Robert Tracinski’s recent article, “The Catholic Church is Losing Its War on Human Nature,” immediately brought to mind a wise old saying: “It is not so much that people are ignorant; it’s that they know so much that ain’t so.” Although Tracinski writes with clarity and conviction, unfortunately virtually everything he states in his essay simply “ain’t so.” Because the views he expressed provide such a comprehensive account of several common misunderstandings of the church’s teaching on human nature and human sexuality, it provides an excellent opportunity to offer a correction.
Tracinski seems to think that the Catholic church does not share his view that sexuality is a “normal and natural part of human life — a normal and natural … desire that ensures the existence of our species in the first place.” Nothing could be further from the truth. He rolls out a position that some attribute to Augustine, without realizing that Augustine is not, and never was the “church.” He is one theologian — yes, one who has had enormous influence on church teaching, but no one should make the mistake of equating what he said with church teaching.
A straightforward source for current articulation of church teaching on sexuality is the Catechism (2331-2400). But nothing is better than Saint John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” a beautiful account that incorporates church teaching on the meaning of human sexuality throughout the centuries. It also develops it in ways that draw upon the church’s ever deepening understanding of human nature and sexuality — an understanding based on both reason and revelation.
John Paul II’s analysis falsifies Tracinski’s claim that the church’s teaching is not based on reason but on revelation alone. The fact that John Paul II bases his theology of the body on a series of scriptural passages that disclose God’s plan for human sexuality does not mean that “reason” is not fully employed. The church has always drawn upon both reason and revelation to learn and justify the truths it teaches.
Indeed, metaphysics, anthropology, and philosophical ethics all play a part in his analysis of scripture. Moreover, consider that he refers to his readers as “interlocutors” — those who are engaging in a conversation with him as he writes. He asks them to test his claims against their own experience, which is surely an appeal to “reason” — a reason that is based not just on abstract ideas but on universal human experience.
John Paul II maintains that when scripture speaks of the human person as being made in the likeness and image of God, the human body is included as something made “God’s image.” God does not have a body, of course. What he means is that being made in the image and likeness of God permeates our whole being, the body as well as the soul.
Our body in a particular way expresses and enables us to share in God’s essence as a loving and life-giving community of persons. Our bodies have a “spousal” meaning and disclose that we are meant to be in relationship with others, one of mutual giving and receiving: We are meant to love and be loved and be a source of new life.
The Catholic church does not teach that we must “suppress” our sexuality: rather, we are to “order” it — we are to put it in service of love and family, not self-indulgence. Those with disordered sexual appetites leave trails of broken hearts, abandoned or aborted children, lethal sexual diseases, and more behind them. Those who confine their sexual behavior to expressing love in marriage do not; they generally thrive — as do their children.
One needn’t be a believer in the Christian doctrine of the Fall or of original sin to know that man’s nature is not well ordered. We do seem to have some “memory” or yearning for a time when human beings did not tend to meanness, selfishness, greed, violence, and sexual exploitation. We do not need revelation to see that we find it hard to live up to the higher possibilities of our being.
But the Catholic Christian believes that Christ shows us the way toward that higher possibility. He calls us to live lives of heroic virtue through our undeniable capacity for self-sacrifice and service. We are not orphans, left in a random, mindless universe. We are sons and daughters of God and meant not for comfort, but for greatness. This is what the church calls us to — lives of service ordered toward the fullness of what it means to be human.
So how are priests and other consecrated persons, or even those who are not married, to conduct themselves in accord with church teaching? As mentioned, our very bodies show that we are to be in relationship with others. Visible reality always reveals something about an invisible reality — our very being, composed of both body and soul, is meant to be in relationship, and those relationships need not be sexual to be profoundly loving and self-giving. Parents love and care for their children; teachers do so for their students; doctors do so for their patients.
Love without sex is very possible and even enhances self-giving in a way. All of us have had individuals who have given “life” to us through supporting, advising, and guiding us. Priests have a very special way of being self-giving: they give not only of themselves, but they bring Christ to others in several immediate ways.
Catholics are deeply grateful for the sacraments that only priests can bring to us. The reason priests are not to have active sexual lives is because they are living out the radical call of Christ himself and St. Paul to live for God’s Kingdom now. They forego the pleasures of marriage, sex, and children out of love for Christ and his people.
For just as marriage calls for husband and wife to make of themselves a radical gift to each other, so is the Catholic priest called to make of himself a radical gift to the church. Both vocations call for a giving of self that is complete, life-long, and total, a commitment that involves both body and soul.
It is possible to live celibate and to live it joyfully — as, it seems, most priests do. That does not mean it is easy. Those who immerse themselves in the sacramental life of the church, who are faithful to the practice of regular prayer and make frequent retreats — and who have close relationships with family and friends — find that their celibacy is a source of joy. In fact, they find that it frees them to focus on a relationship with Christ and to bring the mercy that extends that relationship to others.
Sadly, even tragically, many priests, especially in recent decades have not only not lived up to their vows, but have also violated them in horrific ways. Is it the church’s teaching on sexuality that has produced this reality?
Tracinski scoffs at the claim that it is because they are not living by the church’s teaching that has led to horrendous sexual abuse by some priests. He says it is because the church is suppressing and trying to “destroy” human nature.
He makes general remarks about “healthy” sexuality. We would like to know what he means and where in our culture he sees evidence of such. Our culture is incredibly “unrepressed” about sexuality — fornication, cohabitation, masturbation, and pornography are commonplace. Sex trafficking is a large and growing business.
In our view, it is because of the unhealthy “unrepressed” view of sexuality that horrendous sexual abuse of children is all too common in every sector of society, and most of it by family or family friends. This is not because of Catholic teaching. That some pedophiles should end up in the church is not surprising — they end up everywhere. Of course, it is more shocking and more damaging when sexual abuse is done by a man who is meant to be trustworthy and loving, and even more so to be bringing Christ to others.
Yes, there is great blame to be put on the church for the sex abuse crisis. There should certainly be better screening measures to make certain that such individuals do not enter the priesthood, there should never be any cover-up of abuse, and offending priests should be dismissed from the priesthood. But the claim that the church’s teaching on sexuality is to blame simply cannot be sustained.
Let’s take a closer look at Tracinski’s erroneous claim that the church bases its teaching strictly on revelation rather than on reason. This is manifestly false. It is well understood by most reasonably informed Catholics that the search for ultimate truths actually is characterized by a compatibility and continuity between reason and revelation.
St. Thomas Aquinas is famous for constantly using the thought of Plato, Aristotle, and Avicenna, all non-Christian thinkers. This principle was expressed more recently and quite explicitly by St. John Paul II in his 1998 encyclical, “Faith and Reason.” There he declares that the relation between faith and reason is like “the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
The Catholic Church has always held that both faith and reason are sources of truth and that the truths discovered by faith and reason can never contradict each other. Not fearing to blend the truths discovered through the two sources, the Catholic intellectual tradition provides a vast treasury of sustained reflection on the fundamental questions that have engaged human thought since the beginning of time: Who am I? Where have I come from, and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?
The Catholic Church, along with those who think with her, has been pondering these questions longer than any human institution on earth. Catholic teaching on human nature and the meaning of human sexuality offers perhaps the only coherent account of what it means to be fully human, ordered toward love and genuine happiness.
It is arguably the last bastion of sanity in a world caught in the throes of a wildly disordered obsession with sex. Tracinski may certainly disagree with this view, but it cannot be dismissed so glibly without a fully informed consideration of the consequences of doing so for the future of humanity.