The Meaning of Sex

Nobody understands us. I recently watched a PBS documentary on the history of sexual “censorship” in the movies. They were discussing Joseph Breen, a Catholic man who was one of the enforcers of the film industry’s decency code in the '30s and '40s.

One of the film historians interviewed kept emphasizing that Breen had an agenda — that he wanted to impose a specific moral worldview, a Roman Catholic worldview, on the rest of the world. And every time he said the words “Roman Catholic,” a look spread over his face as if to suggest he had just caught a whiff of very rancid fish. He obviously doesn’t think too much of our moral “worldview.”

Then I read a feature article in the newspaper about priests dying of AIDS. It’s a tragic story, as is the story of anyone who dies early and in such a horrible way. But another tragedy lies in the solutions espoused by the “experts” who are suggesting that we scrap our entire teaching on sexual morality in favor of something more “positive.”

Excuse me?

No surprise, I suppose. These people are hostile to us. But what really bothers me is that people like this influence even us sometimes. How many of us hear this kind of thing and actually feel a little ashamed? How many of us don’t really want to get into a discussion in which we’ll have to defend the Church’s teaching on sexual morality? How many of us are afraid of coming off as “prudish” or “repressed”?

This is where the apologists sometimes get a little too apologetic.

If you’re one of the misguided, apologetic apologists, I’ve got news for you. The Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality is anything but “negative.” It is by far the most positive, most beautiful, most “holistic” interpretation of the human person ever promulgated.

We don’t believe that sex is “dirty.” We believe that it is holy, sacred. We believe that it is intimately tied to the dignity of the human person, and that respect for sex means respect for the human person.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on human sexuality can be distilled down to one simple concept: We believe that sex has a meaning. It’s not a random act performed by the body, with no attachment whatsoever to the soul or the psyche or our emotional or spiritual selves. It is a complete and total gift of self, man to woman and woman to man.

It is the act that brings new life into the world. The love of a man and woman, their self-gift, is so real that it becomes someone — an image and likeness of God with an eternal soul. Sex says: “I love you so much, I am so committed to you, that I will be with you forever to care for you and for this child we may be bringing into existence.” The language is built in.

Sex is about permanence. Sacramental permanence. When we express its language honestly, within the context of sacramental permanence (marriage), it leads to life and contributes to love. When we speak its language dishonestly, whether within or outside the context of marriage, it destroys love and can even destroy life.

That’s the teaching: that sex has a built-in meaning of permanent self-giving love, and it’s only in respecting that meaning that we find real love. Personally, I think the teaching is wonderfully positive. And most people I explain it to tend to agree. In fact, they usually say, “Why didn’t anybody ever tell me this before?” or “I’ve been Catholic my whole life and never heard this.”

Maybe it’s time we stop letting the “experts” speak for us, and start spreading a little of the good news ourselves.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of Envoy Magazine.)

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