by Joe Florez
P.O. Box 1270
Princeton, NJ 08542
A prevailing prejudice
Something beautiful for God
``HE DOESN'T KNOW HOW to have a good time; he's a Catholic.'' When Jason, the college student who uttered this statement noticed the expression of surprise on my face, he went even further: ``But I mean, a good Catholic.'' This attitude reflects a prevailing prejudice of our contemporaries. Why do many assume that somehow a good Catholic cannot fully enjoy life? Are fun and the faith really opposed? Can sound doctrine lead to real happiness, or are moral values fetters that restrain the young person's yearnings for freedom? The conflict becomes painfully acute in matters of sexual morality.
Where does this prejudice come from? In those who believe it, it evokes images of stern old nuns in black habits who proscribe foul language through corporal punishment, apprehensive children being led to the unknown darkness of a confessional, and the overbearing vigilance of parents on the hunt for unseemly behavior on one's first date. Good Catholics are the ``prudes'' who don't get the joke, who blush at the sight of a dirty picture, who have to be home before ten. Poor devils, they are completely out of step with the times.
Unfortunately, Catholics themselves may have fostered this prejudice unconsciously. There may be an underlying current of Catholic praxis, based on a superficial understanding of moral norms, that perverts the real meaning of human sexuality. It's the ethic of the ``thou shalt not,'' of the taboos, of the filthiness of everything carnal, which sends the simple message that sex is evil. It is only tolerated because it's the only way to make children and perpetuate the species; but the less we talk about it, the better.
This caricature of Catholic sexual morality, which confuses many within the Church and repels many without, provides a fertile ground for the mockery of secular thinkers. In the words of agnostic Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, ``the worst feature of the Christian religion is its attitude toward sex-an attitude so morbid and so unnatural... The church did what it could to secure that the only form of sex which it permitted should involve very little pleasure and a great deal of pain.'' In Marriage and Morals he criticizes St. Paul for, according to Russell, ``he does not suggest for a moment that there may be any positive good in marriage, or that affection between husband and wife may be a beautiful and desirable thing.''
But most people don't even waste time in ridiculing the Church's teachings; they simply ignore them. After all, we live in a society in which the sexual instinct is constantly aroused and easily satisfied: images, publications, phone lines, entertainment, advertising, the news, the arts, freely exhibit sexual material with great candidness, so that it's readily accessible to anyone who has reached the age of reason. The sexual urge, awakened early and often, finds unhindered fulfillment in our public high schools, where more than half of teenagers have had sex by the time of graduation.  Of those who remain, few will manage to escape the free-for-all of college dorm life.
Was it always like this? Yes, sexuality is as old as humanity itself, but the generalized disappearance of even a semblance of common decency in sexual matters is quite a recent phenomenon. The so-called ``sexual revolution'' overran American youth in the late sixties, and has now permeated every fabric of society. Today, we have a 50% divorce rate, a genuine epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases-- including deadly ones-- and federally-funded condom distribution in public schools. Young men and women who remain virgin until marriage seem to be the exception rather than the rule. But behind every cold statistic, there is a young person who is hurting, whose life has been shattered, who is disenchanted with others and disgusted with him or herself. Tom relationships, threats, tears and pain all too often follow the tragic misuse of one's sexuality. The sexual revolution has already been tried, and it doesn't work.
This brochure intends to provide a glimpse of the true Catholic understanding of human sexuality, in all its beauty and splendor; to explain Catholic ethical norms, their attractiveness and rationality; to answer the questions of the confused or inhibited; and to encourage all in their struggle for real love. We hope that at the end of this exposition you agree, with the skeptic graduate student who once requested a similar explanation, that these truths are truly wonderful.
In order to begin to answer questions about moral norms, one first needs to inquire about the subject bound by those norms: the human person. In understanding how we are, we can draw conclusions as to how to act. Eventually, this line of inquiry leads to the ultimate question: why we exist. When it comes to something as personal and intimate as the sexual faculty, one cannot ignore the question for long: every one must answer, sooner or later, whether the use one makes of sex is helping him or her become a better human being.
We know what role sex plays in animal life. It serves the purely biological function of perpetuating the species, while passing on genes from two different parents to the offspring. This process also confers the evolutionary advantage of generating individuals with greater genetic diversity in each subsequent generation. All other animal behaviors related to reproduction are merely designed to ensure the growth and survival of the offspring: thus, the courting rituals, the constitution of ``family units,'' the feeding of the young, the division of labor between male and female, the mode of shelter and the higher levels of societal interaction are the result of highly stereotypical behaviors rooted in instinct, which have not changed much in the lifetime of the species.
There are some in the scientific community who would like to reduce the human species to a purely animal category. They try to explain all of human behavior in animal terms, as if humans also acted by instinct alone. With such a materialistic outlook, they hope to divorce all discussion of sexuality from any moral norm. At the same time, these secular thinkers fall into a paradox of reasoning: when it comes to reproduction, they attempt to free sex from the shackles of biology, deciding when and where the very possibility of offspring will be entered into the equation. Their talk of ``reproductive freedom'' shows that somehow human beings are different: that we can transcend biology, that there is something in us that allows us to behave in a manner superior to every other species in the animal kingdom.
Our intuition also tells us that sex in humans means more than sex in animals. There is a certain dignity about human beings that we don't ascribe to any other species. Indeed, humans are the only creatures who have reason, who philosophize, who carry out experiments and advance science. Only humans have a notion of their own history, their continuity in time across generations. Only humans manufacture tools of every kind; more significantly, only humans design machines to make those tools. Only humans create new art, music or literature. Finally, only humans experience the voice of right and wrong, and feel free to choose a particular path of conduct.
Our reflections on the identity of the human person indicate that our intellectual capacity and our freedom to direct our will must affect in some way our use of sex. Indeed, in humans sex is usually bound up with the notion of love, of gift, of surrender to another. In order to achieve the biological purpose of sex the free cooperation of another human person of the opposite sex is necessary. The relationship that is established between both partners is therefore not just one of biological instinct, but one that reaches every level of our being and touches the very core of the human person. In the sexual act, our bodies, our emotions, our feelings, our intellect and our will enter into a unique relationship with another person. There is indeed something precious here: something we don't want to break.
Our line of reasoning has shown that sex has both a biological dimension and an interpersonal dimension, that transcends the purely instinctual function of other animals. This conclusion affords us a glimpse of the dignity of human sexuality. For a fuller understanding of this truth, however, we must turn to the word of God. Following a favorite approach of Pope John Paul II we must go to the beginning, to the point when the human person first walked on Earth. Although our starting point is that of revealed truth as expressed in Sacred Scripture, we expect to find the real blueprint of any human person created by God, whether believer or non-believer, and thus hope to describe the universal human experience.
The creation of the human person as male and female is described in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. To refute from the start the notion that sex is somehow a tragic consequence of original sin, one only needs to read about God's decision to separate the sexes: ``And God created man to his own image; to the image of God he created him; male and female he created them''. What did God think of human sexuality? After every other moment in creation God had contemplated the work of his hands, and seen that it was good. However, only after the creation of the human person as male and female does the Book of Genesis state that ``God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good'' (emphasis added).
Why did God create the human person as male and female? This question, at the crux of our understanding of human sexuality, takes us to two key verses in Genesis which address the reason for sex, and introduce the notions of gift of self and the union of love and life.
The second narrative of creation describes God's reasons for creating the two sexes, and in doing so provides the foundation for a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a human person. ``And the Lord God said: It is not good for man to be alone''. Although the Earth was filled with plants and animals of every kind, fish in the sea and birds in the air, man found himself alone. He was alone because for him ``there was not found a helper like himself''. The human person has a radical need to open up to someone like himself: Aristotle summed up this human yearning in the conclusion that man is a social animal, or, in other words, the human person is a being that exists for others. But this is not just a mere need to interact with others: there is in us a deep desire to go beyond mere communication. We need a companion, someone to share things with and give ourselves to. Among all earthly creatures, the human person is the only one who needs, desires and is capable of making a gift of self, in order to escape his loneliness; and this gift of self must be made to ``a helper like himself.''
Moreover, if this gift of self is to be truly satisfying, giving meaning to our whole life and providing a real sense of purpose, it must tend to the ideal. Not in vain did Jesus Christ exhort his followers to ``be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect''. We can always reach for more in our quest for happiness. Therefore, as much as possible, our gift of self should aspire to perfection: it must be complete.
Why should this gift be made to someone like ourselves? For the simple reason that the human person is also the only earthly creature who can respond adequately to this gift of self. We expect that ``other someone'' to need us, to also make a gift of self to us: in other words, the gift of self should be mutual. This yearning, for instance, constitutes the basis of human friendship. However, among all relationships a human person can enter in, there is always one that reaches for the summit: it contains the elements of human friendship, but brings them to fulfillment in a very special manner. In other words, it becomes a relationship with someone who complements us perfectly. Because of the way we are made, with a spiritual soul and a sexual body, that other person is a member of the opposite sex.
Two other characteristics derive from the notion of perfect gift of self. First, I can only make a complete gift of self to one other person: only one person can hold the first place in my dedication. I can only give myself in a total manner to the person I have chosen to receive all of my love. It must therefore be exclusive.
And second, for my gift to be complete it must include the notion of eternity. We human beings always aspire for more, for the perfect, for the ideal. We can always be happier, love more: in the words of an old valentine, we can always say ``I love you more than yesterday, but less than tomorrow.'' We are finite and yet tend to infinity, limited and yearn for the limitless. This capacity for the absolute fulfillment of our aspirations explains why our gift of self should be permanent: in the words of the lovers, ``I want us to last forever.''
In summary, from our reading of the creation of the human person as male and female, we conclude that God made us sexual so that we could make a complete, mutual, exclusive, and permanent gift of self to a person of the opposite sex; our sexuality is the physical expression of that gift.
The first narrative of creation completes our understanding of human sexuality. It tells us that after God had created them male and female, he told them ``Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it''. The generation of children was a direct consequence of the creation of the sexes. In his infinite wisdom, God decided to unite the procreative faculty of the human species to the consummation of sexual love, by which man ``shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh.''[l0] He could have done it many other ways: the human race could have been composed of hermaphrodites, so that procreation would only require the reproductive systems of a single individual; or there could have been a single reproductive mother, like the queen in some insect societies; or we could be subject to any of the many forms of asexual reproduction that exist in nature. But he specifically intended for new human persons to be generated as the fruit of the culmination of a mutual gift of self between male and female.
Everything in the physiological make-up of men and women unites sexuality and procreation. Sexual maturity does not occur immediately, but closer to the age when potential parents are old enough to take care of their young. There is no separation between the genital organs that provide sexual pleasure during the marital act, and those involved in reproduction: in fact, the sexual act itself is designed to enable reproduction to occur. In other words, what makes us sexual, male or female, is exactly the same power that makes us able to procreate. Our sexuality is an essential element of our humanity, from very early on. Did you know, for instance, that the egg that would eventually become you after fertilization, was already present in your mother's ovary when she was a seven-month fetus in her mother's womb?
Why would God unite sexuality and procreation, life and love? Although from reading Genesis we may get the impression that God separated the sexes as a kind of afterthought, a careful reading of the first creation narrative shows us that it was part of the original plan: ``And God created man to his own image; to the image of God he created him; male and female he created them'' In some mysterious way, being created male and female arises from being created in the image of God. This can be explained in at least two ways: first, we know that God is a Trinity of Persons, which love each other immensely and also engage in a divine, eternal Gift of Self. And second, we know that God's Love is always creative, it leads to Life: it was his love for us that led him to create us. In the same way, he also wanted our human love to generate life: he wanted us to cooperate in creation, together with him. Thus, every time a man and a woman give themselves to each other in the physical culmination of their mutual love, God allows their love to participate in his creative power; furthermore, he intended each human person to be conceived as a result of an act of love.
From the reading of the first two chapters of Genesis, a beautiful picture of human sexuality emerges. Each human person is made for someone else, another person; for this gift of self to be perfect, it must be complete, mutual, exclusive and permanent. Since our sexuality is the physical expression of that gift of self, it must only take place in the framework of a permanent commitment to that person, which we call marriage. Furthermore, it must be open to God's creative power, and preserve the unity between love and life: a complete gift of self includes a gift of one's capacity to procreate.
When presented in these terms, the Catholic ideal is truly attractive. As opposed to those phony weddings that merely seem to sanction an ongoing situation, there is great romance in a real wedding, one that signifies a complete gift of self, one in which each spouse tells the other ``I am giving myself to you completely and forever, in ways in which I have never given myself before; you are the only person who will ever receive this total gift from me.''
Given the above understanding of human sexuality, it is simple to come up with an explanation of the virtue of chastity, or a description of what it means to lead a pure life: someone is pure when he or she makes use of his/her sexuality only as the physical expression of a mutual, complete, exclusive and permanent gift of self to another person. Used in this context, our sexuality brings incredible fulfillment, leads to great happiness and becomes a source of union. Furthermore, it's a path of holiness: the marital bed is an altar in which a pleasing sacrifice is offered to God. With these ideas firmly in mind, we can now turn to analyze some specific uses of our sexual faculties.
If the Catholic Church is really for sex, if sex in marriage is such a wonderful thing, if the human person was truly created to make a gift of self to another person, why that Catholic insistence on a celibate priesthood? Why does the religious life demand virginity? Aren't these people missing something? Like Adam, don't they feel alone?
It is true that the human person was created to make a gift of self to another person, and that sexuality was intended to be the physical expression of that gift. And that is precisely what happens in celibacy: some people are given the special gift from God to give themselves completely to him alone. Their abstaining from the use of their sexual faculties for their whole lives is the physical testimony of that gift. While a married person reaches God through a gift of self to his/her spouse, a celibate person reaches God directly, without intermediaries; for this reason, and because it entails no return of physical pleasure in this life, celibacy has always been regarded by the Church as a state of higher objective holiness. In an illustration by a well-known Catholic author, celibate people are like the officers in an army, while married people are the troops; which doesn't necessarily exclude the possibility that, in the moment of battle, a soldier can be much more heroic than the general.
Therefore, celibacy is never a ``default,'' reserved for people who can do no better. It's a conscious embrace of the highest Love, it's a gift of self to the perfect Lover. Priests, nuns, and lay people who have chosen to lead celibate lives for the kingdom of God are not bachelors or old maids; they are people who once experienced the ultimate romance and fell in love; with the courage and vibration of young lovers they did not hesitate in giving themselves, completely and forever; and, as a result, they enjoy the immense fertility of spiritual parenthood, and their children in the spirit are a living testimony of the fruitfulness of their lives.
If the definition of purity is the use of the sexual faculty as the physical expression of a complete, mutual, exclusive and permanent gift of self to another person, impure behavior can be described as any use of sexuality outside the framework of that gift. The following examples illustrate how sexual behavior, when it is misguided, cannot lead to the happy ideal of a complete gift of self between persons.
Some people will argue that giving in to the sexual drive is a necessary condition for healthy development. Others just give up, convinced that it is unrealistic to expect self-restraint. Both types underestimate the resolve of the human will, and consciously or not reduce the dignity of the human person to the demeaning status of animals who have no control over their instincts. Their ``sexual revolution'' is more of a retro-evolution: rather than placing human beings at the top of the evolutionary tree, they expect us to regress to the time when hormones and passion ruled our conduct.
But we rebel. We know many chaste individuals who have matured without a hint of stunted psychological development. We maintain that growing up in a truly healthy manner involves learning to love. We believe that true love comes with giving oneself. But one cannot give what he or she doesn't have: in order to give yourself, you must own yourself, have the mastery over your body that will enable you to give it whole to someone else. That self-mastery comes from repeatedly conquering misguided impulses, strengthening your will through daily struggle, and seeking satisfaction in serving others rather than serving yourself.
Is such a permanent commitment possible? Yes, there are many couples who stay together into their old age, always growing in their mutual love and providing a glowing example of the human capacity for fidelity and perseverance. But it is also true that a permanent commitment is a tall order: that's why one should save one of the most precious treasures he or she owns, rather than wasting it before being sure it's in safe hands.
A rational reflection on the ends for which our sexual organs were intended must conclude that homosexual unions are an aberration of nature, even from a biological standpoint. If homosexuality became the norm, it would spell the doom of the species: it's a behavior that prevents one's genes from being passed on to the next generation. In biological terms, homosexuality can be considered a detrimental trait, which leads to a dead end in the evolutionary process.
A word of caution is in order: it may be possible for some people to be born with a genetic predisposition to feeling attracted to people of the same sex. This predisposition might be redirected to its natural inclination by education and environment. Conversely, it may also be exacerbated by the person's upbringing, the lack of suitable role models or confusion during adolescence. Having a genetic predisposition does not make someone evil, just like having a predisposition to aggression or alcoholism does not necessarily make someone a criminal or an addict. What is important is the person's actions: a person with homosexual tendencies can live a perfectly chaste life, abstaining from the unnatural use of the sexual faculty. It is homosexual activity that is firmly condemned by the Church.
A reconsideration of the truths we have been discussing can clarify some of the reasons behind the Church's reasoning on this issue. They stem from our understanding of sexuality as the physical expression of our total gift of self. First, a contraceptive union cannot be complete: a spouse who contracepts is telling the other ``today I give myself to you, exclusively, permanently, almost completely, minus my capacity to procreate; I am yours, but without my reproductive faculties; those I will retain for myself.'' Second, it dissolves the transcendental bond between life and love, intended by God in the very make-up of the human person. Third, contraceptive couples challenge their Creator by preventing him from creating another human being when he might have wanted to do so: from being participants in the procreative act, they become arbiters who decide when they will let God create. And fourth, it somehow promotes the notion that children are burdens not to be desired, rather than marvellous gifts from God which greatly enrich our lives.
Two anecdotes may serve to illustrate this last point. As a counselor in a summer camp, I was once talking with Scott, a seventh grader. He was really enjoying his stay there: he had made new friends, participated in all the sports, and was absorbing the practical lessons in Christian leadership imparted during the camp. In a matter-of-fact way, he admitted to me, ``you know, I was a mistake: I found out that my parents didn't really want me, my mother was very surprised when she found she was pregnant: I shouldn't really exist.'' This tragic affront to the most basic human dignity stands in stark contrast with the reaction of Myriam, a fifteen year-old girl with Down syndrome. As her mother related to me with tears in her eyes, she one day took her father's hand, then took her mother's hand, joined them together and joyfully exclaimed, ``Mom and dad, thank you for me being born!''
One last note about responsible parenthood. There is a substantial difference between artificial contraception and natural family planning, or the use of knowledge about the natural periods of the woman's reproductive cycle to decide when to engage in sexual intercourse. The main difference is this: artificial contraception involves the direct interference with the natural end of the sexual act, preventing it from achieving its purpose and vitiating it at the root. This act, here and now, has been corrupted. In natural family planning, couples decide not to engage in sexual intercourse on some days- nothing wrong with that-and to engage in it on other days: no single act is vitiated in this manner, and no barrier is interposed, other than that which is provided by nature itself by making the woman infertile for several days in her cycle. It is a practice that respects nature, fosters self-control and leads to genuine respect and appreciation between the spouses. It is therefore considered morally licit by the Church when there exist serious reasons to advise its use.
In the previous pages we have outlined the Catholic understanding of human sexuality: we have provided a theoretical framework grounded in Scripture and in a rational understanding of the human person, and have explained how some misguided practices contradict that theoretical framework. It should be clear by now that for Catholics sex is a precious gift, through which we express the most intimate of our desires, that of giving ourselves to someone else in conjugal love. In this light, casual sex becomes an oxymoron: sex is awesome, sublime, and obviously sacred. It is truly a joyful affirmation: we want to be chaste because we want to love.
Now we turn to the practical application of these truths: what do I do to live a sexual life in consonance with my dignity as a human person? How does my sexuality lead me to happiness? For you can rest assured that the rightful use of your sexual faculties will bring you true happiness, beyond the momentary satisfaction of a sensual whim. The genuine fulfillment you will experience will be long-lasting and fruitful, as we have observed with so many who have already put these ideals into practice. These pages are written with that firm conviction in mind; we guarantee you that you will not be disappointed.
We hope that by now you have realized that the ideal of human sexuality presented to us by the Church's tradition is a lofty one worthy of being embraced. It is a sure source of happiness, and most conducive to safeguarding the dignity of the human person. But you may not be too sure on how to go about it, doubtful on whether such ideal can ever be accomplished, or reluctant to even give it a try. The following principles can guide our reflection on the use of our sexual faculty in a rational manner, and provide the background for the practical applications that will follow.
First of all, it should be clear that it can be done. Yes, even in this day and age, one can lead a pure life. The pressure from the environment is great, but the pressure of God's grace is even greater. When Paul complained to God that he suffered the tempter's pinpricks in his flesh, he received the reply three times, ``my grace is sufficient for you''. All you need is the desire, the firm determination to wage a life-long battle: that desire is the guarantee of success. We have seen it lived: we know people who try to live by these ideals, and succeed every day. They are happy, content and fulfilled: they go about their lives with a clean gaze and a smile on their lips. Their lives are appealing to others, and they are much more likely to engage in fruitful, satisfying relationships. The feasibility of this ideal is confirmed by Jesus Christ himself: when he faced the woman caught in adultery, he showed his mercy and full understanding of human weakness by saving her from execution; but he also held her to the highest standard of conduct by exhorting her without reserve, to ``go, and sin no more''.
It's true that the sexual drive is one of the most powerful instincts we are subject to. But for a healthy person who has undergone normal development, it should not hold the first place in his or her thoughts. Other issues are more important: God, family, friends, work... Sex comes in fifth or sixth place. The Freudian analogy that compared our sexual drive to a giant steam engine who needs to release pressure periodically has largely been discredited. A more accurate analogy, supported by our present understanding of neurophysiology, is that of an electrical circuit in which current can be easily directed elsewhere by throwing in the appropriate switches. On the other hand, if one constantly maintains current flowing in the ``sex circuit,'' those connections may become hardwired and more difficult to alter later on. It's possible that at some periods in our lives sexuality may hold a more prominent place, as in adolescence or the summer months; but this should be temporary. Remember, we are not animals in heat, we are human beings with reason and free will.
We must be convinced that sin is the greatest evil that could befall us. It certainly is the only one that can hold us away from God for all eternity. Disease, poverty, misfortune, natural disasters and even death don't necessarily separate us from God: in fact, they may even draw us closer to him. But one human sin was enough to put the Son of God on the cross. Physical evil does not prevent us from achieving our final end, moral evil does. An inevitable consequence follows: we must do whatever it takes to avoid sin. The greatest example of this principle has been given to us by the heroes of Christian history, the martyrs, who readily went to their death rather than offend God.
For centuries, traditional moral theology has distinguished between two kinds of sin, venial and mortal. While venial sin clouds but does not destroy our relationship with God, mortal sin radically severs us from God and leads to our eternal separation from him, unless we obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of penance or through perfect contrition in the case of those who are impeded from making use of the sacrament. Mortal sins concern grave matter, areas of our life that are serious enough to alter our whole personal orientation. We can be oriented to only one of two final ends: either God or self. All of our actions are ultimately directed to one of the two. If our final choice is God, he grants our wish to spend eternity with him; if it is ourselves, he also grants our wish to spend all of eternity in deplorable selfishness. As we have seen, our sexuality is the physical vehicle by which we give ourselves to another, but it can also become an instrument of self- seeking. Because our sexuality is so central to our corporeal being, because it concerns the very core of our ability to give ourselves in a most intimate way, and so redirect our whole personal orientation, sexual acts of thought and deed are always considered serious.
In order to judge if a particular act offends God, one must also consider the other two conditions necessary for a sin to be considered mortal: besides grave matter, there must be perfect awareness and full consent. In other words, not only must the act itself be serious, but also our intellect must fully grasp its seriousness and our will must freely acquiesce to it. This should put to rest any scrupulosity we feel on the subject: we know when we have consented to a temptation of purity. Our whole being, intellect and will, is involved in that decision.
Therefore, we should not feel guilty about mere physical reflexes that accompany our ordinary sexual make-up. Many of these happen unprovoked, as part of the normal physiology of our reproductive organs. Temptations, feelings, fantasies or thoughts may assail us, but as long as we don't consent to them we have nothing to worry about. We may have dreams with explicit sexual content, even with external physical consequences, but if we are not consciously aware when they occur our conscience is clear. Sometimes we may be awakened when a physical reaction is taking place: a prudent response is to recollect ourselves, say a prayer and reject any notion of consent or complicity to what is happening. Being conscious of having resorted to prayer when a sexual temptation arose is the best way to resolve doubts of conscience.
We have experienced the bitter aftertaste that comes after seeking the momentary companionship of a sensual satisfaction: loneliness, frustration and even disgust always follow. After a prolonged period of frequent concessions, the excitement wears off, and we find ourselves in an unhappy spiral of weakness which only leads to selfishness and anger. It makes sense, for we have replaced the true end of our lives, God, with a petty one, our self-satisfaction. This radically alters our fundamental orientation: love gives way to self-centeredness. That's why pre-marital sex almost never works, and couples separate in the midst of mutual recrimination after only a few years. All too often I have encountered embittered young people, guys and girls, whose hearts have been torn apart by their misguided concessions: they form an unhappy contrast with those others who, with a sporting spirit, engage in a healthy struggle to maintain their purity and love virgin and ready for the greatest gift of all.
What can we do in order to live the virtue of purity? The following ``seven aids in our struggle'' or ways to live a pure life have been part of traditional ascetical practice for centuries, and have stood the test of time. They work extremely well even today.
She is the most pure creature who has ever lived. She made a perfect gift of herself in virginity, and she experienced her sexuality in the wonder of motherhood. Today she watches over us as the Mother of Fair Love. Invoke her often, resort to her intercession whenever a temptation arises, and the temptation is bound to vanish in thin air. Develop the habit of going to her automatically, and the devil will realize he's going nowhere if all he can elicit from you is prayers to the Mother of God. A very good traditional practice is to recite three Hail Mary's every night before going to bed, asking for the virtue of purity, followed by sprinkling your bed with holy water and making the sign of the cross.
Mortification entails doing something unpleasant and offering it to God. Pagan philosophers like the Stoics did it to subject their bodily passions to the dictates of their intellect and will. The Israelites of the Old Testament did it to atone for their sins and gain the favor of Yahweh. Besides those two very good reasons, Christians also do it today to imitate Christ, who exhorted his followers to take up their cross and follow him. In the ascetical life, frequent mortification is a sure way to strengthen our will and maintain control over our passions. Eating what we don't like, getting up on the dot at a set time, mortifying our posture, not eating in between meals, and regular exercise all send our body the signal that we are in charge. When temptation arises, we will be trained to say no.
In the words of Blessed Josemaria Escriva, ``Don't be such a coward as to be `brave.' Flee!'' Keep in mind that this area is as sticky as tar. Avoid conversations, movies, magazines or jokes that put you in danger. Skip newspaper articles that describe sexual perversions, crimes and trials. Realize that someone who willingly puts him or herself in proximate danger of sin is already consenting to the consequences that follow. Resist peer pressure, and you will gain the silent respect and admiration of your friends.
Many temptations enter through the eyes. There is a difference between ``seeing'' and ``looking:'' you see everything in your visual field, as light reflects on objects and impacts on your retina; but you look when you direct your attention to a particular object, sizing it up and absorbing its details. When it comes to other persons, you should look at them with the dignity they deserve as human beings: they are not sexual objects for your enjoyment, they are precious images of God your creator. This point can be illustrated by the following anecdote. A college student once unwittingly brought to a birthday party a guy who had not been invited. As soon as the uninvited person arrived, three or four women left the room. The student who had extended the invitation was left wondering what he had done to ruin the party, until he was given an explanation later on. ``You know,'' he was told, ``the girls feel that whenever that guy looks at them, they are being raped.''
Daydreaming can be quite innocuous. We all have fantasies or memories of pleasant events. However, if we give free rein to our imagination it may eventually lead to the gutter. Besides, daydreaming is at best useless, for it submerges us in a world of fantasy in which the center of the universe is our very self. We tend to daydream when we are idle or engaged in occupations that do not require thinking. Therefore, it is good to keep busy, develop the habit to focus on the activity we have at hand, and maintain constant presence of God through aspirations and short prayers. How many decades of the rosary do you think you can recite on your way to work every day?
These are the minor virtues that accompany the virtue of purity. What we wear and how we treat the intimate parts of our body should reflect the respect we have for our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. In beaches, locker rooms and college dorms we should send the clear message that we expect others to view us with respect.
Finally, we cannot stress enough the importance of this related virtue. Many of the problems of conscience people face today could have been easily resolved with appropriate counseling at the right time. There is always a solution as long as we talk, the sooner the better. A remedy is always available in the sacrament of reconciliation, where Jesus Christ forgives any sin through the ministry of his priest as long as we mention it and are truly sorrowful. But besides forgiveness, we can obtain clarity of conscience and sound criteria if we are not afraid to consult matters with experienced counselors, who follow the principles of Catholic theology and care for us. Speak in clear terms, and be assured he or she will understand you. If you develop the habit of forthright sincerity in this matters, you will soon realize that any feeling of shame gives way to the happy freshness of a clear conscience.
It is helpful to realize that men and women have different make-ups: their physical differences are not merely external, they affect their whole being. Sexual hormones have been at work in their body, including their brain, from very early on in development. Their environment and upbringing has had a strong impact on their identity. Therefore, it is to be expected, and is recognized scientifically, that the psychology and physiology of males and females follow different paths. Reactions, emotions and attitudes will vary in the two sexes, and it is important for a member of one sex to recognize this in the other. Although generalizations are never exhaustive, they may shed some light on the issue at hand.
The reproductive physiology of human males is quick and concentrated. It may be aroused in just a few seconds. In contrast, females take a longer time to reach a similar level of intensity, and their arousal is dispersed throughout their body. Their respective psychologies mirror their physiology. While men can be a lot more physical in their approach to sex, women tend to involve their whole being, their emotions, their heart and their mind. It is frequent to hear guys talking about women in purely physical terms, while women tend to talk about guys in terms that describe their ability to relate. Men are easily ``turned on'' by mere physical beauty; women are attracted by a man's personality, compassion, understanding or wit.
These differences have consequences for the relations between the sexes. Men must realize that women are interested in much more than mere physical pleasure when they enter a serious relationship: they want to know the guy as a person, they want to relate to him at every level. Women must realize that trying to show love by presenting themselves in too physical a manner will easily elicit the guy's sexual response, risk their being treated as sexual objects and put both of them in danger. It is all too often that a relationship becomes physical prematurely, and after the man's appetite has been satisfied he walks away relatively unscathed, although obviously having committed a serious offense against his and his partner's dignity. The woman, mistreated as a mere plaything, is then left confused and possibly scarred for life.
What, then, can I do when I date somebody? How physical can a relationship get before it's too dangerous? How can I know when I have ``crossed the line''? A clear principle is in order, based on all of our discussion to this point: one cannot perform actions which set in motion the physical changes which by their very nature lead to the sexual act. Those actions are reserved for the time when one is ready to make a complete, mutual, exclusive and permanent commitment to another in marriage. Any healthy relationship must exclude petting, passionate kissing and intimate touches. But how can I show my love? Real love respects the whole person; real love shows, through our actions that the other person's dignity is above our passion. Real love is gift: ``I give you my restraint and respect because I love you. I want your good, not my selfish satisfaction.''
Given all of the above, a healthy approach is to get to know many different people of the opposite sex, preferably in a group situation. Understand their reactions, their interests, their feelings and emotions. Explore the various types of personality, so you can see which one complements you best. Learn to treat them with respect, and to deal with them as full human beings: each person is a whole universe. All that knowledge will be an invaluable help to find the one person with whom to share the rest of your life.
Therefore, it is not healthy to become too constrained early on. Steady dating for long periods of time may close innumerable windows of opportunity, and significantly limit your knowledge of other people. It is so sad to see a guy and a girl get seriously involved during their freshman year in college, date each other exclusively throughout their college career, and shortly before graduation reach the almost inevitable outcome of a painful break-up. What a waste of wonderful possibilities!
At some point you may find someone who appeals to you in a special way: you find that you really enjoy being around that person, that you can ``connect,'' that he or she actually understands you. It may be the time to develop closer ties. Get to know him or her, share your thoughts, find out what he or she thinks about the fundamental things in life, and make sure that God is always at the center of the relationship. Never be an accomplice of something you both will be ashamed of. Be convinced that purity before marriage leads to fidelity later, and that friendship rather than romance is the basis of true love.
We hope to have conveyed to you the real beauty of the Catholic understanding of sexuality. Living by these principles you will gain self-control and mastery. You will enjoy the good things in life, like love, honesty and respect. With clean eyes you will gaze on the world joyfully, and with a pure heart you will give yourself to others in a continuous gift. When the time comes to make that most precious of commitments, in a divine calling to either celibacy or marriage, you will be happy to have preserved yourself chaste: as one person was heard to exclaim, ``I'm not going to give myself to someone who didn't love me enough to wait for me!'' And then, you will struggle to maintain eternal fidelity to your commitment, living the very virtues you have acquired, until one day you find yourself in the everlasting embrace of God, ultimate terminus of your gift of self. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said to young people,
1. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, (7th ed.) New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963, pp. 26-27.
2. Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals, New York: Liveright, 1957, p. 46.
3. Results of a Time/CNN poll reported in TIME magazine, May 24, 1993.
4. Gen 1, 27.
5.Gen 1, 31.
6. Gen 2, 18.
7. Gen 2, 20.
8. Mt 5, 48.
9. Gen 1,28.
10. Gen 2, 24.
11. Gen 1, 27.
12. Cf. Blessed Josemaria Escriva, The Way, No. 28.
13. Blessed Josemaria Escriva, The Way, No. 136.
14. Mt 5, 27.
15. Cf. Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae Vitae. Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1968, No. 14.
16. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992, No. 2370.
17. Cf. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993, No. 80.
18. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992, Nos. 2368-2370.
19. 2 Cor 12, 9.
20. Jn 8, 11.
21. Blessed Josemaria Escriva, The Way, No. 132.
22. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in You! magazine, May 1992, p. 15.
© 1994 Scepter Publishers
Msgr. William Maguire, S.T.D.,
John C. Reiss, D.D., J.C.D.,
Bishop of Trenton,
August 18, 1994.
Also of interest:
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