Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
'Wonderful Gift' and
An overview of Church teaching based
on the U.S. bishops' 1990 document, Human Sexuality: A Catholic
Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning
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 humanembodied, incarnate, and therefore
sexualis 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,
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 notthe bishops highlight the challenge, the "awesome
responsibility" that befalls the steward entrusted with any precious
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,
God's Spirit abides and abounds. The
grace to help us live sexually whole and chaste lives is readily
available in so many waysin 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
The divine plan inscribed in sexual
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 lovedphysically,
psychologically and spirituallyis 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,
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, fidelitysexual and
otherwiseas well as faith in God, are the building blocks
for lifetime commitments. "Each phase of marriagethe 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 partnerhas 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 onbreaches
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
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
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 pregnancyit'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 lineit is far worse
to lose our values than it is to make a mistake" (Human Sexuality,
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 personsphysically, 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.