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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > October 2012 > Sex, Love, and God: The Catholic Answer to Puritanism and Nietzcheanism
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Sex, Love, and God: The Catholic Answer to Puritanism and Nietzcheanism

By Very Rev. Robert Barron

Many of the Catholic Church’s teachings are vilified in both the high and popular cultures, but none more than its doctrines concerning marriage and sexuality. Time and again, the Church’s views on sex are characterized as puritanical, life denying and hopelessly outdated — holdovers from the Bronze Age. Above all, critics pillory the Church for setting unreasonable limits to the sexual freedom of contemporary people. Church leaders, who defend traditional sexual morality, are parodied as versions of Dana Carvey’s “church lady” — fussy, accusatory, secretly perverse and sex-obsessed. 

Let me respond first to the charge of puritanism. Throughout the history of religion and philosophy, a puritanical strain is indeed apparent. Whether it manifests itself as Manichaeism, Gnosticism or Platonic dualism, the puritanical philosophy teaches that spirit is good and matter is evil or fallen. In most such schemas, the whole purpose of life is to escape from matter, especially from sexuality, which so ties us to the material realm. But authentic Biblical Christianity is not puritanical. The Creator God described in the book of Genesis made the entire panoply of things physical — planets, stars, the moon and sun, animals, fish and even things that creep and crawl upon the earth — and found all of it good, even very good. Accordingly, there is nothing perverse or morally questionable about bodies, sex, sexual longing or the sexual act. In fact, it’s just the contrary. When, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus himself is asked about marriage and sexuality, he hearkens back to the book of Genesis and the story of creation: “At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become as one. They are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk. 10:6-8). That last sentence is, dare I say it, inescapably “sexy.” Plato might have been a puritan, and perhaps John Calvin too, but Jesus most certainly was not.

So given this stress on the goodness of sex and sexual pleasure, what separates the Christian view from, say, the “Playboy” philosophy? The simple answer is that, for Biblical people, sexuality must be placed in the wider context of love, which is to say willing the good of the other. It is fundamental to Catholic spirituality and morality that everything in life must be drawn magnetically toward love, must be conditioned and transfigured by love. Thus, one’s business concerns must be marked by love, lest they devolve into crass materialism; and one’s relationships must be leavened by love, lest they devolve into occasions for self-interested manipulation; even one’s play must be directed toward love, lest it devolve into mere self-indulgence. Sex is no exception to this rule. The goodness of sexual desire is designed, by its very nature, to become ingredient in a program of self-forgetting love and hence to become something rare and life enhancing. If you want to see what happens when this principle is ignored, take a long hard look at the hookup culture prevalent among many young — and not so young — people today. Sex as mere recreation, as contact sport, as a source only of superficial pleasure has produced armies of the desperately sad and anxious, many who have no idea that it is precisely their errant sexuality that has produced such deleterious effects in them. When sexual pleasure is drawn out of itself by the magnetic attraction of love, it is rescued from self-preoccupation.

Now there is a third step as well, for human love must be situated in the context of divine purpose. Once Jesus clarified that male and female are destined to become one flesh, he further specified that “What God has joined together,” no human being should put asunder. When I was working full time as a parish priest, I had the privilege of preparing many young couples for marriage. I would always ask them, “Why do you want to be married in church?” After some hesitation, the young people would invariably respond with some version of “Well, we’re in love,” to which I would respond, “I’m delighted that you’re in love, but that’s no reason to be married in church!” My point was that entering into a properly sacramental marriage implied that the bride and groom realized that they had been brought together by God and precisely for God’s reasons, that their sexuality and their mutual love were in service of an even higher purpose. To make their vows before a priest and a Catholic community, I would tell them, was tantamount to saying that they knew their relationship was sacramental — a vehicle of God’s grace to the wider world. This final contextualization guaranteed that sexuality — already good in itself and already elevated by love — had now something truly sacred.

Our culture has become increasingly Nietzchean, by which I mean obsessed with the power of self-creation. This is why toleration is the only objective value that many people recognize, and why freedom, especially in the arena of sexuality, is so highly prized. It is furthermore why attempts to contextualize sex within higher frameworks of meaning are so often mocked as puritanism or fussy antiquarianism. Thank God that, amidst the million voices advocating self-indulgent sexuality, there is at least the one voice of the Catholic Church shouting “No,” a no in service of a higher Yes!

Posted: 10/24/2012 10:42:25 AM by Word On Fire | with 9 comments

Great article as usual Father. Seems like our culture's footloose sexuality has contributed to making us morally obese. We shun sexual love and commitment like we shun healthy eating and exercise. Why? Because it is hard and take's effort. So whether we partake in junk food or junk sex, we eventually find that it is definitely not healthy for either the hips or the heart. The Church is just God's coach trying to help us to morally "shape up".
10/26/2012 11:08:46 PM
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Joe Boyle
Fr. Robert
Will you exhort us to Christian virtue (2 Peter 1:3-11)? Please encourage us.
10/30/2012 9:24:05 AM
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Joe Kuligowski
Dear Father,
I could not agree with you more. As a matter of fact, through your words of reflection on the Sacrament of Marriage my wife and I have grown even closer to each other in God. Thank you!
I get so frustrated and angry when I see our society use woman and men as objects to have and conquer. This has created a big money machine that will stop at nothing to silence, ridicule and/or dismiss any intelligent conversation.
Why can’t people see how God’s precious gift of a properly formed sexuality in human relationships be an opportunity to love more deeply and not be reduced to a simple biological achievement? Why can’t they see the act itself belongs in the context of marriage with the anticipation and openness to be an integral part of God’s creation in accepting a child - a life? Why can’t they see how the self-giving deeper love (like you say – “willing the good of the other as other”) the couple experience is given up to be used by God as a higher form of interpersonal interaction for all to model?
That is why I am glad that that Church has a Priest, theologian, and educator / advisor like you.
10/30/2012 11:33:30 AM
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Mary Anne Walker
Thank you, Fr. Barron for the best, clearest and beautiful presentation of the Church's teaching. I am a cradle Catholic, spent 12 yrs in CCD, received all the sacraments, attended Pre-Cana and this is the first time in 50+ years I've heard this explanation. Usually the language is so-- esoteric that it does not resonate with the average person.
The fact that so many of us are ignorant of this is a great failure of Catholic Church in it's duty to teach. It's also a failure of our families as many of us did not grow up in an environment indicative if this teaching. My parents had a miserable marriage, my brother was a golden child and I was the scapegoat, but we were "good Catholics". We never missed Mass, went to confession, participated in every Church function, yet this beautiful teaching is as foreign to me as the Greek language.
Thank you so much for this gift. I am VERY grateful for it, better late than never.
11/3/2012 10:28:41 AM
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Father Robert
Thank you very much. Sure wish I had joined you early. I find so much comfort from you. Your works give me clarity of mind.
Anne McNulty Paine
11/9/2012 6:49:32 AM
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Just read an article in Commonweal by Eugene McCarraher who, I am sure, would challenge everything you have to say. Then there was the "women's health" component of the Obama election. What is the average Catholic to do in the face of all this?
Thanks for your work. We need so much more like it.
11/13/2012 7:52:17 PM
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Irene Woodard
Father Barron,
You did such a fabulous job on the Catholicism series. Perhaps your next project should be a beautifully wrought series on the Theology of the Body. Making our Catholic teachings on love and sexuality as visually attractive and theologically sound as you made the Catholicism series would go a long way toward overturning the court of public opinion on the Church's teaching.
11/16/2012 8:25:23 PM
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Brian A. Cook
I believe I've written an e-mail asking you to address possible holes in this article. Again, I simply wished to help.
11/19/2012 8:53:51 AM
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tony mangini
having had the pleasure of acquiring your series on catholicism and having watched many of your video clips, and given the shameful lack of good catholic teaching, can you not consider publishing a series for the nation's ccd parishes so that all may be teaching the same theology and principles of the faith in a uniform. the efforts of current ccd programs are woefully inept and lacking in the articles of "deep" faith.
11/21/2012 11:08:14 AM
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