Just a note: I simultaneously posted this on my blog at The Practical Catholic
Ever wonder why Christians hate porn?
Or why Christians insist on marriage being between a man and a woman?
Well, it’s because a secret some of us have discovered, one the Church has known for millennia, and one people are starting to realize is getting back out there. Sexuality is Spiritual.
Sexuality is more than just chemicals and genitalia, and we all know that. The Church teaches us that sexuality is a spiritual as well as physical connection. It’s deeper than emotions, it’s a whole system of actions and reactions that transcend the here and now. Sexuality is a part of the human person in ways that cannot be reduced to simple accident.
Dr. Paul McHugh has an engaging article on the matter of sexual reassignment surgery from a Catholic perspective, with very interesting findings. What were the good Dr.’s findings? What we always knew. Regardless of how you manipulate the body and its environment for a desired outcome, gender and sexuality are intrinsic to the human on a more fundamental level than the attitudes of society. Culture cannot ultimately shape what we know to be proper sexuality.
But what about the Politics!?
This week President Obama decided to tell the Department of Justice to not uphold The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I think this is simply a distraction from the budget wars that have been fought on Capitol Hill. What this means for our politics is simple,
- We are not always allies with the government as Christians.
- We will have to work culturally to revive the values we believe are intrinsic to human dignity, including traditional marriage.
- We will have to work harder in the gay and lesbian communities with love, patience and understanding to create a country we can all share without ostracizing one another.
However, issues of the ethics of sex begin to raise all sorts of questions about the nature of our politics. Stanley Hauerwas says “…[T]he ethics of sex must begin with political considerations, because ethically the issue of the proper form of sexual activity raises the most profound issues about the nature and form of political community.” So in essence, when we talk about gay marriage and traditional marriage, we’re not just talking about a civil institution, we’re talking about the entire structure of our lives as a culture, and a people. Hauerwas goes on to say “To reduce issues of sexuality to the question of whether acts of sex are or are not fulfilling for those involved is to manifest the assumption of political liberalism that sex is a private matter.”
The Christian Alternative
In Jewish culture, which is the wellspring of Christian thought, issues of sex affect the shape of the entire culture. Judaism was one of the first, if not the first culture with a code of sexual ethics as part of religious/societal life. That Christians today attempt to defend the public nature of sexual acts and collaborate towards a common good is not strange, but inherent to the wider Christian worldview. It is not only in Christianity, but in society as a whole across the world that marriage is a fundamental element in the social/political landscape. Marriage involves a whole convocation of issues at the foundation of every society and changing marriage means changing a whole social order.
Hauerwas is worth quoting at length here:
We must understand that if Christians and non-Christians differ over marriage, that difference does not lie in their understanding of the quality of interpersonal relationship needed to enter or sustain a marriage, but rather in a disagreement about the nature of marriage and its place in the Christian and national community. Christians above all should note that there are no conceptual or institutional reasons that require love between the parties to exist in order for the marriage to be successful. Marriage is, as Russell argues, a biological institution to beget and rear children for the ends of particular communities. What makes marriage Christian is the rationale behind having and raising children. Marriage and the family for Christians are not less political because they are not understood in terms of a national order. Indeed, their political nature is clear from the fact that they refuse to be so defined.
I’d like to take a moment to say: I disagree with Hauerwas in that I think romantic love done Christianly is the human element that make marriages increase in perfection. Hauerwas is of course on one level right, but I’d say that the case he presents has been used wide and far in all sorts of extremely non-Christian relationships, especially among Fundamentalist evangelicals and Fundamentalist mainline Protestants. Marriage is for begetting and rearing children, but it is also for the Christian community, it is also for love, for companionship, for the sacrament of friendship, for communion between persons.
Christians have a differing view of love from the secular societies they form part of. “We do not love because we are married, but because we are Christian” says Hauerwas, and I could not agree more. The basis of marriage for Christians is not romantic love. The basis of marriage for Christians is founded in the faith that calls them to love with full self-emptying devotion. In fact, this makes clear to us the venerated position of early Church martyrs. They were nuptially given to Christ. The criterion was a bodily givenness that could not be duplicated twice, and happened in a context so specific that it could not happen without certain given variables.
If marriage is understood as similar to the way we think of martyrdom, a nuptial sharing with Christ, and yet at the same time a political body which does a service to a community, we must return to what it means to be called to marriage. Being called to marriage as Christians means being called to serve the entire Christian community with our bodies, our fidelity and our patience and hope.
In short, we can say that every marriage is a death of self, so that our self may be free to give to another bodily. It is irreplaceable, and not able to be duplicated without the proper context. Just as Christ gives his body for the Church on the cross and in the Eucharist, the martyr echoes this back in a way at once dissimilar, because the martyr is not God, but sharing in the same identity. Christian marriage is bodily givenness because we are Christian, not because we have passion. Thus both marriage and martyrdom require a bodily fidelity that can be echoed by the other in a way at once dissimilar and mutually identical. Bodily fidelity such as this can only be fully expressed in marriage when a male body is given to its female counterpart as it was made to do.
The Fundamentalist Problem
This givenness fosters in us the passions and loves that the middle ages championed as the height of love. It may very well be that Christian love is the only way to reach these properly. The human element as well as the theological and emotional have to be present to foster a healthy love. Just as much as healthy sexuality is not just proper genital interaction, it is not simply about a purely theological element.
We cannot afford to lose the connectedness and the unity of sexuality for the sake of “biblical sexuality” as some have used it, claiming the other’s body as a sex object at any point through phrases about conjugal rights, and honoring husbands and submitting to the man’s desires. Any structure of sexuality where abuse, lust, rape and adultery are conceived as impossible once the couple are married is a flawed structure. Christian marriage does not say that these things suddenly do not exist or only exist in extreme situations.
Every marriage is subject to the fallen created order, which means that a man can feasibly lust after his wife. Pope John Paul II was mocked by the media for saying that a man should not lust after his wife The Holy Father says, “each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity, as a spouse, has not become in his heart an object of adultery.”. It is the responsibility of every man to care for his wife as a sister and uphold her dignity. Growing up, I had similar experiences to this where no sex before marriage was the ultimate goal. But I have since learned a fuller Christian theology of marriage and the family.
We must remember that it’s important to recognize that our spouses are not the objects of our sexual pleasure, or where we should direct our sexual frustrations. Our spouses are not where we get to live out every whim and fancy. Marriage, true marriage is a liberation of the person. It calls us to live a life in the fullness of freedom. Christian marriage calls to some and says “If you wish to have freedom from lust, live this way!”
Character and Sex
The issue for us, all of us, is not what we should do with our genitals. That’s important, don’t get me wrong. But the question is deeper and more fundamental than that. It’s a question of ‘What kind of people should we be?’ and that will clearly have something to do with our faith, cookware, genitals and virtues. But the reason that much of the argument for traditional marriage is failing in some areas is that people have made it about genitals and not the character necessary to use those genitals, and indeed our bodies rightly.
What I mean is, we’re called to use our bodies as a statement of faith. Every child that we bear is a fight against the idea and culture that says that we’re all doomed .Every single birth is a statement of faith that says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of Life.” This is not to say that children are simply this. Just as marriage needs a human element, parent-child relations need a human element. Every child is an opportunity to reflect the love in our marriages, and testifies to the fruits of our love for our spouses, be they natural-born children or adopted, it says that our marriages are still places where widows, orphans and our neighbor are cared for.
Every successful marriage testifies to fidelity between man and woman, as we were created to be. Every positive marriage shows our patience in waiting for the end, and living today as if it has ultimate importance, though we wait for the end. Every marriage serves the Church, through being called to God as a domestic priesthood, a temple of the faithful in everyday life.
When we remember this calling, what we do with our genitals matters, but for reasons larger than sex itself. Sex is an act of worship, but just as every other thing in our lives should be worship. Marriage, and sex for our good, our pleasure and our ability to enjoy. However, marriage is still a vocation and engenders us to certain responsibilities. This new understanding for the 21st century is an old one for the Church, and a view that fractures many of our cultural illusions, but as Christians we can do no less. Our kingdom, our bodies and our sex is not of this world.
. Pope John Paul II, apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem 14 (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1988).