When Laura was 13 she took a vow to remain chaste until marriage. She’s a pretty good Catholic: She attends Mass regularly and is thoughtful about acting in accordance with the Church’s teachings. For years, she kept her vow not to have sex before marriage—even when men tried to convince her otherwise: A few years ago a boyfriend left her because she refused to have sex with him. Looking back, she doesn’t regret that decision—she was too young, and he wasn’t right for her.
But now Laura is 20—and is seriously dating a man whom she loves. A few days ago, they had sex. She is conscious of the vow of chastity she took as a young teenager, and she’s wrestling with her decision to have sex before marriage.
Here’s part of the letter Laura wrote me this week:
Two days ago, I had sex with my boyfriend. The next day I was expecting horrible guilt, but it never came. I still feel puzzled. I love my boyfriend and trust him. He did not pressure me at all.
I went to church today and received a blessing instead of communion. I did this because the question is still up in the air. I know it may be wrong, but if you are like me, or others believe like me, sin has different degrees. Stealing a toothpick off someone’s desk and murdering a human are VERY different. Likewise, having sex with one person who you love and loves you is different from having one-night-stand, or intentionally hurting another person (emotionally or physically). Right?
Whatever the answer, I am no longer a virgin…and in the eyes of God, does that make me reap as much bad as a murderer or prostitute?
Never one to dodge the really explosive questions for young-adults in the Catholic Church, I thought it would be important to share this question with the readers of Pure Sex, Pure Love.
Are All Sins Equal?
We’re all pretty clear that sex before marriage is a sin in the eyes of the Church. But Laura raises a good point: Are some sins worse than others?
“Not all sins or human mistakes are equal,” said Paulist priest and professor of moral theology Rev. Dick Sparks. “Thinking ill, even murderous thoughts, about someone is surely not as serious as actually killing them. Having sex with someone you love—and are committed to—is less serious or more understandable than prostitution, or one-night-stands.”
A couple who jump the gun and make love a day or two before their wedding would seem to be less guilty than a couple who do so years prior to marriage, Rev. Sparks said. And the couple who does so on the third date would seem less immoral than a boy or girl who seduced a stranger into bed. “But less bad is not identical with being good, right, and recommendable,” Rev. Sparks said.
This is an important point. According to the Church—and thus, according to our Catholic understanding of the will of God—sex before marriage is a sin. Yet it’s also something that is culturally common in our society. Simply because something is less bad than murder or prostitution, or something that many of our friends and peers do, doesn’t make it right in the eyes of God.
There is a real conflict surrounding what we believe and how it impacts our actions. Some 57% of BustedHalo respondents say they have had premarital sex and nearly 60% of those believe that sex before marriage is a sin.
When we read Laura’s letter, we identify with her. She has a feeling that sex outside of marriage is wrong: She made a promise not to do it, and she didn’t feel completely comfortable receiving communion last weekend. But Laura is conflicted as well: She doesn’t feel guilty, but she has a feeling that she’s not in a perfect state of grace in the eyes of God.
My general rule is: When in doubt, go to confession—or talk to a priest about your feelings. The sacrament of reconciliation (confession as it was called by our parents’ generation) is a gift that can help us understand and resolve such conflicts.
As a priest once told me: “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 I 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.”
So my first advice to Laura would be to talk to her priest for some one-on-one pastoral counseling. That talk might end in a formal confession, or it might end with some questions for her to think about further. But thorny issues like this usually don’t get resolved by themselves.
It’s also important to think less about the letter of the law—am I still a virgin? If not, does that make me as bad as a murder?—and more about explore and understand the wisdom behind the teachings on pre-marital sex.
Which leads us to some really difficult questions: What if you confess a sin that you plan on doing again? In this case, what if Laura goes to confession, not really sure if sex with her boyfriend is wrong, but just because she knows that the Church says it’s wrong—and even as she is confessing the sin, she knows that later that evening, she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend again?
For engaged couples who are having sex, if you confess premarital sex the night before your wedding day, knowing that you won’t commit the sin again because you’ll be married the next day, is that a real confession?
Do you have questions about what you should and shouldn’t confess when it comes to dating and sex? We’ll answer them! Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your toughest questions and we’ll get some more responses from moral theologian Rev. Dick Sparks. Stay tuned.