In the 19th century, of the (many) reasons that Catholics faced discrimination from their Protestant counterparts was over the issue of sex. While many Protestants had been swept up in the Victorian-era repression of sex, believing that sex was merely a means to an end and should be avoided except for the procreation of children, that all sexual desire should be suppressed, Catholics took a slightly different approach. Not only did we emphasize the importance of pleasure in sex, we freely talked about it, with Church leaders routinely commenting on sex in homilies or letters to the faithful. For those who thought that what happened in the bedroom was private and was no one’s business in the Church (even God’s?), the Catholic Church was a strange and promiscuous institution that one should be wary of.
Funny how the more things change the more things stay the same. Today, we’re still looked upon as strange by the outside world, but instead of being promiscuous and free we’re now seen as repressed and stuck up. And while our teachings have stayed the same all of these years, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that few people actually understand what’s at the root of these teachings. Why do we say what we do? What is at stake in terms of our definition of the human person? How does sexual activity require responsibility, morality, and (dare I say) even some virtue? Even for married couples, even for those in the privacy of their own bedrooms, the Church stands firm in believing that everything we do should reflect our faith. Marriage does not give someone the free pass to do anything they want just as a driver’s license doesn’t give someone free rein of the highway.
Obviously, there are many ways to exercise this and some may faithfully approach sex without coming to the same conclusions that we do. In fact, even within the Catholic Church, among the faithful and clergy alike, there is great debate surrounding our sexual teaching. To say that simply because someone disagrees with the official magisterium of the Church means that they are not taking this sacred act seriously would be a serious overgeneralization. There are many faithful ways to view the same issue.
What I present to you this week, then, is not meant to be dogmatic teaching inherent to the very nature of being a Christian. What I present is an attempt to understand the logic behind the Church’s teaching. Not everyone will accept this, I accept, but that is not my hope in taking on this topic. In a world so divided on such a controversial issue, my only hope is that people may come to a greater knowledge of why our teachings are the way they are so to engage them more critically in prayer and conversation. We’ve gotten a bad rap on this issue for centuries, and while some of it is certainly deserved, I think the vast majority of it springs from misunderstanding.