Sacrifice and Sexual Ethics


God doesn’t promise that He’ll only ask you for the sacrifices you agree with and understand. – Eve Tushnet

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself; accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked; accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. – Terence Malick, Tree of Life

In paragraph 265 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis teaches:

We have to arrive at the point where the good that the intellect grasps can take root in us as a profound affective inclination, as a thirst for the good that outweighs other attractions and helps us to realize that what we consider objectively good is also good “for us” here and now. A good ethical education includes showing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right. Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring.

The basic message is traditional. Morality involves rational pursuit of the good. This is so by definition because humanity was created with a desire for happiness (which, as St Augustine beautifully explains in his Confessions, can ultimately be satisfied only by God) – or, as ancient Greeks called it, eudaimonia (“flourishing”). Whatever we choose, we choose because we judge, rightly or wrongly, that it will contribute to eudaimonia. As Herbert McCabe puts it:

Living well means doing good because you want to do it, because you have become the kind of you that just naturally wants to do this.

The Church believes her rules surrounding sexual behaviour are not arbitrary. The goods indicated as desirable by Church teaching are (in the Holy Father’s words) good “for us,” given the way our nature was created. Pope Francis is restating the Church’s belief that her teachings on sex concern natural law, not eccelesiastical policy.

But paradigms of moral behaviour in Scripture often cannot be understood within the context of an ethic solely focused on the pursuit of eudaimonia. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ prays:

Abba, Father … all things are possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will. (Mark 14:36)

Christ, God and man, had two wills and two intellects (human and divine). His prayer indicates the desire of his (human) will is at odds with the Father’s desire. This suggests that Christ’s human intellect, in itself, could not grasp that his Passion was “in his own interest.” If it had grasped this, even his human will would have desired to undergo the Passion, since the will naturally desires what the intellect grasps as good.

St Augustine says that by praying as he did, Christ “shows Himself to have willed something else than did His Father.” St Thomas Aquinas explains this by arguing that although Christ’s “will as reason” always “willed the same as God,” in his “rational will considered as nature, Christ could will what God did not.” What is important to note is that even the human will of Jesus, although it never experienced disordered affection, cannot be said to have had a “profound affective inclination” toward his proper good at all times; nor can his human intellect, in itself, have been capable of completely comprehending that good, even though Christ’s human intellect (unlike ours) knew everything possible for a human intellect to know.

Then there is Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, presented in Scripture (Heb 11:17-19) as a pre-eminent moral example. Fr Andrew Pinsent writes:

Abraham … has to trust God, an action of  second-person  relatedness,  despite  the  utter  impossibility  of  attaining  the desires of his heart according to any conclusion based on first-personal reasoning alone. This situation is therefore radically different in kind, and not in degree, from any scenario in which one sets out one’s own path for the attainment of one’s desires … Although the case of Abraham is an extreme one, to say the least, the story draws attention to a narrative that is more broadly applicable and can be experienced in more commonplace matters of daily life. A child, intent on attaining or holding onto what she desires, will often struggle to “let go,” to surrender to the will of a loving parent regarding some course of action that is for the child’s own good.

“First-person” morality (in Pinsent’s terms) means morality as the pursuit of our own good. This is crucial to the moral life, since it is the foundation of our ability to will anything at all (even willing to obey God).

But pursuit of the good needs to be set within a broader context of “second-person” relatedness. The parent has a more adequate grasp of “the child’s own good” than the child himself. To develop morally, the child must be drawn out of himself through a relationship of trust with the parent, involving the sacrifice of the child’s own will.

As with child and parent, so with man and God. And if, as Augustine and Aquinas suggest, this was part of the moral life of Christ as man, we should not expect to escape the necessity of such sacrifice. Christ taught that the moral life involves imitating his Passion (Matt 16:24), and his final words to St Peter contrast the immaturity of following one’s own desires with the spiritual maturity of allowing oneself to be led “where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

Given that there are aspects of the good that we cannot grasp in a “first-person” manner, Christian morality is likely to be distorted by overemphasising the need to explain moral obligations in terms of their “benefits.” For example: in a social context which places high value on sexual pleasure and sexual variety, and encourages divorce when spouses “fall out of love,” we might expect to see exactly the sort of soft-pedalling of Christ’s teaching on adultery (Mark 10:11-12) that has become popular in the wake of Amoris Laetitia. After all, it is difficult to explain to a divorced Catholic in a stable and loving second union how following a teaching that requires them to give up a sexual relationship with their new partner is in their “own interest.”

The same dificulty would also extend to those in same-sex relationships. For instance, the midterm report of the 2014 Synod (which gave rise to Amoris Laetitia) says:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community … The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension … Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

Much of the commentary on the report was unhelpful. Hardliners boiled with rage over the claim that homosexuals have “gifts” (as if the Church had previously taught that gays are completely devoid of good qualities).

The disturbing thing about the report, however, is not what it says but what it did not say. It moves seamlessly from talking about “realistic paths of affective growth” to same-sex unions and child-rearing, with no mention of continence or celibacy. Built in to the report, it seems, is the assumption that no gay person in their right mind would attempt to follow Church teaching, and therefore the height of “human and evangelical maturity” that can be expected of gay Catholics is to live in sin while maintaining a vague connection with the Church.

There are various explanations for how this assumption ended up in a Vatican document. Undoubtedly, pastoral pleasantries are sometimes used as stalking horses for radical doctrinal change. But part of the problem lies with an overemphasis on morality conceived solely as pursuit of the natural good. As with the divorced and remarried, it is difficult to explain to gay people why following Church teaching is in their “own interest” (especially in a post-Obergefell milieu). If one thinks of morality exclusively in these terms, one is likely either to give up making the case for the Church’s teaching, or to distort its pastoral application (for instance, suggesting that it may be “impossible” for people to pursue chastity, but they should just receive the sacraments anyway).

To be clear: I am not saying that the Church should give up trying to articulate rational, natural law-based arguments for her teachings on sex. As Pinsent’s first-person/second-person analogy illustrates, God does not desire arbitrarily that we be chaste. He desires it because it is our natural good, desirable to a righly-ordered will. That means, the naturalness and desirability of chastity can, in principle,  be articulated.

But who – straight or gay, married or single – has a perfectly rightly-ordered will? Even when natural law-based arguments convince in the absence of a prior faith commitment, they do not provide the grace necessary to live out what the argument proves. The most fitting foundation for the reception of this grace is, I would suggest, re-emphasis on a Christian spirituality of sacrifice – a spirituality which reminds us that there is a broader context within which the pursuit of our own natural good must be situated, namely, a second-person relationship with a God who calls us to be his friends.

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