Every Sperm is Sacred?

Got an interesting email from another blogger, a fairly new Catholic, who is having a little trouble believing something. He writes:

…some people on my blog suggested that every ejaculation had to hit the target, so to speak….meaning, umm, no completed oral tasks, for example.

I am quite sure hardly anyone knows about the “every sperm is sacred” rule or thinks it is still valid – I hadn’t known that some insist every sperm had to umm “hit the target” – certainly no one in RCIA mentioned that – it would have sent people running. Are there any other Christians who’d demand every sperm find its way? I never knew that Monty Python song was correct !

I can’t believe the Church today would get into such over-regulation?

I am sharing this with you because I am sure this fellow is not the only one confused out there. I am surely no spokesperson for the church, for that matter, I’m not even an “expert,” in this subject. I am only a Catholic laywoman who has thought long and hard about all of this – as many of us Catholic laywomen have! :-) As such, I can tell you what my own understanding is, and it may help some who just dismiss the stance of the Church as utter nonsense.

The teaching, first off, is not – specifically – “every sperm is sacred,” although, it must be said, when you’re talking sperm and ova you are talking about essences – our essential selves, which are derived from the deepest parts of our beings, and you are talking about the material which was designed specifically for the purpose of assisting God in the creation of humanity. God loves us into being – we are begotten. Our creation is no accident, but the Love of God made manifest, and the “tools” or “materials” that He uses for that creation – committed love and the mysterious and miraculous products of that love – do, simply by their designation as “tools of God” demand a certain respect and recognition, because they are a great deal more than the equivalent of nasal mucous or earwax. They are the essentials of human creation, and therefore they are of staggering value and import. In THAT sense, yes, every sperm is sacred.

Buddhists understand this, and so do Taoists. They, particularly Taoists, will go out of their way not to “waste” their seed or their sexual energy, because they understand how powerful it is, what a pure force is contained within that material, and within that energy. Mystics from pretty much all traditions will tell you that the energy and product of one’s sexuality, if treated with respect and conservation, contributes to their overall mental and spiritual well-being. Somehow, when the wisdom comes from the East, people go, “ooooh, wise and mystical!” When the same wisdom comes from the West, they say, “ooooh, repressive, obsessive and mean!”

If you are only going to consider sperm and egg as by-products of humanity and human sexuality, you’re never going to understand what it is the church is trying to say. If you accept that they are more than mere by-products but literally these “Divine Materials,” then the teaching becomes much more understandable.

As to the teaching that every sex act must “hit the target,” (that’s a rather, errr, colorful way to put it), it simply means that every sex act, if it is truly to be respectful of God’s design and creation, must be opened to the possibility of new life, to God and to His will as to whether or not new life will be created. If the couple is NOT open to that possibility, if they take steps to suppress that possibility, then they have – essentially – excluded God from the act.

It is, really, kind of an ultimate surrender, an ultimate trust. For Christians who routinely say, “Thy Will Be Done,” it is where the rubber meets the road. No pun intended.

This is how I related it to a Protestant emailer who was rationalizing the use of birth control as something that “if God really wants to, he can overcome (the pill or the condom) because he is God.” He wrote:

Here’s the thing … I don’t agree that using a condom or spermicide “actively precludes” God’s involvement in your life. As I said earlier, a condom or a spermicide is a paltry obstacle to the One who spoke the Heavens into existence. He can and has intervened in that way many times.

Yes, I understand his point. But that is a fast bit of rationalization – I know because when I was younger, I subscribed to pretty much the same notion. “You’re God, you can do anything, so if you really want me to have a baby, you’ll make that happen even if I’m using a spermicide, a condom and taking the pill…”

All true…but that’s not surrendering. It is barricading oneself in but with an overall view of “well, if the fortress is breached, I’ll sign the treaty!”

Surrender – “not my will but thine be done” – is the ultimate goal. It comes with an open door, not a barricade, or it is not surrender, at all.

Yes, it’s a difficult thing to communicate to people. Some accept it…some don’t. I don’t judge anyone, because I’ve walked the whole walk, myself.

What one must keep in mind is that what the church is putting forth is an IDEAL. And that’s part of the job of the church, to teach and inform us as to what the ideals are, and in this case, the ideal is that we humans remain open to the will of God, in all circumstances.

That’s a tall order, and one that we cannot possibly meet without Grace. But the church does understand that we, in our imperfect humanity and willfulness, will very likely not meet that ideal – it tells us that there is no way we can even begin to meet the ideal if we are not at least trying to, if we’re not asking God’s help and grace in doing so.

Nevertheless, if the church did not put forth the IDEAL, it would be terribly, sinfully remiss in its teaching, because it would basically be telling people not to bother to strive for perfection in our openness to God’s will because “it’s not possible.” A fatalist message is never a good one, particularly when Jesus tells us in the Gospel that “…with God nothing is impossible.” (Mark 10:27)

One of the jobs of the church is to help us find our openness to God – to help us to maintain that openness to His will, so that we might reach our own best and highest spiritual potential, because we are not called to dwell in darkness but to live in the light, and in holiness. We are called to holiness: “Be holy as my Father in heaven is Holy.” Holiness is not something that we can compartmentalize. If we are holy, it is a permeation of our entire being, and our holiness will be reflected in all that we do, in our every action and choice, and the path to holiness begins with an openness to God, in whom we live and move and have our being. If holiness is our quest, there can then be no limits to our openness.

This is not a difficult thing to understand, at all. It is difficult in practice, but the church is not here to baby us along and make the roads wide and smooth. Christ told us the way is narrow, and not easy. What was it Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Quite right.

So, you see – the church has no choice but to teach this truth, even in a season of sneering disregard and mockery. The truth is we are not all little gods but offshoots and creatures of the One God, who wishes to bring us back to him. The Way back has been made known, and the church has the duty to keep pushing us along the road, knowing we would rather take the easy way, knowing we’ll look for shortcuts, knowing we will sometimes step off the path and say, “it’s too hard…” The church has no choice – she must teach it.

How we receive this information and how we apply it to our lives depends entirely on our own choices, on our own determination of whether or not the quest for holiness is worth the giving up of our own sensibilities and our own feeling of control.

But control is often an illusion. How many people do you know who used the pill, used a condom, were diligent in their birth control and STILL got pregnant? It happens all the time. Because the products of our human sexuality contain enormous power – power too many of us simply do not appreciate. And God will do what He will, sometimes, whether you’re open to it or not…in hopes that you WILL become open, and more open, to his loving gifts.

If you look in scripture you will never see a baby referred to as anything but a blessing from God. But we live in an age where things are topsy turvy, and we often mistake our blessings for chains and our chains for blessings.

ALL OF THIS supposes fertility, of course. The church understands and respects nature – sooner or later fertility ends, that does not mean sex ends. One of the common misunderstandings is that “the church says sex must always and only be about procreation, and if it’s not possible, then sex is a sin.” This is nonsense. Sex is the gift and privilege of married couples, both pleasurable and procreative. When fertility has come to an end, when the possibility of new life is no longer there, that means the procreation part has ended, not the pleasure. And please remember, folks…what I am trying to communicate here is what I have come to understand through my reading and talking with priests, etc. I’m no expert. I do have a catechism, somewhere…I’ll have to dig it out! :-)

Update: I’d like to point out that I am in no way suggesting that people should simply “do their own thing because the ideal is too hard.” I am not saying “wink, wink, the church teaches this but you aren’t expected to listen!”

Quite the contrary, I have tried to make the point that simply because this ideal is difficult is no reason NOT to ask for the Grace to be able to achieve it, and that Jesus himself tells us nothing is impossible with God’s help. If anyone does not comprehend my saying that, I would respectfully ask them to re-read what I have written.

I can’t believe I have to spell that out, but I guess I do.

Hmmm…here’s a can o’ worms I shoulda kept closed! ;-)
Related: Self-Respect is not prudery.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Anna

    Several years ago, a very embarrased girl friend (happily married) was involved in a very similar discussion on line. She contacted her bishop with the question and got the following answer.

    Oral sex is okay as long as it is foreplay, and agreeable to both parties.

  • karen

    OMG, Tracey!!! Don’t you believe that for one second, one nanosecond… what insensitive lies people produce. What gives anyone the right to say your union is less… I’m stunned. In God’s eyes, you are as equal as any and all.

    Don’t let their hateful words get you down, please? They are wrong, no matter their intentions. I’m so mad. Please consider me a fellow Christian, even though some discount Catholics as such, and listen to me. What you are and all you have are precious in God’s sight and you are absolutely right: God holds all Truths in his sovereign hands, my friend.

  • http://www.catholicpillowfight.com Tony Miller

    Anchoress,
    I think Gerald is tweaking you with regard to NFP. He asked the same question on his blog, and he responded (so I know he saw it) and he didn’t ask for clarification (so I believe he understood it). Here’s how it went:

    On Natural Family Planning: this, too tries to pick a time to get pregnant / to avoid getting pregnant, only by natural means. Does this method not try to create room for sex just for the enjoyment of it, with the purpose to not get pregnant at one point and instead at another? Does someone think it’s wrong to make love just for making love’s sake? Would some consider that not chaste ?

    No, making love just for making love’s sake is not wrong, if you are open to children when you do it. If you are making love for making love’s sake while denying your wife’s fertility (as with artificial birth control – ABC), you are not joining with the whole person of your wife as God intended and that is indeed a sin.

    If you are simply using your wife’s cycle as God designed to space your children, you are using your sexuality in the manner that God intended

  • http://www.catholicpillowfight.com Tony Miller

    Oh, and Gerald… I thought the Cafeteria was Closed :)

  • stephanie

    Aww Tracey. My heart goes out to you. And for people, any people, to kick you when you are down…karma is a bitch, as I’m sure they’ll find out.

  • stephanie

    Anchoress- good discussion!

  • TheAnchoress

    Tracey, those sorts of passive aggressive types who would dare to judge the richness of your love or your marriage because they have children and you do not is just the nastiest, lowest and most insecure sort of evil. Everyone has their crosses to bear, and the cross of infertility is a very heavy one,indeed. These folks who would dare to be in your face about it will have crosses of their own to bear. I wonder if their mean little spirits will be large enough to endure it? Boy, that makes me mad!

  • http://www.catholicpillowfight.com Tony Miller

    Tracey said:

    How I wish this weren’t true, but they are always fellow Christians.

    Go home and look to your own beds, I wish I’d have said to them. Come talk to me after you’ve soaked that bed with tears, after you’ve pounded the walls of heaven, wondering if they’re soundproof, still hoping for that elusive yes.


    God said that same “no” to my mom. The answer remains to this very day. I have a small cross-stich sampler hanging over the computer that she made for me which reads: “Neither flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone, but always my own”.

    I know “God works in mysterious ways” is not a comforting answer. But I truly believe that God had the best interest of both my parents and myself in mind when he chose.

  • http://ohhowilovejesus.com Jeanette

    Tracey,
    People who criticize you because you have not been able to have a child are not worth the time you spend worrying about what they think. They are rude, crude and socially unacceptable, to say nothing of not showing a loving and Christian spirit. God bless you and your husband.

  • http://ohhowilovejesus.com Jeanette

    On the other hand, Tracey, as fertile as I was if I had not used birth control the same people would have been calling me names for having too many children. They just can’t be satisfied, and they are not the ones you should be trying to please anyway.

  • tracey

    Ah, you’re right, Jeanette. They would have indeed!

    And, no, I don’t try to please them; they’re impossible — “rude, crude, and socially unacceptable,” as you say. But I *am* always stunned to see a lack of Christian love among Christians.

    I think that should be stunning.

  • mayfikn

    I think it is interesting that some people seem to be saying “But I like this practice, and I don’t want to give it up, therefore whatever the Church teaches about it must be wrong and ridiculous.”

    What we should be saying is “This is strange, and I have never heard of this teaching before. Why does the Church teach it, and is this something I should be considering, even though it is hard, and would involve me giving up something I like to do?”

    I’m not sure anyone has given a clear answer, so I will say that yes, completed male oral sex is prohibited by Church teaching, as is masturbation. Uncompleted oral sex as a form of foreplay before sexual intercourse seems to be allowed.

    Some forms of infertility treatment are allowed, and others are not. Treatments that heal something wrong with the body, such as unblocking a fallopian tube are allowed. Treatments such as IVF in which conception takes place apart from sexual intercourse are prohibited.

    These two teachings are actually related. If anyone is curious as to the whys, and how these things are all related, I would suggest reading Good News About Sex and Marriage by Christopher West. It is in question and answer form, a quick and easy read, and relates teachings to the Theology of the Body.

    I would also like to add to the Anchoress’s great explanation, that the Church knows that we often fall short of the ideal, and that is why we have the sacrament of Confession.

  • Rittenhouse

    When discussing this subject, I find diet metaphors (as suggested above) eminently useful.

    The sexual and food appetites are each driven by a base human need. We want to eat, and we want to have sex. The ultimate end is similar, too: the sustaining of human life.

    As for the means, sex without the possibility of procreation is very much like eating without the benefit of nutrition.

    For example, say you’re feeling hungry: Will you have a balanced meal, or just dig into a can of ready-to-spread frosting?

    One will gratify, while the other will titillate and provide some fleeting gratification. Which can one live on?

    All one needs to do is look around at those who habitually choose the most attractive foods over the most nutritious; or who dwell on feeding the appetite (gluttony) with little regard for the effects this has on the body. Flabby, sluggish, unhappy people; diabetes and other disorders; early death.

    IME, a similar thing happens to those who pursue sex as an end in itself. They eventually become unable to appreciate wholesomeness in themselves and others. It’s all about the momentary gratification of desires. Inevitably, sadness and ill health follow, despite layers of denial.

    Of course, no metaphor is perfect. That’s why it’s a metaphor. If two things were the same, there would be no point in showing the similarities.

    But the parallels between these two are uncanny.

  • tara

    Gerald, thanks for inspiring this lively conversation! (Seriously!) The thing is, there is way more to understand about these teachings than can be posted in a format like this. Before you make your mind up, PLEASE look into a couple of sources – JPII’s Theology of the Body and Christopher West’s writings on Theology of the Body are great places to start. There are also tons of sources on the internet without having to wade through a whole book. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that this wasn’t covered in your RCIA process – my husband converted 3 years ago and had the experience. As you said yourself, I think that catechists are afraid of offending/scaring people. It’s too bad, really. Ironically, these teachings are part of what brought me deeper into the church, not away from it. Good luck with your search!

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  • http://www.logomachon.blogspot.com logomachon

    GBS’s suggestion that it is sufficient to be generally open to the idea of children hit the streets 40-some years ago, after Humanae vitae was published. It was immediately sent to the doghouse.

    At first pass, the Church’s teaching is pretty straightforward. Anchoress and Jake hit most of the right points. That the Church sticks so strongly to its understanding of sexuality may seem narrowness. It is really faithfulness to a vision of breathtaking scope and beauty.

    Let’s take the easy part. St. Augustine wrote that when a husband and wife have sex and hope that they do not conceive, they “have reason to regret”. Why would he say such a thing? Because they have not completely aligned their wills with God’s will; they are half-way to setting their will against God’s, and setting your will—will, mind you, not your desires, however intense—against God’s will is the basic, formal definition of sin.

    Every conception is the result of a partnership comprising the husband, the wife, and God. Creating a human being is a big deal, so when a couple use sex but shut God out of it, it is a serious sin. Don’t get hung up and distracted by whether conception occurs, or is likely to occur, or is even physically possible. Submitting to God’s will leaves the outcome in God’s hands, which makes the outcome irrelevant from the human perspective. (The whole “swimmers hitting the target” business is not only tasteless, smirky, and smarmy: it is Gumby theology, and rhetorically it is a strawman. Put it out of your mind, lest it make your brain hurt.) What the Church teaches is that the act be formally complete; that’s all. This will get us to Onan, but it first brings us to something Jake mentioned, the unitive aspect of sex.

    Every sacrament is unitive, since by giving grace it unites us with God. Three sacraments have a further unitive quality, in that they unite us with the Mystical Body of Christ, viz., Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders (these are the sacraments that, as the nuns told us, “leave an indelible mark on your soul”, and that one can receive only once). One other sacrament has a further unitive quality: matrimony, which unites the man and woman and which one cannot receive again until the bond is ended by death.

    That the marriage bond is something special we might surmise. It would be strange if such intimate partners with God did not have something special between them. Beyond surmise, we have Jesus’ word that the bond is effected by God. St. Paul tells us how awesome the marriage bond is: when Paul gropes for words to describe Christ’s relationship with His Church in the Mystical Body, he speaks of Christ the bridegroom and the Church the bride. When he talks about the marriage relationship, he compares it to the relationship of Christ and the Church.

    The body is clearly part of this bond; a valid sacramental marriage does not exist until it has been consummated, and the Church has always rejected those, ancient and modern, who would reject the body out of disgust. In line with this, my 12th-grade apologetics teacher, Fr. Comey, S.J., (possibly influenced by writings of Karol Wojtyla), compared conjugal sex to reception of the Eucharist: a physical and spiritual union of self-giving (and equally sacramental—yes, sex gives grace). Even without reference to Onan, contraception and non-coïtal sex are clearly contrary to the nature of sexual union and virtually sacrilegious.

    You are right, I think, that Onan wasn’t punished for masturbation, exactly, but neither was it just a matter of shirking his duty to raise up seed in his brother’s name. Onan was, indeed, punished for spilling his seed upon the ground. There is other stuff going on; the key is in the book of Ruth.

    The law in question, as written in Dt 25:5, says “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.” Verses 7-10 provide that if the brother refuse this duty, the widow should publicly humiliate him, so, obviously, failing the obligation was not a capital offence. What’s more, Judah and Shelah, Onan’s father and younger brother, evade the obligation without incurring divine wrath. (Gen. 38)

    This conclusion is supported in Ruth, the only other place in the Old Testament that I know of that the brother’s obligation comes up. As we shall see, this is no accident. The book of Ruth is the story of the widowed and destitute Ruth’s efforts to get a wealthy distant kinsman of her husband to marry her. In this case, another law is also involved, Lev 25:25, which provided that if a man has to sell his property, his kinsmen should buy it back into the family. A man with a closer claim than Boaz is interested in the land, but does not want to marry Ruth. So he contracts with Boaz before the town elders to cede his claim to both. There is no suggestion that this is improper, no pointed to references to the fate of Onan.

    All of this suggests that Onan’s offense must have been more than just breeching Dt. 25:5; it must have been directly related to going in to her and wasting his seed upon the ground. (Depending on the translation, it is more or less clear that this is Onan’s constant practice.) He was not just evading his responsibility by abstaining. His wickedness lay in violating the formal completeness of the sex act, in obstructing its unitive nature, and in a similar way, in failing to complete the obligation he had undertaken by marrying his brother’s widow.

    But probably even this is not why the Lord slew him. Tamar, the widow, eventually becomes pregnant by Judah through a ruse. One of the children is Perez, Perez is the direct ancestor of Boaz, and Boaz is the great-grandfather of David (Ruth 4:18-22). And Jesus, of course, is of the line of David. Onan had to go because his selfishness and deception was keeping Providence from establishing the line from which Jesus would be born and through which God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled.

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  • Peter

    After reading through all the comments, I can’t let this end at 69.

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