The priest scandal
The Penn State scandal
It seems every few days there is a new sexual assault scandal but I’m not going to write about that here. I am so sick of hearing and reading about it. It makes me really mad and sad and I don’t want to hear about it anymore and I really don’t want to write about it so I’m not going to. And anyway, Katelyn Rogers wrote a really excellent reflection on the topic last week and she says it much better than I will be able to anyway so I’m just steering clear.
But I am going to write about sexual consent.
Have you noticed that after every scandal, both mass and social media become a flood with exhortations about the importance of sexual consent? Someone has even developed a sexual consent app.
And as well intentioned as these efforts are, they’ve always struck me as largely missing the point. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage consent. But the articles and videos have always rubbed me the wrong way. I wasn’t really sure why until I attended a Catholic wedding this past weekend. As the ceremony progressed, I kept hearing the word “consent” over and over again.
Consent is pretty much the only unequivocal sexual rule our society still holds to. You don’t need to know the person. You don’t need to be concerned about the other person’s well-being. You certainly don’t need to be committed in any way. You can be totally casual and selfish provided you follow the one rule: sex must be between consenting people. Beyond that, pretty much anything goes. However, consent stripped of concern for the other person is really just obtaining permission. And of course, gaining permission from a person you wish to have sex with is essential but it sets the bar way too low for something as amazing as sex. If you only care about the person’s permission and not about the person, you may not see anything wrong with trying to talk, pressure, or trick them into it. You may be more likely to assume that permission is implied or less likely to care if they don’t seem that enthusiastic or happy about having previously given permission. You may not care if they are intoxicated or emotionally vulnerable. You may not even care if they have become unconscious, as long as they gave you permission at some point.
Reducing sexual consent to getting permission for sex is like reducing Driver’s Ed to driving the speed limit. Absolutely, avoiding speeding is essential to safe driving but it’s only one of many important parts of being a responsible driver and it’s certainly possible to be a terrible, dangerous driver while driving the speed limit. The roads would soon become impassible if the only rule was “don’t speed.” In the same way, it’s possible to do a great deal of lasting damage to yourself and others even if you obtain permission to have sex with them. If we reduce sexual morality to such an anemic understanding of consent, we shouldn’t wonder at the cause of the abysmal state of sexual relations in our society.
Fortunately, the Church in her wisdom gives us a much more robust understanding of consent. The Church knows that sex doesn’t happen as an isolated physical act. It involves the whole person (whether we want it to it not). No matter what we try to tell ourselves, we know that sex is not just a physical transaction like drinking tea or getting a massage. It’s why the crime of sexual assault is so heinous: not because it does so much physical harm (the physical wounds from sexual assault are often superficial or nonexistent) but because of its emotional, psychological, and spiritual harm. That’s because sex is an emotional, psychological, and spiritual act, not just a physical one.
So what’s my point with all of this? Am I saying that if people lived Catholic teaching about sex and marriage then they wouldn’t be assaulted? Of course not. Am I saying that those who believe Catholic teaching will never perpetrate assault or violate consent? No. The crime of sexual assault has shamefully, and infamously infiltrated and scandalized the ranks of the Church as well.
No, I’m not saying that the people of the Church are immune to the plague of sexual sin. I’m saying that the teachings of Christ and of the Church show us a better way. They show us what true consent looks like. Where do we find it? In the sacrament of marriage.
Consent is a BIG deal within the sacrament of marriage. It is the official physical sign of the sacrament, meaning, it is what makes the sacrament happen. The marriage IS the consent. It’s like the water in Baptism, the confession, absolution, and penance during reconciliation, or the bread and the wine in the Eucharist. It is how the sacrament happens. There are three significant ways in which the Church’s understanding of consent dwarfs our culture’s wimpy and inadequate version of it.
First, the Church cares about informed consent. At the beginning of the marriage ceremony, the minister clarifies with the couple what they are consenting to. He asks them three questions to make sure they understand the free, total, faithful, and fruitful commitment they are about to make:
- Have you come here to enter into Marriage without coercion, freely (free) and wholeheartedly (total)?
- Are you prepared, as you follow the path of Marriage, to love and honor (faithful) each other for as long as you both shall live?
- Are you prepared to accept children lovingly (fruitful) from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?
These questions ask the couple to recognize that marriage (and therefore sex) mean big things for them. It makes sure the couple not only is giving consent but giving informed consent. Our culture makes a big deal of informed consent in legal transactions because obviously you aren’t really giving your consent if you don’t know what you are consenting to. When it comes to sex, informed consent means knowing the other person intimately. Oddly enough, our culture seems to think this a quaint and outdated idea, that you can genuinely consent to uniting your body and soul to someone you just met. But if you think about sex in terms of informed consent, casual sex is never really consensual because the people are ignorant of who they are uniting themselves to. The less you know the person, the less consensual it is. This is why the Church tends to have minimum waiting periods and marriage preparation before a wedding, so that you get to know the person deeply before you ever know them in the biblical sense (if you know what I mean).
Second, the Church knows that God and the Church community should be involved. The Church knows that a couples’ judgment is often clouded by hormones and emotions so sexual consent should include more than just the two people who want to do it privately whispering, “let’s do it.” The word “consent” is used three times in the rite of marriage. Each time it also mentions the couple’s consent received by God and witnessed by the Church (the community of family and friends, and the minister). In the Catholic sense, when you truly consent to sex (through marriage), it means two peculiar things. First, that you believe God has called you specifically to have sex with each other. Second, that you are willing to publically declare (and in front of everyone that the two of you love and care about) that you are going to have sex. And get this? They clap and applaud and buy you presents because they are so happy for you.
But we aren’t done yet because the consent has not yet been completed, or in fancy church speak, the consent must be consummated. The couple seals their consent by becoming one flesh through the nuptial embrace for the first time (aka sex). And every time the couple has sex after that first time, they are renewing their consent to the free, total, faithful, and fruitful gift of themselves to one another. The very act of uniting bodies is a conscious and total gift of self to the other, for better or worse, in sickness in health, as long as you both shall live.
In short, the act of sex without marriage makes no sense to the Christian. It is a dishonest act. It is like walking up to a stranger on the street and asking to sleep in their bed with them. It communicates a level of trust and intimacy that is not real or appropriate for the depth of your relationship. Sex requires lifelong commitment because sex has lifelong consequences. It can create a new life. A person, with an immortal soul who deserves to be loved by his or her parents in a loving stable family. It also indelibly bonds two people physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Sex says, “I give you everything.” So to have sex with someone to whom you have not actually given everything is a lie.
The Church knows that true consent comes only with true knowledge of and concern for the person. It tells us that sex is a big deal: physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. If we as a culture accept the idea that sex is not a big deal, then we also accept the idea that sexual consent (or lack thereof) is not a big deal. If we accept the idea that sex is purely a physical act with no larger meaning, then is it any wonder so many in our society seem to think it’s no big deal to coerce or force someone into it?
As with all things in Catholic teaching, it comes down to love. Not the mushy gushy emotional feelings of love (those are fine and good but not really within our control). The sort of love that Jesus taught and the Church strives to live is not based on emotion but on the good of the other. When Jesus said to love our neighbors and enemies, he didn’t mean to have wonderful feelings toward them. He meant to treat your enemies and neighbors well even when your emotions are screaming for you to do otherwise. This is the virtuous love of charity and sacrifice that loves the other as oneself. Imagine the difference in how we would treat potential sexual partners if instead of asking, “Did he/she give me consent?” we asked ourselves, “is God calling us to this?” “Is this leading us to holiness?” “Is this truly serving my good and your good” “Am I willing to love this person freely, totally, faithful, and fruitfully?” “Am I willing to commit to this person publically?”
Am I saying that we shouldn’t encourage sexual consent?
No. Quite the contrary. I’m saying that if we really want to address the plague of sexual assault in our culture, we need the Church’s more robust understanding of sexual consent.
Mike Tenney has spent the past 15 years speaking, teaching, and leading worship and retreats for youth and young adults of various backgrounds and faiths. Mike has been a featured musician and speaker for many events including Catholic Undergrounds, Life Teen XLT's, Theology on Taps, Christ in the City, the Couples for Christ National Youth Conference, and many regional and diocesan events. He chairs the Theology Department at St. Vincent Pallotti High School and directs the Modern Worship Band at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, MD. He is also the director of liturgical music for Encounter the Gospel of Life Service Camp. You can find more about Mike and his ministry including online talks at www.MikeTenneyMusic.com and follow him @pkMikeyT