7 Reasons Why Catholics Wait Till MarriageJune 18th, 2014 by Jegsy Scarr
As a Catholic, I don’t think there’s any teaching of my faith that’s more misunderstood than the Catholic teaching on sex. It’s at the point where if I had a bead for every time I heard someone say “the Catholic Church hates sex,” I could outfit the whole of Vatican City with rosaries. I think it’s time for me to clear some of those misconceptions up.
If I had a bead for every time I heard someone say “the Catholic Church hates sex,” I could outfit the whole of Vatican City with rosaries.
It’s true, of course, that not all Catholics today will wait till marriage. But, since I’m one who is waiting, I decided to share some of the ways in which my faith influences my decision.
1. There’s a reason for all those rules.
When you tell someone that the Catholic Church doesn’t hate sex, and that it actually thinks that sex is a good thing, the first thing they usually argue is, “Then what’s with all the rules about sex?” Because, to be fair, we do seem to have a lot. Waiting till marriage is the obvious one: even engaged couples can’t have sex, let alone boyfriends and girlfriends. Sex must be so dirty and sinful that God wants us to avoid it at all costs, quarantine it inside a marital relationship, right?
The opposite is true, of course. The Church may have a lot of rules about sex, but they’re not indications of any negative opinion of sex. Another issue which the Church also has a lot of rules about is the Eucharist: You have to be Catholic to receive it, you can’t be in a state of mortal sin, and you’ve got to fast for at least an hour before receiving it. We’ve got dozens of these rules.
Those rules are not because the Church thinks the Eucharist is sinful and to be avoided at all costs, but rather because it’s such a beautiful and sacred thing that it has to be respected, at all costs. When I hear those rules as a Catholic, I can’t help but feel at awe at how important the Eucharist must be, how highly God must think it, and the same goes for sex. And there’s a good reason why sex is considered so beautiful and sacred.
2. Marriage and sex are like Heaven on Earth.
When a Catholic artist wants to depict a powerful spiritual experience, what do they do? You can’t see a spiritual experience, so how can you paint a picture or carve a sculpture or describe in words something that’s invisible and immaterial? The best thing to do is to pick something you can see and describe; that’s the closest equivalent. And one of the most common ways artists do that is by comparing a powerful spiritual experience to a marriage, and even comparing it to sex.
Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is an excellent example of this. The facial expression on this sculpture is like a bride’s in the marital embrace, fully one with her husband. And the entire biblical book, The Song of Solomon, is an extended metaphor, comparing God’s relationship with His people to a marriage, and a wedding night.
Neither spiritual experiences nor a relationship with God are sexual in any way, so why the comparison with sex? Because it’s believed by many theologians that the deep sexual communion between a husband and wife is the closest thing we have to what we’ll experience in Heaven. The Bible begins with the marriage of Adam and Eve in Genesis, and it ends in Revelations with the marriage of Heaven and Earth. God will be the Bridegroom, and humanity will be His Bride. There’ll be no sex in Heaven – it will pale in comparison to our relationship with God – but here on Earth, we have it as a foretaste.
Marital sex involves a husband and wife who have devoted their whole lives to each other, so that they are one flesh, physically and spiritually. You don’t get that outside of marriage: that exclusive, lifelong and fruitful union where you’ve totally dedicated yourself to each other. As soon as you realise that, sex outside of marriage becomes meaningless. It would be like searching for a deep spiritual communion with your boss instead of with God. There’s just no comparison. And that’s not the only reason sex before marriage is considered less than ideal in Catholicism.
3. Real love means real responsibility.
What is love, anyway? Sexual desire for someone? Feeling all fluttery inside when they walk into the room? Wanting to spend all day with them? Pope John Paul II argued in his book Love and Responsibility that although all of these things can exist in a loving relationship, they’re not love in and of themselves. Love is not just a feeling or desire, but an action. Love is a verb: the act of doing what is best for the one you love, even if it means sacrificing yourself, just as Christ died for every single one of us.
The Church has always known this, and some of her greatest saints have given their lives out of love for another person.
- St Gianna Molla was an Italian mother who in the 1960s refused an operation to remove her cancerous womb in order to save her unborn child. Despite knowing Church teaching allowed for a hysterectomy, she instead chose to give her life to save the daughter she had never met, dying seven days after she was born.
- St Maximilian Kolbe was a prisoner at Auschwitz when the Nazi soldiers decided to starve a group of ten men to death as a ‘lesson’ to the others. When one of the men cried out that he had a wife and children, Kolbe volunteered to take his place since, as a Catholic priest, he had no family of his own, and gave his life to save a complete stranger.
Romantic relationships should be no different. We love Hollywood movies like Titanic where the lover gives his life for his beloved, but most of us will never face such a situation in real life. However, we see the fallout of sex outside of marriage around us every day, with consequences beyond unplanned pregnancies and STIs. Psychologically, we bond with the people we have sex with, neurochemicals in our brain are released with every sexual act. For some married couples, premarital sex even leads to them comparing their spouses to previous partners.
True love means protecting your beloved, and I never want to put my future husband at risk. I won’t take the risk of contracting an STI and passing it onto him. I won’t risk jeopardising our marriage by having previous sexual relationships impact it. And frankly, when I picture my future husband sleeping with anyone else, it hurts. Whether he’d be hurt if I slept with someone else, I can’t say, but I won’t take that chance and put his heart at risk. Christ and the saints inspire me. If I would give up my life for my beloved, then giving up sex till marriage is nothing in comparison. And here’s another thing…
4. Sex involves the body and the soul.
From a Catholic perspective, human beings aren’t just bodies, but souls, too – two parts making up one whole. What we do with one, we have to do with the other, or we are in effect lying to ourselves, as well as to others. As Pope John Paul II said in Theology of the Body: “[The body is] the means of expressing the entire man, the person, which reveals itself by means of the language of the body.”
Here’s an example that may help explain things: When Judas betrays Jesus, he does so by giving the soldiers a signal to indicate that Jesus is the man they’re after. The signal he uses is a kiss. Jesus’ immediate reaction is: “You betray Me with a kiss?” And we realise why. It would be bad enough if the signal was to spit in His face, but a kiss seems so much worse. Judas isn’t just betraying Jesus: he’s lying to Him as well. We know that a kiss is an action that means something, namely love and friendship.
So what about sex? What meaning does that act have?
The Catholic Church assigns four, specific meanings to sex:
- Sex should be free: The couple give themselves freely to each other – there’s no coercion and no price tag.
- Sex should be total: They give themselves completely to each other, holding nothing back.
- Sex should be faithful: They intend to have no other partners as long as they both live.
- Sex should be fruitful: They are open to life, doing nothing to render the act infertile.
Outside of marriage, not all of those criteria are fulfilled, and in fact, in some cases, none of them are fulfilled.
Realising what sex actually means made me want to wait till marriage even more. I love the thought of absolute honesty with my future husband, everything I do expressing how I feel. Incidentally, during a Catholic wedding, those same four elements are present. Husband and wife promise to give themselves to each other freely and without reservation. They promise to honour each other for their whole lives. And they promise to accept children lovingly from God. Free, total, faithful, fruitful. And then husband and wife go on to their wedding night, and consummate those vows in the flesh.
5. The Catholic view of sex is pro-woman.
If you thought that last one sounded crazy, this one probably sounds like a box of frogs. My whole life I’ve been told that the Catholic Church hates women, usually by the mainstream media who present it matter-of-factly. And yet, I’ve never seen the evidence of it. In fact, I see the opposite. It’s the mainstream media that seem to objectify women, or present a twisted view of femininity. But I’ll get to that later.
First, let me answer some of the charges that generally get thrown at the Church:
- No, the Church does not think women are less important than men – the Church considering Mary the most important human person to have ever lived really should be a clue.
- No, the Church does not think all women have to get married or be nuns – staying single is just fine. No need to have fourteen kids, either, if you do marry.
- And no, the Church does not believe that women aren’t supposed to enjoy sex.
Some Catholic teachings on sex might actually surprise you. For example, in Love and Responsibility, Pope John Paul II exhorts husbands to learn to control themselves. Women generally take longer than men to climax during sex, therefore, the Pope says: “The man must take this difference […] into account, not for hedonistic, but for altruistic reasons.” In other words, if you’re a husband who doesn’t care about his wife’s sexual pleasure, then you’re not fulfilling a husband’s duty. It’s a far cry from the notion that women aren’t meant to get pleasure from sex at all.
As for the mainstream media, I’ve frankly had enough of how they present femininity. For example, the Pill is promoted as essential healthcare. Women are taught from an early age that to have equality with men, we have to sterilise our healthy reproductive cycles. And despite the Pill’s long list of dangerous side effects, somehow our bodies are ‘broken’ enough that it’s okay to risk our health to fix them. 4
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church insists that women’s bodies are perfect just the way they are. Natural Family Planning – as effective as the Pill with none of the side effects – is the only type of birth control the Church will promote, and it’s completely counter-cultural. The woman’s fertility isn’t manipulated and is left to work as it should. All you have to do then is recognise when she’s naturally fertile and infertile. 5
And here’s where the media really shows their double-standards. For a culture that boasts about being ‘open-minded’ about sex, the reality is that it’s a Hobson’s choice : “You can choose anything you want…as long as you want to do this.” In today’s society, you can engage in pretty much any sexual act you want and the media are fine with it. But choose to wait till marriage, and you’re on your own.
When I first decided to wait, I quickly realised that practically the only time waiting was mentioned in the media, it was being criticised or mocked.
When I first decided to wait, I quickly realised that practically the only time waiting was mentioned in the media, it was being criticised or mocked. People who wait till marriage are constantly portrayed as stupid and unreasonable, and I was worried. Maybe I was stupid to think any guy would love me enough to wait. It was only in the Church that I felt affirmed in my decision. Because in God’s eyes, every woman is worth waiting for.
6. The Church knows what she’s talking about.
I’m not waiting till marriage just because I’m Catholic. It’s true that a lot of the Church’s teachings have affirmed opinions I already held, like the desire not to have sex with multiple men besides my husband, but those opinions were always there. But for those with no desire to wait till marriage, it’s unlikely that they’ll wait just because some old man in the Vatican says so. Fair enough, since the world tells us from a very early age that sex outside of marriage is no big deal, or even that it’s a good thing. But I think there’s good reason to trust the Church on this.
In the sixties, when the Pill came on the market for all women, it was hailed as a huge step forward for society. There would be fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer abortions. The divorce rate would decrease and marriages would be stronger, because people could ‘test’ a sexual partner in advance, and would have less reason to jump in to marriage before they were ready. Women would be liberated. But today, we see that none of these predictions have come true. Half of all women seeking an abortion were using contraception at the time they got pregnant. At least forty per cent of marriages end in divorce, and fewer people are getting married in the first place. And as I’ve already stated, the media seems to objectify women more than they empower them.
Meanwhile, in 1968, Pope Paul VI had also made some predictions about the effect widespread contraception would have on society. In Humanae Vitae, he suggested that it could lead to more adultery and “a general lowering of moral standards.” Men might be more willing to treat women as simply an end to their own desires. Finally, he predicted that governments would use contraception to resolve societal problems, or impose them on the public. If the last one sounds weird, the United Nations has declared contraception a “human right” which all member states should promote. And currently the US government wants contraception to be covered by all business healthcare plans – if you’re a Catholic business owner, that’s too bad! Regardless of your views on the subject, the Church’s predictions were spot-on.
What about in the case of waiting till marriage? Well, we have good evidence to suggest the Church is right about that, too. As I mentioned before, studies show that our brains are designed to ‘bond’ us to the people we have sex with, so sex with more than one partner could cause serious problems. Another study shows a link between divorce and premarital sex, and suggests that even one sexual partner besides your spouse could increase the chances of divorce. And yet another study suggested that couples who waited till marriage to have sex were more satisfied with their marriages and sex lives than those who didn’t wait. With evidence like that, and having been proved right in the past, I think that it’s wise to take the Church seriously on this one.
7. We have some great role models.
It’s one thing to hear all the reasons the Church gives for waiting and think they make sense. It’s another thing altogether to decide to actually wait till marriage.
It’s one thing to hear all the reasons the Church gives for waiting and think they make sense. It’s another thing altogether to decide to actually wait till marriage. Society is not your friend here. You’ll rarely find support in your decision in the media, and with a sexualised culture like ours, temptation will be everywhere.
If you’re not a virgin, but have decided to wait from now on, you have friends in the Catholic Church. Some of our greatest saints were non-virgins, too. St Augustine is considered one of the Church’s greatest philosophers, and was anything but a virgin. He not only had sex outside of marriage, but even fathered a son out of wedlock. But later in life, he was baptised a Christian, was ordained a priest, and then a bishop. St Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for seventeen years until she found God. She’s now commemorated with her own feast day, a chapel in Jerusalem dedicated to her, and even a Roman temple that was rededicated in her honour. No matter what you’ve done, it’s possible to move on and start again.
So you’re waiting till marriage, but the pressure’s getting to you. Everyone tells you it’s impossible to wait. As people who believe sex is important enough to wait for, we’re often accused of placing too much value on it. Ironically, in our culture I think the opposite happens. Sex is idolised, like a false god. It’s everywhere, used to promote and advertise almost everything. Sex is seen as so essential to life that virginity is stigmatised. A movie title like The 40-Year-Old Virgin only works if there’s something wrong with being a forty-year-old virgin.
Let’s face it: waiting till marriage is weird. If we’re in a culture that worships sex, then we’re the heretics.
Let’s face it: waiting till marriage is weird. If we’re in a culture that worships sex, then we’re the heretics. And in a society that tells us we need sex to have a fulfilling life, there’s something very weird about the Catholic Church. The celibate priesthood must freak a lot of people out. A life without sex? Why would anyone choose that? That’s probably why priests and nuns are stereotyped so much in the media. We see pregnant, nymphomaniac nuns and lonely, out-of-touch priests. You don’t see the priest who’s a loving son and brother, or the nun who goes bowling (and out for a drink) every week with her friends. You don’t see the ones who dedicate their lives to serving the poor, teaching in universities or developing ground-breaking scientific theories.
Contrary to what we’ve been told, sex is not the most important thing in life. Family, friendship, and actually doing something meaningful with your life are the things that really matter. A romantic relationship is not going to make your life fulfilling. Back when I first decided to wait, that was the only thing I could think of: “When I’m married, I’ll be happy. If I can just find a husband, then my life will be complete no matter what else happens.” And that’s no way to live, waiting for the future to come so your life can get started. My faith, and the lives of fellow Catholics and the great saints, made me realise that.
I wait till marriage for sex, but my life is not on hold till my wedding day. God has a plan for me, work for me to do, and that can’t wait. At the advice of my patron saint, St Catherine of Siena, I’m going out into the world to be who God meant me to be, and I am going to set the world ablaze.