The Meaning of Human Sexuality

The Family croppedAs the concept of gender grows ever more fluid (you can pick any one of 58 gender options on Facebook), it’s worth asking why God created humans as male and female. Bacteria have no gender and reproduce mostly by dividing their cells. Some species of fish are sequentially hermaphroditic, changing genders throughout their lifetime. Angels, who are beings of pure spirit, have no gender. Angels can’t reproduce at all, since they have no bodies. But when God made human beings in his own image, he gave us male and female bodies. Why, and for that matter, why give us bodies at all?

One reason God gave us bodies was to help us know, love, and serve him. With our bodies, and particularly through our five senses, we can experience the glory of the world around us, a world created by God. St. Augustine challenged:

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky … question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession (CCC 32).

As the Psalms say, all creation proclaims the glory of God (Ps. 19:1, 66:4). Our bodily senses help us to learn about the majesty of God and his amazing Creation.

The physical world, everything we can see and touch, is like God’s beautiful gift to us. It is an overflow of his goodness. As it says in the Book of Genesis, God looked at the world he created and saw that it was “good” (Gn 1:25). And when God created humans, he looked at us and said that we are “very good” (Gn 1:31). It’s as if we were all loved into existence. Or, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “creatures came into existence when the key of love opened [God’s] hand” (CCC 293).

Knowing that the entire physical world, including our bodily humanity, is God’s gift to us, we are obligated to take care of it and tend to it.  The Book of Genesis explains: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gn 2:15). This caretaking responsibility is called stewardship.

We hear a lot about becoming good stewards of the earth or good stewards of our money. But we are also called to be good stewards of our bodies, our sexuality, and our fertility. This brings us back to the question of why God gave us our sexuality and our fertility. The complementary division of humanity into male and female actually images the Holy Trinity. Within the Trinity, the love between God the Father and God the Son is so strong that it actually is another person — God the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Within a marriage, the love between a husband and a wife takes on flesh in the person of their child. That love, that sexual love, creates another human being with an immortal soul, destined to become a Cardinal Mindszenty enthused:

The angels have not been blessed with such a grace. They cannot share in God’s creative miracle to bring new saints to Heaven. Only a human mother can. Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature; God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation.

Our bodies, our sexuality, and our fertility are all God’s gift to us. They are “very good,” but we need to learn how to take care of them. Parents teach their children how to take care of their bodies and keep them clean and healthy. We teach kids to control their impulses in order to avoid behavior that’s bad for them. We pass on basic principles like people who eat whatever they want whenever they want, or jump off high places regardless of the danger, will eventually harm their bodies. Out of control sexuality is similarly harmful. That’s why we tell teenagers about the benefits of sexual abstinence and warn them about the difficulties of pregnancy outside of marriage.

The virtue that allows us to moderate our bodily desires is called temperance. Chastity is a subset of temperance, and the virtue of chastity helps us to moderate our sexual desire in a way that’s good and healthy for us. Even married people are called to be chaste, to respect our own sexuality.

The Church gives us guidelines for how to treat our sexuality respectfully. It recommends not resorting to physical methods of birth control that literally place barriers between the spouses. It recommends against chemical forms of birth control that have numerous health risks. And it discourages the use of in vitro fertilization, which can result in the destruction of many human embryos as a normal part of the process.

The Church doesn’t say that we should have as many children as physically possible. It encourages us to exercise responsible parenthood in deciding how many children are best for our family. It advocates Natural Family Planning (NFP) as a healthy way to accomplish that goal. NFP can be used to avoid or achieve pregnancy. It does not introduce any harmful chemicals into the body or put any unborn life at risk. It does require sexual self-control to abstain during the wife’s fertile times. But, as we’ve seen, sexual self-control is a way of being good stewards of our bodies.

In using NFP, our sexual lives may seem to go through periods of feasting and fasting. But the natural world works that way, too, as fall turns to winter, and winter turns to spring and summer. The Church’s liturgical year also follows a cycle of feasting and fasting. During Advent and Lent, we wait and pray. During Christmas, Easter, and Ordinary Time, we celebrate. Through it all, we give glory to God.

This column was previously published on Karee’s blog Can We Cana?

Karee Santos is the founder of the Can We Cana? blog and also has written for Catholic Match Institute, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, and CatholicMom.com. Together with her husband Manuel Santos, M.D., she co-authored The Four Keys to Everlasting Love: How Your Catholic Marriage Can Bring You Joy for a Lifetime (Ave Maria Press, 2016). The Santos’s designed and taught a pre-Cana marriage preparation course, and they write a monthly marriage advice column on CatholicMom.com called “Marriage Rx.” They also contribute to FAITH magazine's “Your Marriage Matters” advice column. The couple live in Long Island, New York, with their six children.