If Catholics spend quite a lot of time fighting amongst ourselves about sex (what do we think about homosexuality, contraception, abortion, premarital sex…), we certainly face a quandry over how we interact with the rest of the world on matters of human sexuality. There are two basic facts which need to be taken on board: first, that sexuality matters immensely, and two, that most Catholics (whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’) are considerably out of step with the mainstream of secular society on questions of sexual ethics.
There are, of course, some people who would deny that the first fact is a fact, that sexuality is all that important. Puritans and libertines alike have taken this line about sex, either avoiding the stuff like the plague or indulging in it like a harmless play-time. Wrong though both of these parties surely are, they’re not going to come into direct intellectual conflict with Catholics over sex, since they don’t think there’s anything in the region important enough to warrant conflict.
The real difficulty is knowing how to respond to people who accept the first fact but provide evidence for the second, disagreeing significantly with some things Catholics say about sex. These, I think, are most of our contemporaries. They think sex matters – sometimes they seem to think it matters too much – fulfilment in this department is an essential part of a good life. But they think that the things Catholics say about it, or the things some Catholics say about it, or the things they think Catholics say about it are damaging, perhaps even oppressive. It’s unlikely that anyone in contemporary Britain has for long let slip the fact that they are a Catholic without being teased, or greeted by a question, about sexuality.
How, then, are we to witness to what we believe without becoming insufferably pious or appearing prudish? I’d like to reflect on how not to do it, on the basis of my own experience, as a way in to some thoughts about how to do it better.
Polyamory is a thing in universities, people live the lifestyle, justify it in writing and hold it up as better (politically, ethically) than either monogamy or promiscuity. Now, I believe as firmly as I believe any ethical proposition that this is wrong: as a rational human being, I think that our intimate interactions ought to reflect that we are finite, embodied creatures with limited capacities, yet able to form loving bonds. As a Christian, I believe that monogamous relationships image the relationship between Christ and his church. Yet hanging around in universities, as I do, I came across some people, including dear friends who were into polyamory. It was uncomfortably close to home.
Uncomfortable is exactly how I felt. I reacted with fear, what if somebody I loved got into this. What if somebody wanted me to get into it? I reacted sometimes with pomposity, declaiming unwanted lessons on sexual ethics. And I retreated, assuming there was no common ground between me and them, on this issue at least. There was I, contra mundum, and there outside is the incomprehensible and erring world.
My, stupid and inadequate response, which damaged friendships, was wrong on three levels. I’ll get onto those presently. First note that my response mirrors quite precisely a common response in the Church to sexual modernity – we retreat into a ghetto of ethical propriety, the better to preach against an evil world.
First, it is never true that we have nothing in common in an ethical disagreement. We all, St Thomas reminds us, desire what is good for us. We all, I would add, value something called ‘love’. Finding common threads are ways we can begin to talk about these things in a way that is not simply shouting. The question ‘what is romantic love?’ is one that is long overdue attention within Catholic philosophical and theological traditions, and talking about it with others, even, especially, those radically different from ourselves is a sure path to truth.
Second, the idea that talking is the best way to communicate a view about sex is an odd one. We are dealing here with human relationships, and they are lived rather than proclaimed. Rather than mapping out the sins of others, we would do better to form our own relationships into attractive cases of love. People, ourselves included, will see in relationships well-lived how it is that human sexuality can lead to human flourishing far more clearly than they ever could in the pages of an ethics textbook.
Finally, we need to stop being afraid. Being afraid on this issue made me unspeakable, jealous, and generally grumpy. The gospels after all repeatedly command us not to be afraid. And Christ’s promise to Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church was not followed by an exception for talk about sex.
My point in writing this is that our tradition has a lot we can offer in terms of living and thinking about human relationships, without being preachy or sanctimonious. We will only get the chance to offer that if we are not ignored, and we will not be ignored only if we are open (which is not at all the same thing as being laissez-faire). Quite apart from which, we’ll be much happier if we’re not at perpetual war with the rest of the world.