Christian Sex: Freedom and Joy in Love
Christian sex frees you to love completely. It lets you be fully human.
The Catholic Church boldly declares that sex is an extremely good thing — a holy thing!
This article describes:
- The basic theory of Christian sex
- What it means in practice
Every beginning Catholic — every Christian — needs to know this.
The truth about Christian sex is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most beautiful and liberating teachings. And one of the most challenging.
Just remember what it’s really about: freedom!
Christian sex: a Theology of the Body
Pope John Paul II gave us an extraordinary gift: the Theology of the Body. His reflections help us see God’s original plan for sex & marriage. But more than that…
…it helps us start to live that plan now!
Knowing this plan teaches us what it means to be human. Christian sex is about living fully in the light of God’s truth. How we look at and live our sexuality reveals our deep convictions about:
- Who we are
- Who God is
- What love is & what it really means
- How society and even the universe are ordered
- What our ultimate destiny is
Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body looks deeply at the Genesis stories of the creation of man.
Genesis describes God’s original plan for marriage, including the sexual union of man & woman in which we “become one flesh.” The Pope sees this as the key to discovering “the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life.”
God built into our very bodies his call to love as he loves. That’s why we’re created male and female, and are built to become “one flesh.”
The body & the flesh
In fact, our bodies are extremely important: it’s how God chose to come and meet us. We call that the Incarnation.
Our bodies reveal the core truth about the human person: we are made to give ourselves in love. This intimate, sexual union of man & woman (becoming “one flesh”) is a reflection, a visible sign, of the invisible mystery of God — the deep union and endless self-giving love within the Trinity.
- Of course, God is not sexual. But God is at heart a communion of Persons, an exchange of Love.
- We are made in the image & likeness of God. He chose to create the sexual nature of our bodies as the expression of his own inner life of communion.
This means that how we live in our bodies matters tremendously.
Our views of, and choices in, sexuality have the power to orient us properly toward life in Christ, or toward something else.
Christian sex must be oriented to Christ!
Will you accept the Redemption?
We live in a fallen world. We all see the effects of this every day.
We see it quite strongly in our sexuality.
And yet, as Christians, we’ve accepted Christ’s offer to redeem us from the state of sin. That is the Good News!
But it raises the question:
- Do we accept this in our sexuality?
- Or do we insist on living as if we’re not redeemed?
Accepting the Redemption in our sexual lives requires work on our part. We are strongly inclined to sin and selfishness in this area. We need to consciously and actively work to overcome these tendencies.
Christ calls us to freedom. Through his very life, and the action of the Holy Spirit, he offers us countless graces to be able to respond.
This is what the virtue of chastity is about: the successful integration of sexuality into your life, whether you’re married (and therefore sexually active with your spouse) or single (and therefore celibate). Chastity involves self-mastery, and is one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. (See Catechism, 2337 - 2359)
That’s the main choice in Christian sex: will you accept Christ’s offer of redemption and freedom? Or will you settle for something less?
Christian sex fulfills your
The bottom line is that we express and live our marriage vows in our sexual relations with our spouse. Do we fulfill those vows with our sexuality, or do we break them? In Catholic marriage vows, spouses promise each other a marriage that is:
- Total, exclusive, & permanent
- Open to children
Christian sex must remain faithful to all aspects of these vows.
Catholic morality is simply saying that this is what sex means. Its true meaning is only found by fulfilling your wedding vows. Anything less is settling for…
…less than complete fidelity. Less than true love. Less than Christ’s freedom.
Do you and your spouse really want… less?
Practical matters of Christian sex
OK. Fine. But what does all this really mean?
Here’s the first principle of Christian sexual morality:
God (a.k.a. “Nature”) has given sex both a unitive and procreative purpose. A well-ordered sexuality keeps both the unitive and procreative aspects together.
It is disordered to separate them.
- This does not mean that every act of sexual intercourse must result in conception! It simply means that it’s wrong to deliberately deny or hinder either aspect, the unitive or procreative.
The unitive aspects are ordered to increasing the unity of the spouses. They express and deepen their love for one another. The procreative aspects relate to bearing children, the most obvious and fundamental reason for our sexuality.
The second principle follows from the first: Sexual activity must…
- Take place within marriage
- Be of loving intent & action
- Complete in a way that does not refuse the possibility of fertility
- Quite specifically, this means that the male’s climax must occur during normal sexual intercourse.
Within those guidelines, there isn’t really much of a list of “do nots.”
Personally, I was rather surprised by that: I expected “do nots.” Lots of them. But that’s the wrong mindset! It fits perfectly with Catholic morality, where the “law of love” is the first and greatest principle, and the rules themselves are a minimum level below which we must not fall.
Christopher West answers very specific questions about Christian sex & particular acts in Good News About Sex & Marriage. (That’s a great book; I highly recommend it. It gives a good summary of the Theology of the Body, while focusing in detail on the practical aspects of Christian sex.) Most things come down to:
- Are you violating one of the basic principles, above?
- Examine your intentions. Is it really a loving act? (That’s the key to the whole thing.) Some acts will be loving for one couple, and not for another.
- Is there something about the act itself that prevents it from being loving? For example, is it somehow degrading, abusive, dangerous, or obviously selfish?
This is radically Christian in its total gift of self to your spouse. It’s wonderfully loving. And it’s completely well-ordered to nature, to the way our bodies are built.
It’s really quite liberating!
(Many people have questions about specific practices. See my articles about Christian oral sex and the Catholic teaching on masturbation for examples of applying these principles. Other articles examine Catholic natural family planning, and the conflict between contraception and religion.)
What things are disordered?
From that first principle of maintaining the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality, we can easily see the reasons why Christian sex names some behaviors as being objectively disordered:
- Sex outside of marriage refuses real unity by refusing to give yourself totally to the other. Sex, and responsibility for fertility, is so incredibly important that it demands the total commitment of marriage.
- Homosexuality insists on using only the unitive aspects of sexuality (pleasure & intimacy) in a relationship that is inherently sterile. It is literally dis-ordered: it does not follow the proper order of our basic biology.
- Contraception refuses fertility. This is also a violation of the vow to give yourself totally — it’s saying, “I’m withholding my fertility from you.” (See contraception and religion and Catholic natural family planning for more.)
- Artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization separate fertility from the act of sexual intercourse itself. Whereas contraception desires unity without fertility, artificial fertilization techniques desire fertility outside of the natural act of sexual unity.
- Masturbation and pornography insist on sexual pleasure without either unity or fertility. (See the Catholic teaching on masturbation for more.)
- Polygamy, “open marriage”, and adultery refuse fidelity, and the requirement that marriage be total & exclusive.
“But what about birth control?”
The desire to contracept is the number one reason why many Christians don’t want to accept these teachings about Christian sex.
To put it more bluntly: many people want to withhold their fertility from their spouse. And from God.
Contraception and religion aren’t compatible.
But this does not mean that you have to bear as many children as you can physically manage to produce during your fertile years!
Regulation of the number and spacing of children is a part of responsible parenthood (Catechism, 2368 & 2399).
- It would be wrong to refuse to have any children.
- It’s also wrong to blindly have as many children as possible without giving attention to your ability to lovingly raise, care for, and educate them.
- Between those two extremes is a large gray area. Each couple must discern the family size that is proper for them, being careful to avoid limiting family size just for selfish reasons.
…how do you regulate family size appropriately? How can married couples still enjoy Christian sex while avoiding artificial birth control?
The Catholic Church recommends Catholic natural family planning, or NFP. Please note that NFP is not the “rhythm method.” NFP is simple to learn and use, extremely low-cost, and very effective for avoiding pregnancy (it’s 99-100% effective). More importantly, many couples find that their use of NFP has a positive effect on their marriage.
Forward… to freedom!
An official Pontifical Council at the Vatican issued a lengthy article on sex education within the Catholic family. Numbered paragraphs 1 - 33 cover many of these principles of Christian sex (opens in new window) in much more detail. (The article is the Pontifical Council for the Family’s 1996 “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality”.)
We need to keep the big picture in mind when thinking about the topic of Christian sex.
Recall the beautiful words of St. Leo the Great that begin the Catholic Catechism’s section on morality (also quoted in our main article about Catholic morality):
Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God. (Catechism, #1691)
Our sexuality is one of the essential areas to recognize our dignity as men and women who have received a free gift of new life in Christ.
This beautiful view of Christian sex helps us live accordingly.