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What is sex for?

Anglicans (and Catholics) get themselves in a muddle over gay marriage because they’ve forgotten the meaning of sex

By on Friday, 23 March 2012

Richard Pohle/The Times/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Richard Pohle/The Times/PA Wire/Press Association Images

I have written this week’s Charterhouse Chronicle about Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, which you can read in the paper edition of The Catholic Herald, and in the course of writing it I looked up what he had to say in a lecture he gave before becoming Archbishop. You can find the text of the whole lecture here, and very interesting it is too.

In “The Body’s Grace” he comments on The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, among other books. I love the Raj Quartet, and I must study Rowan’s lecture, I feel, with greater attention.

But what stands out on a first reading is this:

In a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.

The assertion made here cannot, to my mind, be contradicted. If you accept contraception, then you must accept same sex relations as having value. I think, however, that this is a real problem for some people. Anglicans accept contraception, but not homosexual relations, or at least not yet. Catholics accept neither; but of course, writing that, one is aware that many Catholics do “accept” contraception, and do “accept” same sex relations too.

What we have here is a dangerous incoherence, a lack of what is called joined up thinking. We need to think about these questions globally, not in isolation from each other.

Rowan then goes on in the very next sentence:

I suspect that a fuller exploration of the sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of isolated texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth following up more fully than I can do here.

I agree. I myself thought this worth doing – exploring the scriptures and looking at the teaching of Humanae Vitae through scriptural lenses, but no one was interested. Catholic publishers said it wasn’t Catholic enough and non-Catholic publishers said it was too Catholic. Oh well. Perhaps people no longer want to look at Humanae Vitae? I think we should, as it may contain the answer to our current dilemmas about sexuality.

In the end, what is sex for? (The question with which Rowan starts his lecture.) I think there is only one possible answer to that: it is for the procreation of children – and other things too; but it is always procreative. (And yes, there is a challenge in that we marry infertile couples.) But because we have lost the battle on the goodness of procreation, we have lost the battle on other questions too.

  • Ann Couper-Johnston

    I am convinced of the value of Humanae Vitae: the fruits of the sexual revolution leave us in no doubt  that the liberal attitudes it gave rise to have not, on balance, been to man’s benefit even though there might have been some good things happen in recent decades (for instance it’s good that such things can be discussed)

    It seems the sexual urge is, in many cases, a little too strong for us to cope with.  It certainly causes a whole lot of problems – although homosexualtiy is the one most in our minds just now, fornication and adultery aren’t the best thing for us, either.  However, I don’t want to go down the road of saying sex is a bad thing, in a throwback to “Lie back and think of England”, something you only suffer because you have to.  That is dangerously near some heresy or other, and I’m sure the Church doesn’t want us to think like that.

    There is no doubt our immune system is a good thing; people whose immune systems are compromised are vulnerable and those of us with a strong immune system are lucky.  However, it appears sometimes the immune system can go into overdrive and cause trouble in the form of an allergy or a disease.  That doesn’t make the immune system a bad thing; it’s a symptom of the dis-ease with which we have lived since the Fall.  Could the same be said of human sexuality?  It’s maybe a bit out of kilter, too.     

  • Brian A. Cook

    What’s the alternative then?  Just allowing babies to be born randomly without regard for their well-being?  That’s exactly what the Church is accused of promoting. 

  • daclamat

    Whereof on cannot speak thereof one should de silent.

  • EditorCT

    I had a telephone call on Thursday, I think, from a Catholic Truth reader who had just read the Catholic Herald, or at least, skimmed it. The headline, “We need more Rowans” caught his eye and the subtext: “In a few centries Dr Rowan Williams may be appreicated for the truly great man that he is.”  Rightly shocked, he need to offload his dismay and confusion. Catholic Truth, at his service…

    This chartrhous column headed “We need more Rowans” (while omitting “like we need a hole in the head”), we now discover, is authored by the priest-author of the above article,  who wants us to take lessons from Rowan Williams about the meaning of marriage and what priests and people in more modest and cultured times, referred to as “the marriage act.”  Yip.  We’re to take lessons from (and we need more of)  the pro-”gay” rights, pro-women priests/bishops liberal cleric who holds the (Anglican) office of “Archbishop” of Canterbury.  People seem very ready to chuck the label “schismatic” around when Bishop Fellay’s name comes up, but not the Anglican “Archbishop” of Canterbury – who is no such thing.   How can he be an archbishop when his”ordination” is null and void, according to Catholic teaching on Anglican “orders” – don’t we live in strange times, folks?

    Thus, forgive me for not ploughing through th above article.  Rev Lucie-Smith - like Rowan Williams – has nothing, absolutely nothing, to teach orthodox Catholics.

  • EditorCT

    Apologies for the several typos in my post above.  Still, I stand by every word – even those with letters missing!

  • John de Waal

     I have to disagree with Paulpriest when he claims that Natural Family Planning is NOT good…
    In Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI says that “married love is honourable and good …even when for reasons of the couple’s will, it is seen to be infertile.  For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed … as experience shows that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.”(s.11) He goes on to describe Natural Family Planning a “a facility provided by nature,” (s.16) and encourages scientists to develop further “a sufficiently secure basis for the chaste limitation of offspring.”(s.16)

    He gives a ringing endorsement to this teaching when he says “…there can be no contradiction between two divine laws – that which governs the transmitting of life and that which governs the fostering of married love.”(s.24)

    As those of us who have lived by this teaching know,  both the love-giving and life-giving aspects of sex are crucial to a good marriage.

    Of course, it is true that you can sometimes do something that in itself is good but for selfish reasons but I feel that there is a danger in this discussion to be splitting hairs.

  • theroadmaster

    NFP works in tandem with the reproductive cycle of the woman’s body and does not frustrate it as in the manner of artificial contraception.  There is no fudge involved.  Artificial contraception works against conception during fertile and infertile periods and is a constant barrier against the Natural order.  NFP presents a healthier and more spiritually fulfilling alternative to the toxic effects of contraception.  The Church specifically forbids the use of NFP for strictly anti-conception reasons and will only allow exceptions in cases where a pregnancy is not an option for severe medical or economic reasons.  

  • theroadmaster

    Once you promote artificial contraception as a solution, abortion is not far behind as a back-up measure in cases where the former does not work, and the percentage of cases where this happens is not negligible.  What about the growing life in the womb that is aborted in such circumstances, are they not entitled to someone looking out for their “well-being”?

  • John Byrne

    Ah! Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – it’s been my favourite piece of all music from my early 20s to my present 70s.
    Sadly, last year’s performance at the BBC proms was very pedestrian.

  • John Byrne

    Possibly. I think probably on 2nd thoughts – if his father had still introduced him to it. It’s certainly possible by some to appreciate the structure of music as written – not that I have this talent.

  • John Byrne

    theroadmaster said: “Once you promote artificial contraception as a solution, abortion is not far behind….”

    On the contrary, if you succeed in preventing  “artificial” contraception ["artificial" tablets and "natural" thermometers nonsense operating here, I think] abortions are MORE likely to be seen as a solution to unwanted pregnancies.

  • John Byrne

    Yes, it’s a piece of Realpolitik from the Church. 

  • John Byrne

    How CAN you say there’s no fudge involved?

    Both of what you call “natural” and “artificial” contraception are designed for the same purpose: to allow sexual intercourse without procreation.

  • John Byrne

    Savia said:  “One flesh union can only be heterosexual, because of the organic bodily unity based on sexual difference.”

    This is, presumably, the “electrical fittings” argument against equal gay rights.

  • John Byrne

    I wonder if Ann can accept the validity of evolution and natural selection?
    Most Catholics, I believe, can do so – but rarely do they consider the consequences.

  • John Byrne

    “Rev Lucie-Smith - like Rowan Williams – has nothing, absolutely nothing, to teach orthodox Catholics.”
    And therein lies the pity of it.


  • theroadmaster

    I think the very opposite is true as seen from 
    the depressing figures in terms of the astronomical rise in the abortions for the US and the UK over the last 40 years or more.  At least 40-55 million have been procured in the America since the inception of the insidious law resulting from the Roe v Roe judgement in 1973.  It was no coincidence that the contraceptive bill became more widely available over this period.  This in itself encourages more risky behavior, and thus when it fails, it usually involves a trip to the abortion clinic.  In the US, clinics report that 50% of their abortion referrals are for contraceptive failures.  

    The picture is not much better in the UK where the most recent figures for 2010 records a figure of 189,574 for residents of England and Wales but if you factor in the number of terminations for non-residents i.e 6,535, it comes to a horrific 196,109.  Local health dispensaries and pharmacies are well stocked with contraceptive advice leaflets and birth control pills and yet the slaughter of nascent life in the womb goes on.  Go figure.

  • theroadmaster

    NFP is designed to work with the natural reproductive cycles of the body and thus does not interfere with them.  It is used to maximize the chance for conception during the monthly windows of opportunity when a woman is at her most fertile and ovulation takes place.  This is in sharp contrast to artificial birth control which forms an unnecessary barrier between the couple during love-making and thus frustrates what Nature has designed.  People who use NFP to primarily avoid conception are going directly against it’s recommended use by the Catholic Church.

  • Ladyshellie

    I am Catholic and live my faith as best I can. I do though believe with all my heart that homosexuality is in no way sinful. God created these people exactly as they are ~ gay. He loves all.

  • EditorCT

    God loves everyone but that doesn’t mean he condones everything.  God also loves child sex abusers, can you believe?  But, obviously, He condemns that behaviour.

  • Lagos1

    An evolutionist would say that whether or not  3%  impresses you or not (and assuming this statistic is correct),  the form sex takes in humans is the way it is because it actually is the most successful means for propagating the species according to natural selection.

    So ironically I think you might have both evolutionay biologists and the Catholic church taking issue with your point of view.  Hardly a good place to be.

  • Adela

    Dear Fr.,

    There’s a book in Spanish (I haven’t heard of a translation into English, unfortunately) called “Saber amar con el cuerpo” (approx: Knowing to love with the body) by Fr. Mikel Gotzon Santamaria that addresses the question in the article’s question in such a way that it is made clear why sex is only for marriage between a man and a woman.

  • LotucusOP

    Nobody has ever died of AIDS by following the Church’s teaching.

    Nobody will ever die from AIDS by following the church’s teaching.

    This is a fact. Deal with it.

  • paulsays

    Indirectly many die, through the fact that the Church discourages condom use. Therefore people have sex without condoms and therefore contract AIDS.

    Even for those following the Church to the letter, lack of condom usage can be dangerous – as people are born with AIDS and therefore spread it to their monogamous married spouses.

  • James

    Just as pleasure is the motivation for eating, whilst sustaining the body is the purpose, so pleasure is the motivation for, not the purpose of, sex.

    For some people, eating at McDonalds every night would be pleasurable, but it would wreak havoc on their health. In a similar way, having a desire for intercourse with persons of the same sex may be pleasurable for some, but it will not be good for them either physically or spiritually. Just as we can abuse our appetites, we can abuse our sexuality. We abuse our sexuality when we separate it from its dual purpose – unitive and procreative.

    Your, “argument,” still amounts to “if we want to do it, then surely God wants us to do it.” This is no argument at all. It should be known as “The God wants us to” fallacy.

    I very much doubt that you have ever read Humanae Vitae. See the excellent reply from Savia D’cunha below.

  • John Byrne

    But that’s not the essential point. You are simply saying that if you’re smart enough you can have sex and no procreation without using the tablets – i.e. just by using the body’s own chemicals and a “natural” thermometer.

    Do you realise that you’re really, here, embarking on the “organic” food versus chemical fertilizer grown food argument.
    The manure can only do its job if it’s broken down into the chemicals.

  • John Byrne

    But that’s not the essential point. You are simply saying that if you’re smart enough you can have sex and no procreation without using the tablets – i.e. just by using the body’s own chemicals and a “natural” thermometer.

    Do you realise that you’re really, here, embarking on the “organic” food versus chemical fertilizer grown food argument.
    The manure can only do its job if it’s broken down into the chemicals.

  • John Byrne

    But that’s not the essential point. You are simply saying that if you’re smart enough you can have sex and no procreation without using the tablets – i.e. just by using the body’s own chemicals and a “natural” thermometer.

    Do you realise that you’re really, here, embarking on the “organic” food versus chemical fertilizer grown food argument.
    The manure can only do its job if it’s broken down into the chemicals.

  • John Byrne
  • theroadmaster

    I’ m afraid that this is the very point.  People who block the procreative aspect of the sexual act by utilizing birth control pills or intra-uterine devices are directly interfering with what Nature has ordained i.e unity of married couple in mutual love with procreative intent.  NFP in contrast in fully sympathetic to the natural biological rhythms of a woman’s body and never frustrates chances for a woman to get pregnant.  The Church’s recommendation for the use of NFP is based solely on it’s well-proven effectiveness in determining the best periods for intercourse to optimize chances for conception.  It is not permitted in Church teaching to wilfully use it as a method of contraception.  Therein lies the difference in the Church’s support for NFP and opposition to artificial birth control.

  • maxmarley

    No fornication, therefore no Aids
    or any other nasty diseases or unwanted pregnancies. 
    In the Good old days when we were Good, we didn’t have Aids. 
    Anyway condoms are not 100% safe.
    Be good

  • Honeybadger

    Therefore, you have had to have been in the SS to know what the Nazis did during WW2?

    Catch yourself on!

  • Honeybadger

    Have you ever heard of percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie?

    Profoundly deaf but a cracking musician!

  • Honeybadger

    It takes commonsense, brains and consideration for NFP.

    All that is taken away by contraception, which s nothing more than messing with hormones for the sake of… (insert your own words here) with horrid consequences.

  • Suevisons

    some interesting and thoughtful comments to add to the debate. They may take us where you don’t really want us to go though….You should do the biblical/humanae work anyway and self-publish on the web. However the biblical narrative taken as a whole also includes things that we really wish it didn’t, such as rape , torture, forced marriage etc. 

  • EditorCT

    There is absolutely NOTHING anywhere in the Bible that reveals God’s will to be for “rape, torture, forced marriage etc.”   None of these things are revealed by God as good. 

    That is a fact.

  • paulsays

    I never claimed condoms were 100% safe, of course abstinence is the safest and I would advocate that.

    However because the Church has made out condoms to be intrinsically evil – then people that would ordinarily wear them are having sex with no protection at all. Therefore spreading the disease.

  • Jonathan West

    The assertion made here cannot, to my mind, be contradicted. If you accept contraception, then you must accept same sex relations as having value.

    But Catholics – even up to the Pope himself – do accept contraception – at least certain methods of it. As HL Mencken wittily stated “It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.”

    So the Catholic objection isn’t against all contraception as a matter of principle, it is merely against those methods which are the most effective. And in conceding that principle, the Catholic position surely admits that sex has purposes other than procreation, and that not every act of intimacy mush be for the purpose of procreation.

    As a result, the principled objection to same-sex relations also falls, as you quite correctly state.

  • EditorCT

    Your pal Mencken is wrong.  Catholics are NOT permitted to use ANY methods of contraception.

    however, Mencken is not alone in his/her ignorance.  Many Catholics make the mistake of thinking it is OK to space births as and when, as long as they are using Natural Family Planning and it is now commonplace for this to be taught in courses for engaged couples or even in schools.  Now there is nothing wrong to teaching about it, but the Church does NOT say you can use NFP routinely.  Far from it.

    Only for very grave reasons and for a limited period of time, is a Catholic couple permitted to use their knowledge of the woman’s fertility to avoid conception, understanding that if a conception occurs, that child is to be welcomed as would be any so-called “planned” baby. 

    Catholics are not permitted to use their knowledge of the natural cycle to space births routinely.

    More anti-Catholic propaganda nailed, one hopes…

  • Jonathan West

    Only for very grave reasons and for a limited period of time, is a Catholic couple permitted to use their knowledge of the woman’s fertility to avoid conception
    I think you’ve just made my point for me. You’ve just described an exception. Therefore you’ve conceded the principle that not all acts of intimacy must necessarily be intended for procreation. There are sufficently “grave reasons” why in some circumstances it is appropriate for intimacy not to be open to conception.

  • EditorCT

    But in those exceptional cases, the couple need to make sacrifices. They have to practice self-restraint.  Find other ways to express their love during the woman’s fertile days.  They can’t take pills or use devices to prevent conception – there’s no comparison between the two.  Surely you can see that?  Oops! Silly me!  When people are determined to savage the Church’s moral sexual teaching they cling to the propaganda machine as if their wrong-headed thinking depended on it.  Which, of course, it does!

  • Jonathan West

    Ah, but I thought that the idea was that every act of sex must be open to the possibility of procreation., You seem to be saying that it is acceptable to have sex on days when the woman is not fertile, and therefore the act is not open to the possibility of procreation.

    It seems to me therefore that if you are to be serious about that doctrine, then sex is explicitly forbidden on the non-fertile days. The couple need to make sacrifices. They have to practice self-restraint.  Find other ways to express their love during the woman’s infertile days.

  • EditorCT

    You are totally confused.  The whole point is that the couple ABSTAIN on days when the woman is fertile.  They use their knowledge of when the woman is likely to conceive to AVOID conception by abstaining from sexual intercourse (or to hopefully conceive).   

    Hence, the couple find other ways to show their love for each other etc etc. 

    There is nothing inconsistent about the Church’s position although some ignorant Catholics make it appear so by thinking they can “plan” their families as they wish using NFP. That is CONTRARY to the Church’s teaching.

  • Jonathan West

    If they abstain on days when the woman is fertile and only have sex when the woman is not, it would appear that

    a) sex is occurring an a manner known not to be open to procreation, and 
    b) this is family planning contrary to (your understanding of) the church’s teaching.

    If I am confused, it is because you are being most confusing.

  • EditorCT

    No, Sir, it is your lack of clear thinking that is the problem.

    The Church teaches that every “marriage act” must be open to new life.  If you abstain from the “marriage act” you cannot be open to new life.  Straightforward, so far, yes?
    If - for grave reasons such as serious illness – the couple do not want to conceive another child if possible (and I stress “if possible” – there’s ALWAYS a possibility with NFP)  then they can abstain from the marriage act when nature tells them the woman is likely to be fertile.

    To simplify further: there is no rule that a married couple have to engage in the marriage act 24/7.  When they do, they must be open to the possibility of a child. They can work out when the woman is likely to be fertile and abstain from relations (although Uncle  George tends to turn up without phoning which can be a nuisance. Just as well the biscuit tin is always kept filled). Whatever, whenever, if a child is conceived he/she is to be welcomed and not disposed of.  Comprenez?

  • Jonathan West

    You’re not against family planning  so long as the methods used might not work. Thank you for clarifying that for me.
    That strikes me as a very coherent and morally consistent position.

  • EditorCT

    Got it! We can’t know better than God – that’s the key, Sugar Plum!

  • Jonathan West

    And how would you know that is what God wants?