How to Make Sense of Catholic Teachings on Sex
Cf Catechism paras 2331-2400
As everyone will admit, these days Catholic teaching on sexuality takes a lot of explaining. That is not because it is obscure or intrinsically difficult, but because we are conditioned against understanding it by the culture in which we live.
The key to it is the idea that we are not just animals, or complex, evolved pieces of machinery. We are animals, but we are not just animals. There is something more to us: a deeper and more complex interior life, which makes it possible for us to pray, to joke, to create cultures, and to do everything that we think of as characteristically human. Traditionally we have called this the "soul" a spiritual dimension that permeates everything we do and are.
This spiritual dimension affects everything. The region of personal intimacy, for example, goes deeper in us than it does in other animals. When we share ourselves with another person in that particularly intimate way that we call sexual, we are sharing ourselves at that spiritual level, or giving ourselves spiritually to the other person as well as physically whether we fully realize it at the time or not. We are letting them into a region of ourselves that simply does not exist in the other animals.
That region or secret chamber of ourselves exists for a particular purpose. It is bound up with a peculiar kind of fulfilment that is possible for us as human beings. This fulfilment is not achieved primarily through physical pleasure or reproduction, although each of these experiences is fulfilling in its own way and at its own level. It is a fulfilment that is achieved by a spiritual union or communion with another person, which is possible only by meeting and merging with them at this deep interior level.
At this level of the self, access is possible to the person as a whole, rather than to one or other part of the person. Any giving of the self that takes place here is of the whole self, the whole life. Of course, it is perfectly possible to have sex without engaging the whole self in the act. We can treat our own body or that of the other person merely as an instrument for physical pleasure or comfort, and mean nothing more by it. But every time that is done, a certain vital human potentiality is abused or destroyed. The deeper levels of sex are sealed off, buried under a layer of other experiences, memories, emotions.
Once the sanctuary of the self has been violated in this way, it can only be sanctified again through a process of purification involving regret, repentance and penance.
The words "sanctuary" and "sanctified" have been used here advisedly, because this interior space of the human person, this sphere of intimacy, lies deep enough within us to provide an opening not only, through our own unity, to the unity of another human person, but also to the presence of God. It is an interior that is inwardly open to that which transcends us altogether like a forest glade that is open to the sky. In other words, it is "naturally supernatural", a natural shrine where a sacred presence resides, unless that presence is driven out in some way.
The sacred quality of human sexuality has been sensed and known throughout history and every religion makes some allowances for it. Sexual intimacy is like a shrine, which needs to be guarded with care and marked off as special, as completely private. It can be invaded and trampled underfoot, becoming effectively part of the public or social dimension of life (for example when a person has a succession of lovers), but this mistreatment inevitably destroys a precious sacred quality that can only be restored, if at all, with difficulty.
Intercourse within marriage preserves the sacred quality of personal intimacy, because it respects the meaning of sexuality as a total gift of one person to another. It takes place within the context of an acknowledged covenant between two people that publicly commits them to union of life.
The question then arises, why cannot such a marriage exist between two people of the same gender, who may equally intend to give themselves to each other completely and for life? Why not "same-sex marriages"?
The main reason is that sexual "otherness", or difference of gender, is one of the essential ingredients of the kind of unity-of-the-two that marriage is about.
There is in every human being a certain completeness and a certain incompleteness. The completeness is due to the fact that each of us is a bodily person with an immortal soul. Our gender, on the other hand, implies that each of us is an incomplete expression of total humanity. This incompleteness is related to a need for the deepest form of personal communion, and this can be met in one of two ways: in a marital relationship with one of the opposite sex, or in consciously accepted celibacy, when the lack of a human other is (more than) compensated for by a special relationship with God.
Gender differences are, of course, biologically and psychologically rooted in the roles required in the conception and bringing up of children. But the result of this complementarity is that each gender is sufficiently different from the other to call forth a gift of self so complete that it allows a merging of one life with another. That "merging" is perfectly expressed in the conception of a child - a third unity mirroring the dual unity that has been established when two become one flesh. Even if no child is conceived the merging is a real one.
A same-sex love cannot unite the two in that way. It can create an emotional bond, but not an ontological one. By its nature it cannot be a union "till death us do part", but only until the emotions wear off, or (to put it more harshly) "till we decide we prefer someone else". Of course, a friendship between two people of the same sex can be spiritually fulfilling, and two friends (buddies, best friends) can be so close that they would willingly sacrifice their lives for each other. Human beings are made for friendship, especially friendship of that kind. But that kind of friendship, though it may be intimate, should be chaste. It does not involve genital contact, because it does not seek physical union. In fact it would be violated by such contact. It is a relationship that must respect the "completeness", the integrity, the modesty, in a sense the "solitude", of each person.
Sexual union with another who is of the same gender would not be union with someone sufficiently other, or other in the right respect, to complete ones life in the way it needs to be completed. As far as our nature is concerned, only a person of the opposite sex can complete me in a way I am not already complete, by representing for me the "other half" of the human condition that is mirrored in its wholeness by a mother and a father together.
Every same-sex union that intrudes on the inner sanctuary of sexual intimacy, just like every sexual encounter that reduces it to a public space, is a form of self-indulgence. What is lost there is lost all too easily. It can be regained, if at all, only through a great personal struggle.
It is hard to understand all this in a world that separates human biology from the spiritual, and which does not see that body and spirit are integrated together within the human person. Whether we realize it or not we have all been affected by the philosophy of Descartes, so that we tend to think of "ourselves" as "owners" of our bodies, able to "use" them as we choose. But according to the Church, our bodies belong to us in a rather different sense than this. My body and my soul together, not separately, constitute the person that I am (see Catechism para 365). This perspective underlies Catholic teaching on sexuality. The following books and articles will help you to understand it more fully:
Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love (T&T Clark/ Catholic University of America Press)
Also see important articles by Prof. Shivanandan on the following link: