So I have fallen in love with a sixty-something-year-old priest. Relax people. I'm not talking about a scandalous love. I just mean that he's one of my favorite people in the world right now. Really I happen to have nonsexual crushes on several priests, but there's only the one with whom I have an actual relationship. He runs the prison ministry that I joined a while back. This guy has recently been given greater responsibilities at a local parish (their pastor is near retirement) which has put him in contact with a lot of young people. Apparently, the current sexual climate is quite shocking to someone who has lived in the cave of prison chaplaincy for the last several decades. So I have spent several hours filling him in on what is 'normal' among today's youth. These discussions have highlighted how counter-cultural, and almost wholly misunderstood, the Catholic teachings really are. So here it is, for the record, Sarah's sexual catechism.
And to anyone who finds it boring: Amuse yourself by imagining me explaining to this poor man why couples look at him like he has five heads when he suggests that periods of voluntary sexual abstinence can strengthen a marriage.
We can start with recognizing that Christians believe that humans are made in God's image. Part of why Christians believe in a triune God is the theology that God is Love and that love requires both a giver and a receiver and, therefore, more than one person. So the giver and the receiver are called the Father and the Son (labels that help us lowly humans understand the relationship between them). Then taking it one step further, the love that exists between them is tangible enough to be personified in the Holy Spirit. Christians believe that God's love is creative. God created humans to receive and respond to His love--something that makes no sense unless He also gave humans free will. This is one way that humans are made in the image of God, in having the ability to love.
But why did God create humans in his image? As St. Peter Chrysologus said, "He has made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible creator present on earth." Pope John Paul 2's Theology of the Body is so important because it reminds us that the sexual teachings of the Church stem from theology rather than bigotry and conservatism, although there may be no lack of poorly catechized Catholics who believe the teachings for bigoted reasons. In his Theology of the Body, rather than simply proclaiming that homosexual and premarital sexual relationships are disordered and evil, John Paul 2 explains how christian theology calls us all to be reflections of the divinity. The Catholic Church teaches that this manifests in one of two ways: through the celibate as a reflection of Christ or the family as a reflection of the Holy Trinity. Anything else fails at making 'the invisible creator present on earth'.
A Reflection of Christ: Priests and Religious (nuns and monks), who make vows of celibacy, strive to make the invisible Christ visible by 'crucifying' their sexual urges and forgoing the option of having a family in order to live a life of complete service to others. It's meant to be a life of complete sacrifice. This is one of the reasons Roman Catholic Priests don't get married anymore, because they can't make a complete sacrifice while also adequately supporting a family. The ideal Priest gives his life in complete service to the Church, relinquishing any worldly attachments.
In the words of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, "Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live, but to die. Death for our redemption was the goal of His sojourn here, the gold that he was seeking. He was, therefore, not primarily a teacher, but a Savior. Was not Christ the Priest a Victim? He never offered anything except Himself. So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood, if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of His Incarnation."
A Reflection of the Holy Trinity: Catholic family theology is oversimplified when it is expressed simply as go forth and multiply, a la every sperm is sacred. That sort of oversimplification is what leads to hot-and-bothered proclamations that Catholic sexual teachings constitute an archaic insistence that the only purpose of sex is to fulfill the marital duty of having as many babies as possible before menopause sets in.
The bigger picture is that the family is meant to reflect the divinity of the Holy Trinity. Human procreation is a reflection of the creative love of God. As we say in the Mass, from the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son. So proper sexual love is creative, i.e. regular heterosexual sex. Fertility can't be held back and contained but needs an outlet, and the proper outlet is procreation. Putting a cork in the bottle to try and stopper the procreative element of human sexual love by using contraception or birth control is unnatural and dangerous, and also not a reflection of the divinity. Properly, this creative sexual love is permissible only within the stability of a sacramental marriage.
The sexual act is meant to bring two partners into closer communion with God and each other, in other words the two become one flesh, and therefore should always be a holy act that is free from lust and raunchiness or even detached boredom or a sense of duty. In fact, spouses are not meant to participate in obligatory, joyless sex. Jesus said that he who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. That means that a person can even commit adultery with his/her spouse by allowing lust to enter into their relationship. Note that it is possible to have passion without lust. Lust in a relationship detracts from the dignity of one or both partners.
Therefore, heterosexual couples are not given a get-out-of-celibacy-free card which permits any form of sexual debauchery so long as it occurs within a marriage. The sanctity of marriage demands that all sexual acts are sacramental in nature. This is really difficult to live up to. Marriage isn't the easy and fun path that you take if you're not good enough for celibacy. Marriage and celibacy are different but both extremely difficult ways of making the invisible creator present on earth.
What about a regular non-married Catholic who hasn't taken an actual vow of celibacy? Oh yeah! Like me. What about me? Single people are expected to master our bodies and protect our purity and love others in a nonsexual way. If one takes ownership of sexuality and refuses to be ruled by it, it is possible--gasp!--to live without sex. And in light of the above theology, it's the only way.
So these are the teachings. Does this mean that an unmarried Catholic, regardless of sexual orientation, will never have sexual relations? Obviously not. But should an unmarried Catholic try to live a life of chastity? Absolutely! As GK Chesterton said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” If one does not have the courage and fortitude to strive for the ideal, then why bother?
So it seems that at one end of the spectrum we have the Catholic ideal of sex as a sacramental act of inherent nobility. And at the other end we have sex as merely an animalistic physical urge--no more serious than a desire to eat junk food--that is so trivial that we find no fault in a man pleasuring himself with a vacuum cleaner. When given a choice between "Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow; honey got some boobies like wow, oh, wow" and "Stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion; its flames are a blazing fire" I pick the latter.