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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 1 Eastertide 2004

On "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality"

by Father Frederick Edlefsen

"I will walk with blameless heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
whatever is base".
­ Psalm 101:2-3

Far beyond the reach of human memory, when our First Parents tasted evil in Paradise, the Book of Genesis states that, "The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew1 that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves". (Gen 3:8) This passage reveals an important point: the first sin immediately alienated the man and woman from God and from one another. As Genesis says, "they knew that they were naked", thus they hid themselves in the garden. Genesis also shows that, soon afterward, man and woman's alienation from God and one another also involved an alienation from Creation as well as from the powers of their own body and soul. With regard to alienation from the self, a fivefold damage entered into each man's nature:

1. Darkened mind
2. Weakened will
3. Disordered passions (which tend to dominate the mind and will)
4. Sickness
5. Death

If we, as parents and teachers, are to pass on the facts of life and love to our children, we must first understand this: man is a broken creature. His nature is not destroyed, but it is fallen. It would be naïve -- and in fact dangerous -- to overlook this fact. And yet, it is all too often overlooked -- and even denied -- in our day.

Moreover, this brokenness has profoundly disturbed the affective and sexual nature of man, as it has the other powers of his soul and body. By God's design, the sexual powers of the body were intended to orient man and women to one another, that they may live in a monogamous and indissoluble union that is faithful, permanent, and fruitful in bearing children.

Because we all come into this world like "damaged goods", the affective and sexual powers of the person are often disoriented and disordered in the tangle of the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Envy, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Greed and Sloth. Once we recognize and frankly admit that we are not born into this world innocent, we can then open ourselves to receive a mystery and a gift that is far more sublime than all of Creation itself: that is, grace. Grace was lost by the Tree in the Garden, and grace was regained on the Tree of the Cross. Grace is the "free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to His call to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life". (CCC 1996) Stated differently, grace is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When teaching the young about love and life, parents must recognized and admit the primacy of grace.

We can say that grace has two sources: the Incarnation of Christ and His Sacrifice of the Cross. We have access to grace through the sacraments and teachings of the Catholic Church. And this grace is put into action through the Seven Virtues: first, through the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, which are created in the soul by the Holy Spirit; and also through the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude, which are formed by our freely chosen actions, and perfected by Faith, Hope and Charity.

With regard to educating the young for love and life, the 1995 Vatican document entitled "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality"2 -- henceforward called "the Document" -- gives us some magnificent insights into teaching the young about love and sexuality, in the light of grace. The perspective from which the Document comes to us is, I believe, well summed up by C.S. Lewis in the opening chapter of his book, The Abolition of Man. He mentions a well-known story by the English poet Coleridge, in which two tourists look at a waterfall. One tourist says that the waterfall is "pretty", and the other says that it is "sublime". Lewis notes that Coleridge agrees with the tourist who calls the waterfall "sublime", and then he makes this commentary:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it -- [they] believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. [Coleridge believed] that certain responses could be more "just" or "ordinate" or "appropriate" to [things] than others.... St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.3 Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought4.... Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.5 [Plato said] the well-nurtured youth ... would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.6

In this passage, C.S. Lewis is developing an important point: right affections and emotions toward things are necessary in order to know them as they truly are. True knowledge, and ultimately wisdom, passes through love -- that is, rightly ordered love. This truth points to something more profound: right affections toward persons, according our proper relationship with them, is necessary to know them as they are. Lewis is showing us that the rightly ordered love of things reaches its true end in a true knowledge of the things that are loved. Furthermore, rightly ordered love of persons reaches its true end in knowledge of the persons that are loved. This is also true for our relationship to God. As Christ said to the Father at the Last Supper: "This is eternal life, that they may know7 you, and the One whom you have sent, Jesus Christ". (Jn 17:3) The right love of man and the right love of God go hand-in-hand. And the right knowledge of God and the right knowledge of man go hand-in-hand. As the Second Vatican Council puts it: Christ reveals man to himself.8 Therefore, the Document states that teaching sexuality to the young "must be provided in the broadest context of education for love". (70)

"Education for love" always points to chastity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes chastity as "the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man9 in his body and spiritual being". (cf. 4, CCC 2337, emphasis added) The Document states that, "The virtue of chastity is found within [the cardinal virtue of] temperance". (4) Temperance is the virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasure and provides balance in the use of created goods. (CCC 1809) Temperance does not lead to repression, but rather to what our Catholic tradition calls "self-mastery". The self-mastered person has -- with the aid of grace -- disposed his passions to follow what his mind knows to be moral and healthy, and what his will desires as good. In light of this, we can say that the atmosphere in which chastity grows is right affections, and hence right knowledge, formed in the soul. The good soil in which chastity grows is the virtue of temperance. And the root of chastity is self-mastery. The flower of chastity is joy and freedom. As the Document points out, "the Lord's Redemption has made the positive practice of chastity into something that is really possible and a motive for joy, both for those who have the vocation to marriage [and to the celibate life]". (3)

Right affections, temperance, self-mastery, and chastity: these can scarcely be taught anywhere save within the family. Hence, the Church teaches that it is the inalienable right and duty of the parents to be the first and principle educators of their children, especially in the intimate matters of virtue, love and sexuality. (CCC 2221) This point is taught by the Second Vatican Council: "[The parents'] role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it.... Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs".9

With regard to this duty, Catholic parents must acknowledge the secular and immoral ambiance of modern society. Our society is attempting to institutionalize the fell passions that flow from the Seven Deadly Sins. Pope John Paul II stated in a Letter to Families, "it is a society which is sick and is creating profound distortions in man. Why is this happening? The reason is that our society has broken away from the full truth about man, from the truth about what man and woman really are as persons". (6)10 Hence, parents must know and teach what the Church's knows and teaches: "Man is ... the only creature on earth whom God wanted for his own sake, and 'man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself'". (73)11

A common error in today's understanding of human nature is that we divorce the powers of giving love from the powers of giving life. This error has become an almost subconscious presupposition among people today. Hence, there is a disordered yet wide acceptance of contraceptives, sterilization, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, etc. Therefore, Christian parents -- if they are to hand on the Gospel of Life to their children -- must make it a deliberate point to teach them that the powers of life and love must never be separated. Otherwise, the young will absorb these presuppositions from society. As the Document states, parents must serenely explain "the solid points of Christian morality such as ... the indissolubility of marriage and the relationship between love and procreation, as well as the immorality of premarital relations, abortion, contraception and masturbation". (102) In sum, the young must be taught to recognize within their persons -- body and soul -- the intimate connection between their power to love and their power to give life. Teaching these truths will not only aid in chastity, but help in creating an inner-harmony whereby the soul becomes aware of its profound search for God.

It is our moral duty before God to teach our children to avoid mortal sin, to avoid the occasion of sin, to love good and hate evil, to choose good and avoid evil, and to grow in God's grace. This can be achieved by daily prayer and frequenting the Sacrament of Confession. It is achieved by taking our children to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, so they draw strength from the Lord's Holy Sacrifice. If we do this, the young can come to love and know Christ, who reveals us to ourselves and to one another. In re-discovering harmony with God and nature, man also discovers a deep and abiding joy, and fulfills his destiny to Eternal Life. As Jesus said to His apostles at the Last Supper: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete". (Jn 15:11)

Presentation to St. James Parents
February 19, 2004

Basic principles given in "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality"


1. Each child is a unique and unrepeatable person and must receive individualized formation.
(65) This is because parents are privy to a subtle and uniquely intimate knowledge of their children. "Therefore, the most intimate aspects, whether biological or emotional, should be communicated in a personalized dialogue". (66) "Experience shows that this dialogue works out better when the parent who communicates the biological, emotional, moral and spiritual information is of the same sex as the child or young person". (67)

2. The moral dimension must always be part of [the parents'] explanations. (68) Above all, this means formation in chastity. "Only a person who knows how to be chaste will know how to love in marriage or in virginity". (68) "From the earliest age, parents may observe the beginning of instinctive genital activity in their child. It should not be considered repressive to correct such habits gently that could become sinful later, and, when necessary, to teach modesty as the child grows". (69) Parents' reproofs and recommendations to children should not be motivated by reasons of reputation or fearing social consequences; but rather, they should be motivated by a love which seeks the child's true good. (69)

3. Formation in chastity and timely information regarding sexuality must be provided in the broadest context of education for love. It is not sufficient, therefore, to provide information about sex together with objective moral principles. That is to say, proper sexual behavior ought not to be presented as a mere matter of "moral obligation", but rather as a matter of forming healthy or well ordered affections. When man loves people and things as he ought, he finds joy and can receive grace from God. Moreover, "God's help is never lacking if each person makes the necessary commitment to respond to His grace". (74)

4. Parents should provide information with great delicacy, but clearly and at the appropriate time. In giving information about love and sex, children must be treated in an individualized and personal way. "Giving too many details to children is counterproductive. But delaying the first information for too long is imprudent..." (75)


1. Age of Innocence (5-puberty): "This period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex. During those years ... it is normal for the child's interests to turn to other aspects of life ... and they prefer to associate with children of their own sex". (78) Information about chastity "should be indirect, in preparation for adolescence, when direct information is necessary". (78) The document notes that "In some societies today, there are planned and determined attempts to impose premature sex information on children.... Such information tends to shatter their emotional and educational development and to disturb the natural serenity of this period of life". (83)

About sex abuse: "Sexual violence with regard to children is not infrequent. Parents must protect their children, first by teaching them a form of modesty and reserve with regard to strangers, as well as by giving suitable sexual information, but without going into details and particulars that might upset and frighten them" (85).

2. Puberty: This is the initial phase of adolescence. It is a time in which parents are called to be particularly attentive to the Christian education of their children. This is a time of self-discovery and "when the feeling of love awakens, with the biological impulses of sexuality, the time of the desire to be together, the time of particularly intense joy connected with the exhilarating discovery of life. But often it is also the age of deeper questioning, of anguish or ever frustrating search, of a certain mistrust of others and dangerous introspection, and the age sometimes of the first experiences of setbacks and of disappointments". (87)12

It is important to present information about physical changes and physiological developments that occur during the teen-age years before this information is obtained from peers or from persons "who are not well-intentioned". (91)

Habits of speech and conduct that may be socially acceptable, but "not morally correct and represent a way of trivializing sexuality", should not be tolerated by parents. Parents must teach Christian modesty, moderate dress, and "the necessary autonomy" that characterizes a mature personality. (97)

Parents must highlight "the inestimable value of prayer and frequent fruitful recourse to the sacraments for a chaste life, especially personal confession. Furthermore, parents should be capable of giving their children ... a serene explanation of the solid points of Christian morality such as, for example, the indissolubility of marriage and the relationship between love and procreation, as well as the immorality of premarital relations, abortion, contraception and masturbation". (102)

With regard to masturbation, the document nuances the issue in a manner important to parents confronted with the matter: "Masturbation ... constitutes a very serious disorder that is illicit in itself and cannot be morally justified, although 'the immaturity of adolescence (which can sometimes persist after that age), psychological imbalance or habit can influence behavior, diminishing the deliberate character of the act and bringing about a situation whereby subjectively there may be not always serious fault'. Therefore, adolescents should be helped to overcome manifestations of this disorder, which often express the inner conflicts of their age and, in many cases, a selfish vision of sexuality". (103)


1. Human sexuality is a sacred mystery and must be presented according to the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, always bearing in mind the effects of original sin.

2. Only information proportionate to each phase of their individual development should be presented to children and young people.

3. No material of an erotic nature should be presented to children or young people of any age, individually or in a group.

4. No one should ever be invited, let alone obliged, to act in any way that could objectively offend against modesty or that could subjectively offend against his or her own delicate sense of privacy.

1. "Knew" = egnosan. Some translations say "perceived" or "realized".
2. The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, Pontifical Council for the Family, Guidelines for Education within the Family, November 21, 1995, Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
3. The City of God, xv. 22.
4. Nicomachian Ethics, 1104 b.
5. Laws, 653.
6. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 1944 (New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 27-29.
7. "Ginoskosin" = "they may know"
8. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 22
9. Second Vatican Council, Declaration of Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis; also see John Paul II, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, Familiaris Consortio, 36.
10. John Paul II, Letter to Families, Gratissimam sane, February 2, 1994, 20. Editor's note: excerpts from this letter appear in this issue.
11. See Gaudium et Spes, 24.
12. See John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, October 16, 1979, 38.

Father Frederick Edlefsen, a priest of the diocese of Arlington, originally hails from Louisiana but has lived in Kansas, New York and Virginia. He has been a high school teacher, a grain trader, and an economist. He serves as Parochial Vicar of St. James Parish in Falls Church, Virginia.

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