Catholic Sexual Ethics: An Unknown Treasure

Every other year I teach a course on Christian sexual ethics. Turns out, 19-year olds are interested in the subject matter, and despite the early-morning schedule the course suffers from remarkably low rates of truancy—and not because of some innate skill of mine, I wager. The class is always enlivening, with arguments crackling back and forth about contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and so forth, and also emotionally draining since many students seek counsel about sexual identity, use of pornography, plans to marry, and struggles with chastity. It’s a great course, and I love teaching it, especially to these amazing students.

The college at which I work is evangelical Protestant in history and ethos, and the students are mostly earnest, decent, devout, and serious about living their faith. At the same time, given the hesitation of so many contemporary pastors to teach, coupled with the unique ethos of American evangelicalism, a good number of the students are under-catechized. They love Jesus, they nurture and care for their faith, and they earnestly seek to live good lives, but many know less about the Faith than they should. Certainly there are exceptions.

Given the gaps in knowledge, many are delighted to learn the Great Tradition, taking to Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas with real glee. Friends who teach at Catholic colleges have noted the apparent oddity of how willingly my evangelical students read Aquinas while their own Catholic students … well, not always so much.

As they recover the Tradition, some express disappointment that they had to wait so long to encounter these texts, although they do so, generally, in the flushed excitement of new discovery and opened-horizons, rarely in terms of grievance about their home communities. With the exception of sexual ethics—they’re mad about that.

 

I’ve noted it before, but it’s more apparent to me this time—they feel that they’ve been robbed. Ripped off. Cheated. That their birthright was squandered and replaced with a mess of pottage. Instead of the Gospel, they were offered shame, silence, or outright silliness, and as a result feel lost and floundering, either as they attempt chastity without really knowing why, or as they jettison Christian teaching as unrealistic, unfair, capricious, and repressive. In either case, they are often alone, receiving very little solid guidance or instruction from those who have their care.

When they encounter the teaching in its richness, say through John Paul II or Christopher Roberts or Alexander Pruss, they ask hard questions, make objections, argue—do all the things that bright and articulate college students do and ought to do—but they also express relief. At last! Here’s what we were hoping for—an explanation, an account—something which took us seriously as persons, as bodies, as sexed, as young, as struggling, and as smart.

Very often, I’m surprised at their embrace of the hard teachings. They’ve been told (mostly) that it’s healthy and normal and necessary to do x, y, and z, and along comes the Faith articulating that they must not do x, y, or z now, but they may never do those things, even once married. And many (not all) are relieved, encouraged, heartened, gladdened! These may be difficult things, but they’re human, noble, lovely, fair, and coherent. More than anything, I suspect, the coherence of the position shines through, for not only does the Christian tradition not proceed from issue to issue in a random and arbitrary way, but it ties sexual morality to the Gospel, human dignity, the meaning of life, and Christ who is the center and meaning of every life and all human history. In other words, Christian sexual ethics becomes less a series of strange and harsh rules, and more a story about dignity, purpose, love, and a relationship with the Creating and Redeeming God revealed in Christ.

This need for coherent meaning—and the sense that they’ve been denied the whole story—is not at all unique to my students; rather, I think most people do not know this. Perhaps they have it in bits and pieces, perhaps they’ve heard it and denied it, but I think it’s far more likely that most people—Catholics, too—have not been told. Perhaps they’ve been given something a little more “palatable,” a little less demanding, but it turns out that the more “relevant” and “contemporary” and “acceptable” the teaching is, the less it matters and the easier it is to cast aside.

What was Chesterton’s great line? “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” True words, but perhaps it is also true that the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting but judged so difficult it was never taught.

Two thoughts come to mind.

First, teach. Everyone, teach. Parents, educators, catechists, priests—everyone, teach this. Not as hidebound legalism, but as Gospel, as at the heart of the redemptive story. Taught this way, Catholic sexual teaching is not angry or chastising, but lovely, cheerful, and life-giving. Just as we would not (or ought not) proclaim the Gospel sheepishly but as incredible news, so too this. Hard? Perhaps. Challenging to the cultural moment? No doubt. Something worthwhile for humans? Yes. So why the silence?

Second, offering. Like so many of the young, my students are basically alone with this. They’re trying hard, but almost no one expects them to do so, or to succeed. What if, instead, every parish, every family, every community, every couple, every single person—everyone—bore each other’s burdens and let others know about it! What if every Catholic couple offered up their own sexual temptations and struggles for the good of all the 16-year olds in their parish? (And for their priest?) What if all the singles in the community knew that the married also abstained, and not just to avoid having more children, but for them and for their chastity and struggle? What if no one was alone in this, but everyone knew that their parish was actively at work, actively laboring one for the other? And everyone knew that all bore the very same struggle, namely, chastity both in and out of marriage, with Church teaching, in all its difficult claims, accepted, embraced, cherished, suffered, and offered? That seems good to me. And I think it might be something of a small revolution if the young knew they were not being scolded or ignored or expected to fail, but, rather, that everyone in the room was in the very same position they were, and everyone in the room was offering their lives and struggles for them.

Wouldn’t that be something?

It’s not at all unusual for the community to rally around a couple struggling with the sorrows of infertility, and very usual to gather to celebrate a new birth or a pregnancy. Why just those moments? Why shouldn’t our whole embodied life be drawn into the work of the Body as it lives and breathes and nurtures its members? Why do we abandon each other?

Editor’s note: The image above of St. Augustine was painted by Philippe de Champaigne between 1645 and 1650.

R. J. Snell

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R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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