Having laid down the groundwork by talking more generally about love (not simply love as eros), I will now enter the minefield. That a priest – of all persons – should wish to directly talk about sex is problematic enough. Throw the gay ingredient into the mix and we have a bomb in our hands. So be it! Let’s talk about sex.
The words above are those of my colleague Bart, who uses them to introduce the next post in his series on the challenges facing a gay priest. Following the three initial reflections that have already appeared, the next post (which will appear on Monday) begins to get into the really sensitive, crunch issues. Look out for it, read it, and respond in the comments. I do not propose to anticipate Bart’s own writing, but I do want to stress that Bart’s series here is a serious exercise, an honest and courageous extension of his spiritual journaling, and so part of a process of his discernment, as he continues his journey of honesty and integrity. I feel privileged to be hosting such personal thoughts here – as you are to be able to read them. It is my hope that by responding in the comments, you will be able to give Bart some encouragement, and possible some food for thought.
“Let’s talk about sex”, Bart says – quite rightly. This is crucial, and needs to be done by people who are speaking with some knowledge from personal experience, or from sound empirical research among others with that experience. The extraordinary thing about the Catholic Church today is that at a time when people are leaving the church in droves, overwhelmingly for reasons related to the gravely disordered teaching on sexuality, there is remarkably little talk about sexual ethics. There is hectoring and lecturing from the clerical oligarchy to the rest of us, but of serious talk, discussion between adults – what?
This is one area where we, who have sexual lives, can help our clergy and the Vatican theologians who do not. We need to talk about sex, and to share what we know and have learned from experience.
In numerous posts over the past two years, I have touched on the issues, especially those of same sex eroticism, from different perspectives. I have shared some of my own history, I have made clear those parts of orthodox Catholic doctrine that I reject as lacking firm foundation and have written about some of the evidence from the natural and humans sciences. I am still a long way from being able to fix on a complete system of sexual ethics that I can argue with conviction, but Bart’s post, together with some material by David in a comment and by Westernstock at his much more libertarian blog, have prompted me to complete something I have had on the back burner for some weeks. I offer below a summary of my own beliefs about sex. These are offered without substantiation, but are the conclusions I have reached based on a combination of reflection on my own experience, and of reading the arguments and evaluating the evidence from elsewhere.
Marriage and family
First and most obviously, I fully accept the value of family, and so of procreative sex within marriage. However, I completely reject the idea that procreation is the only purpose of marital sex. The unitive value is a powerful one, and must not be undervalued. Children are precious but too many children, or children born to young people who are not yet ready for them, can put serious strain on a relationship. Family planning is important, and I do not see the validity of an arbitrary distinction between natural and artificial methods.
This is completely natural, pleasurable, and harmless – sometimes even healthy. The Church’s long hostility is without foundation in either scripture or the teaching of the earliest church, and has served only to foster a morbid fear of sexuality.
However, I do accept that there are limits. Just as eating and drinking are good but gluttony and drunkenness are to be avoided, excessive or compulsive masturbation is equally to be avoided. I also believe that just as food and drink are best enjoyed in company, so sex is also better when shared.
Cohabitation and Sex Before Marriage
The Old Testament prohibition on sex with an unmarried girl made sense when females were seen as the property of their men folk (fathers or husbands), when unwanted pregnancy was a social and financial disaster for families, when reliable contraception was not available, when girls were married off young, and young people reached physical maturity at a later age than they do today. The absolute prohibition on sex before marriage also did not apply to men. In an age where pregnancy is easily avoided, where a woman’s value is not measured in financial terms measured by her virginity, and where marriage is usually delayed until the 20’s or 30’s, the church’ s simplistic extension of the complete ban on premarital sex, is unjustified.
It is also dangerous. There is good evidence to support the notion of cohabitation as “trial marriages”, and of the importance of establishing sexual compatibility before, not after, entering a permanent commitment. One of the most important causes of divorce must surely be inappropriate or ill-considered marriage.
However, I am thinking here of cohabitation or sex before marriage as between committed, loving couples in preparation for marriage, not as avoidance of marriage / commitment. Sex without commitment is a more difficult issue.
Sex Outside of Marriage
When I first heard the term “recreational sex” nearly thirty years ago, I was frankly shocked, appalled at the very idea. Experience has shown me otherwise. In some very specific circumstances, I have found simple, physical sex to be positively life-giving. If “joy is the unfailing sign of the Holy Spirit”, as a spiritual director used to insist every time we met, then we can truly meet God in simple, recreational sex – for we all know that there can be great joy in sex. I can testify that good sex can be a magnificent anti-depressant.
It is possible that this is especially true for gay men struggling with the process of coming out and working through their sexual identity. Other young people grow up with extensive processes of socialization to guide them in negotiating their sexual awakening, surrounded by role models in family, books, films and TV – and even sex education classes in schools. Most gay or lesbian young people grow up with nothing to guide or instruct them, beyond the other people that the meet. It is for this reason that there may be validity for some in the notion of what I have heard described as “sacramental promiscuity”.
However, there are profound dangers here, too. If solo sex is pleasurable, but a poor substitute for sex with another, then recreational sex too may be pleasurable and healthy for one who is not in a relationship – but should not be used as a permanent alternative to forming such a relationship, nor should it be allowed to become obsessive or addictive. Sexuality and eroticism are much more than just genital acts. As feminist theologians like Carter Heyward have shown, they include the fullness of the relationships in which they take place. To restrict sexuality to casual encounters is to deprive ourselves of the full richness of our erotic potential.
There are also dangers in sexual experience at too young an age. Sexual pleasure is far more than just a physical sensation: powerful emotions are unleashed, which is why there is the unitive value in marriage. For young people, premature sex carries the risk of creating emotions beyond their capacity to deal with them.
Adultery, in the common meaning of cheating on a spouse, I reject as fundamentally dishonest and unfair. On so-called “open” relationships where partners give each other permission to conduct sexual liaisons with others, I am still uncertain. I can see a theoretical case that says there is nothing against them – but I suspect that in reality they are often one-sided and unhealthy arrangements.
This too is entirely natural. I have covered the issues extensively in the past, and will not rehash them here. The one unexplored question is to what extent should we be applying the same standards to same-sex as to opposite-sex activities and relationships, and in what way should they differ? Westernstock argues at his blog that the situations are completely different. Heterosexual couples are restricted by the demands of raising a family, but free of that consideration, gay males should be celebrating a much less restrained sexuality. I am not convinced. I believe that family considerations notwithstanding, orthodox teaching opposite sex eroticism is too restrictive. They too should be permitted greater sexual freedom than the church presently allows. Conversely, what I see lacking in Westernstock’s celebration of unrestrained gay male sexuality, is any emphasis on relationship. I see far more reasons for applying similar standards to both orientations, than for differing standards.
On the other hand, the sexual awakening and socialization experiences of LGBT and straight youth are dramatically different. It is possible that these may necessitate different approaches to ethical standards, especially when first coming out to oneself.
While I reject the church’s excessive fear of sex outside of procreation, I also reject completely unrestrained sexuality. With Margaret Farley, I also believe that sexual interactions between two persons must be based on at least the minimal requirements for justice of mutuality, equality and consent. This necessarily excludes activities with children, which are based on coercion or exploitation, or which are one-sided. This leaves many areas that remain unresolved in my mind. Things would be so much simpler if I could simply fall back on the Catechism, but this is unrealistic.
Pope Benedict, in “Light of the World”, has deplored the modern “banalization” of sex since the advent of modern methods of contraception. At one level, I agree with him. In popular culture, much about sex has been trivialized and exploited commercially. In English, we do not even have appropriate language for talking about it: we “have sex”, as an item of consumption, or we “make love” to strangers, or “sleep together” when sleep may be the last thing on our minds. When we fuck, using the only strictly accurate word, we shock.
But to move beyond the banalization, we need to move beyond the Church’s own trivializing. To reduce the whole complexity of human sexuality to the simplistic equations “procreative sex in marriage = GOOD”, “all other sex = BAD” is itself a banality.
Instead of simply condemning all other sex, we need to be exploring much more complex questions: just what are the benefits, and the dangers, in different forms of sexual expression? What circumstances and contexts are favourable, and what are not? What are the hierarchies of value in sexual activities? To make progress with these questions, we really do need to add to the teaching from scripture and ancient theologians the voice of experience, empirical evidence, and reasoning in the light of the modern world.
So, as Bart says –
Let’s talk about it.
- Let’s Talk About The Church’s Dirty Little Secret: Masturbation (Queering the Church)
- “Adultery”, and the Problem of Heterosexuality, Revisited (Queering the Church)
- “The Sexual Person”: Bishops, Theologians Clash on Sexual Ethics (Queering the church)