God's gift of sex: building a civilisation of life and love

God's gift of sex: building a civilisation of life and love

Catherine Sheehan

Today we live in a sex-saturated culture. It seems that just about everywhere we go we are bombarded with sexual imagery, whether we are at home in front of the TV, at the movies, driving past roadside billboards or surfing the net. Sex is promoted as nothing more than a pleasurable pastime, the satisfying of a physical urge.

The emotional and spiritual aspects of human beings and their relationships are largely ignored or trivialised. Such a view of sex cheapens and degrades human relationships. As a consequence, in our culture, many people are left feeling empty and depressed. Life seems meaningless.

The human body, especially that of the woman, is exploited and degraded as an object of pleasure. Many girls and young women suffer depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and eating disorders, as they are encouraged to believe their worth depends on their physical attractiveness and their sexual currency.

Social problems

There is increasing disrespect for women: it is common now to hear of date-rape, gang-rape and women being stalked and many women have to deal with physical and sexual violence in their relationships.

As a society we are also facing increasing problems with broken families and marriages, sexually transmitted diseases, widespread abortion, infertility, low birth rates, the proliferation of pornography and the sexual abuse of children.

The question must be asked, how did our culture reach such a low? We promote human rights and women's liberation, yet many of our young women and men are depressed and our suicide rate is higher than in third-world countries.

The answer must lie to an extent in the cheapening of human sexuality. It seems that when sex is considered to be meaningless, then human life in general becomes meaningless. This is because sex is integral to human life. It is right at the heart of human existence. How we view sex determines how we view ourselves and others.

When the dignity of the human body is realised, and its inseparability from the spirit, the sexual act must be considered in a whole new light. It becomes something indescribably beautiful and sacred.

Ignoring the spiritual dimension of the sexual act by using contraception, which denies the transmission of life, is likely to produce negative consequences, for individuals, and, when the practice is widespread, for whole societies.

Forty years ago, during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in response to advances in reproductive technology, and specifically the invention of the contraceptive Pill.

In 1968, when he wrote the encyclical, Pope Paul expressed great concern about the possible consequences of contraceptive practices. Today we can consider his concerns as truly prophetic.

In the encyclical the Pope noted that artificial birth control would encourage marital infidelity, as extra-marital affairs would be easier to conduct with the risk of pregnancy largely removed, and that morality in general will decline: '... how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality' (HV, n.17).

Today, especially in the Western world, we have high rates of marital and family break-down and there has been a dramatic loosening of sexual morality since the 1960s.

Paul VI also pointed out that the young, especially, need to be encouraged to be strong and resilient and not to lower their morals: '... especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point - have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance' (HV, n. 17).

We are now seeing young people becoming sexually active at younger and younger ages, as they are taught about 'safe sex'. As a result, many are dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and abortions, and the resulting psychological trauma, when they should be enjoying their youth.


Paul VI expressed grave concern about the increasing disrespect for women that would likely follow the contraceptive mentality and practices: 'It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of contraceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion' (HV, n.17).

Over the last several decades we have seen the increasing sexualisation of women. Domestic violence, pornography, prostitution and sexual violence plague our modern societies. The contraceptive mentality has decreased respect for the woman by removing from the sexual act her great ability to conceive new life, rendering her merely an object for man's enjoyment.

The Encyclical also alludes to the fact that the widespread practice of contraception between couples may lead governments to enforce certain contraceptive measures on their people: 'Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem? Who will stop rulers from favouring, from even imposing upon their peoples, if they were to consider it necessary, the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious?' (HV, n.17).

The situation in China, with forced abortions and sterilisations used by the government to reduce the population size, demonstrates the possible extreme consequences of the contraceptive mentality.

The beautiful vision of human life and happiness that Paul VI presents in Humanae Vitae demonstrates that the only path to true happiness and fulfilment in this life is to be found by following the moral law set down by the Creator. God is the author of life and the whole of creation. He is also, therefore, the author of sex. As with any creation or invention, it is the creator who knows best how it should be used.

The Magisterium of the Church does not invent moral laws. Rather it transmits to the faithful moral rights and wrongs ascertained from divine revelation, as found in the Scriptures, or from natural moral law.

Natural law

'Natural moral law' refers to knowledge of what is morally right or wrong that can be obtained through reason alone. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 'The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties' (CCC, 1956).

The Church's teaching on contraception is therefore not devised by her hierarchy, it is written in God's moral law. As Paul VI wrote, 'Of such laws the Church was not the author, nor consequently can she be their arbiter; she is only their depositary and their interpreter; without ever being able to declare to be licit that which is not so by reason of its intimate and unchangeable opposition to the true good of man' (HV, n.18).

In Humanae Vitae, it is revealed that the conjugal, or marital act, has two meanings, 'the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning' (HV, n.12). These two meanings are both inherent to the conjugal act. The spouses are united through the marital act - both bodily and spiritually. By uniting husband and wife, the conjugal act fosters their love for each other.

Forced intercourse within marriage is an example of the conjugal act devoid of its unitive meaning. If one spouse forces intercourse on the other then the act is not one of love or unity. This is a violation of moral law.

The conjugal act also has a procreative meaning. The union of man and woman in the marital embrace is the source of new life. It is the means of producing children: 'By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man's most high calling to parenthood' (HV, n.12).

Contraception renders the conjugal act devoid of its procreative meaning, violating moral law. 'To use this divine gift destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and its purpose is to contradict the nature both of man and woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and His will' (HV, n. 13).

God is the ultimate source of life. Therefore, spouses do not have the authority to decide which conjugal acts will be open to the transmission of life. Spouses are 'ministers' in the process of generating new life. Hence 'to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator' (HV, n. 13).

Humanae Vitae warns against considering the issue of contraception with merely a bodily, or physical, view of the human person, while ignoring the spiritual dimension. Pope Paul insists on 'an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation' (HV, n. 7).

The spirit and the body are inseparable and inherent aspects of the human person. Therefore, what a person does with his or her body has spiritual implications. The body is not a lesser thing, it is not to be considered merely an object.

Fr G.J. Woodall, in his commentary on Humanae Vitae ('Humanae Vitae' Forty Years On: A New Commentary), writes, 'This has major implications over the whole area of morality, since someone's body shares in the dignity of his or her person and is not a sub-personal reality or 'thing' at the disposal of the 'person', as if the 'person' were only identifiable with his or her spiritual or rational dimensions. Put more simply, the body is part of who the person is, not something which the person has' (p.43).

Theology of the Body

This theme is elaborated on beautifully in Pope John Paul II's collection of addresses, titled The Theology of the Body. Here he emphasises the body as a theology in itself, a sign of the person's creation in the image of God and of his or her calling to transmit new life, whether physically or spiritually.

Humanae Vitae also acknowledges that for some couples there may be serious reasons to space the births of children. The Church has no objection to couples using the woman's natural cycles to space the births of their children if they have serious reason to do so. Such methods are referred to as Natural Family Planning.

Paul VI wrote: 'If, then, there are serious motives to space out births ... the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier' (HV, n.16).

A couple can attempt to avoid pregnancy by only having intercourse during the phase of the woman's cycle when she is infertile. Using such a natural method, every act of intercourse is still open to the transmission of life. Using natural methods to avoid pregnancy promotes communication between spouses and encourages mutual fidelity, love and respect, through periods of abstinence.

The Church's teaching on the need for couples to be faithful and to not use contraception has also proved highly effective in combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, where the contraceptive mentality has led to greater sexual promiscuity. In Uganda, instead of encouraging condom use, sexual fidelity to one partner and abstinence have been promoted. As a result the prevalence of HIV dropped from 15% in 1991 to about 5% in 2001 ('AIDS In Africa: Abstinence Works,' Zenit, 27 February 2008).

In countries where condom use is still considered the best way to prevent the disease, the prevalence of HIV has remained high. Matthew Hanley, who has worked for the past seven years as HIV/ AIDS adviser at Catholic Relief Services, commented: 'I have found in my trips to Africa that there is a real thirst for something different, something hopeful ... people yearn for more than the satisfaction of their appetites ... they yearn for love, for respect and for meaning in life ... So we try to address the whole human person, their deeper aspirations, and in proposing love, affirm basic Christian sexual ethics' (Zenit, 27 February 2008).

This demonstrates that Church teaching not only provides the faithful with a moral compass, but it also makes sense for social cohesion. It lays the foundation for cultural harmony and flourishing. It creates what John Paul II called a 'culture of life.'

The Church's teaching on this issue, espoused so beautifully by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, demonstrates a great concern for the happiness of married couples, who are the building blocks of families, and therefore, of societies. The havoc that the contraceptive mentality has wreaked on the modern world is undeniable and there is a desperate need to return to an understanding of human sexuality as the Creator intended it to be. This is the only way to true happiness and the building of a civilisation of love and life.

Catherine Sheehan is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre. She has an Arts Degree with Honours in English Literature from the University of Melbourne.

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