This past fall, I had the privilege of teaching a new senior apologetics course at Bishop O’Connell High School, where I am chairman of the Religion Department. The course, entitled “Sharing the Faith in the World,” taught students not just the answers to theological controversies, but more importantly how to have intelligent, reasonable arguments based in logic rather than impulse. It was a very student-centered course, meaning that I let the students direct the topics of discussion, rather than I, as the teacher picking the topics and lecturing. The majority of the class involved students selecting topics within Apologetics (be it natural, Christian, or Catholic), researching both sides of the issue, and debating both the orthodox and heterodox positions. It was a lot of fun, and I hope to teach the course again next school year.
In the course of our discussion of Christian apologetics, the students wanted to examine in detail the topic of Christian sexual ethics. Due to the constraints of time, we were unable to examine EVERY aspect of this huge topic, instead focusing on what the Church teaches about sexuality and why. As such, there were many questions the students had that were left unanswered. I collected many of their questions together, and composed short answers for them.
I have decided to post several of the questions here, not just because I need to post something (although that is true; I have not been very good at posting every month), but also to show off my creative, inquisitive, and intelligent high school seniors. Having spent a semester with these students, I can assure readers that many of the students are mature and serious when it comes to matters of religion. Their questions stemmed not from a desire to trap the teacher or somehow prove that the Church is stupid in her teaching on human sexuality; rather, these questions are questions for which the students honestly seek the answers.
I have not included all of the questions here, both because of time and because their questions come out of already having learned the basics of Christian sexual ethics. Also, the answers may seem incomplete not because everything that could be said about the topic is in the answer I posted, but rather because my answers were meant to be short responses, with the hope that the more interested student might dig deeper into the wealth of the Church’s teaching on this essential part of what it means to be a human being. I will post the resources I sent them at the bottom of this post as well, for interested parties.
So, without any more preambling, here are some student questions, with my humble answers, fixed up so that you, my beloved Quidquid readers, can follow along.
What does the Church teach about sex?
(this isn’t a question they asked, but I’m including it to lay the groundwork)
The Church’s teaching on sexuality can be summed up in a short little phrase: Sex is beautiful. Sex is an essential part of marriage, and it brings new life into the world and builds a bond between husband and wife. Every aspect of Christian sexual ethics goes back to those main points.
The Church draws her vision of human sexuality from Genesis, where sexual intimacy appears in the context of married life. The Creation stories portray sex as a command (“be fruitful and multiply”) and as a gift (see how Adam burst into song at the sight of Eve in Genesis 2: 23, and how that reaction is immediately followed by references to marriage and the original innocence of our first parents).
The Fall in Genesis 3 led to the division between men and women, which manifests itself through sexual sin (Genesis 3: 7, 16). Thus is the damaged world we see around us, but it was not supposed to be that way. Jesus makes that clear in his teaching on marriage (Matthew 5: 27-32; 19:1-15).
So what should sex be like? Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (par. 9, 12) expresses this clearly (that said, I’ll use the language more familiar to you). All sexual acts should be Free (that is, not forced), Total (a complete gift of the two people to each other), Faithful (exclusive to the other), and Fruitful (open to new life coming from the marital act). This can also be summed up in the two-pronged aspect of marital love: Life-Giving and Love-giving.
If one of these aspects is not present, then the act does not follow the Church’s teaching on sex. Keep in mind, as well, the three parts of an act which you learned last year in Morality class: the Object (what the action itself is), the Intention (why the person is doing the action), and the Circumstance (the context of the action). While some violations of Christian Sexual Ethics are in themselves evil, that is, the Object is evil, others are violations because of the Intention or the Circumstance. All three (Object, Intention, Circumstance) must be good for an act to be good.
Let’s explain using a violation that everyone (I hope) agrees is bad: rape. The Catechism defines rape as “the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person” (CCC 2356). If the Object in rape (sexual intercourse) is morally neutral, the Intention and Circumstances are clearly morally evil (due to the violation of consent, the violence against justice and charity, etc). Rape also fails the Christian Sexual Ethics test. It is not Free, as someone is being coerced into the act. It is not Total, as there is not a gift of self; rather, one party is taking what should be freely given. It is Faithful, as it does not come from a context of exclusivity. It is not Fruitful, as rarely is the rapist open to new life. Likewise, it does not build up the relationship between the two people (Love-Giving) nor does it have as its goal the righteous act of bringing life into the world (Life-Giving).
See how that works?
If a sexual act fails to be Free, Total, Faithful, or Fruitful and/or is not Life-Giving or Love-Giving, then it is not justifiable. You should not do it, nor should anyone else.
Q1: Is it impossible for sex outside of marriage to be holy and involve God?
Sex has a purpose, a reason for its existence. God created it with that purpose. As with anything else in life, it is never a good idea to decide we know better than God. About anything. Ever. God, in laying out the foundation of the universe, created the laws that govern the universe. Like gravity. Gravity pulls and pushes planets and stars into their orbits, shaping worlds out of clouds of dust. It also drags you to your death if you swan dive off of the Grand Canyon. Don’t mess with God’s laws.
As I mentioned earlier, sexual acts should follow the laws God laid out for them, just as we should follow laws of nature (airplanes and jetpacks aside). When we don’t follow the laws, bad things happen. When we make, say, an airplane fly, we don’t defy the laws of gravity; rather, we use gravity and other laws of nature, such as wind dynamics and other things I do not have any sort of authority to discuss, to create lift, which leads to the craft flying. Or falling, with style.
Back to extramarital sex. What’s wrong with it? Well, God created sex to work within marriage. Of course, people can, and do, have sex outside of marriage, but there is always something lacking in these extramarital sexual encounters. Perhaps the openness to life is curtailed, either through contraception or non-intercourse sexual acts which make it impossible for life to come from the actions. Or, perhaps the union of the two partners is not a factor, as is often the case with casual sexual encounters. Or perhaps the sexual union is open to life (or at least non-contraceptive) and is between two people who, honestly, usually really care about each other. They genuinely want what is best for each other, and want to spend their lives together.
Except in this case, of course. See, if you and I genuinely care about another person, we would avoid doing anything that would harm them, especially in a permanent way. Few honest lovers seek, for example, to chop the arms and legs off of their beloved. We want what is best for them. And yet, in a moment of selfishness, the lover and beloved seek their own wants over what is best for the other. Rather than a selfless giving of oneself, as a married couple does on their wedding night, there is a twinge of selfishness.
The couple, in engaging in sexual activity prior to marriage, sets themselves against God and His will for marriage. They are saying, if they are properly informed of the Church’s teachings on sexuality, that they do not care what God has planned for them. They do not want to wait; they are calling the shots. They are like the Prodigal Son, who told his father to his face that the father was more good to him dead than alive, who was only concerned for his own wants and desires.
But let’s assume it isn’t that bad. Let’s assume the person doesn’t know better, that they were never taught God’s plan for sexuality, and that they act out of ignorance because, as far as they know, sex before marriage is the norm in society, and if you don’t have sex before marriage, then there is something wrong with your relationship. What then? Do they get sent to Hell?
That’s a matter for the next set of questions.
For now, the short answer to your question. I would say that, for the Catholic/Christian, not only is extramarital sex not holy, it is mortally sinful, and should be avoided at all costs.
Don’t jump off the Grand Canyon. Don’t dismember your significant others.
And don’t have sex outside of marriage.
WHEW! That is enough for right now. Below are the promised resources that might be of interest to readers of this post.
Also, if you are interested in seeing more questions like these or other questions connected to theology, Church history, or anything in apologetics, feel free to email them to firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @quidquidestest using #quidquidquestion.
General Chastity Resources
The Chastity Project: https://chastity.com/
Evert, Jason. Theology of the Body in One Hour (Totus Tuus Press, 2017)
Evert, Jason. If You Really Loved Me: 100 Questions on Dating, Relationships, and Sexual Purity (Catholic Answers, 2009).
Evert, Jason. Pure Love.
Evert, Jason. Pure Manhood
Evert, Crystalina. Pure Womanhood
Evert, Jason and Crystalina Evert. How to Find Your Soulmate Without Losing Your Soul: 21 Secrets for Women (Totus Tuus, 2011).
Sri, Edward. Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility (Servent Press, 2015)
Bonacci, Mary Beth. Real Love: Answers to Your Questions on Dating, Marriage and the Real Meaning of Sex (Ignatius Press, 2012)
Integrity Restored: https://integrityrestored.com/
Fradd, Matt. The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography (Ignatius Press, 2017)
Fradd, Matt, ed. Delivered: True Stories of Men and Women who Turned from Porn to Purity (Catholic Answers Press, 2013)
Fradd, Matt and Cameron, ed. Restored: True Stories of Love and Trust after Porn (Catholic Answers Press, 2015).
USCCB on Contraception: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/contraception/index.cfm
Couple to Couple League: https://ccli.org/
Coffin, Patrick. The Contraception Deception: Catholic Teaching on Birth Control (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2018).
Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968).
Smith, Janet E., ed. Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader (Ignatius Press, 1993)
Smith, Janet E., ed. Why Humanae Vitae Is Still Right (Ignatius Press, 2018)
Courage International: https://couragerc.org/
Harvey, John F. Homosexuality and the Catholic Church: Clear Answers to Difficult Questions (Ascension Press, 2007)
Mattson, Daniel. Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace (Ignatius Press, 2017).
Schmitz, Mike. Made for Love: Same-Sex Attraction and the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2017).
Check, Paul and Janet E. Smith. Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same Sex Attraction (Ignatius Press, 2015)