Some Thoughts on Teaching Catholic Sexual Ethics
Deacon Doug McManaman
Sexual morality has become a rather difficult area to approach at both the high school and university levels. It is not easy to find the most effective approach that will allow students to begin to question popular sexual mores and at least begin to appreciate, to some degree, the beauty and wisdom of Catholic sexual ethics. There is no doubt in my mind that a necessary prerequisite for students is an appreciation for some of the fundamentals of plausible reasoning. This permits us to see that knowledge is not easy to acquire and that a conclusion or position we hold is always derived from a set of data. That body of information may be empirical data, or rational data, or a mixture of both. But what is particularly noteworthy about conclusions implied by a set of data is that new information–often the result of more life experience and/or studying what others have discovered and written–can and often does call a person to revise his/her position on an issue. This process occurs in the sciences all the time. It occurs less so with human beings dealing with issues outside the sciences, because most people today, it seems, are less aware of just how much of a role plausible reasoning plays in our everyday lives. The bottom line is that since we are always information deficient, we ought to cultivate a healthy skepticism regarding our own way of seeing things, that is, a sense of the tentativeness of “truth as I currently see it”, as well as a genuine openness to dialogue and learning. This is more difficult to do when treating moral issues than it is scientific questions; for scientific discoveries typically do not impact our lifestyle choices in a way that is subjectively unsatisfying–they often make life much easier (i.e., warmer houses in the winter, cooler houses in the summer, more convenient travel from one place to another, cures for diseases, vaccines, computers, cell phones, etc.). But discovering that some choices that we’ve been making are not as morally innocent as we might have thought can offend a person’s sense of pride, for example, and those newly discovered values call us to change, which is almost always uncomfortable, at least to the degree that our choices have become habitual. This is especially the case in the area of sexual ethics.
What also makes moral matters somewhat more difficult to discuss is value-blindness. What we choose to love above all in life has repercussions in terms of what we are able to see. If the self is at the center of a person’s life, his or her perception of value will significantly differ from the person who has made God the center. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points out: “As a person is, so does he see”. What this means is that our moral character shapes what we see as a value and a disvalue. The coward, for example, will regard the brave man as reckless, and the foolhardy will regard the truly brave as cowards. The impatient will regard the truly patient person as impassive, and the unchaste will regard the chaste as prudish, etc. We have a tendency to make ourselves the measure of what is true and good, and in the area of morality, this makes life easier because in doing so we keep the demands that moral norms make on us to a minimum. And so the study of morality requires a tremendous amount of honesty with oneself and a genuine openness to personal moral reform. But honesty and openness are moral virtues, and so the serious study of morality presupposes a degree of morally noble character; without it, a person will simply be indifferent to the science of ethics.
I’d like to start with the distinction between three categories of importance, a distinction made explicit by German moral philosopher Deitrich von Hildebrand. First, there is an importance that he refers to as 1) the subjectively satisfying, i.e., a compliment, the consumption of tasty pizza, the enjoyment of a cool breeze on a hot day, etc. There is also a kind of importance that is best described as 2) “objectively good for me”, such as “my education”, or “my life”, “my friendships”, “my skills”, “my marriage”, an act of generosity directed towards me, etc. These are intelligible human goods that contribute to my well-being as a human person. Finally there is what von Hildebrand refers to as 3) the important-in-itself, that is, “value”, without any necessary reference to “me”. I am not a skilled poet, nor do I read poetry, but I recognize beautiful poetry as something that is important-in-itself, that is, a value. I recognize the intelligible human goods that contribute to my own flourishing, but as a result of my ability to apprehend the other as a person of the same nature as myself as well as my ability to grasp the natures of things as they are in themselves, I understand that human life is a good not just for me, but is a value in a way that transcends me as an individual–that is, in itself. So too with beauty, integrity, justice, etc. An act of honesty is important-in-itself, a value, regardless of the fact that this act might make my life temporarily uncomfortable, or might even result in my death; an act of great generosity and sacrifice that has no bearing on my life is something we typically notice and whose nobility we admire—at least those who are not entirely value-blind. These are morally significant values that are important in themselves.
Joy has something to do with the ability to recognize value, the important-in-itself, and to live for what is true, good, and beautiful in itself, not merely insofar as these are objectively good for me, or subjectively satisfying. In other words, joy has something to do with learning to love and live for what is truly larger than the self. Pleasure, on the other hand, is always “in me”, or “in us”; but joy is something else entirely; it is probably more accurate to say that “we are in it”. As such, joy has something to do with being able to see that we live in the midst of a reality that has an intelligibility, a complexity, and a beauty that is forever larger than us. Life is an ever-expanding frontier of ignorance, and this experience is joyful for the person with humility and a profound sense of wonder–for the more we discover, the more we realize how much more there is to know and contemplate. But the mystery of the universe is summed up in the ordinary human person, who is important-in-himself or herself, that is, who has an intrinsic ontological value. A significant part of charity towards others is learning to recognize that value and being willing and able to mirror that importance back to the other, so that he/she is more fully awakened to it.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once said that the more we pray, the more we enter into the heart of God, who is the unutterable mystery. But within that heart, we discover our neighbor. At that point, we are moved to return to this world in order to seek out that neighbor, who is henceforth seen as one who exists first and foremost, from all eternity, in the heart of God, which is the realm of mystery. And so we look upon each person as one who is always more than what we understand him or her to be. It is no longer the self that is loved most, but God, who is Goodness Itself, Beauty Itself, and Truth Itself, and our responses to every value, especially a morally relevant value, is an implicit and indirect response to God.
Wedded love is such a value. What is it that two people want when they say they want to be married? This is not always easy for people to articulate, but in the end, after much prodding, what they seem to want is to give themselves entirely, completely, totally to another, and to have the other freely receive that total self-giving. Moreover, they want the other to give themselves completely, entirely, and totally in return, and to receive that complete self-giving. However, according to biblical anthropology, I am my body–as opposed to some a-sexual pseudo-angelic entity within that body–, and so to give myself is to give my body. For another to receive my self-giving is to receive my body within her own. That is why sexual union between a man and a woman has been called the act of marriage; for marriage is a joining of two into a one flesh union, and the natural expression of that union is sexual intercourse, in which the two become reproductively one organism.
Now to give one’s bodily self to another completely, not partially, implies an exclusive self-giving, and if it is total, it is until there is no longer any body, that is, until death–otherwise the giving is divided, partial, and limited, which is not marriage. Such a nuptial relationship is unique and it demands an extraordinary generosity. A nuptial union is much more than a friendship; it is an indissoluble bond, a one body union, that transcends the two of them.
A marriage is sustained by the perpetual will to bestow that unique nuptial value upon the other, a value that is exclusive, permanent, indissoluble, and healing. The act of sexual intercourse is an act of “being married”; it is a celebration and expression of that one flesh union. However, because it is so vehemently pleasurable, it is very easy to isolate the sexual act from its marital context for the sake of that pleasure. Doing so, however, changes its meaning entirely; for without marriage, the sexual act is no longer a celebration and expression of marital union (which is a morally relevant and ontological value), but an act that is reduced to the subjectively satisfying.
Reverence for purity is rooted in reverence for the value of marriage. To reduce sexual activity to the subjectively satisfying is to abuse the marriage act, and to abuse the marriage act is to abuse marriage. Subjectively satisfying sexual acts (i.e., masturbation, oral sex, pornography, fornication, adultery, etc.) do not and cannot promote the fullness of a person’s moral nature, a nature that is only expanded by the surrender to morally relevant values. Such acts, on the contrary, very easily dispose a person to a predominant love of the subjectively satisfying and contribute to dulling a person’s ability to respond to morally significant values, in this case wedded love, which requires an ability to transcend oneself and to love the other for the sake of the other, not for the sake of what he or she does for me.
Not every adult is able to love another for the sake of the other, thus perpetually and unconditionally. What we are identifying is a morally and psychologically immature individual who is nevertheless old enough to marry. Although we always hope we are wrong, we are inclined to predict that such a person’s marriage will be relatively short lived, and any children from such a marriage will inevitably be hurt by such a state of affairs. It is not easy to develop eyes for the value of marriage when there are relatively few examples of good and faithful marriages around, that is, in a society in which the pursuit of the subjectively satisfying and separation and divorce have become the norm. Moreover, the separation of sex from its marital context, which contraception has made much easier, tends to keep us from regarding sex as anything more significant than going on a trip together or going out to the Dairy Queen for a sundae.
Questions of same-sex relationships are particularly difficult today, especially at the high school level. A necessary pre-condition for treating such issues is an overall framework of profound reverence for persons with same-sex attraction and a real sensitivity to the various needs, aspirations, fears, and difficulties that persons with same sex attraction might have. It is of the utmost importance to have established a very good rapport with all students before trying to teach anything on sexual matters–a patronizing, dogmatic, even slightly condescending approach that lacks understanding will often do more harm than good. I find that the best people to listen to with regard to same-sex issues are those who are gay and Catholic, that is, who have same-sex attraction and at the same time are committed to living lives of chastity. Eve Tushnet is one such writer; I found her chapter entitled “Order in Same Sex Love” in her book Tenderness, which is an account of the relationship between Dunstan Thompson (American poet) and Philip Trower, to be particularly inspiring. Thompson was a Harvard dropout who served in the U.S Army, while Trower was a British intelligence officer. The two met in England in 1945 and became lovers. Thompson’s early poetry was risky, erotic, and inflamed with “existential panic” , but after a number of years into their relationship, Thompson’s poetry began to change. Eve Tushnet writes:
… in the aftermath of war, under the influences of country life and domestic happiness, Thompson’s poetry grew calm. He shifted from romantic, urgent, confessional poetry to classical themes handled elegantly. He began to experiment with form rather than sticking to a percussive iambic, that meter which thuds, inescapably, like a hangover headache or a fearful heart. Now he can write lines like, “The end of love is that the heart is still….Here I have found, as after thunder showers,/The friend my childhood promised me”….
It was at this time that Thompson became, for the first time since Harvard, a practicing Catholic; for he had been slowly picking up pieces of the discarded faith of his youth, “the Rosary, a quick stop in a church to hear a homily, even a trip to Rome in 1950 to attend Pope Pius XII’s proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. He and Trower bicycled together to witness a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, not far from where they lived–and when the procession with the Eucharist passed by them, Thompson fell to his knees and crossed himself.”  It was in 1952, after seven years with Trower, that Thompson announced to him that he planned to return to the Church. Trower himself recalled: “If he took this step, Dunstan explained before he set out for London, the nature of our relationship would have to change. We should have to live chastely. Was I prepared for this. I said Yes. Trower himself had begun to have doubts not so much about his relationship to Dunstan, but rather about the sexual aspect of that relationship. Trower soon followed Thompson into the Church. Although they renounced genital sexual activity, they did not stop loving one another, and they sought and received ecclesiastical permission to continue to live together.
It is not possible to persuade someone of the wisdom and beauty of chastity, gay or straight, by abstract argument alone. Much of our data is empirical, the result of experience, which young people typically lack, and only a few of us were able, in our youth, to combine our limited experience with an apprehension of moral principles so as to allow us to see clearly what is morally right in these personal matters and choose accordingly. So we cannot expect all our students to immediately embrace what we teach them in these matters–or ought to be teaching them if we wish to be faithful to our Catholic mandate. However, our students still need and have a right to be introduced to the fundamentals of Catholic sexual ethics by a teacher who lives and breathes the faith, and loves the students and mirrors to them their fundamental importance. They may not buy what we have to say at this time in their lives, but the conditions might very well be in place years down the road that might help them to eventually realize, as did Trower and Thompson, that joy really does not come from an intimate sexual relationship, but comes from an ever deeper entry into the heart of God, our origin and end.
1. By rational data we mean such things as first principles that have the character of necessity, i.e., moral precepts such as “one may not do evil that good may come of it”, or “one ought to respect the other’s status as equal in dignity to oneself”, or “one ought to revere a value more than the merely subjectively satisfying”. Empirical data, on the contrary, lacks the transparency that universal principles possess by virtue of their level of abstraction. For example, “the divorce rate for couples who practice NFP is under 4%.” One cannot discover this through reason alone, but only through empirical investigation.
2. Openness to change seems to diminish with age. Dietrich von Hildebrand writes: “…when men become older and, within the framework of natural tendencies their characters and peculiarities undergo a process of solidification, the natural mobility and urge for change will tend to disappear. Such persons will then become much less accessible to elevating influences, less receptive to fresh stimuli (we are still speaking on purely natural presuppositions). We can no longer expect them to revise their mentality and to re-educate themselves, for they are already cast in a rigid mold” Transformation in Christ, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001. P. 14. However, when we consider these vital phases of youth from a supernatural point of view, the situation is entirely reversed. Hildebrand continues: “The readiness to change, the waxlike receptiveness towards Christ will tend not to vanish but to increase as man grows into a state of maturity. Accidental concerns and complications recede into the background; the pattern of life wins through to simplicity; the great decisive aspects of life become more clearly accentuated. The unrest incident to youth, the vacillating response to disparate appeals, the insatiable hunger for whatever appears attractive or beautiful will subside, and a steady orientation towards the essential and decisive become dominant. …this attainment of full maturity also implies eternal youth in a supernatural sense. It implies that the readiness to change, the determination to become a new man, and the unconditional willingness to crucify the old self should increase; that the impatience for Christ should not abate.” Ibid., p. 15.
3. Socrates said that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit an injustice. To suffer an injustice is subjectively unsatisfying, but if it is better to suffer an injustice than it is to commit an injustice, then there must be something higher, a higher importance, than that which subjectively satisfies, namely morally relevant value. The saint would sooner die than to bring into existence a disvalue through his own free choice, such as denouncing Christ, or lying, stealing, perjuring himself, etc., in order to save his life.
4. This expression comes from Physicist Richard Feynman who referred to science as an ever expanding frontier of ignorance. The more we learn, the more we discover how much more there is that we do not know, and this frontier of ignorance expands alongside our learning.
5. Dietrich von Hildebrand writes: “For our knowledge of moral values, of the moral obligation, of the natural moral law, the knowledge of God is not required. But objectively these data presuppose God. We do not pretend that the type of demonstration leading to God in both cases is the same. But without any doubt God manifests Himself in moral values; He speaks to us in moral obligation. The moral values, the moral law, the moral order, the moral obligation, the voice of our conscience, objectively presuppose God and are thus for our minds and knowledge hints at God’s existence. The undeniable world of values, and especially of moral values, testifies to the existence of God for the one who has “eyes to see, and ears that may hear.” Ethics. Steubenville, Ohio: Hildebrand Press, 2020. P. 483.
6. We have a tendency to think in dualistic terms, like the early Greek thinkers or more recently, Rene Descartes: we tend to regard the soul as the true self, while the body is regarded as something accidental or non-essential. But this is inconsistent with the biblical understanding of the human person. The Hebrew word soma, which is translated as body, refers to the whole person. Hence, you are your body.
7. The couple enter into a covenant, an agreement, to be a one flesh union, but what they intend cannot be achieved by them alone. The specific relationship of husband and wife can only be brought into being by God. The couple cannot unite themselves into a bond that only death can sever; they intend that, they commit to that, agree to that, they profess that in public, but at that point it is up to God to bring that relationship which is a “one flesh union” into existence. God joins the two. We know this through Scripture; for Christ said: “What God has joined together, let no man divide.” That includes the couple; they too are not to divide this; for it is an indissoluble union. For a realistic treatment on the nature of marriage, see Frank Sheed, Society and Sanity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013. Pp. 110-132.
8. See Dana Gioia, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson,” Hudson Review, Spring 2015,
9. Eve Tushnet. Tenderness. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2021. Kobo Version. “Order in Same Sex Love”.
11. Gregory Wolfe, introduction to Here at Last Is Love, xxvi-xxvii. Quoted in Eve Tushnet, Tenderness.
12. See William Doino Jr., “A Witness, in Life and Letters,” First Things, December 15, 2014, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/12/a-witness-in-life-and-letters