Morality

Why Catholic Teachings on Sex and Marriage are Basically Perfect.

I want to provide a better definition of the Catholic marriage, and how it relates to human sexuality. There are many more (and better, and more reliable) definitions in the catechism, papal encyclicals, and innumerable other resources composed by the Church herself—so I’d encourage you to check those out. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned.

The first thing to note is that the Catholic ceremony of marriage is a sacrament. It is on par with the most meaningful experiences a person can undergo as a Catholic, including Reconciliation (the reception of complete forgiveness conditional only on our ability to say I’m sorry and mean it); Baptism (a cleansing of all past sins, and one’s introduction to the Faith); Confirmation (a full and official welcoming into the community, including a special blessing of the Holy Spirit); Holy Orders (the initiation of a lifelong commitment to religious life); Anointing of the Sick (the special blessing for profound illness, and often a person’s last interaction with the Church on earth before passing into eternity); and, most wonderful of all, the Eucharist, which is the single most profound, humble way we can bring Christ into ourselves, body and soul.

Marriage is a sacrament among those holiest of religious experiences. It is so immense a blessing that it stands alongside God’s most meaningful, impactful gifts to His people.

That is why the Church’s teachings on marriage are both rigid and essential. As children of God, we are blessed with a select and precious few moments in life in which we can assuredly know that God is present in our experience, fully endorsing of it, and entirely giving of His grace. It is neither our place nor our capability to change the way those moments are encountered. Who are we to place God—and, to a greater point, His approval—at our beck and call?

According to the Church, marriage is given such profound standing in our day-to-day life for a few reasons. Chief among them is that God Himself instituted it. When He created man and woman to be entirely complementary to one another physically as well as spiritually, He created humanity to feature different but unopposing partners who could, together, “be fruitful and multiply” as participants in the creation of life itself. Coming from an omniscient Creator who, at that moment, must have been fully aware of our eventual fall and betrayal of His unconditional love, that is a surreal gift. It emphasizes that love for us, as well as His desire to make us free-willed, intelligent sons and daughters for our own sake, to heighten the genuineness of our love for Him and for each other.

In those first acts of creation, God establishes the nature of the family: that man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, as she will to him. To quote Saint John Paul II, this tells us that “man and woman were created for unity…that precisely this unity, through which they become ‘one flesh,’ has right from the beginning a character of choice.” The act of choosing to commit oneself to a unique, lifelong partner in everyday living, love, and procreation creates a bond unmatched by any other interpersonal relationship we experience. Even blood relatives are given to us—they are not chosen. We are born to our parents, our siblings are born beside us, and our children are born to us. Those relationships are also deeply emotional and profound, to be sure, but by actively choosing the person with whom we will spend the majority of our lives elevates the marital bond all the more.

Naturally, the intangible, ethereal truth—and greater spiritual significance—of the marriage bond is difficult for our limited human awareness to fully comprehend. In addition to its role as a procreative act, sexuality in marriage is the tangible, experiential near-equivalent to that truth. By giving us this opportunity to make a complete and loving gift of our self to our spouse—and, in turn, receive that gift in response—God has provided us some small insight into the intensity of the emotional connections inherent to true marriage.

Even more affecting than that insight, though, is our ability to take part in the creation of new life. Sex makes us participants in the creation of a new human being—it is the miracle of life and, for many of us, the most meaningful experience in an entire lifetime. To take that love which joins us, permanently, in marriage and see a child born of its expression is an incredibly special blessing. It is true that—biologically—not every sexual act will produce a child, and, of course, that’s okay. So long as husband and wife treat it as a healthy expression of love and are open to its life-giving nature, marital sex is inherently good. The Church teaches us that, at its core, marriage—and, consequentially, sex between a husband and wife—is at the heart of family. So, whether it results in the conception of a child or simply binds a husband and wife more closely to each other, sex helps perpetuate love.

Knowing that, I hope it is clear why the Church refuses to allow her members to treat sex as a vehicle for something as basic as a few minutes of physical pleasure. Sex was not meant to be treated as simplistically as a satiation of some physical hunger.

To be blunt, if you can eat a piece of cheesecake or a big steak and groan “This is better than sex” and almost—even a little bit—mean it, you’re doing it wrong.

Sex had for simple pleasure is inherently selfish and objectifying for both people. When purely based on lust, sex is abused as a way of taking another person’s body for the sake of one’s own physical satisfaction. It treats the other as an object of temporary excitement and pleasure, and allows each participant to view the other as a means to an end instead of as a human being. People are not toys to be played with and then cast aside. We are meant to be true partners—in the purest sense of the word—who live and work together in a permanent trek toward a good and honest life.

Basically, when you think of sex as the ultimate expression of love; the unequivocal bonding of a husband and wife who will truly, deeply need one another for the rest of their lives; the act of participating in the creation of new life, which forms everything where there was once nothing; and a completely unique and purposeful gift from God—it’s easy to see why twisting it into a means to the satisfaction of hunger, like a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza, is completely unjustifiable.

So what about pre-marital sex between people who love each other?

As I mentioned above, the Church values the marriage bond as one of the seven most sacred experiences available to Catholics. Marriage is a vocation—a calling to fulfill one’s mission in life—and is beyond our generalized ideas of commitment in today’s culture. True marriage doesn’t mean, “Let’s live together until I get tired of you,” or “I mean ‘til death do us part’ now, but I might fall out of love with you later.” It doesn’t accept “Hey, what can you do? We gave it all we’ve got,” or even “There are some things I can’t forgive you for.” It means two people are one flesh that is impossible to separate because God Himself has joined them together. It means two partners who will live and create life and be a family together, because that’s how humanity maintains its growth and penchant for love. It is like a chemical reaction as opposed to a physical change in matter—it cannot be reversed, undone, or taken back.

A man and a woman who share that kind of bond deserve to give and receive each other completely. We cannot take back the pieces of ourselves we give away during sex. So, by having sex with someone before making the permanent commitment and bonding only true marriage—formed through the sacrament—can impart, we rob ourselves of the ability to make that full gift of self, and we rob our spouses of their right to have all of us as a completion of the marital unit.

The Church takes marriage that seriously. It is the end-all of I and me, and the be-all of us and we.
Because it is unconditional and, above all, because it is designed, witnessed, and blessed by God, there is no other relationship like it—and, therefore, there should be no other experience like sex with the person you’ll love forever, without a shadow of a doubt.

Wedding Rings

Stay humble, be merciful, and keep family first.

The other day my husband told me that we’re “at that stage in our lives where every decision we make is the biggest decision we’ve ever made.” In our early/mid-twenties, newly married, with a home, changing families and friends, and fresh careers, he’s definitely right.

At the moment, we’re in a pretty stable place. But that could change quickly because, as young adults, we just never know what might come up. He’s waiting for the next step in his career to become available, and I’m settling into new and changing opportunities in my job. We’re trying to maintain friendships that are evolving as our lives are diverted, maintain close family ties while our traditions must change, prepare for the fact that our own little bundles are probably on the not-too-distant horizon, and doing what we can to start our married life the right way.

It still takes just a little perspective to make prioritize everything as they deserve to be.

My grandfather-in-law suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s for almost a decade. His wife met his every need unfailingly. When he lost the ability to hold a conversation, she never stopped telling him how much she loved him. When he lost the ability to speak at all, she spoke for him. When he couldn’t care for himself anymore, she barely blinked. She became not just his wife, but his nurse, his caregiver, and his lifeline. And she didn’t once complain.

Recently, his health took a serious turn for the worse. Bedridden, unable to eat, drink, or move, he was surrounded by his family within days. All three of their children—from opposite corners of the country—rushed to his side. My grandmother-in-law held his hand and kept him comfortable and told him stories.

He’d been suffering a long time. We all knew he was ready to go Home. And though the last five years, at least, had been far more work than she’d ever expected in her marriage, his wife still wept to see him on his way out. She still ached to keep him with her longer—to stay at his bedside.

As she told him stories, she laughed about the hard times they’d had as a young couple. She joked about the time she fled to her mother’s after an argument, convinced she couldn’t forgive him. The rest of us thought that sounded pretty serious, but she couldn’t even remember what the fight had been about. She giggled over the antics that had once driven her crazy. And in the quiet moments, when the somber mood overtook her, she explained how she could barely remember the bad times.

“They just don’t matter,” she said. “All I know now is how good it was.”

Half asleep and painfully exhausted, she alternated between staying by his side and fluttering around the house caring for her children and grandchildren. She rarely stopped smiling. And though you could see the hurt in her teary eyes, she told him it was okay to sleep. To rest. To go to Him. He did and, though she misses him dearly, she’s doing her very best to cope and know that he’s in a better place, waiting for her.

That’s what marriage is about: sharing the burden of strength in life’s darkest moments. Knowing your place as a servant to your spouse—no more and no less.

So, in the long run, career adjustments don’t mean much, do they? Neither do day-to-day arguments, annoying routines, or undone chores. We shouldn’t make them bigger than they are. We can only make the choices that are best for our family. There are bigger things in this life and the next. Stay humble, be merciful, and keep your family first. That’s all any of us can do.

DSCN2113

Letting compassion come through.

I spend over two hours of every day on the train during my commute. I definitely prefer it to driving—sure, the schedule is restrictive, but at least I don’t have to deal with expressway traffic or ragoholic drivers—but it has its shortcomings.

One of those is a biggie. Train accidents aren’t common, but they’re not all that rare, either. Pedestrian accidents—sadly, often suicides—are, of course, the worst. I once sat on a train for more than three hours as crews responded to, cleaned up, and investigated a pedestrian accident. It was a heartbreaking experience. The conductor very plainly told us we’d hit someone. More than once, he used the phrase “There’s a body under the train, and they’ve got to get it out.”

He was just trying to keep passengers updated on the situation, but for me, it was way too graphic an overshare. I watched fire, police, and railroad crews moving in and out of the view from my window seat and thought, I’ve literally never been this close to death before. I cried quietly the whole time, imagining that poor man’s last moments.

I haven’t been on a train directly involved in an accident since then, but I’ve sat in backed-up trains waiting for clearance after a crossing accident several other times. This week, on a particularly snowy day with whiteout conditions and slippery streets, my train was stuck when the one ahead of us hit a car at a crossing.

When the conductor announced this delay over the intercom, everyone groaned. Many of us had caught an early train hoping to avoid weather-related delays during rush hour, and there we were, stuck anyway.

But do you know what I realized? While many people were vocal about their disappointment with the delay, not one person spoke up and said, “Wow, I hope the people in the car are okay.” Not one of us. I thought it, but I didn’t say it aloud. I should’ve. Instead, everyone was saying something like, “I hope this doesn’t take as long as it did last time” or “I don’t have time for this.”

For background, delays are longer when there’s a fatality involved. When that happens, all those fire, police, and railroad crews have to perform an investigation and document the accident. When it’s just a car that’s been struck, they can simply clear the tracks of debris, inspect them for soundness, and let the waiting trains move on.

A little while later, the conductor walked through our car and said he’d gotten word that there were no fatalities—a car had stalled on the tracks and the driver couldn’t move it in time because of the heavy snow. The driver managed to walk away without a scratch. Someone had caught the accident on video (a whole other topic, if you ask me), and it looked like the car’s front end was hit by the train—not the midsection, where the driver would’ve been vulnerable.

And do you know what I heard when he said that? “Oh, great, no deaths—we won’t be stuck here much longer.”

Not “Thank God that driver is alive” or “How great that no one was hurt” or even “I hope they had good insurance.” The passengers just voiced a general satisfaction that their schedules wouldn’t be interrupted too dramatically.

It’s amazing how easy it is for us to become desensitized to tragedies. When it’s the train in front of ours doing the hitting and you’re tired after a long day and want to get home, it’s easy to pretend that accident is happening in a different universe, and that makes it easy to pretend that your time is worth more than the life that was at risk. When it’s your train but it’s happened before and it was the victim’s choice to die, it’s easy to block the experience and cast it aside.

The thing is, we don’t even think about it sometimes. It’s not that we actively choose to believe our evening plans are worth more than that person’s whole life. It’s just that it never occurs to us to recognize that lack of thought.

The ability to avoid emotional reactions to catastrophe is a defense mechanism. It’s designed to help us continue surviving even as we face danger, or as others are hurt or killed. But that mechanism doesn’t really prevent the emotions so much as it blocks them. And the mechanism isn’t perfect, either. It’s not the end-all, be-all, and it’s not a solution to the struggles we face. Blocking emotions (or even memories) is simply the mind’s way of protecting us in the moment, much like our bodies elevate our temperature in an attempt to fight infection. Though it’s a valiant effort to address an immediate problem, it can often have longstanding effects on our minds, our emotions, and our souls.

As men and women of a single, global community, we owe it to ourselves and each other to overcome our instincts in favor of compassion and justice. So instead of letting your well-meaning brain stamp out your feelings, let your heart be free to care. Let it speak up, reach out, and make a difference. That’s what makes us human.