I don't often write about sex.
But as a priest who has prepared dozens of engaged couples for marriage, I have a unique perspective on the topic.
To begin with, what amazes me most these days is how unimportant sex has become for most couples. Let me explain.
Of course, in one sense, intercourse is hugely important to young people; if it weren't, 7 out of 10 would not have "done it" by age 19. Being sexually active exercises an obsessive kind of importance for many, if not most girls in their early teen years -- sadly today, for most girls, it is the key to social acceptance.
What I'm getting at, rather, is that most of the young adults I deal with as a priest have been having sex for several years, perhaps a decade, before they end up in my office at the rectory wanting to get married. But this is what I hear and see when we talk: Gone is that anticipation which -- somewhere, once upon a time -- would characterize an engaged couple, even those who maybe, during courtship, slipped and had a roll in the hay. Gone is the expectation, the longing for sexual intimacy. Gone is the excitement about the wedding night. Gone is the sense of urgency to get to that day... because in a way, they've been there already; done that. Sex just is not that important to them anymore.
To put it another way, our culture simultaneously places a tremendously high value on having sex, and in so doing, devalues sex by treating it as a consumer item. In so doing, sex is also stripped of its God-given meaning.
Today, of course, it's a truism to say that 'sex has lost its meaning.' Not only can we not recall what sex was ever about, the very notion that sex was even supposed to have a 'meaning' provokes reactions of utter befuddlement: "Like, what do you mean?"
The first step in getting minds and hearts open to the genuine meaning of human sexuality as intended by its Author is to re-associate and stitch back together the three realities of sexual intercourse, marriage and procreation. The phenomenon of recreational sex, along with the contraceptive mentality and the boom in artificial reproductive technologies, have combined to set these three realities asunder in the most unnatural way imaginable.
The hook-up culture has reduced sex to little more than 'a really cool thing', up there with lots of other passing thrills that have zero relation to marriage. The reality of human procreation, in turn, filtered through the contraceptive mentality, has been entirely disassociated from sexual intercourse -- to such an extent that all too often, when a pregnancy does result from intercourse, it's perceived as an "accident", a "failure", a "crisis", a show-stopper, and an abnormality requiring medical treatment. Not to mention, of course, that babies can be made today entirely apart from marriage and even intercourse.
It is vitally urgent that we help our young people rediscover, in the very intelligibility of our human nature and human flourishing, how these three realities (sexual intercourse, marriage and procreation) live and hang together.
We must continue to strive to find creative ways to help them understand:
• Why and how sex is meant to make a man and a woman one flesh;
• That we call this one flesh-union 'marriage';
• That this union is so real that it might look into their eyes someday and say "mommy"... and ... "daddy;"
• That our bodies speak a language, and that sexual intercourse "says" something.
• That sex was intended by the Creator to allow a husband and wife to say physically, in the language of the body, what they said with lips and hearts the day of their marriage: "I... take you... to be my spouse. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."
• That sex was thus meant to be the celebration and renewal of the marriage covenant.
That is what sex means.
That is why sex is important.
And that is why we need to share this good news with our young people.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).