Last week in this column on ‘gnarly questions’ I wrote about the basic Catholic theological understanding of the sexual act and its meaning – an embodied reflection of God’s love for creation and for humanity, hence an act occurring in a context of irrevocable commitment (marriage) and ordered towards creativity and life (pro-creative).
I am always amused at the commenters on such blog posts who feel it is necessary to inform me that Not! Everyone! Agrees! With! This! Ummm… yes, dear. I am aware that there are actually people in the world and even in the pews who do not quite agree with what the Catholic Church teaches about sex and marriage. This is not a well kept secret.
I ended last week’s blog post by asking ‘what about all the people who, under this understanding of sex, cannot morally engage in sexual intercourse?’ The unmarried, the gay—what about them? Does the Church then condemn them to a life of misery and loneliness? How can we be so cruel as to say to people that they must live their lives alone, alone, alone, forever alone, without love, without companionship, without anyone who cares for them or for whom they care.
Because of course the only possible way to have someone in your life who you care for and who cares for you, the only possible way to have ‘love’ in your life, is to go to bed with someone, right?
Actually, that’s not the Church who says that; that is our world and our culture that says that.
It is not the Church who condemns people to live lonely lives if they cannot find a sexual partner; it is the world that does that by deciding that the only possible way a person can have a close and loving relationship in this life is by sexual pairings. There is a problem here, but the problem is not what the Church teaches—it is that our society has lost the very concept of friendship and real social networks of care and concern, treats people as economic cogs in a giant wheel who can only find respite from the cold isolation of modern urban-industrial life by clutching on to one another in either long-term (but by no means life-long) sexually intimate relationships or (more and more frequently) short-term casual hookups.
So let’s talk about chastity. If it just happens to be true that sexual intercourse bears a divine meaning that can only be faithfully expressed in marital sex oriented towards life, then what about the reality that all of us have a sexual drive, have sexual desire, but a considerable percentage of the population are not able to ethically have sex? Even if this number is currently inflated beyond what is normal for humanity, due to economic and sociological pressures that make it difficult for people to get married (again, a situation that is not the Church’s fault, but society’s), nonetheless it is a simple fact that even in a healthy functioning society there will always be a large number of people who should not be sexually active, according to Catholic moral teaching.
This is not a situation of misery and endless desolation! Our sexuality, our capacity for generativity in love, that aspect of our humanity that is both a matter of intense pleasure and desire, but which far transcends the merely physical to reach the level of spirit and life, identity and personhood—there is much more to it, actually, than its seeming completion in the act of sexual intercourse.
The simple fact is, our existence as sexual beings means that our whole personhood is in its raw physicality ordered towards the ‘other’. We are not sufficient unto ourselves. As our bodies require food for life, so our bodies require another person for love. But as our bodies’ physical hunger for food points to that deeper hunger, that deeper life that comes to us from the life of The Other, so our bodies’ hunger for love and union points us to a deeper Love and a Communion that is far beyond what sexual union can bring us.
Both these basic physical drives—food and sex—essentially serve in their well-ordered expression to pull the person out of the fortress of the autonomous independent self into a position of inter-subjectivity, relationship, need. But as food in the vice of gluttony becomes food at the service of the ego, at the service of the untethered will, so sex in the vice of lust becomes mere use of the other to satisfy the appetite.
Chastity—well-ordered sexuality either in its lawful use in marriage or in celibate continence outside of marriage—is the virtue whereby our sexuality is held in this deeper context and meaning, and prevented from its terrible tragic degradation into lust and use.
And the answer to this terrible fear that sexual continence will deliver us to loneliness and misery lies, not in abandoning God’s moral order about sex and marriage, but in a spiritual revolution whereby all of us—married or single—come to know and believe that we are made ultimately not for the other, but for The Other, for God, and that the answer to loneliness, isolation, and the sadness of our human condition lies not in flesh and blood but in our entry into the Communion of the Holy Trinity, our divine destiny in which all the desires of our souls and bodies will be at last satisfied.
I do realize that there is so much more to be said on all of this—a blog post can only be so long, and say so much. But that is what I have to say on the matter, at least in this context.