the questions of WYD pilgrims

Though I didn’t have the opportunity to travel to World Youth Day in Sydney, I did have the chance to accompany some pilgrims virtually, via Xt3, the official social networking site for WYD 2008. There were a number of very active discussion threads; the most active threads were, not surprisingly, those that touched on the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.

Here’s a few of the questions that were posed, and my responses.

on contraception / overpopulation

Xt3 pilgrim writes:
The so-called “pro”creation policies that the catholic institution has in place are not actually “pro” to creation at all, as they will be detrimental to our world, the one that God so lovingly created. An even larger human population will not help global warming, which may be inconvenient, but is definitely here. We need a smaller human population. If people are going to insist on sexual intercourse I hope they use contraceptive methods. But they won’t, and our population will grow. Another war will break out. God’s earth will be even more destroyed. The catholic institution will do what? Nothing.

I respond:
Here’s a short response to your question about contraception and overpopulation.

1) The Church doesn’t say that people must have as many children as possible, although it does encourage couples to be generous when planning family life. The Church speaks of natural regulation of family size using a method called Natural Family Planning (NFP). Father John Flynn has a link to more information about Natural Family Planning here:
The difference between artificial contraception (condoms, the Pill, etc) and NFP is that artificial contraception says “no” to new life when it would naturally occur during intercourse. NFP says “yes” to life but simply avoids intercourse during the woman’s fertile time of the month. It respects the natural rhythm of the woman’s body.

2) Not everyone agrees that the world is over-populated. Problems of world hunger are more certainly tied to selfish governments, etc, than too many people on the face of the earth. Similarly, it’s probably not the sheer number of people on the planet that is leading to a shortage of natural resources. It’s the way we have been carelessly exploiting these resources. I think you’ll be hearing Pope Benedict XVI address issues of ecology while he’s in Australia.

Janet Smith is a bioethicist who has a great talk — Contraception: Why Not — that covers some of these issues and other considerations. I heard it in audio form a while back, and it’s available to read online now. When you have time, check out her talk here:

Another thing to recognize: true solutions to problems in the world never come by violating God’s design for sexuality and human life, but always by way of respect for these things. Those who suggest otherwise are usually looking for shortcuts to paradise… that is, solutions that don’t involve responsible use of creation, human sexuality, etc. The Church knows we’re capable of love and responsibility, while the wider culture tends to operate on motives of fear and a desire to avoid the sacrifices/responsibilities that love demands.

One last thought: Artificial contraception does not respect what God has made, any more than rampant deforestation, etc.

on the interpretation of the Bible in relation to homosexual acts

Xt3 pilgrim writes:
A lot of what you have said… is taken from the Bible. Please don’t quote the Bible at me, because we all know the Bible cannot be taken as a contempoary novel. For example Leviticus and Paul have very different ideas about whether eating bacon will ‘bring the wrath of your Lord-God upon yourself’. I believe, and this is very post-modern (hardly surprising as I was brought up in the post-modern context), that we must interpret the Bible the way WE think God would want us to, as shaped by the interpetations we hear as one half of our Mass, and such dicussions as this. For example, from the Bible I can find direct quotes saying slavery is commendable (for those who didn’t do history this was a major factor in why America had slavery for so long) and I can find other direct quotes saying it is a disgusting practice.

I respond:
The immorality of homosexual acts is often contested by those who express concern about the fundamentalist habit of proof-texting from certain Old Testament passages.

It’s true that the scriptures can be used to support almost any position (think, for instance, of the way Satan interpreted the sacred texts when tempting Jesus in the desert). So how can we know what is a correct/authentic interpretation of the scriptures? Can the scriptures interpret themselves / vouch for their own authority? Why do we turn to the Bible at all? Why is it considered authoritative?

The short answer would be that the Bible was written, collected and recognized as canonical by the community of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. We wouldn’t even have the Bible without the Church. So the Church’s teaching authority has protected / passed on the Scriptures to us, and has offered an authentic interpretation of them.

If someone wrote you a letter, don’t you think the person who wrote the letter would be the best authority re: what was meant by the letter? See the Vatican II document Dei Verbum (especially sections 9 and 10) for further discussion of the relationship between the Bible and the Church’s living teaching office.

on masturbation

Xt3 pilgrim writes:
So apparently masturbation is evil? How ridiculus is that?… It just seems SO alien to me. Not to mention I imagine that every single male teenager has done it before they even knew what it was!

I respond:
First of all, yes, the Church teaches that masturbation is wrong. From the Catholic Catechism, paragraph 2352:

“By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose. For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved. To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”

* * *

Granted, our culture doesn’t consider it a sin, and you might even find people in the Church, even priests, who would be dismissive of calling it serious sin.

The Church doesn’t point out sin to shame us, but to try to lead us toward happiness by showing us where the dead-ends are along the way.

Here’s the basic logic of the Church: masturbation is the misuse of one of God’s greatest gifts, our sexuality. The language of sexual activity is meant to be the language of love, of union and communion, of self-gift for the sake of one’s beloved. Its proper home is in the context of marriage. Between a man and a woman, this “language” can be spoken in truth. When a man gives himself sexually to his wife, his action can really mean for her: “I make a free, faithful, total gift of myself to you, and I am willing for this gift to have the consequence of bringing new life into the world. I love you in such a committed way that I am not only willing to be one with you at this moment, but for our oneness to become so real that it begins a family… which requires our oneness for many years to come. I choose to be one with you in this total, vulnerable, unique way, a way which will require many sacrifices of me, and of you… sacrifices that I am ready to make, because I love you and have committed myself to you.” So that is the context of the Church’s teaching.

Masturbation speaks a different language. For one thing, it doesn’t require a spouse at all. Doesn’t lead to new life. Doesn’t necessarily lead to the two becoming one flesh, which is the great sacrament of love. It can destroy happiness by leading a person into a spiral of loneliness, isolation, and selfishness. It offers momentary pleasure, but delivers nothing lasting. While it is true that some couples masturbate together, by doing so, they’re changing what they communicate to each other. It introduces selfishness in what was meant to be an act of total self-gift, a renewal of marriage vows, and an openness to new life. The partners can end up using each other for pleasure, and the desire for self-gratification can blur the focus on the good of the other. If it is mutually satisfying, it is so by matter of coincidence, not by the nature of the act. The act says “me first” and “I will use this incredible gift in a way that I choose that is not in keeping with the desire of the One who gave me this gift.”

I want to make one other very important point: just because masturbation is always wrong, doesn’t mean that the person who commits it is necessarily in serious sin (sometimes called “mortal” or “grave”; the kind that requires confession). For a person to be culpable/responsible of a serious sin, three things must be present: 1) grave matter – the action, in itself, must be evil; 2) full knowledge – he must know it is seriously wrong; 3) full consent – he must choose freely to do it anyway. If any of these three things is missing, it wouldn’t be mortal sin, but venial sin. Now notice that when discussing masturbation, the Church specifically makes this point about not everyone being fully culpable: “To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”

If masturbation has become a habit, this can diminish responsibility. Doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, but it can make you less responsible. Remember, the Church is a mother, and she understands human weakness. For some, it can take a long time to overcome a habit that carries with it so much comfort and/or pleasure. Some use it as an escape from pain, etc. But the Church wants us to have the grace of Christ, which is a grace that can help us break habits that keep us in chains.

Long story short, the Church recognizes that someone who masturbates doesn’t necessarily do it out of hatred for God, etc. Nevertheless, she calls us to the freedom of love… the self-possession that is the pre-condition for giving ourselves away in love. We can’t give what we have not come to possess.

In summary, masturbation represents a failure to understand/participate in what is essentially a relational capacity of man — human sexuality is ordered to relationship. One of the essential ends of genital expression is to unite a man and a woman to each other… each making a gift of self to the other. Masturbation is a mockery of this end… it is to intercourse what bulimia is to healthy habits of eating. Maybe masturbation does not exploit someone else, but it certainly does exploit oneself. And it does exploit someone else, in a sense, because the time spent in this solpsistic activity is robbing the energy and love that could have been spent in love of another. Remember that there is something called a sin of omission…

One last thing: If you struggle with this, don’t be afraid, and don’t let shame paralyze you. Keep your eyes firmly fixed on the mercy of God which is always pursuing you. Don’t let falls discourage you. And don’t listen to the voice that says “everybody is doing it.” Even if this were true, would it really matter? What everyone does is not the ultimate point of reference for love.

4 thoughts on “the questions of WYD pilgrims

  1. If you haven’t already heard this homily about humanae vitae, please download and listen to it. A priest gave this homily last Sunday marking the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. It’s 30 minutes long and the congregation breaks out in applause afterward because it’s so good. One thing that really struck me in the homily was the point he makes about the two countries that have managed to regulate their populations, the United States and China. These two are also the two biggest polluters. He goes on to state that children don’t cause pollution, machines do. And, the less children we have, the more machines we have. It’s a great witness to the culture of life and the impact a Priest as the primary catechist of the parish can have.

  2. Very gracious and thoughtful replies to someone with a definite chip on the shoulder and angry bias showing through their attempts at being reasonable and logical.

  3. I don’t think this young pilgrim had a chip on his shoulder, especially considering his follow up responses (which I did not post). He may have just heard some dissenter using inflammatory / straw man arguments.

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