The following article, which first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic', describes a situation which has become prevalent in most Western countries in recent decades. While the Church's teachings on sexuality have been constantly and clearly articulated by Pope John Paul II, they rarely reach Catholics in classrooms or pews. For many, their only encounter with the Church's teachings on sexuality is via the distorted and often hostile lens of the media.
I was recently invited onto a radio show to discuss a survey of the sexual attitudes of Dubliners. The last thing I expected from this show was to see perhaps the most accurate representation of the current state of the Church in Ireland with regard to sex.
One of my fellow panellists was a Catholic priest who shared stories of his friends finding "easy rides" in Temple Bar [Dublin] and then rejoiced at the low numbers going to confession, because that meant we had all got over our "sexual sin" neurosis.
This priest unfortunately portrayed what I've become familiar with when I hear a priest talk about Catholic sexuality - quicker to disagree with than defend the Church.
It is probably true to say that each era has its own grievances with the Catholic Church and that the main "problem" with her teaching nowadays is with sexuality. This has manifested itself from the time of the publication of Humanae Vitae to the recent sex scandals, spilling over into the related issues like priestly celibacy and contraception.
As a young person living and studying in Dublin, I find conversations about the Church and faith invariably stray into tired arguments about old celibate men making up rules, for no other reason than to spoil our fun.
For many of my friends, their disagreement with the Church's "hang-ups" about sex is one of the main reasons why they don't go to Mass. Their ignorance of the underlying philosophy and logic forming the Church's position is compounded by the notion that as Catholics, they know what the Church teaches.
While most were raised in Catholic homes and received the sacraments during their time at Catholic schools, they can only produce tabloid analysis when discussing Catholic teaching on sex.
The media seems to be the only forum where I've heard this matter being discussed - be it in relation to the Church's role in fighting HIV/ AIDS to the issue of priestly celibacy. I cannot remember the last sermon I've heard on any aspect of sexuality and I can't recall ever seeing advertisements for a conference on authentic Catholic sexuality, unlike the conferences one regularly sees advertised in churches for anything from new age Buddhism to spiritual dance.
Role of laity
I can understand the reluctance of priests to bring up these matters. It is taken for granted that "everyone" disagrees with the Church, and to step outside of that ingrained presupposition requires courage that some would say is foolhardy. Unfortunately one easily gets the impression that the Church in Ireland is ashamed of its own teaching on this subject and if we don't talk about it, hopefully it will go away.
Coupled with the lack of enthusiasm on the part of priests and their inadequate formation, we have very poorly developed ideas on the role of the laity. We often think that lay participation is at its most effective with Eucharistic ministers and readers at Mass. This level of expectation for the laity is at odds with the official line on the subject: full lay vocation includes a responsibility to evangelise, and to evangelise one must first have a grasp of the Church's teachings.
One of the problems that the Church faced in the past was that information did not always filter down to the laity. Nowadays, the laity is not at the bottom of the pile eagerly waiting for morsels from the clerical table. We are - one would like to think - literate and capable of mastering the teachings of the Church.
Given that sexuality is a vitally important aspect of lay life, the incredibly beautiful vision of the human person as articulated by Pope John Paul II is logical, attractive and far-reaching in its implications for living it in our own lives.
While sexuality is a deeply personal subject, as a modern, progressive and engaged laity, the responsibility lies with us to ensure that this unhealthy silence over the Catholic approach to sex is broken. Ideas about sex are vitally important because they are fundamental to issues like the state of marriage, the role of family, relations between men and women, as well as the myriad of other topics that arise like contraception and pre-marital sex.
In the Catholic Church, we are very lucky to have a coherent position underpinning all these issues and as lay people we have a personal responsibility to educate ourselves on our faith.
To share what we believe is a lot harder. We must encourage our priests to explain these issues from the pulpit, while bearing witness in our own lives. To live the Catholic teaching on sex is a good deal more difficult than learning about it, be it in single or married life.
But we are called upon to be "salt and light" and perhaps the most effective witness possible is to live the joy and freedom made possible by a full understanding of the Catholic "theology of the body".