Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sex and sanity: knowing who('s) you are

Few topics draw as much interest as sex. It doesn't really seem to matter what aspect of sex you might be discussing, be it encouragement to healthy sexuality or discussing the less healthy aspects of it. This goes to show how obsessed we are with sex and how confused we are about this aspect of being human. I readily acknowledge that few things turn people away from discussions of sex than getting all doctrinal about it, or a long discourse on chastity, especially when chastity is used as a code word for the inherent "badness" of sex. Nonetheless, I think it very worthwhile to quote what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about chastity:
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man's belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.

The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift (par. 2337)
I think this helps us tremendously because it tells us a lot about our sexuality, which is part and parcel of our humanity, but only a part. In other words, we are not defined by our sexual preferences of proclivities. This is why I don't define myself as an heterosexual. I am a male human being who is heterosexual, but there is a lot more about me than that, Deo gratias!

This evening, as we enter into the great Feast of Pentecost, a day when the Sacrament of Confirmation is often administered by bishops in their cathedrals, it is important to ruminate on our true identity. The Lord Jesus' confirmation took place immediately following His baptism by John in the river Jordan: "On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased'" (Mark 1:10-11). The word we use to describe this mystery, "confirmation," is used in a very ordinary sense. What was confirmed as Jesus came up out of the water was His identity as the Father's only begotten Son. What is confirmed when we are anointed is our baptismal identity as children of the Father, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. For a Christian, this is who you are, it precedes and under girds anything and everything else about you!

St. Paul is very adamant about this throughout his letters. This is what he meant when he wrote to the Church in Corinth, "So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor. 5:17). While this is by no means limited to our sexuality, it certainly includes it. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle, after likely writing about the immorality of engaging pagan temple prostitutes, the apostle wrote: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body" (1 Cor. 6:19-20). The exploitative nature of ancient temple prostitution was highlighted by Pope Benedict in his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, in answer to the question Nietzsche posed and answered in the affirmative, Did Christianity destroy eros? The Holy Father noted that, like many other ancient cultures, the Greeks thought of eros "principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a 'divine madness' which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness" (par. 4). In part, the way this understanding was religiously and cultically lived out was through "'sacred' prostitution which flourished in many temples. Eros was thus celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine" (par. 4).

The religion of Israel always stood in opposition to this deformed religion, even in the northern lands of Israel, where such fertility cults flourished to the point that many Israelites, who were always called back to fidelity to their covenant with God, participated. The Holy Father insisted that this was by no means a rejection of eros, but a vehement rejection of what he described as "a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it" (par. 4). He goes on to note explicitly something Paul only implied in the sixth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians, namely that the temple prostitutes, whose job it was "to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing 'divine madness': far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited" (par. 4).

The pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake is not, Pope Benedict insisted, "an ascent in 'ecstasy' towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man" (par. 4). Hence, to be truly human, "eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns" (par. 4).

In his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris consortio, Blessed Pope John Paul II, who more than any other pope, and probably more than any bishop even prior to becoming pope, understood and articulated the sacramental nature of marriage, noting that like all of the seven sacraments, marriage "is a real symbol of the event of salvation" (par. 13). As with each sacrament, the sacrament of matrimony is a symbol of the event of salvation in a particular and unique way (par. 13). Because spouses participate in the sacrament of matrimony precisely as a couple, the first effect of marriage, according to Pope John Paul II, is "the Christian conjugal bond," which he identifies as "a typically Christian communion of two persons” because it is symbolic of the mystery of Christ’s nuptial relationship to the church (par. 13; Ephesians 5:32). Then he noted something that is vitally important, namely that conjugal relations between spouses constitute the “content” of their participation together "in Christ’s life" (par. 13).

This is so, John Paul II reasoned, because "conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter- appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will" (par.13). Hence, marital love, which is conjugal by nature, seeks the realization of inter-personal unity in which becoming one flesh in and through sexual union is necessary in order for the spouses to form "one heart and soul" (par. 13). This is perhaps the primary reason that marriage is indissoluble and requires spousal fidelity to the other "in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility" (par. 13).

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