by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This is a sequel to my column of last week in which I urged people not to see “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the cinematic version of a trilogy of books by the same name.
This pornographic film that glamorizes sexual bondage and sadomasochism is evidence of boredom in a culture that exalts the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good.
We see a tragic pattern found in the collapse of earlier great civilizations that have enjoyed material prosperity. Physical pleasure will never satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. If pleasure becomes our god and its pursuit life’s goal, we are doomed to persistent frustration, a living hell. Today’s pleasure is never perceived as adequate for tomorrow. We are compelled to seek constantly new forms of what we hope will be even more intense experiences of pleasure.
Pleasure is by no means evil in itself. Actually, pleasure is a good when its purpose and limits are properly understood. God attached certain pleasures to essential needs in order to motivate us to do that which is necessary for our well-being. We experience pleasure in eating and drinking — actions that are essential for our survival. However, when the pleasure of eating and drinking becomes an end in itself, it actually threatens our physical health.
If the purpose of eating is no longer to nourish and replenish our bodies, but becomes a constant effort to satisfy the pleasure for what tastes good, then we will find ourselves suffering from obesity and its many related health problems. (I write this as I grab another handful of M&M’s, pure comfort food with no nutritional value. Obviously, I struggle with my own disordered attachments.)
If we drink alcoholic beverages not to satisfy our thirst, but to experience the sensory pleasure of inebriation, we will soon find ourselves enslaved by an addiction to alcohol. Similarly, the pleasure attached to the sexual intimacy between husband and wife is given to them for their own good. It motivates them to renew and to deepen the bonds of their love by giving physical expression to the self-giving they are striving for in every other aspect of their lives. Secondly and equally important, it makes possible for their love to be fruitful in the most amazing way — to become co-creators with God of a new human life.
When sexual intimacy even within the marriage covenant becomes an end in itself and is no longer
an authentic physical expression of what a couple is seeking to do in every other dimension of their lives, then it is quite natural for one or both parties to experience dissatisfaction — feeling quite correctly they have become the object of lust, not the recipient of love. In the same way, when the ability to generate new human life is severed from the marital embrace, the meaning and seriousness of what is being expressed is diminished and, often in our culture, trivialized.
For more than 50 years, our culture has accepted a great lie that sexual intimacy is essential for human happiness. This untruth is asserted and affirmed in much of our music, literature and art. It has also become a cultural assumption that underlies much of our social policy.
The evidence, demonstrating the falsity of the claims that sexual intercourse is an essential ingredient for human fulfillment and guarantor of happiness, is overwhelming. The social costs of this prevailing lie to our culture have been enormous and are readily apparent to anyone with eyes that are willing to see — e.g., the high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the number of children being raised without both parents (usually the father) present in the home, the high divorce rate and its devastating effect on children, more than one million abortions annually, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, the hookup culture, the prevalence of date rape on college campuses, pornographic addiction with its disastrous impact on marriages and relationships in general, the sexual abuse of children, human trafficking, etc.
This “big cultural lie” also plays a significant part in the most divisive social issue of the present moment — the debate over so-called same-sex marriage. The argument over whether our laws should recognize same-sex marriage is not about whether those experiencing same-sex attractions should have warm, loving and close friendships. It is not about whether they should be accepted and loved as part of our community. It is not about whether our laws should protect them from unjust discrimination. It is not about health or other economic benefits that society chooses to extend
to certain individuals. It is not about orientation, but all about behavior. In reality, it is all about sex.
Marriage has never been understood by the church or society as a means of giving public recognition or special standing to two people having a close friendship. For the church, a marriage is not valid if it has never been consummated physically.
Sexual intimacy is an essential element of the marriage covenant. Public policies regarding marriage have, in part, been an effort to promote the well-being of children that may result from the sexual union of a man and a woman. They have also been aimed at providing some help to parents, who perform a service for the nation and state by forming the next generation of citizens.
Tragically, the courts have inserted themselves into this public policy debate, much as they did with abortion. Still, very few states have recognized same-sex marriage by popular vote or legislation. The vast majority have been forced by the courts to recognize same-sex unions as marriages.
Influenced by the constant messages in the entertainment and news media industries and the decisions of the courts, public opinion polls had shown for a time growing support for state recognition of same-sex marriage. Recently, this appears to have leveled off, with our nation very divided about the issue.
Much of the sentiment favoring same-sex marriage is misplaced compassion based on the prevailing cultural lie (sexual intimacy is essential for happiness). Unfortunately, many people believe to deny individuals experiencing same-sex attractions the opportunity for marriage is to deny them love and happiness. There is absolutely no debate that every human being does indeed need affection, friendship and love. However, this is quite different from the assumption that, to be happy and fulfilled one must participate in intimate sexual acts.
In the Catholic community, celibate priests and consecrated religious women and men have been living witnesses of the ability to love and to be happy for a lifetime without experiencing sexual intimacy with another. Moreover, those with a heterosexual orientation, who are not married, are called to live celibately. Love and happiness are not about sex. They are about God being the Lord of our hearts, having friendship with Jesus and living lives of service for others. They are about warm and close friendships, where we do not use each other for selfish pleasure, but we encourage each other to live heroic lives of love — seeking the good of others.
In a society that has become bored and boring in its frustrated pursuit of pleasure, Catholics are called to be counter-cultural. We are called to be witnesses of joy and love in a society that desperately craves both.