I recently found a New York Times piece I had clipped back in May 2013 entitled “The Joylessness of Sex on TV” by Ginia Bellafante. The essay opens with these words: “Sex on TV is more risqué, more graphic and more raunchy than ever. So why is it so incredibly unsexy?”
The author’s diagnosis is that “much of it is divorced from any real sense of eroticism or desire,” leaving portrayals of sex that are “transactional” and “utilitarian.” The objective of that article was certainly not to reflect on the authentic meaning of human sexuality. It did, though, at least scratch the surface of the question, recognizing a few symptoms of the confusion and distortion that surround the matter of sexuality these days. Sexual expression, when wrenched out of its God-designed meaning and purpose, is bound to be joyless, even destructive.
Sexuality is such a potent dimension of human personhood that no one should be surprised that the subject of sex turns up just about everywhere. Cultural critics use words like “obsession” and “saturation” to describe our society’s preoccupation with sex and sexuality. The more superficial and inadequate views of sex as merely an emotional or physical impulse dominate everything from “hook up” dating to TV series and cinema to casual conversation to standup comedy and advertising, the more it becomes trivialized and detached from its authentic context of meaning. Our Catholic tradition, on the other hand, offers good solid truths about sexuality, beautiful truths drawn from both reason and God’s revelation.
In the midst of our culture’s obsession with all things sexual, how often do you hear anyone asking about the meaning of human sexuality?
What a gift that the preparatory catechesis for the September 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia includes a chapter on precisely this topic. In “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” the very placement of the section on the meaning of sexuality, between two preceding chapters with the titles “Created for Joy” and “The Mission of Love,” and the successive chapters “Two Become One,” “Creating the Future,” and “All Love Bears Fruit” contextualizes and embeds our Catholic appreciation of sexuality’s true and deepest meaning in God’s creative and redemptive plan for the world and for humankind.
Our understanding of sexuality is rooted in our belief that every human person, male and female, is created in God’s image, created to live in relationship. Our bodies (including our sexuality) as well as our souls are God’s good creation, and designed by God for a purpose, a mission. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this truth well: “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (No. 2332). This communion we live in covenant with God is ours through our relationship with Jesus Christ. In covenant, we are joined in communion not only with the divine communion that is the Blessed Trinity, but with one another. We are created for this communion, so our human nature is made to be interdependent. We are created to love and to be loved. Love is self-giving. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”), “Being a person ... can only be achieved through a sincere gift of self.”
Everyone should understand and embrace the sexual reality of his or her personhood. It is one significant, but not exclusive, constitutive dimension of who we are as human beings, whatever our state in life. But our understanding of our sexuality is incomplete if we fail to appreciate that our “physical, moral and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life” (CCC, No. 2333).
|Human sexuality ultimately is about self-giving, and marriage is a beautiful
reflection of God’s gift of love to us. Shutterstock photo
Our sexuality, then, is ultimately about self-giving. God created humans as male and female for mutual self-giving, much as we receive God’s love and show that love to others. Marriage is a beautiful icon of that love. That is why St. Paul points to the loving union of man and woman in marriage as a symbol of that intimate union of Christ the bridegroom with his bride, the Church.
Pope St. John Paul II in his “Theology of the Body” spoke of the nuptial or spousal meaning of the body. Our sexual difference as male and female characterizes us in all of our relationships because we were all conceived as either male or female, and began life as son or daughter. The preparatory catechesis reminds us that our identity as men and women is the basis of our vocation to fatherhood or motherhood, natural or spiritual. Thus, for example, while we all have had a human father, a priest is greeted as “Father” because of a generative spiritual fatherhood that is at the heart of his vocation, even as this generativity is expressed in a loving commitment of celibacy. The same is true of the spiritual motherhood of women in consecrated life vowed to chastity. In both ways of life, married and celibate, our sexuality is lived authentically only in the context of the covenant into which our loving Father has called us. As the preparatory catechesis puts it, “By living in the light of the covenant, married couples and celibate persons alike offer their sexuality to the community, to the creation of a society which is not premised on concupiscence and exploitation.”
The author cited at the beginning of this essay remarked on the “joylessness” of sex on TV. The Catholic theology of sexuality as God’s covenant gift to male and female, created in his image for generous, self-giving, fruitful love, reveals the true meaning of sexuality and the way, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, when lived, to the “joy which is the Creator’s gift [that] offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine” (Deus Caritas Est, “God is Love,” No. 3).
Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone is the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.