How should we think about sex?

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Bio-ethics, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to How should we think about sex?

  1. Ion Zone says:

    Sex as a sin is dangerous, but sex unrestrained can be deadly as well. Humans gravitate to extremes, very often, in a debate, trying to find middle ground, or a different standpoint can cause confusion as the human mind is ridgedly set on thinking there is only one opponent (I added quite a bit more on this in to the end of the last blog as I thought it off-track) with only one set of rules. It is always the way that you are righteous and they are dogmatic (to take the worst meaning of the word) fools.

    There can be no middle ground in a tribal war, but that thinking leaves us prone to enforcing either martial law or no law at all, with no thought of compromise between the wild Libertines and the iron-clad undergarments.

  2. st.joseph says:

    Quentin you have spoken so well on what you have written. If I can just say something of my experience with young people, it may not be relevant, but I feel somewhere there may be a moral issue in it. I am not saying this is a general rule only what I have come across and I did find it very sad at the time. Some of the teenage girls that I have had the privilege to come across quite a few number of years ago, in the 70s and 80s that never had the opportunity to have much love in their lives Some from childrens homes who at a certain age had to make there own way in life, a great deal more from broken homes.
    A lot of these girls didnt know anything better than to have a quick sexual relationship with a boy,who would be only too quick to take advantage of them. If they became pregnant and I know many who did- no parents to advise and love them, only a society who would be quick to condemn and the easy way out to abort their baby. In a lot of cases the girls wanted to keep the child, they felt love maybe for the first time in their life someone ,to hold and love them back. This wont have always fitted into the structure of our society.This is only a minute part of what you said so eloquently,But the need for love can make a physical relationship seem precious in certain circumstances especially to some young girls who have not had much love in their life. I pray close to an abortion centre, no confrontation,no placards- just to show someone cares When I see the look of despair on the girls faces and the look of amusement on their boyfriends face as we pray. I believe they ought to be made to account for their actions. There is no need to place blame on the church for the criticism of the use of condoms as it doesnt really apply. If they are not worried about what they are doing to the girls the use of condoms is the last thing on their mind. I believe God will forgive them as they surely dont know what they do, and I hope the babies are under Our Lady’s Mantle. I have often pondered who takes the blame. Our Lord didnt place all the blame on the woman caught in adultry. Maybe we all need to take a share of the responsibility as we as Christians know better.As I have said before Sexual Union is a wonderful Gift from God but unfortunately can cause a lot of unhappiness too.

  3. giton says:

    I am enjoying the debate.

    May I take issue with just one part at this point … Quentin, you state:

    “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.”

    I can’t work out whether this thinking is that of you or ‘theologians’. Nonetheless, it is common thinking with which I disagree.

    The ‘brute beast’ referred to is, presumably, the ‘soul-less’ animal. Common parlance says ‘the beast’ is responsible for this and that behaviour, but in fact animals do not behave in what we would term an immoral way. Animals are often better behaved (in our terms) that the humans with whom we would compare.

    For me, it’s a bit like blaming ‘The Devil’ for what is, in fact, the evil we respond to in ourselves.

  4. tim says:

    Spot on, Quentin. Also St Joseph.

    The strength of the sex instinct requires strict laws to control it. (did St Paul get it the wrong way round? “The Spririt killeth but the letter giveth life”? Probably not…). The legal maxim is that no-one should be a judge in his own cause. This is because of our highly developed capacity for self-deception, an invaluable survival characteristic. Under pressure, we can find all sorts of reasons why the laws should not apply to us in our particular circumstances. Look at this poor woman who’s just been sent to jail for killing her handicapped son. She has completely convinced herself that he was suffering unbearably and that she did it in good faith for his sole benefit.

  5. Ion Zone says:

    This is why I really don’t like the idea of easily changeable morals, as proposed by the non-religious, after all, a changeable moral is no moral at all. “Killing is wrong, except when I’m doing it”?

  6. giton, the view that lust involves the loss of reason comes from the theologians. The easiest reference to get at is at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1098.htm “Reply to Objection 3”. You are right of course about the animals; we can only apply moral judgments to them by metaphor. Though I’m not sure my wife would agree; she has a deep slash in her arm, quite unprovoked, from a house cat who has known nothing but kindness.

  7. Ion Zone says:

    “The ’soul-less’ animal.”

    I know you did not say it, but I do rather take offence at the idea there, after all, it is exactly the sort of elitist racism that would say the same about black people. Evolution of the soul from life to life is an idea I quite like, though other people will disagree.

  8. st.joseph says:

    I am saying this in a bit of a light hearted manner,but like Quinten’s wife I was bitten badly at 4yrs of age by the family cat,trying to save it in a fight.I know it was my cat as it would not let go of my arm. At that time it was my own fault to try and save it from being attacked.Two years later playing with the same cat in the garden it attacked me again. I didn’t want to tell my mother as she always told me (after the first incident) to leave the cat alone I should have listened to my mother.If the cat knew that the consequence of its actions were to be put to sleep perhaps it would not have attacked me again.The cat cant have had a conscience nor was it repentent,so judgement was passed on it.

  9. Ion Zone says:

    The problem is that the cat may have been in pain or have had something wrong with it. Animals often show pain through aggression towards what they see as the sourse.

  10. Ion Zone says:

    And in a fight, they will cling with their claws to anything in an attempt to save themselves.

  11. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Ion Zone, yes I do believe my mother thought the cat did have problems-it may have been me but I dont remember ever being cruel to it. My grandmother long ago in the 40s used to remark that people thought more of animals than they did of children. I am pleased that my Mum didn’t think that and get rid of me instead of the cat.

  12. Ion Zone says:

    I hope you don’t think I was implying cruelty!

  13. st.joseph says:

    No,I didn’t think that, but thank you any anyway.

  14. It’s fun, and gives the discussion some sparkle, when some personal comment is made. But we must avoid turning the Blog into a social exchange please. Anyone who wishes me to pass their email address to another contributor may do so by emailing me. Otherwise, emails are of course confidential.
    Quentin

  15. st.joseph says:

    Quentin, if you were referring to my comments. My response to Ion Zone was not meant to be fun nor add sparkle-but to prove a point on the soul-less -who can neither show compassion or repentence as in animals. It is lacking the Grace of God which I believe exists only in humans. The light hearted manner I referred to was for me not to go too deep into the theology of the ‘Soul ‘as the subject was how we should think about sex.
    My response to Ion Zone was meant to be courteous. as I think his was to me, and not intended as a social exchange.

  16. Ion Zone says:

    I do differ in my opinion, after all, deciding who has a soul, and who has not is very close to the heart of a racist mentality.

  17. I would agree that the question of non human animals and souls is a worthwhile discussion. But it’s useful to start with the Aristotelean/Aquinas view that the soul is the form of the body, giving it life. When life goes the body breaks down. Anima means life. In this interpretation, animals and indeed plants, have souls.
    But the souls are different. In order to sustain the transmigration of souls – if that it what Ion Zone is speculating about – he needs to show how the unique spiritual aspect of the human soul can emerge by some methodology which can properly be called evolution. This would be a very interesting line of argument, but I fancy it would prove something of a challenge.

    Isn’t it strange how the word “discrimination” has changed its meaning. It used to apply to the ability to make defensible distinctions. It was therefore a “good” word. Now it seems to mean racism. I am afraid I an too old, and too used to rational debate, to change now. So I suppose I must live with the modern view, but I do not have to share it.

  18. Ion Zone says:

    I shan’t go so far as to call it evolution, transferable theories is a bit of a logical fallacy. I would say it was more like growth.

    I agree with you that words often become dirtied, as with discriminating, though I think its existence as a positive still has some life in novels. The word ‘rational’ becomes dirty in any debate on religion now. It has come to mean ‘People who agree with me’ – other words that have gone the same way include ‘reason’ (“ah yes, there was a cult of that….”), ‘science’, occasionally ‘logic’, and a few others. (I find it really annoying, it amounts to an attempt to lock us out of the scientific process.)

    I like the idea of all living things having souls, but I do wonder in terms of division. If you cut samples of a plant and root them to grow new ones, does that create a new soul, divide the soul of the mother, or draw in a new one? If the last option, when does that happen?

    If we think in terms of germs dividing, that possibly leads to creation or division. What do you think? Is there another option? A soul cannot be infinitly dividable, but need it be?

  19. eclaire says:

    ‘How should we think about sex?’
    A good place to start, in my opinion (for Catholics especially), is to meditate on the fact that we are called to be the Body of Christ. The implications of this are so overwhelmingly beautiful that sex and lust pale into insignificance. The Church knows this and teaches it too, but few care to focus their attention on it.
    Now some might say this does not address the issue, that it is too Catholic, too idealistic, too airy fairy even; it does not solve real street problems. Do we need to be reminded that the whole of our existence is not merely material? Yes, we do, for we have absorbed the world’s reasoning even while we pride ourselves that we are independent of it. Whilst I agree with some of the things Quentin writes, I think he is incorrect when he states that we do not need an ‘ecclesiastical authority to tell us that the misuse of sex is a misuse of love’; (this is the argument of the world and Quentin gives it his blessing). The misuse of sex is not such an obvious idea and we do need to be told (and frequently reminded). There is no authority better able to do this than the Church (whether we like it or not). What does the misuse of sex mean to many youngsters? Nothing at all. For many, sex cannot be misused and the word ‘promiscuity’ is not part of their vocabulary. Ask any young (or old) couple who live together if they think that having sex outside marriage bothers them. The ‘authority’ of the world is by far, more dictarorial than that of the Church (and it is dishonest with it for it pretends to be working for the good of mankind); in fact, in my opinion, the Church is rather mild in comparison – just wait and see. The ‘authority’ of the world declares that we can do without God and His Church; that we can be good people without religion…why, we only have to watch the not-so-charming ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ to see how this belief is written into the pronouncements of the central character, Dorkas Lane. What an excellent humanist she is and doesn’t she show up the postman who is a caricature of things Christian! Yes, perhaps we can be ‘good’ people without Christ’s Church, but we’ll never, ever be better people.

  20. Ion Zone, you are asking some high metaphysical questions. And I am by no means sure of any answers. But this thought might help: if I have a plant and then kill it – that’s the end of that, life (soul) and all. But if I have taken a shoot which is now growing elsewhere, it will continue to grow. Ergo it has a life of its own. This would suggest that vegetative souls are infinite in the sense that one can can have an infinite number of independent plants.
    A more significant problem is caused by the human embryo which would seem to start as one life but may split into separate entities, that is, identical twins. Some have used this as an argument against the embryo having an independent soul until the period of potential splitting is over. Theologians argue much about this but, as you will know, the Church teaches that human life is present from conception onwards.

    eclaire, you have mistaken my meaning; perhaps I was not clear enough. My criticism was based on the fact that the public emphasis in the Church’s pronouncements tends to be on specific regulations – usually prohibitions. Thus a person may stick rigidly to, say, a prohibition on contraception while making excessive and unloving demands on his wife. And so may feel righteous. I am all for the Church clarifying the primary need for love – although I would claim that most of us can recognise it through our own, attempted, growth in virtue.

    You might be surprised how often I found, when counselling, that someone who was being cruel, and often violently, to their spouse, was an upstanding member of their parish in which they played an active role.

  21. st.joseph says:

    Ion Zone, you say you differ in opinion. I agree that you are entitled to so. I base my thoughts on faith, and on what the church teaches,and from the Bible. Blind as it may seem. What do you base your opinions on?I would prefer to trust in the Lord and the Holy Spirit, or would Spirit not be appropriate in to-days modern thinking.I wonder why Jesus didn’t suggest Baptism for the animals.

  22. st.joseph says:

    Or would it be your opinion that He was racist too?

  23. eclaire says:

    Quentin, thank you for your clarification.
    I am sure the Church does not seek to encourage hypocrisy in the home, or elsewhere – (you can’t always place the blame on the Church just because some Catholics very conveniently refuse to put into practice the full meaning of her teachings). That’s similar to blaming the teacher because the students aren’t learning anything even though the teacher is just short of performing acrobatic feats up the walls in order that his students might be alert enough to learn something (the trend of the last 20 years or so). But perhaps there are some Catholics (and non-Catholics) who really don’t (or cannot) see the full reasoning behind the Church’s teachings. Therefore, I agree, the Church should also stress the reasons behind her teachings and broaden these out. I believe that today she does do that (more than before). But this is an entirely different proposal from saying that she should no longer bother making pronouncements on what is right and wrong because these are so obvious; they are not for many – it seems. I am not as confident as you are that people actually grow in virtue most of the time though one would hope that they do.

  24. Ion Zone says:

    Don’t get me wrong St Joseph, I am not accusing either you nor anyone else of racism, but I do feel, both as someone who has a strong bond with animals, with a good understanding of how they think and react, and as someone who studies the human world from the point of view of an outsider, that to say for definite that the rest of God’s children, and they are his children too, are soulless, is to do both them, and us, a great disservice – the point being, where and how do we draw the line. I know that it is taught that human kind is special, but, to my mind, the New Testament makes clear that being special does not make you rulers of the world, quite the opposite in fact.

    By using the word ‘racism’ I am trying to put across the gravity of what we have done to the animal kingdom by thinking of it as less than us, that it does not matter.

    It is not a harmful thing to say that all living things have souls, indeed, it could be said to be one of the greatest ideas to come from Buddhism and religions like it. It means that all things are inherently wonderful, inherently blessed, and part of a great and beautiful ecosystem, with which we must have empathy.

    I honestly hope that I am not offending anyone, but I do see it as very important to question and reassess our values and our teachings – something Jesus himself would approve of! We must not become complacent, and must be prepared to think outside out comfort zone.

  25. Ion Zone says:

    Quentin, I firmly agree that the soul is present from conception onwards, perhaps even sooner, and I find the idea that there might be different types of souls, or better yet, different stages through which the soul grows, an interesting idea.

    Perhaps the soul starts off as something weak and dividable (perhaps the soul of a plant acts like a plant – but who of us can say?), becoming individually stronger until it stands on its own, indivisible. Though we could certainly guess at the nature of the soul until the end of time.

    To go back to our sexual nature, we had an interesting, and rather strongly worded, sermon at mass today, with a number of good, debatable, points. These are all his points, unfiltered, and as I remember them. I may have put some of them into stronger language than he used by accident or misinterpreted.

    > The government seems set on cutting off parents from their own children on matters of sex, and has failed to enter into any kind of serious debate on the matter. Children are increasingly encouraged to have sex, and then abort the baby without anyone knowing, or even supporting them. Websites with information on abortion are being set to specificity block out parents through auto-hiding function buttons.

    > There is *no* government-funding for groups that teach about chastity and ‘saying no’. Children are effectively told how, then left to get on with it.

    > Condoms and contraceptive pills are handed out to under-age children, as he said, if you give out these things you make the act far more likely.

    > Teenagers do not plan these things. If you promote sex, they will go out and have sex indiscriminately (and you end up with that fourteen-year old girl in the papers who slept with a dozen thirteen-year-olds and, guess what, got pregnant).

    > You cannot prevent your children being, for lack of a better word, indoctrinated, in schools (increasingly, by law, the Catholic ones too) by entirely pro-abortion material.

    > It would be best to educate, in most part, parents, rather than children.

    > We live in a hugely materialistic society heading towards one which has no sense of moral restraint.

    > (Hazy one) The two main bodies that regulate the sexual health of children have a vested interest in abortion.

    > The materials shown to children are becoming increasingly obscene and sexualised and are shown at younger and younger ages (Did not have a problem with biology classes).

    > Lack of information is as good as the wrong information. Sexual education needs to be tailored to each child, not the lowest common denominator.

    There were many others, which I shall remember later at an inconvenient moment, but I would like to add that I am for abortion *only* as an option in the case of either medical necessity, or rape, as both destroy lives enough, particularly in the case of young girls who have been forced into sex.

    This is not a view I have reached lightly, but I feel it is the only circumstances under which we should tolerate termination. It is my view that protection is better, but chastity is best. Though I am told, frequently, that abortion should be a matter of convenience I will not bow to this view, it is not a thing to be taken lightly, though it often is.

  26. eclaire says:

    The Catholic Church teaches that the soul does not evolve – full stop. She has pretty good reasons for doing so. If we want to know more, perhaps the first thing we should do is explore these reasons thoroughly (if we have the time and the ability) with a holy and knowledgeable Catholic teacher. If not, the other option is to trust the Church. She’s been on earth much longer than you or I, and the Holy Spirit (no less!) guides her in a very special way – though sometimes we may not think so (we don’t see the whole picture). Her doctrines are objective truth, they are sound. We have to believe what the Church believes if we call ourselves Catholics.
    It is true that she is imperfect in certain areas (she is made up of human beings – some of whom should never have been accepted into the priesthood – but they need assistance and love – not hindrance).

  27. eclaire. I’m sure you are basically right. The souls of vegetables and animals can only evolve at a biological level if something occurs to cause this; but there is nothing to cause an animal soul to mutate into a human and spiritual soul.
    Interestingly, it was formerly held that, following human conception there was a first stage – the vegetative soul, a second stage of an animal soul, and a third stage the spiritual soul. The early stages were governed by the action of the male seed – which continued to work; the final stage was a direct action of God. But since it was maintained that the soul was the form of the body it “inhabited”, it did not evolve but was a discrete change at each new phase. The advent of the microscope was to change all this. And this perhaps reminds us that the common, but not infallible, teaching of the Church can be open to revision.

  28. eclaire says:

    The discussion here centres around what we understand by the term, soul.
    I like to make a distinction between ‘soul’ and life ‘principle’ – for want of a better word.
    Since plants and animals are dynamic (i.e., they are not static) they have an element (or principle) of life within them. However, this is a far cry from saying that they have a soul. In my mind, only human beings have a soul because only human beings make moral decisions. The soul is not material; it is neither the brain, nor even the mind. It is in one sense entirely separate from these and yet, there must be some (immaterial) connection if the soul registers the choices the mind makes.
    Thinking this, I cannot see how the soul can evolve since it is not biological/material. For me, it is nonsense to talk of plants or animals as having souls (I am very fond of animals and sincerely hope that there is a place for them in our future life).
    Many people know that in medieval times, it was thought that women did not possess a soul; our thinking about the soul has certainly changed (and Quentin, you do a good job of pointing this out), but it does not necessarily follow from this that the Church’s thinking about the soul will develop any further.

  29. Iona says:

    Eclaire – if (in medieval times) it was thought that women did not have souls, were babt girls not baptised?

  30. Iona says:

    (that was meant to say “baby”, – should check first before I submit!)

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