Whether we agree or disagree with Advocatus Diaboli’s critique of the Church’s approach to sex, he has certainly given us something to think about. And I have been thinking. I do so speculatively – so I hope you will be ready to criticise or refine my tentative ideas. I want to make a start on this occasion by trying to clarify some aspects which I think often get entangled in our minds.
The sexual drive is more complex than the simple, though strong, sexual appetite. While few people nowadays would take Freud lock, stock and barrel I would certainly accept that sexual libido is a major trigger of the human psyche. Our sexual identities are fundamental and their expression is by no means limited to overt sexual activity or conscious thought. They are an inherent part of our self images, intrinsic to much of our motivation, and are expressed to a greater or lesser extent in our relationships and our interactions.
Thus I suspect that Catholics have no greater pre-occupation with sex than anyone else. It is only because we have, or attempt to have, common sexual values and prohibitions that we talk and argue about related matters so publicly and so frequently, and often so emotionally.
Perhaps we would all agree that the expression of sexuality, while potentially wonderful, is also potentially dangerous. In whole areas we really don’t need an ecclesiastical authority to tell us that the misuse of sex is a misuse of love. Starting a new life is just as momentous an action as bringing about the end of a life. The care and thought which needs to go into that conception so that this new life has the best chance of developing and growing into a mature and good human being is a responsibility which Catholics believe is only discharged by the presence of a loving and stable marriage. And, apart from any teaching, the sociological evidence is strongly in support.
By the same token we regard sex outside marriage as unloving in two ways. The first is that it creates an emotional bond (which may in fact be unequal between the two partners) without the corresponding permanent commitment. Or, in other words, someone is likely to get hurt – perhaps even badly damaged. The fact that we have potential control over conception through natural or artificial contraception does not alter the bonding reaction which has evolved in our brains. Secondly, to risk – as is often the case – an unwanted conception is to involve a third party. In addition of course, particularly where promiscuity is involved, there is the additional danger of disease.
Sex is frequently used as an exercise of power. I am not thinking just of the blatant examples but of any occasion when it is used to gain our selfish ends. This may range from the authority figure seducing the junior to the various ways in which men and women, within and outside marriage, can use or enforce their sexuality to gain their own psychological or concrete advantages.
I simply don’t need to attach the word “sin” to any of these misuses – which may vary from the great to the trivial – because they need no label. We can judge them for ourselves.
But there is a problem here. Because of the centrality of sexuality in all of us we are extraordinarily open to temptation. The passion generated by sex is altogether different from the passion generated by, say, hunger. We vary in the strength of our sex drive – from person to person and from circumstance to circumstance. But it is possible, and indeed common, for the drive to be so strong that under the influence of passion we can behave in ways which we should utterly repudiate in other circumstances. Indeed much of the thinking of theologians in the past has been based on the tendency of sexual passion to stifle our rational powers, and turn us into satyr or gorgon. Less than human, more like brute beast.
All of this reminds us that chastity is not a passive virtue – to be called into action when needed. It is a virtue which has to be continually cultivated: not in order to avoid sexuality but to use it – including its passion – at the service of love. I find this advice easier to take at 75 than I did at 25.
I have not on this occasion looked at aspects concerned with the Natural Law and sexuality. I will keep that for another time.