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.