Sex, Grace and Trinity

March 3, 2009 in General, International, News

grace_01.jpgEdmond Grace SJ took part in what has been called a ‘Catholic sex’ debate in the Trinity College Philosophical Society. Among the speakers was Senator David Norris, and the session was chaired by Dervla Browne S.C. (both pictured here with Edmond). Both Dervla Browne and Edmond are former law lecturers at the National College of Ireland. The motion – ‘that teaching of the Catholic church on sexual matters is in accord with reason and fact.’ It was – predictably – defeated. Attached is a copy of Edmond’s speech.


by Edmond Grace SJ

One way of presenting the Catholic church’s teaching on sexuality is what might be called the yes-yes-but-and-and-and approach.  Yes sex is good.  Yes you can have some. But you must be married to the person concerned And it must be ‘till death us do part’ And they must be a member of the opposite sex And you must NOT use contraception.

The advantage of this approach is that it is very clear about what you may and may not do. The main disadvantage is that presenting sexuality in such a clinical and legalistic manner is a bit like taking an uneaten meal out of the dustbin, re-heating it, placing it before someone and telling them to eat it up because it is good for them.

There is another approach which I hope to follow here this evening. I call it the don’t-touch-the-au-pair-girl approach. Imagine a working married couple who decide to employ an au pair girl to help look after their children. Everyone is happy with this arrangement, though there is one complication: the man finds the au pair girl very attractive. He entertains the thought of a bit of a fling because his marriage is not quite as exciting as it once was. On balance, however, he decides not to touch the au pair girl. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, he’s not in the habit of telling really big lies and he’s not sure he’d carry it off. Secondly, he doesn’t want to mess up his long-term interest in a satisfactory, if less than ideal arrangement.  A third argument, however, takes him by surprise in the way it comes back again and again. It’s not just that his wife would be outraged, it’s not just that she would make his life hell, its not just that she might divorce him if she found out, but he realises that his infidelity would hurt her deeply and he has come to feel a certain loyalty towards her. He cares for her and he is happy that he cares for her. This happiness is what finally persuades him not to play around with the au pair. It makes him realise that, whatever the shortcomings and confinements of his marriage, it is a real source of love in his life.

The sexual teachings of the Catholic church only make sense in terms of a person’s experience of love. If this is factored out what we are faced with something which will have the emotional appeal of a skeleton. There is a long standing influence of puritanism among Catholics but what is seldom understood is that this owes more to the bleak attitudes of the stoic philosophers of the ancient world than to anything to be found in the Hebrew scriptures or in the New Testament.

The power of sexuality in human society is such that we seldom take it entirely in our stride. It seems almost impossible to find a balance between puritanicanical condemnation and licentiousness. The central insight of Catholic teaching on sex is that this balance is to be found through a relationship with Christ.

In themselves those words – ‘a relationship with Christ’ – are an abstraction, so lets look the figure of Jesus in the gospel. He was a playful character. He was disruptive of social convention to the point of causing scandal. He had no time for self-righteousness particularly in the area of sex and, given the company he kept, he must have been at ease with bawdy humour. He seems never to have had a po-faced moment.

And yet his teaching about divorce and adultery is, at first sight, startlingly severe. Our friend with the au pair girl would almost certainly recognise himself in the words: ‘You have heard how it was said “you shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you if a man looks at a woman lustfully he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ According to this teaching even by entertaining the possibility of bedding the au pair, our friend would have committed the sin of adultery.

How can such a humanly appealing and playful character as Jesus of Nazareth come out with views like this? The best explanation which I have found is in the writings of Pope John Paul II. In his book, the Theology of the Body, he reflects on these words which I have just quoted and he says of them: ‘if they are an “accusation” of the human heart, [they] are at the same time, even more, an appeal to it.’ A few pages further on he reinforces this comment: ‘The human heart is above all the object of a call and not of an accusation.’

To come back to our friend and the au pair girl, suppose his wife gets to know what he’s thinking. How might she react? She might say: ‘If you bed that hussy, you’ll regret it. I’ll go after the kids, the house and every penny you’ve got. You’ll end up eating baked beans in t bedsit.’ Those words would be persuasive. But supposing she said: ‘Don’t do this to me and to us.’ Those words would carry no threat, but they would be powerfully persuasive in a way that threats could never be. Their persuasive power lies in the vulnerability of the speaker, who is seeking a response of love and not just compliance.

This is the realm from which Jesus sets out to teach. He is calling to us –not accusing us – when he says things such as ‘do not even look at a woman lustfully’ and ‘anyone who divorces his wife is committing adultery.’ His teaching on divorce comes at a significant point in the gospel. As he makes his final journey to Jerusalem he tries to explain to his disciples that he will be put to death. They cannot accept this and there is a growing gulf of misunderstanding between them. This is the moment when he talks about divorce, but this only adds to their incomprehension. They strongly object and that gives him the opportunity to say that not everyone can accept this teaching. It is only possible as a response to God’s grace.

His relationship with his disciples – his flock, the church – is the love of his life and his teaching about divorce was offered when this love was under real strain; it even added to that strain. Through all this he is saying: ‘Just as I will never turn away from this love of mine, this marriage with you, my people, so I call on you, when you marry to marry as I do – for life, till death.’

Jesus relates his teaching on divorce to how it was at the beginning – i.e. at the moment of creation. In the bible this moment is associated with the encounter of male and female as creatures in God’s image. They are capable of love and they are also capable, through their very complementarity, of playing a part in the act of creation. The marriage act is intended by the Creator to honour their capacity for love and for the deepening of love, but it is also intended to honour the human potential for creation through the encounter of male and female. What joins these two elements of love and creation is an open ended commitment to love, because procreation is more than a biological event;  it is the opening up of a new possibility for loving and being loved.  This is why sexual love, which comes from God, gives greatest honour to the Creator when it is part of the generous commitment of marriage and when nothing deliberate is done to prevent conception.

This teaching was an accepted part of Christian heritage until the twentieth century when the use of contraception became prevalent in the western world. Now we have reached the point where the generation coming to adulthood is comparatively small in numbers and, in the coming years, the burden of old age will be cruel both for that generation and for the generation which is growing old. We will all be the poorer for this development. When people do not respond to love and heroism, they respond to anxiety and fear. When they respond to fear, they are incapable of rising to the challenge of generous commitment and they close off the rewards which such commitment can bring. The teaching of Christ on marriage, as understood by the Catholic church, is a teaching about love and heroism.