High Moral Principles

new internationalist
issue 158 - April 1986

High moral principles
But should the Church move with the times? Roman Catholic
theologian and psychiatrist Jack Dominion argues that
the answer to this question must be 'Yes'.

Photo: Alan Hughes NEGATIVE towards pleasure and positive towards procreation: that sums up the traditional Christian teaching about sex. Sex was for creating children. And the pleasure that went with it was nothing more than a suitable reward. Outside marriage sex was always forbidden. But sexual pleasure is now slowly being re-embraced by the Church. And it is now officially recognised as a precious gift from God. This change has not yet percolated throughout the whole Church, however. And it is the link between sex and procreation that remains the main stumbling block.

The Roman Catholic Church insists that every act of intercourse should be open to the transmission of life. But, even if everyone used methods of birth regulation approved by the Church, the fact still remains that nowadays 99 per cent of sexual intercourse is deliberately and consciously non-procreative. Does this imply that the deepest reason for sex is pleasure, which should be freely available provided birth regulation is used? Should men and women have sex as and when they wish without reference to marriage? In other words, has the time come to revoke the prohibitions on premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality?

Christianity insists that revelation teaches fundamental truths about human integrity. And that these insights cannot be ignored. The trouble is that the Church has made no convincing case to back up these insights. So people have come to regard its teaching as being out of date. I believe that a case made for the traditional view. But I also believe that modifications to the teachings are necessary. And the first step must be a fundamental reappraisal of the sex act itself.

The act of intercourse has traditionally been regarded as a biological act; an act which, first and foremost, makes it possible for a sperm and an ovum to unite. In my view this is a mistakenly narrow interpretation.

  • Sexual intercourse is, first of all, a body language, through which couples talk to, and do things for, one another. When couples make love they rejoice in each other's presence and in the pleasure they exchange. For this they want to give thanks. Thus sex is a recurrent act of thanksgiving.
  • Secondly, because people want to make love repeatedly, they trust that their partners will respond to them again. So sex is also a recurrent act of hope: the hope of being desired again.
  • Thirdly, in the course of the day, couples hurt one another. Most of these hurts are forgiven and forgotten on the spot. But some are too painful to be forgiven so easily. Such hurts need a deeper level of love and communication to erase them. So coitus can also be an act of reconciliation.
  • Fourthly, sexual intercourse confirms the sexual identity of the partners.
  • And, finally, every time a couple makes love, they are saying to each other: 'I recognise you, I want you, I appreciate you'. In this way it is a recurrent act of personal affirmation.

As a result coitus has the capacity to give life in a more than biological sense. So sexual intercourse not only gives pleasure. It also has a powerful personal dimension in which the couple enrich one another's lives. In short, sex unifies the physical and the personal.

From this point of view, marriage can be seen as providing the conditions where the physical and personal can unite and transform the life of the couple. Marriage provides a continuous, reliable, and predictable relationship within which the rich potential of sex can thrive. In this sense, sex actually requires marriage for the realisation of its potential.

This is the case for Christian morality: not that sex is dangerous and needs marriage and procreation to protect it; but rather that sex is so powerful and meaningful that justice can only be done to it in a continuous and enduring relationship.

So how does this view differ from the traditional Christian teachings?

The first difference is in construing sexual pleasure as an outstandingly precious gift from God, which needs to be appreciated and encouraged in and of itself. This means that sex within marriage is not for procreation alone, but for the mobilisation of love.

The second difference concerns premarital sex. At present the Church teaches that all intercourse before marriage is wrong. This is a problem. Anyone can see that there is a world of difference between a prostitute having intercourse with her client and a couple, in love with one another, having sex the night before their wedding day. In one case there is only a meeting of bodies. In the other there is a complete union of bodies and personalities. Clearly there is a whole spectrum of premarital sexual relations the morality of which need to be defined much more accurately.

Adultery is another matter. It is significant that even young people, the proclaimers of change, usually disapprove of extramarital sex. The reasons for this are obvious. Adultery is an act of betrayal which threatens the stability of the marriage. But even here there is need for a much more careful formulation of the wrongs involved. Adultery can be a one-night-stand far away from home with no threat to the relationship, or a serious involvement that puts the marriage in great danger. Like premarital sex, adultery cannot be condemned identically right across the board.

Homosexuality is different again. It has been called 'an abomination'. And it is clearly forbidden in the scriptures. Homosexuality is seen as violating the complementarity of the man-woman relationship and of undermining the conviction that sex is for procreation. But if sex is not just for procreation, if its purpose is also to unite people in love, then one can visualise the day when permanent, loving relationships between homosexuals - homosexual marriages, in other words - may be approved. However, for the time being, the teaching of Christianity appears strong in this matter and I foresee no early resolution to this question.

So 'Should the Church move with the times?' The answer must be 'Yes'. Society has a lot to teach the Church about sex. But Christianity, too, embodies fundamental truths which - although in need of equally fundamental rethinking themselves - carry basic values which society ignores at its peril.

Jack Dominion is a Roman Catholic theologian, psychiatrist, and Director of the Marital Research Centre at the Central Middlesex Hospital in the UK. His latest of many book is The Capacity to Love (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985).

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