Wisdom and Common Sense in Relationships
Louise Kirk talks to young women about chastity, love and friendship.
Recently a trio of Elders knocked on my door. They were very young Elders, but poised and smartly dressed. Remembering the warm hospitality that I received in Salt Lake City last October, I invited them in.
We often speak as though it is only marooned Catholics who fight the full defence of chastity in the modern world, but this is not the case. The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) is exemplary in promoting family values. Without them, the international fight for life and family would be a lot poorer. I entertained my guests to water and orange juice, since they don’t drink anything stronger, hot or cold, and we talked of many things. On leaving one young Elder slipped into my hand a pamphlet entitled "For the Strength of Youth". It was about chastity, and had tips that might be found in any Catholic leaflet: modesty in dress, the danger of pornography, the importance of friendship, even confession to their bishops.
In Salt Lake I had been impressed by the large and happy families I met and the enthusiasm which the young had for their faith. One girl spoke proudly of her brother, "out on mission", just like the Elders who had called at my door. Another told me without hesitation that the reason their church is so successful in passing on its faith is "because there is complete coherence in everything that we are taught, right across the curriculum."
Her reply reflects in reverse something of which another American speaks. When Professor Donna Freitas decided to research how American students connect their faith with their attitudes to sexuality, she found that Catholic students to be of one mind. They repeatedly say: "Our faith taught us nothing about sex, except not to have it." And finding that their Church has apparently let them down on a topic so important, the vast majority throw away their faith with the morals they don’t understand. Some are apathetic, but others express hurt and deep bitterness.
So I think it is difficult to be a young Catholic today, with what Christopher West aptly names the "fast food" of sex all around us. Because sex is not like the other sensual temptations of modern life, such as drugs, smoking or binge drinking. Sex is not external; it is part of us, it comes from within. It is good, it is holy, it is very natural, and when some gorgeous boy appears who sweeps you off your feet it is only to be expected that you will be strongly attracted. The attraction is designed to be so powerful that it dares both boy and girl to leave their old lives behind and set off on the new adventure of marriage.
The Catholic Church
What is saddest about Donna Freitas’s finding is that the Catholic Church actually leads the world in its rich and satisfying teaching on sexuality, far outstripping anything produced by others. The LDS pamphlet that I was given, for instance, basically explains how to live abstinence well and channel sexual energy into the eventual goal of finding a spouse. The approach is, if you like, puritanical – there is no vision about sexuality as such, no attempt to fathom why we are sexual beings, or what role sexuality may have for those who will never marry.
Are the unmarried supposed to bottle up their sexual urges, treat them as a cross? And after marriage, is everything always just marvellous?
This picture buys into the modern lie that sex is like a happy drug, available for instant pleasure. It isn’t. Sex can be uncomfortable, humiliating, even boring. There is a growing problem of middle-aged married couples losing their appetite for it. Like anything else, it needs to be worked at and treated correctly to yield its fruits of deep peace, trust and love. It is designed for love-making, but out of place can bring feelings of shame, anxiety and even loneliness.
It was St John Paul who unfolded a completely different vision, one in which sexuality is shown to play an essential role in our knowing, loving and serving God, as well as our neighbour, in all states of life.
Before John Paul, theologians taught that man imaged God principally in the spiritual powers of the soul, that is in the intellect and will. John Paul pointed out that the Holy Trinity is a communion of persons, and that it is in the unity of male and female, revealed in the body and open to the gift of children, that this community is expressed in man:
"The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it" (TOB 19:4).
Are you familiar with Pope St John Paul’s Theology of the Body? It bears study. I recommend the work of Christopher West, available on-line.
Whether or not we are married and have children, all of us belong to families. All of us, too, are at one and the same time both complete, as social beings and as individuals before God, and incomplete. We are incomplete because our bodies are marked for communion with another. If I were to look at you with X-ray eyes, I could understand the role of your liver, or heart, or lungs, but I would have no explanation for your ovaries or uterus. It is the same with the man. You can see even more starkly that there is no explanation of the testes without understanding the organs of the woman, or the potential for a child. When God says man and woman become one flesh, He is very literal.
The modern world treats sex as though it belongs to the secular world and that God tries to cheat us of it. I have never understood this, because I can’t imagine any human being having the daring to invent such an extraordinary thing. God is evidently so pleased with His design that He has scattered it throughout nature. Have you noticed how nearly all living things are marked by sex, the birds, the flowers and the trees? Have you further noticed how some of the most beautiful things are connected with mating, everything from blossoms, birdsong and even the peacock’s tail? This beauty reflects the still greater wonder of human sexuality, since the lower always symbolises the higher.
So it makes sense to try to understand sex as God does. Sex is bigger than marrying and having children. It does more than reveal something of the nature of God. It tells us also of God’s passionate love for each one of us, which will be brought to fruition in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb at the consummation of the world.
We are talking mystery. To probe it, look at our other physical desires. Our hunger, for instance, speaks of much more than our need for nourishment. The very word "com-panion" derives from the Latin words cum "with" and panis "bread", and speaks of how eating in itself creates community. It is hard to imagine developing a friendship without at some point sharing a meal, or at least a cup of coffee. Our human food with its social dimension reflects the Holy Communion we receive at Mass. God didn’t think to Himself: "I want to stay physically present on earth with my Church. Oh, I know, man eats. I’ll make Myself into bread." It was the other way round.
And so it is with our other appetites. We thirst, to point us to Living Water and the Sacred Blood. We tire, and long for the Eternal Rest to which we are destined. We experience sexual attraction, and look to the Lamb.
Marriage is not an end in itself. It is a rich icon of the complete fulfilment of body and soul to which God has destined us. There is a gap inside us which God alone can fill. It is a great mistake to think that you will one day find the "perfect" man who will fill that hole. Realising this releases you to love your boyfriend or husband for who he is, and not for what
he is and how he satisfies your needs. It turns you away from yourself and towards him. Learning to love well is the struggle of a lifetime. There is ample room to grow in the virtue of holy purity.
What lessons might we draw from all of this for our everyday lives?
The first is that sexual yearning is a good. It has a part to play in the deepening of our personalities. Learning to control our sexual drive, rather than be controlled by it, helps self-discipline in all areas of life. It gives us the energy for self-gift which goes to the core of our being, whether or not our vocation is to marriage.
However, giving right importance to sexuality should also prompt us to action. Here again, I think young people and especially young women today are cheated of truth, are brought up to think first and foremost of careers, with the expectation that marriage and family will somehow just happen at the right time. When I was at school, the emphasis was the other way round. I remember my headmistress praising some dressmaking I had done with the words: "You will make a good wife." I was chuffed but also indignant. What about my brains, I thought. The school had little idea how to point us to a career, let alone a demanding profession.
In practice, all girls have a tension between two pulls: one towards making their own mark in the world, and the other towards spousal love and maternity. I think of these as the two roles of Our Lady, Virgin and Mother. Each girl will manage that tension differently. Some will veer more towards a career and may only ever experience maternity in a spiritual sense. Others will put more into marriage and family, and subordinate whatever else they do to that. Still others will have a religious vocation (notice that religious titles come from the family: Sister, Mother, Father, Brother).
If you think your vocation is to marry, make time for it. Put yourself in social situations where you may find the right man. You might, for instance, think of going on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or to World Youth Day, or Youth 2000, or the Faith Movement. Make friends. This is the time to make many friends of both sexes.
Give good parties and revive dance. Dance has always played a part in courtship. It is fun, it teaches good social skills, and it gives a healthy outlet to our sexual physicality. By dance I don’t mean jigging together in the lit gloom, with music so loud you can’t talk, the boys over here and the girls over there until they come together in embarrassing intimacy. There is nothing wrong with a good bop, but bopping shouldn’t be allowed to squeeze out proper dancing, with learnt steps, where men and women really do interact with each other, dress for the occasion and create something that is beautiful to watch.
Never compromise your femininity. God created us male and female, inside as well as out.
What the Church teaches
We should understand why the Church teaches against contraception. Because sexuality marks all the layers of our being, physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional, countering it with contraception has consequences at every level as well. This is a big subject in its own right, so I will only mention two statistics.
The first is that if a girl only has sex with the partner she marries, she has an 80% chance of a lasting marriage. If she introduces one extra partner, that statistic drops to 54%, and if she introduces a third, it drops to 44%. In other areas of life, experience leads to greater ability, but not so when it comes to sexual intimacy.
Another statistic. The Pill was introduced with the idea that it would remove anxiety from sexual relations and lead to happier marriages. In practice, the sweep of divorce has followed closely behind the Pill’s uptake. By contrast, studies show that, among those who practice modern methods of natural family planning, the divorce rate is somewhere between 1 and 4%. It would be difficult to find any other mechanism which has proved better at stabilising marriages.
There are many arguments to show why contraception is destructive on the spiritual front. The most cited is that it creates a lie. The gift and surrender of the self is emptied of meaning because something vital is held back.
What tells most with me is a simple argument. God is Creator. God is Love. Contraception says that when God put together our powers to love and procreate in one act. He either got something wrong, which is human arrogance in the extreme, or He desired to give us a tainted gift. It is my belief that what hurts God most about contraception is our lack of trust in His sheer goodness.
The Catholic Church has much to teach about sex, and the emphasis is not on denial. In fact to describe purity as abstinence misses the point. We abstain for a time from something to which we are entitled. Purity is the living virtue which brings body and soul into alignment in all our relationships. It helps us to have self-dominion so that we are able to give more of ourselves in love to others. It brings alive the meaning of our sexuality at its greatest depth. Through it, we experience happiness and we see our way to God more clearly. Holy purity makes us ready for the banquet God has prepared for us, for which we await the life to come.
Louise Kirk is the author, with Jessie Gillick, of Sexuality Explained (Gracewing Books).