Recently I read an article within which a fairly respected Catholic moralist commented that the church is too hung up on sex. It has, in his words, an obsession with the pelvis – “everything below the waist is a big deal!”
That is the stated opinion of one man, a moralist no less, but it is also an expression of how, in fact, many others feel. Among a certain circle of Catholics today there is almost a positive disdain for the church’s traditional teaching regarding sex. What is novel about this is not that people are challenging the church’s age-old insistence that, morally, sex is a big deal. This has always been challenged. What is new today is that the major practitioners of this criticism are Catholics, within the church. More and more common is the Catholic who believes that the church is unhealthily obsessed with the question of sex, hung up with what’s below the waist, to the detriment of what he or she believes to be the more important moral issues.
We see this expressed in some liberal and social justice circles. There is a Catholic there, often about my age or older, who is coming out of an experience wherein the church was indeed too hung up on sex. For example, a number of old moral manuals, some of which were seminary textbooks, taught that all sexual activity, including masturbation, outside of marriage was a mortal sin. Talk about high symbols around sex! As well, in those manuals, and in many others of the past, sex was unduly singled out, as if it was the only sin. You could do horrible things with your temper and/or totally ignore the demands of social justice and still go to communion, but you couldn’t transgress any of the church’s sexual laws and do the same thing. Given this background and the human proclivity for over-reaction, there is, among a good number of Catholics today, the reverse attitude: sex is now unduly singled out as the one moral issue that is not important. Often times, in fact, the impression is given that any moral energy spent on sexual issues detracts from what is of more critical importance, social justice.
But that is only half of the story, and not the important half at that. Where the church’s traditional teaching on sex is really being challenged is in actual life. Here the challenge expresses itself not in theory but in benign neglect. More and more common is the Catholic who simply sees no real moral issue whatever in ignoring the traditional teachings of the church on sex. In a culture where, for the majority of persons, sex is a standard part of dating, more and more people simply see no moral issue in what they do within their private sexual lives, as long as issues such as abuse, incest, and the like are not involved. Thus things such as sex outside of marriage, living together before marriage, masturbation, and a host of other things are no longer, for many people, considered to be wrong. Very rare today is the the person who feels the need for reconciliation about things within his or her sexual life.
What’s to be said about this? Is this a moral growing-up? Are we freeing ourselves from an unhealthy fixation on pelvic issues? Was the church in the past wrong in surrounding sex with such high symbolism?
My own opinion is that we have gone too far in our reaction to our past. Statements like the one that I quoted above – “the church is too hung up on the pelvis” – betray a moral narrowness that can be positively harmful. Morality is about both the private and the social, about sex and justice, about real big things and very small things. We are asked, always, to do both. To be involved in great causes does not grant one an exemption from even the smallest demands of sexual responsibility, just as fidelity to the church’s sexual laws is not a license to now ignore the demands of justice. God gave us the rather astonishing capacity to walk and to chew gum at the same time. This should be reflected in our moral capacities. We need to take both justice and the pelvis seriously at one and the same time!
Moreover, in the end, pelvic issues are not of small consequence – dwarfed in importance by the bigger issues of justice and sociology. Irresponsible sexuality, at every level, seriously damages all of us. The pathos brought into our lives by irresponsible sexuality may never be underrated. Many is the marriage, the family, the friendship, the life, the happiness, that has been wrecked by irresponsible sex. Analysts, for example, tell us that in nearly 80% of teenage suicides some fracturing of the person’s sexuality lies at the root. Pelvic issues are important. Our sexuality lies at the heart of our self-identity and dignity. We should be grateful to the church for its perennial refusal to trivialize that fact.