SIN AND VIRTUE.
AN ESSAY ON HUMAN SEXUALITY.
Andrew Szebenyi S.J.
Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY.
In this short essay I consider the personal, social, and procreative aspects of human sexuality. Each has its own natural, and thus, legitimate meaning. It is in procreation that all three aspects are fully integrated, but in a responsible setting, such integration is rare.
Why is masturbation, or any kind of genital self pleasuring, sinful? I am not going to try to answer this question from any kind of moral theory but only from experience. In such framework the only answer I can give at this point is that I have been brought up to think so. I have been told. I am quite sure that during my childhood no one has ever explained to me the reason or reasons why masturbation is something bad. The notion has been simply stated together with the threat of severe punishment merited by a deadly sin and reinforced by external factors, such as rather vague and often negative cultural attitudes toward sexuality, but never has there been an explanation from within the act or habit of masturbation itself. It is quite clear to me by now that there is no physical harm caused by this activity. The only possible harmful effect is the mental anguish resulting from the conflict of need and guilt. The source of guilt is an authoritative external statement, the need is an internal given. To say that masturbation is sinful because it is intrinsically evil is a statement and not an explanation. Neither is a recourse to tradition, a long chain of being told so, an answer.
By the way, what does being sinful mean in these matters? Again, considering the way I have been brought up, I am at a loss here. All we need to do is to open the catechism and there, without explanation, we are simply told that this or that is sinful. If I ask the question Why? the answer is another question, Isnt that obvious? This ploy puts the burden on the lack of intelligence of the one who asked a question in the first place. In any case, most of these things about sex are taboo, and we do not talk about them.
The same kind of thinking applies to virtue in sexual matters. If a virtue is the avoidance of the unexplained sin, then the virtue is also unexplained. If it is for the sake of a positive action, then the positive effect should be made clear. The usual method is to state a principle and then evaluate our actions in terms of that principle. Since the principle itself is not explained, the evaluation becomes meaningless. For example, it is stated that human sexuality by its very nature is for procreation. Masturbation is a non procreative sexual act. Therefore, masturbation is contrary to the natural purpose of human sexuality and is, therefore, an unnatural, intrinsically evil act. But is procreation the exclusive purpose of human sexuality? Well, isnt that obvious? From the point of view of common human experience, it is not obvious.
It seems to me that the traditional deductive approach, that is the application of an unexplained principle to practical matters, is a copout. So I am going to follow here a different methodology that enables me to investigate the meaning of human sexuality from experience, and then evaluate this experience in terms of the well being of the individual and of humanity.
It soon becomes apparent that our sexual experiences are very complex as they imply matters, which are multi dimensional, and are developmentally dynamic. The meaning of well being is equally complex. In addition, we are social beings, and so we need to consider the well being of one as well as that of all. This complexity, however, should not confuse us. It is a common statistical procedure, when we study complex phenomena, to reduce the effect of all components to zero except for one in order to see the effect of that component. We may use the same approach in our case. We should first investigate what masturbation means to the well being of the individual in the absence of other dimensions.
Here is the scenario. Suppose that, because of events beyond your control, you find yourself on a tropical island. You are totally alone. The climate is pleasant, the island supplies food and water. One of your concerns is how to get back to civilization. The other, how to occupy your time and mind to maintain your physical and mental health meanwhile. You try to keep alive your interests and creativity. You do not know how long you are going to be here, but being a positive thinker, you decide from the start to make your stay as pleasant and comfortable and constructive as possible. Being a person of faith you believe in Gods providence in all matters, including your present situation. You are reasonably young and healthy. You find the island rich in life and beautiful and, in spite of your predicament, it is not difficult to see Gods creative love and care in all this. When you wake up as the sun rises, you spend some time in prayer. After that you gather some fruits and catch some small fish near the shore. You are successful in making fire using dried grass and flint as starters. You investigate the island to see its potentials. You keep a calendar, and make a simple sundial, to tell the time. After a few months, you begin to wonder if you ever will be rescued. The few months lengthen into years. You find it important for your physical and mental health to keep in touch with yourself, with your body, and your feelings. To compensate for your loneliness you indulge in sexual fantasies when they intrude upon you rather forcefully, especially before going to sleep. In such situations, sometimes you masturbate, which you find exciting and pleasurable, and an effective way to ease sexual tensions, which may become extreme on a sleepless night. You find that such sexual experiences make you come alive. You also find that resisting to satisfy this need beyond a certain point makes you very tense, irritable, and even destructive. At first you try to resist all this because of some rules of life you brought with you, but somehow these rules become less important and meaningful as time goes on. Eventually, you accept occasional genital pleasuring as something normal. It satisfies, at least to some extent, a natural need.
Considering this scenario, the question is whether masturbation promotes your well being or is it destructive to you. The only rule is that the answer must come from the situation itself and not from an external preconceived notion. Then I would say, that in the given scenario, masturbation is a normal expression of human sexuality, and it contributes to the health and well being of the individual.
But let us leave this scenario and investigate another dimension of what we call sexual. From experience we know that our sexuality has social dimensions. To fall in love, to experience the joys and pleasures of being together, the giving and taking of intense physical pleasures in sexual union, the sense of being made complete and fulfilled by another who is the one for ever beloved, are psychologically and socially powerful binding forces. All this is deeply part of being human and by recognizing the right to life of each human being, we should also recognize the right to love and being loved in return. This is the way God created us, and said, all this is good. To love and to be loved add a great deal to our well being.
Having described, in the paragraph above, rather briefly some of the social dimension of sexuality in the practical terms of relationship, and having recognized in it Gods creative goodness, we should ask the question, What about those who have been born with homosexual orientation? Do they also have the right to love and to be loved? Remaining within the experience itself, and following the rule, consider the effects of one by reducing all else to none, I believe the answer should be yes. To be born with a given sexual orientation is a created gift, and being homosexual in no way diminishes the need or abolishes the right to love and to be loved. The key to the experience is the given natural orientation of relationship. Some would say that, yes they can love but not sexually, because human sexuality by its very nature must be procreative and therefore heterosexual. This statement, however, comes from outside the experience itself and remains unexplained. Remaining within the experience the logic is reversed. Since homosexual orientation is a natural given, and to love and to be loved as a sexual experience is very much part of our well being, not all sexual is procreative.
Let us go a step further now and consider one more dimension of human sexuality. The fullest and most beautiful expression of our sexuality is procreation. Having children is a great benefit to all. It benefits the child, the parents, and humanity. In spite of the many difficulties and hardships of any relationship, having a family is a natural way to much joy and fulfillment. Family life is a school of loving, and love gives meaning to all. Even so, it is important to understand the procreative expressions of human sexuality in a perspective that remains within the experience itself, and relate this experience to the well being of all who are effected by it. In this framework there are two practical questions to be answered.
The first question is about numbers and limits. The power of reproduction is exponential, and in a world of limited resources it needs some balancing factor, which in ecology we call environmental resistance. The interaction of these two factors, the capacity to increase and environmental resistance, is expressed in the demographic equation, where the growth of the population is determined by the difference between birthrate and death rate. In nature, there is balance between these factors at zero population growth with a possibly slight positive edge in favor of survival. During the last century, we experienced an enormous population growth, unprecedented in human history. The major cause for the demographic imbalance that resulted was a sequence of medical advances including our understanding of the need for basic hygiene, the discovery of immunization against viral diseases, the discovery of antibiotics against bacterial infections, and the progress achieved in medical pharmacology and technology. The result was a significant reduction of death rate in general and child mortality in particular, which in the absence of commensurate reduction in birthrate resulted in our present potentially dangerous imbalance. Why did we not make appropriate adjustments of birthrate in order to remain in a natural demographic and ecological balance? At the heart of the problem was the code of ethics our tradition provided, which came from an age of high death rate and the obvious need to maximize reproductive success for the sake of our survival. Under such conditions, all sexual had to be channeled toward procreation. For the sake of our survival in our present time, we need to practice considerable reproductive restraint. In practical terms this restraint means to limit the number of children to two in most families. How to achieve this? There aren't really many choices in this matter. Either we control our fertility by making use of adequate contraceptive means, or we allow death rate to rise through medical neglect, the refusal of care for the elderly, and abortion. From the point of view of the well being of all, adequate contraception is the reasonable answer.
The other question is about the wide difference between the number of children and the number of reproductive years in a lifetime. It takes but a few years to have two or even three children in a family, while women are able to conceive through a period of around 35 years, and the reproductive years of men are close to a lifetime. Since the biological act of procreation for the couple is a relatively short moment, while the caring for the children and for each other is a lifelong commitment, it is clear that most of the sexual expressions of the parents toward each other are actually non procreative. In a situation demanding reproductive restraint, it would be contrary to the well being of the couples and of humanity to attempt to render these two aspects of the sexual loving and sharing relationship inseparable. The conclusion from this simple reflection is that the sexual expressed in terms of relationship, and the sexual that is actually procreative are not the same most of the time.
Up to this point we considered the experiences of personal, social, and social procreative well being of all concerned in a natural setting, assuming that what appears to us as natural is also something good. After all, what is natural must be a created gift. Is it possible, however, that we may have an inclination to abuse a natural gift by doing what is destructive? After all child abuse, fornication, pornography, rape, and adultery are also part of human sexual experience, and they are clearly, though for different reasons, destructive abuses. How can we be free from the bias of distorted judgments and see clearly what is abusive?
Fortunately, there are two testing devices which may show up the presence or absence of abuse. One is the measure of selfishness in the motives of what we do, indicating proportionately the degree of damage that our actions may cause to others. The other is a more direct test to show genuine love asking to what extent the happiness and well being of others is actually our own happiness and well being. If we score low on the first and high on the second, the probability of destructive abuse is proportionately reduced and may be even ruled out.
And so here we are. Our sexuality is a created gift of life, and a gateway to well being and fulfillment. All this could be wonderful. And yet, the realities of life are never that simple. There is a disharmony between nature and culture, the way we are by virtue of creation and the way we actually feel and act about it. This disharmony is powerfully expressed in the imagery of the book of Genesis. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked. So they sowed fig leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths. (Genesis 3:7) Our experiences in sexual matters are not free from an often negative cultural bias that we acquire as we grow up. That is why a purely natural way of life, even in terms of rational well being, is not free of guilt and shame.
It may seem that by listing the natural given of individual, social and social procreative aspects of life, we have included all aspects of human sexuality.
One would think so. And yet, there is one more aspect to consider, and that is the renunciation of all sexuality for the sake of Gods kingdom, as it is to be expressed in the celibate way of life of catholic priests in our time. One of the Scriptural foundations for this is given in Matthew 19:12. Jesus said, There are eunuchs born that way from their mothers womb, there are eunuchs made so by men and there are eunuchs who made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can. This is a difficult statement. How should we interpret it? What does such desexualization mean in the lives of naturally sexual human beings? There ae three different conditions mentioned in the quoted sentence. I shall consider them each in turn.
The range of being born that way is wide. It includes the severely handicapped, the many forms of sexually incapacitating genetic disorders, natural sterility, and homosexual orientation. Do these born with conditions imply a natural absence of sexual need as part of human life? For some they do, for others they dont. What is similar among all these is the natural inability to have children for a wide range of reasons. We cannot call these various conditions unnatural if there are people who were born with them. But isnt our sexual nature, and that of the many forms of life on earth, by definition, oriented toward procreation to make sure the survival of the species? After all, the biblical command is to multiply and fill the earth. In a culture where many people firmly believe in unlimited growth in a limited world, such orientation may easily become counterproductive and destructive. We do not find unlimited growth in natural systems. We find balance. To achieve a natural balance at a point of practical best, there must be at least two factors working together, one to increase and the other to decrease a given natural good. I believe the same would apply to those who were born with or without the ability to have children. We need them both to survive well in a limited world. We are to have supportive and compassionate respect for all creation.
And there are those who were made so by others. Here is an example, the castrato male voice. The Castrato, also called Evirato, as it is described by the Encyclopedia Britannica, is a male soprano or contralto voice of great range, flexibility, and power, produced as a result of castration before puberty. The castrato voice was introduced in the 16th century, when women were banned from church choirs and the stage. It reached its greatest prominence in 17th- and 18th-century opera. The practice of castration, illegal and inhumane, produced an adult voice of extraordinary power attributable to the greater lung capacity and physical bulk of the adult male. The practice was not unknown to church choirs. Then there is the tragic story of Peter Abelard, a brilliant representative of early scholasticism, who at the order of Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame, was castrated as a punishment for his love affair with Héloise, the niece of Fulbert. Castration of human males has been an ancient custom. In Imperial China and in other Oriental Empires castrated men known as eunuchs occupied important court positions. In the Muslim polygamous and male dominated cultures, eunuchs were the overseers and care givers of harems where the wifes and concubines of the very rich were confined. The practice of castration, for the cultural reasons implied by the given examples are, of course, abuses of the worst kind.
The last entry in the list of three in the quoted scriptural passage is the difficult one. And there are those who made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. What is ment here is celibacy, which is not just a legal term meaning the renouncement of the marital state, but a way of life in which through an act of lifelong sacrifice sexuality is renounced. Some may say that in a celibate way of life, properly understood, only the physical, that is the genital aspects of human sexuality are avoided. In my view such dichotomy is unreal, and celibacy is an act of sacrifice that cuts through the very foundations of being human, and the whole concept of the balance of well being shifts toward becoming elusive and less comprehensible within the boundaries of life as created gift. It would be easier to understand a position of renunciation if the shunned object would be something bad or disgusting. After all who would like to satisfy the natural cravings of hunger by eating food that has been spoiled? St. Augustine wrote, Those famous men who marry wives only for the procreation of children, such as we read the Patriarchs to have been, and know it, by many proofs, by the clear and unequivocal testimony of the sacred books; whoever, I say, they who marry wives for this purpose only, if the means could be given them of having children without intercourse with their wives, would they not with joy unspeakable embrace so great a blessing? Would they not with great delight accept it? (Sermon 1, paragraph 23 in Sermons on the New Testament). Augustine may have been a great saint and a great mystic, but he certainly had a huge problem with human sexuality. Somehow he never could become totally free from the shadow of the Manichaean negativity toward the human body. The dualistic Manichaean belief that the human body is an evil prison of the divine spark of life the soul has been condemned as heresy on many occasions. As to marriage the council of Braga in the sixth century stated, If anyone condemns human marriage and says that the procreation of children is something detestable, as Manes and Priscillian have said; let him be anathema.
If cultural negativity toward human sexuality is not an acceptable reason for the celibate way of life, then what justifies it? I can think of only two rational explanations. One is the value of dedicated service, the other the value of sacrifice.
In special circumstances some people are willing to give up marriage and family to be able to pursue a special profession, which may require a great deal of time and total dedication. We find such examples in science, art, the medical profession, in social services, and some other more demanding ways of lives. Nonetheless, it is definitely uncommon to find people who feel the need to be free from the burdens of marriage and family in order to pursue a special vocation. It is strange that in the Roman Church, what seems to be special has become the standard. I will not go into details about the historical roots and reasons for celibacy of the Catholic clergy. The fact is that celibacy has become a necessary condition, at least for the time being, to pursue a call to be a priest. In the practicalities of life, this condition may not be desired by all who feel to have a vocation to be priests, but simply accepted, because there is no other way.
As to sacrifice, we are on delicate grounds because sacrifice is not for its own sake. We make sacrifices in order to reach a goal we want that cannot be obtained in other ways. There must be a positive and much desired value here that is greater than the negativity of the necessary sacrifice. An unnecessary sacrifice is meaningless, and by definition, a sacrifice that is destructive to oneself is a contradiction. And yet Jesus said, This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13) The only way this statement can remain in balance is in the fact that the well being and happiness of another is indeed ones own well being and happiness, and that this present life is merely a gateway toward the fullness of life to come.
I seem to be in deep darkness here, the darkness of no understanding except for some strange and sudden flashes of lights and the hearing of unidentifiable sounds, revealing moments of another and beautiful world. These moments seem to be like the stirring feelings of the yet unborn.
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