The intellectual environment at college allowed me to flirt with the truth claims of Christianity in a way I never had before—and by my junior year, I was sneaking away from my “sexually liberated” feminist cohorts to debate my new Christian friends. The local parish priest came around at times, and as Providence would have it, he was a bit of an intellectual himself. Curious as to what such a smart man could see in Catholicism, I finally asked him on one occasion: “Why are you Catholic?” He answered, without missing a beat: “Because the Catholic Church is the easiest route to heaven.” At this response I was especially puzzled, because I had thought living according to Catholic teaching sounded quite hard—and terribly unappealing.
I would come to learn that by this Father John meant that God the Father, in His great love and affection for His children, established the Church on earth to show us the best means to attain intimate union with Him. What I had assumed were restrictions on freedom, especially in sexual matters, were actually signposts along the way that marked off dangerous territory, that guided our desires away from those things that are always seductively appealing, but are fleeting, distracting—and damaging—so that we could be free to seek the only thing that truly fulfills our desires: union with God.
When my priest-friend said that the Catholic Church is the easiest route to heaven, he certainly did not mean that a life lived in accordance with Catholic teaching would be free from suffering. Indeed, I have come to discover over the years that Church teaching, on sex and marriage especially, recognizes the profound reality that Jesus taught us by His death and resurrection: True love always comes by way of the cross.
Being chaste until and within marriage, committing day in and day out to the self-giving and self-denial that lifelong marriage and childrearing require of us, being open to God’s gift of new life in a generous and responsible way, and in this day and age, even carrying to term an unexpected child—these are difficult tasks, and our fallen nature rebels against them. The world recognizes this natural rebellion, our desire to express human love in sexual intimacy, to seek pleasure and run from pain, to fulfill our own needs and desires while giving ill-attention to the needs and desires of others—in a word, to live our lives for ourselves. Mistaking these desires for human nature rather than fallen human nature—the world’s response is to laugh at Church teaching, to make a mockery of the Church and her seemingly archaic rules on sex and marriage, because they are so difficult, because they require so much of us.
Yet those who seek to follow the way of Our Lord understand that much is required of us. This is precisely the point. God calls us out of our fallenness, out of our self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking, to follow the way of perfection, to live in a way that is, by natural means, difficult—at times, even impossible. Many complain that Church teachings on sex and marriage are unrealistic, that the Church is out of touch. If we were meant to live by human means alone, to follow these teachings on our own strength, I would say the world’s complaints were absolutely right. Indeed, by my own strength, I failed at almost every one of them.
But God demands perfection of us—perfect chastity, perfect purity, and perfect love—not only because it is the way of life that will fulfill our deepest desires, but just as importantly, because when we fail at living this perfection (and we will fail) our heavenly and merciful Father wants us to fall to our knees, to realize our own human bankruptcy, and rely on Him and His grace to live and to love.
It is in our very failing to live as we ought that we are presented with the sublime opportunity to surrender ourselves to God—to ask Him, the Great Lover, to live selflessly in us and love selflessly through us. Through the push of the Church’s teachings that call us to live selflessly in our day-to-day dealings with others, we come to discover the utter need we have to meet God, the source of all selfless love, in daily prayer, frequent confession, and most especially in the Eucharist. If only what was “natural” or “desirable” was asked of us in our lives, we would seem to have no need for God. It is not by coincidence that a culture that has rejected the Church’s difficult teachings on sex and marriage has, in great and public ways, rejected God.
And it is not by coincidence that the Church, whose teachings demand so much of us, would also be that Church in which God has revealed Himself most fully—the Church that Christ endowed with the responsibility of bringing His very Body to the world. When we understand just what God does for us in the Eucharist, how He unites Himself with us in the most intimate embrace ever imagined in the course of history, we Catholics would not balk at how He asks us to live.
It is not just that uniting with the Great Lover in the Eucharist endows us with the strength to love selflessly in our most intimate relationships; the discipline, self-control, and self-sacrifice that the Church’s teachings require of us prepare our souls and make them fertile, as it were, for the transformation—the divination—that God wants to bring about in us as we receive the Eucharist. God, Our Father, wants us to become other Christs for the world. But as the saints and doctors of the Church have taught since the time of Our Lord, we have to be broken before He can remake us in His true likeness. For Catholics who follow Church teaching on sex and marriage, no hair shirt is necessary.
Pope Benedict XVI beautifully captures the intimate—and necessary—relationship between self-denial and authentic human love in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:
Love is indeed “ecstasy,” not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfillment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.
Losing one’s life for others is the essence of both love and life. The Church teaches precisely this point when she instructs on sex and marriage: In striving to live chastity, purity, and openness to life in our marriages (and our courtships); we cannot help but die to self.
Once we understand that reality is cruciform—that we gain life only by losing it—we will understand the truth of Church teaching on sex and marriage—not just in the way that we understand intellectually that human sexuality is by its very nature both unitive and procreative (despite modern efforts to have it otherwise), but deep in our core. We come to recognize the dramatic beauty of the authoritative tradition of the Church in her insistence on these teachings when we discover that it is precisely in their difficulty that they are the means of our sanctification. Living these teachings causes each of us, at one point or another—when abstinence seems too much or we are overwhelmed by the children we have, and another is on the way—to crawl on our knees to our God in the confessional and with a sense of urgency to the Eucharist. And this is just how God intended it. His only interest is in our becoming saints—and there is no other way to that eternal beatitude than Christ’s way, via the cross. Built into our very vocation as married Catholics is the road to heaven, always paved, in part, by redemptive suffering. Herein lies the wisdom of Christ’s Church and her teachings.
But the cross is not about suffering for suffering’s sake. Rather, at the cross we are brought to see our human limitations; our weaknesses; our inability to love as we should. When we confront the cross as spouses, as parents—during times of misunderstanding, cravings for personal time, when we witness our own selfishness—it is Christ there looking back at us, pledging that, if we allow Him, He can transform us as He did death itself; He can remake us to love as He loves. The Church’s restrictions on sex out of wedlock, contraception, abortion, and divorce afford individuals, spouses, and parents the opportunity to be transformed by Christ, by His cross. These teachings are the catalyst by which God reveals to us our own weakness—and our utter need for His grace. As Paul writes, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
The world, of course, sees the idea of the cross as preposterous. Hardship, sacrifice, and suffering must be avoided at every cost—even if lives must be taken or promises broken. And it has always been so; Christ’s crucifixion was itself “a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). But as many of us have discovered in our own lives, running from the reality of the cross has its own consequences. Christopher West writes in Good News: “If we reject the cross of Christ, if we refuse to take the risk of loving as Christ loves, we will still eventually end up with what we resisted—suffering. But the suffering that comes from resisting the cross is fruitless, empty, and despairing, while the suffering that comes from embracing the cross leads to the joy of the resurrection, the joy of love and new life.”
We now have many well-documented scientific studies that have begun to quantify the suffering caused by the decades-long human experiment called the sexual revolution—a revolution whose very purpose was to reject the notion that true love involves sacrifice. The data are voluminous, but here are a few snapshots of research documenting the suffering caused by divorce, abortion, teen sexual activity, and contraception:
- A recent report from a politically diverse group of family scholars concluded that intact marriages protect daughters from premature sexual activity, protect sons from delinquent and criminal activity, and protect children generally from higher rates of child abuse, substance abuse, psychological stress, mental illness, and divorce as adults.
- Numerous and varied medical studies show that women who have had abortions suffer an increased risk of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide, and breast cancer, as well as placenta previa and pre-term birth in subsequent pregnancies.
- Statistics show that teens who are sexually active are more likely than their sexually abstinent peers to be depressed, attempt suicide, get STDs, procure abortions, have children out of wedlock, and find themselves in unstable marriages as adults.
- According to research by leading economists and sociologists—who, in this case, are neither Christians nor social conservatives—the widespread availability of contraception has led to an increase in sexual license, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce—especially among the poor. University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox writes that social science data have largely vindicated Catholic teaching: The dignity of both man and woman is best understood and respected when sexual intimacy takes place within the protections of permanent, life- giving, monogamous marriage.
We who, by grace, seek to follow Church teaching on sex and marriage are generally spared such disastrous consequences. We also are blessed with the delight of authentic love—for our spouse, our children, and our God. And we are humbled by the recognition that our God wants this joy for us, not just for eternity, but now. Our loving Father permits us to suffer difficulties, to trip upon our own weakness, to abhor our selfishness, while He stands ready all the while to heal and transform us.
The Church’s teachings on sex and marriage may seem daunting to the man of the world who has been taught to seek happiness in himself, his pleasure, and his illusions of independence. But to those who have been graced with the desire signify God’s great love for us. For not only do these teachings protect us from much emotional, physical, and spiritual harm, but by them, God guides us to our eternal home.