In modern Western Culture, sexual ethics are one of the most controversial topics that can be discussed. Often times any suggestion of limitation or curtailment is met with staunch resistance as a relic of a bygone era. However, when St. Paul discusses the gift of human sexuality, he suggests that there are limits to how sexual activity should be expressed. This is not because sex is a bad thing, but because it is a very good and powerful thing that needs to be used in appropriate ways.
Modern attitudes about sexual activity spring from consent. My body is mine to do with as I please and all activities are acceptable as long as all parties involved consent to them. However, our bodies do not belong solely to ourselves. Paul rightly points out that our bodies are members of Christ, a gift from God who made them. This being the case, our bodies are designed for specific uses and we should not “sin against [our] own body” because it is a temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:18).
Paul admonishes his reader against being unrighteous and he lists adultery and homosexuality as immoral sexual behaviors (1 Corinthians 6:9). Both of these activities deny the intrinsic ends of the sexual embrace, which are procreation and unity. The Sacrament of marriage (and to a different degree natural marriage) serves the purpose of safeguarding both of these ends. In the case of adultery (as well as other sexual sins outside the bonds of marriage) the unity of spouses does not exist. Additionally, any children that may result from such a union are harmed by their parents’ lack of unity. Homosexual acts are naturally sterile and defeat the intended purpose of sexual intercourse. Both types of acts are ordered toward self-love and pleasure instead of toward the love of others, spouses, and children.
The ability to cooperate with the creating act of God is astonishing. It is a gift that must be protected and used wisely. The institution of marriage exists to safeguard this gift. It is a permanent union of husband and wife ordered toward the flourishing of their children. St. Paul reminds us that The Lord commanded that a “husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10). Both wife and husband are bound to each other as long as they live (1 Corinthians 7:39). Husband and wife are united to become one flesh, and man may not separate them (Ephesians 5:31).
Each person in the family has their own responsibilities. Husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 4:25). This kind of sacrificial love ensures the good of the other and promotes the good of the entire family as a model of Christ and the Church. Husband and wife together are responsible for the well-being and instruction of their children (Ephesians 6:4). Ultimately, each member of this family is responsible for the salvation of the others and they must work together toward that common purpose.
Sex and marriage are great goods. However, there are worldly concerns that distract from our focus on God. For some, it is better to give them up to be free to serve our Lord. “Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (1 Corinthians 7:28). This is not a gift that all people receive, and those who cannot accept lifelong continence should marry, as marriage is still a good and holy practice. As St. Paul says “he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who remains from marriage will do better” (1 Corinthians 7:38).
Ultimately, St. Paul teaches us that our bodies and sexual union are gifts from God that have been created with a specific purpose in mind. We are not free to abuse the gifts we have received but are to use them in accordance with God’s plans for us. Our sexuality is to be used to aid each member of the family toward our heavenly homeland, binding spouses to one another and providing the appropriate environment for procreation and education of children. We may not use our bodies in a way that detracts from their ends, for after all, our bodies belong to Christ and the Holy Spirit dwells within us.