What’s Sex Got To Do With It?

Question: So, why is the Catholic Church so hung up on (or down on) sex? If two people love each other and are in a committed, monogamous relationship, what’s the big deal?

Answer: It certainly can seem like the Church is “hung up on” sex. That’s only if you only listen to the sound bites. “Don’t do this. Can’t do that.” But the truth about the Church’s teaching on sex is intimately tied to the truth about love, the foundation of the Gospel message. The Catholic Church believes sex is designed by our Creator to strengthen our marriages and bring new life into the world. So what’s with the bad rap?

In general, people don’t like rules that feel like restrictions. But God’s “rules” are simply the outcome of designing our bodies as sacred, made to embody our soul. Our body represents much more than the physical aspect of a person. When you feel joy, excitement, anger or sadness, you feel it in your body. We use our bodies to worship through the sacraments. What you do with your body affects your soul.

And we are able to express God’s love through our bodies. Love is not about Hollywood endings or late night booty calls. It’s demanding and challenging. Because to love one another as Christ loved us is much more than simply desiring pleasure. It’s desiring what is good for the other person; it’s being willing to sacrifice your own desires. It’s the kind of love that keeps marriages together, the kind we yearn for in the depths of our hearts. To be loved for our own sake, not simply because we make the other person feel good. John Paul II calls the nuptial embrace “a foretaste of heaven.” It’s meant to be that good and to bring us closer to God.

Building a solid foundation for marriage

When we choose to become “one flesh,” our bodies express a commitment, even if the relationship does not. This is a recipe for great heartache. We think we can have “safe sex,” but you can’t take a pill to protect yourself from the pain of separation.

So why don’t we experience love that way? Because we are very confused about the meanings of sex and the body. In our fallen human nature, we reduce sex to its physical aspect. But we are not meant to separate the act of sex from the totality of the person. To paraphrase JP2, the problem with porn is not that it shows too much, it’s that it shows too little: a body separated from a person — we call that lust.

Why should you “hold out” for true love, born of a Godly desire? Because that is what you deserve. It’s what you are made for. If you can’t say “no” to sex, then what does your “yes” mean? Do you really want to marry someone, or be someone, that can’t say “no” to sex? Practicing chastity is preparing you both to be faithful, for life. Want to know how a person truly feels about you? Date him or her without having sex. As a couple, you will learn how to be emotionally intimate without using sex as a way to feel close. You can explore spiritual intimacy. You can build a solid foundation for marriage, even if you don’t marry each other.

And as a side benefit, you will be protecting yourself from heartache. When we choose to become “one flesh,” our brain releases a “bonding hormone” called oxytocin, meant to build a connection strong enough to endure a lifelong commitment to marriage. Our bodies express a commitment, even if the relationship does not. This is a recipe for great heartache. We think we can have “safe sex,” but you can’t take a pill to protect yourself from the pain of separation or put a condom on your brain chemistry. We haven’t even considered the suffering of STDs, multiple breakups, unwanted pregnancies and an increased potential for divorce.

God’s loving welcome

I’ve lived this message, rather imperfectly at times, fluctuating between legalism and lawlessness. My journey back into the Gospel message of love began with a study of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” I can attest to the confusion and pain of living under my own autonomy, compared to the peace and blessings of living in the freedom of Christ.

The best way I can explain that freedom is to tell you about a very significant relationship in my life: my love for the family dog. We lived in a small town, so our dog was allowed to run freely. And one day she roamed just a little too far and we lost her. We were heartbroken, putting up signs and driving around calling her name. Three days later when we found her, she was disoriented, skinny, and had a few scrapes and cuts. But we didn’t care where she had been. We weren’t angry at her; we simply opened our arms and cried as we celebrated her return. The next day, we started keeping her on a leash, even in the yard. And we started teaching her to come back to us when we called, or to stop if she was running into the street. And slowly, as she learned how to stay close to home, we didn’t need the leash anymore. She was allowed to run freely again because we knew we could keep her safe. The “rules” were because we loved her so much.

God loves us the same way. He wants to keep us close and safe from harm because He loves us so deeply. He knows that sex outside of marriage carries a risk of great pain. He doesn’t care how many partners we’ve had or if we are currently sexually active. He is simply ready to embrace us with open arms, celebrating our return.