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The Church, sex and marriage
July 7, 2010, 2:18 pm
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Getting away, for once, from matters of Church order, I want to express a view on something even more basic and of concern to us all, namely sexual morality. Human sexual activity may be considered from various standpoints- biologically, philosophically, theologically (and others that I shall not be dealing with).

Biologically, human sexual activity resembles that of other animal species. All living organisms need to procreate in order to survive as species, and sexual differentiation and union is one important mechanism whereby species can continue over time, and also evolve and adapt to meet changing circumstances and environments. As Darwin correctly observed, the best adapted species (“the fittest”) are those which survive. The continuance and adaptation of the species are therefore biologically of primary importance, and any other considerations are secondary.

Philosophically, the fact that human beings are both rational and free means that human sexual behaviour is capable of ethical evaluation. The most general ethical principle, it seems to me, is that such behaviour should not frustrate the biological end of continuing the species. It also seems to me to be true that in human procreation, the welfare and interests of offspring should in general have priority over the convenience of parents. This welfare requires, for instance, the relative stability and permanence of family units; but probably it does not absolutely require e.g. monogamy or indissolubility of marriage.

Theologically, from a Christian point of view, the fact that human beings are “made in the image of God” imparts a particularly sacred character to the activities whereby human life is pro-created. Man and woman co-operate with the Creator in bringing into being a new Image of God. It is the sacredness of this activity that leads the Church to attribute such gravity to the misuse of sexuality. Whether by frustrating the very purpose of the act by separating the incidental benefits (e.g. the pleasure of the participants) from its proper end; or by engaging in procreative activity with no thought of responsibility for the welfare of offspring: there is not merely an ethical (philosophical) offence, but one against the Creator and his purposes, for which the correct term is “sin”.

The Church teaches that sexual sins are always, objectively, a serious or grave matter. Some are clearly much more serious than others, insofar as they depart more from the fundamental purpose of procreation. Subjectively, and in terms of “formal sin”, ignorance and human weakness may mitigate the gravity of an offence. Today’s culture has created confusion and error in otherwise well-disposed people. Nevertheless, such mitigation is best left to the judgement of a confessor than to that of offenders.

The Church also teaches, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that Christian marriage is life-long and indissoluble, and is also monogamous. The doctrine of the Church of England is expressed in the preface to the Solemnization of Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer, which includes these elements: that it is between a man and a woman, for the procreation of children, and that it signifies the union of Christ with his Church. These are fundamental principles.

Christians should not simply seek to avoid sin, it is their business to cultivate virtue: in this area, the virtue of chastity. Chastity is a positive concern to respect the sacredness of sex and procreation. In married couples it implies fidelity to one another and respect for one another. In those not married, it demands faithfulness to the ordinances of the Creator and respect for his purposes. Prudence requires avoidance of “occasions of sin” as far as is possible. The modern world, unfortunately, with its obsession with sexuality, makes this difficult. The virtues of temperance and fortitude are also needed. The prayers of the saints are to be sought and their example followed.

Virgo singularis, inter omnes mitis, nos culpis solutos mites fac et castos.

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