Lesson 2: Meaning of Human Sexuality 1

This lecture supplements the second half of part two of tape 2. It begins a discussion of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality since natural law consults meanings and purposes in determining what is the proper way to conduct activity. Various contrasts are drawn between human and animal sexuality, especially the human propensity for forming attachments through sexual union and the need for human children to have an extended time of care.

When we see the heartbreak and social dysfunction associated with out-of-wedlock births, don't our immediate and natural moral perceptions and judgments say "something is wrong here?"; when we learn that a woman has had an abortion, no matter what our view of the morality of abortion, don't we say "something has gone wrong here?"; when we hear of a divorce and all the surrounding heartbreak and dysfunctionality, don't we think, "something has gone wrong here?"; when we see young people dying of AIDS, don't we think, "something has gone wrong here?" Now what I am going to say soon, the natural law moral principle I am soon going to articulate, may seem perfectly obvious to some and to others seem quite ridiculous.

Before I articulate the principle, I would like to comment briefly on the significance of the diversity of predicted response to it. Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue, stated about how curious it is that in the modern age that we have so little consensus on the most straightforward claims of natural law; what seems obvious to some, seems ridiculous to others. Whereas some take this lack of consensus to suggest that claims about the universalizibility of natural law are false, MacIntyre took this lack of consensus to indicate the moral corruption of our times. That is, we have become so corrupt, we cannot discern what is obvious. I am not going to try to analyze how this came about, but I do want to make a suggestive analogy with the physical senses. Just like our ears when subjected to noises that are too loud and sharp, lose some of their ability to hear, so too does our moral "sense" when subjected to too much corruption lose its ability to judge what is right and wrong. Much of what I am going to say will sound strange to modern ears because we have lost our moral sense to some considerable extent.

What is this obvious principle I am threatening to articulate? It is a principle readily justified by natural law reasoning. A natural law theorist reasons that man certainly has a natural inclination to engage in sexual intercourse and that that natural inclination is good for man -- much in the same way that sunshine is good for a tomato plant. As for all animals, sexual intercourse leads to the perpetuation of the species and that is good. Because man is rational, he can naturally and readily see that his natural sexual inclinations differ from those of animals who copulate and reproduce willy-nilly. Human sexual intercourse is clearly for much more than simple reproduction of the species. Sexual intercourse conduces to the well-being of human beings in many ways. For instance, sexual intercourse can expand the opportunities for humans to love -- not only to love their sexual partner but also to love the offspring they may have. It allows spouses to build a family together and to have a meaningful life.

It would be profitable for us to consider a little more how human sexual behavior does and should differ from animal sexual behavior. Certainly, for both animals and men, sexual intercourse is extremely pleasurable. But for humans that pleasure is not an uncomplicated pleasure. First, we have a powerful sense of the power and mystery of sexual intercourse. We sense that we are dealing with something fraught with emotional risks, fraught indeed with serious responsibilities. These responsibilities are two-fold, at least; they are the responsibilities that come with the babies that naturally result from sexual intercourse and with the bonding between the partners that naturally comes with sexual intercourse. So here is the key for natural law ethics. Since sexual intercourse has this two-fold natural purpose that must be respected -- the purpose of bringing forth new lives and the purpose of uniting men and women together, whoever participates in sexual activity must do so in a way so as to protect these natural goods of sexual intercourse.

Let us speak of babies first. Again, as with animals, the extremely pleasurable act of sexual intercourse naturally, though not always or even usually, can lead to the birth of an offspring. Unlike most animal offspring, a human baby needs years of prolonged and devoted care to come to maturity. The evidence is overwhelming that such care is best given by the parents of the baby. And here is where the first major moral principle of sexual behavior becomes manifest. Given the nature of human babies, given this reality, isn't it right to posit the moral principle: rational behavior requires that those who are not prepared to be parents ought not to engage in sexual intercourse? Now that principle sounds shocking and strange to modern ears, whereas I want to claim that it is plain common sense; indeed, that it is obvious.

Let me elaborate more upon it. Most individuals want to be good parents. They see that being a good parent is part of being a good human being and living a full and good human life. They recognize that children need parents with at least some degree of maturity. They agree that those who are not ready for babies ought not to have them. They even agree, for the most part, that being ready to be parents, means being married, for only those who are willing to commit to marry have the kind of commitment needed for those who are going to be parents. (Even those men who are sexually promiscuous are generally uncomfortable with the idea that they may have fathered children who they never know or care for or that some of the babies they have fathered may have been aborted.) In spite of this consensus and plain common sense, in our times, these insights do not translate into seeing that one ought not to have sexual intercourse until one is ready for babies. We think it is perfectly all right for those who aren't prepared to have babies, to have sexual intercourse. We think so because we rely upon contraception to sever the natural connection between having sexual intercourse and having babies. And we think we are being responsible if we contracept; that is, after all, what responsible sex is, isn't it?

Statistics do not really capture the pervasive ills attendant upon sexual immorality. Premature and promiscuous sexuality prevent many from establishing good marriages and a good family life. Few deny that a healthy sexuality and a strong family life are among the most necessary elements for human happiness and well-being. It is well attested that strong and secure families are more likely to produce strong and secure individuals; they produce individuals less likely to have problems with alcohol, sex, and drugs; they produce individuals more likely to be free from crippling neuroses and psychoses. Since healthy individuals are not preoccupied with their own problems, they are able to be strong leaders; they are prepared to tackle the problems of society. While many single parents do a worthy and valiant job of raising their children, it remains sadly true that children from broken homes grow up to be adults with a greater propensity for crime, with a greater tendency to engage in alcohol and drug abuse, with a greater susceptibility to psychological disorders.

These realities affect every realm of life -- they affect people's ability to relate to friends and family; they affect people's ability to do well at their studies and their jobs; they affect the whole of society which needs stable and secure individuals to lead us out of our troubles. And those who do not experience love from family and friends tend to seek any semblance of love they can find -- and thus become involved in illicit sexual relationships -- and the cycle starts again. The multiple varieties of abuse of sexuality and the grievous consequences of such abuse, then, is not only damaging the current generation, it is threatening to ruin the chances of future generations to live happy and fulfilled lives.

Thirty years ago when the sexual revolution was beginning to be in full swing, many argued that the value of the sexual revolution was that it was going to liberate men and women from the repressive view of sexuality pervasive in society; people would be free to make love to those whom they loved without the strictures of marriage. As has been suggested above, it is safe to assume that modern Americans have a casual notion of sex; they think it is natural for those who love one another to engage in sexual union, whether married or not, and often whether of the same sex or not. But the reality of a sexual life lived in accord with the dictates of the sexual revolution has not delivered the happiness it promised. Indeed, most have begun to see that happiness is rarely achieved through promiscuity; they have begun to acknowledge that premarital sex has done little to ensure good marriages; they fear that teenage sex and abortions may cause lifetime scars on young people's psyches. Many find themselves lonely after their sexual encounters and are looking for something more. There are increasing reports of sexual indifference; many claim to have lost an interest in sex, even with those whom they love. And, while many may not have moral objections to premarital sex and abortion, there seems to be an increasing weariness with these phenomena and an increasing interest in reducing both. Many are beginning to see that the call for more and better sex education, or more and better access to contraceptives, is not the solution. Rather, we need a better understanding of the relation of sex, love, marriage, and children.

Here let us focus on three fundamental truths about sexuality stressed throughout the natural law tradition:

    1) that marriage is the proper arena for sexual activity;

    2) that marriages must be faithful for the love of spouses to thrive; and

    3) that children are a great gift to spouses.

What are the reasons for saying that it is appropriate for sexual union to take place only within marriage? It is hardly deniable that sexual union creates powerful bonds between individuals, even often among those who do not desire such bonds. Those who have sexual intercourse with each other are engaging in an action which bespeaks a deep commitment to the other. The current pope uses an interesting phrase in his teachings on sex -- and that is the term "language of the body", which is not so very different from our "body language." He claims bodily actions have meanings much as words do and that unless we intend those meanings with our actions we should not perform them any more than we should speak words we don't mean. In both cases, lies are being "spoken." Sexual union has a well - recognized meaning; it means "I find you attractive"; "I care for you"; "I will try to work for your happiness"; "I wish to have a deep bond with you." Some who engage in sexual intercourse do not mean these things with their actions; they wish simply to use another for their own sexual pleasure. They have lied with their bodies in the same way as someone lies who says "I love you" to another simply for the purposes of obtaining some desired favor.

But some engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage claim that they mean all that sexual union means and that therefore they are not lying with their bodies. They are, though, making false promises, for those engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage cannot fulfill the promises their bodily actions make. They have not prepared themselves to fulfill the promise of working for another's happiness, or achieving a deep bond with another. For such achievements take a lifetime to complete; they cannot be accomplished in brief encounters.

The existence of the institution of marriage acknowledges the importance of love for the happiness of human beings, the importance of the lifetime unconditional love that marriage facilitates. Humans flourish when they bask in the love of others. Love nourishes human goodness like no other force. For instance, love assists us in feeling secure in ourselves; it gives us the confidence to dare to exercise our talents; it gives us the assurance to reach out to others in love. Love also serves to heal past wounds. Love in almost any form can promote these and other great benefits to mankind, but marital love provides special benefits. Human beings are complicated and are not easily known by themselves or others; a lifetime relationship with another seems hardly time enough to get to know another. Sexual intimacy plays a major role in the revealing of one person to another. Sexual intimacy provides an opportunity for giving oneself to another in an exclusive way. Only in marriage can sexual intimacy achieve the goals it is meant to serve.

The natural law claim that sexual union should be reserved for marriage, then, has as one of its chief justifications a concern that sexual union is meant to express the desire for a deep and committed relationship with another. That relationship can only be built within marriage for marriage is built upon a vow of faithfulness to one's beloved. Most spouses are devastated at the mere thought that their beloved desires another, let alone that their spouse may have actually been unfaithful. Faithfulness is essential to create the relationship of trust that is the bedrock of all the other goods that flow from marriage.

This is one natural law teaching that is very clearly also taught through revelation. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, regularly condemns the sin of adultery. Faithful marriage is used regularly as the paradigm for the kind of relationship that God's people should have with God. Those who are not faithful to God are likened to adulterers. Proverbs and the whole of wisdom literature harshly condemns the adulterous spouse.

We take vows in marriage because we realize that we are all too ready to give up when the going gets tough; we realize that our loves wax and wane. Indeed, society at large seems to have a fondness for marriage. After all, in an age where there is little moral pressure against living together outside of marriage, most still choose to take marriage vows. Couples realize that marriage vows help them express and effect the commitment they feel for each other. But as the divorce rate indicates, modern society ultimately does not take these vows very seriously -- or at least modern couples do not prepare for marriage in such a way that they are prepared to keep their vows.

Let me speak for a moment about marriage preparation. I am not speaking here of the engagement encounter weekend, the talk with the pastor or the pre-Cana conference in which engaged couples participate. I am speaking about the kind of preparation that we must do for ourselves for many years before we enter marriage. Many young people enjoy the exercise of drawing up a list of characteristics they would like their future spouse to have. But their time would be better spent drawing up a list of characteristics which they themselves should have in order to be a worthy marriage partner. They need, too, to reflect upon their expectations of marriage; many may come to see that their expectations are largely selfish. Most of us dream much more about how happy our spouses are going to make us rather than about how much we are going to do for our spouses.

Since marriage requires loving, faithful, kind, patient, forgiving, humble, courageous, wise, unselfish individuals -- and the list could go on -- , young people should strive to gain these characteristics. Marriages cannot survive unless the spouses acquire these characteristics. Certainly it would be foolish to require that individuals have all these characteristics before they marry, for none of us do. Indeed, the experience of marriage itself undoubtedly helps foster these characteristics. But the fact is that if we do not work at acquiring these characteristics before marriage, we will be acquiring their opposites, such as selfishness, and haughtiness, and impatience -- characteristics that are death to a marriage.

Since faithfulness is one of the cornerstones of marriage let me speak of it at a little greater length. For many it seems odd to speak of the need to be faithful to one's spouse before marriage, but such is the case. In a sense, one should love one's spouse before one even meets him or her. One should be preparing to be a good lover, a good spouse, one's whole life. This means reserving the giving of one's self sexually until one is married -- for in a sense, one's sexuality belongs to one's future spouse as much as it does to one's self. A few generations ago, it was not uncommon for young people to speak of "saving themselves" for marriage. It is a phrase scoffed at today, but one that is nonetheless indicative of a proper understanding of love, sexuality and marriage. One should prepare one's self for marriage and one should save one's self for marriage.

How does one do so? Obviously by remaining chaste -- and that is not an easy prescription. For instance, it means being attentive to what provokes sexual thoughts and desires and avoiding these provocations. It means, most likely, dissociating one's self from many of the forms of entertainment popular today. Those who have a view of sexuality as a gift which one offers one's spouse at the time of marriage cannot afford to be victim to the constant sexual stimulation modern Americans face daily. So we need to be careful what music we listen to, what movies and T.V. shows we watch, and we need to try to dress modestly. We need to try and save sexual thoughts and sexual stimulation for the time when they will not be frustrations but will be welcome preludes to loving union with our spouses. Sexual temptations are, of course, impossible to avoid especially since our society does not seek to make it easier for us; rather it provides temptations around the clock.

It must be acknowledged that few think it sensible for those who are engaged to wait until their wedding night to enjoy sexual union. Many think waiting until marriage would make sexual intimacy too awkward; that it is good to have a more relaxed and casual time to get to know one another sexually. Most think that since one is soon going to take vows it makes little difference whether sexual intimacy begins before or after a ceremony that simply ratifies a commitment already felt.

What difference does waiting make? Well, certainly a vow is not a vow until it is spoken; unspoken, unratified commitments are all too easily broken. But there are practical reasons as well. Father James Burtchaell at Notre Dame has written a marvelous book, For Better or Worse, laying out many of the reasons why it is best for couples to wait until marriage before they begin their sexual intimacy. He speaks eloquently of the period before marriage as an irreplaceable opportunity for the lovers to get to know one another; engaging in sexual intercourse creates a false sense of closeness; it creates a bond that may be obscuring elements in a relationship that need to be worked on. Courtship is a marvelous time for talking and getting to know each other; for sketching out dreams and plans; for expressing worries and hesitations. The delight of sexual union can easily be a disincentive to working out all the matters that those who are getting married should work out.

But there is perhaps a deeper reason, and that is the question of honesty and trust. Few of those having sexual relations before marriage can be fully open about their actions. This means that individuals engaging in such relationships must inevitably be deceiving someone -- most likely their parents, their teachers, and perhaps their friends as well. The ability to practice such deception does not bode well for one's integrity. The lovers observe that each is good at deceiving and will file away this information and will most likely have reason to wonder in the future if one's spouse is being honest with one's self -- after all one's beloved had no trouble deceiving others whom he or she respected. Many feel terrible guilt at violating what are their own deeply held moral principles; some after they are married tend to have guilty feelings about sex. In a sense, they have programmed themselves to think of sexual intercourse as a furtive and naughty activity.

Couples who do wait until marriage to enjoy sexual union often seem to have a special a kind of euphoria about their sexual union. Because they have waited they feel entitled to sexual enjoyment and see it as a privileged good of marriage. They have an easier time developing a deep and abiding trust and consideration for each other. Their willingness to wait, their willingness to endure the strains of sexual continence because they love and respect one another, is a great testimony to their strength of character. They have also shown that sexual attraction is not the most important part of the relationship; they have shown that they enjoy each other's company even when the delights of sexual union are not available to them. Such faithfulness and chastity before marriage ensure greater faithfulness and chastity during marriage. And because of pregnancy or illness or separation, all couples must abstain at some time in the marriage; the acquisition of the virtue of self-mastery before marriage facilitates such necessary abstention.

Young people need to be chaste before marriage not only because of the love they hope to share with their future spouses, but also because of the responsibilities they have to their future children. Years ago, the chief reason for refraining from sexual activity before marriage was fear of pregnancy. Pregnancy was feared both because young people were not prepared to take care of their children and also because there was considerable societal disapproval of sexual intercourse before marriage. The societal disapproval is gone and contraceptives have largely removed the fear -- though not the reality -- of unwanted pregnancies. Indeed, contraception seems to be one of the chief facilitators of much of the sexual misconduct of our times. There certainly were many fewer teenage pregnancies, many fewer abortions, a lesser incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, etc., before contraception became widely available. Contraception has made people feel secure that they can have sexual union apart from the obligations of marriage and child-rearing. Yet contraceptives do not remove the responsibilities that come with the child-making possibilities of sexual intercourse. Young people are notoriously irresponsible about nearly everything. They are roughly as responsible about using contraceptives as they are about doing their homework, hanging up their clothes, and doing their chores. And even those who use contraceptives are not really safe, since contraceptives do not always work. We must drive home to our young people that they are not ready for sexual intercourse until they are ready to be parents, for sexual intercourse always brings with it the possibility of being a parent.

Getting young people to associate sex with child-bearing is not easy, but it is necessary; in fact, it is important for adults to encourage young people to try to think like a parent. It is wise for parents to talk about parenting with their children. It is good to get them thinking about what they would like to do with their children; to get them thinking about what they want to be able to provide for their children. And parents must convey to their children that they are not a burden to them, that they consider their children to be great gifts from God. Our society almost universally looks upon children as a burden; they are expensive, noisy, troublesome; they stand in the way of careers and adventuresome travel. This view, of course, has not stopped people from having babies, but one senses that many children are just another possession of their parents or just another experience that adults wish to have. Many couples seem to want to have a few "designer children" as adornments to their lives -- not as reasons for their lives.

Again, we can find this natural law teaching in scripture. God, it seems, has a preference for children; after all one of his first commands was "be fruitful and multiply." Throughout the Old Testament having many children is listed among the signs of prosperity that indicate God's favor. Psalm 127 states "Behold, sons are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth. Happy the man whose quiver is filled with them." Psalm 128 is one of my favorites; it states,

Happy are you who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
          happy shall you be, and favored.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home;
Your children like olive plants around your table.
Behold, thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord.

God has arranged matters such that parents and children need each other. The experience of parenting like the experience of marriage both requires and fosters many virtues. Having children generally does adults a lot of good; most find themselves becoming more selfless, more patient, kind, loving, and tender when they have children. Learning to live with children has many of the same advantages of living with a spouse; it forces one to accommodate one's self to others; it forces one to acknowledge that one has constant tendencies to be selfish. Staying awake at night with children, dealing with their daily joys and sorrows, learning to be a good example for them, contributes greatly to the maturity of adults.

Natural law theorists expect the findings of the social sciences to be of assistance in knowing what is ethical behavior, for they are systematic observations of human behavior. Although natural law uses what ought to be the case as its guide, what is the case can often reveal what ought to be the case and since the social sciences study human behavior they are a great resource for data for the natural law theorist. The natural law theorist would expect studies to show that those who live in accord with the principles of natural law live more happily than those who do not. In the case of sexual ethics, the social sciences have more and more confirmed what natural law theorists had discovered by more casual observations of human nature. For instance, the studies of sociology and psychology overwhelming support the benefits to children of being raised in a household with their biological parents and overwhelming indicate the disadvantages to children of growing up in single parent households.

Certainly it is undeniable that much of the natural law understanding of the need for faithful marriages and for the reserving of sexual intimacy for marriage is linked to the power of sexual union to result in children. If no one engaged in sexual union who was not prepared to care for any children who result from that union, the modern world would experience a radical change in its sexual behavior.

Required Texts

Rev. Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle, Jr. William E. May. Catholic Sexual Ethics. Our Sunday Visitor. 1985

Father Charles Curran. "Natural Law in Moral Theology" in Readings in Moral Theology No. 7. Paulist Press. 1991, pp. 247-295.

Familiaris Consortio (1980 Exhortation on the Role of the Family in the Modern World)

Additional Readings

Cormac Burke. Covenanted Happiness: Love and Commitment in Marriage. Scepter Publishers. 1990.

Janet E. Smith: "Parenting: The School of Virtue" in Canticle 5: Summer. 1999*

For information on social decay, search the Internet for information on divorce, premarital sex, cohabitation, unwed pregnancy. Good published sources are:

William J. Bennett. The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. Waterbrook Press. 2000

Edward O. Laumann et alii. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. University of Chicago Press. 1994

David Blankenhorn. Fatherless America. Basic Books. 1995

Diane Medved. The Case Against Divorce. Ivy Books. 1993

Paper Topics

1. Using question 94 of the Summa Theologica I-II, explain why it is strange but possible for the modern age to be so confused about sexuality.

2. Select some portion of Father Charles Curran's article from the perspective of natural law and respond to it.

3. Show how natural law elements govern Familiaris Consortio.

1. This lecture had been adapted from the following articles: Much of this lecture "Natural Law and Sexual Ethics," in Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, ed. by Edward B. McLean, (ISI Books, 2000), 193-218; "The Christian View of Sex: A Time for Apologetics, Not Apologies," The Family in America 10:5 (May 1996) 1-7; "Barnyard Morality," America (August 13, 1994) pp. 12-14.


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