As a priest who hears confessions on a regular basis, I can testify that among all the issues raised in the confessional, sex and sexuality emerges as the biggest single point of confusion, conflict, obsession, addiction, guilt and shame among the adult Christians of our time. Not infrequently do I ask myself why sex is both so important while being such a persistent source of suffering for so many people today?
Much of the problem, I believe, stems from a failure on the part of people like myself to teach about the place of sex in Christianity in a consistent and thorough way. The Gospel has much to say about human sexuality and its place in God’s oikonomia (His plan of salvation), but bishops, priests, pastors and other Church teachers, often seem just too squeamish to engage in a frank and honest discussion of the topic.
I am not one of them.
Before such discussion can even take place, however, we must settle another issue, namely, the definition of our terms. What do we mean by the word “sex” anyway? And what about all the other terms: sexuality, heterosexuality and homosexuality, gender and transgender, male and female, masculine and feminine?
Though used in a variety of ways, the most basic definition of sex is the division of male and female in a species according to their reproductive functions. Male and female refer to categories within sex, specifically categorizing biological differences between men and women. Sexuality, then, is the particular set of characteristics of a given sex. It is the way in which sex manifests itself in individual cases, specifically regarding reproductive functions.
Though often used a synonym for sex, gender has come to acquire a less restricted meaning. Gender is often used to speak about ways in which sex creates a set of specific social roles, expectations or ideals for men and women in given culture or society. Masculinity refers to that set of roles, expectations and ideals applying to the male sex, and femininity addresses those roles etc. applying to the female sex.
However, there exists a great range of debate about the exact extent of the relation between masculinity and maleness, femininity and femaleness. The concept of transgenderism, for example, rests on the hypothesis that gender is a purely a social construction, and has nothing to do with sex. We’ll open that can of worms later on...
What about the sexual act—what is broadly referred to as “having sex”? The phrase “sexual intercourse” would probably be more accurate, but actually, sexual intercourse can refer to a broad range of relations between the sexes, from simple conversation, to conflict resolution, to the reproductive act itself. For the purpose of this series, I will use the long-winded phrase “genital-sexual intercourse” to mean “having sex.”
With these basic and probably-not-very-scholarly definitions in mind, we can chart the course of our discussion of the ways in which Christians are to understand sex, sexuality, and gender in relation to their faith.
A whole host of questions present themselves right from the beginning. First, given the division of the sexes, does Christianity teach a division of gender also? In other words, does Christianity preach specific social roles for men and women?
Second, given the division of the sexes (along with their attendant roles for reproduction), does Christianity preclude other forms of sexuality? For example, can a person be a Christian and a homosexual practicing genital-sexual intercourse?
Third, does Christianity teach that genital-sexual intercourse is limited to a certain kind of relationship, namely, heterosexual monogamous marriage? What does it teach about homosexual marriages, polygamous marriages, or other kinds of partnerships in which genital-sexual intercourse takes place?
Finally, given the debate over the relationship between sex and gender, is Christian community leadership necessarily restricted to one sex alone? Can priests, pastors and teachers in the Church be drawn from only one, or from both sexes? More than that, can Christian leaders practice other forms of sexuality than heterosexuality within a monogamous marriage? Can we have gay pastors and lesbian bishops?
My goal in the following weeks is to address each of these questions in turn. I cannot be exhaustive but I hope I can at least present in straightforward terms what I believe is the historic Christian response to these issues.
As we go, I think we will discover that all the questions concerning sex and the Christian are rooted in and can traced back to one “super-question”: do our sexual differences as men and women ultimately determine how we relate to God as Creator? The answer will lead us inexorably to understand how sexuality affects our self-identities, as well as our relationships to each other and to our wider communities.
I’m ready if you are. Let’s talk about sex!