Catholic holy card depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ca. 1880. Auguste Martin collection, University of Dayton Libraries.
(Credit: ‘Turgis’, via Wikimedia Commons)
It is crucial for Catholics in the 21st century to be consistently familiar with the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.
Being a high school theology teacher in the 21st century, in the broiling milieu of the “sexual revolution” that has spiritually ransacked the West for practically half a century at this point, can present a challenging set of circumstances.
Imagine, for instance, the scenario of having to explain the theological underpinnings of the #MeToo movement against a backdrop of popular feature films with story lines that essentially objectify and otherwise systematically dehumanize women, and in light of a broader culture that practically divinizes certain elemental purveyors of the entertainment industry, including powerful personalities on the television, internet and radio waves, not to mention the political realm. Elsewhere, as elaborated upon in a recent article by Mary Rezac at the Catholic News Agency, who could have once foreseen having to address the moral dilemma of such a puzzling quandary as “sex robots”? Yet, as a veteran teacher, I continue to find that these tumultuous times present a rich opportunity to both impart and clarify the Church’s teachings on any number of contentious issues.
I frequently field questions from students of various faith experiences that reflect the considerable ponderings of wider society. I take every opportunity to remind my students of a few realities: 1) that every one of Jesus’ teachings is a challenge to someone (really, can you think of an “easy” one to live?), 2) that the Catholic Church can solely teach doctrines that are Christian per se, i.e., rooted in Christ’s own teachings from within Sacred Scripture, and 3) that every one of Christ’s teachings is ultimately based on his enduringly significant love for us.
This third point is where the theological rubber ideally strives to grip the rhetorical road, and this is an endeavor that invites us to remember that we must love God first, and our neighbor subsequently (emphasis on that order of priorities): “One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing, and saw how well [Jesus] had answered them, asked him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these’” (Mark 12:28-31, based on Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
Primarily, we must recall that “God is love” (1 John 4:8); thus, since “he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), his love for us is a given: “With age-old love I have loved you” (Jeremiah 31:3). Simultaneously, the Lord’s love, while not featuring qualifications, does feature expectations, as Jesus reminds us: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Prominent among Christ’s teachings are those related to chastity, indicating God’s plan – in simplified terms – for sexual relations to be reserved for the husband and wife within the sacred marital bond, and for those relations to be open to the possibility of new life. One of the most comprehensive delineations of this that I have ever read is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan. If you have a couple (no pun intended) of hours, I urge you to read this critical document. Jesus’ elucidation on the vital matter of chastity can be read at length in Matthew 19:1-12 (cf. Mark 10:1-12). These passages are accompanied by Jesus’ injunction against “adultery, unchastity,” and various other categories of iniquity that deserve their own separate coverage (see Matthew 15:19).
For the time being, note how Jesus introduces his caution against these practices: that they come “from the heart” (see the beginning of verse 19). In an age ringing with the call to “follow your heart,” we must recall that our heart should be modeled on the Lord’s own Sacred Heart (since, per Genesis 1:26-27, we are made in God’s “image” and “likeness”). Subsequently, our consciences must be formed accordingly, for without an informed conscience and moral compass focused on the Lord’s commandments instead of individual inclinations, we run the risk of ending up opposing God’s plans, replacing his will with ours.
Returning to the previous consideration of how Christ’s teachings pose a challenge to all of us, we are drawn to a few more reminders from Saint Paul, whom Jesus designated as “a chosen instrument of mine” (Acts 9:15), including such iconic words from the Apostle to the Gentiles: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2); “No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful, and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Christians make the uniquely bold claim that God stepped into our humanity via his Incarnation, and he therefore understands our difficulties: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So, let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
In the midst of the Church’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 8, we take the time to recognize Christ’s sacrificial love for us. Given that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we are inherently in need of the Lord’s merciful forgiveness as an antecedent for our aspired redemption. Meditating on the remarkable implications of the Lord’s Sacred Heart, and reiterating that God’s love comes not with qualifications, but with expectations, we ought to take seriously this charge: “Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance, but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct,for it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:13-16, cf. Leviticus 11:44 and 19:2).
So, is the Catholic Church truly “obsessed” with sex? Is it unduly prudish? In the anything-goes 21st-century West, asking these questions is tantamount to asking if a cardiologist is obsessed with fast food chains’ assertions that fried food is delightful. In other words, what is the end-game? As an aside, it is curious that other mainstream faith traditions, whose teachings on sexual ethics are frequently comparable to Christianity’s, are often exempted from receiving the same category of scrutiny and overt criticism from the more outspoken realms of secularity. That is a different conversation for another day.
As we continue throughout the 21st century, the laity has the responsibility – really, the blessed opportunity – to share the beauty and goodness of the Catholic Church’s timeless teachings on human sexuality, emphasizing the role of chastity and a covenantal understanding of the sacrament of marriage. Unfortunately, speaking for the United States, as various Pew Research statistics have reported over the years, most (not simply “many,” but most) American Catholics are at diametrical odds with the Church over her teachings on human sexuality. This trend began in the 1960s, as Catholics began, step by step, to align their values more with those of influential political figures than with Christ’s own demands. On this matter, since the latest data from 2013 report that American Catholics comprise only roughly 7 percent of the world’s Catholics, I would encourage you to investigate how the other 93 percent approach matters pursuant to our faith when faced with what Pope Francis has deemed for years as “ideological colonization.”
I highly recommend, for instance, Obianuju Ekeocha’s new book Target Africa: Ideological Neocolonialism in the Twenty-First Century (Ignatius Press, 2018). Ekeocha is the founder of Culture of Life Africa. You can also read what Edward Pentin, Rome correspondent for the Register, said about ideological colonization back in November 2017, reflective of the Holy Father’s words at Santa Marta. Of similar note, I recommend Dr. Scott Hahn’s new book The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Moral Order (Emmaus Road, 2018).
No matter one’s vocation within the Church, whether to marriage, the priesthood, religious life, consecrated life or the single life, it is crucial for Catholics in the 21st century to be consistently familiar with the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. Here are a few must-reads, especially as we look forward to the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitaeon July 25, 2018, and to Paul VI’s canonization later this year:
As we continue to ask the Lord for the fortitude to appropriately exhibit our love for God and neighbor, we sincerely implore him: Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!