Sexuality and Sin

Sex is not Sinful: It is a Gift of God

From New Directions in Sexual Ethics by Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, Ch. 7

For most of the Church’s history Christian sexual ethics tended to give the impression that human sexuality was a dimension of our personal life inextricably bound up with sin. Today the picture is changing. Christians are more and more acknowledging that sexuality is something to be celebrated. It is an important dimension of our giftedness by God. We see human sexuality in particular as having special significance and dignity since it is an essential dimension of ourselves as relational persons, made in the image of a relational God. Our sexuality fuels our drive for connectedness with others. Openness to life is not limited to the procreational potential of our sexuality. It is our sexual energy which impels us to go beyond a self-centred existence and involve ourselves with others, interpersonally and socially, in the ongoing creation and celebration of life. Audre Lorde calls this the ‘power of the erotic’. Her oft-quoted essay ‘Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power’ (in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg, NY, Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 52-9) reads like a hymn of thanks and praise for the wonderful and powerful gift of our sexuality.

Many people say that we are living in an age plagued by eroticism. The media and advertising agencies are inundating us with erotic images. Lorde would claim that this is confusing the erotic with the pornographic which, in her view, is a ‘direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling’ and, in fact, ’emphasizes sensation without feeling’ (p. 54). She suggests that the problem with our age is that the influence of manipulative power has suppressed the erotic in our lives with the result that our lives are lived mostly at the level of the trivial and without any real creative energy. Lorde believes that women are once more getting in touch with the creative power of the erotic. Being in touch with that power can energize all of us, men as well as women, to ‘pursue genuine change within our world’ (p. 59).

To see our sexuality as something to be celebrated does not mean that it is a dimension of our lives that is immune from sin. No area of human life carries such immunity. Sin is to be found in the sexual dimension of our lives just as much as it is in all the other dimensions. However, it is not sex that makes a person sinful. It is the person that can make sex sinful. Hence, sin must not be identified with the sexual dimension itself. Sex is not sinful. It is a good gift of God. What is sinful is the way human persons can behave destructively towards themselves and others in the sexual domain. The criterion for what is sinful in the sexual field is exactly the same as for any other area of our lives. What is sinful is what violates the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered.


Our sexuality touches a very profound level of our being human persons. The sexual violation of a person does not just affect his or her body. It affects them precisely as persons. It is the person who is raped, or abused, or dehumanized by being turned into a commercial object for some consumer’s use. Whenever a person is ‘de-personalized’ by being used merely as the object of another’s sexual gratification or displaced aggression, we are faced with a grave instance of sin in the sexual field. A person-centred Christian sexual ethics will see this as a terrible abuse of sexuality rather than as due to any innate sinfulness in sexuality itself.

In Chapter Six we saw that a Christian sexual ethics which is truly person-centred needs to be specifically pro-women in this time in which we are living. For such a person-centred sexual ethic patriarchy must surely be recognized as a structural sin of the highest gravity in the area of sexuality. To the extent that we as individuals or institutions willingly collude in patriarchal structures, we have to bear some share of responsibility for the continued existence of this structural sexual sin. That being so, it follows that the Churches, to the extent that they fail to dissociate themselves from such collusion and combat the sexual injustice of patriarchy, stand guilty of sexual sin.

The impact of such a conclusion is sometimes softened by the assertion that, though the Church might be involved in the structural sin of patriarchy, this does not mean that individual church-people are personally responsible for this sinful state of affairs. That assertion needs to be questioned. ‘Sin’ is a theological word. It reminds us that God is affected by what is happening. It is a very reductionist approach to sin to suggest that God is not affected by structural sin since no personal guilt is involved and so God is not actually offended by anyone.

In fact, structural sin is far from being unimportant in the eyes of God. If God really loves people and wants them to love and respect each other, it matters enormously to God how we treat each other and how we manage the world that we share as our communal home. God is not an impartial judge passing guilty or not-guilty verdicts on people. God is a committed and deeply involved lover to whom the dignity and happiness of each of us is of crucial importance. God’s gracious love for us has made God very vulnerable since, like any lover, God suffers in and through the sufferings of the beloved. To look on structural sin as not really sin and, therefore, unimportant can breed an attitude of irresponsibility towards life. It seems to reduce our present life to a kind of waiting-room for eternity, a supporting feature before the main film. By putting the emphasis on my personal immunity from guilt, it seems to suggest that, as long as my conscience is clear, I do not need to worry about how the lives of other people are affected.

Furthermore, the assertion that there is nothing ‘personal’ about structural sin needs to challenged. It is simply not true. If we believe that sin is not caused by God or by any demonic agency, we have to recognize that human agency lies at the root of all sin. Sometimes the human agent is an individual person; sometimes it might be a group of persons or even a whole community; and sometimes it might be some kind of human structure or institution. However, in this last case such human structures are never completely free-standing. They are human artefacts and they are sustained by the collaboration of the mass of individual persons involved. When such structures or institutions are called ‘sinful’, human agency is still involved. It is located in the mass of human persons colluding in them. John Paul II makes this point very forcefully in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987); ‘ … it is not out of place to speak of “structures of sin” which … are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behaviour’ (n. 36).

It is surely noteworthy that, as portrayed in the Gospels, the greatest obstacle Jesus encountered was the blindness of powerful people with regard to the structural sin they were upholding and which was literally imprisoning the ‘poor’ and the ‘sinners’ through a distorted interpretation of their relationship with God. Jesus was concerned to free the poor from this imprisonment – but he also struggled, with little success, to break through the blindness of their religious leaders.

Conversion in the case of structural sin is not just about breaking the bonds of institutionalized injustice, even though that is an integral element of the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. 1971 Rome Synod, Justice in the World, p. 6). It is also about opening the eyes of those colluding in these sinful structures. Presumably this conversion process involves a dawning recognition on the part of these collaborators that they have been colluding in a horrendous sin. Such a recognition will arouse feelings of utter horror in them. Their reaction flowing from their conversion will not be: ‘So what! I was not aware of the sin I was colluding in, so I’m not guilty.’ Rather it will be: ‘How awful! To think that I have played a part in upholding such a dehumanizing situation.’ That realization is why they feel a need for forgiveness – and also why they will be overjoyed to find that this forgiveness is given freely by God. Consequently, there is a very real sense in which structural sin is personal sin.

The victims of structural sin are often the ones branded as sinners. In fact, this is merely compounding the injustice. In many cases they are people whose options have been so reduced by structural injustice that they are struggling to live as humanly as possible within such personally destructive situations, Moreover, the irony is that they, too, often feel a need for what they mistakenly call ‘forgiveness’. However, for them this so-called ‘forgiveness’ has a different feel about it and the route to it is very different. It is found in the realization that they have done nothing that needs forgiveness. They are loved unconditionally by God just as they are. Nevertheless, if there is nothing in them that needs forgiveness, tragically there may well be much in them that needs healing. Paradoxically, their woundedness makes them all the more precious to God, as Jesus made abundantly clear. The route to their healing can be a long and hard one, as anyone knows who has ever accompanied such a person along the way. Because our sexuality involves our potentiality for being connected in love with others, the experience of being abused sexually can seriously sever that connection and displace its love potential with a paralysing fear. The hurt of sexual violation can so wound sexuality’s potentiality for connectedness that such a person retreats into isolation until the wound gradually begins to heal. Such a wound rarely heals of its own accord. It needs the kind of love in another which, like the love of Jesus, is prepared to be crucified along the way before resurrection occurs.


What was said in the sixth section of the previous chapter with regard to ‘doing the best one can’ has important implications for what is meant by sin. It is particularly important in the area of sexual sin. One of David Lodge’s first novels was entitled How Far Can You Go? It was a humorous critique of the approach to sexual morality engendered among many Catholics in the 1950s by the moral theology of their day. It was as though the demarcation lines between what was right or wrong in sexual behaviour had to be spelt out with the utmost precision since there were no half measures in the area of sexuality. According to the accepted wisdom nothing was ‘light matter’. Every sexual sin qualified as grave, given the required knowledge and consent. Moreover, what was looked on as sinful (and gravely so) was any enjoyment of sexual pleasure outside of marriage. From such a starting point it was virtually impossible to arrive at any kind of interim growth sexual ethics which could help or encourage an adolescent passing through the developmental sexual phase of experimenting with relationships. Such an ‘all or nothing’ approach left no room for the kind of ‘growth ethic’ advocated by Roger Burggraeve in his article ‘Meaningful living and action: an ethical and education-pastoral model in Christian perspective’, in Louvain Studies, 1988, pp. 3-26 & 137-60. He argues for ‘an interim ethics or, even stronger, “growth ethics”, in so far as one approaches the period of youth as an interim phase of growth, with the stress on “growth”, without losing sight of what this growth implies for provisionality and the freedom that is not yet completely developed’ (p. 154}.

A rigid sexual ethics also posed enormous problems in the area of birth control when couples, struggling to do their best for their families and trying to arrive at responsible decisions, felt obliged to practise forms of contraception which they had been led to believe were gravely wrong. Arriving at such a decision was a crucifying process for many people. In their heart of hearts they knew that this was the best they could do as responsible parents. Yet the only comfort traditional sexual ethics could give them was they might not be subjectively guilty of serious sin, due to their erroneous conscience or diminished freedom. The message came over loud and clear that their best was not good enough. The tragedy in all this was that what was for many a highly responsible decision arrived at only after a long process of reflective discernment still left them with a feeling of guilt and alienation from God.

A clearer appreciation of what was implicit in the accepted teaching in moral theology about conscience and also about the varying degrees of authority attached to items of moral teaching in the Roman Catholic Church could have broken the stranglehold of their dilemma. It would have enabled them to own their unformulated conviction that what they were doing was the best they could do as responsible parents and so was surely pleasing to God. God asked no more from them than that.

Such an appreciation would have opened their eyes to the possibility that Church teaching on sexual ethics is open to development, refinement and even change, in the light of our increased understanding of ourselves as sexual human persons. That would have enabled couples to appreciate that, just like themselves, the Church is only able to do the best it can in presenting what it sees to be the moral implications of the Gospel. Just as God expects no more from them than the best they can, so God expects no more – and no less – from the Church. Hence, the ‘best we can do’ decisions of these couples needs to allow for a similar ‘best we can do’ dimension in the ongoing development of the Church’s sexual teaching. This means that, while listening respectfully to the Church’s teaching, they need not feel unduly disturbed if, on occasion, they find this ‘best we can do’ teaching being questioned by responsible theologians within the Church. This will happen when these theologians have good grounds for believing that the teaching being presented by the Church authorities is not ‘the best they can do’ since there is available within the Church ‘better’ teaching than that being currently offered. When couples understand what is going on in this way, they are able to cope with the ambiguity of such a situation, appreciating that it is a natural part of the growth process within the Church. Consequently, they can feel at peace with their ‘best we can do’ decision, even if, on occasion, this might be at variance with current Church teaching. Moreover, their peace will further consolidated by their appreciating that their decision is ‘ethically good’ even though they do not have absolute certainty that what they are doing is ‘ethically right’ – though they feel pretty sure that it is.

The distinction between the ‘ethical goodness’ of the person in their decision-making and the ‘ethical rightness’ of an action can have important implications for many other problematic areas of contemporary sexual morality. In recent debates on such issues as divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, gay and lesbian relationships and so on, the language used is often vitiated by a kind of ‘blame’ syndrome. People who believe that sexual morality in our society is becoming ‘de-moralized’ in a literal sense tend to blame various groups of people who are involved in alternative sexual lifestyles. They are accused of being selfish, irresponsible, unconcerned about their children, throwing over the social order, and many other such things. They are regarded as ‘blameworthy’.

However, it is possible to have a critical discussion about the various issues mentioned above without falling into the ‘blame’ syndrome. People living alternative sexual lifestyles may simply be questioning whether marriage, as currently lived by many people, actually achieves the human good its adherents claim for it. This is where the distinction between the ‘goodness of the person’ and the rightness of an action’ can be helpful. It can enable a serious discussion to take place regarding the ‘rightness’ of certain forms of sexual behaviour without in any way impugning the moral good faith of those involved in such a lifestyle. Hence, it is possible to have a serious moral debate without it disintegrating into polarization. It presumes that both sides are fully committed to living authentic moral lives according to their best lights. Hence, critical observations are not heard as saying ‘You are wicked in living this kind of lifestyle’. Rather their tenor is, ‘Help me to understand why you are living this kind of lifestyle. When I have understood your position as fully as I can, then we will be able to discuss how this fits in with the basic fundamental values to which we are both committed.’ Obviously this is a two-way process.


As we have already seen, the fundamental criterion in a person-centred sexual ethics is what is conducive to the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. We have also seen that this criterion presents us with the paradox that we are more than individual instances of the species, humankind. We are unique individuals and our uniqueness permeates all the dimensions of our being – right down to our genetic make-up and even our finger-prints.

This paradox poses a problem for anyone wanting to attempt to give clear answers to particular questions regarding the morality of particular forms of human sexual behaviour. It is true that some kinds of sexual behaviour contradict what we share in common at such a fundamental level of our being that in no way could they ever be considered as being conducive to the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. That is because they are seriously person-injuring through being abusive or manipulative. Rape, the sexual abuse of children or their virtual slavery in the sex trade are obvious examples that come to mind. These are all destructive of persons and so in total violation of a person-centred sexual ethics. Sadly, it is not difficult to think of other similar examples of serious violation of the person. Nevertheless, sometimes our answers to specific practical questions in the field of sexual ethics can do no more than say what is valid as a general rule. Such a general answer is the best that we can offer because of the uniqueness of the particular individual, arising out of such things as his or her personal story, the stage of personal or sexual development he or she is at, and so on. Hence, a general answer might need considerable modification in some particular instances.

I would like to conclude this chapter with an example of how, using the approach outlined above, the discussion of particular questions in sexual ethics might proceed. The example I have chosen is casual and uncommitted sex.


Casual and uncommitted sex seems to be taken for granted by many young people in society today. This is certainly the assumption of many media presentations of their contemporary lifestyle. The assumption underlying this lifestyle is that there is nothing wrong with young people enjoying each other sexually, especially when they take contraceptive precautions to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. After all, life is to be enjoyed, especially when you are young. What is wrong with young people enjoying themselves in this way, provided no one gets hurt? Translated into the ethical language I have been using, the question posed by the lifestyle of many young people is: Is it right to engage in casual, uncommitted sex?

I believe that a person-centred sexual ethic gives a ‘No, but . . . ‘ answer to that question.

No. . . . . . because it sells us short as relational beings, capable of interpersonal love. In that sense, it is dehumanizing since it is living well below our human potential. It also fails to do justice to us as bodily persons since it involves two persons using each other’s bodies for individual pleasure without interest in and concern for the profound body-person each of them is. In that sense, it could almost be described as sexual abuse. It is abusing the gift of each other’s sexuality by trivializing it. Casual sex fails to respect human sexuality’s capacity for intimate and joyful personal encounter at a profound level of our being, an encounter which is impossible outside of a context of mutual trust which needs to be built up gradually as two persons come to know each other at an increasingly intimate level. The case for casual sex is sometimes argued on the grounds that it is a fun thing to do. However, as Gareth Moore points out, casual sex misses out on the real fun of sex by reducing it to purely individualistic pleasure. Fun sex, in the fuller sense, involves the much deeper and more satisfying joys which are to be found in the deeply pleasurable sexual exchange of mutual love and personal commitment. Joy – probably a better word than fun – is but part of the wider coalition of profound human feelings which makes up the rich experience of a human relationship in which a couple have the security of knowing they can trust each other unreservedly. Such a relationship really is fun – but its riches are not exhausted by its fun dimension.

The ‘No’ of my answer applies equally to uncommitted sexual exchanges between gays or lesbians. Sometimes ‘cruising’ is presented as being as natural for gay men as breathing. It is portrayed as simply part of what it means to be gay. I do not find that claim supported by gay and lesbian theologians who are arguing that there is but one sexual ethics for all, regardless of sexual orientation. ‘Cruising’ or other forms of trivial and uncommitted gay sex would seem to be dehumanizing for precisely the same kind of reasons I have outlined above.

… but …

… a sexual ethics for today needs to listen to what is going on among young people. Many feel so alienated from the world of so-called responsible adults that they are trying to find some sense of identity in their youth culture. And casual sex is part of that youth culture. A thundering ‘No’ against casual sex is likely to be totally ineffective since it is looking at just one symptom of a much deeper and far-reaching malaise. Moreover, it is likely to be heard as coming from the very source of their alienation, an adult world which has forfeited their respect by its apparent lack of idealism. It seems to have sold its soul to individualism and supports policies which leave many young people without any real hope for the future. Young people are unlikely to listen to adults telling them that casual sex is dehumanizing when, in fact, it is the very society which is taken for granted by these same adults which young people experience as utterly dehumanizing. No doubt this was one of the things the Catholic bishops of England and Wales had in mind in their 1996 statement The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching when they wrote;

Those who advocate unlimited free-market capitalism and at the same time lament the decline in public and private morality, to which the encouragement of selfishness is a prime contributing factor, must ask themselves whether the messages they are sending are in fact mutually contradictory, (n. 80)

An editorial in The Tablet made a similar comment: ‘No manipulation of the curriculum can coerce children into believing in Christian sexual ethics and traditional patterns of family life, if those values are not shared by their teachers, parents and national role models, and are contradicted by everything they see and hear in the mass media’ (3 November 1996, p. 1431). ‘

This book argues for a person-centred sexual ethics. That will only make sense and be feasible in the context of a society which is committed to a person-centred morality right across the board. Perhaps the trivial sex found among young people is the hurting edge of a malaise which is affecting society as a whole. I am not suggesting that casual, uncommitted sex is right for young people today. I am simply trying to understand why they are drawn to it. No doubt, some casual sex is linked to the experimental phase of adolescence, as Burggraeve has pointed out. However, much of it might actually constitute a veiled challenge to the rest of us. Perhaps the alienation of young people, symbolized by their finding comfort in casual sex, challenges the adult world to reconstruct society and our world in such a way that the dignity of human persons and their rights and obligations as individuals and social beings are the fundamental criteria against which everything else is assessed. Our human sexuality is an essential dimension of our capacity for connectedness. A society which creates unconnectedness and division does not offer a very convincing context for credible education in a positive sexual ethics.

I believe that a person-centred sexual ethics would answer many burning questions of sexual ethics (e.g. pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and so forth) with a similar kind of ‘No, but . . . ‘ answer. The ‘No’ part of the answer would be saying that, as a general rule, such behaviour or such a lifestyle can hardly be regarded as conducive to the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. And the reasons offered for this judgement would be drawn from the basic values outlined earlier in Chapter Six. However, the ‘but . . . ‘ part of the answer is needed to make allowance for the fact that individual moral agents are not all proceeding from the same starting-point. As noted in our exploration of structural sin, their starting-points may be vastly different. This can be due to a variety of forms of structural injustice which may seriously reduce the options open to them. It can also be due to their personal woundedness resulting from devastating negative experiences endured in earlier chapters of their life-story. As mentioned at the end of the previous chapter in my article ‘Moral theology in the parish’, in Priests and People, 1994, pp. 367-72, I used the parable of the wheat and darnel to illustrate this important facet of our moral life. I noted that the owner of the field has faith in the healthy growth of his wheat, despite all the darnel mixed in with it, and that he wants to protect his wheat from the misguided zeal of his servants intent on dragging up the darnel, regardless of the terrible harm this might do to the wheat. Sometimes moral zealots can act very destructively because they are oblivious to the fact that ‘what might look like a puny and undeveloped plant might, in fact, be a miracle of growth, given the adverse conditions under which it has had to struggle’ (p. 371).

I would suspect that many answers to questions about the rightness or wrongness of specific ways of acting in the sexual field should take this ‘Yes, but. . . ‘ or ‘No, but. . . ‘ form. The ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ part of the answer enables us to be clear as to whether or not, as a general rule, this particular form of behaviour is conducive to the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. This can also help to show that a contemporary person-centred sexual ethics is still substantially in continuity with the core teaching most of us were brought up with, while at the same time nuancing this teaching in ways ‘which can radically transform the way it applies the good news of the Gospel to our everyday lives.

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