Monday, January 16, 2006

Article on sex and relationships for Catholic website

Although I will not list the website I submitted this to unless it is printed (and it's not well written... I've gotten sloppy in popular writing) I still wanted to put it up here.

Asking Christian Questions: How Church Imagery Guides Sexual Ethics
- by Roland Ray Fulmer III

(author's note: Although I'm an Orthodox I've written this article presuming the role of a Roman Catholic out of respect for the audience and because the imagery and points do not vary much between those confessions.)

It is a fact that most Catholics never speak about ethics in a uniquely Christian way. We often overlook the most obvious point of logic - that Christian ethics are not the same as world ethics because they’re based on a reality that is accepted only by the faithful. I believe that before we can speak sensibly as Catholics about ethical issues, we must first learn how to ask evaluative questions based on the Biblical and Sacramental images that distinguish Catholics from other groups of people. This little essay is my proposition on how we might begin to form a uniquely Catholic approach to asking questions concerning our sexual ethics and marital relationships.

In order to clarify Christian ethics against secular proposals, let me address (in oversimplified form) some responses to a couple of typical secular alternatives.

There's the Realist, who assumes that humans do not possess the self-control necessary to tame our sexual passions, and should therefore concentrate on ensuring the physical safety of sexually active persons. We differ from the Realist in that we believe sex to have spiritual ramifications that are beyond mere security threats such as STD’s.

We’re equally not at liberty to assume the view of the Romantic, who holds that sex is the proper result of a subjective (often completely undefined) "level of depth" in a relationship.
For all that they might differ the Romantic and the Realist are two sides of the same coin. Both see sex as a matter of private personal fulfillment. Both at some level see sexual ethics as a discussion about the cost/benefit analysis between physical gratification and potential insecurities. There’s a good reason that this equation sounds like the social and economic conversations of Western liberal democracies like the US. It’s our culture and nothing more.

As Christians we are not a voluntary association of autonomous sexual beings who might seek a public symbol like marriage if the "depth of relationship" seems to demand it. In fact, there is no language in the Bible or worship tradition of the Church that recognizes the myriad of intermediary relationships between the married and single states that we often reference as if they had some sort of divine sanction - "dating", "boyfriend/girlfriend", "just friends", etc.
What we are is a community of God’s servants who form a single spiritual family - the Church - which exists to continue Christ’s redeeming ministry on earth. As members of this family, we have the option of marriage as one way to live a Christ-centered life within the spiritual family.

We also acknowledge singleness, which is a chaste calling whether it is temporary or permanent. We do not acknowledge or validate third, fourth, and fifty-seventh alternatives. It is the ideal of Christian marriage and its counterpart, singleness, which judge both our sexual behavior outside of marriage and our rationales for seeking to be married.

Christian marriage is not an endeavor to find self-fulfillment in another person. That’s idolatry, and it makes our marriages another form of self-centered usury. Marriage is part of the Church’s collective mission to live out and witness to the gospel on earth. For Christians marriage is not a default condition. That’s important. The Church has always taught that singleness and marriage are different vocations, but for the same goal of building the spiritual family. Marriage is no less of a vocational choice than singleness, and requires the same level of seriousness and sacrifice to succeed. Marriage, like lifelong singleness, is a vow that the Christian takes after trying to discern which state enables him/her to more fruitfully live the gospel. Living the gospel in a manner which is more beneficial to the public mission of the Church should be the primary criteria for our choice of singleness or marriage. The Church family grows and prospers through new births, disciple-centered partnerships, and unburdened single servants. The family does not grow by individuals inventing radically different alternatives that contain unspecified meanings for a handful of people outside the Church.

As opposed to the Romantic’s fluid view of ‘love’, which might or might not eventually manifest itself as a commitment, Christian love is a commitment, one that is coupled with powerful symbols which are recognized by the entire body. Our Sacraments are not primarily the recognition of a reality that already exists, but are ritual promises that declare what our roles and commitments in the community will be.

For Christians there are no "secret commitments". Universal meanings and public titles must be shared if the Church is truly to be ‘one’ and ‘catholic’ (universal) in the creedal sense. Besides it’s only reasonable; there are few if any situations where we are more susceptible to self-deception than when we’re trying to balance objectivity with sexual desire. Public formality is needed to define the rights and responsibilities of arrangements so that we are not so easily confused.

Think of it this way - what if people started assuming the role of priests by taking ‘private vows’? What if each local church got to determine what they considered a priest without the consent of the larger Church. I dare say that the very idea of what we mean by "priest" would be endangered in a very short amount of time. How could a Church in Vancouver accept the priesthood of person from San Francisco who had not taken the priestly vows necessary to be a priest in Vancouver? Not a very ‘catholic’ way of doing things.

Christians are necessarily limited in their vocational options. Limitation is vital for clarity and public understanding, but it rubs against the selfish grain of American society. Perhaps this is why we’re so eager to create fourth and fifth options for ourselves and demand that the Church ‘keep up with the times.’ We want to impose our individual views of right and wrong on the Church and force it to bless what we want rather than being corrected by the collective ideals of the family. That mindset was once unique to Protestantism, but American Catholics today are equally guilty.

The Church holds that its words and symbols create new realities, and do not merely recognize old ones. For example, the wording of marriage vows begins with "Will you..."? It doesn’t ask if this vow is your current practice, nor if you have practiced it in the past, but rather it asks if you will (from this point forward) grow into the promises you’re now making. Marriage in this sense is like an ordination to the priesthood or taking monastic orders. A woman does not make vows because she is a nun, she becomes a nun because she takes the appropriate vows. A Christian marriage forges a commitment, one that is manifestly different than it was before the vows.

An interesting point is that the Sacramental language the Church uses for marriage is also the biblical language used for fornication. Sex makes the two people "become one flesh", just as marriage does. Paul is scandalized in 1 Corinthians 6 not so much because there’s illicit sex going on, but because the marriage-through-fornication is an affront to the Body of Christ (the Church). So the real sin is not fornication in the sense of sex without marriage, but according to this image sex is a marriage - one that lacks the approval of the spiritual family. It’s a very radical idea - for Christians there is no per say "sex outside of marriage"; there are only false marriages that do not include the vows that bind them to the larger spiritual family. So, fornication is never beneficial to the Church community because it presumes the rights of marital unity without integrating the relationship with the responsibilities imposed by the Church family - therefore fornication cannot "serve God" in a Christian sense.

By taking our imagery seriously we come to see that Christian questions cannot be those of the Realist or the Romantic. We have to establish first and foremost that we’re all speaking the same Biblical/Sacramental language of the Church. Then we have to understand our relationships as being part of the Church’s mission to create new and better disciples of the gospel. Once these understandings are in place, we can only conclude that Christian ethical questions must be by design public, confessional, and tied to the mission of the Church.

The precise questions we should therefore be asking are too numerous to sort out, but I think the three qualities of Christian ethics are themselves good guidelines if stated as questions: Am I publicly comfortable acknowledging my sexual behavior? Are my sexual activities governed by rights and responsibilities imposed from the Church? Does my relationship serve to bring the self-emptying love of Christ to a broken world, or am I primarily in this relationship business for my own self-fulfillment?


Blogger Ann said...

Ray, this is really brilliant. I hope you can get it published. Or maybe we can print it and slide it under some doors at the semianary!!


10:55 AM  

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