As a young Evangelical, my understanding of Christian sexual ethics was, at best, a piecemeal affair. Like much of the theology and philosophy that underpinned my beliefs, I’d gathered what I knew from a loose networks of Evangelical authors I’d read, pastors I’d listened to, and a sordid collection of opinions from friends and family.
Needless to say, it was quite an eclectic flavour of Christianity.
But, at the same time, no different in the least from my Evangelical peers. After all, in a Sola Scriptura system of belief we are left to our own devices about how to best interpret the Bible; these decisions, I’ve found, find their roots in the kinds of theology we surround ourselves with. My understanding of the nature of the Gospel was largely formed by what I’d read of N.T. Wright. His understanding, in turn, was formed by what he’d read. And so on and so on.
When I began to read from the Early Church Fathers, the Counter-Reformers, and what the Catholic Church said about itself I found a whole other tradition of belief built not solely upon the Bible but on the authority given to the apostles and the bishops and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
I realized that there was an alternative to my patchwork quilt of Christianity. Standing, in boldly stark contrast, was a two-thousand year old tradition of the Catholic Church. And on sex and sexuality, where I had sputtered around the edges of understanding as an Evangelical, I found a firm, bedrock of beliefs and clear and coherent teaching in Catholicism.
In other words, the Catholic Church gets sexuality. Deeply and profoundly. And the Catholic Church isn’t anti-sex but, rather, elevates sex and human sexuality to transcendent levels.
The important discovery for me, as I made my way into the Catholic Church, was how simply and beautifully coherent its teachings were. Human sexuality, for me, has always been a great example of this and I like to put it this way:
The same reason underpins why a Catholic priest cannot be married and why a married couple cannot use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.
Or, another example,
The Catholic Church forbids divorce for the same reason that it forbids same-sex marriage.
For the same reason divorce is prohibited so is same-sex marriage.
What the Catholic Church offers, then, is a completely comprehensive understanding of human sexuality. A whole, full teaching, with roots in the Early Church and lessons for the contemporary one. It cannot be split up, divided, or isolated one part from another and this—the Catholic worldview—is what is most often misunderstood by both those on the outside and, sadly, far too many on the inside. What opponents of the Church’s teachings—often Catholics or Protestant Christians too—fail to understand is that it is impossible to isolate any of these singular cases. They are, fundamentally, connected.
The teaching, best articulated by Pope John Paul II in the 1980’s, has come to be known as Theology of the Body and takes its cues from the very first episode of the Old Testament—the Genesis creation story—right up to the present-day struggles of Christians against pornography, the vapid culture of eroticism, and the erosion of the biblical definition of marriage.
At its core, Theology of the Body, teaches that men and women are created differently. That we are complementary beings and that we ought to live, for most, relationally together. Our bodies, in contrast to the present day Gnostic culture, should be viewed very highly—they aren’t simply vessels for our souls or sacks of skin to do what we will with them; and they aren’t subject—or shouldn’t be subject—to our fundamental altering.
The sacredness of our bodies, as well as our souls, the fundamental complementary nature of the sexes, the importance of recognizing and respecting the natural order that God established for humankind—these are the underpinnings of the Theology of the Body. And, taken as a whole, this rich theology explains the Catholic Church’s stance towards a whole myriad of sexual beliefs and behaviours.
The Catholic Church, at its core, is not anti-sex.
Instead, the Catholic Church presents and preaches a rich theological tradition which it has been caretaker of for two-thousand years.
When civil jurisdictions around the world began to condone and offer the option of divorce in marriage it was, and remains, the Catholic Church which opposes separating what God first joined. Which, alone, takes the weight of the Bible and thousands of years of Christian tradition at face value. In the richness of the Theology of the Body this is easily understood: in marriage two complementary souls are permanently joined; it goes without saying that they can’t then be, in any way, wrenched apart.
When Protestant denominations, in the face of the new phenomenon of birth control, one by one conceded its compatibility with Scripture it was the Catholic Church, singularly, that stood opposed.
It was, and remains, the Catholic Church which teaches that God created us with a particular nature—our sexual organs with a particular function—and that to do anything to interfere with this natural order would be disordered, in other words, sin.
And it was the Catholic Church, more than fifty years ago, which predicted in its entirety the sexual revolution of today. If we dis-integrate procreation from the sexual act, the Church warned, we risk making the sexual act the end itself. We begin to glorify sexual pleasure; we separate the incredible, natural result of sex from its original intention. Not, says the Church, that sex is bad but that sex is meant to be so much more than we make it.
We, in this realm, fall so far short of the glory of God—what God intended for sex to be.
The Church isn’t, in a manner of speaking, in opposition to contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce, and the happiness of priests were they to be able to marry and start families. Instead and, I think, more properly understood, the Church shows us how God intends to rightly order the world—from the sacraments to sin to salvation; and, only understood within this wider framework, our sexuality too.
It is from within this large theological framework, this rich and long tradition, that the Church teaches. This, I think, is of the utmost importance to understanding.
So, no, the Church isn’t opposed to sex. It is, instead, in favour of so much more. It aspires, and leads us to aspire, to something far beyond.