Father William Saunders
Recently, the <Washington Post> had an article on the front page about a student at Catholic University. The student plays basketball, and has his girlfriend and their child ride in the team van to watch the games. Am I missing something, or has the Church stopped teaching that premarital sex is wrong?A reader in Alexandria.
The Catholic Church continues to teach that sexual love between a man and woman is reserved to marriage. We find this teaching in the creation account of Genesis Book one, Chapter one of sacred scripture. First, God creates man in His own image and likeness, making them male and female (Gn. 1:27). In the next verse, the Bible reads, "God blessed them, saying, `Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it'" (Gn. 1:28). Before the man and woman come together as husband and wife, and before they express their love as husband and wife, they are first blessed by God.
Only in marriage do we find God's blessing upon the act of sexual love, or what is better termed marital love. This physical expression of love in marriage is a sacred sign of a husband and wife's covenant of life and love that they share in union with God. This marital love signifies the vows freely exchanged between each other and thereby reflects the faithful, permanent, exclusive and self-giving love they have promised to each other and to God. This understanding is evident in Jesus' response to the Pharisees' question regarding divorce: "Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and declared, `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one'? Thus they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore let no man separate what God has joined" (Mt. 19:4-6). Through the sacrament of holy matrimony, God blesses the couple joined in this sacred bond and generously bestows grace so that they may assume the duties of marriage in mutual and lasting fidelity.
Moreover, the marital love of husband and wife which unites them as "one flesh" may overflow and participate in God's creative love: a child may be born from their love. Here again, God gives abundant graces so that the husband and wife can fulfill their duties as father and mother. Therefore, in accord with God's design, sexual love is reserved to marriage.
Think, though, of this issue from the perspective of the child, who may be conceived by an act of sexual love: A child has the inviolable right to life from the moment of conception until death. He has the right to be born. He has the right to two loving parents who are husband and wife, who have pledged their total love to each other, and who have the means to provide for raising a child. He has the right to be considered as a gift from God, not as an "unplanned pregnancy," an "accident" or a "burden." In essence, a child has the right to the best family possiblea family filled with love. (Cf. "Donum Vitae," II, 8). Here again, just using our reason, we can conclude that sexual love ought to be reserved to marriage.
Taking sexual love outside the context of marriage is contrary to the dignity of each person and of marriage. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II lamented the decline in respect for marital love in his encyclical "The Gospel of Life": "Sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other's richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts" (No. 23).
Given this teaching, little wonder the Bible has grave condemnations against both fornication, "carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman" (<Catechism>, No. 2353) and adultery , "when two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relationseven transient ones." (<Catechism>, No. 2381). Jesus said: "Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart: acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous contact, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance and obtuse spirit. All these evils come from within and render a man impure" (Mk. 7:21-23; cf. also Mt. 15:19). St. Paul warned, "Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sexual perverts, thieves, misers or drunkards, no slanderers, or robbers will inherit God's kingdom" (1 Cor. 6:9-10). In the last judgment scene depicted in the Book of Revelation, God said, "As for the cowards and traitors to the faith, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and receivers of every sorttheir lot is the fiery pool of burning sulfur, the second death!" (Rv. 21:8). God's upholding of the sacredness of marital love is clearly evidenced in the blatant condemnation of the sins against it.
Sadly, in our society, we see the act of marital love trivialized. Whether we would turn to pornography or even to a comedy show, the act of marital love is oftentimes portrayed as a selfish expression without any sense of permanence, fidelity or exclusivity. The act is reduced simply to an immediate, fleeting pleasure without any sense of responsibility to each other or to the possible child conceived. The couple easily forgets that the action could conceive a child and that they could become "Mommy and Daddy." And what then? Would the child be aborted? Would he be raised by one parent, by grandparents or by two parents "forced" to get married?
We see the tragedy that occurs when we deviate from God's plan. Many people have thought they were in love with someone else, gave themselves to that person in the most intimate expression of human love, and then were later discarded. Many people heard the phrase, "I want you," but all the person really wanted was a body, not a person; a sensation, not a commitment of life and love. Many people speak of "making love," without realizing we cannot make love: God Himself is love, we can only live in His love in accord with His design (1 Jn. 4:16). Yes the eyes of many people today reveal an internal emptiness which comes from spending oneself on a fleeting pleasure rather than on building upon a marriage and a family.
In response, the Church calls people to live the virtue of chastity. Chastity respects the dignity of our human sexuality and the sacredness of marital love. In chastity, a person strives for mastery over feelings and passions, respects the sacredness of marital love, and takes responsibility for his actions. This virtue, moreover, gives great freedom: freedom from slavery to passions; freedom from any sexually transmitted disease, so easily contracted in this age because of promiscuity; freedom from loss of a good reputation and being known as "easy," "a slut" or "a womanizer"; freedom from painful memories or regrets of past relationships; freedom from mortal sin and eternal punishment. St. Paul challenges us to live in the freedom of God's children.
Granted, the temptations of this world are great. By the grace of God, we can live in such freedom, respecting the sacredness of marital love.
Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.