Back in the 14th century — described by one historian as “an era of catastrophes” that included wars, pandemics and no less than three rival popes — an Italian poet wrote a story about two friends, one of whom ardently wished the other to convert to Catholicism. The non-believing friend agreed to do so only after first visiting Rome to see if the clergy lived up to the faith they professed. Once in the Eternal City, he discovered quite the opposite. Yet on returning home, he immediately asked to be baptized.
Stunned, his Catholic friend asked why he wanted to embrace the faith when he had witnessed such scandal and corruption.
“I see that for all this wickedness, your religion still flourishes,” said the man. “And I therefore discern that the Holy Spirit is the true foundation of it.”
As the church continues to confront the clerical sexual abuse crisis, we would do well to remember the same — and not just for ourselves, but for a world that desperately needs the medicine of the Gospel to heal the profound sexual brokenness within humanity itself.
According to a November 2017 report by UNICEF, approximately 15 million girls aged 15 to 19 “have experienced forced sex in their lifetime.” The agency notes that “boys are also at risk, although a global estimate is unavailable.”
In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation estimated that “one in three women globally experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime.” The U.S. ranked 10th on the foundation’s overall list of the world’s most dangerous countries for women (coming in just behind Nigeria) and tied with Syria for third place in the specific category of sexual violence against women.
In recent years, pornography has become a $97-billion-a-year industry, according to Kassia Wosick, associate professor of sociology at New Mexico State University.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that from 2010 to 2014, some 56 million abortions were performed worldwide each year — an overall total of 224,000,000, or almost the equivalent of the world’s fourth most populous nation, Indonesia.
Behind every statistic are individual hearts and souls created in the image and likeness of God. For them, and for ourselves, we must become a church that provides a path to understanding, nurturing, and stewarding the tremendous gift of human sexuality.
While we too often regard sexuality as a matter of individual choice that serves only our desires, our faith places it in a far broader and much more meaningful context. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul” (CCC, 2332). And for that reason, “everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” (CCC, 2333).
We do just that through the virtue of chastity, a term that, as you can imagine, is not exactly trending on Google’s search engine these days. Yet chastity, which derives from the cardinal virtue of temperance (CCC, 2341), isn’t a matter of prudishly covering our eyes and blushing at innuendos like a Victorian spinster. Instead, this virtue represents “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC, 2337).
Chastity requires us to grow up, and by divine grace, to master the passions that were driven wayward by our first parents’ sin. It means standing tall in the fullness of our humanity, living out our dignity as sons and daughters of God, and ensuring that others can do the same.
And we are in this together. Whether married or single, whether lay, clerical or religious, “all of the baptized are called to chastity” (CCC, 2348). Furthermore, that “long and exacting work” of self-mastery (CCC, 2342) is not only an individual task, but one that requires “a cultural effort, for ‘there is an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society’” (CCC, 2344).
We can begin our work by asking ourselves several questions in a kind of “sexual examen”:
— How do we as baptized followers of Christ view our own sexuality? Do we live out our call to chastity in our thoughts, our words, our choices, our actions?
— How do we as a church accompany our youth as they develop sexually? How do we model chastity to them? Do we actively work to ensure they don’t fall into pornography and sexual experimentation, and — equally important — provide them with the socialization opportunities they need to develop age-appropriate, healthy and chaste relationships?
— How do we accompany those who are single and those who are divorced? Do we leave them to figure it out on their own when it comes to living chastely, or are we willing to listen to and support them? How do we protect those whose physical or mental challenges can make them vulnerable to sexual exploitation?
— How do we reach out to those who have been sexually exploited and trafficked? Do we have a heart for the prostitute, the serial offender, the priest or layperson struggling with pornography?
— How do we accompany those who are confused about their sexuality, who seek to use it in ways that leave them wounded and unfulfilled?
All of us are called to thank God for — and honor him with — the gift of human sexuality, lifting our voices with that of the psalmist: “I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know” (Psalm 139:14).
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