GOOD NEWS ABOUT SEX AND MARRIAGE:
Answers to your honest questions about Catholic Teaching
by Christopher West
(Freedom Publishing, 2003, 192pp, $18.95. Available from AD Books)
In today's age of relativism, where sex is seen as basically an instinct to be gratified whenever and with whomever with the true meaning of marriage sidelined - especially as an institution for which sex should be reserved - Christopher West's book comes as a welcome resource for those keen to clarify the positive and negative potentials of sex.
Searching for truth or meaning is something we all do to greater or lesser degrees. It has been said that John Paul II's Theology of the Body is like a time-bomb waiting to go off in the third millennium of the Church. It is. This is because so many people are becoming more aware of the empty lies of the sexual revolution and the watering-down of the truth of sex by some clergy and Catholic schools.
This book is a must read for those - Catholic or not - engaged to be married, married already, dating, or hoping to marry one day.
Christopher West himself is a young married man who wants to help people live the beauty of John Paul II's profound, yet often difficult theology. In his book he does this through several chapters.
"Laying a Foundation" explores the theology of the great mystery of human sexuality and of humans created male and female. As male and female in marriage we become a life- giving "communion of persons" as God (the Trinity) is a life-giving communion of persons.
West writes: "Sex is so beautiful, so wonderful, so glorious, that it's meant to express God's free, total, faithful and fruitful love. Another name for this expression of love is marriage. Yes - sex is meant to express wedding vows. It's where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. That's why sexual intercourse is called the marital embrace".
In Chapter 2, "Who Says", the authority of the Catholic Church and her teachings on sexuality are explored. Hard questions are answered such as: "Isn't morality ultimately a matter of my conscience?" to which West answers, yes, we must follow our conscience, but we are called to form our conscience according to truth and to submit its judgements to the truth once it is found.
And, "I find it quite ironic that old celibate men seek to dictate sexual morality to others. What do they know about sex?" West says the bishops and popes firstly don't "dictate", but rather reveal with the authority that Jesus has given them, and we have the freedom to choose whether to accept this or not.
In response to "Why is the Church so obsessed with sex", West writes: "Sexuality is not just something biological but concerns the 'innermost being of the human person'. The sexual urge was given to us as a 'love instinct' that leads to life. But when it's cut off from the source of love and life (God), it tends to become a 'lust instinct' that leads to death".
This "leading to death" may seem exaggerated, but when we consider the evil consequences of lust - abortion, "fatherless" families, sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention the pain of hurt souls, objectification of persons, and misogyny through rape - we soon realise that lust can and will only lead to spiritual or physical death.
West says that as sexual morality disappears so to does civilisation through the loss of marriage and family. John Paul II stated: "Human life, its dignity and its balance, depend at every moment of history and at every point on the globe on the proper ordering of love between the sexes". If the Church is "obsessed with sex", it is because she is - "obsessed with upholding the dignity and balance of human life and the plan of God for humanity that our sexuality is meant to reveal".
The third chapter looks at marriage and what exactly one says "I do" to. West paraphrases from Canon Law and Vatican II: "Marriage is the intimate, exclusive, indissoluble communion of life and love entered by man and woman at the design of the Creator for the purposes of their own good and the procreation and education of children; this covenant between baptised persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament".
West discusses what makes a marriage valid, the self-sacrificial love that is needed, why openness to children is an essential element of marriage, and what "wives submit to your husbands" (Ephesians 5:21-33) really means. (It certainly doesn't mean that husbands may lord it over their wives and dominate them. It is actually all to do with imitating Christ's love for the Church and leading her to heaven: this involves dying for her and serving her. West says men need to take this to heart so their wives will truly want to receive this love).
Chastity outside of marriage is discussed in the next chapter. Chastity is described not as a 'wowser' or 'frigid' thing, but rather as a definite yes to the true meaning of sex. West says: "Chastity frees us from the tendency to use others for selfish gratification". Hard questions are dealt with in this chapter such as: why should we wait until marriage when we are engaged now? What difference does a marriage certificate make? How do I regain sexual purity? What physical lines shouldn't we cross? Is masturbation always wrong? What's wrong about pornography?
In answering all questions West draws upon the Theology of the Body: sexual intercourse should always be an expression of the bond formed by the Holy Spirit in marriage.
If a couple has sex outside of marriage, he says they are lying to each other even if they profess to love one other, because there is no permanent bond formed between the two, and therefore no real and concrete "faithful, total, fruitful" giving to the other. Sex before marriage becomes in fact, rather than a language of love, a dishonest language of lust. West argues that one of the best things for preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage is to remain chaste; to wait until physical union can truly be an expression of a spiritual union. In this sense, sexual intercourse becomes a visible sign of the invisible sacrament, as in the case of the other sacraments, with water in baptism, chrism in confirmation, etc.
Chapters five and six are particularly helpful, answering some of the really tough questions about chastity within marriage, and why contraception is never right. West points out that the same truths about sex that applied before marriage, apply during marriage, that is, "chastity is the virtue that frees all our sexual thoughts, desires, and behaviours from self-seeking and orders them toward the truth of authentic love".
So, for the spouses to truly love each other, chastity isn't an optional extra. This mindset and heart choice helps the spouses to treat each other as 'subjects' rather than 'objects'. It requires a continual call to sacrifice oneself for the other, something which can only be done with the help of Jesus.
West continues: "[T]he climax of the sexual act shouts loudly and clearly, 'Take me. I'm totally yours. I'm holding nothing back'. That ecstatic moment reflects the unreserved surrender of our persons and the unreserved receptivity of the other". And: "To the degree that we knowingly and intentionally reserve any part of our self from our spouse in the sexual act, we cannot speak of a total self-giving".
This totality of giving to the other indicates why contraception can never have a place in the true meaning of sexual intercourse, for it says very loudly and clearly, "I do not give all of myself to you', and 'I do not receive you in your fullness".
West then looks at why people use contraception anyway, and it seems so that they can have sex whenever they like without the 'risk' of pregnancy. This indicates: (i) not totally self-giving; (ii) not being open to children; (iii) disrespect for a woman's body; (iv) letting lust rule our hearts. (It is lust because it means a couple cannot refrain from sex during the fertile period if they wish to avoid pregnancy, and objectifies a woman as having to always be available for the man, with some using Ephesians 5:22 to justify this).
West concludes his book with two important chapters on same-sex attraction and sex and the celibacy.
This book truly brings good news to all men and women and would make a wonderful present in a world hungering for truth, particularly in the area of marriage preparation. Let's talk more about the good news of sex - heaven knows the world needs it!
Dr Kerrie Allen is Research Officer with the Australian Family Association.