It is not uncommon to hear the (usually rhetorical) question, “Why is the Church so obsessed with sex?” The implication here is at least two-fold. First, sex is seen as a private issue that no one outside of a given relationship, let alone some “moral authority,” can say anything about; and second, those who ostensibly want to make the world a better place could find many other areas to more productively spend their energies.
First of all, we need to acknowledge that there are those in the Christian family that do seem to have a disproportionate view of the centrality of sexual questions. I have some sympathy with University of Dallas professor Mark Lowery’s critique of Christopher West that cautions that, in Christianizing sex, West may have sexualized Christianity. And who could do anything but shake one’s head, as Father Robert Barron does, at the young seminarian who insisted that he will focus his homiletical skills on stopping people from masturbating.
But, beyond simply acknowledging the obvious obsession that certain Christians have with all things sex (an obsession, one can assert, at least matched by the secular world), I would like to propose two answers to the title question.
First of all, in one sense, the Church’s “obsession” with sex is a matter of optics. I think any balanced investigation of Catholicism will show that sex is nowhere near the top of the heap in terms of important issues. A look at everything from the catechism and the catalogue of papal encyclicals (not to mention the Pope’s latest book) to your local Catholic book store and the homilies at your local parish should easily demonstrate that the Church is not nearly so “obsessed” with sex as we are given to believe.
But the fact is that sex is one area where the Church is at quite radical odds with the prevailing culture. Whenever that happens, things get blown out of proportion. News outlets are much more interested in what the Church says about sex than what it says about caring for the poor. Furthermore, when challenged, the Church will be forced to articulate its position more clearly and more forcefully. Even if it is not the most important thing, the Church must talk about sex often because there is so much confusion surrounding Church teaching on the issue.This last sentence already leads into my second point: that the Church cares about sex because it cares about people and their relationships. One does not need to have spent very much time on this planet at all in order to have discovered that few things damage our capacity for happy healthy relationships like a misuse of our sexuality. There are reasons that divorce rates go up for porn users, users of artificial contraception, cohabitators and previous divorcees. (I have not seen any stats for masturbators. My guess is that it would be pretty difficult to find a statistically significant group of non-masturbators for useful comparison.) I have looked in more detail at each issue raised here in other venues and do not wish to do so here. Suffice to say that it would take a lot of work to show that it is purely coincidental that, in every single case, those who do not follow the Church’s proposals on the above topics have significantly higher rates of relationship failure than those who do.
The Church knows, not just from abstractly applying the natural law, but from concrete pastoral experience in people’s lives, that sex is a powerful thing. It can be used to express the love and commitment of husband and wife in a way that nothing else can, but it can also be used to manipulate, use and degrade. (I am not insisting here that such stark alternatives are the only ones. There are innumerable shades of gray between the committed love-making of wife and husband and, say, gang rape.)
It is certainly the case that some Christians have a disproportionate view of the role of sex in both Christian teaching and in human life in general. It is also true that the Church must often tread gently here, especially in the current post-abuse scandal context. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, the Church cares about sex because it cares about people. To abandon the one is to abandon the other in a fundamental way. I, for one, am grateful to know that we will not be so abandoned.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.