Reflection from Bishop Toal about Church teachings on sexual morality
“Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God.”
Amid today’s challenges to the Church’s teachings on sexual morality it is important to keep in contact with, and take our inspiration from, Our Lord’s own teachings, and in particular his words in the Beatitudes.
For people of Christian faith we experience the deep longing within us to see God – the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ Our Saviour. We reach out to Our Saviour through the course of our lives here on earth, and ultimately place our hope in eternal happiness when we shall see God face to face. The Beatitude – “Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God” – does set a path for us, a way of living, which carries us from communion with the Lord here on earth to the hope of eternal union in him in heaven. It expresses a way of happy living which lifts us above our earthly desires and invites us to seek our ultimate fulfilment in the Lord himself.
Although purity of heart extends to different aspects of human life it has always had a strong relevance and application to how we value and use our sexual desires and appetites. It has encouraged us to understand that self-control, a fruit of the Holy Spirit, is necessary for us all, and that the longing for sexual experiences and intimacy have to be tempered by the deeper longing for God and faithfulness to Our Lord’s teachings as lived and transmitted in the tradition of the Church. Within that tradition we recognise the call to purity both within and outside of Christian Marriage: within marriage to live in a communion of life and love in complete faithfulness to one’s spouse, open to the gift of new life; and outside of marriage to a life of abstinence from sexual intimacy, offered in self-giving to and with the Lord in love and affection for all whom we share our lives with.
For most people part of life’s experience is the joy and excitement of falling in love with another person. It is not surprising that this is the case as we have been created in love and have received the gift of being able to love others, but the experience itself of falling in love can be a surprise as can be the person we fall in love with. Falling in love brings strong desires for sexual intimacy with the beloved and as passions are aroused it is an area of life in which self-control and mutual respect are very necessary. It is an area also in which the Church’s teaching on purity advocates that full sexual intimacy is a blessing reserved for married life, in which sexual intimacy expresses the life-long commitment of husband and wife to one another and their openness to the conception of new life. Beyond the marriage relationship the Church asks her faithful to be pure by living chaste sexual lives even when they do experience intense feelings of love and affection for someone else. This is not an easy path, but when it is lived in communion with the Lord and in faithfulness to his beatitude – Blessed are the pure in heart – it is possible to live a fulfilling and happy life, sharing joyful and life-long friendships with those whom we love and care deeply for. The inspiration and example of others, those we live with at present and also the outstanding witness of many saints of all ages, encourages us to persevere when we face temptation and are attracted to other ways of living and sharing in our relationships.
If we fail – by seeking sexual intimacy outside of marriage or through being unfaithful within marriage – the Church asks us to turn to the Lord and to seek his merciful forgiveness. This is offered to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and we are encouraged to use the sacrament when we do struggle in regard to purity and find it difficult to resist temptation and control our desires. The Lord offers us his grace and calls us to conversion and we are therefore expected to make a firm commitment to amend our lives accordingly as we reach out for absolution for our sins. This resolution not to sin requires honesty and integrity on our part and does mean that we should celebrate the sacrament and seek absolution only if we really mean to do all we can to leave behind sinful actions and desires and, when necessary, change our way of life.
A similar spirit of honesty and integrity should inform our sense of worthiness in receiving the Holy Eucharist. If we cannot confess our sins because we do not intend to change our way of living we should not receive Holy Communion either. This can be hard to accept, especially when people have made choices which are difficult to withdraw from, but we must always be humble before the Lord and attentive to his words rather than our own way of thinking. In different areas of life the Lord’s teachings are demanding, and difficult for us to live by, and there is often an element of carrying the cross with him. But he has told this will be the case and when faced with the dilemma of making difficult choices we need to be attentive to the Lord whatever the cost to our human desires and expectations. When we are aware also that our actions are not in accord with his teachings, our response to him is to bow before him in honesty and humility, seeking his mercy and asking for the grace to see the right away ahead so that we can participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church.
In thinking about this area of life I am reminded of St Augustine’s words – “You have made us for yourself. O Lord, and our hearts are not at rest until they rest in you”. These words speak of the higher prize which we are searching for as human beings – life in God’s company, which brings true satisfaction. St Augustine’s own life experience saw him seek satisfaction in sensual experiences and pleasures but ultimately he found peace in God. He felt that placing his heart in God’s love brought a deeper lasting fulfilment which was stronger than he had known in his sensual experiences. It was a long journey though for him and he would sympathise with those who seek to honour and love God but find it a challenge to reconcile this with their love for another person and their desire for sexual intimacy with the one they love. Our Lord’s beatitude – “Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God” – does seem still to propose the need to place our longing for God as the highest good and the one in which we will ultimately experience our fullest satisfaction.
+ Joseph Toal