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Sex and our culture

December 17, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

No generation in history has ever experienced as much change as we have experienced in the past 60 years especially in the area of our social infrastructure, our communal ethos. Nowhere is this change more radical than in the area of how we understand sex. In the past 70 years we have witnessed three major, tectonic shifts in how we understand the place of sex in our lives.

First, we moved away from the concept that sex is morally connected to procreation. With few exceptions, prior to 1950, at least in terms of our moral and religious notions around sex, sex was understood as constitutively connected to procreation. That connection, while still upheld in some of our churches, effectively broke down in our culture about 60 years ago.

The second severing was more radical. Up to the 1960s, our culture tied sex to marriage. This wasn’t always respected and there was plenty of sex taking place outside of marriage. But it wasn’t morally or religiously accepted or blessed. The sexual revolution of the 1960s effectively severed that link. Sex, in our cultural understanding, has become an extension of dating and one of the fruits of that is that more and more people now live together outside of marriage and before marriage, without any sense of moral implication. More and more young people today will not even have a moral discussion on this with either their parents or their churches. Their glib answer: “We don’t think like you!”

But the shift in our sexual ethos didn’t stop there. Today more and more we are witnessing the phenomenon of “hook-up” sex, where sex is deliberately and consciously cut off from love, emotion, and commitment. Sex is now cut off from love. More and more young people are making a conscious decision to delay looking for a marriage partner while they prepare for a career or launch that career and, while in that hiatus, which might last anywhere from 10 to 20 years, they plan to be sexually active, but with that sexual activity consciously cut off from love, emotion, and commitment. The idea is to eventually tie sex to love and commitment, but first to split it off for some years. Of course, again, as with the other shifts in our understanding of sex, this too has always been around, to which the phenomenon of prostitution and singles’ bars attest. But, until now, no one has claimed that this is healthy.

What’s particularly disturbing is not that there is sex taking place outside of its prescribed Christian ground, marriage. Human beings have struggled with sex since the beginning of time. What’s more worrisome is that more and more this is not only being held up as the norm, it is also, among many of our own children, being understood and hailed as moral progress.

This may not make me popular among many of my contemporaries, but I want to state here unequivocally that our culture’s severing of the nonnegotiable tie between sex and marriage is just plain wrong. It’s also naive.

I once attended a conference on sexuality where the keynote speaker suggested churches have always been far too uptight about sex. She’s right. However she went on to ask: “Why all this anxiety about sex? Who’s ever been hurt by it anyway?” A more sober insight might suggest: “Who hasn’t been hurt by it?” History is strewn with broken hearts, broken families, broken lives, terminal bitterness, murders, and suicides within which sex is the canker.

Our churches have, admittedly, never produced a fully healthy, robust theology and spirituality of sex. However, what it has produced, its traditional morality and ethos, does give a fair and important warning to our culture: Don’t be naive about sexual energy. It isn’t always as friendly and inconsequential as you think!

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

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