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Human Sexuality:
'Wonderful Gift' and
'Awesome Responsibility'

An overview of Church teaching based on the U.S. bishops' 1990 document, Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning

by Richard Sparks, C.S.P.

Many adult Catholics, especially those who grew up in the pre-Vatican II era, remember trudging to church for confession on Saturdays or with their parochial school class on the afternoon before First Friday. Our laundry lists of sins almost invariably ended with what we considered "the really bad ones"—sexual sins of thought, word or deed. Often we didn't even mention the word "sex." All we needed to say was that we had "impure" thoughts or talked "dirty" and the arena of sexuality was presumed and understood.

Whether deservedly or not, the Church has often been seen as the culprit that warped our view of human sexuality, making us see all matters sexual as suspect, potentially evil, and leading some to judge sex-related failings as the most serious sins of all. At their November 1990 meeting, the Catholic bishops of the United States went a long way toward correcting this overly negative image. By an overwhelming voice vote they adopted a new document, Human Sexuality, subtitled A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning.

The bishops' document was written primarily to assist parents and religious educators, providing them with sound Christian guidelines for sexuality education. This Catholic Update, written by a Catholic moral theologian quite familiar with the document and its contents, is a summary of the bishops' major points.

Human sexuality: A precious part of God's plan

According to the Book of Genesis, God created all human beings in the divine image, male and female they were created. And God saw this man and woman, the crown of the sixth day of creation, as indeed very good. So too the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God becoming fully human, "adds even greater dignity or divine approbation" to the incarnate goodness of our being embodied as sexual beings (Human Sexuality, 10). Thus, the mystery and meaning of being human—embodied, incarnate, and therefore sexual—is intimately bound up in the mystery and life of God as Creator, Redeemer and life-giving Spirit.

Just as God is a Trinity, a mystery of mutual love within Godself, so too are we, created in God's image, called to this same universal vocation, "to love" and "to be loved." And our sexuality seems to be a core dimension of our experience of relating to others, our desire to move out from isolation to encounter, the first step toward true love. As the bishops define it, "sexuality is a fundamental component of personality in and through which we, as male or female, experience our relatedness to self, others, the world and even God" (Human Sexuality, 9).

The bishops speak of human sexuality as a wonderful gift, to be treasured, respected and nurtured. So too, they speak positively about sex, a narrower reality, which refers "either to the biological aspects of being male or female (i.e., a synonym for one's gender) or to the expressions of sexuality, which have physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions, particularly genital actions resulting in sexual intercourse and/or orgasm" (Human Sexuality, 9).

Acknowledging the potential for abuse or misuse of our sexuality —sometimes intentional (i.e., sin), often not—the bishops highlight the challenge, the "awesome responsibility" that befalls the steward entrusted with any precious gift.

Whether one is married, single or a vowed celibate, whether one is heterosexual or homosexual, and regardless of one's age or maturity, dealing creatively with sexuality remains a fundamental and lifelong task. The art of loving wisely and well is multifaceted. In First Corinthians, Paul reminds us that true love is "patient and kind, not self-seeking." Laying down one's life for the beloved is Jesus' benchmark for love at its fullest.

Chastity is a positive force for good and the essential virtue needed to live one's sexuality responsibly and appropriately, given each person's unique state in life. Often misunderstood as a synonym for the suppression or repression of sexual feelings, chastity "truly consists in the long-term integration of one's thoughts, feelings and actions in a way that values, esteems and respects the dignity of oneself and others" (Human Sexuality, 19).

God's Spirit abides and abounds. The grace to help us live sexually whole and chaste lives is readily available in so many ways—in ourselves, our families, the Church, the Word of God, the sacraments, prayer, the lives and witness of Mary and the saints, and "in the recesses of each human heart, where prayer, conscience formation and discernment find holy ground" (Human Sexuality, 21).

The divine plan inscribed in sexual love

In Chapter Three the bishops cull from the Catholic tradition, and particularly the writings of John Paul II, in speaking about the "language" or "nuptial meaning" of the body. The Church teaches that human sexual intercourse is an action inscribed by the Creator with a twofold meaning, that is, with both a unitive and procreative dimension.

The unitive dimension. Lovemaking is an expression of vulnerability and intimacy, a two-in-one-flesh encounter, demanding a deep level of commitment and love for its natural fulfillment. Traditionally, this has been called the "unitive" meaning of sexual intercourse and, by extension, of marriage itself.

The Church finds affirmation for this unitive meaning of love, marriage and sex in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve—"It is not good for the man to be alone" (Gn 2:18). The desire not to be alone, to love and to be loved—physically, psychologically and spiritually—is a deeply rooted yearning. Drawing on Adam and Eve as a model, the Judeo-Christian tradition upholds marriage, called a "community of life and love," as the natural, God-given context for living together and lovemaking.

The procreative dimension. At the same time, if a man and women engage in sexual intercourse, the proximity of sperm and ovum can and, in the right circumstances, does produce new human life. Built into the very biology of genital sex is a "procreative" meaning. The story of creation, as recounted in Genesis Chapter One, affirms that marriage and sexual union are also given for the procreation (and subsequent nurture and education) of children as well—"Be fertile and multiply" (Gn 1:28).

Thus, the bishops echo the Scriptures, Church tradition and their interpretation of what God intended in nature by concluding that marital commitment and fidelity provide the only stable environment in which genital sexual expressions find their true meaning as acts of loving
union potentially open to procreation. "Prior to or separated from the marital commitment, sexual intercourse ceases to be an expression of total self-giving" (Human Sexuality, 33). The bishops conclude that "outside of this 'definitive community of life' called marriage, however personally gratifying or well intended, genital sexual intimacy is objectively morally wrong" (Human Sexuality, 33).

Guidance for special groups

In Chapter Four the bishops apply both their more holistic view of sexuality and this twofold unitive and procreative formula to four distinct ways of life:

1) For married partners. Focusing on married couples, the document candidly discusses both marital commitment and responsible parenthood. Since love is not only or primarily about the present moment, couples getting married pledge themselves not only for the happy now, but also for the unseen future. Honesty, trust, open commumcation, hope, fidelity—sexual and otherwise—as well as faith in God, are the building blocks for lifetime commitments. "Each phase of marriage—the early years; the childbearing years or no-children years; mid-life crisis and the empty-nest years; senior years; and the inevitable death of one's covenant partner—has its own share of challenges" (Human Sexuality, 43).

The question of responsible parenthood is two-pronged: (1) questions related to spacing children and (2) the issue of reproductive technologies for couples having difficulty procreating. In both instances the unitive and procreative meanings come to the fore.

The Catholic tradition in recent decades has become more sensitive to the needs and desires of married couples to space responsibly the birth of children, both for the good of the couple and the well-being of the children conceived. As far back as 1951 Pope Pius XII taught that for "medical, eugenic, economic, and social" reasons a couple could reasonably avoid procreation "for a considerable period of time, even for the entire duration of the marriage" (Address to Midwives). At the same time, they may want and need to continue fostering their marital love through the unitive aspect of genital lovemaking.

It is the current teaching of the Catholic Church, however, that one ought to do such spacing "naturally," by making use of the biological ebb and flow of the woman's fertility cycle. "Since a woman is not fertile during the greater part of her menstrual cycle, a couple is respecting the natural 'rhythms' ordained by God if they 'make use of the infertile periods' for genital lovemaking, open to the possibility, however unlikely, of a child being conceived" (Human Sexuality, 46).

Regarding other birth control methods, the Catholic Church teaches that "a couple may never, by direct means (i.e., contraceptives), suppress the procreative possibility of sexual intercourse" (Human Sexuality, 47). It follows that direct sterilization surgeries are also prohibited, except in those instances when one is directly removing a diseased or cancerous reproductive organ, with the resultant sterilization being indirect and unintentional.

While the bishops hope that the logic of Natural Family Planning (i.e., respecting one's natural rhythms) is compelling to married couples, they counsel pastoral sensitivity in dealing with "those who feel confused or who have genuine doubts about the wisdom of this teaching" (Human Sexuality, 47). As teachers the bishops must present the living tradition of the Church with clarity and conviction. As pastors, however, they strive to embody compassion and care "for all those who seek the truth with a sincere heart" (Human Sexuality, 48).

The bishops leave most questions related to reproductive technology to the fuller explanation of a 1987 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In summary fashion they note that just as it is inappropriate to engage in marital sex directly suppressing its procreative potential, so also procreation done "artificially"—artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood and so on—breaches or inhibits the unitive or lovemaking dimension of sexual umon.

Acknowledging that the desire for children is natural, the bishops express "deep compassion and empathy for those married couples who find themselves unable to conceive or bear children" (Human Sexuality, 48). They advocate adoption as one alternative, but note that professional counseling and ongoing pastoral care may be required to help childless couples deal with their own self-esteem, feelings and sense of loss. With all due sensitivity, fertility is not guaranteed and what is "technically possible" (what one can do in terms of reproductive technology) is not identical with what is "morally admissible" (what one may or ought to do).

2) For single persons. "There is no simple definition for the single life" (Human Sexuality, 51). Some choose to be or to remain single. Others find themselves single through separation, divorce or the death of a spouse. Still other single men and women might wish to be married, but simply have not found the right marriage partner. All single people can find a model par excellence in Jesus Christ. He was single, chaste and, at the same time, a person who knew the joys of intimacy as well as the anguish of loneliness. Such is the human condition, whether one is single, married or a professed celibate.

The section of Human Sexuality on singleness is powerful, sensitive, and one of the few official statements of the Church about the charism and cross of living singly in a largely coupled society. In an intriguing, though unexplored comment the bishops state that "Chastity, for the single person, is not synonymous with an interior calling to perpetual celibacy" (Human Sexuality, 51). They acknowledge that controlling one's sexual desires is no easy task, particularly if one is neither married nor feels called to lifelong virginity.

"Still, the Church teaches that genital sexual union 'is only legitimate if a definitive community of life [i.e., marriage] has been established between the man and the woman' "(Human Sexuality, 53). According to the Church and societal mores it is neither appropriate to procreate children without the security of a stable two-parent home nor is it truly, wholly unitive to make love prior to or apart from the full commitment of marriage.

Thus, participation in nonmarital sex is not an acceptable way to live chastely as a single person. "Relational misunderstandings and breakups, the sense of being used or betrayed, the trauma of unexpected pregnancies, sometimes followed by abortion of the young, constitute some of the real personal harm that can result from sexual intimacy expressed apart from the bonds and fidelity of marriage" (Human Sexuality, 33). Gently reminding single men and woman of the virtue of chastity, the call to be sexually appropriate for one's state in life, the bishops encourage diocesan leaders to be more attuned to the presence, gifts and genuine needs of single people in our parishes and communities.

3) For persons with a homosexual orientation. As noted earlier, sexuality is a core, divinely given dimension of every human being. "It is reflected physiologically, psychologically, and relationally in a person's gender identity as well as in one's primary sexual orientation and behavior" (Human Sexuality, 54). For some men and women this involves the discovery that one has a homosexual orientation, "that one's sexual inclinations are oriented predominantly toward persons of the same sex" (Human Sexuality, 54).

From the outset, grounded in the inherent and abiding dignity of every human person, the bishops reaffirm their 1976 decree that "homosexual [persons], like everyone else, should not suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They have a right to respect, friendship and justice. They should have an active role in the Christian community" (To Live in Christ Jesus, #52).

Adding force to this they quote the 1986 document from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs" (The Pastotul Care of Homosexual Persons, #10). They challenge each of us to confront our own fears about homosexuality and to reject the humor and discrimination that offend homosexual persons.

However, the bishops go on to express tactfully, but clearly the Church's teaching that "homosexual [genital] activity, as distinguished from homosexual orientation, is morally wrong" (Human Sexuality, 55). While the gay or lesbian orientation is not morally wrong (nor freely chosen), a homosexual person is not thereby free to engage in genital sexual activity with persons of the same sex.

The bishops affirm that only within a heterosexual marital relationship is genital sexual activity morally permissible. "Like heterosexual persons, homosexual men and women are called to give witness to chastity, avoiding, with God's grace, behavior that is wrong for them, just as nonmarital sexual relations are wrong for heterosexual men and women" (Human Sexuality, 55). While noting that the distinction between being homosexual and doing homosexual genital acts is not always clear and convincing, the bishops believe that this distinction does reflect a truth and should bear fruit in pastoral understanding and care toward gay men and lesbian women.

4) For today's adolescents. Adolescents in the 1990's are challenged to mature in a culture that is far more complex, fast-paced, and even more dangerous than the one in which their parents were raised. School truancy, street violence, alcohol and drug abuse, AIDS, teen pregnancy—it's a different and difficult world out there for today's young people. In addition, "internal chemical and biological changes trigger powerful, seemingly uncontrollable emotional responses, strong yearnings to be loved, to be needed, to be accepted" (Human Sexuality, 58).

Gnawed by vague but powerful feelings, bombarded by sexually-charged media hype, and facing a whole s of threshold questions—"Who am I?" "Who or what do I believe in?" "Who cares about me?"—young people in the '90s seek but find few easy answers. They need and deserve a special degree of acceptance, love, respect and support as they strive to become mature young adults, healthy male and female persons.

Many teenagers consider genital sexual activity, including intercourse, to be acceptable behavior, a "right" of sorts, even outside the context of marriage. The bishops affirm once again "that genital sexual intimacy, particularly intercourse, is a right and privilege reserved for those who have committed themselves for life in marriage" (Human Sexuality, 61).

Parents, teachers, coaches, counselors and all who work with young adults are urged to insist on sexual abstinence prior to marriage. Such abstinence should be seen as a positive choice. For too many people abstinence is viewed solely in terms of "going without." At best abstinence is more than a "no" to genital sex. It can be seen, first of all, as a "yes" to the future, to one's own inner potential and to one's future spouse.

Adolescents, moreover, need to be assured that God understands them, knows the temptations they face and will never abandon them. Prayer, self-discipline and participation in the sacraments and life of the Church can assist one in living a chaste life. At the same time, "it is important to keep mistakes in perspective" (Human Sexuality, 61). We must always be ready to forgive ourselves, to welcome God's forgiveness and begin again. "Growing up is never a straight line—it is far worse to lose our values than it is to make a mistake" (Human Sexuality, 62).

In summary

The Catholic bishops of the United States have offered us a service in their document on Human Sexuality. While admitting that it is not "the last word" on the subject of human sexuality, they believe it is "an important word."

"This document," they say, "is offered as our contnbution to the ongoing discussion about what it means to be mature sexual persons—physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually whole.... We have presented a positive and hopeful Christian vision of what it means to be sexual and to be chaste" (Human Sexuality, 6, 83).

The bishops' document Human Sexuality can be ordered from USCC Publishing Services, 3211 Fourth St.. N.E., Washington, DC 20017.

Richard Sparks, C.S.P., holds a doctorate in moral theology from The Catholic University of America. Having taught Christian ethics at the University of St. Thomas and St. Paul Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, he is now an editor at Paulist Press and is often on the lecture circuit. Father Sparks, whose special areas of interest are sexuality and biomedical ethics, is well acquainted with the bishops' sexuality document and gives workshops on it.


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