Catholics Talk About Sex

Whether it’s Pope Benedict’s recent comments about condoms and HIV, or the story of a pregnant Mary, looking for a place to give birth, ’tis the season for Roman Catholics to talk about sexuality and sexual health education.

As someone who spends much of my time talking about sexuality and sexual ethics with young adults on college campuses, what better place to start than Roman Catholic Universities? This month, I was contacted by Boston College students who lead sexual health and education initiatives. They are frustrated by their institution’s climate and lack of dialogue on campus. Even though the hype of so-called “hook-up” culture is a bit more myth than reality, it is true is that college students are waiting longer to get married and 89% of males and 92% of females will have have sexual intercourse by age 24. What response do we have for them?

Recently, events on Boston College’s campus (well, actually on the sidewalk off campus) typify the Roman Catholic institutional response. During a sexual health information and condom distribution event by Boston College Students for Sexual Health (BCSSH), a Jesuit priest and Resident Minister in a freshman dormitory engaged with volunteers, insisting that condom use is irresponsible and irrational.

A series of Letters to the Editor appeared in The Heights, the independent student newspaper. The student at the table, Lindsey Hennawi, wrote a Letter to the Editor about the incident. Rev. Chris Collins, the priest, responded by defending his position that condom use is damaging to a person, his or her sexuality, and the sexuality of their partner. 

Alicia Johnson, Chair of BCSSH, reported, “Not all Jesuit Catholic Universities require student groups to conform to their theological opinions.” Across the country, others have found room within their institutional values to provide comprehensive sexual health information. The University of San Francisco Health Promotion Services and Loyola University Chicago provide information about contraception and STI prevention. Georgetown University allows H*yas for Choice to provide information and condoms to students in Red Square, a “free speech zone” on campus. These institutions are in the minority. In a survey of Catholic Universities, only 12% of colleges say they provide contraceptives to students.

It isn’t just Catholic undergraduates who use contraception or believe sexual health information should be provided. As Catholics for Choice has reported, an overwhelming majority of Catholics in the United States support the same goals as BCSSH.

These are not irrational or irresponsible Catholics. Nor are they participating in degrading behavior of themselves or others. In fact, the opposite is true. They are making responsible and well-reasoned moral decisions about their sexual health, procreative intentions, and relationship quality.

Still, Rev. Collins, of Boston College, disagrees, describing the use of contraception as, “characteristic of a less than fully human way of acting, because it diminishes the need for reason and the use of the will to make responsible and truly loving decisions about how to use one’s God-given gift of sexuality.” As a moral theologian and sexual ethicist, I completely disagree. The ability of a young person to make a decision about any sexual behavior that includes protecting one’s self and partner from disease or pregnancy is a moral good.

Educating the Whole Person

It may be that Pope Benedict XVI is in agreement. On November 21, 2010, Catholics for Choice reported that the Pope Benedict XVI, in a book-length interview, said that condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV is “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more humane sexuality.” The 1966 majority report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, contradicted by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, also agreed that contraception can and should be allowed according to the Roman Catholic tradition. Those theologians and laypeople stand in the legacy of Roman Catholic social teachings that accounts for historical context, social dynamics, and scientific insights in determining Church teaching.

It is time for more Catholic Universities to take steps toward affirming a more humane sexuality. A sexual ethic to support this more humane view would prioritize the moral values present in a relationship over the sexual behaviors, value equality of partnership between two people over the genitalia they have, and promote information and education over prohibition and shame. Catholic Universities, like all educational institutions, have a responsibility to educate the whole person. There is no better way to do this than to empower and guide individuals in making moral decisions; not by limiting information and choices, but by educating students and allowing them to make decisions out of their own values.

When we affirm the sexuality and moral agency of young adults, we need to simultaneously hold our institutions accountable in providing accurate sexual health information, models for healthy sexual relationships, and opportunities to enhance decision-making skills. That is the starting point for our moral obligation to their health and well-being, not optional policy. Here’s to a holiday hope that BCSSH receives the gift it deserves: a voice on campus to start dialogue and education that will contribute to more thoughtful, reasoned, and faithful student relationships.