What is sexuality?

“When we talk about love, we mostly talk about ourselves, especially if we can discretely praise ourselves in the process.” -David O’Connor

I’ve been writing about issues related to Catholicism and homosexuality for several years, and some of my readers’ confusions have come from my use of the word “sexuality.” I make assertions that cut against common parlance. For example, I recently asserted that unmarried Catholics should be more sexual. In a post on chastity and sin, I asked, “What would it mean for the celibate person to have a flourishing sexual life?” And I have insisted that gay Christians need to live out their sexualities in a positive way in order to pursue the catechism’s “integrative” approach to sexuality.

Part of the confusion comes from readers familiar with my commitment to the catechism. They don’t always see how my claims cohere with it. I take the catechism at face value. So when I advocate a “flourishing sexual life” for gay persons, I don’t mean pursuing sexual-genital activity. But people want to know what I (and the Church) mean by “sexual” in these conversations.

Unfortunately, I cannot give a clear answer. The Catholic Church does not have a clear definition of “sexual,” and Her magisterial documents discuss sexuality in inconsistent ways. This doesn’t particularly bother me. The Church has only adopted the category of “sexuality” in the last century, and the term needs further development.

Still, I’ve found four primary ways in which Catholics tend to consider “sexuality.” I will list them below. I suspect that most of us tend towards one or two of these, and our experiences of sexuality both form and are informed by the perspectives we adopt on these questions. For example, I’ve found that many gay Christians who have histories of sexual addiction tend towards the third, while many commentators on Theology of the Body land somewhere between the first and the fourth. Writers in popular “conservative” Christian magazines tend towards the third, while writers in popular “liberal” Christian magazines tend towards the fourth. I tend to alternate between the first, second, and fourth, though I recognize the validity of the third in some situations.

1. The Gendered Understanding.

This pertains to the relationship between man and woman. Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility and also of some of Cormac Burke’s writings adopt this approach. Under this approach, sexuality consists of the complex and multidimensional relationship between man and woman as man and woman. This reading does not limit sexuality to biological procreative activity, but considers man and woman in their integrative personhood, in their differences and complementarities. Under this reading, there really isn’t such a thing as “homosexuality.” “Sexuality” as a category considers man and woman as man and woman and does not concern itself with same-sex-relationships. For the same reasons, anti-procreative actions are not truly sexual. They don’t involve open communication between man and woman as man and woman. They intentionally destroy man and woman’s integrative capacities and cannot therefore be considered properly sexual. (More on this here.)

2. The Genital Understanding.

This pertains to the engagement of the sexual organs and is largely related to what I call the “theological-teleological reading” of the catechism. Under this reading, sexuality relates to genital arousal and activities which arise from and engage this arousal. Thus, when the catechism criticizes “homosexual acts” as “objectively disordered,” it criticizes acts which necessarily include genital activity (masturbation, fornication, etc.) but not other acts, even if those acts might lead to such activity (kissing, emotional intimacy, etc.). (More on this here.)

3. The “Freudian-psychological” understanding.

This reading is the common (incorrect) reading of the catechism’s language on “objectively disordered,” and it encompasses emotional as well as physical arousal in the face of a beautiful person. Under this reading, “sexuality” encompasses any activities or dispositions which might even remotely lead to genital arousal and activity. Under this reading, sexuality is understood as the inescapable tendency towards sexual-genital activity which arises from increased intimacy with another. This understanding of sexuality often manifests itself in the question, “But if you grow closer to him/her, won’t you necessarily want to have sex, in order to grow even closer?” This is largely a pathological understand of sexuality. (More on this here.)

4. The erotic. 

This would be the broadest reading of sexuality, encompassing eros, the “romantic,” and motivational desire generally. Eros can be understood as the desire which draws us out of ourselves in the face of something or someone beautiful. It longs for communion with the beautiful, and this communion requires a proper ascetic disposition in order to resist the tendencies to destroy and consume the beautiful. The erotic characterizes God’s love for us, the ascetic lives of the desert fathers, Bonaventure’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi, and Dawson’s core disposition for the Christian mind. The erotic encompasses every experience of falling in love, every creative process, and every impetus to action.

With this understanding of sexuality, Chesterton’s assertion that chastity is “something flaming, like Joan of Arc” begins to make sense. Under the “erotic approach” to sexuality, Joan of Arc’s love of God may be an expression of her sexuality, in the gift of self motivated by love’s desires. Sexuality acts in innumerable circumstances and flourishes in unexpected ways.

Adopting this final view of sexuality, simply collapsing the ancient category of “eros” under the modern term “sexuality,” may be a mistake. I believe that sexuality may be one form of erotic desire, but erotic desire is not the same as sexual desire. Conflating the two might lead to anachronistic understandings of the Church’s treatment of desire and create problems with integrating various magisterial documents.

But regardless, it is important to recognize that eros is already being forgotten in the modern world, consumed by the obsession with sexuality, a somewhat amorphous and varied category. The two are certainly interrelated, but they are not synonymous. But we can only begin to understand this when we bring to light our own misunderstandings. More than anything, these conversations need the humility of faith which seeks, but does not hastily claim, understanding.

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