How to lose your (sexual) freedom

(iStock photo)

Popular media in the United States continue to approve the Catholic Church’s social justice voice on poverty or the environment, but they dismiss its voice on sex, marriage and parenting. This is intensified by the contemporary framing of the latter issues in terms of “equality,” “freedom” and scientific rationality. In other words, social justice categories are applied to sex and family questions, and the church is found wanting.

Nothing motivates me to try to bridge this divide more than mothering young adults. I want them to have the good life, the free life, the Catholic life in the whole sense.


So first I touch on freedom, as it overlaps with the justice value of caring for the vulnerable. Temporary sexual relationships undercut freedom. They often communicate (especially to women) that their value lies in their appearance, their sexual performance and their willingness to use contraception affecting their hormones, their mood and their health. These relationships are shadowed, too, by fears: of children and sexually transmitted diseases. To the inevitable objection that freedom lies rather in the domains of “choice” and “variety,” I cite the most definitive science on American sexual practices, showing that both women and men report finding their freedom and joy within long-horizon commitments.

I also touch on freedom as service, as relation. Catholic social teaching rejects the idea that freedom means everyone grabbing as much property as possible. Similarly, Catholic family teaching rejects the notion of freedom as maximizing individual sexual and emotional self-satisfaction. Our “freedom” is rather the “freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), grounded upon the Father’s unending, sacrificial love. The freedom of children we conceive likewise rests on our providing a solid floor beneath their feet, built by a stably united mother and father.

The category of inequality is also fruitful for linking Catholic social and family teachings. (How I wish “The Joy of Love” had highlighted this!) It is well accepted that the retreats from marriage and marital childbearing are largely driving economic inequality in the United States. In short, the contexts in which adults have sex, get pregnant, give birth and raise children matter enormously for equality.

Inequality between men and women is also at stake. The Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz brilliantly observes that while many are willing to acknowledge how the West’s “cult of freedom” produces economic inequalities, they are blind to its creating inequalities in the personal and sexual realms because of the “social conditions which make possible the emotional domination of men over women” (Why Love Hurts). To specify, today’s “free” sexual marketplace is shaped by the severance of sex from children by contraception and abortion. It is also shaped by its focus on choice (through apps like Tinder), “testing” (cohabitation) and finding one’s “soulmate.” It is shaped by corporations placing excessive value on youth and beauty and sex as products for consumption, and by men’s tendency to play the field longer, unconstrained by limitations imposed by fertility. As summarized by Professor Illouz: Middle-class heterosexual women have “never been so sovereign in terms of their body and emotions” but “emotionally dominated by men in new and unprecedented ways.”

As for poor women, an entirely different set of preferences and constraints shapes how they experience the “cult of freedom.” Between high rates of incarceration and joblessness, and a perennial dearth of jobs that pay a living wage, lower-income men do not appear “marriageable” in their eyes. Furthermore, the choice to become a single mother does not foreclose realistic opportunities for college and a good career. Some freedom. Some choice.

Ecological justice is another bridge. It encompasses our objection to what many forms of birth control do to women’s minds and bodies. It refers to the mistake of obscuring or fracturing the deep-down meanings and natures of things, whether in the natural or human environment, anywhere we risk forgetting that nature is mother and creation and not just matter.
My attempt to link social, sexual and family justice remains a work in progress. But I have every inspiration (read: children) to improve it continually.


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Lisa Weber
2 years 6 months ago
Teaching that sexuality is most likely to be rewarding within a marriage is correct. The church ban on contraception is so widely disregarded because couples find it unsatisfactory. It would be far better for the church to acknowledge that use of contraception is one of the choices in life and talk about the pros and cons of contraception rather than taking the "bogeyman" approach of saying that all contraception is bad all of the time. Obviously the vast majority of Catholic women disagree with that stance.
William Rydberg
2 years 6 months ago
Ms Weber, Whether we like it or not, find it easy or difficult to aspire to, it is incumbent upon the Church to consistently preach on behalf of Jesus-God come in the flesh. Not to do so is a direct betrayal of the God who lives. It would be imprudent in my opinion for Church Leadership to knowingly preach a false Gospel. Finally, please keep in mind that we presently live in a largely nihilist culture that worships "will" over human Nature in my opinion. Ironically, this "pretense called will" is merely a disguise for impure sexuality run amok. A prime example is the recent coverage of a Japanese Survey that discusses what in the opinion of the writers is a "high percentage of virgins over 30". The gist is that it's weird and goes against the dominant global culture. Even suggestions that virginity is a form of perversion is intimated in my opinion. So if one actually believed that the nihilist "Will" dominates. Why is the "Will" to remain a virgin depicted so negatively. Let's face it, even the famous pornographer Bob Guccione made it clear that the more sex and sexuality is discussed, the easier it is to bed women. (Dated reference, nowadays "women" could be substituted for anybody. Just my opinion, in Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity!
Anne Chapman
2 years 6 months ago
The church has consistently failed to listen to married couples in the matter of birth control. Given that NFP places enormous stress on most marriages, most couples opt for modern, reliable birth control. Because the church refuses to admit that the decisions regarding family are best left to the couple, it has lost any moral voice as far as other sexual matters. Rational people look at the church's teachings on birth control in marriage and figure that since the male celibates have gotten it so wrong on this, it cannot be trusted to provide rational guidance in other areas of sexuality either.. Too many in the church, especially within the clerical class, forget that they are not THE church - that THE church has 1.1 billion people. Long ago John Newman advised the church to "consult the faithful in matters of doctrine". Unfortunately, the clerical class has not yet "received" the wisdom of his counsel.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 6 months ago
As long as the Church hierarchy remains exclusively male, Catholic doctrine on sex/gender issues increasingly lacks credibility, and for good reasons that transcend sociological trends. Deep down, it is the sensus fidelium that no longer takes the patriarchal family model as "natural law." If you want to link social, sexual and family justice, make the Church hierarchy be an icon of Trinitarian communion rather than an icon of patriarchal ideology. When was the last time you heard Ephesians 5:22-33 read in a Catholic wedding? No, it is not about superficial equality, or irresponsible freedom, or merely scientific rationality. It is about wisdom and actually sanitizing sex/gender doctrines of patriarchal ideology, and acting accordingly. Rationalizations about pseudo-ontological male/female complementarity are no longer helpful. Canon 1024 is an artificial contraceptive (if not an abortifacient) of female vocations to the ministerial priesthood. Ordain women to the priesthood and the episcopate, and then Humanae Vitae makes sense; else, people will continue to turn around and walk away with fingers in their ears.
Ernie Sherretta
2 years 6 months ago
With all due respect, having read your article and the comments below, as one who worked for the Church for 40+ years, studied in the seminary for 7 years, married for 43 years with two adult children, neither of whom were married in the Catholic Church, I have studied and prayed about the fact that the Church is irrelevant to most of the young adult population in the world, let alone in America. A patriarchal, celibate leadership has little credibility in today's world. Actually, marriage and procreation was seen as a duty in the old testament times and intentional celibacy a sin. Doctrines and theology won't convey the message of Jesus- actions speak louder than words. We need to get back to Jesus and his message, his life style, his confrontation of the hypocrisy of his own religious leaders. He never focused of "correct" sexual behavior or life style rather on commitment, love, forgiveness, inclusion. The celebate clergy are obsessed with sexuality! Have you taught the Beatitudes- the sermon of Jesus? These are usually ignored beause they challenge us. Note, no mention of lifestyle but of correct living. Finally, the following video clip of a teacher/father is what will speak to modern day disciples: Do we reall think people wil pay attention to the message of men filled with pomposity, dressed in red skirts with beanies? Jesus rode on a donkey not a horse to show the humility of the real messiah.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 6 months ago
BRAVO! This is the reality we are living, and millions of fancy words and theological elucubrations will not remedy the increasingly dysfunctional patriarchal priesthood. Jesus expressed admiration at those called to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom and I fully share his admiration, which was backed by his personal choice to be celibate. But to remain attached to the patriarchal system of male/female relations, in the family and in the church? No way. The popemobile is not that bad, but the red skirts with beanies must go, and only the ordination of women to the priesthood will speak loud enough about the Church following the straight and narrow path!
Julia Smucker
2 years 6 months ago
This "work in progress" linking all these things sounds like it wants to be a book. Certainly one I would be interested in reading. I think this piece is very much on point but at the same time captures about half the picture in terms of reaction to Church teaching. The left (both within and outside the Catholic Church) tends to approve the Church's voice on social justice concerns and dismiss it on sexuality, and with the right it's vice-versa. That in itself is revealing of the holistic nature of Catholic social teaching, as in the links that Helen Alvare is making. (The origin of the word Catholic, after all, means "of the whole"!)
2 years 5 months ago
I too am the parent of young adults with whom I constantly share from America Magazine. (I think they have a folder for storing for future reference...) While I would like to share this article, I find it too dense for my understanding. I get the gist and am in agreement but I find it too condensed with abrupt transitions. I wonder whether Ms. Alvare has a more complete version of this article? I would welcome the opportunity to read further.


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