The Catholic ideas about sex are one of the most contentious issues in all of Catholic theology and morality. I remember telling myself that even if (in some bizarre possible future) I became Catholic, I would be a "liberal" Catholic who quietly disregarded Church teaching on sex.
Like many Catholic teachings, the teaching on human sexuality is baffling if considered piecewise. It only makes sense when considered as part of the entire body of Church teaching. The practices only make sense when viewed in light of the relevant ideas behind them.
Catholic teaching about sex includes:
- Reserving sexual intercourse only for marriage
- Defining sex as vital to a marriage
- Staunchly reserving marriage:
- For one man and one woman, who are capable of having sex, who know what they're doing
- To last until the death of one of the partners
- Declaring that sex fundamentally is for bonding and making babies; pleasure is a side benefit
- Declaring that any practice that separates or perverts that purpose is wrong (masturbation, sex while using contraception, in vitro fertilization, et cetera)
Raised as a devout Christian, I believed strongly that sex was only for marriage, pretty strongly that marriage was only for heterosexual people, and sort of that remarriage was wrong.
But I had no problem with birth control, and as a future career woman, rather liked the idea. The Catholic stance is that sex while using some contraceptive is wrong. The idea behind the practice is that sex is not for pleasure; sex is for producing children and bonding with one's spouse.
I had a few real objections, but most of my beef with this teaching was a strong sense of, "But I don't wanna..."
(You have my full permission to read that in the whiniest nasal tone you can manage, because my inner self was doing exactly that.)
Now I see that my biggest objection was my rebellion! I didn't like the idea that sexual pleasure was not the goal, because I wanted that pleasure for myself.
But slowly, I began to let go of what I wanted. I began to let go of the idea that God created sex to make me happy.
One of the first things that happened surprised me the most. My body insecurities started to go away. (If you're a 60-year-old man, that probably is not that big of a deal. But for a twenty-something college girl in modern America, this is a BIG DEAL.)
I still watch my weight carefully, because I know it's a struggle for me. I still want to be slender and attractive, but now I want it more on the level of "it'd be cool if I could juggle", not as an obsessive need.
If I plan to marry someday, and see sex as a goal in its own sake, then it matters whether I'm the sexiest I can possibly be. But if I see sex as simply a gateway to bigger blessings (a close relationship with a husband, the gift of children), I realize that I am not an object to make my future husband happy!
I've heard that many times, but it never stuck when the bigger idea behind it (that sex is a goal in itself) did, in fact, objectify me in precisely that way.
Additionally, the sexualized advertising and media out there has lost its gloss for me. Touting sex for its own sake was okay when I thought of sex as primary existing for pleasure, with the small qualification that you had to be married. But now I see sexualized clothing, advertisements, and television and feel mostly confusion, similar to what I feel when I read about people building things out of cheese.
Building structures out of cheese misses the point of cheese.
Pursuing sex for its own sake misses the point of sex.
The sad thing is, the point of sex is absolutely glorious and beautiful. God uses human bodies to house his act of creation, and gives parents the wonderful gift of being direct participants in the process of creating a human being.
J. Budziszewski points out that the power of creation belongs to God alone. Humans simply recombine old things in new ways. Only God truly creates new things. It isn't creation when you mix sugar with tea to make sweetened tea. It isn't creation when we build a skyscraper or write music or draw things. God made the bricks, the tools, the instruments, the paper, and even structure, sound, and color.
And yet God accomplishes his true creation of a new human soul through the sexual interaction of human parents.
Additionally, God uses a simple biological urge to draw human spouses close to each other, so that they can share a bond neither of them shares with anyone else.
This is the Catholic picture, and it is glorious. But the unexpected fruits of it in my own life have surprised and delighted me. Thanks be to God.