From the Introduction
As we enter the third millennium of Christianity, many adults have come to the conclusion that they must make a choice between being religious and being sexual. The vast majority of people over the past fifty years, or three generations, have understandably chosen to be sexual, and have reduced their religious affiliation to annual celebrations, or even less. Believing is now found in a tiny niche in their memory, to be revived only at milestone events in life—now, often, not even including the birth of a child. This book is dedicated to the proposal that we can be sexual believers.
Catholic teaching describes technological methods of avoiding conception and infection as “artificial” and forbids their use because they do not conform with “natural law” as the tradition understands it. This well-known directive infuriates many well-informed Catholic people who believe that humans’ ability to develop and use technology for beneficial outcomes is natural and “God-given.” With the help of technology people can move huge weights over long distances and travel at unnatural speeds (sometimes in orbit more than 160 miles above the earth). Doctors can excise tumors and replace hearts and enable people to focus properly with faulty eyes. People who use technology to facilitate their responsible choices about avoiding pregnancy and reducing the danger of debilitating and even fatal infection or about the size and spacing of their family are not doing evil, but are achieving a beneficial outcome in an appropriate way. They should feel free to prevent the conception of a child by any method that is comfortable to both partners.
One issue of great importance is the use of condoms to reduce the danger of sexually-transmitted infections, particularly HIV-AIDS.
Through recent decades the Vatican has forbidden the use of condoms even in parts of Africa where HIV is widespread and where faithful wives are often infected by their unfaithful husbands, leaving in some districts a generation of households led by children under the age of twelve or (in one memorable example) leaving an 86-year-old grandmother as the only older caregiver for her eighteen grandchildren. Her children and their spouses, (the children’s parents) had all died of AIDS.
Many Catholics in Africa, unlike North America and Western Europe, have actually obeyed such Vatican pronouncements; many of their deaths were preventable. To use language that the Vatican frequently employs in describing the actions of others, the papal prohibition of condoms in Africa is an act of grave depravity, intrinsically disordered, and immoral. The pope’s repeated statement that “condoms are not the solution to the AIDS crisis” is aggravatingly stupid. Mosquito nets are not the solution to malaria, but they do reduce the danger. The world’s media should bring the glare of publicity on these Vatican pronouncements (even more passionately than on the sexual abuse scandals) and point out that they are a factor in the death of generations. The pope’s concession in late 2010, limited and flawed as it is, must be amplified considerably to be of much value, and should be vigorously proclaimed, especially by clergy.
As a believing community we need to reflect and share with each other our wisdom about the choices related to our sexuality and our procreative powers. The decision of unmarried people to engage in intimate relationships, but also to prevent pregnancy and reduce the danger of infection, may be good and responsible. The decision of a married couple to prevent conception for a time, or indefinitely, is often the most responsible of choices.
Women and men who have consciously faced such a decision are best equipped to reflect on and share their wisdom about the value of various methods of contraception.
Intimacy without Commitment
Personal growth is built on a series of intimate relationships. From the earliest bonding between parent and child through the friendships of childhood and adolescence, and eventually perhaps to faithful, lifelong commitment, we are nurtured and affirmed and literally given our identity by the people who love us. Young people give and receive love and loyalty and great happiness—as well as pain and grief at times—in relationships that involve greater and greater intimacy. As we grow through adolescence our sexuality becomes more and more prominent in our personalities and in our relationships.
In the early 1990s the average number of previous sexual partners among Canadians marrying for the first time was eight for men, six for women. Statistics about teenagers’ sexual activity vary by a few percentage points as years go by, but they usually report that nearly one half of high school juniors (slightly more males than females) have already experienced sexual intercourse, and almost one-third of them have had four or more partners.
Sexual intimacy no longer means lifelong commitment to most young adults. Their behavioral standards are significantly different from those of their grandparents, but this is not a policy of “anything goes”: young people have clear standards about what should be the characteristics of an intimate relationship. Though they are often unable to achieve those characteristics in their relationships, they do know what they are looking for: equal, honest, responsible, caring relationships. And, as with so many kinds of human experience, people try to form good relationships, face problems more or less successfully, continue in or withdraw from relationships, and try to learn from their experiences.
Excellence in Relationships
For many adults in contemporary society the value of intimate relationships depends not on the marital status of the partners, but on the quality of the relationship. One of the most important tasks of education is literally to help young people to be better lovers. Excellent loving relationships can be described in a great variety of ways, but our discussion will proceed under three simple headings: healthy relationships are honest, equal, and responsible.
Valuable Sexual Activity
Who we are as sexual beings is fundamental to our self-understanding. The term “sexuality” refers to the entire range of feelings and behaviors female and male human beings use to express themselves through look, touch, word, and action. All life is a search for wholeness, and our sexuality is central to our wholeness.
Most people are sexually active in some way or other throughout their lives. From an early age young people explore the sexual parts of their bodies just as they explore all their senses and the world around them. Puberty compounds natural interest with high levels of physical and emotional intensity. Sexual fantasy and self-stimulation are practiced by almost everyone. Relationships increase in intimacy and inevitably entail a sexual component that progresses from gentle warm feelings to mutual arousal, and often to sexual intercourse soon after puberty—a development that has occurred throughout human history but is exacerbated in our time because of the increasing interval between puberty and financial independence and first marriage.
Sexual activity is always meaningful to people, whether they reflect on its meaning or not. Pleasure, mutual affirmation, and the expression of love are the most significant purposes of sexual activity among post-pubertal human beings. All of these purposes are good. Some sexual activities are recognized as less meaningful than others; some are more harmful than helpful. Still, people can reflect on what they have done and can distinguish causes, purposes, and effects of their behavior. The greatest concern for a thoughtful observer of society is not so much the rapid evolution of socially-accepted behavior but the realization that so much of the behavior is done without thoughtful consideration of its meaning. Regrettably, traditional Christian teaching about sexuality has been almost exclusively focused on what is forbidden.
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered: A Call for Change in Catholic Teaching
Homosexuality is a natural orientation for a minority of people in our world. Sexual activity flowing from that orientation is naturally good. Experiences that express mutual affirmation and support are good. Sexual relationships that develop on the basis of the same-sex partners’ mutual attraction are good to the extent that they are honest, equal, responsible and enjoyable, rather than deceptive, oppressive, or irresponsible. Marriage and caring for children is as appropriate for same-sex couples as for heterosexual couples.
My purpose in publishing these opinions is not to try to persuade the Catholic Church to change its teachings about sexuality. As demonstrated by the Pope’s 2010 statement accepting the use of condoms in some situations when there is danger of HIV infection, the Vatican may change many of its viewpoints over the course of generations or centuries to come. Contemporary believers can’t wait for those changes in official teaching. We have to decide now.
This book is intended to stimulate discussion and to reassure people of faith who make responsible decisions every day. No one can be a faithful follower of Jesus all by oneself; decisions are best considered within a context of community.
The community of faith to which we belong may be described as “the community of disheartened believers,” people of integrity who need the support and encouragement that can be found in listening to each other and sharing our experiences honestly. We are one component of the church. We can be sexual believers.