THE CATHOLIC CHURCH NEEDS TO LISTEN MORE TO THE experiences of young adult Catholics in its approach to sex before marriage. I'm not talking about casual sex, and I'm not talking about teenagers having sex. I'm talking about adults in committed relationships, coming to the conscious decision that they are ready to give of themselves completely to each other in this way.
I vividly remember an encounter I had with a priest-theologian at the Catholic university I attended. He was giving a talk about chastity and sexuality, and I asked, "Why is sex reserved only for marriage?" He got very annoyed and replied that "only within the bonds of marriage is a person able to give of him or herself completely to another."
"But, why?" I asked. He moved on to another question.
People don't get married at 18 anymore. U.S. census numbers in 2002 revealed the average age at first marriage is 27 for males and 25 for females. And by this age they are used to making complex moral decisions. If they're conscientious, they discern each and every day how to be ethical in their personal and professional lives.
What's right and wrong before God is not decided by a majority vote. But if we acknowledge the importance of the sense of the faithful, shouldn't we listen more to the vast majority of today's young adults--including conscientious Catholics--who believe that engaging in sexual intercourse in a loving, committed relationship is not sinful?
For kids and young teens, explaining sexual ethics in black-and-white terms is useful. But for mature adults that approach is not convincing. They see too many things that don't fit into those strict categories. And when they keep getting black-and-white answers to complicated life issues, they get frustrated and angry and often as a result will reject the teaching wholesale. Some even reject the church altogether.
I APPRECIATE AND PRACTICE MOST OF WHAT MY CATHOLIC upbringing taught me about sex and sexuality: that sex is sacred, that our bodies and minds are the most precious thing we have to share with another and should always be treated with respect. And I appreciate how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines chastity as the "successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man [sic] in his bodily and spiritual being."
The Catechism goes on to explain the why and the way of chastity, and these are all ideals I can say yes to: integration of mind, spirit, and body; exercising self-control and spiritual effort; witnessing God's love for us through our love for the other; and respecting the sanctity of the human person before us.
But then it abruptly makes a sweeping exclusion to all of this complicated moral and philosophical teaching with the following: "Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence." Is that really the only possible conclusion? Chastity for unmarried people is not as simple as sexual continence. It never has been and it never will be.
I believe the church could get a lot more people to pay attention to its important message against casual sex if it took a more pastoral approach to adults who are in committed, long-term relationships. The church tends to hold sexual sin above all other sorts of offense. The message is that keeping your sexuality under strict and total discipline is the primary indicator of your status as a moral person. This risks leaving the faithful feeling beyond the pale when they fall from the church's ideal.
Catholic teaching on sexuality limits intercourse to an ideal within an ideal: sexual union characterized by mutuality, profundity, and sanctity between two people joined by lifelong marriage vows. Indeed, in the ideal, sex between married partners would always live up to its theological epitome of total self-giving and a glimpse of divine wonder. But in reality, as one married friend put it, "Sometimes it's wonderful and profound and holy, and sometimes it's like brushing your teeth. …