Giving young adults what they truly want
“Fr. Malloy, are you a virgin?” So inquired an undergrad in my intro to sociology class. Every semester, usually just before Fall or Spring break, I hand out index cards and tell the students “we’ve been studying religion as an institution in society. Here’s your chance to ask a priest anything you ever wanted to ask. Go ahead. Write down your question. Don’t sign your name. No topic is off limits.”
The questions run the gamut from “Do you really believe God exists?” and “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” to “We know you’re really the exorcist for the diocese. C’mon, why can’t you just tell us?” To the last one I reply, jokingly, “I would tell you, but then I’d have to kill you!”
In addition to questions about women priests and married clergy, invariably, I get a smattering of questions about my sex life (I try and tell them I have a life filled with relationships, not a sex life). “Did you ever have a girlfriend?” (Yeah. Lots. And Julia Roberts went home and cried herself to sleep when she learned I was entering the Jesuits. I really hated to break her heart, but God called and…”)
The “Are you a virgin?” question, however, was new. It gave me a chance to speak about sex and intimacy in ways I realized my students had never heard. I’ve spent the past fifteen years teaching anthropology and sociology to undergrads. I’ve lived in a freshman dorm the past five years. In thousands of conversations, often late, late at night (you gotta be in the student center at 2:00 AM to hear what is really going on), I’ve heard over and over the yearning young adults have for honest and life-giving relationships.
Sex and the University
My student’s question reminded me of Julia Tier’s BustedHalo article “Sex and the University,” a sensitive and honest essay about being at Mass one Sunday evening and realizing what she and many others in the Chapel had been doing the night before. She writes:
In my experience many women find one night stands emotionally unfulfilling and often hurtful. If the Church condemned this act because it is empty and damaging to all involved, I think a lot of young people would listen. It would certainly speak to their experience. Some might argue that this concern for our own dignity as well as our partners is, in fact, at the heart of the Church’s wisdom on sexual matters. If so, at the age of 21 after 17 years of Catholic school, I’ve yet to hear it expressed in that way…Until young Catholics are provided with a sexual ethic that reflects their experience, rather than what they perceive to be an ironclad list of unjustified rules, they will continue to make decisions about sexuality without religion as an authority.
Tier and the students in my class will not accept the message “sex is bad” when their experience tells them sex is the closest thing they can get to achieving real connection with another. The problem isn’t sexual immorality so much as it is the inability of young adults to relate to one another in ways that allow sexuality to give them what they truly desire.
Catholicism must be presented to young adults not as “A Faith That Condemns” but as A Faith That Frees (a shameless Colbert-ian plug for my book, I know).
As a Jesuit, along with vows of poverty and obedience, I took a vow of celibate chastity. “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person” which leads to “inner unity” in both our body and spirit (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2337). We all are called to be chaste, integrated and loving, whether we are having sex or not. To know if your sex life is chaste, integrated and loving, ask yourself a simple question: “Do my sexual choices demonstrate justice?”
At this point my students are still attentive and listening, but the justice idea just sprained their brains. The wrinkled brows and questioning eyes communicate they’re with me but not understanding. They are wondering, “What the hell does justice have to do with sex?” Justice is the virtue of establishing right relationships. Sex, like everything else in our lives from economic activity to family relationships, must be engaged in justly, in ways that make our lives—and others’—worth living. As those called to transformation in Christ, we owe it to one another to understand sex as a relational reality between persons, not as a meeting of “things.”For those who are unreflective, sex can be just another meal in the fast food mall of life. Sex— seen as a thing one gets—makes physical copulation like any other product: one does and gives as little as one can to get as much as one can. Such a diminished philosophy of sex leads to the using of one another for self gratification. Sexual intercourse then devolves into an elaborate exercise in mutual masturbation.
Margaret Farley, in her magisterial book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics locates love in real relationships and challenges us to live our sexual lives with others, according to the norms of justice.
I propose a framework that is not justice and love, but justice in loving and in the actions that flow from that love. The most difficult question to be asked in developing a sexual ethic is not whether this or that sexual act in the abstract is morally good, but rather, when is sexual expression appropriate, morally good and just in a relationship of any kind.
At freshman orientation, we subject our students to skits warning of the dangers of date rape, and endless litanies about alcohol abuse’s devastating effect on first year GPAs. All our “higher” education should also take sex and intimacy education into account. Philosophy and theology courses should inculcate in young adults the habits of critical thinking necessary to meet the exigencies of our morally confusing age (as all ages have been).
Social science courses should be informing students about how relationships of all kinds (political, economic, educational, familial and religious) interact with sexual acts and the meanings of those acts. Most importantly, the rules and regulations on campus ought to communicate clearly to students what is, and is not, acceptable and honorable behavior in matters sexual.
We should be inviting our students to be their best selves in college. Animal House’s Deltas need not apply. Bluto Blutarski and his brothers Otter, Pinto and Flounder go through college not only “fat, drunk, and stupid,” but also infantile, insincere and insecure. Catholic colleges ought to be environments where young adults are encouraged to discover who they truly are and desire themselves to be.
In love, as in all relationships, power pulsates through and conditions choices. When power meets power, conflict erupts. When power meets vulnerability, oppression ensues. When vulnerability meets vulnerability, intimacy blooms.
Too many sexual relationships are power games, contests those weaker— whether female or male—often lose. Help in learning how to avoid the inhumanity we can all too often inflict on one another, and how to foster the freeing and faithful interpersonal dynamics we all deeply desire and ultimately want, will go far in enabling young adults to discover in themselves the courage and wisdom they’ll need to negotiate difficult and confusing times.
The sad fact is that too many of today’s young people are culturally conditioned to kneel down for oral sex or offer themselves on contemporary altars (i.e., beds) before such relationships can be born, nurtured and allowed to grow.
I’ve found that not only can the church teach young people in the area of sexual behavior but that young adults are deeply desirous of such help. Of course, we teach gingerly and gently in the wake of the clergy sex scandals, realizing that as a group, we cannot promote ourselves as paragons of virtue. Better to admit we too are sinners called to follow Christ.
A Catholic education ought to be about answering the eternal question “What is love?” Too few young adults know that the church’s teaching on sex is about wholeness and integration or, in other words, chastity. All they have heard is that the church loudly says “NO!”, while wagging a pointed finger.
The truth is the church says, “Yes!” to truly transformative love and life-giving sex. Sex and all else that is holistically human and thus deeply divine ought to be for love, for true and lasting love. Love demands all of us.
Sex demands true and ultimate concern for another person, thus the church teaches that sex be reserved for marriage. Sex as an expression and logical consequence of committed love is much more like prayer than it is like a simple bodily function.
When sex resembles prayer there is a worshipful silence about the encounter. Silent and listen are spelled with the same letters. Let’s challenge and help our young people to slow down, be quiet and listen with their hearts to hear the deeper and challenging message of Jesus. Hopefully, we will all learn to discern the whisperings of God in our relationships, and then we will again discover love.