Sexuality and the Church Part 1

*Warning: The following may contain mature subject matter. Delicacy has never been my strong point, so if you are uncomfortable with or offended by reading about sexuality, proceed with caution.*

When I first started reading about the Catholic Church there were many things that I didn’t like, in particular the teachings on sexuality bothered me. It may sound strange to you, but I was fine with no birth control. My husband and I had already decided not to use any artificial forms of birth control. Natural Law made perfect sense to me in that area, and I was excited to finally find a church that stood for life. I had no problem with the bans on adultery and/or sex before marriage. Both my husband and I were raised in conservative christian homes that taught these qualities and we have reaped immense benefits from being each other’s first and only lover.

Strangely, the teaching that stood out to me was the section on masturbation. It seemed excessive and silly to put restrictions on something that doesn’t harm another person. Plus by extension it put limits on sexuality in married life too, oral sex wasn’t a huge part of our life in the bedroom, but it bothered me that some “higher up” in the church could tell us what we could or could not do in our bedroom. We were married after all, AND we were open to life, so what did it matter if there were a few blow-jobs once in awhile?

I felt like the Church was meddling too much, putting a cramp on my love life and making silly rules for no reason. And how was I supposed to teach my children that masturbation was not OK without making them feel like crap?

Initially I thought that becoming Catholic would mean that we would be stuck having sex missionary style forever and ever amen. However, in my research I found that I had the wrong impression about some things. Other than forbidding birth control, and restricting sexual activity to marriage, the church doesn’t dictate all that much in the bedroom. You are free to be as exploratory and creative as you like, as long as when the husband finishes, he is inside the wife’s vagina. Foreplay, afterglow, positions, it doesn’t matter, but part of being open to life means that you must be united for the final act.

But still, I could not understand why the restrictions were there at all. Until I wrestled with the tough question of Homosexuality.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home, being gay was just about the worst sin there was. Yes we said that we loved the sinner and hated the sin, and yes we said that we thought that heterosexuals sleeping around was “just as bad”. But homosexuals (while never really talked about in all that much detail) were not only sinning by their sexual actions, the fact that they had the same-sex sexual attractions at all was a direct contradiction to everything that Christianity stood for. I remember one time as a teen in a discussion with my Dad, he said that homosexuality was demonically influenced. (Yes, I come from Pentecostal roots, many of them also believe that mental illness or handicap is a demonic affliction) When I asked him about bisexuality, he responded that the only true bisexuals were pagan witches. (At that point I figured I’d better not ask him about my own same-sex attractions.)

The very conservative/extreme side of the protestant churches, teaches that sex is not a good thing and that it is pretty much only for procreation. (This is where you’ll find the Quiver-full movement) So any birth control (including NFP), and any forms of sexual expression that were not procreative were taboo, even for married couples.

But most of the protestant world is fine with birth control. Sex is made for pleasure after all, and kids should only be part of the equation if you want them to be. Anything goes in the bedroom (as long as you’re married of course) except for things like threesomes and pornography.

I was used to the protestant double standard, you could do anything you wanted sexually as long as it was with your spouse, and since Gays weren’t allowed to get married they weren’t allowed to do anything. (Although at any point if they decided to stop their wicked desires and marry someone of the opposite sex they could be free to do anything in the bedroom as well.) We had all kinds of bible verses we could throw around to prove that Gays could not get married and that God did not approve of homosexual activity. But with Sola Scriptura as the foundation of authority the bible verses became less and less convincing. There were all kinds of verses in the bible that we didn’t adhere to today, how could we know that we were interpreting them correctly?

To be continued.

  • Rae

    I am glad that you posted this. It is so interesting to follow your progression and I look forward to reading part 2.

  • Jenelle

    Interesting post. I'm looking forward to the continuation and I'm glad you know about NFP and it was interesting to hear your thoughts. About halfway through the post I wanted to recommend a book, but by the end it didn't seem so important.

    As far as the guy's finale, you're right on and it is something that gets mistaken for overly restrictive if you think there is only one thing to do. Gregory Popcak has a book titled "Holy Sex" that gives great insight to the church's teaching and how it is amazing! And not nearly as limiting as some of the protestant ideas you mentioned briefly. As for the book recommendation, it looks like you've already looked into a lot of that but thought I would mention another resource if you're interested.

  • That Married Couple

    Ditto to Rae!!

    And I do hope you'll have a good reference for an elaboration of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. The only book I bought about it was painfully outdated, and I only made it through the first chapter or so. (Not that the Church's teachings are outdated, but all the references to scientific studies were quite old, and since it was making big claims based on those studies, the researcher in me couldn't handle it.)

  • Katherine

    I'm very interested to see where subsequent parts lead. My husband is a Catholic moral theologian so Church teaching on the subject can easily be a conversation piece in our home.

  • Maggie

    I look forward to hear more of your story!

  • Kacie

    Interesting… it still seems strange to me. This sentence, "You are free to be as exploratory and creative as you like, as long as when the husband finishes, he is inside the wife's vagina. Foreplay, afterglow, positions, it doesn't matter, but part of being open to life means that you must be united for the final act."…. simply seems pointless. Why?

    • Rivka

      I disagree with the sentence you quoted. As does Thomas Aquinas, and it seems that the Church Hierachy, popes throughout the years, etc, would disagree with that. ( although this is based on documents which are a bit too non-explicit and therefore easy to interpret in different ways. I understand them not wanting to be too explicit, but it makes their positions to easy to interpret in different ways)

      Hope this isn’t too explicit, but it seems to me that anal/oral sex between opposite sex spouses is not essentially different than the same actions between same-sex partners. Same sex people are not allowed to have sex because they don’t even have the right body parts. Opposite sex couples shouldn’t act like they don’t have the right body parts.

  • Coleen

    I't's great that you're opening up about such a controversial subject. Men and women need to be aware of the flexibility that the "rules" allow between married couples, for the sake of pleasure and an authentic bond. Family begins with this bond.

  • Rebecca

    I too am interested to read your progression – I'm glad this is my first visit, because, now I can go back to Part 2!

  • Anonymous

    I'm not Quiverfull but have to say that your comment about them thinking sex is not good and is only for procreation is just not true of the vast majority.

  • Young Mom

    Anonymous- Having grown up in the Quiver full movement I think it's safe to say that I can over generalize based on people that I knew.
    Thanks for pointing that out.
    Nancy Campbell even argues against NFP based on the fact that it calls for abstaining during the time when the woman is most desirous of sexual activity, so you are accurate in saying that the majority would NOT say that sex is not good.
    I think I tried to pack to much info into one sentence, and I'm still not sure how to say what I was trying to communicate about the Quiver full movement.
    I'll try again:
    My mom always told me that sex was a wonderful thing that only married people could do. But the impression I got as a child overhearing the conversations of different women I knew, sex was more like an obligatory chore of marriage, duty/sacrifice done cheerfully for the husband. People who tried to space their children with NFP were looked down on, they were sinning by not "trusting God fully" with their family size. The women who wanted to use NFP were being selfish, depriving their husbands of a basic need of men, and right of marriage. Sex was so tied to children that many families would wean their babies early so they could try to conceive again.

  • not a minx, a moron, or a parasite

    You've written some really awesome posts on sexuality & the Catholic Church! Thank you for articulating things that I've been bouncing around my own head.

  • Young Mom

    Thank you! I know that feeling of wanting to articulate something. :)

  • be

    I have much more mixed feelings about Catholic teachings on sexuality. As often, I think that the Church is essentially right about what is good and what is defective. But, at least in the modern Western/Roman tradition (I'm told it's different in other times and places), the association of defect with the burdening concept of "sin" can be really harmful. Imagine a cradle Catholic, virgin till marriage, trying to meet this standard the first time, anxious and unprepared. Imagine he fails, and then add the guilt associated with Catholic teachings to ensure a negative psychological response. Then multiply that experience by many times, over months, then years, and then try paying for the therapy! The Church's teachings may be compassionate, but there's nothing compassionate about speaking to the middle. Laying heavy burdens on the young, before they can carry them, is not in the spirit of Christianity.

  • Young Mom

    be- I know what you mean, the Catholic teachings on Sexuality are simultaneously one of the big things that draw me towards the church, and one of the things that pushes me away.

    I think that you are talking about premature ejaculation? I can imagine that would be a very frustrating thing to deal with, and could definetly cause feeling of failure. However, it should not cause any feelings of guilt because the church does not consider that a sin. In order for ejaculation outside of the vagina to be a sin, it has to be done willfully. And by definition, premature ejaculation is not voluntary. Here is the write up in the catechism.

    1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

    1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice."

    And even in cases where ejaculation outside of marriage or intercourse occurs, the church teaches that culpability is lessened based on the persons maturity:

    2352 To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

    So yes, the Church's teaching are tough, and require sacrifice and discipline. But even the young can learn those qualities, and hopefully experience more grace then judgement as they learn and grow in maturity. And in the particular case I think you are speaking about, you are mistaken to think that premature ejaculation constitutes a sin or should cause guilt in the poor person who's intent is frustrated.

  • be

    Well — just because the culpability is lessened, even to a "minimum" does not mean that premature ejaculation does not constitute a technical "sin". (This is one reason why the eastern Catholic church is critical of the Scholastic discourse on sin – it may often be accurate on an analytical or even juridical level, but can send the wrong message to earnest non-theologians.) I agree that "Catholic guilt" is always actually the result of heretical attitudes, and not what Catholic doctrines are intended to produce! But it's such a common phenomenon that I can't completely absolve Catholicism of responsibility in producing it. Similar teaching has had similar effects in Orthodox Judaism — many young men experience serious and sexual problems because they burden themselves with the responsibility to achieve perfection at all times, and are too modest/shy to get help. (It is not uncommon for priests to refuse to advise on these issues, seemingly out of discomfort.) Secular therapists can have a hard time understanding that it's not JUST an ego/shame dynamic in these religious situations, but that a real desire for chastity, compounded with the fear of never escaping even a non-culpable sin, is confusing the issue.

    The other reason I am uneasy with the way these teachings are presented in the Catholic church is that the Catholic treatment of sexuality (for fairly obvious historical reasons — not a lot of women or even married men in the medieval university!) has barely begun to integrate accurate knowledge of female sexuality. (Heck, MEDICINE hasn't even done this yet.) This seems to be reflected in the teaching itself — what really matters is male ejaculation. What really matters is definitely not the woman. This has to be an incomplete treatment at best. At present, I think it reinforces patriarchal tendencies in the church.

    Like I said — I believe the Catholic teachings are more or less true, as far as they go. But too often they are being transmitted and received in the spirit of the old law — a new law of cleanliness and uncleanliness. This is because the physical act itself can be disordered, even if its not intended. If you believe the act itself is a horribly disordered act, and a mortal sin, you aren't going to feel better just because the culpability falling on you is minimal, anymore than if someone jumped out in front of your car and died. You are going to feel horrified. And the feeling of horror (since you have been taught that this act is inherently disordered and worthy only of rejection) conflicts with the inherently rewarding nature of the activity, and creates an internal conflict between pleasure and guilt. So it wasn't intended, but it was enjoyed, even though it's a mortal sin, and you see the kind of psychological chaos that can be produced.

  • Young Mom

    Hmmm, I can see where you are coming from, and I guess if you want to be extremely technical you could call premature ejaculation a "sin" although I could hardly see how it could be very enjoyable since it would be so frustrating. But I think this problem of guilt is less about a certain religion and more tied to how the religion is taught. I definetly struggled with guilt over a myriad of things growing up, and my parents were far from catholic. It is hard to find perfect balance anywhere, and I would hope to strive as much as possible for a good balance of boundaries and freedom when I teach my children. I personally think what you are arguing is an exessive approach to God's boundaries.

    • Rivka

      An action can only be a sin if it is deliberate.

  • Young Mom

    Oh, and I still maintain that it could be no more than a venial sin, since their would be no deliberate consent/intent behind it.

  • omorka

    Speaking as a bisexual Pagan Witch, let me assure your father that there are plenty of bisexuals other than us. ;-)

  • Young Mom

    omorka- Now that nade me laugh!! :)

  • Rivka

    Hope this isn’t too explicit, but it seems to me that anal/oral sex between opposite sex spouses is not essentially different than the same actions between same-sex partners. Same sex people are not allowed to have sex because they don’t even have the right body parts. Opposite sex couples shouldn’t act like they don’t have the right body parts.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      This is a post from several years ago when I was just starting to question what I had always been taught about homosexuality. I have come a long way since then, including having come out of the closet myself. For more of my writing on this topic, you can click on the LGBTQ category on the side of my blog.