William J. OMalley

Who can tell me what I can do with my own body? The church? “Society”? The Bible? Playboy? A catechist? “Sex and the City”? With the high school students I teach, only one answer works: the objective facts and honest reasoning. Only the objective facts decide which of those contradictory opinions on the use of human sexuality is right and which is wrong. In 40 years’ experience of teaching, I have found high school seniors know the mechanical “facts.” But in sex education or biology courses, they do not learn that human beings—and therefore their sexual relationships—are clearly, objectively different from stamens and pistils, from birds and bees. As far as we can tell, no orangutan becomes infuriated or even suicidal if her mate is “making it” with her girlfriends. Humans do. There’s a reason.

 

Any religion teacher will testify that kids waste a lot of time trying to undermine the credibility of the Bible and church, because those are the only reasons they’ve heard for acting morally—that is, like a decent human being: “The Bible says” (“a buncha made-up stories”) and “The church says” (“If they’re so stupid about birth control even for married couples, what do they know about sex?”). If the kids can just undermine those two porous pillars, they can have all the fun unbelievers supposedly have, because, even after 10 years of Catholic schooling, they equate “morality” and “Christianity,” since their only moral training has been under Christian auspices.

The Objective Facts

During my first class every year I tell students I’m about to say the most important sentence I’ll say all year, and I won’t say it until everybody is ready to copy it down. When they have pens poised, “Here it is. ‘The tree (pause) comes (pause) to, underlined, me.’” They look as baffled as I’d hoped they’d be; “Another nutcase, and we’ve got him for a whole year!” Genuine learning begins in puzzlement, or it never begins.

The tree comes to me. It tells me what it is and how I can legitimately use it. If I’m drunk and say, “What a big green ostrich! And it’s got no feet!” my opinion is stupid, because what I claim has nothing to do with what’s actually there. “The rock-bottom determinant of the validity of anything said in this class,” I tell them, “whether from the lectern or the seats: Where’s your hard evidence?”

To explicitate my point, I have a bag of visual aids. With years as a skilled carnival pitchman, I pull from the bag a potato-shaped rock. The rock tells me what it is and how I can legitimately use it: It has mass, weight, electrical charge, and it just sits there, inert. A pebble and a caramel tell me I can eat one and not the other.

Apple. The apple tells me what it is and how I can legitimately use it: All the properties of the rock, but it can take in food, grow, reproduce, which no rock can do. A quantum step up. Therefore, it’s objectively wrong to lob food around a cafeteria as if it had no more inner worth than snowballs, no matter how lenient school policy is.

Koala bear. The bear tells me what it is and how I can legitimately use it. All the qualities of the rock and apple, but it can feel, move around, sense danger. Another quantum step up. Therefore, it’s objectively wrong to pour alcohol on a live dog and set it ablaze the way you can a Christmas pudding.

G.I. Joe. A human tells me what it is and how I can legitimately use it. All the qualities of the rock, the apple, and the bear, but it’s the only species we know which is self-reflective, can anticipate the not-yet-real, like death. A further quantum step up. Humans are the only entities we know who suffer from conscience. No tiger goes into a village, gobbles a peasant, and lumbers back to the jungle muttering, “I did it again! I’ve got to get counseling!” Humans do. At least good humans do. That’s how you tell the difference. Therefore, there’s something objectively wrong about raising human babies and eating them, as we can with pigs and sheep. It’s objectively wrong—degrading—to use human beings as if they had no more inherent value than a dog or a cabbage or a stepping stone, even if all religions of the world are wrong and all their scriptures waste paper.

“My opinion’s as good as anyone else’s.” Not unless you’ve got the evidence and reasoning. Your opinion on physics is not as good as Stephen Hawking’s.

“Morality changes from age to age and culture to culture.” Not unless being human changes from age to age. If so, Plato has nothing significant to tell us about being moral (human), nor do Shakespeare or Freud or Dickens, and libraries are a horrific waste of money. “Society decides what’s moral, then it tells us, and we either cooperate or not.” If so, it was evil to hide Jews in Nazi Germany because the society said so. The humanity of Jews is an objective fact, no more debatable than the toxicity of cyanide.

“All those church laws and rules make an act a sin.” Nope. It was wicked for Cain to slay Abel, even if the Ten Commandments were thousands of years from publication. Laws are made for stupid people, self-centered people, people who resist the invitation to be more than mere animals. We shouldn’t need a law forbidding abuse of your own children or a fine for urinating in public as dogs do. Any fool should be able to figure that out for herself or himself.

We’re not talking about sin here. Just about whether you have the right to feel like a decent, mature human being. There is a big difference (which Christian schools rarely reveal) between moral evil and sin. Moral evil is an act that dehumanizes another human or oneself. It violates an objective “horizontal” web of relationships we share with all other humans on this planet and with the planet itself, whether you are a believer or not. Atheists can commit objective moral evil. Sin adds another “vertical” dimension to the same action, a relationship with the Ultimate Being who gave us existence and programmed into all things the ways they can be legitimately used. If you have no felt relationship with such a being, it is difficult to call any act a sin, but if it degrades any entity or oneself, it is nonetheless objectively moral evil. There is the crucial flaw in Catholic moral education: presuming abuse of a God-relationship that is ontologically real but rarely felt as real.

Human Sexuality

Both animal and human sexuality are physical. But simply by the objective fact that we are human, there is (or ought to be) a different dimension to human coupling than to animal coitus. Both humans and animals have “feelings,” like anger, lust, affection, but only humans can feel shame—even when they are not caught or disciplined. If sex is merely a healthy animal act for humans, why not do it in the front yard? Dogs do. Why not tell her parents? Or even better, her brothers? Humans lay claims on one another. You can’t have sex with someone and then, next morning, say, “Oh, by the way, what’s your name?”

Human sex is a statement. If I scowl, clench my arms and turn away from you, I’m telling you something. If I present you with my upraised middle finger, I’m telling you something, even though a word hasn’t been spoken. There is no way human beings can be more unprotected than lying flat on their backs, stark naked. That says, “I’m totally vulnerable to you,” more vulnerable than I’ve ever been even to my own parents—which is why rape is so heinous, because you can’t force someone to say that. Nor can you be totally vulnerable to someone for 20 minutes. And if you’re not, the sex may be very exhilarating, but it’s a lie. If honesty with oneself is the most basic of all virtues, one critical question: After 20 minutes of heavy petting, would it matter at all if he or she were anyone else—as long as you kept doing what you’re doing? Kid him or her. Kid the parents who trust you both. But for God’s sake, don’t kid yourself.

About as often as God’s heard the Lord’s Prayer, I’ve heard, “C’mon! If she wants it as much as you do, who’s getting hurt?” Well, if she desperately wanted to be your slave (“Hitch me to your plow and beat me!”), would that justify it as a legitimate human relationship? If she really wanted you to help her commit suicide, would that lift it to the level of a moral action? (At this point, there are usually sighs and groans that say, “Will you get off this crap?” Which means they know I’m inescapably right, and they don’t like it one bit.)

One year, around April, after we’d gone around the same track for the tenth time, one lad raised his hand and said, “Father, look. If you like each other, it’s just natural. If you’re thirsty, you get a drink of water. If you’re horny, you call your girlfriend.” And you’d say you love her? “Of course.” Even if you were using her as a means? “And she wants it, too.” Are you sure? “Of course. She does it, doesn’t she? It’s not rape.” But that day I suddenly got zapped with an inspiration. I hadn’t planned it or read it; it just “came.” I asked, “Okay, there are two words for having sex. What are they?” About eight gleefully obliged me with “F—ing!” And I asked what was the other one, and the boy who raised the question said, “Making love.” I leaned down to him and said, “They don’t call it ‘making like’!

With the pervasive and successful influence of the media, young people have no idea what genuine love means. It’s a synonym for “like.” But real love isn’t a feeling, like anger, or affection, or lust, which we share with other animals. Real love is an act of the human will, a commitment that takes over when the feelings fail, when the beloved is at least at the moment no longer even likable. Parents show real love when they discipline their children. The child’s face says, “I hate you,” and inside the parent is saying, “Right now, I’m not too keen on you either, but I love you enough to bear your hating me so you won’t get in trouble like this again.”

A good test of a sexual relationship that claims to be justified by love is to give up the sex for, say, a month, and find out if you really love each other even without it. Another is: Does this relationship make the two people more open-hearted, joyful, honest with others outside the relationship? Or does it make them more sneaky, cranky, thin-skinned? Good tests.

Perhaps religions of all kinds have been against casual sex because they’ve been around for centuries and know it can hurt or even destroy human beings. Perhaps they realize casual sex takes something objectively very important and turns it into something commonplace and trivial.

By their very nature, adolescents are fractious as mustangs under saddle against rules that limit their freedom. Until they have children themselves, they are at the most anti-authoritarian stage of their lives. They can “do a Clinton” on every one of the Ten Commandments or any other rule or law. Many are innocent, even in their own eyes, until they are proven guilty. The only way to teach an effective morality to this audience is by reason alone. Surely, it will do no harm to those few who do, in fact, have a person-to-Person relationship with God. In fact, it will give them ammunition for the inescapable dorm debate that begins, “You’re not still a virgin?”

It comes down to a simple question for parents and catechists: Do we want conformity or conviction? Uncomplicated as that.

William J. O’Malley, S.J., teaches English and religious studies at Fordham Preparatory School and theology in the Fordham College of Liberal Studies, Bronx, New York City. For

Comments

chris | 11/14/2007 - 3:49am
Why do so many think that sex is sinful and the Bible and God are against it? Sex is not a sin, it's the way that some do it that makes it a sin, like homosexuality. As far as premarital sex goes as a sin, when God brings 2 people together, they're already married in his eyes. There's a reason for our sexual side. If God didn't want us to do it, he wouldn't have given us such a drive for it. I don't believe God would be so cruel as to grant us such a strong desire and then tell us it's a sin to act upon it.