Catholics seem to be on two opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to talking about sex: it either isn’t spoken about, or it is made out to be the closest thing to heaven we can find while on Earth. While there is a time and place for both of these standpoints, I think we need to find, and teach, a healthy middle ground.
Too many millennial Catholics grew up in an era where sex was never discussed. I’m almost 30 years old and I’m still waiting for the sex talk from my parents (Mom, if you’re reading this, I love you but you know it’s true!). All of my formal sex education came from the chastity talks I got at the end of elementary school and throughout high school, which were awesome, but definitely not all-encompassing.
Why is it that Catholics are so scared to talk about sex? Most Catholics will probably agree that we grew up with the mindset that SEX IS BAD! I can safely say that no one in my life ever said those exact words to me, it was just heavily implied.
So where did this persisting mindset come from? Most likely, this was the Catholic reaction to the sexual revolution that developed in the 1960s and 70s. Our parents’ parents were witnessing this happen: the rise in the use of contraception, the normalization of premarital sex, the rise in the spread of STDs, and the legalization of abortion. Our parents were born during this era. It’s hard to conceptualize my parents being babies, but they were. They were our grandparents’ precious babies, innocent and pure. And so our grandparents’ generation, both laity and religious, had to counter the sexual revolution happening in the culture by swinging the Catholic pendulum in the other direction.
Through no one person’s fault, this mindset has been passed down through Catholic generations since. And it’s time for us now to put an end to the “sex is bad” mindset. Sex is sacred, yes. Sex is created and intended for marriage, yes. But bad? Never. It couldn’t be, because God made it!
When I was teaching theology at an all-girls high school, we took a month all four school years to do a unit on Theology of the Body. I will never forget how wide-eyed and uncomfortable the girls got when we went over the syllabus at the beginning of the year and they saw that we’d be talking about sex for a month. The parents were usually THRILLED that I was having these difficult conversations with their kids and not them (although I always reminded them that I was not a replacement for a parental conversation about this topic), but the kids were horrified. The first day of the unit, I would walk in and write “SEX IS GOOD” really big on the board. I would purposely say the word “sex” frequently each day. I wanted to encourage them to get comfortable with the word. Because fear is not of God. Shame is not of God. We cannot champion something that we are afraid of. And if we are going to be champions of chastity, of our own bodies, and of our own sexualities, we cannot be afraid of the word sex. And at the end of the school year, Theology of the Body was always their favorite thing we had learned, and I know it was the most important thing I taught them.
Now let’s talk about the flip side of the issue. There are Catholic teachers, theologians, and speakers who raise up sex in the context of marriage to be “worth waiting for.” And don’t get me wrong, it is! Sex with your spouse is amazing, because you have committed your entire lives to each other. You hold nothing back from each other. The marital embrace is an echo of Christ in the Eucharist: “This is my body, given up for you.” The problem with preaching this, however, is that it perpetuates this unspoken idea that sex is the goal, the end-all be-all of marriage. That the sex you will have with your spouse is going to be so great that it is more important than any other aspect of your relationship.
This is a dangerous theology. I have seen this in my personal dating life and in the lives of friends. There are too many Catholics who are, commendably, living out chastity, and just want to have sex so badly that they rush through dating, getting engaged, and getting married. I know this is probably not a conscious thought process for most of those people, but it has been evident to me time and time again that sometimes couples rush through the dating to marriage steps because they are so excited to get to the marriage bed. Sex becomes the goal, not the actual marriage. And in reality, sex will not fix pre-existing issues or disagreements a couple has prior to getting married.
When we hear things like “sex is a foretaste of heaven” and “sex is the best thing that God ever created” over and over again during long years of singleness, it makes us yearn for it even more than we already do naturally just by being hormonal, fertile, sexual humans. This is a problem, and Catholics in authority need to think carefully about the way they teach this. If we put marital sex too high on a pedestal, it becomes the thing at the end of the wedding aisle, not the spouse.
Sex is not the goal of marriage. It is a part of marriage, and an essential part, but not the end goal.
So my fellow Catholics, can we find a middle ground here? Can we teach the goodness and beauty of Catholic Sexual Ethics openly and respectfully to our children and peers while at the same time not over-glorifying marital sex? I think we can.
Sex is good, because God made it. And everything He makes is good.