Providing a Catholic framework on the truth and meaning of sexuality, love, and family

The Pope’s Vision of Human Sexuality

by Father Dominic Legge, OPIt has been widely reported that Pope Benedict’s recent statement on condoms approves their use, a turnaround in Catholic teaching and Benedict’s own thinking.  But when his remarks, made in the newly-issued book-length interview with journalist Peter Seewald, The Light of the World, are seen in the context of the Holy Father’s much broader vision of the nobility and beauty of human sexuality, one reaches a rather different conclusion.To sound the depths of the pontiff’s thought, we should return to his 2005 encyclical on the subject of love: Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).  There, Pope Benedict presents human sexuality as a gift from God ordered towards our true human happiness and flourishing.  The problem, he thinks, is that many have lost sight of the true meaning of human sexuality, and thus see the Church’s teaching only as a list of prohibitions, “blow[ing] the whistle” on human happiness and “turn[ing] to bitterness the most precious thing in life.” In fact, the Church’s moral teaching is a blueprint for authentic happiness, a roadmap that helps us avoid the dead-ends that will only leave us frustrated and unhappy.If you keep this in mind when reading the Holy Father’s recent comments, it places them in a new light.  When asked about last year’s controversy over condoms and the AIDS crisis, Pope Benedict responded by speaking about a much bigger question: the contemporary crisis in the meaning of human sexuality.According to the pope, an authentic response to the AIDS crisis requires a response to “the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.”  Distributing condoms cannot fix this problem, and often makes it worse: “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of [this] attitude.” The only real solution is to rebuild an understanding of human sexuality as the physical expression of the permanent and life-giving communion and commitment of a husband and wife.In short, using sex for selfish pleasure is, as the pope puts it, a “banalization” of a gift from God meant to be far more noble and beautiful. What is more, as even Freud recognized, using sex for the sake of pleasure is self-frustrating; before long, it leads to loneliness, unhappiness, and even boredom.Pope Benedict points us, instead, towards a higher understanding of human sexuality.  As the Catechism explains, sex is meant to be the physical “sign and pledge” of a profound “spiritual communion” between spouses.  It expresses the communion of the whole of life, in the free, faithful, and fruitful gift of self that a husband makes to his wife, and a wife to her husband – a gift of love, a gift open to the new life towards which the conjugal act is ordered.  Thus, sex is not merely for pleasure, nor even is it the mere means to achieve communion and love in a relationship.  Such a use of sex generally leads only to more loneliness and insecurity.  Rather, when there is already a spiritual union of spouses in the permanent commitment of marriage, their physical union is its crowning seal, and can even render that communion so fruitful that it can bring forth a new human life.Pope Benedict himself spoke beautifully of this vision in Deus Caritas Est:[L]ove promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence. Yet . . . the way to attain this goal is not simply by submitting to instinct. Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or “poisoning” eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur. (Deus Caritas Est #5.)In other words, what many perceive as brute prohibitions in the realm of sexuality actually exist to train our desires and lead us to self-control, so that sex can become not selfish pleasure-seeking, but a genuine act of love and self-gift. An “intoxicated and undisciplined eros,” the pope explained, is “a fall, a degradation of man.”  It leads us to unhappiness.This is why the Christian tradition teaches that grave dangers accompany a distorted exercise of sexuality: human sexuality promises much, but its wrong use is a corruption that wreaks terrible damage, not only psychologically and emotionally, but spiritually as well.  As the Catechism explains:‘The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.’ For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of ‘the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.’(CCC #2352.)Pope Benedict knows this well, and he did not intend to call into question this clear teaching.  As the papal spokesman clarified on Nov. 21: “the pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the church, but reaffirming it by putting it in the context of the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.”What, then, should we make of the much-heralded sentence where Pope Benedict reportedly approves of condom use?  Read in the context of his larger argument, the Holy Father’s words mean just what they say: condom use is not a “real or moral solution.”  In other words, the act itself is morally wrong and cannot be recommended because, as an action, it is deeply at odds with the positive vision proposed by the Church. The pope does not deny that, “in the case of some individuals,” a desire to limit the spread of infection could be “a first step . . . on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”  But notice that he speaks here only of the possibility that, interiorly, one begins a process of conversion of perspective.  Benedict immediately adds that the action itself is wrong, and no solution to the problem. Even the best of intentions cannot make a wrong action right.Pope Benedict’s main concern is the recovery the authentic meaning of human sexuality.  He believes it can only be found in the context of a faithful marriage where the conjugal union of a husband and wife expresses their love and is open to bearing fruit.No short article can to do justice to the breadth of the Holy Father’s perspective; for that, read his book!(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Headline Bistro or the Knights of Columbus.)

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