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Voices Online Edition
Winter 2000
Volume XV No. 1

A New Language
Does it really matter how we talk about sexuality?

by Mary Shivanandan

For most of this century there has been an assault on the Judeo-Christian view of sexuality, marriage and procreation. We can see the results in the declining number of marriages, the rise in divorce, adolescent sex, unwed pregnancy and abortion. The majority of Catholic couples come to marriage preparation already living together and contracepting. How has this come about?

The deliberate alteration of the language used to talk about sexuality is one of the major ways in which our view of sexuality has been corrupted. Ira Reiss, a sociologist, institutionalized a whole new way of talking about sex. In his book, Journey into Sexuality (New York: Prentice Hall, 1986) he noted that "social scientists have stopped using words like fornication and adultery because of their moral implications and have instead spoken of premarital intercourse and extramarital intercourse in order to minimize the intrusion of moral bias." The desire to remove all moral condemnation and even negative terms from any kind of adulterous sex has gone so far as to use euphemisms such as "commercial sex workers" for prostitutes and "sexually transmitted infections" (STIs) for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Words matter
The philosopher, Josef Pieper, in his masterful essay, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992) points out that a change of language affects both reality and interpersonal relationships, since both are inseparably linked. According to the ancient philosopher, Plato, the good of man consists in seeing things as they really are and living in accord with this truth. It follows that when the language on sexuality changes it can have a profound effect on the way people think and behave. It is noteworthy that the Catholic authors of Human Sexuality: New Directions in Catholic Thought (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), a pivotal text in Catholic higher education institutions for the past 20 years, adopted a form of Ira Reiss's categories for sexual behavior. They do not refer to premarital sex but to preceremonial sex which may be moral. By changing the word from fornication to "preceremonial" intercourse they have changed reality in the minds of Catholics with behavioral results that are evident in most Catholic marriage preparation programs. "Preceremonial" can easily be interpreted to mean "premarital" so that fornication becomes acceptable in any relationship before marriage.

The new sexual morality espoused by Reiss and others was designed to liberate the individual from "puritanical" restraints in favor of a new "person-centered" sexuality which endorses "permissiveness with affection". In other words, if we "love" each other it is all right to have sex. "Person" and "love" then become key to a new sexual morality. Paradoxically the full richness of Christian teaching on sexuality rests precisely on the foundation of man and woman as persons and love. The challenge is to show that the "person-centered" sexuality proposed by modern humanists is a counterfeit that debases both the human person and love.

Since corruption of the language on sexuality reaches to the very depths of the person, it affects human dignity, masculinity and femininity, and the mission to parenthood, not to mention the call to holiness. Even as a young priest in Cracow, John Paul II saw the need for a "revaluation of language". In his philosophical book Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), he re-situated the teaching on love and sexuality within the context of the person and the communion of persons. Then as theologian he has shown how man and woman image divine Trinitarian communion through their unity in sexual difference. Total self-gift which is at the heart of divine Trinitarian life must be at the heart of the one-flesh union of marriage. Sexual intercourse as the sign of this total self gift belongs to marriage alone.

The Holy Father addresses the problem
In his Wednesday Catechesis published as The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media), John Paul II returns to Genesis to retrieve a biblical view of marriage and procreation. Before the Fall man and woman, made in the image of God, enjoyed complete interpersonal communion expressed by the phrase "they were naked and not ashamed". When Adam and Eve sinned they lost the sense of gift each was to the other. They began to use each other, and the woman, especially, came to be treated as a sexual object.

Redemption bought by Christ on the Cross restored the capacity to receive the other as gift but now it is a task, achieved only with effort and the help of grace. The virtue of chastity is essential to enable the person to live as a gift. Only if he is in possession of himself, that is, he is not ruled by his emotions and passions, can he give himself as a gift to another. Chastity does not do away with passion (eros) but integrates it with ethos or the ethical realm. In so doing passion itself wonderfully aids the total self gift of the spouses in their one-flesh union.

"Pedagogy of the body"
These are a few of the insights presented by John Paul II in what is called his Wednesday catechesis. What he presents there he designates a "pedagogy of the body" which is meant to be lived by all. The Christian community in particular is called to recapture the vision of God's plan for love and sexuality. Towards this end Women Affirming Life has commissioned a study guide based on The Theology of the Body and my own, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999). The guide is composed of four six-week sessions of study, discussion and commitment to the new vision in daily life. Reflection on Scripture passages and excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church are included to aid in a transformation of mind and heart. It is hoped that those who participate will be able to evangelize first their families, then others they meet in daily life.

Above all it will provide a new language for talking about love and sexuality in terms of the "language of the body" and its "nuptial meaning", the union of eros and ethos, the prophetism of the body; chastity as self possession for self gift and dual unity of masculinity and femininity. Once again the place of sexuality in the vision of the human person's destiny to participate in divine Trinitarian communion will be restored.

For more information on the study guide and how to receive training as a study group leader, contact Women Affirming Life, P.O. Box 35532, Brighton, MA 02135, Tel: 617 254-2277. ( - broken link).

Mary Shivanandan is a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family, Washington, DC.

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