Sex is not something the church fears or is trying to control. Sex is not the opposite of prayer and spirituality, it’s not something we grudgingly concede to the young. Sex is not merely the mechanism of reproduction, although there’s no such thing as a full and true understanding of sex that can’t live with our human capacity to make babies.
Sex is good. Sex done right is love. Love done right is often, though not always, sex.
Pope Francis has put the whole church on notice. We are to leave behind our adolescent, greedy, impulse-driven hold on sex. At the same time we must reject that fear-driven need to wrap sex up in pat formulas, rules and prohibitions — to keep it hidden at a safe distance from the church.
On April 8 the first impulse of secular media was to scour Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ new document on love in the family, for legal tweaks. Was the pope going to open the door a crack for gay couples? Would Francis map a new path to the communion rail for divorced and remarried Catholics? What would the pope say about the vast majority who are not virgins on their wedding night and have in fact lived through a series of de facto unions before deciding on marriage?
While he doesn’t flinch from such questions and there may be a little news there, it’s not the big story. The big story is Francis’ assault on our Catholic assumption that sex is nothing but the giant sand-trap of moral life. Isn’t sex always the last thing we bring up in the confessional — the biggie? Isn’t sex the reason so many of our children, siblings, cousins give for not going to church anymore?
Francis is not having it. He wants us to grow up and look honestly at our sexual selves.
“A love lacking in either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God,” he writes.
“God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures . . . Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon and there can be no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity,” he writes. “A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses. In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family.”
If that doesn’t sound like the Baltimore Catechism, it’s a good thing it doesn’t.
Mere regulations, the reduction of Catholic tradition to formulas, is nobody’s idea of a religion fully responsive to real life.
“We cannot encourage a path of fidelity and mutual self-giving without encouraging growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love,” writes the pope.
Francis is not satisfied with the canon law definition of marriage as mere consent. For Francis, it’s about love.
Though the word “integral” only occurs four times in the 261 pages of Amoris Laetitia, and “integrated” just twice, a thorough, thoughtful, prayerful reading of the apostolic exhortation is so much easier for those who have read Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. For this pope, sex is part of the ecology of the family and of a truly human life. It needs the protection of marriage and the faithful accompaniment of the church.
Not only is Pope Francis far more interested in the joy and praise we discover in our sexual lives, his goal is to see sex integrated into the life of Christ and animated by the Holy Spirit. He never lets us forget the Trinity is our home. In the Trinity we find the salvation offered by God to God’s people.
“The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection,” is Pope Francis’ starting point. We are made in the image of a trinitarian God and sex is how that image expresses itself in love and hope and faith.
“It gives me a ton of hope,” was Saskatchewan theologian Leah Perrault’s reaction as she neared the end of her first reading of Amoris Laetitia. Perrault is an expert on St. John Paul II’s theology of the body who works for the Saskatchewan bishops on health care and blogs at leahperrault.com/barefoot-preaching.
The essential, traditional Catholic insight about sex isn’t that it’s kryptonite to any hope of becoming holy, she said.
“All human spirituality is mediated in and through the body — which is good,” Perrault told The Catholic Register. “That means our biology needs to be part of the way we understand ourselves.”
In speaking positively about sex, the pope isn’t inventing a new doctrine or pushing the church in some obscure direction. But his language, the story he tells about the church and sex, is realistic, scriptural and earthy in ways that the more philosophically minded St. John Paul II never quite managed.
“I feel like he landed in a place where sex is real,” said Perrault.
On the day it was published, Jesuit Father Gilles Mongeau already had plans to deploy chapters four and five of Amoris Laetitia in a marriage preparation retreat he will soon give for an engaged pair of his theology students at Regis College in the University of Toronto.
“This is the new manual for marriage prep,” declared Mongeau.
Chapter four, the longest in the document, takes the form of an extended meditation on one of the most frequently employed readings at Catholic weddings, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful . . . “
Francis’ analysis of the hymn to love gets right down to the detail of the Greek words and how they can be translated. But, typically for Francis, he never strays far from practical advice and stern correction. When St. Paul tells us “love is not boastful” the pope expands the thought by saying, “It is important for Christians to show their love by the way they treat family members who are less knowledgeable about the faith, weak or less sure in their convictions. At times the opposite occurs: the supposedly mature believers within the family become unbearably arrogant.”
“There’s a realism in this chapter that is really, really interesting,” said Mongeau.
The Catholic misapprehension about sex has often been that sex is first, foremost and last about making babies. In the language of moral theologians, it is “unitive and generative,” but unitive (bringing the couple into a single, shared reality) is at best a concession left unspoken. Pope Francis corrects that cultural misapprehension in his long meditation on St. Paul.
“Unitive is finally given it’s due here in a way that’s accessible, that’s scriptural,” said Mongeau.
For any faithful Catholic couple already embarked on a life that understands both the unitive and generative aspects of sex and marriage, the apostolic exhortation is “welcome, helpful and encouraging,” said Anna Boyagoda, who with her husband Ray shared her initial impressions alongside Cardinal Thomas Collins at an April 8 news conference at the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Pastoral Centre.
“It will help me guide my (four) children as they figure out what it means to witness to their faith in a world that they want — and I want them — to remain very much a part of,” she said. “Pope Francis urges us to think about, to speak about, Catholic marriage and family life as something that is very attractive, that leads to true freedom, to happiness, to a good life. That it needs to be understood as freeing, ennobling and joyful.”
Ray Boyagoda remarked on how the couple worked through the document together while their youngest had a crying fit and two others constantly wanted to show their mother something.
“That’s the reality of a young and thriving family life,” he said. “The pope speaks to you in the reality of your family life — that it is exhausting and that there is still something that is beautiful and joyful about it to pursue.”
Theologian Moira McQueen, a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and a delegate to the 2015 synod on the family, saw how the pope’s insistence on open, frank discussion at the synod combined with careful listening, translated into the final document.
“The pope had sat there for three weeks and really was listening to everybody speaking, apart from absorbing all the material that had been sent in from across the world,” McQueen said. “It seems to me that this document pretty faithfully has taken that into account.”
Changes to Catholic doctrine were never the point of the exercise and weren’t expected, she said. But that doesn’t mean that the document is just an overlong sermon from the chair of Peter.
“It’s truly wonderful that the tone has changed,” said McQueen. “He’s managed to put the doctrine in continuity. We can have our children look at and read it and it still makes sense. Pope Francis has the power to make us see the doctrine not as a list of rules, not just as pretexts, but as something really applicable for our good and for our benefit in everyday life. That’s what moral theology is all about. It’s what Catholic teaching is all about. It’s about how we are to flourish as people and how we’re to live in this diverse world of ours.”
Doctrine outlines our ideals. It defines the perfect life, perfect prayer, perfect communion, complete truth, perfect harmony in every aspect of life. We need those ideals but we’re not perfect, said Collins, archbishop of Toronto.
“We’re all imperfect Catholics. We’re all struggling,” he said.
If Catholics were perfect, they wouldn’t need the church.
“The church needs to be there — and the church is there — for people: to welcome, to encourage, to support. That’s what we’re doing,” Collins said. “What (Pope Francis) is describing is not a new wrinkle or something. What he’s describing is the actual working out of the way the church operates in terms of caring for people, but holding up, as he says very clearly, the message of the Gospel.”
However imperfect our lives may be, sexually or otherwise, the church and its clergy are there first and foremost to listen.
“Couples need our help. I’m so happy that he’s addressed that need,” said St. Augustine’s Seminary theologian Josephine Lombardi. “There are couples in parishes willing to journey with couples and help them. You know, there’s going to be days when someone’s going to lose a job, someone is going to have a big fight, someone is going to be diagnosed with cancer. So, how are we assisting these couples?”
Pope Francis does not hesitate to criticize his own church and especially the clergy for wielding doctrine and canon law like a weapon.
“A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” he writes.
But the pope’s disappointment with a few pastors shouldn’t be taken as the general state of affairs, said Lombardi. We don’t live in a coldly bureaucratic church of no, she said.
“We need to dispel some of the myths around annulments in the church,” she said. “It’s a very user-friendly process, very caring and compassionate.”
To restate doctrine or change church law in the hope of a remedy to all the troubles we see in our parishes and families would be to prescribe based on the wrong diagnosis, said Atlantic School of Theology professor David Deane. It’s not our doctrine, our ideals, that’s twisted. Our laws are ever reformable, but for the most part they are faithful to Catholic ideals. The problems we have with sex, marriage and family life begin at the grassroots. It’s a problem of culture.
“The goal of the exhortation, and this is Francis’ goal right across the board, is how does he change, how does he reform, the culture of the church,” said Deane. “He wants a culture which is merciful, a culture which is journeying with people, a culture which doesn’t discriminate against people based upon the fact that they haven’t attained the platonic ideal of relationships but instead may embrace them as being on their way to that.”