One of the commonest complaints against Catholicism is that it is the religion of “no,” especially in regard to the sexual dimension of life. As the rest of the culture is moving in a progressively more permissive direction, the church seems to represent a crabbed, puritanical negativity toward sexuality. I think it is important, first, to make a distinction between two modalities of “no.” On the one hand, there is “no” pure and simple—a denial, a negation of something good. When a jealous person sees someone else’s success, he will say “no” to it, out of resentment. When a racist perceives the object of his irrational hatred, he will say “no” to him and try to undermine him. But on the other hand, there is a “no” which is in service of a “yes,” since it represents a “no” to a “no;” it is a double negative that constitutes a positive. Any golf swing coach worth his salt will say “no” much more than he says “yes,” precisely because there are a thousand ways to swing a club poorly, but really only one way to swing it properly. So when he says “no,” he is negating a series of negatives, trying to move his student onto the narrow path of the right swing. I would suggest that the many “no’s” that the church says to imperfect forms of sexual behavior are of this second type.
Now what, according to the mind of the church, is the correct or proper expression of sexuality? In order to provide an adequate answer, it would be wise to consult a curious passage in the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Apostle to the Gentiles writes: “Think of God’s mercy…and worship him…in a way that is worthy of thinking beings, by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God” (Rom. 12:1). Sacrifice, of course, was central to ancient Israelite religion. A Jew would bring an unblemished animal to the Temple in Jerusalem and would then, through the mediation of a priest, offer it to God as a token of gratitude, worship, or penance. In doing so, he would align himself to God, bringing his mind, his will, his very body into right relationship with the Lord. Any pious Israelite would know that Yahweh, the Creator of the universe, had no need of these burnt offerings, unlike the gods of other nations who seemed to require them. But that faithful Jew also knew that he needed sacrifice, since it brought him into deeper communion with the God who loved him, making him like the God whom he worshipped.
Now in Jesus Christ, the face of the true God appeared, precisely as a face of love: “God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him” (1 John 4:16). To sacrifice to God, therefore, is to become conformed to the love that God is; it is to become love. Paul is telling the Romans (and us) to turn our bodies—our whole selves—into an act of worship of the true God, which is simply another way of saying that we should allow every aspect of our lives to become radical love. Now we can understand the great “yes” of the church in regard to sexuality. Sex is meant to be completely attuned to love, which is to say, to self-gift. Sex is designed to be a vehicle by which the good of the other is sought and attained. When sex devolves into something less than an expression of love, the church resolutely and loudly says “no!”
And so it says “no,” obviously, to rape, to sexual abuse, to the sexual manipulation of another. But it also says “no” to sexual expression outside of the context of that mutual and radical self-gift that we call marriage. It says “no,” furthermore, to a deliberate and conscious frustration of the procreative dimension of sex. In all of these “no’s,” the church is fundamentally saying “yes” to sex as a path of love. I realize that many balk at this, arguing that while rape and sexual violence should always be condemned, other forms of sexual expression should be left to the discretion of the individual. But would we settle for this kind of leniency and mediocrity in any other area of life that we take seriously? For example, someone dedicated to having an excellent golf swing will, of course, accepts correction of his most egregious faults, but he will expect his teacher to press forward, righting relatively minor errors, fine-tuning his swing until he reaches real proficiency. I imagine that he would want his teacher to hold up the example, not of a middle-level, weekend golfer, not even of a star on the junior tour, but of Rory McIlroy and Fred Couples and Jack Nicklaus. The one thing he would not want his coach to say is, “well, now that you’ve overcome the major problems, just swing any way you want.”
So the church, which desires to bring human sexuality into full conformity with the love that God is, corrects us, cajoles us, objects to us, encourages us, holds up to us high ideals, and invites us continually into the high and challenging adventure of sexual virtue. Do we often fail? Sure—just as we usually fail to hit the golf ball excellently. Does that mean that the church should dial down its ideals? Absolutely not. Its “no’s” are so strong, because its “yes” is so ringing.