Like talking about sex? Okay. Protestants like it and have very few restrictions for it other than that it must be within the confines of marriage. Catholics . . . appear to not like it?
That can’t be right. Catholics just regulate sex a lot because they think sex is bad.
Wait, not that either. So what do Catholics believe about sex and marriage? It’s actually way more radical than Sister So-and-So standing with her ruler in the school gym, separating dancing boys and girls from each other, creaking, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit!”
In his book detailing his and his family’s conversion to Catholicism, The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage, Dr. David Anders points out four radical areas of the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage—teachings that helped bring him into the Church. “Protestants and Catholics have different views of marriage, I came to understand, because they have different views about the foundational concepts of morality, spirituality, salvation, and human happiness.
Catholics believe that the ultimate end of human life is loving union with God and neighbor. Aided by grace, we ought to bend every fiber of our being toward that end. Catholic ideas about marriage and contemplative life reflect that lofty calling. The Protestant tradition also extols loving union with God but has always been more skeptical about the Christian’s moral potential,” Anders writes. So let’s look at what the Church teaches and what convinced Dr. Anders and his family of the truth of Catholicism.
1. Contraception and sodomy
On this very first point, Anders makes the distinction that Catholic teaching forbids both while Protestantism has never broadly decried these except outside of marriage. This is probably why Catholics get the “prude” label so often, because the first discourses on sex is a list of “Nos.”
But really, these Nos are really yeses to so much more. To say no to something less good or even bad (as contraception is both morally and physically) is to say yes to something better, greater. A common criticism of Catholic teaching in this area is that Catholics just want you to have as many babies as possible, reducing women to embryo incubators and sex to a means to an end only. Neither of these things is true, of course, and that’s exactly what Dr. Anders discovered.
“No, Catholic don’t think you should have as many babies as you possibly can,” Anders writes of his discoveries in his studies. “No, the pope is not simply trying to grow the Church through fertility. And, no, Catholic opposition to birth control does not mean the Church is heedless of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or other dangers associated with sexual activity. Rather, I found that Catholics have developed a rich theology of the human person that takes full account of man’s social, sexual, and psychological nature. Moral theology, I came to understand, is more than just listing all the prohibitions mentioned in Scripture; it is the science of human happiness. Just as a physician prescribes treatments for the flourishing of the body, the moral theologian seeks the flourishing of the whole person by asking, ‘How can man act in the world to achieve his true good?'”
2. Virginity, celibacy, and continence
It’s no secret that Catholics hold virginity and celibacy in high regards, sometimes the highest of regards. So many of the early saints are name Saint So-and-So, Virgin Martyr. And the early Fathers talk extensively about celibacy. These concepts and teachings have been with Catholics from the very beginning. And, sometimes feel really outdated because of that. Or, it seems oppressive. These can be valid criticisms, if the Church’s teaching meant only the denial of the sexual appetite. But it doesn’t. The Church’s teachings on virginity and celibacy actually are meant to point us towards heaven even more, that our bodies are actually symbols of Christ and divine love.
Dr. Anders found answers and inspiration in the early Christian ascetics: “These Christian ascetics were motivated not by hatred of the body or by a craven fear of damnation but by the promise of friendship with God. Augustine did not despise marriage; indeed he wrote one of the great Catholic treatises praising marriage. What Augustine, Antony, and other ancient Christians valued most, though, was the idea of a life given wholly to God. Marriage is a good state of life, but Christian contemplation is better.”
What’s even more astounding about this teaching of the Church is how widespread it was. Anders also picks up on this. “When I started reading about this ancient spirituality,” he writes, “I was surprised by how widespread it was. From Ireland to Persia, ancient Christians were almost unanimous in their praise of virginity and continence. Whatever else might be true about them, the earliest believers surely did not share modern Protestant attitudes towards sex.”
3. Why Catholics can’t divorce
Just to start off on the same page, no, annulments aren’t “Catholic divorces”. There is no such thing as a Catholic divorce. An annulment is a dissolution of a marriage, a ruling that finds that no sacrament was conferred in by the partners to each other during the wedding. You can’t end a marriage that never was. And that brings us to the Catholic view of marriage versus the Protestant view of marriage. To Catholics, marriage is a sacrament, but to Protestants, a marriage is a simple civil contract. If marriage is just a civil contract, of course it can be broken and dissolved. But if marriage is a sacrament, a visible sign of an inward grace, then that’s not something humans can just undo.
“The differences between Protestant and Catholic teaching on marriage have their roots in two fundamental issues. First, the Protestant Reforms thought that Catholic teaching on human sexuality was just too difficult. Second, the Reformers resented the authority that the Catholic Church exercised over Christian marriage. The way they tried to solve these ‘problems’ theologically was to naturalize Christian marriage, removing it from the realm of the supernatural. A major part of the Reformation, therefore, was an attack on the sacramentality of Christian marriage. The Reformers never denied that god instituted marriage at the creation of Adam and Eve. They simply denied that Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament,” Dr. Anders writes. This distinction is paramount to a Catholic understanding of marriage.
4. Marriage is a sacrament
So, Catholics believe that Christ did indeed raise marriage to a sacrament, and that makes all the difference. But a Protestant or non-Christian would firstly ask where this can be found in Scripture. I submit four Scriptural references for consideration, which Dr. Anders affirms: Matthew 19:8; 1 Corinthians 7:11, 17-20; 1 Corinthians 6:15; and Ephesians 5:25-32. One from Jesus’s own mouth and three from St. Paul, whom the Protestants love.
Dr. Anders writes of these Scriptures: “The first and most obvious fact was that Christ established a clear distinction between marriage under the old law and marriage restored by Christ. When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce in the Mosaic Law, he acknowledged that Moses allowed this because of their ‘hardness of heart’ (Matt. 19:8). But now, Christ was calling his disciples to the perfection of marriage only possible by grace. Second, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul holds the marriage of two baptized Christians to a higher standard than that of a Christian to a non-Christian. In 1 Corinthians 6, St. Paul teaches that Christians must not engage in sexually immoral behavior. Paul teaches that a Christian’s very body has been permanently changed in a way that identifies him with Christ and thereby affects his sexuality. The Christian literally carried the body of Christ with him into the marriage bed. In the fifth chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul clearly teaches that Christian marriage is a sign or symbol of Christ’s marriage to the Church. St. Paul connects the holiness of Christian marriage to the mystery of Christ’s Body, the Church. As holiness flows from Christ to the Church, so, in a way, holiness flows from the sanctified bodies of the baptized spouses, because of their union with Christ.”
The Catholic way of life, especially as concerns sex, truly is radical. But it is transcendent. Catholic sexual ethics call us out of the ordinary of this earthly life and point us to the eternal and infinite. It’s not an easy path, as Dr. Anders found out, but it is good and fulfilling. To read more on what Dr. Anders discovered about Catholic teaching on sex and marriage and for his full conversion story, pick up his book The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage: Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony.