Timothy Radcliffe, OP
The Church’s teaching on sexuality is based on natural law, but the former Master of the Dominicans argues that a Christian vision of sexuality can also embrace another kind of sexual ethic derived from Jesus’ gift of himself at the Last Supper In Ireland 50 years ago, it was notorious that the clergy used to try to regulate kisses. People were told how long they could kiss, maybe 10 seconds if they were under 18. And there were rules about what sorts of kisses were allowed. (The most dangerous kiss of all was known as the French kiss.) But it is better to reflect upon what a kiss says. The body is made to be communicative, and the face is the apex of the body’s communication. The face shows what it means to be bodily, and the mouth, speaking and kissing, expresses the culmination of communication.
When we think of Christianity and sexuality, then people usually ask what is permitted or forbidden. What sexual activity is permitted between people who are not married? Can people of the same sex have a sexual relationship? This is to start at the wrong place. The first question in all ethics is: “What does my behaviour say?” Ethics is learning to behave to each other so that we relate ever more deeply. An action is not bad because it is forbidden but because it undermines human communion, though if it obviously does do that, then it may be good to forbid it. It is natural that when Jesus wishes to express the utter communion of God and humanity, then he does so by giving his body. He is not giving us a lump of matter. He is making a sign that speaks and creates communion. And Jesus says that this body is given for you. It is gift. This may be incomprehensible because for the last 400 years we have tended to think of bodies as possessions. If one thinks that one’s body is fundamentally an important possession, then of course one can do what one likes with it, as long as it harms no one else. The result has been a sexual ethic that has often been founded on rights regarding possessions. Usually a man was seen as owning not only his own body but also the body of his wife. He could do what he liked with her, though she did not possess his body in the same way. Adultery by the woman was seen as a form of robbery since in sleeping with another man she would be unlawfully disposing of her husband’s property.
When Jesus gave us his body, he was expressing the deepest meaning of what it is to be a body. To be a body is to receive all that this body is from one’s parents and their parents before them. It is ultimately to receive one’s being from God. Our existence is a gift in every moment. God gives me being now. So our sexual relations should be expressive of the gift of oneself to another, and the acceptance of the gift which is the being of the other person.
Jesus’ words at the Last Supper take us to the heart of a sexual ethic. Sexuality is about communion; it speaks. And what it should express is mutual generosity, the giving and the receiving of gifts. But the Last Supper was also the moment at which Jesus faced and embraced the contradiction of communion. On that night he shared himself with Judas who had sold him, with Peter who would shortly deny him, and with the other disciples who would mostly run away. It was the dark night, when there was betrayal, lies, fear, violence and death. On that night Jesus faces all that subverts and destroys human communion. He faced and transcended it.
The Eucharist is the sacrament of hope, because on that night, when there was apparently nothing to hope for, Jesus performed this astonishing gift of himself. And Christian sexual ethics should help us to live with hope, in the face of our own failures and denials and betrayals of each other. Christian sexual ethics teaches us to speak truthfully with our bodies, and to overcome the lies that we may sometimes tell. When you have sexual intercourse with someone, you say with your body, “I give myself to you, without reserve, now and for ever, and I receive all of you as a gift.” But if we get up the next morning and leave a note by the bed saying, “Thanks for the pleasurable sex, but I never wish to see you again”, then we have, in a sense, lied with our bodies. It is as if we were to say “I love you eternally” and then walk away for ever. We need to touch each other truthfully, to mean what we say when we kiss. We need to live out the deep meaning of what we do with each other’s bodies.
But if a Christian sexual ethics is to be hopeful, then it must teach us how to say the words that heal the wounds when we lie. We need to find the words that break the silence and which restore communion. It is not enough just to go to confession and get absolution. We need to give and receive absolution from each other. To live one’s sexuality truthfully means also that we find ways to overcome the lies and heal the hurts.
Bad sexual behaviour is usually linked with domination and violence. All over the world today, one can see the violence that often accompanies sex. War is always associated with the rape of women, but women are daily forced to submit to the domination of men, who force them to have sex. As John Paul II said, a man may rape even his own wife. Millions of children are forced into sex with foreign tourists in Thailand and the Philippines. Whenever dominance is introduced into a sexual relationship, then the heart of our sexuality is denied. The Last Supper teaches us that the heart of a Christian sexual ethics is the renunciation of violence. We seek mutuality and equality. When someone desires the body of another person, then that desire should not be rapacious, seeking to take possession of the body, as if it were a piece of meat to be devoured. We must learn to desire in a way that delights in the other, that treasures their vulnerability, that takes pleasure in their very existence. We must delight in another as God delights in us, tenderly and without dominion. If a good sexual relationship overcomes the distortions of power, reaching for equality and mutuality, then it is a preaching of the Gospel to the society in which we live. It challenges the unjust power structures of every society.
So often relationships merely echo the patterns of dominance of the society. If society is ruled by men, then men will probably rule in the home and in the bed. So a good sexual ethics offers a challenge that is implicitly political. If we are formed in our homes for reciprocity, then we will not beat home in political structures that oppress.
At the heart of a Christian sexual ethics is fidelity. The typical form that this has taken throughout Christian history has been through the marriage vows, when a husband and a wife pledge mutual fidelity until death. This has become much more difficult in our society, in which people live much longer, and are more mobile. Marriage is a fragile institution. In fact in our society no bonds are as secure as they used to be. We live in a society of short- term contracts, whether at work or at home. And this creates immense problems for couples whose marriages have broken down and who find themselves in “irregular situations”. Fidelity is much deeper than simply not getting divorced. It is offering a context in which people take the time to belong to another, to see the other and be seen. One needs courage to remain with another when they begin to see one’s weakness. The Eucharist invites us to endure infidelity, when we are exposed in all our fragility.
There is a deep link between sex and death. In the Old Testament, the begetting of children was the principal hope of immortality. One would be immortal in the memory of one’s offspring. So sexuality was our defiance of death. That is why one had a duty to raise children for one’s brother if he were to die without issue. Sex and death are still linked today. For most of Christian history, the bearing of children was a time of extreme danger for women. And now there is the link with Aids, especially for women in poor countries, where they may have no control over when and with whom they have sex.
So what can a Christian sexuality offer us in the face of death? It is not just the delegated immortality of children, though that does indeed reveal the profound creativity of human sexuality in the face of mortality. Also we give our bodies to each other as an act of love which is stronger than death. The Song of Songs says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death” (8: 6). But in Christ, love is stronger than death. Sexual relations should express that love of the Father for the Son which defeats our old enemy. Our society is both obsessed with sex yet lacks a deep exploration of its meaning. When the Church does articulate a vision of sexuality it is usually in terms of the natural law. This has its own usefulness and beauty, and I do not wish to dismiss it at all, but it carries the danger that the sex may then be seen reductively, in terms of the production of children. Sexuality must be placed again in the complex context of human communication, with its defeats and victories.
On the night before he died, Jesus gave us his body and this invites us to a deeper understanding of what it might mean to offer our body to another person. Sexuality speaks of a relationship that is founded in the giving and receiving of gifts. At the heart of sexuality is gratitude and generosity. Sexual intercourse is the transmission of the gift of our being, and so a profound expression of what it means to be human.
Timothy Radcliffe OP is the former Master of the Dominicans. This is an edited version of an essay included in Christianity and Sexuality in the Time of Aids, a collection of essays just published by Continuum(ed Lytta Basset & Timothy Radcliffe, ISBN 9780826499110, £10.99.) It was first published in The Tablet (www.thetablet.co.uk) and is reproduced by kind permission.