Is Sex Meaningless? The Reply of Catholic Teaching

Catholics need to understand and be able to articulate clearly four basic points of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality

On June 26th the Supreme Court ruled (by a slim 5 to 4 majority) that all states must now grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Writing for the majority Justice Anthony Kennedy contended that committed same-sex partnerships should be treated as fully equivalent in dignity and honor to traditional marriage, and that by not doing so traditional morality is demeaning and oppressive to same-sex persons. 

Other events too—such as the media’s recent celebration of transgenderism—signal that our culture is moving more and more toward the view that marriage and sexuality lack any objective structure and that the distinction between men and women is utterly insignificant. Catholics will increasingly be pressured to assent to those views, on pain of being categorized as bigoted and hateful. In addition, the argument will be made that faithful Catholics should just shut up about sexual morality, since it is an unimportant issue in any case.

But it is antithetical to our faith to think of our bodies as having no objective meaning or moral importance, as if they can be treated as having whatever meaning we choose to impose on them. We our called to conform our feelings to what is objectively true, not the other way around. Our faith is centered on God as truth, and on God who became flesh, died and rose from the dead, and through his priests makes his flesh and blood present for us on our altars. Our bodies—redeemed by and united to God incarnate—are inherently meaningful and important, not mere occasions for obtaining desirable experiences.

What we believe about marriage and sexuality is an important part of the Gospel. Everyone is called to integrate his or her sexuality with love of God and love of neighbor. And marriage is a sacrament, one a large portion of Catholics are called to, and that all Catholics are called to promote. Further, as St. Paul teaches, the mystery of the union of the husband and the wife in marriage is a key analogy for understanding Christ’s union with his Church (Eph. 5:22-33). Confusion about marriage leads to confusion about Christ and the Church. So Catholics need to understand and articulate clearly the basics of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality.

Those basics can be set out in four points:

First. Marriage is essentially a bodily, as well as an emotional and spiritual, union. The Catholic teaching on what marriage is comes directly from Our Lord himself. When asked about divorce—whether a man could put away his wife—He began his answer by re-affirming the teaching on marriage in the first chapter of Genesis. “Have you not read [Jesus replied] that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Mt. 19: 4-5) Marriage includes a union of a man and a woman on all other levels of their lives (else it could not be a bond no human being can break). But it is specifically distinct from other types of union precisely by the fact that it includes and is shaped by a one-flesh union.

Many people think of marriage as a purely spiritual union, and of the bodily, sexual act as a mere extrinsic sign of that spiritual union. But Jesus’s teaching is that the one-flesh union is part of the total marital union. In marital intercourse the spouses become truly biologically one. Biologically, the man and the woman are complete with respect to most functions: each is capable of digesting, sensing, and so on, on his or her own. But with respect to reproduction each is incomplete: neither has a complete reproductive system, but only the man and the woman as united.

Thus in sexual intercourse the man and the woman complete each other to become the single subject of a single biological function, mating. They become truly one organism, or one flesh, although with respect to other functions (e.g., respiration and digestion) they remain fully distinct. And because human beings are body-soul composites—not just souls or minds that have bodies—this biological unity is a truly personal unity. Marital intercourse is not an extrinsic sign of a purely spiritual union, but consummates the marriage, that is, fully establishes the specific type of multi-leveled personal communion that marriage is.

Second: marriage is by its nature oriented to conceiving and rearing children as its fruition. In its first description of creation, the book of Genesis teaches that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it . . . .” (Gen. 2:27-28) Thus, God specifically creates human beings male and female so they can join together (become one flesh) and collaborate with the Creator to bring into being new human beings. The distinction between man and woman, and their union in marriage are intrinsically oriented to the procreation and education of children.

As Vatican II expressed it: “Marriage and married love are by nature ordered to the procreation and education of children. Indeed children are the supreme gift of marriage and greatly contribute to the good of the parents themselves.” (Vatican II, Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 50)

This does not mean that marriage is a mere means in relation to children . Marriage is both good in itself—and so a husband and wife continue to be married if they are unable to have children—and oriented to children as marriage’s natural fruition (see Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 50, 2nd paragraph). The marital unity of the spouses—bodily, emotional, and spiritual—is extended and naturally fulfilled by conceiving and rearing children together. The child is the concrete fruit and expression of their marital commitment and their love for each other.

Marriage is a man-woman relationship because only a man and a woman can form the kind of union that marriage is. Only a man and a woman can become one flesh. A physical juxtaposition or contact is not a genuine biological union—people do not become one by one person sticking a finger or sexual organ in an orifice of the other, even if that gives them intense pleasure. Moreover, only a man and a woman can form the kind of union that would be naturally fulfilled by procreation.

Third. Man and woman are complementary in their make-up, not fundamentally interchangeable. In the second account of creation, in Genesis, Chapter 2, God first creates the man and places him in the garden. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” God then creates woman out of the man’s rib, and when the man is introduced to the woman the man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . . . “ (Gen. 2: 23)

Without woman man is incomplete—it is not good that man is alone. Man and woman complete each other to become a new entity.

Fourth. Sexual acts outside marriage are morally wrong. Our Lord includes fornication—the Greek word is porneia—in his list of sins that spring from the heart and corrupt a person: “But what come out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt 15:18-19; cf. Mk. 7:21) The word translated as fornication (porneia) sometimes referred to several types of sexual sins (including incest, prostitution, and any sexual act outside marriage), but what made all of these acts sinful was their distortion of the inherent meaning and reality of sex as one-flesh union consummating or renewing marital union.

St. Paul taught that fornication is particularly grave in that it is a sin against one’s body: “Avoid fornication. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 16-18)

The reason why sexual acts belong within marriage is based on their reality. Sexual intercourse is a bodily uniting, of the kind that could procreate children: it makes a man and a woman one flesh. As the kind of act that could procreate, it orients them to being united personally and indefinitely into the future. But in having sexual intercourse outside marriage, a couple become one in their bodies but not one on other levels of their lives, and thus merely mimic the marital union this act would establish. They treat their sexuality as separate from the other aspects of themselves, and so use their bodies as mere extrinsic instruments for the attainment of enjoyable experience (pleasure or the illusory experience of union).

 Similarly, sexual acts that do not make the actors one flesh (oral sex to completion, and so on), involve using each other’s bodies as mere instruments for having an illusory experience of union without actualizing real union on any level. Pleasurable experiences (sensations or enjoyable experience) do not of themselves make people one or enhance their personal unions; for a pleasure or an experience is only as valuable as what one takes pleasure in or what one has an experience of. In marriage the spouses’ sexual acts are part of their giving of themselves to each other on all levels of their lives. But to pursue the illusory experience of that, without its reality—whether this be because the participants lack a marital union to embody, or because they do not become one body—is to violate the marital good.

Our culture’s view is that sexual acts are in some cases just fun things to do, sometimes signs of affection, and at other times signs—though only extrinsic signs—of undying love: It all depends on what meaning the participants intend to impose on them—hence such acts are, just of themselves, meaningless. However, most of us are aware at least at some level that this is incorrect. Sexual intercourse is still for the most part not treated as in the same category as other bodily acts. For example, compelling someone to eat or to walk may involve a violation, but not nearly of the same magnitude as the violation involved when someone is compelled to have sex. But if sexual acts were mere vehicles for some meaning imposed on them from outside, this would make no sense.

Catholic teaching makes sense of that implicit awareness. Sexual intercourse is the act that establishes a comprehensive union with a spouse, and the act by which men and women collaborate with the Creator to become a father and a mother. Because of this—because of their inherent reality—they have a momentous significance, indeed, a sacredness.

About Patrick Lee 0 Articles
Patrick Lee holds the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Chair of Bioethics, and is the Director of the Center for Bioethics, at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is known nationally as a speaker and author on contemporary ethics, especially on such hot-button bioethical issues as abortion, euthanasia, sexual morality, and same-sex unions. He has lectured or debated at various campuses, including Princeton University, Boston University, and University of Notre Dame. He has written three books—Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics, with Robert P. George (2008), Abortion and Unborn Human Life (2010), Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters, with Robert P. George (2014— and numerous scholarly and popular articles.