Love is for Life: Pastoral Letter of the Irish Bishops
PART II Putting Love Into Love
(11.) SEX AND MARRIAGE
64. Until recently, Western culture, and indeed most of the great human
cultures, almost universally recognised the natural and the moral link between
sexuality and marriage. Popular fiction, speech and song, as well as literature
and law, all recognised this link. Romance longed for and prepared for and
culminated in marriage, and sexual union outside of marriage was recognised
as wrong. We saw already that sexual union, in its deep nature, is a way
whereby a couple say to each other: "I want to be one with you and
I want you to be one with me for ever. I want our union to be for ever and
ever. I want to share my life with you and only you always". In other
words, sexual union speaks a love whose name is marriage.
65. Contemporary culture has witnessed a radical change of attitudes. Even
the most casual attraction, even the most instant passion, would, in the
eyes of some, seem to justify and almost require sexual relations as their
normal and natural expression. Intercourse is seen in some circles, not
so much as the giving of oneself exclusively and forever to another, but
rather as the satisfaction of a feeling or impulse of the moment. The novel
and the romantic fiction of today have to do much more with love-passion
than with love-charity; and, when they treat of marriage, they usually treat
much more of its problems than of its positive values. Sex is treated almost
as a harmless pleasure, or else as an irresistible physical urge, instead
of being the expression of a serious commitment to another person.
66. It is part of the nobility of human nature that we are capable of
self-control where sexual expression is concerned. Apart from cases where
freedom is excluded by assault or is diminished by involuntary causes, it
is men and women who decide whether to have sexual relations or whether
to place themselves in situations where the urge to sexual expression will
become uncontrollable. In the modern world, Christians have the calling
and the privilege of witnessing to chastity; and self-control in sexual
matters is the basis of chastity. By the exercise of chastity. Christians
are witnessing to the truth and beauty of love.
67. In much of modern culture, sexual relationships become temporary, experimental
and disposable. If sex is trivialised, then love is trivialised; and there
is nothing more damaging to persons than to make light of the love they
desperately need. Only in marriage can sexual love be true to its own deepest
meaning and need. The separation of sex from marriage is a violation of
God's plan for human love. It marks a cheapening of love and a debasing
of sexuality. There is no more appalling desecration and degradation of
sex than the crime of incest. It is distressing that this repulsive transgression
of the most sacred family relationship would seem to be on the increase.
(11.1) Extra-marital sex
68. God designed love between man and woman to be a permanent and exclusive
partnership in tenderness and faithfulness, excluding any alien partner,
making unfaithfulness to one's only loved one unthinkable, binding the couple
by bonds of love to one another until death. God designed this love to be
a pledged and life-lasting love, a married love. He designed it to be open
to child bearing.
69. A baby, which is the fruit of married love, needs nourishment for its
health and physical development; this it receives in the womb through its
mother's bloodstream, and after birth from its mother's breast. The child
needs nourishment no less for the development of a healthy personality;
and the nourishment it needs for this is love. The love which surrounds
a baby in infancy and childhood is as vital for its healthy psychological
and spiritual development as the amniotic fluid by which it is surrounded
in the womb is for its physical life- and is as vital for its healthy survival
as are the clothes which protect it from the cold in infancy. Security in
being loved by both its parents is vital for a child's growth to personal
maturity. Children born outside of marriage carry added risks of emotional
handicap in later life. Psychologists and sociologists agree that many of
the psychological and social casualties among young people today can be
traced back to the lack of love and security in childhood, and to insecurity
in their parents' marriages. God's plan for love is both a protection for
the couple themselves of the genuineness of their love, and a prescription
for the mature development of their children. Any separation of physical
sexual union from the fullness of its meaning which is found only in marriage,
is a disruption of God's plan. It is a betrayal of love.
70. Sexuality touches the sources of human life. It concerns the family,
the basic cell of the human community and the foundation of a stable society.
Sex is not just a personal and private matter. It has a social and community
aspect too. Sexual relationships have implications going far beyond the
individuals concerned. There are consequences for families, for children,
for the future of society. If broken marriages and homes result, society
is burdened with the social casualties. There is the damage to health caused
by sexually transmitted diseases, sometimes affecting innocent spouses of
infected partners. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases places
added burdens on the health services. No society can be unconcerned about
standards of sexual behaviour. No society has ever regarded sex as a merely
private sphere. No state is without laws regulating marriage. In our age
particularly, when claims are made for a universal and unqualified right
to sexual activity, men and women have to remember their responsibilities
to society in the use of sex.
71. The name which the whole of Christian tradition, following the Bible,
has always given to acts of sexual infidelity against one's married partner
is the term adultery. God's commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery",
is as true and as binding today as ever it was. Christ reinforced it by
forbidding also adultery of thought or desire. Adultery is a multiple sin;
for it adds to the sin of unchastity the further sin of injustice inflicted
on a married partner and on children.
72. When the male partner in a sexual relationship is a married man, possibly
masquerading as single, a detestable note of betrayal and deceit is added
to the other elements of untruth in the relationship. The girl is often
tricked, deceived, exploited; and then abandoned. The man may go off to
make new "conquests". For the girl, the experience can be deeply
and lastingly wounding to her self-esteem and to her trust in men. She can
even be affected in her relations with a future husband. The fault, however,
does not by any means always lie with men. The guilt of adultery is shared.
It is not infrequently women who invite and who initiate immoral relationships.
The harm they thereby do to their husband, their home and their children
73. God's mercy, however, always awaits those caught up in adulterous relationships.
We thank God for the wonders of repentance and forgiveness granted by God
to many who turn to Him to be pardoned and to change their lives. We thank
God for the marvellous graces of reconciliation and forgiveness which He
gives to so many injured partners in such relationships, enabling them to
rebuild their marriage in forgiving love.
(11.2) Pre-marital sex
74. There has undeniably been an increase in sexual relationships before
marriage, as well as in casual sexual relationships and in pregnancies out
of wedlock. All of these relationships, which separate sex from marriage,
are against God's law of love. Acts of sexual intercourse before marriage
are acts of fornication; and these, when freely and deliberately committed
are in themselves always gravely sinful. Our Lord also clearly taught that
fornication, even in thought and intention, is evil. This is still the clear
and certain teaching of the Catholic Church today. The Church cannot change
this teaching, because it is based on the word of God, which does not pass
away. In her ministry of preaching and teaching, the Church must witness
to the truth of Christ- but this is a truth that sets us free with the truest
of all freedoms, freedom from sin.
75. At the same time, in her ministry of reconciliation in the sacrament
of penance, the Church witnesses to the compassion of Christ, who always
showed himself full of mercy and patience towards the sinner, while also
gently but firmly asking them to turn away from sin. Where sexual sin is
concerned, the Church fully realises the difficulties facing people, and
particularly the young, in striving to remain chaste in today's world. She
seeks to do everything possible to support them, while also reminding them
constantly of the mercy and forgiveness of Christ. Like her Lord, the Church
will always say to those who have sinned sexually: "Go in peace, your
sins are forgiven". But, like her Lord, she must also add: "Go
and sin no more". The daily struggle against sin and temptation is
the test of our love of God and of our trust in him. It is the stuff of
holiness. In the field of sexual love, the Church is not maintaining a "hard
line". She is not showing insensitivity or hostility towards sex. On
the contrary, she is saving love from trivialisation. She is protecting
man's most precious resource and greatest need, which is love. She is thereby
trying to save persons from pain and loss through the spoiling or wasting
76. People nowadays are constantly surrounded by sexual stimuli. A whole
"sex industry" has been set up, whose large profits depend on
the arousal of sexual desire. Human nature is weak and passion is strong.
Those who fall into sexual sin or into sinful sexual relationships should
not be discouraged. Great saints have fallen into sins of the flesh. We
need only recall St Mary Magdalen and St Augustine. Magdalen, a notorious
public sinner, became one of the first to meet the risen Lord and was chosen
as one of the first heralds of the resurrection. "Many sins (were)
forgiven her", the Lord said, "because she loved much" (cf.
Luke 7:36-50). The young Augustine had a mistress who bore him a
child; yet he became one of the greatest saints and doctors of the Church.
Charles de Foucauld, nearer our own time, led a profligate life before his
conversion . There are countless instances in the Church 's past and present
of prodigal sons and daughters whom the Father runs to welcome back, embracing
them in his joy at their return and inviting them to celebrate their homecoming
with him in the Eucharist.
(11.3) Cohabitation without marriage
77. In many countries today there is a growing acceptance of the practice
of cohabitation without marriage. This means that a couple in a so-called
"stable relationship" live together without marriage, usually
with the idea of getting married eventually if it "works out"
for them. It may be argued that they need to be "sexually experienced"
or to have tested their "sexual compatibility" before they commit
themselves finally to marriage. The argument is plausible, but it is fundamentally
mistaken. A couple will not be "sexually compatible" unless they
are compatible at deeper levels of personality, temperament, interests and
values, life styles and spirituality. Premature sexual intercourse will
deflect the relationship into one single dimension, the sexual one, long
before the couple have had the time or the opportunity or the freedom of
spirit to test the other dimensions of their relationship. But these other
dimensions are even more important for their compatibility and for the durability
of the relationship, and specifically for their sexual fulfilment in marriage,
than is the physical dimension. Sexual intercourse in a courtship makes
a couple sexual partners before they have come to trust one another enough
to commit themselves totally and finally to each other. Successful marriage
and successful sexual harmony in marriage depend on mature and faithful
friendship more than on "sexual success". Sexual harmony in marriage
is important, but it is by no means sufficient. If it is pursued as an end
in itself, no matter by what techniques it is perfected, it will not make
a marriage or save a marriage unless there is deep sharing of lives. One
can be "sexually experienced", but be very far indeed from being
experienced in love.
78. So-called "stable sexual relationships" outside marriage are
in fact "let's pretend" situations. The couple live as if they
were finally committed to one another; but they are not. They live as if
they loved one another for life; yet each retains the freedom to "walk
out" on the other. Their living together and their sexual "language"
speak of pledged faithfulness; but yet they keep putting off the pledge
and leave their options open on the faithfulness. Their relationship is
hedged with reservations. They are in effect saying to each other: "I
give my sexual body to you but not myself"; or "I want your body
but I'm not sure if I want your self"; or "I will give myself
to you, but not just yet, maybe later"; or "I give myself to you
now but I may want to give myself to someone else after a while". A
stable relationship cannot be built on or even prepared by such hedging
79. Once sexual intercourse becomes part of a relationship, the couple come
to regard one another as if they were already a married couple; while all
the time knowing that they are not. They are living a make-believe. They
are acting out a pretence. Young people who embark on the experiment of
"living together" before marriage do not realise how profoundly
a sexual relationship affects one's life and what deep emotions and expectations
it arouses. They do not know how traumatic the effects on them can be when
the relationship is terminated. Sex is too profound and mysterious to be
treated casually. In particular, a person's first experience of sex can
be decisive for future attitudes to sexuality within marriage.
80. The truth of genuine marriage cannot be honestly prepared for by
the make believe of a "trial" marriage. "Trial marriages",
instead of being a preparation for successful marriage, are instead a psychological
and moral preparation for instability in a future marriage. Having each
experienced the other's readiness for one tentative "affair",
a couple will find it more difficult to trust each other totally in a true
marriage. They may even find it harder themselves to resist temptation to
marital infidelity. There is no better foundation for trusting and trustworthy
married love than for each partner to know that the other has had sexual
relationships only with him or with her. Pre-marital chastity means being
determined to keep the gift of oneself for the person one loves alone. It
is a manifestation of true love.
81. Couples who have sincerely tried to see their love in the light
of God's plan and to have a real sense of the beauty and grace of the sacrament
of marriage, know that "sex before marriage" is gravely in conflict
with God's plan for making human love a source of grace and holiness. They
know that their love was designed to be such that God, looking on it, would
bless it and would see that it was "very good". A sexual relationship
outside of marriage is sinful; and in God's presence the couple cannot avoid
feeling shame, rather than the peace of God's blessing and of a good conscience.
This is itself a source of tension and prevents the tranquility of mind
which married sexual union should confer. What is wrong in a moral and religious
sense cannot lead to happiness on the human level.
82. The possibility of pregnancy is inseparable from an unmarried sexual
relationship. This is not in itself a good reason for avoiding a wrong sexual
relationship. The use of contraceptives in no way lessens the moral wrongness.
Nevertheless, the possibility of pregnancy is always there. The ever-present
risk introduces an element of fear and insecurity which flaws the relationship.
The couple run the risk of getting married under the strain and the duress
of a pregnancy; and can be prone afterwards to the suspicion that they should
not have married and would not have married but for the pregnancy. Sexual
intercourse and pregnancy sometimes occur at an early stage in the couple's
relationship. If, as a result, the couple marry, they are faced with the
problem of fitting the arrival of a child into their relationship before
they have even consolidated their own relationship with one another. The
resultant strains can be so great that the couple cannot cope with them.
83. The danger is particularly great in the case of teenage marriages.
This is why all Irish dioceses now ask for adequate prior notice of an intended
marriage; and this requirement is even stricter in the case of teenage couples.
The purpose of this is not to create delays and difficulties. The purpose
instead is to provide a caring service for couples intending marriage, by
allowing sufficient time for serious preparation, through a pre-marriage
course and through discussions with the priest and with marriage counsellors.
When the bride-to-be is pregnant, it is often advisable to try to persuade
the couple to have the marriage postponed at least until after the baby
is born. This is because of the real danger that the existence of pregnancy
may cause pressure to be put on the couple, either by their families or
by one another; so that the decision to marry may not be entirely free and
mature. It is also because of the Church's experience of the numbers of
teenage marriages which run into difficulties or which even break up. Catholic
marriage tribunals provide undeniable evidence of this sad fact. In cases
where, from early in the courtship, the relationship has been based primarily
on sex, it is notable how easily and how quickly the relationship can turn
into resentment and estrangement.
(11.4) Unmarried pregnancy
84. When pregnancy does occur, it can come as a great shock and can
cause panic, even though in all honesty the couple must admit that this
was a possible consequence of the way in which they were freely acting.
Yet now above all is the time for them to remember that there is no limit
to God's mercy for those who admit their sin and ask His pardon. Sexual sin
has elements of powerful passion, which cannot always be fully foreseen. There
can be circumstances which lessen guilt. Priests will always be particularly
compassionate towards people, especially young people, who have sinned sexually.
Priests are ministers of God's forgiving love, not of human judgement or
condemnation. Our Lord's gentle treatment of the adulterous woman will be
their model. Parents also should show special love and compassion to their
teenage daughter or son in such circumstances. Never do young people so
much need parental love as in moments of shame and panic like this. To insist
on marriage at once in order to save family reputation or to avoid scandal
can be disastrous, especially in the case of teenage couples. Instead, both
the young mother and the child should be accepted and should be lovingly
helped through the pregnancy and the birth, so that a mature decision regarding
marriage may then be made in calm and peace.
85. A pregnant unmarried girl can be put under strong pressure to have an
abortion. The pressure can come from her partner or from relatives or companions.
It is scarcely credible, and yet it is true, that the pressure sometimes
comes even from parents. Pressure can come also from the unkind and condemnatory
attitudes of neighbours and friends. We have set out the Church's teaching
on abortion fully in our Pastoral, HUMAN LIFE IS SACRED, in 1975; and we
call this teaching to mind again now. As well as stressing the abhorrent
evil of abortion, we called then for the development of all the services
caring for the worried pregnant mother and her child. We set up the confidential
telephone service, Cura, for this purpose. These services have developed
admirably since then. There is no reason for anyone to say "I had no
alternative to abortion".
86. Over and above these services, there is great need for a genuinely caring
attitude on the part of the whole community. While recognising sin for what
it truly is, we have no right to condemn the sinner. Our Lord himself has
shown us how rejection of sin must be accompanied by love and understanding
and compassion and practical help for the person who has strayed. Tragic
happenings have brought home to us how desperate is the loneliness and the panic
of some girlhood pregnancies. Such happenings must weigh on the consciences
of us all. How have we failed these friendless and frightened young people?
If a pregnancy ends tragically, it is not enough to give vent to moral outrage
or to look for scapegoats. All sectors of society and all formers of opinion
must engage in honest self-examination in order to see whether we are allowing
our young people to be bombarded by sexual stimuli and influences and attitudes
and example which virtually pressurise them into sexual relationships while
they are still children.
87. Over recent years, there has been excessive publicity given to the unwed
mother. Familiarity must not be allowed to lessen our sense of the great
sadness of unmarried pregnancy. There is too little thought for the wrong
that has been done to the child by its being deprived of its right to the
faithful love of two parents and to the stable environment of a loving home.
There is an unconscious sexual discrimination involved in focusing attention
on the unwed mother. Rarely indeed is the public spotlight turned on the
unwed father. He has usually walked anonymously away from his responsibilities,
leaving a girl deeply emotionally hurt and leaving a child in danger of
being emotionally scarred by lack of a father's love. There is a body of
research which indicates that children's psychological development can be
impaired by the absence of a father in their home. The great increase in
the number of lone-mother families is, therefore, a grave problem for society.
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