Good and Evil
First, what are good and evil? There's no question about the existence of good. Whether it's the gentle warmth of the sun on our skin, the taste of great chocolate, or the look of love in the eyes of another, we've all experienced good. Christians believe that God is the source and giver of all goodness. The Psalms cry out that “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.” Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells us that God created everything and saw that all He had made was good. But along with the good in our lives, we've all had real, tangible experiences of evil as well. Whether its the loss of a loved one, food poisoning, or the unkindness shown to us by another, we've all seen evil firsthand. So, how can Genesis tell us that everything God created was good? Where did evil come from if God did not create it?
Sometimes we conceive of good and evil as opposites of one another. But St. Thomas Aquinas explains that evil is really just the absence of good, not its equal opposite. A rough physical analogy might help to shed some light on this idea, so to speak. Physics tells us that darkness is not the opposite of light, but the absence of light. Light is made up of physical energy, a quasi wave-particle known as a photon. But darkness is not made of anything. Darkness is a void absent of light energy. In a similar way, every evil that we can experience or conceive of is defined by the goodness it lacks. It does not have existence in and of itself. This consideration, as I'll explain, is critical to understanding the Church's teachings about sexuality.
The Fall of Man
So how did we end up dealing with a lack of goodness? Right off the bat, the Bible introduces us to the concepts of good and evil in the life of man. In the Book of Genesis, immediately following the creation account, we're told the story of the fall of man – man's self-chosen separation from God. God creates Adam and Eve, places them in the garden of Eden, and tells them that they may eat of any tree in the garden except the tree at the very center of the garden – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tricks them, they eat the forbidden fruit, and they eventually die. Most people are pretty familiar with this story. But there are are some very important points in this story which we should take care to notice and explore.
First, God created an environment for man in which there was something forbidden that man could still freely choose. Why would God do this? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.” (1730) In other words, God willed man to be a creature capable of freely choosing good. The Catechism continues, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility.” (1731) God confers on man the dignity of freedom, but in order to be free to choose good, man also has to have the capability of rejecting good and thereby choosing evil – a privation of good So was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that God created itself evil? Again, we remember that all that God created was good.
In fact, Genesis tells us that Eve saw that the tree in question “was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” (Gen 3:6) Yet, nevertheless, God had forbidden Adam and Eve to eat from this tree. If this tree was good, pleasing and desirable, why would God forbid them from it? Why would God deny anyone any type of good? The answer can only be that there was a greater good to be had. God, who is all good, desires the greatest good and most complete happiness for us.
These observations about the tree tell us something important about evil in general – that there is usually still something good, pleasing and desirable present. If there weren't, nobody would desire anything that was evil. The reason someone steals from us, for example, is that they see the good that we possess and that they desire. But when it comes to evil, there is always some good that is lacking.
Therefore, a choice for evil is most often a choice for a lesser good and a privation of a greater good, and may in fact impair our desire and capacity for that greater good. When someone steals from us, they see the good that they desire, but they ignore the deprivation of good that they impose on us, and that itself is a further deprivation of their own good – their capacity to respect the dignity and rights of others.
In the story of Genesis, the tree and its fruit are not evil themselves, but eating from the tree is evil because doing so involves a lack of some good God intends for Adam and Eve. God desires the greatest good for them and so forbids them from doing this. Although they are in pursuit of the good they desire, Adam and Eve freely deprive themselves of the greater good and put themselves at enmity with God. We're not told directly in the creation story what the greater good is, but we can be certain that there was one. Since much of the creation story is meant to be understood in the allegorical sense, the tree and apple may actually be the very image of man's choice between trusting God to give us every good thing or deciding what good and evil are for ourselves.
So why does God not simply prevent us from having the capability of eating from the tree or making this choice? To do so would be to force obedience, which would be to deny that capacity for freedom with which God endowed man. One of the greatest goods God bestows on us is our free will and He will not take it away from us.
The Goods of Sexuality
Whether we're talking about the Biblical parents of humanity or about people living in today's world, we all find ourselves in similar types of situations at some time or another. You and I may not be living in the Garden of Eden, but we do find that we are presented with choices of good and evil in our lives. Every person is confronted during their life with things that are good, pleasing and desirable yet are not the greatest good that God desires for us. Every person is given a similar opportunity to exercise their freedom to love and obey God or to make a choice against God.
Same sex attraction presents a situation that is very similar to that experienced by Adam and Eve. Every person who is attracted to others, whether they are of the same sex or not, sees something good, pleasing and desirable in those people. And these things are certainly and truly present. All people are created by God and are good. We all radiate this goodness in an apparent way, especially in our sexual nature. We understand that there is goodness to be had in the giving of ourselves and the receiving of the other in a mutual exchange of persons. However, just like Adam and Eve, we are not free to take hold of every good that we perceive. Sometimes there are very apparent goods around us that we are not allowed to grasp because there are greater goods to be had. For example, we should not forcefully take the goodness of another person's sexuality because to do so would be to violate their freedom and dignity as a person. These greater goods must always be considered.
The Greatest Good of Sexuality
One of the things I find challenging about the Catholic faith is that it describes goodness that is so great as to be almost burdensome, if such a thing can be said, but only because of my human weakness and frailty. Genesis describes that we're created in God's image. The Catechism expounds on this by saying, “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.” (357) We're created in the image of God and as the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
For the purpose of summarizing the major points about the greatest good of sexuality I'm going to defer heavily to the teachings of Pope John Paul II called “Male and Female He Created Them: A Catechism on Human Love”, also sometimes known as “Theology of the Body”. Anyone who is truly interested in this subject would benefit greatly from studying this source.
In these teachings, we find that man is called to love as God loves since we're created in His image. Our human sexuality is meant to be an image of God's love in our very bodies, revealing and participating in this love in a very tangible way. And it is also meant to point to the ultimate spiritual reality of a reciprocal self-donating love that God wishes to share with man. That is the greatest good of our sexuality! Beyond simply being about human love, it's also about divine love and our call to participate in it. That is the teaching of the Church!
God's love is the total gift of His very self to us, given in absolute freedom, in uncompromising fidelity, and in a life-giving way that bears fruit. In our imaging of this love in our physical nature, we're called to participate in the full goodness of God's plan for sexuality and reject imitations that lack any of the good things inherent in God's love. Remember, God desires our greatest good, and evil is a deprivation of that good. He desires that we learn to love as He loves. If we consider eliminating any of the goods of sexuality that image God's love, we can begin to understand the Church's teaching on sexuality. Love cannot be taken rather than freely given (rape), given partially while withholding part of the self (contraception, sterilization), given in an unfaithful manner that violates or ignores a commitment (adultery, pre-marital sex, divorce/remarriage), or given in a way that is not open to life (contraception, sterilization, homosexuality). This last element is a critical point of understanding for persons with same-sex attraction because this potential for bearing fruit via new life is a direct consequence of our sexual complementarity with the opposite sex. I will address this in more detail in the future.
This picture of sexuality is so profound and important that it necessitates our behavior respect it with what sometimes seem like burdensome rules and requirements. Although it's a daily challenge to truly remember the dignity with which I've been bestowed, and the greatness to which I'm called, this divine love is why I struggle to obey the Church's teachings on sexuality in the face of every difficulty, failure and sacrifice.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.