Dirty Sex, Accidental Heretics, and the Cult of Purity

“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people”  (Psalm 22:6).

In the Catholic Patheos community, we’re having a continuing conversation on the nature of healthy vs. unhealthy perspectives on sex ed.  Calah Alexander offers a terrific post contradicting the false notion that sex outside of marriage makes one “dirty.”   She writes,

“Contemporary American culture, a culture that has so influenced other first-world cultures, is profoundly shaped by the heavily Calvinist-influenced Puritanism at its roots. Sex is dirty, according to common Puritan tradition, a dirty (but lamentably necessary) function of a dirty and depraved body. In Calvinist theology, the whole body is dirty, corrupt, depraved, and sin can never be removed. Forgiveness only means that Christ moves to stand between us and God, so that we look clean, although we never really will be. Snow covered dung-hills, that’s what we are. So sexual sins just make us even dirtier, even filthier, even more irreversibly ruined. This is the antithesis of Catholic teaching; even so, the mentality has shaped and molded our culture, which has shaped and molded us, to the point that professed Catholics will say, “Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have engaged in premarital sex (which is dirty and sinful)?”


Calah is absolutely correct and her comments cut to the heart of why Catholics need to avoid the unfortunate language that personal sin, in general, and sexual sin in particular “makes” us dirty.   I can hear the objections, and I appreciate the intention behind such comments, but the spiritual and psychological problems of this approach  significantly outweigh the hoped-for benefits.

The Accidental Heretic

One thing I have not read, so far, in the wider conversation on this issue, is that the idea that “we must keep ourselves pure” is actually not a Christian notion at all but quasi-Pelagian.   Essentially, Pelagius taught that Original Sin did not affect all of mankind and that man could save himself through his good works.  Pelagius lived a life of harsh asceticism in an effort to protect his purity.  His efforts were rewarded by his being denounced as a heretic.  Why?  Because our purity, our justification, is rooted in Christ’s saving work, not in our actions.  It’s true that sin separates us from God’s love and it is likewise true that that separation can make us feel dirty.  But because of Christ’s incarnation and his subsequent passion, death and resurrection we are not dirty, we are divinized.    Through God’s saving work, we are made, “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Ptr 1:4).    As Calah observed, Puritanism and Calvinism lack the courage to stand upon the promises of Scripture that proclaim us to be new creations and not merely piles of snow covered dung.  As 2 Cor 5:17 tells us, “So, whoever is in Christ is a new creation:  the old things have passed away.  Behold!  All things are made new!”

Purity:  You Can’t Lose What Isn’t Yours

What does all this have to do with sex?  The short version is that sin, in general, and sexual sin, in particular, cannot take away our purity because we cannot give away what does not belong to us in the first place.  As the psalm that began this reflection points out, on our own, we are nothing.  Without God, we are nothing.  But with God, we are everything.  Our purity is not dependent upon our actions.  Nothing we could do or not do could make us pure.  “Lord I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof…”   Rather, our purity is received as a free and unmerited gift from God, “…but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Purity: An Unmerited Gift

Personal sin does not make me more impure than  I already am in my fallen state.  Committing sin simply impedes my ongoing process of purification.  It delays my healing. Without God, I cannot be pure.  With God, my basic purity cannot be lost.  If I sin my full purification (i.e., “theosis”  or “deification”) can be delayed, but my essential purity–which rests in the saving work of Jesus Christ and has already divinized all humankind, believers and unbelievers alike–cannot be denied by anything I could ever do or have done to me.

Fear Leads to Perfect Love?

The whole negative emphasis many abstinence education programs take is, in my mind, completely wrongheaded.  They want to say that it is important to avoid sex before marriage because if you don’t you will be dirty, you will get diseases, you may die.  This entirely misses the point.  Scripture tells us that perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn 4:8).  Sex ought to be about a celebration of a more perfect love.  It makes no sense to me to encourage people’s pursuit of a more perfect love by attempting to terrify them.

The Christian View of Sex:  A Positive Option

I think that we need to send a much more positive message.  I think the message needs to be that God has made each and every one of us to be so beautiful, so precious, so special, that we deserve the best, and sex in marriage is what’s best.  Sex outside marriage can feel good (and sometimes very bad), but regardless of how it feels in the moment, sex outside of marriage always, ultimately,  brings heartache, and pain, and a sense–in fact, an illusion–that somehow our value has been diminished.  By contrast, in the context of marriage–a relationship founded on public promises to live out a love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful–we are empowered to celebrate all the good feelings that sex can bring in the context of a life that encourages health, wholeness, and happiness.

Sex is not bad.  In fact, sex outside marriage is not bad, per se.  It is simply less good than sex inside marriage.  Sin represents our tendency to settle for less than what God wants to give us (or, in more classic terms, sin represents “a privation of the good”).  It is a failure to believe that we are worth so much more than what we are settling for. Sin does not make us less pure than we are.  It convinces us that we should settle for less than what God wants to give.  Rather than trying to tell young people that sex outside of marriage takes away our purity, we need to be sending the message that the purity we receive as a gift from God empowers us to expect the best from ourselves, our life, and sex.

By no means is this post complete, and I’m sure I’ll be blogging more on it as the conversation continues, but if you are interested in discovering the positive vision of Christian sexuality, I’d invite you to check out Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Mind Blowing, Toe-Curling, Infallible Loving  and if you’d like to communicate this positive vision of Christian sexuality to your children, I’d invite you to pick up a copy of Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids.


About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Martha Oram

    I whole-heartedly recommend both of Dr. Popcak’s books that he mentions above!! My husband and I read Holy Sex! on our honeymoon (which was a great way to read it) and now we’ve been reading Beyond the Birds and the Bees during our daughter’s first year of life. These books are fantastic guides not just for what to do, but how to think and be within the life of the Church.
    Ultimately, our teaching on sexuality must be founded within the broader vision that the Church has for life and love. We cannot afford to become narrow-minded about these things, to the exclusion of the beautiful banquet of virtue that is life in Christ. The more we invite our children into this wonderful experience of God, the more they will see that the Church has much more to offer than secular society.
    Thanks for the great article, Dr. Greg!

  • Raguel

    A far better author to read about authentic christian sexuality would be Dietrich von Hildebrand. Particularly,
    Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love: God’s Plan for Love, Marriage, Intimacy, and the Family.

    As well as his other books on this subject.

    It seems like Gregory Popcak just wants to push his own books here rather than tell the truth that sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin. Yes, a mortal sin. Sex within marriage is a mutual self donation, a co-operation with God’s plan, and above all a sacramental act. (Yes, that means that pre-marital sex is sacrilegious)

    And no, this is not what you whitewash as “puritanism.” It is, however, the most true and healthy view of sex one could have. I’ll take Dietrich von Hildebrand over your liberal circlejirk any day of the week.

  • Ladasha Smithson
  • HermitTalker

    Beautiful reclamation of our teaching. Difficulty is that the Jansenists polluted the Catholic Church and their seminaries trained the Irish and English Reformation clergy and the French Revolution sent their 18th-early 19th c clergy to Ireland. Body is evil sex is bad was one of the reasons why Genesis was written and Augustine was father of the Reformation pollution of St Paul .That crossed the Atlantic with heretic and Catholic alike. My generation was destroyed by masturbation is a mortal sin and few got over it. Now back in full force with abortion, same gender and over reaction to the sex scandal where one boundary violation dumped priests into the Sick Monster category while lazy, self-centred materialists thrive. Satan has his heyday and laughs all the way.

  • Michelle

    I guess what I have a hard time understanding is where do the definitions of mortal and venial sin come in? I’m homeschooling my daughter and preparing her for her first penance soon and the formal definitions of mortal sin/venial sin iclude the facts that Mortal sin kills grace in our souls and venial sin makes our souls sick. This seems to me to not merely be a lesser good such as you state that premarital sex is. It would seem to me that this would, in fact, be bad. If my soul is sick that would be bad for me. If I’ve killed the life of Christ in my soul then this is something really bad, not merely a longing for something more. Also, isn’t there a distinction between temporal punishment of our sins and the restoring of grace to our souls? Isn’t it important to teach kids that while yes, most importantly, our souls can always be restored perfectly to God while we are living, there is most definitely physical consequences that can result from premarital sex that are bad and can make us bodily unclean for the rest of our lives? This isn’t something to take lightly. It would be weird to speak of overeating and only focus on the positives of choosing healthy eating habits. Naturally we would touch on the fact that overeating does in fact have physical consequences that can last the rest of our lives.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

    Hello, Dr.–you wrote: “Sex is not bad. In fact, sex outside marriage is not bad, per se. It is simply less good than sex inside marriage.”
    This statement would seem to require a great deal of explanation to get it to comport with the Church’s non-negotiable teaching on the intrinsic evil of fornication. In at least the objective moral sense, sex outside marriage is indeed, in itself, “bad.” Wouldn’t you agree?
    Can you clarify? As I understand it, sex outside marriage is indeed bad *precisely* because it *is* outside marriage….

    • Catherine Collingwood

      I think a better way to put it would be, “sex outside marriage is not good enough for human dignity.” That it, it’s not bad in and of itself, but engaging in it is willingly compromising your own human dignity — and that *is* bad.