Pastoral Statement: Marriage, Sexuality and Chastity

William Keeler
December 11, 2001
Reproduced with Permission

The purpose of this pastoral statement on marriage, sexuality and chastity is threefold. First, it is offered to assist pastors in presenting a positive and wholesome Catholic vision of sexuality to their people. Second, it is written to articulate and encourage a convincing case for the value of chastity. And third, it is meant to address practical pastoral issues which point up the need for a positive and realistic sexual teaching.

The Catholic Church has a long and rich tradition of moral teaching on marriage and human sexuality. Though sometimes caricatured as one-sided in its emphasis on sin, it is much more nuanced and positive than many people realize. In recent years a renewed approach to human sexuality and chastity has been developed. Based on insights from Scripture, philosophy and psychology, this approach offers a very positive vision of human sexuality as a gift of God. The moral principles that protect this gift and the human failures that threaten it flow directly from this positive vision.

This vision is the first thing that we must attempt to convey today in preaching and catechesis. We must begin by making a positive case for sexuality as a created gift and a spiritual mystery. Only if people appreciate this will they view the moral guidelines we offer as helpful in the pursuit of human happiness and not as religious hang-ups. This, in itself, is an enormous challenge because of the prejudices and presuppositions people bring to considerations of sexuality and Catholic sexual morality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), Familiaris Consortio (1981) and "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning," USCC/NCCB (1990) present an affirming, constructive and realistic teaching on sexuality in its human, moral and spiritual dimensions. These important documents should form the pastoral basis for a renewed catechesis on sexuality and chastity.

The Teaching of Scripture on Marriage and Sexuality

Scripture provides us with a profound spiritual vision of sexuality and a clear moral framework for sexual behavior. The vision begins in the Book of Genesis with a narrative of creation that contains two distinct and dramatic accounts. At the heart of the whole creation story runs the conviction that the world is good at its very root. Whenever and however evil may later arrive in the world, creation will always be more good than evil, more original than sin and more pleasing to God than abhorrent to him. The first story concludes, "And God looked at everything he had made and he found it very good" (Gn. 1:31).

Inserted into these two accounts are two corresponding depictions of the creation of man and woman. The first version concludes with the majestic theological affirmation that man and woman are created in the divine image: "God created man in his image, in the divine image he created them" (Gn. 1:27). Nothing could more appropriately dramatize the profound compatibility of body and spirit, of sexuality and soul, than does this declaration. The second version is different. It concludes with an utterly candid recognition of the compelling drive and consequence of sexual communion between man and woman: "The two of them become one body" (Gn. 2:24).

The first pages of divine revelation, then, go directly to the heart of the human condition in its most physical and sexual aspects. The Bible doesn't overspiritualize human beings or, as some religions and Christian heresies have done, regard them as angels fallen into bodies. To the contrary, it shows how delighted God is with creation in all its physical expression, how attentive God is to the human longing inscribed in his creatures by their sexual natures.

When Jesus speaks of marriage, he does not quote the prophets or the law, but returns to the second chapter of Genesis for his authority. The union of a man and a woman in marriage is considered so representative of the divine image and will that it takes precedence over all social and legal accommodations. "Let man not separate what God has joined together" (Mt. 19:6).

In the Gospel of John, an even more profound image of the goodness of creation is revealed. In the Prologue of the Gospel, the Word of God is said "to become flesh" in Jesus of Nazareth. "And, the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (Jn. 1:14). This poetic statement of the incarnation presumes not only that creation is good, but also that the body itself, in all its physical aspects, is united mysteriously to God in the person of the Word. The Christian teaching on the body and sexuality cannot be understood apart from this elevated evaluation of flesh and sexuality implicit in the doctrine of the incarnation.

In the first centuries of Christianity, some of the major disputes in the church were with adversaries who held negative views of creation and the body. The doctrine of the incarnation was often vehemently denied by those whose extreme puritanism found flesh incompatible with God. But the creed reminds us that the act of creation and the event of incarnation both constitute a 522 profound affirmation of the body, of the physical differentiation of the sexes and of sex itself.

It is most important that this conviction and teaching constitute the starting point for any reflection on sexuality and sexual ethics.

If the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John provide a fundamental affirmation of human embodiment, they are not unaware of the ways in which human weakness and sinfulness threaten the goodness of creation. The third chapter of Genesis provides us with the story of the first sin and tells in its later chapters a progressively troubling tale of weakness, error, confusion and malice which insinuates itself into the goodness of creation.

No theology or ethics of human sexuality would be complete without admitting -- precisely because the sexual domain is so central to personality, so deeply rooted in identity and so implicated in human relationships -- that human sexuality must be taken seriously. For this very reason one must recognize how threatened it is by human weakness and selfishness. The church is not concerned about human sexuality because it is bad, but because it is so good and so important to personal freedom, social life and human happiness. It is for this reason that it must be both correctly understood and morally directed.

Sexuality, like every other dimension of human experience, is vulnerable to error, mistakes and enslavement. It is naive to think otherwise. Sex, after all, is a human reality, not a divine one; it participates in all the strengths and weaknesses of our human nature. It is not the source of sin as some have mistakenly assumed. But because it is so deeply tied to human feeling, passion and desire, it is inevitably touched and wounded by the first sin and by our own disobedience.

When the Bible speaks of unchastity, adultery, fornication and lust, it sets out moral boundaries for the expression of genital sexuality. In doing so it demarcates the contexts in which genital sex cannot serve total communion of a man and a woman and cannot realize the transmission of human life.

The Bible is certainly not preoccupied with human sexuality and its captivity by sin, but neither is it unaware that sin finds special opportunities in the domain of human love, desire and sexual relationships. In the Ten Commandments, in the prophets and in the Books of Wisdom, the Old Testament provides fundamental guidance in the area of sexual relationships. The New Testament teaches that sexuality is too important to leave to personal whim or passion. It must serve genuine freedom and find expression only in the marriage covenant. Indeed, in the fifth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, the New Testament makes marriage a mystery of the church. By grounding genital sexual expression in the marital union of a man and a woman, biblical revelation provides an unmistakable moral touchstone for any sexual expression beyond the confines of marital love and commitment.

Church Teaching on Sexuality

The church's teaching on sexuality is based on biblical revelation as well as on its own moral tradition about the human person, and especially about the profound links between sexuality and personhood, links manifesting clearly that persons are free and destined for personal communion with other persons and with God.

Sexuality is not a mere faculty, feeling or network of physical organs. Rather, it marks the entire personality of a human being. It is profoundly related to our personal identity and destiny. As sexuality is inscribed in the mind and body of a person, it has its own inner logic and direction. That logic grounds genital sexual expression only in the committed love of a man and a woman who are joined in the institution of marriage and in the transmission of human life.

This is why one cannot invent a meaning for sexuality to suit one's wish or taste. It independently carries its own gravitational weight, inner meaning and social purpose. Its very nature is what determines the moral assessment of human sexual expression within marriage and outside it, and why one cannot impose a private meaning upon it.

The goodness of sexual expression within the context of marriage is what we need to affirm first. The church teaches that sex in marriage serves both the union of husband and wife and the procreation and education of children. These two purposes are indissolubly united in sexuality itself. The intimacies of marital love and affection serve first the building up and expression of physical and personal communion between husband and wife. They bring pleasure and joy to the communication of spouses, while fostering the self-giving by which couples are enriched. Within marriage sexuality finds the security, trust and domestic surroundings required for a communion this intense and intimate.

Sex in marriage is also oriented toward the transmission of life. The church's teaching about the regulation of birth is based on this fundamental principle. Maintaining the openness of sexual expression to the communication of new life is central to its vision.

The only social arrangement which is simultaneously able to protect both the intensity of sexual communion and the procreation and education of children is marriage. If that is clearly understood and appreciated, our moral conclusions about sexual behavior, even when they are demanding, make sense.

Popular sexual literature offers little reliable guidance. There sex is considered little more than a personal pleasure people can exercise at will. No larger human, emotional or spiritual dimensions are at stake. This isolation of sex from marriage is a recipe for human unhappiness masquerading as liberation.

Sexuality, Sin and Silence

Human sexuality is a profoundly personal experience. Anchored as it is in the body and emotions, it is unlike any other comparable domain of human activity. For that very reason it must be treated with a respect and sensitivity that befit its status within God's design and that recognize the complex developmental factors affecting every human being's emergence to sexual maturity.

Of course, the mentality that virtually equates sex with sin lingers still in the moral imagination of some for whom sex is the forbidden zone par excellence. To be honest, culture and religion have both played a role in making sin and sex nearly synonymous. In the past, many people absorbed from custom and religion a deep sense of shame and guilt about sex, and this unfortunately still makes many wary of the guidance of religion in this sphere.

Yet, in an effort to rid themselves of neurotic shame about sex, some people have tried to privatize or de-moralize sexuality. They prefer to figure out

sexual experience for themselves rather than to rely upon a religious or moral tradition for guidance. In a misguided attempt to respect the sensitivity of the sexual sphere, it can happen that we even avoid treating this topic adequately in our preaching and catechesis. In many cases a new silence about sex has now replaced an earlier preoccupation with it.

Silence about sexual matters has never been a solution. In previous generations little was said and little knowledge communicated to children about the physical and emotional dimensions of sex. All they heard were moral prohibitions; all they felt were fear and guilt. Today clinical and popular literature about sex abounds: Bookstores, schools, television and the Internet are more open about it than ever. The moral and spiritual vision, however, remains shrouded in silence.

Today's greater openness certainly has some benefits. Psychological and biological knowledge have replaced excessive fear and guilt. The dynamics of human maturation in the area of sexuality are better appreciated. Parents and children are better able to communicate about this important and sensitive area of human experience.

But along with the openness has come a correspondingly permissive culture. Society now has more physical information but fewer moral norms. There is a coarsening of sexual expression. In some cases a kind of moral neutrality about sex prevails; in others, a whole sexual ideology is expressed.

The standard byword is sexual liberationliberation from guilt and from religion. What seems like liberation, however, is often disguised enslavement and reality avoidance. People may have more information about sex today, but many lack any moral compass for negotiating this very significant area of human experience.

The Vocation of Chastity

The way back to a more reasonable and healthy sexual morality and behavior is through a renewed appreciation of chastity. We have to begin by reclaiming a word which itself suffers from a kind of taboo. Few are comfortable using it anymore.

Chastity is not about taboos, but about integration. It concerns the emotional and spiritual wholeness of the human person in the area of sexuality. And it only makes sense when one has a vision of the sexuality as a gift and mystery oriented to marriage and children.

The vitality and energy of human passion is part of life. Sexual urges and needs are part of this picture. But the integrity of the person in this area, as in any other, requires that passion be united with purpose and human will. Self-mastery is not repression or fear. It accepts and respects the body in its sexual dimensions and is grateful for it. But it also recognizes that acceptance and respect and gratitude can be affirmed only if blind impulses are integrated with personal moral values.

Chastity belongs to the virtue of temperance or moderation. It seeks to cultivate a respect for genital sexual expression precisely by limiting that expression to one special context: marriage. Saying no to other contexts is the strongest way of saying yes to this one. Chastity can be maintained only through effort, honesty and prayer. It is a grace and a gift for those who request it. It is not impossible.

Our society has tried to experiment with sexuality by detaching it from the union of a husband and a wife and, in some cases, even from love. Society pays an enormous price for doing so. Sex without total commitment leads to emotional strain and sadness. Sex without fidelity leads to greater sorrows, to family breakdown and even to enormous health risks and disease. We are discovering that sex cannot be treated as a pastime or recreation or experiment. It has to do with love, security, family and life itself.

A popular ad these days reads, "Virgin -- teach your kids it's not a dirty word!" The media portrayal of chastity and virginity as virtually incredible and impossible must be counteracted by an effort to portray them as both necessary and beneficial. If young people are not given the practical arguments to be chaste, they will fear the ridicule and mockery of peers and society.

This takes more than good reasons; it also takes moral nerve and social support to stand up to these pressures. It is difficult to do this armed only with abstractions. Families, schools and parishes must provide the moral support. The extraordinary success of the True Love Waits program, in which young people call their peers to commit themselves to chastity, is proof that God's grace is given in this arena when people of faith pray for it. Nearly 11,000 teenagers in the archdiocese have now committed themselves in writing, after discussion, reflection and prayer, to refrain from sexual relations until they marry or confirm their commitment to chastity through vows in the consecrated life or through ordination.

Living a Chaste Life: Pastoral Considerations

Cohabitation, the practice of an unmarried man and woman living together, is one of the more common pastoral issues we face today. Often this takes place prior to marriage or after engagement. It is considered by some to be a testing ground for marital commitment or a way to determine compatibility, sexual compatibility in particular, prior to marriage.

A special dilemma arises when such couples present themselves to the pastor for marriage and admit that they are already living together, as though they were man and wife. The moral case against cohabitation is clear. One does not try out a permanent commitment. There is no statistical evidence that testing produces any guarantees. If anything, such arrangements undermine the will and freedom to make permanently binding commitments. Cohabiting for the sake of finances puts practical matters in front of moral, sacramental and spiritual ones.

But another obvious reason stands against cohabitation. It is the symbol of the threshold, of the marriage bed, of setting up house. These lose meaning unless a public exchange of vows precedes them. The exchange of vows in church, the rings, the departure together when the couple has arrived separately -- all these declare that the act of moving into a home is a mutual gesture of commitment. Name and address changes are also powerful social signs of a real change of life. Mere cohabitation deprives these gestures of any symbolic weight.

Cohabiting couples should be instructed to live apart before marriage for the sake of their own spiritual and marital integrity. The celebration of the sacrament of marriage requires this commitment and discipline.

Rejecting cohabitation, in a way, is the gateway to a renewed experience of chastity. If the case can be reasonably made against cohabitation, especially in the case of committed and engaged couples, it can only be done so based on a vision of sex in marriage and of a genital sexual life as part of a public marital commitment.

A second pastoral issue is presented by those among us who have discovered in themselves a sexual attraction to persons of the same sex and are tempted to manifest that attraction in sexual activity. The pastoral challenge here is to stand with the person while at the same time making clear that homosexual acts, like other sexual activity outside the marital union of husband and wife, are not morally permissible.

Persons whose sexual orientation is homosexual are no less our brothers and sisters than others in the human family, nor any less than others are they children of God and, therefore, the possessors of a human dignity that is God-endowed and worthy of respect. They should be accepted as such, comforted in the isolation they so often feel and brought to fuller participation in our church and society at large. In their pursuit of the full enjoyment of rights that are basic to all humankind, they should have our support. As in regard to all other members of the human family, all unjust discrimination against them is wrong.

Those whose orientation is homosexual also have a responsibility, for like other men and women who are unmarried they are called to chastity. All human persons, in varying degrees, experience longings for sexual intimacy. Yet strong as those individual longings may be, our moral tradition teaches that the institution of marriage is the proper setting for their free expression. Outside that sacred covenant, persons can develop the habits and virtues that sustain intimacy without sexual expression. Across the ages, moral wisdom has discerned that friendship, with all its possibilities for communication, loyalty and trust, is the name for nonsexual love between people of different sexes or of the same sex. It is that kind of love that characterizes relationships between siblings and between friends. It is that kind of love which chastity, properly understood, helps to foster.

This said, we should not permit our own and our community's embrace of persons whose sexual orientation is homosexual to be misunderstood. We cannot accept homosexual acts as morally licit, for they do not proceed from the affective and sexual complementarity that characterizes the relationship of husband and wife nor are they open to the gift of life. And so we are obliged to resist pressures to transform what our religious and moral tradition teaches and what the greater society believes about intimate homosexual relations and, ultimately, to transform social institutions and moral norms.


This, then, is the challenge we face: To convince people that the church views sex as good and that the very significance of its goodness demands a moral as well as a medical and psychological perspective. Pastoral love for people, especially for people who risk making profound and permanently damaging mistakes in the area of sexual experience, requires that we priests and those who collaborate with us in spiritual formation speak to this issue. We must speak as guides and as compassionate leaders. We must hold up an achievable ideal.

If we can address these issues and convince people that our sexual teaching exists to promote a happy, healthy and human life as well as a spiritual one, we can move the debate out of the conspiracy of silence, out. of sit-coin catechesis and into the light.

Pastors often find themselves in an uncomfortable middle ground between the lofty moral teaching of the church on sexuality reflected in papal and episcopal teaching, and the pastoral realities they face with their people. The need to explain and uphold the Catholic moral tradition runs up against the need to convey a sense of human understanding and compassion in an area which is complex and highly personal. Too many nuances in this area create confusion; too few distinctions create disbelief. We must strive for balance, credibility and honesty in this area of moral teaching.

The only recourse is sound and thoughtful instruction, provided in the home and school and parish, with a consistent sense of the importance and spiritual significance of human sexuality. We must commit ourselves -- for the sake of our children and young people, for those who are married and those contemplating marriage, and for those who struggle with sexual identity -- to ensuring that this takes place.