What does it take to live as an adult Catholic in our changing and challenging world? Every Day Catholic uses an engaging and practical approach to help readers confidently apply Christian values to their everyday decisions. An online small group process is an added bonus.
Feel free to visit our sister site Once Catholic (OnceCatholic.org) and consider joining the Conversation Corners there. Also, please watch our home page at AmericanCatholic.org for news- and feature-related message boards. Our home page also offers the opportunity to submit prayer intentions and view those submitted by others.
Becoming Persons of Sexual Integrity
by Jim and Susan Vogt
The U.S. statistics on premarital sexual intercourse (81-95%), marital infidelity (15-80%, studies vary widely) and births to single mothers (40%) can be interpreted in various ways. They might reflect a loss of moral values or be manifestations of searching for how to live as sexual beings today. These numbers and their interpretations can be disturbing to Catholics, who have always been taught that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that the ideal family consists of a mother, father, plus children. Add to this the 6th and 9th Commandments which remind us that, from the time of Moses, committing adultery or even lusting after another—s spouse is forbidden. A committed Christian can feel like an alien in a foreign land.
Is sexual fidelity in marriage pass—? Is chastity a virtue only for priests and vowed religious? In its fullest sense, chastity applies to everyone—not just those who take a vow of chastity—since it means the right use of one—s sexuality according to one—s state in life.
The Church calls single people to chastity because human sexual expression carries with it the power of intimate union and of creating new life. It—s not to be taken lightly. If a man and woman aren—t committed to each other for the long haul, the bond created by their sexual union isn—t a total gift of self and is thus conditional.
Is sexual intercourse fine then as long as you—re married? Pope John Paul II spoke extensively about the holiness of our bodies and the meaning of sexual intimacy in his —Theology of the Body— lectures. Theologian Mary Shivanadan sums up his thinking: —[T]he body constitutes an expression of the entire person and thus calls us to responsibility— (The Living Light, Spring 2001). That includes sexual responsibility for married couples as well as for single men and women.
So, how does a faithful Catholic stay faithful in a culture that seems to ignore, or at least minimize, the importance of keeping the sexual expression of love within marriage?
One approach is to rail against those who engage in sex outside of marriage. This might feel righteous, but it won—t change the reality that there always have been, and always will be, men and women who don—t connect the dots between sexual intercourse and marriage. We can—t control other people—s behavior. We can only love them.
Alternatively, we can lift up the positive message of sexual communion of which John Paul II writes and help others come to see the intrinsic connection between marital love and sexual expression. This approach emphasizes the beauty and sacredness of marital love. As theologian Joann Heaney Hunter says, the theology of the body —explore[s] the dignity of marriage and sex in a world that often devalues them— (NACFLM Journal, 2007, Vol. 24-4). The virtue of chastity calls each of us to honor the life-giving power within us and to live our commitments to other people with integrity, responsibility and love.
Does the Catholic Church have a message for married couples who are trying to live with sexual integrity? Is it just a matter of not having a sexual affair? Having worked with engaged and married couples for over 30 years, we—ve learned that sexual infidelity usually doesn—t start with sex. It starts with not paying attention—or paying more attention to someone or something other than one—s spouse.
Infidelity may start innocently as an office friendship. It may be fueled by boredom with one—s spouse or slipping into a rut. Children naturally divert energy from the marital relationship. But adultery also comes in non-human forms. The —mistress— might be excessive dedication to one—s job. Technology becomes the —other woman— when a spouse spends hours on the Internet. It might not be pornography, but it—s still taking the place of time with one—s spouse.
Chastity in marriage isn—t only about what a couple shouldn—t do, but also about what they should do. The theology of the body emphasizes that our God-given gift of sexuality requires a total giving of self to the other. This sacrificial love means keeping love alive through loving words and deeds: letting my husband have his way even if I think my way is better or giving up a favorite TV program because my wife wants to talk. It also includes making time to play together and to nurture romance so that one—s marriage doesn—t drift toward substitute loves. Focusing on the positive qualities of one—s spouse builds the relationship. It may sound flip, but a compliment a day keeps divorce away.
If you—re a parent of a teen or young adult, your concern may not so much be your own fidelity as the sexual mores of the younger generation. With premarital sex and cohabitation becoming more normative, what—s a parent to say? Not much. The time for verbally sharing your values is before they reach the age for these choices. After that, you continue to model wholesome relationships, pray for them, celebrate with them if a relationship grows into a permanent commitment, and stand by to help pick up the pieces if it doesn—t.
Here are some thoughts for the journey toward sexual integrity:
For single men and women—Is my love for another based on respecting their dignity, their future, and not using them for my sexual gratification?
For dating and engaged couples—As our relationship grows, am I able to love with increasing selflessness? Giving myself sexually to my beloved implies a total gift of self. Am I ready to seal that commitment in marriage?
For married couples—Am I honest with my spouse about sexual temptations I experience so that we can address them as a couple devoted to each other? Can we talk about aspects of our lovemaking that are wondrous as well as anything that makes one of us uncomfortable? True intimacy requires vulnerability and honest communication.
What—s the bottom line? Are your human relationships, whether or not they involve sexual expression, life-giving and generous? What must you do to make them so?
Permission to Publish received for this article, —Becoming Persons of Sexual Integrity,— by Jim and Susan Vogt, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 2-29-2009.
What does it mean to me to be chaste in my own life situation?
What challenges do I encounter in living a chaste life in today—s sexually permissive society? What helps me meet those challenges?
What can I do to make my relationships both life-giving and generous?
The independent film Juno was a popular hit in 2007, offering witty dialogue, offbeat characters and a sure-fire subject—sex. It—s the story of a 16-year-old who finds herself pregnant after a single sexual encounter and who first contemplates an abortion before deciding to carry the baby to term and offer it up for adoption. And it—s a movie that can invite lively discussion about the role of responsible sex in loving and honest relationships.
Juno (Ellen Page) is a somewhat rebellious teen whose wisecracking may be a way of dealing with reality with her eyes wide open. Her one sexual experience is with Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), a friend whom she doesn—t consider her boyfriend. The movie doesn—t glorify the act, which arises from neither passion nor love. After three —I-can—t-believe-it— positive results on pregnancy tests, she cannot deny she—s pregnant. And she finally accepts responsibility for her behavior.
This is not really a movie about abortion decisions. It—s about committed relationships and the responsibility that sexual activity carries with it. This theme is found not only in Juno—s continuing and evolving relationship with Paulie, but also in her encounters with Mark and Vanessa Loring, who seem to be just the right couple to adopt her baby. After Juno reaches agreement with them, but before the baby comes to term, they split up. This leads a desperate Juno to confide to her dad (now on his second marriage) that —I need to know that it—s possible that two people can stay happy together forever.— His advice is to —find a person who loves you for exactly what you are.— This leads her to start anew with Paulie, this time looking not for sex, but for love. There—s much to talk about here if you look below the surface.
Next time you watch Juno, ASK YOURSELF:
■ To what degree do the couples—Juno and Paulie, Mark and Vanessa, and Juno—s dad and stepmother—demonstrate sexual integrity?
■ How do the perspectives of female and male characters generally differ?
Common feelings triggered by a spouse—s infidelity are helplessness and inadequacy. One may feel unlovable, disrespected and even guilty. Rich Derksen sums these up as —the deepest, most basic core hurts.— He says, paraphrasing Steven Stosny—s work on anger and compassion, —There are conflicted emotions. You can—t see straight. There—s a boiling behind the eyes.— Rich survived depression and the —infidelity diet— which he explains as —You—re so torn and in such pain that you don—t eat.— Still believing in marriage after his own ended, Rich got involved with Save Your Marriage Central (SYMC).
The SYMC Global Village (www.saveyourmarriagecentral.infopop.cc), a not-for-profit organization which advocates for marriage, hosts online discussion forums, sponsors Marriage Fidelity Day and promotes marriage in other large and small ways. Rich describes it as —a village of people coming together to help each other out.— His involvement has assisted him along his own healing journey while allowing him to help families, especially children, avoid going through what his family experienced. Since the village is online and marriage coaching is available over the phone, SYMC has helped marriages all over the world. Rich says there have been recent postings from New Zealand and Australia and that SYMC is a regular help to overseas military personnel.
Rich, an engineer from Dalton, Ohio, was married to his first wife for 20 years. He describes their breakup as —the most painful and trying time in my entire life, full of hurt and self-doubt.— And too much anger to always act compassionately led to even more guilt and self-doubt. As a member of the SYMC Board of Advisors, an e-mail intermediary, mentor and moderator of online forums, Rich now helps married couples in crisis. He tells Every Day Catholic, —We direct them first to personal healing. They won—t heal within their marriage or have a good relationship in the future without this. We don—t tell people to get out of their marriages. Our goal is to be marriage advocates.—
Lessons he—s learned on this journey which he brings to his involvement with SYMC, his new wife, Joanna, and his three sons (ages 12, 16 and 19) include the importance of communicating well, talking about issues as they come up, acting with integrity and compassion, treating people with respect, being true to yourself and your core values, and looking for the good in others. Five years after his divorce, he focuses on —trying to see the good in other people and looking for ways to help others.—
When asked to define sexual integrity, Rich draws on the teachings of the Catholic Church, the modeling of his parents (who will be married 50 years in May 2009) and his own experiences in relationships. He says, —We get a lot of images put in front of us that don—t support the covenant of marriage. Sexual integrity is about respecting yourself and your spouse, keeping the covenant and upholding a standard of behavior. A lot of it has to do with communication, being open and honest—transparent honesty. Integrity extends beyond sexuality—it—s a person—s whole character.—
Jim and Andrea noticed that their daughter—s college address changed after first semester. Andrea became —suspicious when Melissa—s boyfriend, David, answered the phone one early morning. Heartsick that Melissa might have abandoned their values, Jim and Andrea made a surprise visit that confirmed their suspicions: Melissa and David were living together.
Many people accept or condone premarital sex as a needed test of a couple—s sexual compatibility. One counselor said, —Of course you should have sex. We try shoes on before we buy them!—
Chastity creates relationships that bear the test of time. Statistics show that couples who remain chaste before marriage are more likely to stay together permanently.
Communication suffers when couples become sexually active before marriage. At a time when couples should focus on sharing feelings and thoughts, the sex act overrides that need.
Our counter-message can—t begin when teens and young adults face the decision to become sexually active. When children are old enough to learn about reproduction they should be encouraged to reserve sexual activity for marriage. By the time that the sexual urge kicks in, their understanding of the sacredness of human sexual expression should be solid.
So, what can parents do with the mindset that premarital sex is fine as long as conception is prevented? First, don—t be shy. Stand up for your moral values and discuss them often. Second, use popular media as a teaching tool: When a song lyric or movie/television story line condones sexual promiscuity, explain that this isn—t acceptable Christian behavior. Finally, if your child becomes sexually active, continue to love your child, leave the doors of communication open and pray for your child with renewed energy.
Jesus models loving the sinner and hating the sin. Be even more present to your child and look for opportunities to encourage a return to chaste living. But never offer ultimatums. Reconciliation always begins with mercy and compassion. A return to chaste living can be the outcome when you stand by your own prodigal son or daughter.
Jim and Andrea made many trips to campus that semester. They met Melissa at the local diner where their Wednesday night dinners offered Melissa strength when David left abruptly. Melissa learned a life-changing lesson: Sex is too sacred to waste on a passing relationship. Melissa has chosen —secondary virginity,— and Jim and Andrea couldn—t be more proud.
(for praying alone or with others) Preparation: Place a white cloth, an empty oil lamp, a small jug of oil and an open Bible on a prayer table.
—Create in Me a New Heart— (or other suitable hymn)
Lord, we are wonderfully, beautifully made. We delight in our bodies as images of your likeness. May respect be the guiding light of sexual expression in our lives. May the sacred union of man and woman be held as a sacred act of human love. And may we have the courage to live lives of chastity all our days. Amen.
Matthew 25:1-13, Parable of the Ten Virgins
RITUAL Leader: Fill our spirits with the oil of courage to stand up for purity. All: Create in us pure hearts, O Lord. (Pour a little oil into the lamp.) Leader: Fill our spirits with the oil of perseverance when it is difficult to keep from sin. All: Create in us pure hearts, O Lord. (Pour a little oil into the lamp.) Leader: Fill our spirits with the oil of reconciliation toward all those whom we have judged. All: Create in us pure hearts, O Lord. (Pour a little oil into the lamp.) Leader: Let us light our little lamp and silently pray for wisdom.
Light the lamp and, after a period of silence, invite the group to join hands around the lamp and receive this blessing:
May God protect us from all evil and preserve us from all impurity of mind and body so that we may keep watch and witness to the values of the gospel. May God bless us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.