Is the Catholic Church unrealistic about Sex? by Peter Kreeft

29 05 2013

Sex and the church
No, on the contrary, the Church is the only institution in the world that is totally realistic about sex.
Realism means thinking about reality, thinking about what a thing really is. That is exactly what the Church does–and what our modern culture does not do.
1. The first and most important foundation for thinking about sexual morality is to understand what sex is. You cannot understand what anything ought to be unless you understand what it is. You cannot understand what “good X” and “bad X” is unless you understand what X is. And that applies to sex as well as to X

2. But the Church’s teaching is all about the ideal, not the real; about what sex is supposed to be, not what it is. If you want to start with reality, you must start with the brute facts. Sex is simply a fact of life, like hair and thirst and death. Sex is not merely a “fact”, like the color of your eyes. It is more like a look, a glance of the eyes. It has deep meaning and purpose. It means something, it points to something, like a sign or a word or a pointing finger. It doesn’t just happen, like a belch, but it speaks, like a word.

The word it speaks is love. Sex means love. Sexual activity is one kind of love. We often call it “making love”. It is a form of speech, of body language. And what it says is: “I love you with my body, with my sexuality; I love your sexual identity with my sexual identity; I love your whole identity, body and soul, with my whole identity, body and soul.” Since it means that wholeness, it does not mean merely “My body wants your body for my body’s pleasure.” That is all that sex means for the animals, but it means something much more personal for human persons.
There are also many other kinds of love besides sexual love: for instance, instinctive liking, comfortable familiarity, friendship, charity, and admiration. We even say “I’d love a steak dinner” or “I loved that vacation” or “I love to listen to that music.” In other words, we love things and we love persons, but obviously not in the same way. When we love persons as if they were things, when we use persons as mere means to the end of our own selfish pleasure, that is a profound misuse of love. For instance, slavery and prostitution both use people as means instead of loving and respecting them as ends.

3. All right, then, so sex is about love. But the Church says sex is about babies, that sex is for procreation. Sex is about both. That’s the Church’s point. What most clearly distinguishes sexual love from all other kinds of love is that by its very essence, by its nature, it is fertile. It leads to procreation as naturally as eating leads to nutrition or exercise leads to healthy muscles. That is simply a biological fact. It’s called the “reproductive system”. Sex makes babies. That is its nature. What it does is part of what it is. Its natural effect is part of its nature. If you leave sex alone, sex can lead to conception–unless you stop it by some form of contraception. That’s why contraception is called “contra-ception”: it works against conception. That presupposes that conception would happen by nature, without our doing anything more, unless we did something against sex, fought against it, fought against its natural effect.
Exercise, eating, and sex are also by nature pleasurable but in obviously different ways and degrees. Sexual pleasure is different from all other pleasures, just as the pleasure of eating is also different from all other pleasures, and so is even the pleasure of exercising. That is also a fact, a biological and psychological fact.
So just as the nature of eating includes both its unique effect (nutrition) and its unique pleasure (the satisfaction of hunger), and just as the nature of exercise includes both its unique effect (stronger muscles) and its unique pleasure, so the nature of sex includes both its unique effect (babies) and its unique pleasure. There are thousands of things that give us pleasure, but in general, the greater the effect, the greater the pleasure. No effect that we can ever produce is as great as new people, and no pleasure is as intense as sexual pleasure.

4. So how does that make sex sacred? Pig sex makes baby pigs too, but that doesn’t make pig sex sacred.
Animal sex is not sacred because animals are not sacred. But human sex is sacred because humans are sacred. Sex is sacred because sex is not just made by humans but sex makes humans, makes more of those sacred things that we call human beings.
Let’s look more closely at what sex makes, or procreates; let’s look at those amazing things we call persons, or people. What is distinctive about persons? Why are they sacred? They alone, of all the things in this material universe, have infinite value, because they are not just God’s creatures but God’s children. Birds and flowers and rocks and stars and everything else in the created universe are creatures too and have value. (“Creature” means simply “created thing”.) But we are not just God’s creatures but God’s children because God is not only our Creator but our Heavenly Father. We are not just created, but created in God’s image.

5. What does that mean, that we are created “in the image of God”?
It means that, unlike all the other things in the universe, which are just material things, we are also spiritual, like God. We have spiritual souls as well as material bodies. And two of the powers of the spiritual soul are the mind and the will. We can think and we can choose. We can know and we can love.
And because we are spirit as well as matter, because we have souls as well as bodies, we are immortal. When the stars die, billions of years from now, every one of us will still be alive. Each individual lasts longer than any nation or empire on earth. That is why we have intrinsic value. You can’t put a price on a person. Each person is worth more than the entire universe.
That is what sex makes: new persons, new children of God, new immortals.
Procreation is literally a miracle. Every time we naturally make a new human body by sexual intercourse, God supernaturally creates a new human soul. God creates whenever we procreate.
This is one of the two greatest miracles in the universe, for it is one of the two ways God Himself keeps entering the universe to perform a miracle, to do something only God can do. The other ongoing miracle is the Eucharist, where God transforms bread and wine into His own Body and Blood every time a priest says the words “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood” over the bread and wine in the Mass. This is why sex is holy, like the Eucharist. It is not “dirty”; it is holy.
Unholy people feel “dirty” in the presence of something holy, like a saint, or a miracle, or an angel, or the Blood of Christ. In the presence of great sinners, we feel like saints, but in the presence of great saints, we feel like sinners. In the presence of something very good and holy and clean, we feel unworthy and unholy and unclean.

6. But sex doesn’t always make new people. It doesn’t have to. You can be sure it doesn’t by using birth control. So sex isn’t always holy.
Yes it is, because it always is what it is. It never loses its nature, even when it is prevented from exercising its power. A person who is bound and gagged and tied to a chair is prevented from exercising his power of walking and talking, but he is still a person and still a walker and talker, unlike a chair. When sex is prevented from exercising its power of procreation by contraception, it is still sex and still a holy thing. A priest who cannot offer the Mass is still a priest.
Contraceptive sex is artificial, not natural. The point here is not that everything artificial is wrong–of course not–but the point is simply that sex makes babies by its very nature. That is part of its significance, its meaning. Just as sex means love, just as it means “I want to give you my whole self, my body and my soul, my whole person, my whole personality, sexual and spiritual, material and mental, all of me, completely”, it also means children, just as an eye means seeing or a sword means fighting or a word means communicating. It is not a meaning we add to sex, but a meaning that is in it by its own nature. Unless you do something to stop it, sex makes babies.
In fact, this second meaning flows from the first one: the “baby-meaning” flows from the “love-meaning”. “I want to give you all of myself” means “I also want to give you my fertility” and “I want to give you my life, my children, my family, my future. I want to share my whole life with you.” That is the “message” God put into human sexuality when He designed it.
These two meanings (love and babies) do not just happen to be both there together by accident, but they are meant to be there together (as two lovers sense that they were “meant to be together”). By its very nature, sex means both intimate, total, self-giving love and procreation (babies, family).
That is why cloning and creating test-tube babies are wrong. They are not just unnatural but anti-natural. They are not wrong because they are artificial or technological but because they tear up God’s design for sex. They say yes to one half of it and no to the other half. As contraception says no to babies and yes to sex, they say yes to babies and no to sex. What God joined together, they separate. It is like divorce. (Remember Jesus’ words against divorce: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” [Mt 19:6]). For it was not just one man and one woman, but also God, who made the marriage. It takes three to get married.
That is the same reason why rape and prostitution are evil. They are unnatural, antinatural, against God’s design for the nature of human sex. Homosexual sex, bestiality (sex with animals), and masturbation (sex with yourself) are wrong for the same reason. (They are not all equally bad, but they are all bad.) They are wrong because they are antinatural, and antinatural sex is so wrong only because natural sex is so right. They are so bad only because sex is so good. They pervert a very, very good thing. They deface a holy picture, an icon.
That is also why artificial contraception is antinatural and wrong. Sex that deliberately refuses all procreation refuses part of its own essential nature and thus violates the very nature of sex.
It’s not just a question of how you feel about it, whether you feel comfortable with it or uncomfortable, whether you feel it’s desirable or disgusting. Most people in our culture no longer feel that contraception is disgusting, as they used to. Most people in our culture still feel that bestiality is disgusting, but some don’t. Some people feel that homosexual sex is disgusting, and some don’t. But all three kinds of sex are wrong for the same reason. The reason is not how we feel, but what it really is. Morality is not based on subjective feelings but on objective reality. You can’t tell whether something is good or evil just by looking at your feelings. You have to look at what it really is. The question of whether X is morally good or evil is a question about X, not a question about you! You can’t find out what a thing really is by looking at how you feel about it, unless you are God. You can find out what anything is by looking at how God feels about it, because God designed it. But you didn’t. (Unless you are God!)

7. Does that mean that all birth control is wrong?
No. Spacing and planning births is not unnatural and wrong. Natural family planning (NFP) does this by respecting the essential nature of sex and of the male and female human bodies and a woman’s natural fertility cycle.
(By the way, nearly all couples who practice NFP are very happy and satisfied with it–and with each other. The divorce rate among NFP couples is 1-4 percent, in a society where it is nearly 50 percent. That tells you something!)

8. You say sex is for babies. But it is also for pleasure. Sexual pleasure is as natural to sex as babies are. To suppress its natural pleasure is as unnatural as suppressing its natural fertility.
This is true! Sex also obviously gives great pleasure. And that is no more an accident than babies are. That is part of God’s design. When He invented sex, He put great joy into it from the beginning, because He thought so highly of it. He could have invented other ways for us to come into the world instead of sex, or He could have put less joy into this way that He invented for us, but He didn’t. (That’s why the Church respects it so much: because God does.)
He put such great joy into it because He put two other great things into it: intimate, total self giving love, and the procreation of new persons, who will live forever. The Church puts a far higher value on sex than the world does. The better something is, the more respectful we are to it, the less we treat it like trash. We take great care with things of great value, like art masterpieces (but not casual sketches), or pets (but not animals out in the wild), or persons (but not mere things).

9. Why do the rules of sexual morality have to be so complex?
They are not complex at all. They are embarrassingly simple, uncomfortably simple. The moral law is not complex and difficult to think about; it is difficult to live. Ignorance is not the biggest enemy of morality; selfishness is. Most moral problems are solved not by cleverness but by honesty.
The essential Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) moral law about sex, from the beginning, has always been very simple: “You shall not commit adultery.” “You shall not adulterate sex.” Everyone knows what that means. It means don’t cheat on your spouse. Don’t have sex with others. You can’t give your whole self to more than one other whole self.
The place for sex is marriage. The perfection of sex happens only in marriage, in a voluntary, committed, lifelong, faithful, heterosexual relationship of mutual, total, self-giving, love. That is what marriage is: that is its essence, its nature, what God designed it to be. The connection between sexual love and marriage is part of the essential nature of both sex and marriage. Marriage is as natural to sex as air is to birds or the sea is to fish. So we must look at marriage in our next chapter.

10. Why does sexual morality have to be so negative? “Don’t do this, don’t do that.”
There is only one reason for the “don’t’s”, and it is a “do”. There is only one reason for the negative, and that is a positive. There is only one reason why being unfaithful and giving your body sexually to many people is so wrong: because being sexually faithful and giving your whole body to one person is so right.
It’s also wrong because of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Everyone who commits adultery hides it from his spouse, because no one wants his spouse to do the same thing. It’s a sin against justice. It’s just not fair.
Worse than a sin against justice, it’s a sin against love. Adultery (sex with others after marriage) is a sin against your spouse, and fornication (sex with others before marriage) is a sin against your future spouse.
And it’s also a lie, a deliberate deception. For when you have sex with anyone, your body says, “Here is all of me for you”, but when you’re not married to that person, your mind does not say that. When you have sex with others, you lie. You lie with your body. When you have sex, you can’t help saying with your body, “I give you my whole self, body and soul”, because that is what the sex act says, what it means, by its nature. Yet with your intention, with your mind, you say something else. Your mind means the opposite of what your body means. If your mind didn’t mean the opposite of what your body is saying in the sex act but meant the same thing, then you would be intending and proposing marriage to your lover! You are lying. You are dishonoring your own honor.
The fact that you are lying is obvious when you cover it up later. You don’t want your spouse to know about it, not even your future spouse. That shows it was a lie, for it’s always lies that you cover up, by telling more lies. You don’t cover up truth.

Article written by Peter Kreeft Ph.D

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