Sexuality

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

Why I don’t use hormonal birth control.

When I tell people I don’t believe in using artificial birth control, they often think I’m one of three things: a hippie, a nut, or an overly religious, old-fashioned conservative.

I can tell you I’m a religious, old-fashioned, and fairly conservative young woman. But I’m not crazy and I’m not into conspiracy theories.

My husband and I chose to save the ultimate union for our wedding night, largely because it’s what we believed was morally, physically, and spiritually right. But we were also scared. Scared of getting caught, scared of getting pregnant, scared of regretting it later. No matter the reason, it was the best decision we could’ve made.

For that reason, I didn’t need to think about birth control until a few years ago. I had irregular cycles and acne as a teenager, but I never wanted to ask for birth control pills to address those things. I didn’t want to give my family the wrong idea, and I didn’t, frankly, want to tempt myself.

As Erik and I matured and began planning our marriage, we did a little more digging into church teachings about family planning. We knew the church taught against artificial birth control, but we didn’t know why. Was it just outdated, like everyone said? Was there an alternative that wasn’t just plain risky? Were we prepared to have a busload of kids?

So we looked into it. When we read that the pill—which seemed like the easiest option—could serve as an abortifacient form of birth control, we decided to do even more research.

I’ll get into why we don’t use physical methods of birth control in another post. First, I want to talk about the pill. I don’t think women know enough about it, simply because we’re never taught enough about the way it works. So I hope this is helpful.

In sex ed, everyone tells you the pill works by tricking your body into thinking it’s already pregnant. In fact, people still tell me that if I ask them how it works today. The thing is, it’s not really that simple. It adds hormones to your body in a similar way that a pregnancy would, sure. But that’s not all it does.

Hormonal birth control—i.e., the pill, as well as most patches, IUDs, injections, and other chemical forms—works in four ways:

  • Suppressing ovulation to prevent your ovaries from releasing an egg during each cycle
  • Altering your cervical mucus so it’s more difficult for sperm to navigate
  • Disrupting the way the cilia in your fallopian tubes move to reduce the chances of a fertilized egg reaching the uterus for implantation
  • Inhibiting the growth of your uterine lining (the endometrium) so any fertilized egg could not attach properly
  • In some cases, the “mini-Pill” (a progesterin-only option) may not prevent ovulation or conception (those first two tactics) at all.

Two of those effects are designed to prevent conception. But the last two prevent implantation—meaning your body hasn’t been tricked, knows you’re not pregnant, and has ovulated as it naturally would. Your cervical mucus wasn’t thick enough to keep sperm from traveling through you. So an egg is fertilized, and pregnancy has begun.

The pill doesn’t give up, though. The third effect prevents the body from moving your fertilized egg to the uterus, where implantation would take place and the embryo would receive the nutrients necessary for development. The fourth effect changes the environment of your uterus and prevents that viable zygote from taking its place in your womb and growing. That zygote—though very tiny—has its own DNA. It is individual of the woman’s body, in that her DNA and her partner’s—two human parents—have joined to create a third entity. Science has proven that conception is the moment a new individual (and, therefore, a pregnancy) begins—not implantation. The DNA is human. Given the simple resources a pregnant mother provides (a warm, safe place, nutrition, and oxygen), that individual will grow into an infant who, in just a few months, can be held and tickled and nursed in its mother’s arms.

Occurring about a week later, implantation is simply the end of the embryo’s journey down the fallopian tubes. It settles into the uterus by attaching to the endometrium, which provides the nutrients it needs to grow and develop. That little individual—with new DNA and a separate makeup from its mother—has already existed for several days. When the lining of the uterus has been altered by the pill, the implantation factors of the lining—key chemicals, as well as special molecules known as integrins—are damaged and unable to perform their job. So imagine that zygote is a plane led by a pilot, and the uterine lining is the airport. If the crew at the airport can’t communicate with the pilot flying the plane, the plane can’t find a safe place to land. And if the plane can’t land, the pilot won’t survive long.

The “morning after pill” works this way, too. It’s just a high dose of the hormones that will alter the endometrium, with the hope that the uterine lining will be compromised before the embryo reaches it. The plain old pill just does it a little slower.

So, anything that works to prevent conception can be called contraceptive. But anything that fails to prevent contraception can’t share the same term. Conception has already happened. At that point, your pill becomes abortifacient. That is the scientific word for anything that stops a pregnancy after conception has already occurred.

That said, even if the birth control industry came out with a pill that didn’t have an abortifacient effect, I still wouldn’t take it. Aside from the health risks (which I’ll also address in another post), I don’t think it empowers women. In fact, it literally—by which I mean physiologically—suppresses the women who take it.

What message are we sending our future daughters when we say that taking the pill—effectively turning off a natural function of our bodies, and altering the way our biology works—is the only way to gain control over our love lives, our families, and our sex lives? That’s the opposite of support. It conceals a woman’s natural, complex biology so she can become an object of pleasure. It’s repression. And I don’t buy it.

Our bodies do amazing things each month. That’s part of our feminine identity—it’s the magic only we can make happen. And it’s not just about the fact that we can carry children. Sadly, some of us can’t. In every case, understanding the way our natural cycles affect our day-to-day wellbeing gives us greater insight into our health and physical selves. It’s about knowing yourself, truly. It’s about taking ownership of the complex, profound woman you were literally made to be. It shouldn’t be about stamping out your nature because you were never taught how to handle it on your own, or that it was worth protecting. We’re capable of so much more than that. All of us.

Respected and Beloved