Sex, Chastity, and the Church

By Michael Koss
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“Love is a revelation that the other is one’s beautiful beloved. It is a revelation of a truth: I love you. I want to be involved with you, to give myself to you.”

A few months ago, Catholic Campus Ministry (CCM) welcomed Timothy P. O’Malley, the author of Off the Hook: God, Love, Dating, and Marriage in a Hookup World, as a guest speaker. O’Malley teaches courses on theology, liturgy, and the Sacrament of Marriage at the University of Notre Dame, and the above quotation comes from his book.

I read O’Malley’s book and attended his presentation, and I wanted to share some essential takeaways from both with you.

O’Malley’s book argues that “the hookup culture” on college campuses and in society as a whole is a “cultural liturgy,” a way of acting and thinking, that responds to the intrinsic desire in all of us to intimately connect with another person, to love and be loved. But it teaches us to experience this desire in an imperfect way. It teaches us that sex is about ourselves, about our needs being gratified, and that it is the culmination or ultimate expression of attraction. And he argues that this mindset, to an extent, spills into how we tend to conduct relationships: that is, with ourselves at the center and without an understanding of how to date another person, how to prioritize emotional intimacy over sexual intimacy.

He cites one-night stands, and drunken one-night stands in particular, as examples of this: In these scenarios, an individual, attractive as they may be, is, fundamentally, a means to an end for another’s pleasure, and vice versa, with little to no effort made by either person to pursue something more than that one-night stand.

He also cites pornography as an example of this: it has, to use his words, lured people (and particularly, but not exclusively, men) into a state of “prolonged adolescence” and, in extreme cases, into a very real addiction. Not only that, it has warped our societal understandings of sex, training us (and, again, he particularly points to young men) to view sex as self-centered and domineering (and thus degrading toward one’s partner).

O’Malley offers an “alternative liturgy” grounded in the Church’s understanding of marriage as an antidote to the habits and practices of the hook-up culture.

He explains that love is always about communion; it is always about knowing someone as they are and loving who they are. This is why the Catholic Church does not countenance pre-marital sex: sexual activity is meant for enjoyment, but it is even more so meant as “the embodied commitment to the other person that takes place within a broader relationship” that involves “a mutual submission of wills, an offering of permanent, lifelong commitment to one’s spouse.” Sexual intimacy is meant as a declaration of trust, affection, attraction, and commitment to a person whom one has come to know and love.

As such, according to Catholic tradition, each person is called to the practice of chastity: that is, a way of living that lives the understanding that love is about viewing people as people, as gifts, as the beloved of God–and especially your significant other. It is about cultivating a friendship rooted in a romantic attraction that understands the significance of sexual intimacy and what it is meant for: a way of furthering and amplifying the love, trust, and faith between one another, and a way of allowing that love to bring about new life.

This teaching of the Church is a great, challenging, and high calling, but we are all called to it; for, as Pope Benedict XVI said, we are not made for comfort but for greatness.