Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Let's talk about sex

[Note: I find it curious the way sometimes your thoughts run in certain directions, even before you know why. I had been mulling this comment, composing in my head for several days as usual, when I learned about Mrs. K-G's students. So far as I know, she has not given the blog URL to any of them, so if they read this, it is entirely fortuitous. But it is interesting that I had begun to formulate certain thoughts and ideas right before I needed to have them in order.]

We Catholics have a bad reputation when it comes to sex, and, like it or not, that reputation is not entirely undeserved. Yeah, yeah, I know it's not totally deserved, and for much of the time in which the reputation was formed Catholics were hardly the only ones who seemed to view sex as something essentially nasty (Queen Victoria, your phone is ringing!). But, others have been forgiven by popular culture because they have repented and embraced sex as something common and not worth worrying about (rather the way society has decided that belching and farting are not worth worrying about, which is interesting in itself). We, however, have held the line, seeing sex as something fundamentally sacred, which everyone else translates as "dirty," even while the Kama Sutra is proudly displayed on coffee tables.

But really, it's no good quoting "The Theology of the Body" at me or anyone else as proof that the Church has always viewed sex in a certain light, first, becuase it was written by the current pope, who is something like the 12,000th pope, and, second, because it's simply not true. We have always viewed it as necessary, and always drawn certain proscriptions around it, but we have also had a spotty record at teaching the people in the front lines--the priests, deacons, and male and female religious in general--how to talk about its sacredness in ways that don't seem to point straight to hell.

The point here, however, is not to analyse the Church's history in this regard. After all, as I noted, the Roman Catholic Church was hardly unique in this regard for the past thousand years, and was often a bit more progressive than other faiths in terms of both sanctifying sex and approving of it in appropriate contexts. The point is to emphasize that things are different now, and our way in fact has much to commend it compared to many more "open, realistic" churches. (Not to go all Andy Rooney on you, but, have you ever noticed that "realism" attached to "sex" almost invariably means promiscuity is just hunky dory?)

The strongest, clearest aspect of Catholic teaching on sex is the reservation of it for marriage, which certainly does seem "unrealistic" in today's culture. But it is in fact no more unrealistic to expect people to wait for marriage for sex than to expect them to wait until they have money before they acquire property. (Though in today's easy credit markets...) It is this distinction that makes the Church's teachings clearest to me: it is not that sex is wrong, anymore than property holding is wrong. In fact, both are explicitly approved of in Scripture. It is only the wrongful acquisition of property, along with the wrongful obtainment of sex. Having sex before you are married is like taking a car before you can afford it. You are, in effect, stealing from your future self.

Some might argue that since they give it of their free will, they are not stealing at all. But the person you will become does not exist yet, and cannot grant privileges into the past. You can take from your future self, preventing him from having something, but he cannot give it. Worse, you have damaged yourself, by lowering the value you place on sex. If you will give it to someone without the binding commitment of marriage, you cheapen its value. "But we are IN LOVE!" some protest. I find it curious, though, that one can simultaneously assert that the sex is not cheap, because he is "in love" while denying that sex has an inherent value and sacredness that must be preserved.

Not all extramarital sex damages and steals in quite the same way, of course. An engaged couple who simply can't wait any longer for the Big Day haven't commit exactly the same offense against their future selves as the common fornicators, who throw their sexuality around like waste paper. Many couples are somewhere in the middle, not quite common fornicators, not quite "virtually married." It is they for whom I feel the most pity: they steal and feel vaguely guilty about it. They protest and excuse and rail against the aspect of their consciences that causes them to claim "marriage is just a piece of paper, that doesn't change how we feel about each other." Well, then, why do you feel the need to demean it?

Worst of all, the damage to the self is damage to the couple. Instead of being a force for unification, sex becomes the agent of destruction. One is always suspicous of a deal that seems too good to be true, and sex without cost is a punchline on TV shows so often precisely because we know it doesn't exist except as a fantasy.


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