The purpose of the modern critique of Catholic sexual morality is not to redefine sexual ethics but to un-moralize (de-moralize?) all forms of sexual expression, i.e., to give our sexual desires free rein unencumbered by guilt or responsibility. In an age where our goodness is determined by feelings of goodness about ourselves, this makes perfect sense. Yet, one would think Catholic bishops educated in the traditions and doctrines of the Church would clearly see through the false promise of such thinking. However, this is not the case.
In a recent announcement reported by the Catholic News Agency (Dec. 12, 2019), the German bishops’ conference announced a “Synodal Process” which will examine the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. The bishops’ statement indicates, “There was consensus on the question that human sexuality encompasses a dimension of lust [per Google translation—perhaps “desire” would be a better translation], reproduction and relationship.” The bishops’ statement affirms that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are “normal forms of sexual predisposition.” The synod will not only address whether the Church’s teachings banning homosexual practices are up to date, but also those regarding contraception and second marriages.
Common to the modern critique and the bishops’ statement is the error of raising the accidents of our sexuality, i.e., desire and relationship, to parity with the essence of sexuality, i.e., reproduction. But even “reproduction” clinically renders the personal impersonal. Our sexuality is not about “I” but the creation of others who can also claim their own “I.” It is about children, children with names and lives of their own, children made—with our participation—in God’s image.
Our sexuality is the only part of our biology that is not about ourselves but about another. This is not theology, but basic science. Our sexuality necessarily includes pleasure, otherwise humanity would have ceased to exist shortly after it had begun. The fact that pleasure serves the end of reproduction is basic biology. Furthermore, children require parents with stable and even loving relationships. The troubled lives of many children in our modern world should make this clear. Sexual desire promotes relationships that are ordered toward and serve the telos of our sexuality, which is not mere reproduction but successful reproduction. We are biologically designed to produce and nurture children until they can survive on their own. Based only on our desire for the pleasure and not the product, modern “sexuality” has elevated the accidents of desire and relationship above the essence of reproduction. Only in recognizing and separating the essential from the accidental can any discussion lead to truth.
It is only with the child front and center that we can see that our sexual behavior cannot be separated from morality. Morals are not theological strictures but necessary guidelines that allow us to live with one another. Morals recognize the essential relational nature of man. The essence of any moral code is good community based on good human relationships. Underpinning morality is the idea that we are meant to live together in mutually beneficial ways. Those who reject the sexual morality of the Catholic Church do not reject morality, but an application of it that stands between them and good feelings. In its place they have put a morality more stringent and less tolerant than anything the Church has ever proposed. This new morality defines sin as anything that challenges the belief one has in their own goodness. This requires that sexual acts be removed from the strictures of morality. In doing so it removes the personhood of the child as a member of the human community. It renders the child invisible.
The enemy standing between modern man and his un-moralized sexual expression is not the Catholic church but the invisible child crying to be seen. It is the child we hurt when we live our sexuality wrongly. The child is the foundation stone that gives meaning to Catholic sexual morality. However, the concept of sexual morality requires more than a child victim; it requires men and women who can know themselves as responsible for the harm done. When a fox kills a chicken, he simply does what a fox does. He does not know the chicken is worthy of existence. He does not know himself as one capable of considering the chicken’s worth. In fact, we can simply state that the fox does not even know himself. There is no self-reflective “I” that allows him to objectively consider himself and his actions. When a fox mates, he lives out an urge, not a desire for children. He cannot connect the act of copulation with the consequence of little foxes. He does not know as human beings—to whom the use of “I” is second nature—can know.
How we live our sexuality is moral because we can know our sexuality’s purpose is another life. We also know we are not the fox but a human who can see his desires, see where they lead, and choose an action based on those reflections: we can separate desire from act. The very essence of our humanity is the ability to judge our desires as worthy or unworthy. Many parents (probably all parents) have known the desire to seriously harm their children. Fortunately, most parents reasonably overwhelm their desires and do the right thing. No matter what our position on sexuality, we all understand that desire and act are necessarily separated. A man attacked and beaten on the streets is not likely to consider the attacker’s gratification—no matter how passionately it was desired—as justification for his crime.
This begs the question: what is the difference between the man beaten on the street and the child conceived without due consideration? Do the intensity and longing of sexual desires reduce us to the fox where desire and act are no longer separate? Why should acts rising from sexual desire be exempt from moral consideration in a way other desires are not? The difference, I surmise, is that the victim of our other desires can loudly object while the victims of our sexual desires cannot.
However, the violence to the man beaten pales in comparison to the violence visited upon the child. How many of us can imagine our safety violated by a suction tube that dismembers us and, literally, sucks the life from us? How many of us would choose to be born into a family where we are unloved? How many of us would have wanted to see the security and love we should have had as children torn apart by the quarrels and ultimate divorce of our parents? How many of us would have chosen to have our parents embark on “finding” themselves while losing us in the process? A random beating by a stranger is a cakewalk compared to betrayal by those who should love you. The fox kills and eats the chicken because he can. His nature bears no consideration for the chicken, and his power prevails. Have we become the fox and the child the chicken?
To be human is to be moral. Ultimately, we choose or reject our humanity, and in doing so we choose or reject the moral life. In choosing the moral life we begin to see ourselves as the humans we are meant to be. We see ourselves as part of a larger community that not only includes those present, but those past and future. Rather than inverting our sexuality into ourselves, we will see that it calls us to something more. We will understand that every act of virtue brings all in this larger community toward goodness, and every lapse of virtue pulls us all down. We will see that the pornography we watched in dark and solitary silence in the east contributed to an abortion in the distant west. We will see that contraception reduces our personhood as males and females and breaks the bonds of a one-flesh union, a union our children require unbroken. We will see that contraception requires abortion to “fix” its failures. We will see that all “sexual” acts that are not ordered and open to life perpetuate the scandal that our sexuality is about ourselves. We will see the children we have hurt both now and to come.
On the other hand, we will also see the joy of a child conceived in and born into love. We will see each other as people endowed with the ability to create others. We will love each other as people who could be parents. Our love will ensure that we only become parents when we are truly ready to be one flesh, when we can conceive a child in the self-giving love of a man and a woman, and when we can bring that child into a family already united in love. When we truly see this, we will see that to live the chaste life is to participate in the joy of every child conceived in and born into love. We will see the communion of man and God, and we will begin to understand the feast to which all are invited and where all joy is fully shared.
Catholic sexual morality is not a metric by which we are judged. It is an invitation to participate in something larger than ourselves. We are not called to do good but, rather, to become goodness itself. The invitation of Catholic sexual morality does not discriminate. It is open to all. It offers the same joy to all, whether they accept it early in the day or at the end of the day.
When the German bishops meet to re-evaluate Catholic sexual morality, I hope they will know it is an invitation to heaven they will be rewriting. I hope they will remember that we are not the fox. And I hope they will see the child.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons