A Primer on Human Sexuality

William E. May
(c) Culture of Life Foundation 2009
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

When God made man, he did not make a conscious subject aware of itself as a self to which he then added a body as an afterthought. Rather, when he made man, "male and female he created them," and he blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply" (Gen 1:27-28).

In other words, when God created man he created a bodily being, made in his own image and likeness and thus endowed with the gifts of intelligence and free choice, sexually differentiated into male and female. And he loves specific, individual human persons, male and female, and not humanity in general. He made them to be the kind of beings they are (human in nature), namely, bodily persons sexually differentiated into male and female, precisely so that they could freely receive from him the gift of his own divine life (grace) so long as they freely choose, with his help, to give themselves away in love -- in a sincere gift of self -- and thus form a communion of persons, ultimately the communion of saints living fully the life of the Triune God. Complementarity of Man and Woman

Since God created man as a bodily person sexually differentiated into male and female, it follows that human sexuality "is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such" (John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, n. 11). Male and female, complementary in their sexuality, are, as it were, two "incarnations," "two ways...of 'being a body' and at the same time a man, which complete each other" (John Paul II, "Male and Female He Created Them": A Theology of the Body, Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006, p.183)..

Since God is both giving and receiving, in imaging him both male and female are giving and receiving. But the male, in his way of imaging God, emphasizes God as giving, whereas the female, in her way of imaging God, emphasizes him as receiving. We might thus say that male sexuality is a giving in a receiving sort of way, whereas female sexuality is a receiving in a giving sort of way. This complementary differentiation is symbolized in the marital act, in which the husband gives himself to his wife by personally entering into her and in this way receiving her, while she personally receives him into herself and in this way gives herself to him.

Perhaps we might say, employing the beautiful imagery of the Hymn "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" (Henry van Dyck), that God is both the "wellspring of the joy of living and the ocean depth of happy rest." Men and women both image God in being wellsprings of the joy of living and ocean depths of happy rest, but the man in his sexuality emphatically images God as the wellspring of the joy of living, while the woman emphasizes God as the ocean depth of happy rest.

All this helps us understand what John Paul II means by the "spousal meaning of the body" (see "Male and Female He Created Them"… pp.182 f). The male body signifies that the man-person is a gift of God to the woman-person, the one who gives himself to her in a receiving sort of way and is for her the wellspring of the joy of living; the female body signifies that the woman-person is a gift of God to the man-person, receiving him in a giving sort of way and being his ocean depth of happy rest.

Finally, human life can be received as a gift only through the intimate union of the man-person and the woman-person [it can be made in the laboratory through various "reproductive" techniques, but this is a grave violation of the dignity of human life as a personal gift from God blessing the marital union of man and woman].

The Goods or Purposes of Human Sexuality

From what has been said thus far, we can see that the great goods of human sexuality are the intimate personal, bodily union of man and woman made possible by an act of genital sex and of new human life, given existence by God himself with the cooperation of the man and the woman. In short, human sexuality has a unitive and procreative meaning.

For these great goods of human sexuality and of human persons to be respected rightly, the intimate sexual union making them possible must be marital in nature. Genital union between unmarried men and women does not, in truth, unite two irreplaceable and non-substitutable persons, because unmarried men and women are unmarried precisely because they have refused to "give" themselves unconditionally to each other and to make each other irreplaceable and non-substitutable in their lives. Such genital union simply joins two individuals who are in principle replaceable, substitutable, disposable and in no way unites two irreplaceable and non-substitutable, non-disposable persons. Such union is unworthy of human persons made in the image and likeness of God and called to give themselves away to others in love, in the sincere gift of themselves.

Likewise, human life can be generated in the random copulation of non-married men and women. But when it is generated in this way such life is not being respected as a good of surpassing value. For non-married men and women, precisely because they are not married, have not equipped themselves to receive this life lovingly, nourish it humanely, and educate it in the service of God and man. They have not prepared themselves, in other word, to give it the home it needs to take root and grow.

But husbands and wives, who have given themselves unreservedly to one another in the chaste covenant of marriage, have equipped themselves to cooperate with God and to receive new human life from him as a person, equal in dignity to themselves, and meriting the home where it can grow in love and service of God and man.

It is therefore not too difficult to grasp the truth so forcefully articulated by John Paul II when he said that God's gift of human sexuality is "realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present; if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally" (Familiaris consortio, n. 11).

Human Sexuality: Sin and Redemption

Because of sin, concupiscence has entered the human heart and, as a result, as John Paul II has noted, has "veiled" the "nuptial meaning" of the body. Concupiscent desire leads men and women to separate the sexual values of the person of the opposite sex from the person and to seek to "consume" them in order to satisfy sexual desire or, more subtly, to substitute a pseudo-kind of romantic, sentimental love centered on the pleasure that the other's presence affords for deep interpersonal love between man and woman. Men and women, in fact, find themselves at war within themselves, possessed by their sexual drives and desires and not in possession of them.

There is thus need for a "re-creation," a "redemption" of man, male and female, and for men and women to come into possession of their sexual drives and desires by cultivating the virtue of chastity, which enables them to love others, particularly those of the opposite sex, as irreplaceable, non-substitutable persons.

This "re-creation" and "redemption" of man, male and female, is made possible by Jesus, the Uncreated Word of God made man to show us, his "created words," how deeply he loves us. Through union with Jesus and his body, the Church, which nourishes us with the sacraments, above all, the Eucharist, the new life he pours into our hearts through his Holy Spirit, we can indeed recover the "nuptial meaning" of the body, respect fully the goods of human sexuality, and make good moral choices that enable us to give ourselves away to others in love and to form a true communion of persons.