ch. 10. Sex in Public:
Toward A Christian Ethic
of  Sex


 Medieval Stone carving,  Millstatt Monastery, Austria

Stanley Hauerwas: A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic
(Univ of Notre Dame Pr 1988),  ISBN: 0268007357. pp. 155-66; 175-195.

 1) Open Marriage;    2) Extraordinary Moral Commitments;  
3) Marriage as a Heroic Role;    4) The virtue of Fidelity to an arduous task

Permission has been granted for reproduction of this text  for teaching purposes



1.  On Speaking Candidly and as a Christian about Sex  [p. 175]




     Candor is always to be striven for, but it is especially important for any discussion about sex; in particular, the morality of sex. And candor compels me to say that I cannot provide anything like an adequate ethic to deal with sex. This is, no doubt, partly because of my own moral and intellectual limitations. But it also reflects that generally Christians, and in particular Christian ethicists, are unsure what to say or how to respond to our culture’s changing sexual mores (if in fact they are changing).1

     Current reflection about sexual ethics by Christian ethicists is a mess. That may seem an odd state of affairs, for it is generally thought that while the church may often be confused about issues of war or politics, we can surely count on Christians to have a clear view about sex. It has been assumed that the church and her theologians have seldom spoken ambiguously about sex and most of what they have had to say took the form of a negative.2 “No,” you should not have sexual intercourse before marriage. “No,” you should not commit adultery. “No,” you should not practice contraception, and so on.

     Indeed, the proscriptive nature of much of the church’s teaching about sex (together with the assumption often associated with such strictures that there is something wrong with sex), seems to me the source of some of the confusion concerning current sexual ethics. By rights, theologians and ethicists should not be able to say enough good about sex. Broad anthropological analysis has shown us that we are fundamentally sexual beings, and that is indeed a good thing. God has created us to be sexual beings and it seems nothing short of Manichaeanism for us to deny that aspect of our lives. But in our rush to show that Christians know that sex can be beautiful, Christian ethicists have often failed to talk candidly about sex. One suspects that if sex can be beautiful, it is as often likely to be messy and/or boring.

     Many people are particularly disturbed when they are told that contemporary Christian ethics has little coherent to say about sexual ethics. We live [p.176] in a cultural situation that is extremely confusing in regard to sex and we rightly feel we need some guidance from somewhere. Whether we are sexually faithful in our marriages or not, we feel at a loss to explain why we live that way rather than another. Thus, some stay faithful because they are fearful of women or men, or lazy, or fear the consequences if found out. If or how sexual fidelity is anchored in our fundamental Christian convictions remains unclear.

     Even more disturbing is what appears to be the sheer sexual anarchy characteristic of much of our culture. For example, Paul Ramsey in a recent article cites Dr. Robert Johnson, director of adolescent medicine at the New Jersey College of Medicine, that two of every ten girls in junior and senior high school in New Jersey will get pregnant this year.3 No matter what one thinks about premarital sexuality, that is a shocking statistic, and we feel we need some ethical guidance on how to deal with such problems.

     This is an area that the church and Christian ethicists surely ought to have something to say about, but I think what we should have to say will demand a more thorough rethinking of the nature of Christian life than most who call for a new “sex ethic” anticipate. For it is my thesis that the development of a sexual ethic and practice appropriate to basic Christian convictions must be part of a broader political understanding of the church. Put bluntly, there is no way that the traditional Christian insistence that marriage must be characterized by unitive and procreative ends can be made intelligible unless the political function of marriage in the Christian community is understood. Sexual ethics cannot be separated from political ethics if we are to understand why Christians believe that sexual practices should be determined by how they contribute to the good end of the Christian community.

     Methodologically, this means that attempts to base a Christian ethics of sex on natural law - whether natural law be understood as unexceptionable norms or broadly construed anthropological characterizations of human sexuality - must be abandoned. Ironically, the attempt to develop a sexual ethic based on natural law - i.e., the idea that the legitimacy of contraception can be determined by the nature of the act of sex considered in itself - has much in common with the current effort to liberalize sexual ethics through suggestions about what is necessary for the flourishing of human sexuality. The attempt to base an ethic of sex on “nature” results in abstracting sex from those institutions that are necessary to make any ethic of sex intelligible. In contrast, I will try to show that the claim that a sexual ethic derives its form from marriage is a political claim, as it makes sense only in terms of the church’s understanding of its mission. Therefore a Christian ethic of sex cannot be an ethic for all people, but only for those who share the purposes of the community gathered by God and the subsequent understanding of marriage. [p. 177]

     The thesis that the ethics of sex is a public and political issue seems to be odd or even absurd in our cultural context. We have been taught to understand that sex is private and is determined by two or more people with free consent. It is often assumed that you can do pretty much what you want as long as you do not hurt one another. What we have failed to note is that the claim that sex is a matter of private morality is a political claim dependent upon a liberal political ethos. Any attempt to reclaim an authentic Christian ethic of sex must begin by challenging the assumption that sex is a “private” matter.

     Because by and large Christians have not lived or understood the political nature of their convictions about marriage and sex, our current sexual ethics is largely made up of inconsistent borrowings from the various options provided by our culture. This is not surprising, as Christians have often had this happen. Indeed, one of our difficulties in articulating what kind of sexual ethic should be characteristic of Christians is our knowledge that too often what has flown the flag of Christian sexual ethics has been a secular ethic baptized by the Christian church in the name of natural law.

     Currently there seem to be two main cultural alternatives - realism and romanticism - for us to choose between. These options appear to be fundamentally opposed, but I think on analysis they share some strikingly similar presuppositions. For realism is but chastened romanticism that seeks to “talk sense” about sex in order to prevent some of the worst excesses of romanticism. Yet like romanticism, realism continues to underwrite the assumption that sex is a private matter and is subject to public interest only when it has consequences  -i.e., teenage pregnancy - that effect the public pocketbook. A brief analysis of realism and romanticism will make evident that they have set the agenda for the current discussion of sexual ethics among Christians.








     As the term suggests, realism has the virtue of dealing with sex without illusion or cant. Realists often claim to be amoral, but that does not mean the realist vision lacks depth. For the realist simply assumes that it is too late to raise “moral issues” about sex, one way or the other. We live in a situation where two out of ten young girls in New Jersey are going to get pregnant this year. The realist may deplore the implications but assumes the situation as a fact and concentrates on the task of information: how to get knowledge and techniques to young people who have become “sexually active “4 so some of the consequences of their behavior can be checked. The realist position is also often coupled with an attempt to help people have a more healthy attitude toward sex. In particular, the realists stress that [p. 178] sex is simply one human activity among others  - it can be a profound human expression or it can just be fun -but what is important, no matter how sex be understood, is that it be demystified. The realist thus suggests to young people that they may not be as ready for sex as they think they are, for as the sexually experienced often discover, sex is not easy to keep just fun.

     Realism is a position I often find myself tempted to assume. I still remember vividly in my first year of teaching I was asked by a delegation of students from the college’s student senate what the “Christian ethical position” should be concerning whether doors could be shut during parietal visitations. Completely taken aback by what seemed to be the triviality of the issue, all I could think to say was I supposed closing the door was better than getting grass stains. My response was meant to be realistic. I assumed that those students who were going to have sex were going to do so whatever rules one thought up about parietals. And like most realists, I thought that the most important thing anyone could do when confronted by such an issue was to speak candidly.

     Yet, in spite of the kind of “worldly wisdom” that makes the realist position attractive, it is doomed to failure. What realists fail to recognize is that, in spite of claims to being amoral or at least nonmoralistic, their position in fact presupposes an ethical recommendation. Realists cannot help but assume that the way things are is the ways things ought to be. Therefore, they accept as morally normative the liberal assumption that sexual activity should be determined by what each individual feels is good for him or her.

     By accepting such an assumption, moreover, realism fails to provide an adequate response to our other primary cultural alternative, romanticism. For many teenagers get pregnant exactly because of their romantic notion that sex should be a significant gesture denoting the level of commitment between two people. In an ironic way the phenomenon of teenage pregnancy, which no doubt is often the result of ignorance and an absence of proper contraceptive techniques, is the sign of how deeply conservative assumptions about the significance of sex are ingrained in our culture.




    Open Marriage »contents




Like realism, “romanticism” is less a coherent position than a general stance about the place of sex and marriage in our lives. The basic assumption of romanticism is that love is the necessary condition for sex and marriage. How love is understood can and often does vary greatly between different versions of romanticism. Yet for all romantics the quality of the interpersonal relation between a couple is the primary issue for considering sexual involvement. [p. 179]  Even the arguments which criticize “romanticism” structurally may accept the assumption that the primary issue is the “depth” of commitment between the couple.

     Examples of this kind of thinking in our society are almost endless, but by way of illustration let me call your attention to the position of Nena and George O’Neill as developed in their best-selling book, Open Marriage.5  Though I do not think the O’Neills provide a particularly profound version of romanticism, I suspect that they represent broadly shared views and judgments about sex and marriage in our culture. Theirs is essentially a conservative position, written in the spirit of saving marriage as a worthwhile activity. To save marriage, however, they argue that the meaning of marriage “must be independently forged by a man and a woman who have the freedom to find their own reasons for being, and for being together. Marriage must be based on a new openness-an openness to one’s self, an openness to another’s self, and openness to the world. Only ; by writing their own open contract can couples achieve the flexibility they coed to grow. Open marriage is expanded monogamy, retaining the fulfilling and rewarding aspects of an intimate in-depth relationship with another, yet eliminating the restrictions we were formerly led to believe were an integral part of monogamy (41).

     Open marriages must necessarily avoid being controlled by presupposed roles denoted by the terms “husband” and “wife. “ What we do and do not do as husbands and wives should be determined by what we feel as individual human beings, not by some predetermined set of restrictive codes (p. 148). Thus, in an “open marriage, each gives the other the opportunity, the freedom, to pursue those pleasures he or she wishes to, and the time they do spend together is fruitfully and happily spent in catching up on one another’s individual activities” (p. 188). Crucial to such a marriage is trust, as only trust provides the possibility for a marriage to be a “dynamic, growing relationship” (224). But it must be an “open trust, “ in contrast to those forms of trust built on dependability and assured predictability. To have open trust “means believing in your mate’s ability and willingness to cherish and respect your honesty and your open communications. Trust is the feeling that no matter what you do or say you are not going to be criticized” (231). “Trust then is to freedom, the freedom to assume responsibility for your own self first and then to share that human self in love with your partner in a marriage that places no restrictions upon growth, or limits on fulfillment” (235).

     This seems an attractive ideal. After all, who could be against trust? And who would deny the importance of each partner continuing to develop his or her own person in and outside marriage? For it is surely true that the strength of any marriage is partly judged by the ability of each partner to [p.180] rejoice in the friendships of the other. Indeed, such friendships can be seen as necessary for the enrichment of any marriage.

     Yet, ironically, the O’Neills’ account of “open marriage” requires a transformation of the self that makes intimate relationships impossible in or outside of marriage. Many conservative critics of proposals like “open marriage” tend to overlook this element, because all their attention is directed to the sexual implication - namely, that premarital and extramarital sex is not condemned. But that element has long been written into the very structure and nature of romanticism. What the “conservative” must recognize is that prior to the issue of whether premarital or extramarital sexual intercourse is wrong is the question of character: What kind of people do you want to encourage? Hidden in the question of “What ought we to do?” is always the prior question “What ought we to be?” The most disturbing thing about such proposals as the O’Neills’ is the kind of persons they wish us to be. On analysis, the person capable of open marriage turns out to be the self-interested individual presupposed and encouraged by our liberal political structure and our capitalist consumer economy.

     Perhaps this is best illustrated by calling attention to the O’Neills’ discussion of adultery. Of course, the O’Neills see no reason why adultery should be excluded from open marriage. After all, most people “now recognize sex for what it is: a natural function that should be enjoyed for its own earthy self without hypocrisy” (247). Indeed, extramarital sexual experiences “when they are in the context of a meaningful relationship may be “rewarding and beneficial to an open marriage” (254). But the O’Neills do provide a word of caution; they suggest that to have a extramarital affair without first “developing yourself to the point where you are ready, and your mate is ready, for such a step could be detrimental to the possibility of developing a true open marriage” (254).

     I have thought a lot about this very interesting suggestion - namely, that we develop ourselves to be ready to engage in an extramarital affair. What could that possibly mean? Would it mean that we each date and then come  home and compare notes on our experience to see how it makes the other feel? And what would be the object of such a project? Surely it is nothing less than for us to learn to devalue sexual expression between ourselves in order to justify it with other people.

     But even more interesting, such training would also require that we learn to control, if not destroy entirely, that primitive emotion called jealousy. Thus, as I suggested, involved in proposals such as the O’Neills’, are extremely profound assumptions about what kind of persons we ought to be. And the O’Neills are quite explicit about this, as they argue that jealousy is but a learned response determined by cultural attitudes dependent on our [p. 181] assumptions about sexually exclusive monogamy. But such possession of another only breeds deep-rooted dependencies, infantile and childish emotions, and insecurities. The more insecure you are, the more you will be jealous. Jealousy, says Abraham Maslow, “practically always breeds further rejection and deeper insecurity.” And jealousy, like a destructive cancer, breeds more jealousy. It is never, then, a function of love, but of our insecurities and dependencies. It is the fear of a loss of love and it destroys that very love. It is detrimental to and a denial of a loved one’s personal identity. Jealousy is a serious impediment, then, to the development of security and identity, and our closed marriage concepts of possession are directly at a fault. (237)

     Alas, if only Othello could have had the opportunity to have read Open Marriage, the whole messy play could have been avoided.

     The irony is that romanticism, which began as an attempt to recapture the power of intimate relation as opposed to the “formal” or institutionalized relationship implied by marriage, now finds itself recommending the development of people who are actually incapable of sustaining intimate relationships. For intimacy depends on the willingness to give of the self, to place oneself in the hands of another, to be vulnerable, even if that means we may be hurt. Contrary to Maslow, jealousy is the emotion required by our willingness to love another at all. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason the church has always assumed that marriage is a reality that is prior to love is that genuine love is so capable of destruction that we need a structure to sustain us through the pain and the joy of it. At least one reason for sex being limited to marriage, though it is not a reason sufficient to support an intrinsic relation between sex and marriage, is that marriage provides the context for us to have sex, with its often compromising personal conditions, with the confidence that what the other knows about us will not be used to hurt us. For never are we more vulnerable than when we are naked and making the clumsy gestures necessary to “make love.”

     It is true, of course, that “romanticism” cannot be defeated simply by calling attention to some of the implications inherent in the O’Neills’ argument. Indeed, “romanticism” has become far too complex a phenomenon for it to be easily characterized or criticized. I am content at this point simply to suggest that the “romantic” assumption that sexual expression is a “private” matter in fact masks a profound commitment to the understanding of society and self sponsored by political liberalism. Thus, more and more, human relations are understood in contractual terms and the ideal self becomes the person capable of understanding everything and capable of being hurt by nothing.




2. The Current State of Christian Reflection about Sexual Ethics




     I suggested above that current Christian reflection about sexual ethics has been limited to trying to adjudicate between various versions of realism and romanticism in order to establish the “Christian” ethics of sex. What Christian ethicists have been unable to do is provide an account of sexual ethics that is clearly based on an agenda central to the Christian community’s own self-understanding. They have been unable to do so because they have failed to see that any discussion of sex must begin with an understanding of how a sexual ethics is rooted in a community’s basic political commitments.

     As a result sexual ethics, though often very insightful, betrays a fatal abstractness. For example, it is often claimed that it is a mistake to begin reflection about sexual ethics by trying to determine if certain kinds of genital sex are right or wrong. Instead we must begin by recognizing that sexuality is a matter that involves the “whole person,” or that “sexuality” so understood must be affirmed as a manifestation of the goodness of God’s creation. While all of this is no doubt true, we are not sure how such claims give direction to or help us think better about genital sexual activity. Put bluntly, such analysis does little to help us to answer a teenager who wants to know what is wrong with fooling around before marriage.

     The directness of such questions tends to frustrate many ethicists as these questions refer to a specific sort of genital activity. Instead, ethicists prefer to call attention to the importance of the presence of love for wholesome sex. Rather than answering “yes” or “no,” we say things like, “the physical expression of one’s sexuality with another person ought to be appropriate to the level of loving commitment present in that relationship “,6 or that any one act of “genital sexual expression should be evaluated in regard to motivations, intentions, the nature of the act itself, and the consequences of the act, each of these informed and shaped by love.” All of which may be true, but is a lot for teenagers in the back seat of a car to remember.

     This last comment, while rhetorically clever, is in some ways deeply unfair. For no ethic, not even the most conservative, should be judged by its ability to influence the behavior of teenagers in the back seat of a car. What happens there will often happen irrespective of what “ethic” has been officially taught. Yet I think in a more profound sense people are right to expect ethicists to be concerned about how their “ethic” might be understood or misunderstood for providing guidance about our actual sexual conduct.

     “What is wrong with a little fooling around?” is a frustrating and direct question. But such questions are necessary to remind us that often our attempts to provide sophisticated and nuanced accounts of sexuality are misleading and perhaps even corrupting for our children. That is not to say that [p. 183] any ethic of sex should be written from the perspective of only what is good for adolescents or relative to what they are capable of understanding, but I am sure any ethic of sex that does not provide direction for how adolescents should learn to understand and govern their sexual behavior cannot be sufficient. Perhaps one of the crucial tests for any ethics of sex and sexual behavior is that we be able to explain it honestly and straightforwardly to our children.

     To provide that kind of account for our children, however, requires that we are able to presuppose a community with the practices and convictions that make such an ethic intelligible. Our children have to see that marriage and having children, and the correlative sexual ethic, are central to the community’s political task. For only then can they be offered a vision and an enterprise that might make the disciplining of sex as interesting as its gratification.


  2.1  Recent Roman Catholic Attempts at Sexual Ethics


           Most current attempts at formulating a Christian ethics of sex continue to assume the apolitical nature of sexual practice and ethics. Nowhere is this clearer than in the controversial recent study Human Sexuality, commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America. The romantic ideal clearly dominates the report, as the authors argue that sexuality must be understood morally as serving the development of persons by calling them to constant creativity, that is to full openness to being, to the realization of every potential within the personality, to a continued discovery and expression of authentic selfhood. Procreation is one form of this call to creativity but by no means is it the only reason for sexual expression. Sexuality further serves the development of genuine personhood by calling people to a clearer recognition of their relational nature, of their absolute need to reach out and embrace others to achieve personal fulfillment.9 In the light of this “richer” understanding of “sexuality” the authors of the Report argue that We should abandon the traditional language of “unitive and procreative” and instead ask whether acts of sexual intercourse are “creative and integrative.” “Wholesome human sexuality” is that which should “foster a creative growth toward integration” (86).

            The authors of the report find it “woefully inadequate” to evaluate any human sexual behavior “based on an abstract absolute predetermination of any sexual expressions as intrinsically evil and always immoral” (89). The [p. 185] fact that they refuse to find contraception morally unacceptable is not surprising on such grounds. but they also suggest that while it is hard to see how adultery could be good for all involved, the “principle” of “creative growth toward integration” needs also to be applied in these cases (148). Thus, even though some suggest that “co-marital sexual relations “- that is, situations that involve sexual activity with one or more persons beyond the “primary pair bond” with the consent or encouragement of the marriage partner appear to contradict the “characteristics of wholesome sexual interrelatedness,” empirical data “does not as yet warrant any solid conclusions on the effects of such behavior, particularly from the long-range point of view” (149).

            On the same grounds the report concludes that no moral theologian has yet succeeded in producing convincing proof why in every case sexual intercourse must be reserved to marriage (158). Yet in no way does this imply an approval of promiscuity, as casual sex “robs human sexuality of its deepest and richest meaning as an expression of intimacy and love” (164). In casual sex the sexual act is separated from the deeper intrapersonal meaning necessary if it is to realize its creative and integrative potential. Yet the report is careful to remind us that on many of these questions we still lack the empirical data to make an informed and objective judgment.

            On that criterion one might well argue that it is the moral responsibility of Catholics to experiment with “co-marital sexual relations” in the hopes of generating the appropriate data. Or that some take as their moral mission to find forms of extramarital sexual relations that will help us determine if such relations always rob human sexuality of its “deepest meaning.”

            In fairness it should be said that the CTSA report is not always so tentative as it states clearly that there is no question that bestiality “renders impossible the realization of the personal meaning of human sexuality” (230). I question, however, if this is consistent with the Report’s methodology, as such a summary judgment has all the appearance of the biased judgment of city people who have had little experience with country life. At the very least it seems as though the report could have suggested that in these matters, like other forms of sexuality which seem to these writers unusual, we simply need more “data” before we can make a summary judgment.

            The difficulty with the Report’s recommendations is not just that the criteria “creative and integrative” are so abstract we have no idea what they might exclude, but the Report ironically continues to assume, like more conservative sexual ethics of the past, that a sexual ethic can be formulated in abstraction from how it contributes to the upbuilding of the political task of the church. The conservative sexual ethics of the past seemed to be harsher as they not only said “no” more readily, but also seemed to care little for the welfare of persons who were having to live such an ethic. In some ways the conservative was right that a sex ethic was not to be judged by whether it [p. 185] produced integrated persons, but the conservative, as well as the authors of the Report, equally fail to understand that the kind of “persons” we should be is a prior question, answered only by the nature of the Christian community.

            It is, of course, true that Human Sexuality does not represent the general consensus of Catholic attitudes about the morality of sexual conduct. But I suspect what it does accurately represent is the confusion of Catholic thought about sex - not just judgments about particular forms of sexual expression but confusion about where one should even begin thinking about the ethics of sex. For once the connection between sexual intercourse and procreation is broken, and it has been broken in theory and practice for many Catholics, then it is by no means clear what basis you have for maintaining other judgments about the rightness or wrongness of certain forms of sexual expression. No amount of rethinking of natural law will be able to show that every act of sexual intercourse must be procreative; rather, what must be recaptured is that the connection between the unitive and procreative ends of marriage is integral to the Christian understanding of the political significance of marriage.


  2.2   Conservative Accounts of Sexual Ethics


     There are ethicists who continue to argue that sexual expression outside marriage is immoral on grounds of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative ends of marriage. Thus, Paul Ramsey argues that sexual intercourse is an act of love and procreation which is mythically expressed by the necessary creation of Eve to alleviate Adam’s aloneness in the garden. “At once Adam’s troubled aloneness formed itself into the utterance of his sexuality, and the woman was there not as half of the species with the powers of femaleness in general, but as a unique individual beside whom there were no others. They speak man - woman language. They know even as they are also known; and this was not to wrest some good out of a fallen world, but an improvement that even Paradise needed .... The vision inherent in human sexual passion, and in sexual intercourse as an act of love, is the re-creation of Adam and Eve in their marriage. “10 Ramsey argues that this means that both love and conception are the primary ends of the sex act, though this does not mean that every act of sexual intercourse must be open to procreation. But it does mean, “To put radically asunder what God joined together in making love procreative, to procreate without love or to attempt to establish a relation of sexual love beyond the sphere of marriage, means a refusal of the image of God’s creation in our time. “11

     Or as William May has recently argued

The marital act is the act of marital coition. This act exhibits or symbolizes the exclusive character of conjugal love both as a communion in [p. 186] being (conjugal love as unitive) and as a life-giving and life-sharing reality (conjugal love as procreative). This is the meaning rooted in the marital act and intelligibly discoverable in it; it is not a meaning arbitrarily imposed upon or given to the act....

       The exclusive character of conjugal love as exhibited in the marital act provides the reasons why sexual coition that is non-marital is inherently wicked. Non-marital sexual coition desecrates the meaning that human sexual coition has; that is, it violates its unitive (communion-in-being) and procreative (life-giving) dynamism. Although there may be some tenderness and affection between non-married persons who choose this act, there can be no authentic love in it precisely because it is both an offensive personal touch, even if it is not subjectively experienced as such, and threatens the good of any human person who may come into being as a result of this act.12

     For those who have desired a nice clear “yes” or “no” answer for the question of whether a little fooling around is wrong, you have it here. Indeed, you not only have a “no,” but the description that it is “inherently wicked, “ though I would suggest you refrain from using the latter description, since it makes such activity far too attractive.

     Even though Ramsey’s and May’s “no” is clear, it is not equally clear that it is convincing. This is not necessarily because there is a stubbornness or immorality in their hearers, but may also be because their hearers simply do not share their presuppositions. As a result their “no” appears arbitrary and authoritarian; it seems to lack any basis in our common experience. For example, many would ask why they assume that sexual intercourse is to be limited only to marriage, especially since both Ramsey and May emphasize the importance of “love” as crucial for morally healthy sex. Yet we know that sex in marriage can often be more “unloving” than sex outside marriage. What is required for such an argument to be intelligible is an account why marriage should be understood as exclusive. 13 It is my contention that such an account requires a recovery of the political function of marriage in the Christian community.




3.   The Public Character of Sex: Marriage as a Heroic Institution




     The recovery of a political vision of marriage and appreciation for the public character of sexuality are conceptually and institutionally interdependent. By calling attention to the public context for sexual behavior and ethics I am not simply reasserting the traditional concern that sex should only take place in a publicly recognizable institution, though I certainly think that is [p. 187] important, but 1 am making the stronger claim that any sex ethic is a political ethic.14 This is particularly true of Christian marriage. The vision of marriage for Christians requires and calls forth an extraordinary polity for the very reason that Christian marriage is such an extraordinary thing.

     William Everett has recently argued that, in spite of what appear to be immense differences between “biologists” and “personalists” concerning sexual ethics, they share more in common than is usually noticed. For both theories are individualistic, since they focus primarily on how persons should deal with their bodies and private actions and thus fail to give adequate attention to the institutional context of sex. In contrast, Everett argues that we must see that sexuality is shaped by humanly created institutions and that this formation works for good as well as for evil. But the question is not whether “the social formation of our sexuality is good or bad, but whether the institutions in which we live are rightly ordered. An ethics of sex must, therefore, be coordinated with an ethic governing the relations among institutions familial, economic, ecclesial and political. “15

     To illustrate his claim, Everett notes that the development of Christian sexual ethics was not merely a part of the quest for a general social order.

While Augustine was laying the theological basis for a familist social order, counter-currents were also developing to avoid submerging the Church in that order. As the Church was increasingly drawn into the orbits of the princes, a sexual ethic had to be evolved to separate it from the family-based power of the princes. In the wake of Hildebrand (Gregory VII), celibacy finally became mandatory for clergy in order to separate the Church from the hereditary powers of the princes. Celibacy was as important to the Church’s integrity in a familistic social order as constitutional separation of Church and state has become under nationalism. The Augustinian accommodation required a Hildebrandine distance. Celibacy was and is an institutional policy evolved for the sake of the institution. Moreover, this policy had a legitimate purpose-to enable the Church to carry out its mission as a critical and prophetic agent in human affairs. (79)

     The church’s restraints on various forms of sexual activity were intelligible only to the extent that the church could be a “counter-family “ to the princes. But as Everett points out, in our time when family order is no longer the model of societal order or authority, “it becomes very difficult to transfer this self-restraint in order to conform to the demands of other institutions” (79). Indeed, the church’s shift to “personalist” accounts of marriage and sexual conduct is an attempt to baptize the transformation of the family occasioned by a capital-intensive economy that needs fewer but better trained workers. The family, having lost its political, social, and economic functions, [p. 189] apart from being a unit of consumption, is only intelligible as the context that provides for “creative integration” through intimate relationship. Thus increasingly the family becomes understood as a voluntary society justified by its ability to contribute to the personal enhancement of each of its members. 16

            Everett is not surprised that such an accommodation has occurred, but he wonders if the correlative understanding of sexuality, as that which functions primarily within the private sphere of emotional and ego-related needs, is sufficient to provide a prophetic perspective on our society. For he claims,

It is not enough to see the pressures of advertising and bureaucratic life as a natural given, for behind these immediate forces lie the needs of a capital-intensive economy seeking to maintain a high level of consumption for essentially useless products. Our sexual life is shaped by the fundamental workings of this kind of economy. It is not enough, therefore, to invoke [as Human Sexuality does) “social responsibility” or “the common good” as a consideration in sexual decisions, without a more critical analysis of the nature of that society and its conception of the good. We need to be able to see how the pursuit of “creative integration” in our bedrooms might depend on the sacrifices of primary-producing nations to the south of us who keep our economy fueled with metals and oil. We need to see how the pleasures and disciplines of mobile individuality are tied to the expressways and housing developments devouring our agricultural land.

The capacity to see those connections is essential to any kind of prophetic or biblical ethic of sex. Not to see the whole is to be victimized by the parts.- The CTSA study has comforted those who have adapted to the dominant North American patterns, but it does little to challenge that society or to support those left on the margins. It has met the demands of realistic accommodations but has not gone far enough to provide Christian distance. We have yet to move, in our own time, from Augustine to Hildebrand. (82)

            Everett maintains that the development of such a critical ethic awaits an adequate ecclesiology. The ecclesiology of most of the more liberal sexual ethics assumes that the church is a voluntary association which exists for the spiritual enrichment of the individuals comprising it. While admitting that such a voluntaristic theory of church is inextricably bound up with a pluralist social context, Everett doubts that voluntarism can provide the countervailing power we need to counter the tremendous powers which shape and often destroy our lives. “Even granting that God’s hand is at work in the dialectic among these massive institutions, can a purely voluntaristic vision of Christian life provide an adequate ecclesiology that relates our sexuality to our [p. 189] society? is that kind of community enough to protect our fragile psyches from these potent cultural forces? I think not. A sexual ethic which doesn’t place  the dilemmas of sexuality in this kind of societal context will never reach the Hildebrandine moment” (83).

            I disagree with particular points of Everett’s position,17 but the structure of his argument seems to me to be right. Which ironically means that we cannot expect to begin to develop an adequate Christian sexual ethic without starting with the insistence that sex is a public matter for the Christian community. For our sexual ethic is part and parcel of our political ethic, as our convictions require that we take a critical stance against societies built on no true knowledge of the one true God. How we order and form our lives sexually cannot be separated from the necessity of the church to chart an alternative to our culture’s dominant assumptions. Indeed, it is my contention that Christian conviction concerning the place of singleness and the family is perhaps the most important political task of the church in our society.


  3.1  Sex and the Church’s Mission


     The “personalists” are correct that the ethics of sex cannot be determined only in relationship to the institution of marriage, but not for the reason they think. The political nature of the church’s sexual ethic is perhaps most clearly illuminated by calling attention to the alternative of singleness as a legitimate form of life among Christians. Indeed, in the strongest possible language the basis and intelligibility of the Christian understanding of marriage only makes sense in relation to the early Church’s legitimating for some of “singleness. “18 This is often forgotten, as the church is prone, for apologetic reasons, to simply underwrite the broad assumption that marriage is a natural and primary institution. Thus most Christians assume that marriage is the first mode of         sexual life and that the single therefore must justify his or her mode of life rather than vice versa. But Christian marriage is not a “natural” institution but rather the creation of a people who marry for very definite purposes. The constant institutional reminder of this fact is the assumption of the early Christians that singleness was as legitimate a form of life as marriage.

     This is not the place, nor am I competent, to try to analyze the New Testament’s texts concerning singleness, marriage, and sexuality. It is worth pointing out, however, that one of the interesting things about the New Testament is that it seems to have so little to say about sex and marriage. And what it does say has a singularly foreign sound for those of us brought up on romantic notions of marriage and sex. We are thus struck by the stark realism of the Pauline recommendations in l Corinthians 7 and more than a little embarrassed [p. 190] by the Haustafeln passages in Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Peter.19 As a means to soften these passages, many call attention to I Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 5:21-33 to stress that love really is crucial to Christian marriage. Yet this attempt to rescue the New Testament views on marriage and sexuality seem to involve creative forms of eisegesis. I am particularly struck by the supposition that Ephesians 5:22ff can be used to justify the importance of “happy” marriages for Christians. There seems to be nothing in the text itself to suggest that Christ’s love and unity with the church implies that unity is without discord.20

     More important, however, than the interpretation of particular New Testament texts about marriage and sex is the recognition that the church’s sexual ethic cannot be determined through examination and collation of individual texts. Of course, the individual texts are significant for helping us understand the early church’s sex ethic, but they must be understood in the broader context of the early Christians’ understanding of their mission. Ironically, in that respect singleness is a better indication than marriage of the church’s self-understanding.

     The early church’s legitimation of singleness as a form of life symbolized the necessity of the church to grow through witness and conversion. Singleness was legitimate, not because sex’ was thought to be a particularly questionable activity, but because the mission of the church was such that “between the times the church required those who were capable of complete service to the Kingdom. And we must remember that the “sacrifice” made by the single is not that of “giving up sex,” but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, that harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is now the source of our primary loyalty.

     And of course such loyalty involves the gravest dangers, as we have recently had tragically displayed at Jonestown. Jones was right that Christianity in some fundamental ways challenges how we “naturally” think about the family. His “solution” to the problem of the family in Christianity reveals the depth of apostasy his peculiar account of Christianity involved,21 but Jonestown helps us understand what extraordinary assumptions were involved in the early Christians’ commitment to marriage and the family. For they too knew they were involved in a revolutionary struggle, yet they continued to sponsor particular commitments and the having of children who were the responsibility of particular parents.



»contents [HO p. 8]  Extraordinary moral commitments  

Moral Commitments


Extraordinary moral commitments are involved in a community that encourages us to form particular attachments which are morally legitimated to override concern for the general welfare of the community. Christians have legitimated such commitments because they believe that the “good” that constitutes the church is served only by our learning to love and serve our [p. 191]  neighbors as we find them in our mates and children. The sexual exclusiveness traditionally associated with the Christian understanding of marriage is but a form of the church’s commitment to support exclusive relationships.

     In this respect there is a certain tension between the church’s sponsoring of [1] singleness and [2] marriage as equally valid modes of life.

But both singleness and marriage are necessary symbolic institutions for the constitution of the church’s life as the historic institution that witnesses to God’s Kingdom. Neither can be valid without the other.

    [1]If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to effect lives for the growth of the church,

[2] marriage and procreation is the symbol of the church’s understanding that the struggle will be long and arduous.

For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world. Because we have confidence in God, we find the confidence in ourselves to bring new life into this world, even though we cannot be assured that our children will share our mission.23  For they, too, must be converted if they are to be followers of the way.

        From this perspective marriage (as well as the family) stands as one of the central institutions of the political reality of the church, for it is a sign of our faithfulness to God’s Kingdom come through the providential ordering of history. By our faithfulness to one other, within a community that requires, finally, loyalty to God, we experience and witness to the first fruits of the new creation. Our commitment to exclusive relations witnesses to God’s pledge to his people, Israel and the church, that through his exclusive commitment to them, all people will be brought into his Kingdom.
3.2 Marriage as a Heroic Role  »contents


Marriage so understood is a heroic task that can be accomplished only by people who have developed the virtues and character necessary for such a task. The development of such virtues and character is a correlative of a narrative that helps us understand that struggle in which we are involved. But it is exactly such a narrative that we have been lacking, or perhaps more accurately, our primary problem is that our experience of marriage has been captured by narratives that have done little for, and have perhaps even perverted, the role of marriage in the Christian community.

     Rosemary Haughton argues that the romantic myth has been the primary determinate of our understanding of marriage. Such a myth, though beautiful, is inadequate, as

its importance has depended largely on the general feeling of lack of any but private relevance in domesticity in our culture. If the domestic is the [p. 192] only area you can really shape, then a myth which makes sense of that is obviously vital to self-respect and hope. “Private life” is, by definition, something aside from the big issues, the ones that make history, and that is where we have put marriage. We in the West accepted that separation, accepted the irrelevance of marriage as a public fact, and lived marriage as a kind of backyard set apart for private emotional cultivation, using a romantic yardstick to measure our success, even as Christians.24

     Haughton suggests that this was a disastrous mistake and that is why we must recognize a different myth, or as I would prefer, narrative, to recover the significance of marriage for Christians. Such a myth she finds in the hero who we must understand is not necessarily a “great leader,” but simply one “who realizes the human calling, which is to go out and discover the future, symbolically to find the water of life, rescue the princess and kill the dragon” (136).

     I am sure many of us feel that this is surely going too far. It is a rather nice idea to think that our day-to-day struggle to sustain marriage and the family is “heroic,” but we know it to be a good deal less than “heroic.” Nevertheless, such an objection continues to assume the romantic model of marriage as primary. Haughton, in contrast, seeks to remind us that the reason marriage can be heroic for Christians is because “the couple must dedicate themselves, not simply to each other, but to work together at something greater than themselves, greater than their love, or any love they could ever imagine. The hero requires only goodwill and courage, yet he is, in all the stories, absolutely essential to the salvation of the people. Unless the hero succeeds, the people die. He does not have to be emotionally well-developed; he has only to do what needs to be done” (142). Haughton is not suggesting that such an understanding of marriage will necessarily produce a “better” marriage than the romantic ideal, but rather that the “criteria” of success are simply different.

The Virtue of Fidelity to an Arduous Task

 of Fidelity to an Arduous Task:
i.e. Lifelong Marriage

     “The point is that the qualities that make people stick out a hard life together, not stopping too much to wonder if they are fulfilled, are the qualities people need if they are to develop the hero in marriage, which is what being married ‘in the Lord’ is about” (143).25

     There is one particular quality Haughton finds especially important for the hero: fidelity. The virtue of fidelity is often ignored or attacked by advocates of the romantic model, as romantic love seeks intensity, not continuity. And fidelity seems to contradict the fact that people develop and change, and in doing so it seems unjust that they should remain attached to past commitments.

But from the point of view of the hero myth, fidelity is of the essence. The hero tales always involve endurance, and the determination to [p. 193]  complete the quest, however long it takes, however violent the change of fortunes, and however desperate the predicaments in which the quester is involved. To realize this is to discover a quite new rationale for the much criticized demand for sexual exclusiveness and lifelong fidelity in marriage. Extramarital sex may provide new romantic intensity in a life which has lost meaning, but it simply rules out the quest.... The emotional alternatives which offer themselves in the course of any marriage (and not all of them are sexual) may appear-and be-more beautiful, more fulfilling, than the commitment to this particular marriage. But it is in this particular marriage, if it is undertaken “in the Lord,” that the hero will set out on his (her) quest. (146-147)

     But, as I suggested above, such “fidelity” makes sense only if it occurs in a community that-has a mission in which marriage serves a central political purpose. And marriage has such a purpose for Christians, as it is a sign that we are a community sustained by hope. Marriage is a sign and source of such hope, “for as long as there are people loving and working together, and bringing up children, there is a chance of new life. To take conscious hold on that life, to realize oneself at the heart of it, for others also, is a tremendously vitalizing spiritual experience”  (150).







     “Vitalizing spiritual experience” seems a long way away from answering the query concerning what is wrong with messing around a little before or during marriage. Moreover, there is the added problem that whether the argument above is right or not seems of little relevance to our concrete experience. For the truth of the matter is that few of us had that understanding, if we had any understanding at all, of what we were doing when we got married; nor has our sexual conduct been formed by or lived out in such terms. As a result, most of what has been said may seem but one more idealistic account of marriage and sex that should properly be dismissed by those of us who have to live in this life.

     Yet I think my argument, incomplete as it is, at least provides some means of response. It is, of course, true that few of us have been trained to view our marriages in such a manner, but the perspective I have developed should at least help us deal with the fact that even though we may not have known what we were doing when we got married, we find ourselves married. The important issue is how we are to understand what has happened through marriage. Surely it is not just that we have undervalued or overvalued the significance of sex in our lives, but that we have had no sense that such a way [p.194] of understanding sex may represent a false and perhaps even a destructive alternative.

     From the perspective I have tried to develop we can now see why “realism” is insufficient to provide us with ethical guidance about sex. For “realism, “ as 1 have argued, turns out to be but a chastened form of romanticism that continues to reflect a culture that insists that sex and marriage have no public function. A true “realism” requires a community that forms our loyalties in such a manner that both the costs and hopes of marriage can be properly held in balance. Only from such a perspective can we reach a more profound sense of the relation of love and marriage, as it is only within such a context that we can begin to understand that the love properly characteristic of marriage is not a correlative of the attractive qualities of our mates. Only a love so formed has the capacity to allow the other freedom to be other without resentment .26

     I think also the account I have tried to sketch out helps explain aspects of our lives that are simply anomalous given our culture’s understanding of marriage and the family. I am thinking of such common matters as our deep commitment to our particular children and their care, or of the extraordinary efforts some couples go through to save their marriages, or why we continue to care about having children at all. To be sure, many are finding that it is possible to train ourselves not to have such “irrational” desires, but there is the lingering feeling that we are poorer for it. And those who continue to care about such commitments are only able to explain them as their own peculiar desires. It’s as if they were a matter of taste.

     What we forget is that such “peculiar desires” are the product of centuries of Christian insistence and training that the family is central to what the church means in this time between the times. To be sure, the church often forgot its own best insights and justified its practice on grounds that appeared more amenable or “natural” to its cultural context, but it continued to have the advantage of having to deal with the necessity of men and women struggling to figure out what they were doing by being married “in the Lord. “ Such a “necessity” meant that the church could never forget for long that marriage among Christians involved commitments not readily recognized by the world.

     But I think the perspective I have tried to develop does more than simply help us to interpret our past. It also helps us ask the right question for giving direction to our future. For the issue is not whether X or Y form of sexual activity is right or wrong, as if such activity could be separated from a whole way of life. Rather such questions are but shorthand ways of asking what kind of people we should be to be capable of supporting, the. mission of the church. The question o sexual conduct before marriage is thus a question of what prepares me best for the tasks that the Christian community may ask me to accept-whether the task be single or married .17 [p. 195]

     The issue is not whether someone is chaste in the sense of not engaging in genital activity, but whether we have lived in a manner that allows us to bring a history with us that contributes to the common history we may be called upon to develop with one another. Chastity, we forget, is not a state but a form of the virtue of faithfulness that is necessary for a role in the community.28 As such, it is as crucial to the married life as it is to the single life.

     Of course, we need to remind ourselves again, that is still quite a bit to remember in the back seat of a car. But, as I suggested, there is no “ethic” that in itself can solve all the problems involved in such behavior. Rather, what the young properly demand is an account of life and the initiation into a community that makes intelligible why their interest in sex should be subordinated to other interests .29 What they, and we, demand is the lure of an adventure that captures the imagination sufficiently that conquest means more than the sexual possession of another. I have tried to suggest that marriage and singleness for Christians should represent just such an adventure, and if it does not, no amount of ethics or rules will be sufficient to correct the situation. But now at least we know where the problem lies.