Welcome to ROUND TWO of questions my seniors asked last semester about Christian sexual ethics. I think I will do one more post after this, and then get back to regularly scheduled nothing. . .
Then answer one of the exciting reader questions that I haven’t answered yet!
If you haven’t read ROUND ONE, make sure you go and do that. The answers below make references to what was said before. Also, if you want some resources, check out the list at the end of the Round One post.
Q2: (a) Why is the church so overbearing about sex? Like if someone has sex before marriage, are they going to hell?
(similar Questions asked: (b) Why is premarital sex wrong, but in marriage that’s the end goal?; (c) Why is it a sin to have sex with your future husband or wife?; (d) Is it wrong to engage in sexual activity before you get married if you think that the you are going to get married to them?; (e) What is your opinion on people deciding to lose their virginity when they “feel like they’re ready”?)
These questions all get at the same basic logical process.
Premise 1: Sexual activity between people is a very serious thing.
Premise 2: People should only do serious things only when they are “ready.”
Conclusion: People should have sexual activity whenever they are “ready.”
There are several issues with this syllogism. The first premise is fine. Sexual activity is a very serious thing. Most (I think most; is there a survey on this?) reasonable people agree that sexual activity is serious, and that the hookup culture does much more harm than good. The statistics are not just depressing, they are terrifying. The American Sexual Health Association, for example, notes that “One in two sexually active persons will contract an STI by age 25.” That doesn’t include psycho-emotional effects, which are much more nuanced and more difficult to measure (without just listing a bunch of anecdotal evidence).
The second premise is, likewise, true. Going back to our jumping off of the Grand Canyon example from Q1: If you are going to jump off of the Grand Canyon, please make sure you are “ready.” Make sure you have your hang glider and are properly trained in how to glide. Make sure someone else knows of your plans, so they can rescue you if you are alone. Make sure you have rested, eaten, have hydration, etc. All of that good stuff. Because if you aren’t ready, it will be a long, long way to the bottom of that gulley.
But that conclusion! It assumes something rather risky, that we are the arbiters of readiness. That we determine what it means to be ready.
What does it mean to be “ready” to have sex? Sexual attraction? The maturity of the couple? The stability of the relationship? A particular age? Income? Time spent dating? An engagement ring? Shared bank accounts?
How do we know any of that means we are ready for sex? How did WE determine this criteria? If you look at the list above, almost everything on that list is normally found in a stable marriage. If you want a situation where you and your significant other are mature enough to make big decisions, have a structure set up to provide stability in your relationship, have reached a particular age, have been together for a substantial period of time, and have made shared promises to each other, then look no further than marriage. Marriage has everything desired for sexual readiness.
There is a huge difference those vows make.
Let me put two situations before you (full disclosure: I’m stealing this story from Fr. Jaffe, current pastor at Christ the Redeemer parish in Sterling, VA, who told this story at a day of reflection for engaged couples, which the future Mrs. Rose and myself attended before we were married)
Harry and Sally were an adorable engaged couple excited about their wedding day. They were to get married on a midsummer Saturday, and then head to Europe for their honeymoon. Everyone was so happy for the couple.
But then, tragedy struck.
On the way to their rehearsal dinner, the night before their wedding day, Harry and Sally were in a horrific car wreck. Harry was ok, but Sally sustained severe damage to her spine, paralyzing her from the neck down. She could do nothing for herself, and now required individual care for what used to be routine, like eating and bathing. The wedding was postponed while Sally recovered.
Harry, at first supportive, soon found himself exhausted by the situation, and, terrified by the enormous burden he would have to carry, called off the wedding, the engagement, and their relationship. With words of apology, he handed Sally’s nurse a breakup note to read to Sally, looked at his now ex-fiance one last time, turned and walked out of the hospital room and out of Sally’s life forever.
Now, let’s rewind and move the tragedy 24 hours later.
Harry and Sally were wed that midsummer Saturday. The crash was not on the way to the rehearsal dinner, but on the way to the airport for their European honeymoon. Harry was fine in the crash, but Sally suffered the same debilitating injuries.
Again, she would need constant care.
Again, faced with the pressures of such a life, Harry crumples and hands the nurse not a break up letter but divorce papers. When he walks out of Sally’s life, he likewise walks out of his marriage.
Let us compare these two stories.
In the first story, I think we can agree that, to an extent, Harry is a colossal jerk. Did he really love her? We don’t really know, but he could have been a better man. But at the same time, while we may not like what he did, there wasn’t anything morally or legally wrong with what he did. He was not bound to care for Sally, as he was just her fiance, which is really, in a sense, being a boyfriend with an end goal in mind (as symbolized by the engagement ring).
The vows change everything. Harry promised at the wedding to be true to Sally “in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, ‘til death do us part,” or something similar. He is going against what he said, and is doing it in quite an impersonal way.
The vows make a difference. What was once just a mean thing to do has, by those circumstances, become a morally bad thing.
So it is with sex. The vows make a difference. The vows are VERBAL PROOF that you are “ready.” You can never know if your significant other is “ready” until they have sworn they are. That is why the words of the couple at the marriage are called vows. It isn’t merely a contract, an agreement between parties; it is a covenant. The two become one new family. The promises, the vows, become incarnated in the marital embrace of the couple that night, and as Scott Hahn puts it, “God has designed it so that when the two become one, they become so one that nine months later you might just have to give it a name.”
To wrap this question up, I’m going to give a short reply, based on everything I’ve said here and in the previous answer, to each of the questions
Q2a: Overbearing is kind of harsh. Grant it, it is hard to follow the Church’s teaching on sex, especially if you are of the mindset that you know your body better than God. And it is always hard to follow the rules for anything.
Let’s use a sports analogy. Let’s pretend we’re playing soccer. The match begins and I immediately pick up the ball and run towards the goal. You punch me, and then proceed to hit the ball with a baseball bat. The goalie, seeing the ball coming towards the goal, hops on a horse and flings rocks at the other goalie. And so it goes, chaos reigning, everyone doing their own thing.
Bottom line: that isn’t soccer. I don’t know what it is, but it sure as heck isn’t soccer. That’s because in soccer there are set rules that distinguish it from other games. If you violate the rules of soccer, there are consequences, because otherwise the game cannot proceed properly.
The consequence of rejecting God, of kicking Him out of your life, is Hell not because God likes it when we choose Hell over Him, nor because the Church is a bunch of prudish old men who hate sex. It is because when we violate the law of sexual relationships, we are going against God’s direct commands and plan for us. We build our own Hells and lock ourselves in. God cannot save us because we won’t want it.
Q2b: I hate comparing sex to buying a car, because it sounds so tacky and crass, but I think the comparison is appropriate here. It gets at the story of Harry and Sally, above. If I am test driving a car, I am not supposed to take it onto the interstate and drive four hours, go sightseeing, eat inside the car, run errands, and then drive the four hours back. That would be wrong, because I do not own the car. However, once I do own the car, I can do those sorts of things. In fact, the test drive prepares me for the ownership of the car. In this example, test driving isn’t having sex before marriage so you can get practice in before the “real thing.” The example points to how there is a difference between before and after buying the car. There is a difference between sex before and after the vows. One is incomplete, the other exactly the way things should be.
Q2b, c, and d: I addressed these already above.
Let’s talk, really quickly about the phrase “losing” your virginity. I lose my cell phone, my car keys, my books, my way while driving, my wife in the mall, my kids at. . . I won’t get into that. My point is, losing is a negative process.
Your virginity is something special, something precious. It is part of who you are. You don’t lose it the way you lose your keys or that essay for English class you printed during 1st period. You lose it because someone took it from you, or because you gave it away like it was nothing, like Esau and his birthright. However, you can reclaim your virginity! You can’t undo what you’ve physically done, but you can make a promise to your future spouse to wait for him or her, to wait until you’ve promised in word to give yourself fully to this person whom God has chosen for you. Then you can give, as if new, your virginity. Because if you give in that context, you do not lose your virginity but perfect it in its ultimate purpose.
A quick word to those who lost their virginity because someone took it from them. You have been wronged. You have been robbed of something beautiful. But the person or persons who stole your virginity have not changed who you are. You are as precious as ever; no evil done by another can taint your inmost heart. Your virginity might be “lost” in a physical sense, but you did not give it. You too can give it to one who deserves it. Again, those vows, the verbal give and receive of love.