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You don’t have to make babies to have a holy kind of sex


I’m working my way through a stack of computer printouts, doing some armchair research into Vatican pronouncements on homosexuality.

It’s taking a long time because I keep stopping.

I think of Deb and Susan, a lesbian couple who’ve been together many years and who’ve adopted several children of another race. Their Xeroxed Christmas letters chronicle a succession of sports and school events and funny stories from lives these kids would never have known. Yet they don’t count as a family, in the eyes of the church.

Next I think of Jenny, who was born with male chromosomes and ambiguous genitalia. The surgeons “castrated” the miniature penis when she/he was a baby, removing nerve sensation (and future pleasure). But even artificial hormone injections won’t make Jenny male or female. Any sexual partner she/he had now would be illicit in the eyes of the church.

I scan a little further. Then I remember Tom, now president of Dignity, who was married 25 years and spent most of that time drinking, masturbating, snapping at his wife and mocking his daughter’s gay friends. He came out of the closet and is now in a committed gay relationship he says has taught him, for the first time in his life, what real intimacy feels like. The kind where you bare, not just your body, but your soul. The kind where -- he confides eagerly -- the best part of sex is holding hands afterward.

Tom never experienced that depth, freedom, wholeheartedness and ease with his wife, although to this day they remain dear friends. His body and his psyche simply weren’t oriented toward a woman. It was like forcing a compass to point south while you’re heading north. And it nearly broke him.

I’m told, by a Jesuit philosopher I deeply respect, that Pope John Paul II’s teachings on homosexuality flow from a coherent framework that honors the dignity of the human person and attends to our full biological nature. I’m told the pope believes sex should always be, not only committed and consecrated, but generative. Literally generative, capable of procreating another human life.

I think the pope is defining biology and generativity pretty narrowly.

Geneticists tell us there are not two sexes, there are five. Even the animal kingdom (from which we tend to exclude ourselves) exhibits hermaphroditism and other chromosomal/hormonal variations. Some fish and reptiles even change sexes midstream, depending on what’s needed at the moment. And animals exhibit same-sex copulation, too. Let’s face it: Natural instinct may drive us to procreate, but if every creature was fertile and actively procreating every time instinct beckoned, the world would be overrun, incapable of sustaining itself or evolving. Biology builds in its own checks and balances. Who’s to say the wide range of sexual behavior isn’t part of that?

What I’ve loved best about Catholicism all these years has been its insistence on inviolable human dignity. A central part of this human nature we cherish is the self-consciousness that allows us to understand, celebrate, control and redirect our instinctual life, using its energy to fuel intellectual and spiritual pursuits. We can turn base hunger into a Eucharistic meal; we can redirect the will to survival into selfless martyrdom.

And we can use libido as a way to open ourselves emotionally and spiritually, stripping away all the defenses, rendering ourselves vulnerable in an act of trust that can bring us closer to divine love even as it binds us to each other.

Every act of sexual intimacy does not do this, of course, just as every meal is not Eucharist. But the drive to join in the most intimate, vulnerable way with another human being is the drive that opens the door for another kind of communion.

It needn’t make a baby to be holy.

At a St. Louis University conference on the pope’s thought, Janet E. Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of Dallas, explained John Paul II’s belief that if sex is not open to the responsibility of parenthood, it is exploitive and objectifying, nothing but “bilateral pleasure.”

What about the tender, solemn responsibility you feel toward your partner after you’ve shared your deepest most private needs and nature?

Much has been said -- particularly by celibate men -- about the way natural birth control methods strengthen a (heterosexual) marriage. It’s true that the necessary cooperation is deeply intimate in itself; it’s true that the constant possibility of conception is a humbling reminder of the act’s power. But what natural birth control’s proponents do not mention is the soul-numbing, joy-killing, desire-inhibiting anxiety, the stark terror of getting pregnant when you have neither the money nor ability to cherish a new life.

That’s not romantic. It does not let you fall, receptive and defenseless, into each other’s arms.

What is pernicious about sex, in my opinion, is not its variations, but the way we objectify each other, take each other for granted, reduce intimacy to physical pleasure, put up barriers to protect our own egos. And all of that is perfectly possible -- indeed, common -- in a lifelong, consecrated, heterosexual, childbearing marriage. In fact, the obsession with the procreative function of sex can be reductive in itself, giving so much primacy to biology and the survival of the species that you lose sight of any other creative possibility.

What is Roman Catholicism saying to the sizable percentage of the human population that is infertile, has a different physical or hormonal makeup, yearns to be the opposite sex or grew up oriented toward the same sex? Stifle who you are. You can be it, technically speaking, but don’t express it, don’t use it to build a relationship, don’t integrate it with the rest of you.

If you’re desperately lonely, or you do feel a vocation to love someone intimately and share your life with that person -- ignore your own inclinations. Get some therapy, summon every ounce of energy you’ve got and shift your natural orientation counterclockwise, so you can live as society and the church dictate and make babies.

Those babies won’t thank you for it. Tom says when he was married, they’d all be putting up the Christmas tree, and his wife would start to hum Christmas carols, and he’d tell her to shut up. He’s not proud of that. But it’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re spending all your energy repressing and suppressing and masquerading and hating yourself and hating the charade.

Somehow I don’t think that’s how our creator intended us to live. I don’t think he would have given Oscar Wilde a job selling insurance and a house and three kids in the suburbs. I don’t think he would tell Jenny she’s a “freak of nature” because she’s neither male nor female. I don’t think he’d condemn her to involuntary celibacy and solitude, either.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called love “the most powerful and still the most unknown energy of the world.” We’ve tapped only a fraction of its potential. And that’s as true of physical love as it is of spiritual. In fact, it’s the times these two dimensions merge that remind us of marriage’s ongoing sacramentality.

“Little by little, love becomes distinct,” Teilhard wrote elsewhere, “though still confused for a very long time with the simple function of reproduction. No longer only a unique and periodic attraction for purposes of material fertility; but an unbounded and continuous possibility of contact between minds rather than bodies ... the pull towards mutual sensibility and completion.”

Our bodies can help us realize that.

If we let them.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999