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.