“Sex either build’s up or tears down marriage and the family.” This statement of my ethics professor really put a lot of things into perspective as I navigated the foundations for sexual morality. Many times in my ministry I have been approached by this question concerning premarital sex. “Why is it wrong?” “We love each other, so why can’t I express my love through sexual intimacy?” Understanding this perennial teaching is difficult to express when so many of the fundamentals have been called into question in our society. It can often be like explaining the nature of color to a blind man.
So, let’s start with some basics. The following are two sets of words that express the same action.
1. rape, voyeurism, porn, breeding, impregnating
2. Conjugal Love, sexual intimacy, consummation, conceiving life, intercourse
In terms of biology and mechanics, these actions are the same. On the level of meaning and morality they are completely different. One set of words expresses a dehumanization, a violation of the sacred, and the other set of words expresses something wholesome and life giving.
Now, most in our secular society would agree with that statement; that there is a difference between sexual assault and sexual intimacy. They might say something like, “as long as there is consent” and there is truth to that statement. It must be a consensual relationship. However, there are degrees of consent. The consent to give away a million dollars is not the same type of consent as giving permission to receive a hug. So the epicenter of the debate is not whether sex has a human or moral quality about it or whether or not consent (covenant) is required but the nature and gravity of that consent.
Christian sexual ethics has always held that this consent must be a mutual, exclusive, and a lifelong commitment ratified by the community; a covenantal relationship we call marriage. It affirms that the same type of consensual agreement that you might have with a masseuse is not morally sufficient for the sexual act. To engage in sexual intimacy for anything less that the marital covenant is to devalue it, to treat it in a flippant manner.
There are several reasons for this.
The first, most straight forward reason is wrapped up in the most primordial and profound of covenants; the indissoluble covenant that is forged at conception between mother and child. “Woman, behold your child, Child, behold your mother.” From the moment of conception this child is her child and this woman is the child’s mother, with all the moral responsibilities that come with that. In conceiving a child the mother places her health, her future, and her very life on the line. Therefore, the marriage covenant mirrors that natural covenantal relationship of parent and child. Because it mirrors the relationship between parent and child, the commitment between sexual partners should be of the same gravity /involvement. This is reflected in the Genesis statement that “He leaves his mother and Father and clings to his wife.” The love between man and woman is meant to be of the same level as the relationship between parent and child. Therefore, in marriage the woman turns to her man and requires of him an unconditional covenant, witnessed by the community, binding him to her and vice versa. The community is present because bringing forth the next generation is the most basic focus of the human communities’ striving. The protection of the mother and child, the integrity of the family, is central to all social efforts.
In light of this; open, extramarital sexual activity are only really possible within a contraceptive culture; which is basically an artificial culture. It is not how it was supposed to be. It is a culture buoyed by dependencies and presents a sexuality that can be simply used as a passing pleasure. Sex marketed as a temporary arrangement has a hard time turning around and demanding unconditional commitment.
Some have argued that some sexual encounters can simply be casual, while others can be permanent; that it all depends on what you agree upon. Just as long as you are careful and communicate well. Once again, morality is about meaning and value. If you place sex on the same level as a back rub how can it be an expression of the unconditional love of marriage. If it is something that I do not give away lightly, that I treat seriously, then the action is affirmed as an act of self-donation.
It is also related to the nature of love and the fulfillment of the human person. Love, in its highest expression, is faithful, sacrificial, and unconditional. As John Paul II stated, the purpose of human striving is to make of ourselves a gift to the other. That is what we work towards throughout our lives. In our homes we teach our children to direct their basic impulses so that they can be presentable in society and be of service to the ones they love. We potty train them, teach them how to dress, teach them how to be polite, to work hard, and to be generous. All of these things are contrary to their basic urges, all of them take time and discipline; and it is exactly in that striving and sacrifice that we become gift. The same is true of the virtue of chastity. Chastity, modesty, and covenant are the “wrappings,” the boundaries, which sets sexuality aside as the gift of self. Chastity is a statement that I will not indulge in sexual relationship unless it is good for my partner, my family, and the institution of marriage
The formative, preparatory nature of chastity in relation to lifelong commitment to marriage is also an important point. I often tell couples preparing for marriage that the two best preparations for marriage are the living of chastity and praying together. A couple who has rooted itself in an intimacy that is deeper than sexual intimacy and who have developed the maturity to sit together in the vulnerability of prayer and silence will be better disposed to persevere through many other demands in their married life. Included in this is the fact that at various times in married life chastity is demanded of couples; business trips, military deployments, health issues, impotence, psychological issues. Sometimes these demands place on the couple a lifelong commitment to chastity and thus call the couple to live their marriage covenant in a heroic manner. These situations become a profound expressions of true love and illustrate that chastity can be a more profound expression of love that sexual intimacy, that sex only becomes an expression of love in light of a willingness to live the virtue of chastity. This living of chastity before marriage also allows other forms of intimacy to mature between the couple; a space to go deeper and develop other ways of expressing love. By postponing the psychological bonds that are created through sex they are able to discern their path with greater clarity.
Cohabitating before marriage is also a statement against marriage; that the couple does not consider the community’s ratification of their union to be of much value. Since the nature of sex and marriage mean so little before marriage; what does that say about the respect a couple will have for the obligations of marriage after they exchange vows? From the very start they are already disparaged their vows.
Sex is a language, an expression of meaning. To be an expression of love it has to be expressed within a certain parameters, set apart, made a sacred gift. In the Christian tradition the sexual act is the sacred sign, the ratification of the covenant that they expressed in words. To take it outside of the parameters of chastity and covenant is to treat it irreverently; as you would defame any other sacred sign. Thus, sex outside of marriage is sacrilege, a grave disregard for marriage.
However, while the Christian tradition has always called the human community to elevate sexuality to be a truly human act, an expression of unconditional love, it has no illusions about the frailty of human tendencies. That is why it keeps offering the challenge while at the same time extending encouragement and mercy. It is less concerned about finding fault then in assisting in an ongoing growth in virtue. It should also be remembered that, while these violations, these acts of sacrilege, are not to be treated lightly; they are also not to be treated as the gravest of transgressions. These sins should not to be exaggerated, especially in light of our weakness to self-indulgence. All of humanity is a work in progress and in need of forgiveness.