Jen, a 26-year-old BustedHalo reader, was seriously dating her boyfriend when they decided to have sex. This relationship “felt different,” she said, and after a lot of thought, she felt that the relationship was blessed by God. “I knew that it was OK. I didn’t end up marrying that man, but even so, with my 20/20 hindsight, I still know that it wasn’t sinful. It was a way of loving God through this other person. In some instances, it was a form of prayer.”
While the Church has unambiguous rules about sex outside of marriage, many practicing Catholics have chosen to have premarital sex. They defend—and worry—about their decisions in a variety of ways.
In the last few weeks, I’ve asked BustedHalo readers some tough questions about their beliefs, their actions and how the two match up. I asked you if you’ve had premarital sex, whether you believe it’s a sin. I also asked when you thought was the right moment for a couple to have sex—and how the Church’s teachings on chastity applied to your life.
Our results suggest there is a disconnect between what we do and what we believe is right: In our first poll we found that of the 70% of BustedHalo readers responding to our survey who said that they have had premarital sex, 38% believed that it was a sin. In a separate poll, more than half of respondents (53%) said a couple should wait until they are married to have sex, while approximately 24% said a serious committed relationship was an appropriate time. Ten percent of respondents said they would have sex “when it feels right,” and 13% said sex after engagement would be OK.
So the majority of BustedHalo readers who took our poll have had premarital sex and believe that a couple really should wait until they get married. It’s a familiar contradiction. How do practicing Catholics who are sexually active outside marriage come to a faith-based understanding of their choices?
Many suggest that the Church’s teachings on premarital sex should allow more grey area for intimacy within committed relationships. Three-quarters of respondents who said sex outside of marriage was acceptable also said they did not believe that the Church’s teachings were appropriate for today’s young adults: Does God really want us to be chaste until marriage—or is this rule (put in place at a time when people married in their teens) out of date for our modern society?
- Are you married?
- Have you ever spoken with a priest or other church counselor about sex?
- Do you consider oral sex to be “sex” (i.e. is it as “serious” as intercourse)?
- What level of physical intimacy do you think is acceptable for an unmarried couple?
- How have you decided what level of physical intimacy is right for you?
Take last week’s Pure Sex Questionnaire by clicking here.
“I feel that as long as I stay true to my own personal beliefs and morals and I can get up each morning and look myself in the mirror then I’m alright,” writes Nicole, 20. “I feel that my actions should coincide with my own faith, not always necessarily what the Church tells me.”
Yet what does a “committed relationship” mean? Most of the respondents who had sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend have since ended those relationships. Instead of “for better or for worse,” many of our commitments are “until something better comes along.” As we marry later in life, most of us will inevitably date – and break up with – people before we find our match. And when a relationship is going well, physical intimacy is something that we naturally want to share. But what lessons are we teaching ourselves when we equate commitment with “serial monogamy” and forge those intimate bonds with a variety of different partners?
Many young Catholics are struggling to reconcile their experiences and the Church’s unambiguous messages: Jennifer, 27, writes that she recently had sex with a man she’s “crazy about” but now is conflicted: As a returning Catholic who had been away from the Church for seven years, and had sexual partners during that time, Jennifer is wondering, “should I feel guilty or should I feel OK” about her sexual choices. “It’s hard to deal with the way the Church teaches sex and how I view sex through my past experiences.”
We all know the jokes about Catholic Guilt, and, if you’re anything like me, you fight with your fair share of it. But often it’s a fine line to tread between that guilt being a message from our conscience—from our God-given reason—that we are doing something wrong, and when that guilt is a sign of a conflict between what we truly believe and what our religious community requires us to believe.
Brian, 25, writes that he feels a tremendous amount of self-reproach for his decision to have sex within serious committed relationships, yet he doesn’t believe his actions are sinful. “I felt incredibly guilty for having pre-marital sex because my faith upbringing told me it was terrible. But I don’t understand how God can be so adamantly against sex when it’s between two loving committed and responsible people. I never understood why I needed forgiveness for having pre-marital sex.”
Annie, 24, echoes Brian’s concerns. She reports experiencing “pure frustration and confusion, with a side helping of doubt” about sex, and writes that she has few answers for too many questions. “Will my chastity have value to my future husband? Is he waiting for me? Do I want him to? How am I going to deal with this huge build up once the deed is done? I wouldn’t say I have successfully navigated this tension between what my Church requires of me and what my body and mates expect of me. I am definitely lost.”
Often we need a helping hand to listen to the hard answers that God is trying to give us. It’s a two-part process: First, the Church needs to reach out to young Catholics and talk about premarital sex. So many of us share Annie’s feelings, yet have little guidance within their religious community. Second, as young adults finding our own path, we need to listen to good advice when we hear it: As a priest recently told a group of young Catholics, “If you are certain that your actions are in keeping with your understanding of the Catholic faith, then there’s no need to go to confession.” He paused while everyone pondered that for a while. “But if there’s a little voice in your head that might think otherwise, it’s your God-given reason speaking to you. And then we should talk.”
After a brief summer break, my next column will be about the nitty gritty. How far is too far? If you are committed to remaining a virgin until marriage, where do you draw the line on physical intimacy? Please take a moment to respond to our survey on the right, and share you comments and thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org