Monday, September 24, 2007

Christian Ethics and the sexually active adolescent

There is a certain dichotomous tendency in most Christian approaches to sexual ethics that I find unfortunate. The extent of the guidance many seem to be willing to give is "faithfulness in marriage [often defined as heterosexual marriage] or abstinence outside of it." This is certainly the ideal (though I define the sacrament of matrimony differently than most of my co-religionists), but what of those who fall short of this ideal? Are we then to consign them to a total absence of counsel on our part? Can we give them no ethical guidance whatsoever? It can only be vindictive to say to them "Obey the Church perfectly, or we'll give you no help at all." It seems to me that many of my friends in their teens who are sexually active believe that the Church has nothing to say to them about their sexual behaviour. (This despair is particularly evident amongst gay young people, but that is not my immediate concern in this column). They do not comply with the ideal, so we will not give them any advice at all.

Might it not be more helpful to adopt what social service professionals call "a harm reduction approach"? The parent who makes condoms available to her child need not condone his activities, nor the worker in the safe injection site who provides her charges with clean syringes. Rather, both seek to minimise the potential for resulting suffering. I recall my mother telling me, in my early adolescence, that if I ever wished to experiment with marijuana, she hoped I would do so under her supervision.

Can we not then learn to talk to those who are sexually active outside of marriage, rather than abandoning the Church's teaching ministry to them? They are not lost causes: their failure to remain chaste in the conventional sense does not give them liberty to abandon all respect for human dignity. Every sexually active teenager can tell of the partner who does not call, or who cavalierly transmits a venereal infection, or who is a bully in seeking to satisfy his wants. Why should we not show appropriate pastoral concern for such people, especially young people, and help them to avoid promiscuity, that is, to seek sexual relations only in stable romantic friendships? Even though they may not meet the Christian ideal, most could approach it far more closely than they now do.

Many of the stories my unchurched friends relate of their exploits are occasions for deep chagrin. Perhaps we, like the astute mother or the realistic social service worker, can alleviate their sadness and suffering, even if our ethical standards remain unchanged in and of themselves. There is simply no need to allow anyone who requires pastoral care to remain unassisted.


Andreas said...

The Christian message on sexuality is obscured, and Christians are to blame for that, especially Church officials.

On the one hand, we have people who are very strict. They think that pointing to the spiritual law that suggests virginity outside marriage and sex within marriage is enough. The case is closed, the issue is resolved, they think. They do not care about how their audience is going to receive that message. Like Pontius Pilate, they wash their hands clean, or so they think.

On the other hand, we have people that oversee it when Christians behave in the ways that are today acceptable by society as far as sexuality and relationships are concerned. That way, they leave an important aspect of the people's life uncovered by the gospel. But can that be satisfying for someone that wants to be a disciple of Christ?

I spoke of people that want to follow Jesus Christ. The church's sexual ethics is not autonomous. It has to be interconnected with the good news of the gospel; it flows from the vision of Christ for mankind. This is why I think it's of utmost importance that the church speaks sincerely with society, and adolescents in particular, about that great vision of Christ.

Of course, the reality cannot be ignored. But when a spiritual law is broken, someone has to compensate for that, or so I have heard. Spiritual direction and guidance is about taking responsibility and the director has to bear some of the weight of his children's choices. In addition, the spiritual director cannot act as the social worker that provides with clean syringes. He has a duty before Christ and a mission to manifest the will of Christ and inspire to the people the vision of Christ about mankind.

It would be irresponsible if the director misdirects the people that trusted him for guidance. But between wrecking the young soul or putting people off Christ and acting like a social professional lies another option, and that option might be the wisest one.

Paul Goings said...

I guess I'm unclear what you're proposing. Is it along the lines of, "Don't fornicate, but if you do, practice contraception and don't commit date rape?" Strictly speaking, this seems like it could be defended, in a way similar to what we often refer to as "just war" doctrine. My only concern about such an approach is the extent to which it implicitly condones the "primary" sin, and how this might be used in other contexts. How, for example, would the statement, "Don't have sex with young children, but if you do, try to choose acts which will minimize physical harm" fit in with the approach that you're proposing?

Geoff McL. said...

This is a discussion document. Like ++Cantuar, I reserve the prerogative to completely disown it at a later date. ;)

Anonymous said...

For some reason, I am reminded of a book about sex and adolescence and so on by Dr. James Dobson (!) that my mother gave me. I was interested in what it had to say about masturbation (at that point I had no opportunities to make moral decisions about actual sex). He said something along the lines of, "Masturbation is not necessarily sinful, but I hope you won't feel the need for it." I was very confused. If it is sinful, it should be avoided. If it's not sinful, why would he hope I don't do it? Is it sort of bad but not really? Why?