Pure Sex, Pure Love

A Moral Theologian Answers Questions on Sin, Sex and the Sacraments

In the last column, I shared a letter I’d received from Laura, a 20-year-old reader struggling with her decision to have sex before marriage. She raised all sorts of good questions—including: Are all sins created equal? Is sex before marriage as bad as murder? Along with the help of moral theologian Fr. Dick Sparks, I answered her questions.

But as with any good question, there’s never a simple answer, and more questions always follow. Readers wrote in with their questions on sin, sex and the sacraments and Rev. Sparks—a Paulist priest and widely published author who holds a Ph.D. in ethics from Catholic University of America-stepped up to the plate again.

Take the Survey!

Long Distance Relationships
To Answer the Questionnaire, click here


Have you ever had a long-distance relationship?

In a long-distance relationship, a couple won’t see each other in person as often. They may speak on the phone and email a lot, but with distance separating them, face-to-face time is limited. In your opinion, should a long-distance relationship move more “emotionally slowly”? (YES/NO)

In your opinion, what is the minimum amount of times PER YEAR that a couple should see each other to consider themselves to be in an active relationship?
a) None–seeing each other isn’t as important as other connections.
b) Once a year
c) Three times a year
d) Every month

In your opinion, how long can a relationship continue as a long-distance relationship before it becomes necessary to move closer to each other, or break up?
a) Forever–distance isn’t that big of a deal
b) 5 years
c) 3-5 years
d) 1-3 years
e) less than a year

If you’ve had — or are currently in — a long-distance relationship, what are some of the benefits and drawbacks? How are you making it work? (SHORT ANSWER)

If you have been in a long-distance relationship, how often do/did you talk on the phone?
a) Daily
b) Several times a week
c) Weekly
d) Several times a day

If you have been in a long-distance relationship, how often do/did you email?
a) Daily
b) Several times a week
c) Weekly
d) Several times a day

If you have been in a long-distance relationship, how often do/did you instant message each other?
a) Daily
b) Several times a week
c) Weekly
d) Several times a day

When you’re done reading make sure you take the quiz regarding long distance relationships.

What if you confess a sin that you plan on doing again? In the case of a couple having premarital sex, what if the young woman 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?

Fr. Sparks: If one knowingly commits a sin, plans to continue, and is not sorry for it, then she/he ought not to confess it. If one confesses a sin, then one ought to sincerely intend to change one’s behavior. However, some sins or bad habits are hard to break. A person who swears might sincerely confess and promise to try not to swear anymore. But it may take a few more confession periods before that person actually catches those foul phrases every time one gets angry or emotionally upset.

Now if someone honestly and deeply believes that one’s actions are moral and not sinful, then one would continue to do them and also to receive communion in good (i.e. sincere) conscience. This is not meant to excuse real sin or to make light of church teaching.

Forming one’s own conscience and making a conscientious moral choice is not exactly like solving a math equation. Human relationships, personal behavior, and moral rightness are not always simple. Sometimes a moral choice is morally quite clear—e.g. murder, rape, incest, and child abuse are always wrong. But whether to forge ahead with an ‘iffy’ heart transplant surgery or not; whether to blow the whistle on one’s boss in-house or to the government; whether to move out on an abusive spouse or not; whether to tell a lie to save face or protect someone’s feelings—these are genuinely more “gray” areas of morality.

Moral decision-making involves questions about the action one is contemplating (What?), about one’s underlying motives which may be mixed or layered (Why?), as well as a series of questions about pertinent circumstances (Who/m? When? Where? How? Foreseeable consequences? Viable Alternatives?) Prior to making a decision it’s often helpful to talk things through with a wiser person, such as a parent, older sibling, best friend, a spiritual counselor, a teacher or coach, or a clergy person. Their answers are not always THE right answer, but they can be helpful as we try to sort through the gray areas. Am I fooling myself or truly being honest? Is this good reasoning or rationalization? In the end, one finally makes one’s best conscience decision, acts on it, and lives with the consequences. God is a merciful and forgiving deity, even when we mess up the moral process or make “sincerely erroneous” mistakes (i.e., meaning well). As the old saying goes, “God’s forgiveness covers a multitude of sins.”

A couple is getting married on Saturday. On Friday, each of them receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and confess that they have been having sex before their wedding day. But they are getting married the next day-is that a true, contrite confession, since it won’t be too difficult for them to abstain from sex outside of marriage once they take their vows the next day?

Fr. Sparks: Anyone worried about whether the sacrament of reconciliation will “take” or “not” for a couple about to be married needs something else to do or think about. It’s as if God or St. Peter or someone up there was running a roulette wheel or, worse yet, inscribing a big accounting ledger or rule book. The last time I checked “God is love and we who abide love abide in God and God in us.”

If I were that couple I might understandably have remorse or true repentance for the fact that she or I or both of us didn’t have the self-control to wait until marriage. In that, we’re sorry we fell short of the ideal. However, that does not mean we didn’t enjoy our premature love-making and in this second sense, we don’t regret the good experiences. The fact that our wedding will be tomorrow—hurrah—no more dilemma, lots of morally approved and healthy lovemaking to come. Thanks be to God. That would seem sufficient sorrow or repentance for genuine absolution.