies the sex act is the mark of our fallen nature. Desire isn’t even something we can control; it wells up within us involuntarily as we engage in the sex act.
But desire isn’t an outward act; it’s an inner disposition. Medieval catechisms taught that the true purpose of the sex act is procreation within marriage, and desire that accompanies it has to be accepted. The use of desire to promote procreation can even be a good thing. But desire expressed and acted upon apart from this purpose is a venial sin and needed to be confessed. This served to make juridical an inner disposition. The confessional examined “the inward thoughts of the heart.”
The Protestant reformers reacted to this whole development and privileged marriage and family (for which sex is a good and necessary thing) over virginity and religious vows of celibacy. The Catholic Church since the Reformation has also promoted marriage and (large) families. But the ban on contraceptives in the Catholic Church, as reinforced in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humana vitae (1968), has really been a fire wall against the separation of sex from procreation that birth control technology made possible.
People have not considered all the ramifications of the revolution in sexual relationships that birth control actually unleashed. If sex could be separated from procreation (and the “risk” of pregnancy mitigated by taking the birth control pill), sex outside of and especially before marriage became more of an option. This in turn encouraged cohabitation, and then having children without getting married—an arrangement one of the unwed partners (usually the male) could more easily walk away from than a marital spouse. In our hook-up culture sex becomes a form of recreation rather than an expression of deep connection between men and women.
Positively, we affirm today that sex is not only completely natural, but also that it provides the benefits of physical and mental health. Christian doctrine has also always affirmed that God’s creation is good and that human sexuality is good. The “fall into sin” does not mar that basic affirmation. The sex act itself cannot be considered sinful and the shame associated with some sexual activities in the past, even between husband and wife, needs to be reconsidered. Even some Catholic moral theologians have considered that oral or anal sex can be accepted in marriage as foreplay. But the sex act, in the Catholic view, must still be aimed at procreation. Also, sex should be a pleasurable act for both partners.
That said, we need to recognize that the modern sexual revolution that would separate sex from procreation and liberate human sexuality from all previous moral restraints flies in the face of the collective wisdom of human social history. Unrestrained sexual expressions and any-which-way relationships are finally not good for our common life. Ironically, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a conservative recognition of the need for restraints and mutual commitments.
Some Protestant churches have become more welcoming of gays and lesbians, including a willingness to officiate at same-sex marriages. We have come to realize that we don’t have definitive answers as to why some men and women are sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. Is it biologically rooted or caused by life experiences? Is there any sexuality that is not based in both biological inheritance and social/cultural expectations? Gay people uniformly report that they did not choose to be homosexual. They came to recognize that this is who they are. They are attracted to persons of the same sex. Psychiatry has determined that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. It remains a part of the mystery of sexuality. Religion, culture, social mores, and politics have striven to suppress it. But even if people who are gay or lesbian remain “in the closet” or try to suppress their desires, they realize down deep their own sexual orientation. We should note that terms like “sexual orientation” or even “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” come out of modern social science and were not concepts known in earlier times.
The acceptance of homosexuality also expands our understanding of the purpose of sex. It has been and continues to be about procreation. But it is also about establishing an intimate bond between two people and the means by which they express love for each other. Certainly this is a way in which heterosexual couples have approached love and sex. Homosexuals may also have something to teach opposite-sex couples about attraction to another, a desire to touch the other and become sexually aroused, and come to orgasm through mutual stimulation just for the pleasure of it and not only for procreation.
Biogenetics has also theorized that orgasm has a healing function quite independent of reproduction. The surge of energy through the body during orgasm can break physiological and psychological blockages and enable a vital flow of blood and love. Orgasm is about more than ejaculation; it maintains the health of the mind-body system. Men especially need to learn the value of foreplay and not rush to the finish line, which would also help women to have a better orgasm. Tantra couples workshops and Chinese (Taoist) practices of semen retention could provide instruction for men in “edging,” going to the edge of ejaculation but then backing off until the woman is ready to climax. To be able to climax together is a profoundly erotic and mystical experience.
We need to affirm some fundamental norms, such as the biological givenness of the human body and the complimentarity of male and female for procreation. We also need to make space for those whose sexual orientations and gender identities don’t fit these norms, as many societies and culture have historically done. Western societies are increasingly allowing this space precisely because sex is a deeper mystery than we can completely understand.
But there are some realities for which we have data. Children whose parents biologically produced them and who sealed their relationship with the public commitment of marriage have a better chance at life, especially at getting out of poverty, than those who lack this loving support. Pope Francis is not wrong to bring together two of his biggest concerns: addressing the needs of the poor and stabilizing families.
The role of religion is not to regulate sex, as it once did (and still does in much of the rest of the world — and not only in Christianity!), but to affirm basic sexual norms while making space for those whose orientations are exceptions to the rule. About the latter Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?” But about the former he said on his visit to Cuba, “Without family, without the warmth of home, life grows empty, there is a weakening of the networks which sustain us in adversity, nurture us in daily living and motivate us to build a better future.” Despite the “many difficulties that afflict our families, families are not a problem, they are first and foremost an opportunity. An opportunity which we must care for, protect and support.”
Yet we are experiencing new family arrangements that pick up the pieces when the traditional biological families break down. Among these are gay married couples providing foster care and adopting children whose parents are not able to care for them, for example, due to drug addictions. They are demonstrating that they are capable to raising children. But gay men can also father biological children through a donated egg and borrowed womb. In the example below, even though fraternal twins were born only one of the fathers is the biological one (1 sperm cell + 1 fertilized egg).
The pope’s title “Pontifex maximus” comes from the pagan Roman high priest. It means “greatest bridge builder.” The pope has said that the Church must be a bridge, not a roadblock, for the faithful. In the give-and-take of the dialogue that will take place in the Synod on the Family and beyond, we hope that the result will be more than just tinkering with canon law, that it will address fundamental moral and ethical issues from which we can all profit. We should not expect any fundamental change in the Church’s teachings on human sexuality, marriage and family. These teachings serve to protect and promote the fundamental norms of human sexuality that we see in human biology, social structures, and the biblical revelation of the Creator’s intention for human sexuality and the family. But we are also aware that human sexuality transcends biology, social structures, and cultural habits. It is a mystery that reflects the mystery of God. Holiness can be discovered in the flesh, not apart from it, for “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We will therefore apprehend God’s grace and truth for humanity in the flesh.
Pastor Frank Senn