I know this is an unusually high number of posts in a short period of time, but I’ve had a cold so have been sitting around at home a fair deal of the time. Also, I’m inspired by World Youth Day, with approximately 500,000 Catholic pilgrims in Sydney currently celebrating the mass with Pope Benedict. Sex seems to be a central theme in the moral debates surrounding the Catholic church, whether it be accusations of child abuse by priests or concerns over the refusal to support birth control and condom use. I’d like to briefly touch on a related issue, namely that of abstinence.
The long tradition of abstienence in the church seems to be rooted in the biblical admonition in Genesis that a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. Following from this and numerous other biblical references, the church decrees that sex outside of marriage is adultery, a terrible sin, and strongly encourages abstience from its members. This is another example of appeals to authority – scriptual and church authority – for morality. Outside of authority, where are standards of morality defined? Humankind suffers from instincts that lead to immense suffering. Regardless of law and church institutions, where relationships are compromised through unfaithfulness, or where people are victimized through the unwanted sexual advances of predators, people suffer tremendously. As such, we institutionalise morality and faithfulness to ensure a degree of comfort and safety.
Yet the basal instincts remain regardless of institutional regulation. Not all predators can be tamed, so some must be locked away to prevent further suffering. For the majority, who have the discipline to self-regulate their basal instincts most of the time, there are still the occasions where morality does fail. Sexual attraction is simply common to human nature, and it can take a great deal of discipline for some to contain desire. Even the Old Testament demonstrates many of the leading figures of the faith in extramarital relationships, demonstrating that their relationship with God did not impact their natural desires.
I believe in faithfulness as a virtue in relationships. Open relationships may seem like a bit of fun, but do they really work? By work I mean, are they sustainable? Unrestrained sexual desire is a cause of much suffering in the world, and hence why restraint has been so institutionalised. Marriage and the laws surrounding it have nothing to do with being free from sin, and all to do with maintaining a sensible moral order in society. At its extreme, ‘God’ had the nation of Israel execute adulterers; fortunately, reason later intervened to override this lack of sanctity for life. Yet that was just another example of rules used to maintain civility.
I believe abstinence as a virtue can work, but is useless to impose from outside of a belief system. It is a personal commitment, to God or to the sanctity of life, that works to build a base of discipline with which to deal with the basal instincts. The Church has failed to demonstrate that sexual desire can be successfully subjugated through devotion to God or by the force of moral institutions. As such, the practice of safe sex and abstinence should be promoted hand-in-hand. Abstinence requires significant self-restraint, which can be supported through the encouragement of open-hearted friends. In other words, it can be seen as a spiritual discipline. It views sex as having a sacred place within a loving relationship. It is the higher ideal, the virtue that is worthy of being upheld. Yet given the intensity of sexual desire, even the desire to remain faithful to God or the belief system can easily give way to the passion of the moment.
Sensibility is the key here, an understanding of human nature within a system of moral principles that uphold the higher virtues while supporting the lower desires. Appeals to ‘the Bible says so’ or ‘the Church says so’ is not nearly enough; we must transcend authority to engage directly with a sense of these higher virtues, to understand their purpose to direct our lives for the good of ourselves and others.