Sex and love


By Frank Wessling

It has never been easy to talk openly and honestly about sex and love.

Euphemisms abound. In the Bible, sexual intimacy is in the air when one person “knows” another. This is equivalent to “making love” yesterday and “hooking up” today. And young males of every generation have probably adopted the expedient of professing their “love” for young maidens while in the grip of an urgent desire to “know” them intimately and quickly.

As a culture is more or less accepting of such quick and easy “knowledge,” we use different language to signal the common mood. Yesterday’s “shacking up” said that unmarried coupling was a tawdry thing. Today, when a young woman says she is “with” a young man, it’s an open and unblushing statement of the same fact, but now assumed to be nothing more than one among alternative lifestyles. Or it’s the compatibility testing period prior to a possible marriage.

If you are convinced that the culture is moving in a way that misleads young people and harms human flourishing, how do you get a hearing? The American bishops tried with the pastoral letter on marriage that they adopted last week. Its language about casual coupling and living together is blunt: “Cohabitation involves the serious sin of fornication.”


The letter says much more about marriage as the place where human sexuality is expressed with the fullest truth. Unfortunately, it will probably be best known only for naming the elephant in the room, fornication. How judgmental!

Well, yes, it is a judgment, but no one wants to simply condemn. If only we had ways of speaking about sex and love that always expressed truth while resolving the urgency and confusion of youth.

We should acknowledge that sexual attraction itself is a gift that calls us into a new kind of relationship beyond family. How best do we navigate this passage from easy, innocent and naïve love of childhood into the mystery of love that seems to require so much? The first and basic question is: who can be trusted? This is where we hope the Gospel continues to get a hearing and the voice of the church makes the Gospel sound appealing as well as directing and judging.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of how to truly, fully “know” other persons and be “known” ourselves. It’s a story for adults of making love, even for enemies. In it we learn how far removed we are from the instinctive sexual regime of dogs, cats and rutting deer.

With sex and love as with other fundamental dimensions of life, the real pastoral message of the church is to know and trust the Gospel. Begin to know Christ first, then other knowing will be very, very good.

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