We are a safety-obsessed culture. One need only recall the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to see just how much people are willing to sacrifice for the cause of bodily health. Or consider how the phrase “safety is our top priority” is the standard jargon we hear from almost any corporation.
However, this “safety first” mentality is not in fact always safe as is evidenced by how youth today are commonly introduced to the topic of sexuality. Today, most young people are presented with a distorted and gutted view of human sexuality and sexual ethics which upholds “safe sex” as the exclusive goal and standard.
Notice though how “safe sex” implies that it is sex — rather than sexual promiscuity — which is dangerous. Of course, this is understandable if life is just about oneself and preserving one’s own individual freedom. The sexual act by its very nature is ordered toward procreation and towards unity with another – namely, one’s spouse. These are indeed goods which “threaten” individual freedom and personal autotomy.
A “safe sex” view only considers the private or individual good of one’s own physical health and fails to consider how the sexual act is necessarily ordered towards a communal good (i.e. marriage and family). It also attempts to deny that any negative consequences will result when we ignore the real meaning of sex.
St. John Paul himself calls this “safe sex” view “extremely dangerous.” Here’s a footnote attributed to him from The Body Matters, Level 8, Book 1: The Body and Purity:
St. John Paul’s teaching of the Theology of the Body thus shows its particular relevance for our times. St. John Paul teaches that the human body has a “spousal meaning.” This is to go far beyond merely saying that the person is a sexual being like other animals which have sexual instincts.
Rather, to say that the human body has a “spousal meaning” is to say that the human person is able to recognize and understand that the human body and sexuality — or masculinity and femininity — communicate a natural ordering towards a particular good: the good of marriage.
From this insight, we can then realize how marriage and sexuality is connected deeply to the meaning of what it is to be human. The human body communicates that human persons are designed to be in relationship, to love generously and fruitfully.
Marriage is at the core of what it means for man to be created in God’s own image and likeness. For this reason, St. John Paul II considers how marriage reflects Christ’s fruitful union with the Church and how it images God’s trinitarian relations. (See Monica Ashour’s diagram below.)
Human sexuality is integrally and necessarily tied to the body’s spousal meaning and should lead us to understand how we are called to imitate God’s own nature, by uniting ourselves in a radical and life-generating love. This love is self-donating, receptive, and fruitful, analogous to the Trinity’s inner life of love.
Understood in this light, the virtue of chastity cannot then be reduced to a “safety-first” program of abstinence. Rather, chastity will be seen as a disciplining of one’s disordered concupiscence for the sake of safeguarding real, positive, and transcendent goods – the good of
marriage and the good of love.
By learning to understand the real ordering and meaning of human sexuality, young people—and indeed all of us —can learn to transcend our natural egoism which we possess through original sin, an egoism which views the world myopically and sees other persons only as means to advancing our own projects.
The theology of the body’s teaching about human sexuality has the real capacity to inspire our youth, to capitalize on their hyper charged passions and idealism, by drawing their attention to the genuine beauty of sexuality in light of the body’s spousal meaning.
In contrast, “safe sex” education is clearly uninspiring and depersonalizing. In effect, this approach implies a world view that sees the human as sub-rational and as entirely governed by animal instincts. Its exclusive focus upon physical health implies that the human does not have a spiritual nature or good and that one’s bodily actions can be disconnected from any spiritual meaning.
Safety cannot inspire the human heart. 18 year-olds don’t sign up for the Marines because they are guaranteed safety, but because they see the value of sacrifice and of fighting for a transcendent cause.
For the right cause, young people will happily invest themselves, work hard, and make sacrifices. If our youth had a better grasp of the real, genuine good of marriage and family life, they might be inspired to practice chastity.
Don’t get me wrong — health and safety are certainly real goods. To be Christian is to be pro-life and entails that we affirm the goodness of the body and its health. However, as is most clearly evidenced by the witness of the martyrs, the Christian tradition has never understood
the health of the body to be an ultimate or exclusive good.
In other words, as St. Augustine teaches, there exists a hierarchy of goods, and we should order our lives and our affections accordingly. As Christians, we are called to love God above all things, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Being a disciple of Christ is not easy, nor is it safe. As CS Lewis says in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan (i.e. God) is not a “safe lion,” but he is good. It is indeed goodness and beauty which stirs our human heart, because God Who is Goodness and Beauty, has made us for Himself.
Patrick Gordon works as a content creator for TOBET and is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Dallas.