Sex and the University
How does the Church speak to the experience of younger Catholics?
After a long weekend of bars, booze, and boys, I make it a point to attend Sunday night Mass. As I repent for any sins I may have committed in spite of my good Catholic upbringing, I can’t help but notice the person in front of me is the same guy I saw cheating on his girlfriend the night before. And someone a few rows up looks exactly like the girl I saw pole dancing on the bar last week. In fact, the more I look around, the pews are filled with college co-eds living the same double life my friends and I have down to a science; faith-filled young Catholics in spirit, and sexually uninhibited college students by practice. At times, walking into mass on Sunday night does feel hypocritical. It is hard to reflect on the hedonistic weekend that has just passed in a place I associate with piety and chastity. Instead, I often choose not to think about it at all.
There is a trend among people my age to separate their faith from Church teachings on issues of sexuality. I believe one of the main reasons for this disconnect is that the Church does not provide any guidance regarding sexuality for unmarried young adults other than “Don’t do it!” Although remaining chaste until marriage is no doubt a beautiful and romantic experience for those who choose it, not everyone follows this path. In my experience, pre-marital sex on college campuses is not the exception, but the rule. So how does a predominantly Catholic student body at a Jesuit school justify disobeying this tenet of the Church? The answer seems to be that they don’t. I don’t believe young people are simply ignoring this teaching so they can do what they want and go to confession later. Instead, I think they feel that the Church’s teaching on sexual issues is bordering on irrelevance, not only because of the institution’s hypocritical handling of the recent scandals but also because young people see the Church as treating all acts as equally damning. For those Catholics who are having pre-marital sex, there is no distinction between making love in a committed relationship and having sex with the entire rugby team; they are both mortal sins. This ignores the heart of the Church’s teaching on sex, which, among other things, calls on us to integrate our “thoughts, feelings and actions in a way that values, esteems and respects the dignity of oneself and others.”
For a well-grounded theological and sociological argument for adhering to the Church’s teaching on sexuality, click here.
For a more conversational approach, see this interview with Christopher West, noted expert on Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” (the “why” behind the Church’s “rules” about sex).
To study the Church’s teaching on sexuality, as summed up by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, see paragraphs 2331-2400
I am currently taking a “Values in Sexuality” course and the dominant view on pre-marital sex held by my classmates seems to be that random one-night stands are bad, but sex within a committed relationship can be good. Their reasoning for this seems consistent with many teachings of the Church. They mention ideals such as self-respect and cherishing sex as an expression of love. Although the spirit of their arguments is undeniably Catholic, they do not mention religion. The all or nothing view of the Church condemns all premarital sex equally, and therefore doesn’t explain the incentive for young adults to wait for a situation that is both emotionally and physically healthier. Reserving sex for a committed relationship is not just an issue of morality, but a way for young Catholics to protect themselves from the emotional heartache that often results from random sexual encounters.
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. Instead, young people are taught the act itself is wrong, which is often the only rewarding part. 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.
Considering the fact that Catholicism has been an overwhelmingly positive part of my life, it’s unfortunate that something as important as sexuality should be the one area of my life with no Catholic influence. It seems that, like me, the people I recognize at church on Sunday found a way to have a positive relationship with an institution that views our lifestyle as sinful. Some might consider us “cafeteria Catholics” who simply pick and choose the teachings they are comfortable with. I disagree. Those of us in the pews for the Sunday night campus liturgy struggle to reconcile our faith with the reality we encounter everyday. We consider ourselves Catholics, but I sometimes wonder if the institutional church would agree.