Why Is the Church so Obsessed with Sex?

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.

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  • WFB

    Oy. Brett, you may have fulfilled the complaint of obsession with sex. Take divorce. Mennonites, not Amish, now allow birth control and still have low divorce rates and a 2 point something birth rate. John Noonan pointed out that in the 19th century many Catholics were using coitus interruptus and they were not getting divorced. Ergo we may need to actually look at other factors that arrived at nearly the same time as modren contraception…..television as a relationship challenge….no fault divorce….the Church itself being silent on wifely obedience both in Vatican II and in the present catechism despite Casti Connubii stating that its undermining was the work of false prophets (sect.74).
    Catholicism does have the flu of certain obsessions. The other one is Latin Mass plus priest turning East will solve morals itself plus the water problem in all our basements…..even though Pope Alexander VI said the Mass in Latin and had as many children as the days if the week (one as Pope according to the Orsini mistress).
    Obsession means we interpret things in terms of our obsession even when there are factors saying we are moving too fast. Mennonites still have what despite birth control? They still have Bible love and community networking and they probably therefore have Pius XI’s stand on wifely obedience which we are silent on….so they have low divorce rates.

    • brettsalkeld

      WFB,
      I certainly agree that there are more factors at play than adherence to certain norms. There is no one-to-one causal relation in such complex systems as marriage.

    • Melody

      Um, I hope I’m reading your take on “wifely obedience” wrong; but it sounds like you think if women would just toe the mark and mind their husbands it would take care of the problem of divorce? (And priests really need to stand up in the pulpit and tell married women to be submissive? That would sure take care of any problems with overcrowded Masses.)

      • WFB

        Melody,
        I don’t write for the Holy Spirit….I just report what He said. Six times the New Testament…ie the Holy Spirit….through three human authors…Peter. Paul, deutero Paul (acapella singer) states that wives are to obey their husbands. John Paul II so confused the issue with his ruminations in Dignity of Women and TOB that even the CDF didn’t know where he was going with it….so it is no where in the catechism despite the Holy Spirit repeating it 6 times in the NT…that’s the catechism…the
        sure guide to the faith according to John Paul. Priests never mention because they fear outbursts like yours….OR….they too don’t really like the 6 passages. The last two Popes didn’t like the death penalty passages of Scripture….so they never mention them. It’s called clerical cafeteria biblicalism. Oh wait….only laity are cafeteria….let’s call it historico-critical method when it’s really subtract what you don’t like from what the Holy Spirit said. Should a woman obey an abusive husband? A woman should separate from an abusive husband….canon law…period…physical or emotional.

        [I think it is clear where WFB stands on this issue. I also think it is clear that most of us are going to disagree with him. What I will make clear is that this thread will not be about Church/biblical teaching on women obeying their husbands. BS]

        • Ronald King

          I would like to know what passages you are referring to about obedience. I do know in Ephesians 5 he talks about wives submitting to their husbands, but that is a poor translation. It means relating to their husbands or communicating with them openly and to not be afraid of them.

          [http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/2010/11/15/does-the-injunction-for-wives-to-submit-to-their-husbands-have-any-content/
          http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com/2010/12/ephesians-5-round-up-does-wives-be.html. BS]

  • wj

    Good piece, Brett. Here’s another reason why sexual ethics take up so much time. Lust, along with Gluttony, is commonly figured in spiritual writing as by far the most common of vices for those people not working a spiritual program. (See Cassian, etc.) So it’s to be expected that the vast majority of CHristians will struggle with lust, and that sexual ethics, etc. will be at the forefront of what it *seems* the CHurch really cares about.

    This doesn’t explain, however, why gluttony does not get more pastoral airplay. I think this question has come up before.

  • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

    This is a topic about which volumes could be written.

    It seems to me that one of the things that strikes many people as odd about the Catholic Church is not that it is obsessed with sex — that’s very common in human beings — but that it goes into such incredible detail about how each and every sex act must be performed. Now, this may make sense to people who find Humanae Vitae and other official Church teachings convincing, but many people (including faithful Catholics, including priests) find it difficult to understand why popes and other celibates get to dictate exactly where a husband’s sperm goes each and every time he has intercourse with his wife. I have posts by at least one extremely intelligent Catholic — a professor of philosophy — who is practicing NFP with his wife and yet confesses that he has looked deeply into the reasoning of Humanae Vitae and doesn’t really “get it.”

    The Catholic view, as I understand it, is that sexual sins are “technical violations” and offenses against God. Masturbation, which medical and mental health professions consider normal, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in adolescence, is not a sin because one harms oneself by doing it (“self-abuse”) but because people like Thomas Aquinas figured out what the purpose of sex was, decided masturbation didn’t fit within that purpose, and so deemed it against natural law. Consequently, what medical science considers a normal, Catholic sexual teaching considers an intrinsic evil and a grave moral offense. I believe Aquinas considered masturbation more evil than sex with a prostitute (although I am not sure he recommended the latter as a proper substitute for the former).

    This concern with were sperm goes strikes a great many people as nutty and perhaps even a little sick. To quote Fr. O’Leary, who posts regularly on the Commonweal Blog, “Rethinking sex within a broader social context, we should put the moral accent on responsibility, generosity, building creative relationships, and not on what Yves Congar denounced as ‘the morality of the sacrosanct semen,’ a monastic, clerical preoccupation that distorts our vision of any issue involving sex . . . .”

    Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, in Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, suggests what Fr. O’Leary is suggesting. Building sexual morality on how sex functions among human beings, not basing it on some abstruse reasoning about natural law. I suppose some will cry consequentialist, but it seems to me that sexual morality should be based on whether sexual behavior hurts or harms, rather than on where sperm goes.

    I was reading a book on Catholic medical ethics, and I am sorry if this offends anyone, but I found it hilarious that ethicists recommended, as a way of getting a sperm sample for an infertile couple, for the man and his wife to come into the lab and have intercourse with the husband wearing a condom with holes poked in it. The sperm sample would be taken from what didn’t make it through the holes of the punctured condom. I really find it difficult that God would be deeply offended by a man masturbating to provide a sperm sample for medical purposes.

    • brettsalkeld

      David,
      As much as we might disagree on all kinds of things related to Church teaching on sex, I am with you (and Rhonheimer and Congar) on this much: making the final location of sperm determinative of authentic sexuality strikes me as a total non-starter. I don’t think that those who make this central (e.g., Popcak, West) are reading the tradition very authentically. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but to please those among us who are the most traditional it should suffice to say that such an understanding leaves virtually no room to condemn lesbian acts.

      • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

        There are all kinds of reasons for this, but to please those among us who are the most traditional it should suffice to say that such an understanding leaves virtually no room to condemn lesbian acts.

        Which weren’t condemned in the Old Testament, and still shouldn’t be!

        • WFB

          David,
          Read Romans chapter one…it condemns both male and female gay acts in se as against nature.

          [Also, we will not be debating the biblical position on homosexuality. BS]

          • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

            WFB,

            I have read Romans. I said lesbian acts were not condemned in the Old Testament. Romans is in the New Testament.

      • digbydolben

        hahahahahahahaha!–brilliant, brettsalkeld!

        What you and David have just done is put your fingers squarely on the sexist attitude toward celibacy and male supremacy in connubial relationships that characterizes BOTH of the religions that descend from the ancient Jews.

        I think it is useful to recall that the Jews of the Temple period (Christ’s period) and the Jews of the previous era, unlike the Greeks or the Romans, considered menstruating and post-natal women to be filthy creatures who had to be ritually “cleansed.” It is also useful to TRY to remind the Catholic idolators of heterosexual connubial life that the early Church Fathers accurately reflected the mind of Christ and Paul in severely depreciating married life, in favour of celibacy and “eunuchdom” “for the Kingdom’s sake.”

        Of course, being flesh-abhorring ancient Semites, they left no record of how their women felt about this! Modern Jews have become much more sensible about human sexuality.

      • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

        It is very important, in coming up with a new vision of human sexuality and sexual morality, that everything that was immoral under the old system remain immoral under the new system. Only the reasons should differ.

        • brettsalkeld

          That’s not entirely true. It seems to me that allowing NFP is a fairly new move, historically speaking.

          • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

            I don’t believe there was a change in Church teaching on periodic abstinence. A system wasn’t figured out until the 19th century, and the first official Church pronouncement (1853) permitted it (says Wikipedia). Allowing NFP is fairly new because NFP is fairly new.

          • brettsalkeld

            I think you’re right that NFP is recently allowed because recently developed. Neverthless, as digby notes, there is a change over time: Sex for procreation – providentialism – periodic abstinence – more scientifically-informed periodic abstinence.
            I admit I am working from memory here, however. Anyone with some documentation might be of help. We must remember, however, that much of this history took place before the multiplication of “official Church pronouncements.”

        • digbydolben

          I’m not sure I understand you: are you actually saying that things like wifely deference to husbands, “particular affections” among the religious, the exclusion of the “same-sex-attracted” from the sacerdotal state–not to speak of masturbation being deemed a “mortal sin”–that things like THOSE have to remain norms of “morality”?!

          • digbydolben

            I meant to say, above, the sanctions against “particular affections” for the religious.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Good post, thank you.

    The Church also cares about God, who is love. Since our modern western culture deeply confuses love and sexual behavior, the popular narrative is to object to the Church’s teachings, or in the parlance, “telling us what to do in our bedrooms.”

  • Kenny

    “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.”

    Among the single, probably not, lol. Among the married, though, I think you could.

    Numerous studies recently have shown that, while the old joke about 99% of men masturbating and the other 1% being liars may apply to singles…there is actually a significant drop-off once people have actual partners to serve as an outlet for sexual energies.

    So you’d have to make a distinction between the relationships of those who have NEVER (probably impossible to find a big enough group) and those who don’t SINCE entering their marriage. The latter group might show some benefit (including more frequent marital sex, I’d assume).

    I also think that even just trying has some moral benefit. That, sure, people may fall into impurity and struggle with it more than any other sin, but that there is something salutary about confessing it and abstaining for more or less long periods (even with occasional falls) than simply doing it with impunity.

    I’m pretty sure the latter (ie, having no moral qualms about it) would be more correlated with going FURTHER into additional unchastity and viewing that lightly, whereas at least recognizing it is wrong in theory and TRYING to be pure, even solo, likely serves as a “first defense” against going even further into the more dangerous stuff.

    All other things being equal, of course. Some people might just be frigid or repressed, and that certainly isn’t good.

    • smf

      Given that the stats on those who don’t contracept are strikingly low to begin with, I suspect the sub-set of non-contracepting Catholics probably contains a relatively high percentage who at least try to live the entire teaching of the church regarding sexuality, and a fair number of those likely obtain some degree of success, at least eventually.

  • Dan

    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.

    It seems to me that those who follow the Church’s teachings in this area are predisposed to the qualities necessary for stronger relationships in general. It would be interesting is to find out whether those who are not members the Church, and may not follow Church teaching in some areas (e.g. contraception and cohabitation), but whose disposition of are similar to those who follow the Church’s teaching on sex, have a similar divorce rate.

    • brettsalkeld

      Indeed. I do not deny a bit of a chicken-egg situation here.

  • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

    people may fall into impurity

    Why is sexual sin called “impurity”?

    Lust, along with Gluttony, is commonly figured in spiritual writing as by far the most common of vices for those people not working a spiritual program.

    Just from reading blogs, it seems to me if lust is a bigger problem than, say, treating your neighbor charitably, then there are a lot more sex maniacs out there that we ever dreamed. I’ll take someone whose heart is in the right place any day (say, Belle Watling) over somebody who is “pure.”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Sexual sin is called impurity I presume based on Matthew 5:19, where Jesus says that “sexual immorality” defiles a person–i.e. makes unclean or impure. But this is only one of several offenses mentioned in this passage. I have never heard of anyone who lies, steals, murders or slanders being called impure. (These are the other sins mentioned.)

      • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

        In Catholic thought, Mary is most pure not because she never committed a sexual sin. She is most pure because she never had sex at all. The virginity of Mary is so important that she is said to have been a virgin ante partum, in partu, and post partum, leaving not merely the conception of Jesus a mystery, but his birth inexplicable.

        • Kimberley

          Mary is called most pure because she was born witout original sin.

          • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

            Kimberly,

            That doesn’t explain all the many references to Mary pure in both “body and soul.” Mary’s virginity is seen as part (and clearly a very significant part) of her perfection. Mary’s body is so perfect that not only does she conceived while remaining a virgin, she gives birth while remaining a physically intact virgin, and when her life on earth is over, she is assumed bodily into heaven so her body does not decay. (Did she even die? The Church does not say.)

            It is impossible (at least I found it so, in my reading) to separate out Mary’s freedom from original sin from all the other perfections ascribed to her. She is completely pure, but it is undeniable that one aspect of that purity is her virginity. It appears unthinkable in Catholic doctrine that Mary ever had sexual intercourse with Joseph and gave birth to other children.

            The importance of the virginity of Mary says something about how the Catholic Church regarded sex historically, and how it still regards sex.

      • Jimmy Mac

        “When Pope Damasus in the late 4th century, in one of the earliest official pronouncements on the matter, wrote that “sexual intercourse causes impurity, and the priest ought always to be in a state to perform his heavenly duty of interceding for the sins of others”, or when St. Ambrose wrote in the same period that “the ministry must be seen to be unhampered and unspotted, and undefiled by conjugal intercourse”, it is vain to pretend that promotion of celibacy is not linked to the notion that sex is unclean.”

        The Question of Celibacy (editorial), The Tablet, January 19, 1991.

    • smf

      I think it is called “impurity” as a euphamism, not to make it seem as if it is worse. After all, most people don’t really want to talk about the particulars in detail, so euphamistic ways of talking about all things sexual are common. On the other hand sexual sin does have a rather… physical and bodily element to it that some may see as being literaly unclean.

      • Bruce in Kansas

        I read somewhere, and liked it, that while our modern culture associates “purity” with sterile cleanliness (lifeless), the Church associates it with wholesome love (lifegiving).

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    It seems to be that David Nickol has put his finger on a key feature which, at the very least, makes it appear that the Catholic Church is obsessive about sexuality. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any other area of Catholic morality and ethical teaching that is so reductively prescriptive and leaves remarkably little room for prudential judgment by the actors involved.

    To pick another area of ethical analysis: the Church has given a great deal of thought, particular in the last 50 years, to economic systems and what a just economy should look like. But the resulting teaching is far less deterministic: there is room for a wide variety of social systems, from social democracies to more 19th century liberal systems, provided that they meet certain general norms. Since the capital sins of greed and gluttony are involved, it can’t be that the Church is less worried about these topics. But it has decided, for a number of reasons, that its teaching in this area must be done with broader strokes.

  • Kyle R. Cupp

    One difficulty people may have with making sense of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is that the Church, in the realm of the bedroom, considers evil anything less than intending the ideal (completely self-giving, open to life). But we usually don’t speak of failing to reach an ideal as evil. Less good, perhaps, but evil, not so much. Andrew Sullivan, for example, admits the specialness of procreative sex, but that non-procreative sex (homosexual, for example) doesn’t share this specialness, he sees as no cause to judge it as immoral.

    • smf

      This a failing of common use.

      In the eyes of the Church things must be a positive moral good or else it falls short of the mark.

      Ultimately Christian morality has far more to do with seeking the ideal and searching for the good than it does with “though shalt nots” and avoiding evil. Virtue is far more important than vice, yet we very often get hung up on what is prohibited rather than the things that are required or encouraged.

      • Kyle R. Cupp

        This is the question. Can a sexual act that falls short of the ideal proposed by the Catholic Church still be a positive moral good? Can such acts be virtuous? A lot of people, Catholics included, think so.

        • smf

          Either something is worthy of man bearing the likeness of God or it is not.

          You need an affirmitive yes on all three points of moral analysis before something can be called good. (the means, the intent, and the moral object)

          One of the most ancient definitions for the word we call “sin” is “to miss the mark”.

          • http://www.religiousleftlaw.com David Nickol

            This is not an original thought, but I have never seen a satisfactory answer to it: If the same standard as is applied to sexual behavior is applied to some other form of behavior — and the common example is eating — don’t absurdities result? Is it immoral to drink a Diet Coke because you are obtaining the pleasure of drinking a Coke without the (caloric) consequences? Is it immoral to chew without swallowing? Are there two purposes to eating (nutrition and table fellowship), and must both be present for an act of eating to be moral? How grave a sin is it to eat more than you need? Why was Thomas Aquinas fat?

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            David, this is probably off topic, so I hope that Brett lets it through! :-) But it is worth noting that Slavoj Zizek condemns diet coke for precisely this reason: it is the enjoyment of “coke” without the reality of coke. It has been reduced to an empty, ephemeral experience.

          • digbydolben

            The “moral object” and the “intent” of heterosexual sex was considered, by the earliest of Church Fathers (who were breathlessly awaiting the End of Times) to be fundamentally more flawed than absolute celibacy (eunuchdom for the “Kingdom’s sake”).

            The “intent” and the “moral object” of heterosexual sexual desire were considered to be unworthy of one aspiring to “purity” by both the Stoic philosophers and the Essenes, who may have influenced the early Christians.

            The “moral object” “misses a mark” that is always changing because we live in a “time-space continuum.” I’d argue that the only thing that really counts–and the only thing that Providence will ultimately judge, is the “intent.”

          • smf

            Except of course under that standard anything what so ever can be justified. For there can always be an end to rationalize the means, no matter how terrible.

            As to diet coke, and the like, all things diet, lite, etc. I find offensive as a matter of taste. These are cheap imitations of the real thing.

            (I once heard of a seminarian making the argument that for most people cooking shows are to food what pornography is to sex, and no he did not mean an instruction manual.)

            In any case, the fact that we are too lax in one area of life does not mean we are being too strict in another, it just means we are being too lax.

    • digbydolben

      All of you are failing to grasp one essential thing: In the cultural climate that early Christianity grew up in, fashionable Stoicism, neo-Platonic thought morphing into Gnosticism and Jewish religio-cultural inclinations ALL held the human sexuality was a bad, “impure” thing–whether it was heterosexual or homosexual. This is entirely lost sight of by the modern Church, which REFUSES to echo Christ’s pronouncement–seconded by Paul–that “eunuchdom” for the “Kingdom’s sake” is what is most preferable. The original “religious knowledge” of Christianity, like that of Buddhim, spurns sexual relations of ALL kinds, and that’s why only “procreative” sex is endorsed–and, originally, it’s only reluctantly endorsed.

      • http://the-american-catholic.com DarwinCatholic

        Digby,

        I’m not sure one can make the case this has entirely changed. The Church does, after all, continue to expect vows of celibacy from clergy and religious — an indication that the idea (which I’d consider correct) that sexuality is an activity which is deeply rooted in this world, while consecrated celibacy is an attempt to focus more on the next.

        As you point out, a similar idea that one could work to transcend this world by mastering one’s sexuality, rather than being controlled by it, was found in a number of ancient traditions, Stoicism among them. It’s also not strictly western. One find some thinking along these lines from the Dalai Lama (sp?) which I believe Blackadder had a post on back when he was writing here. Don’t know if those posts were left intact, but as I recall he spoke out specifically against birth control, among other things.

      • smf

        I think you are making a mountain out a mole hill.

        Yes, for those granted the ability to be virigins or eunichs for the sake of the kingdom that is to be the better part. Yet not all are granted that gift, that is clear not just from natural observation but in the larger context that the scriptures make rather clear that the gifts of the spirit are not given in the same way to all people.

        Yes at times the church’s teaching on sex seemed to indicate procreation was its only purpose, but the Theology of the Body is nothing new at all. Even the scriptures in the poetry of the old testament speak of sex far more freely than procreation only divorced from any pleasure.

        • digbydolben

          I think you are making a mountain out a mole hill.

          You should then read what Orthodox Jewish women (and all Jewish women of Christ’s time) have/had to undergo post-parturition. The hysterical attitude toward human sexuality and the body of the Jews of Christ’s time resembles that of the jihadist martyr of 9/11 who didn’t want his dead body to be “washed” by some woman. This attitude meshed neatly with those of the Stoics and the Gnostics. It is YOU who are in a state of denial about this. Why do you suppose the Maccabees went ballistic over Hellenized Jews exercising naked, in the Greek style?

    • http://the-american-catholic.com DarwinCatholic

      One difficulty people may have with making sense of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is that the Church, in the realm of the bedroom, considers evil anything less than intending the ideal (completely self-giving, open to life).

      I’m not clear this is actually the case. Certainly, the Church maintains that violating certain basic rules (such as using artificial birth control) is not just short of the ideal but actively sinful. Similarly, so is having sex with someone you’re not married to, which necessarily includes anyone of the opposite sex.

      However, it seems clear that within these very basic parameters, a couple could be having sex which is short of the ideal in the sense that, say, one or both are primarily or even only focused on their own pleasure and not on giving to the other, and yet to my knowledge moral theology would not say at all that this couple was sinning because their sex act fell short of the ideal for a couple.

      Perhaps part of the problem here is a lot of people are very strongly focused on wanting to do things very far from the ideal. As if all the questions relating to the moral interaction between employers and workers were along the lines of, “Well, can I intentionally expose a worker to fatal work conditions? No? Now about very just dangerous and inhuman ones? Are you kidding? Well, how about if I cheat him of his pay? What??? Well then, at least I can produce unsafe product and do fraudulent billing, right? No? Good grief!!! Anything short of some sort of ideal, perfect business behavior is considered evil around here. You guys are unrealistic!!!”

  • Ronald King

    Great discussion. The sexual drive creates such overwhelming feelings that any repression or lack of knowledge of this critical element of humanity’s survival results in rigidity and fear or rebellion with anger as an attempt to overcome fear. In repression or rebellion there is obsession with the object that is not resolved through the natural law of love.
    Since our brains are constructed for love anything that does not appear to be loving will create an equal and opposite reaction within the observer of the act. I believe that the Church is not obsessed, rather, it is repressed sexually. This repression is experienced as a lack of love by the observers and that is what seems to create such friction and give the appearance of obsession.

  • http://the-american-catholic.com DarwinCatholic

    Very good post, Brett, and I think you answer the title question pretty well.

    One other point, however, from a more broadly societal point of view: While our own culture is noteable for the fact that its sexual norms consist almost entirely of the expectation of sexual license, overall sex has always been one of the human activities that society has had the strongest opinions about. Certainly, most cultures have been biased about this in allowing men much more sexual liberty than women — but even there violations of social norms were very serious business. There are a lot more ancient revenge epics where the action is kicked off by someone sleeping with the wrong person than there are in which it is someone eating the wrong food which is to blame. One can lightheartedly ask whether diet coke should be sinful, but it is certainly the case that historically, cultures have had much stronger norms about sex than about just about anything else. Property and killing are probably the only other social activities as regulated as sex.

    I’d propose the reason for that is that sexual relationships (marriages) tend to form basic social units, and sex also has a tendency to result in new members of society coming into existence. For a host of reasons, these are both things which societies tend to have strong rules about.

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  • Jimmy Mac

    The rules are made by (alleged) celibates. It’s simply a case of “if I can’t have candy, no one can!”