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Mary Marrocco: Living sexuality in the Church’s embrace

  • September 4, 2020

A young Catholic couple were not engaged, but hoping to get there. At a certain point, naturally enough, Anne and Simon found it difficult not to engage in sexual relations. Instead, they quarrelled.

“No,” Simon maintained, “sex waits until marriage.” “Yes,” Anne responded, “sex is part of dating, and finding out whether you should marry.”

They argued, felt distant and lonely, wondered if they would last, and argued. She said, “You’re making too big a deal of sex.” He said, “You’re the one making it a big deal.”

So, how big a deal is sex, in the human scheme, and in Christian life?

Some say the Church is obsessed with sex and thinks only about sexual sins. Certainly, focusing on sexual sins is no excuse for ignoring other manifestations of sin and evil. More positively, we need to hear all the ways God calls us to love, especially toward those “on the peripheries.”

But what if Simon and Anne, in their different ways, are right to see sex as a “big deal”? Sexual sin needs attention. Among other things, it’s a sign of profound spiritual illness, because sexuality is at the core of human being and relationships.

Sexuality is the God-given capacity and need for physical and spiritual intimacy. In sex, the body too is engaged in the mutual giving and receiving which bring about union, and participation in God’s work of bringing new life into the world. (Though I’ve heard people say sex is spiritual and not physical, this isn’t Christian teaching.)

Catholic saints tend to be seen, incorrectly, as people not needing intimacy. And we sometimes get the idea sex is bad, marital relations a concession to the weak. Disparaging the body is an ideal of Gnosticism, a heresy which has intermittently infected Christianity.  It can’t be an ideal of the Catholic faith, which is built on the Incarnation. Ecumenical councils spent great effort affirming that Christ is human in every way, which means sharing our sexuality in a non-fallen state, and that His full humanity is wedded to His full divinity.

No Evangelist records Jesus using the word “sexuality,” but they all show His attention to relationships, intimacy and the interplay between the physical and the spiritual (sacramentality).

Sexuality is essential to being human and is filled with the beauty, joy and generosity of God our creator. The Church honours people who live their sexuality in celibacy, not because sex is trivial but because it’s profound. My spiritual father (a celibate priest) used to say, “you work out celibacy on your knees,” forged in the crucible which purifies and strengthens. Not just vowed celibates, but everyone who strives to live faithfully their sexuality is refashioned in the crucible.

Since Adam and Eve left the garden, nobody gets the easy way when it comes to sex. But anyone can choose the way that shines with beauty and overflows with life.

Christian spiritual life isn’t hiding from relationship or escaping sexuality, but a bold commitment to Christ’s offer of abundant life. Our Catholic saints don’t demonstrate that sexlessness is holiness, but that sexuality can be lived in a holy way, accepted and integrated into our lives by love. It’s good news for us, especially those who’ve been wounded in their sexuality.

Not surprisingly, sin and suffering often occur precisely at the level of sexuality. Many are wounded in their sexuality, “shattered” by “sex and sex and sex and sex,” as Mick Jagger puts it. This is not because sex itself wounds the human person, but because we’re extremely vulnerable in our sexuality. When we’re hurt sexually, we’re shattered, in an astonishing variety of ways.

The clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Church has been destructive of the lives it’s ripped apart, and our Church life is also torn and bleeding. Sexual wounding rends both body and soul, even down through generations.

How confusing and painful for people who want to live the fullness of their Catholic faith, though faced with sexual distortion everywhere. Contemporary society’s few boundaries on sexuality don’t make for happiness, or health. Catholic teaching on sex and sexuality is profound and profoundly beautiful, but isn’t easy. It can be excruciatingly lonely to follow when examples of harm seem, at times, more plentiful than examples of health. Anne and Simon were afraid, though in different ways. Who could be surprised?

Catholics referred to me in my psychotherapy practice are a diverse lot. The questions they raise about sex and sexuality are not theoretical or frivolous, but could fill many books. Young people especially must courageously bring their faith to bewildering questions irrelevant to their Christian forebears.

In new ways required by an ever-changing world, they’re staking their lives on their faith in Christ. They need courage not only to ask questions, but to live the truth of sexuality, in relationship with others and ultimately with God. They need to be well-accompanied and held deeply in the embrace of the Church.

(Marrocco can be reached at