When it comes to sex, it seems that there are two very different basic mindsets: the Church’s ideal of chastity and the more pragmatic secular view of our culture. In the first, sex is part of the covenant of marriage, a way in which two people develop intimacy and practice mutual self-giving, and the means by which new human life is created. Sex isn’t about pleasure-seeking, or about fulfilling physical urges, but rather about offering one’s whole self to another, under God; the married individual has no more permission to lust after or use another person for personal pleasure than does the unmarried. And of course, considering all these boundaries around the understanding and act of sex within marriage, sex outside of marriage is not allowed at all, and celibacy, in which the individual dedicates his or her self-giving toward Christ and the Church rather than to a spouse and family, is honored and encouraged.
In contrast, our culture today tends to view sex as a means to enjoy ourselves – preferably with another person in a loving relationship, but not necessarily so. Sex is divorced from child-bearing as much as possible, so that physical pleasure can be had without the fear and burden of unwanted pregnancies. Masturbation is accepted (although never seen as the ideal) because how can making yourself feel good, without affecting anyone else, possibly be a bad thing? People have sexual needs, after all, and to deny them the chance to satisfy those needs is damaging and unrealistic, just as it would be damaging and unrealistic to expect people to go without eating or drinking. Even among Christians, this idea that people have physical sexual needs (as opposed to desires) is prevalent, with the result that marriage is turned into a vehicle to sexual fulfillment rather than a chance to give all of oneself, even one’s sexuality, to another person. While most Christians, looking at the example of Paul, admit that some few people are called to celibacy, the thought that large numbers of people might be called and equipped for it is simply bizarre.
There’s a third camp out there, probably the largest one to be honest, that ascribes to the ideals of the Church but denies (typically not in so many words) that those ideals can be lived out in a fallen world. Marriage provides the release for the sexual urges our sinful minds are unable to control, and thus the encouragement of celibacy opens the door for secret sexual sin as men (primarily) are left to burn with passion without an acceptable outlet.
What this third group omits from their understanding of sex and chastity is the efficacy of God’s grace for His children. I will grant that if we were simply left with a law to follow and no grace to help us follow it, and if that law specified heterosexual monogamy as the only acceptable setting for sex, than we would want as many people as possible to be happily married so that their physical drives wouldn’t lead them into sin. (Or, of course, we could seek to change the law so that those drives that aren’t satisfied in heterosexual monogamy could also be fulfilled… that is what our culture does, building off of the Christian misunderstanding of marriage as an outlet for sexual need to paint the whole concept of marriage itself as a constraining and damaging force on human sexuality.) But the whole beauty of the faith is that we are not left on our own with just a law to obey: we are given the ability to obey it, by grace, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us. His righteousness is transmitted to us, not just as a legal covering, but as a reality that begins to transform us body and soul. Do we doubt the presence and power of His grace?
God has called all of His people to chastity, whether within marriage or out of it, and His grace will enable us to live chastely if we seek it. He doesn’t command and then leave us to obey on our own, but gives us His own life – Christ Himself living in us – that we might walk in righteousness. For some, that means the continual giving of oneself to God through giving oneself to another person in marriage, sexually as well as in all other areas of life, as marriage becomes the occasion for self-sacrifice, mutual submission, and radical service; for other, it will mean the continual giving of oneself to God through sacrifice and service to God’s people, giving up the pleasure of sex, the joy of biological children, the happiness of monogamous love, to be able to focus more completely on the work of God and to be free to serve God’s people wherever and whenever the need arises. Both paths are hard, and both are made possible by the free gift of the grace of God, who desires us to obey and gives us the ability to obey in Him.
(For a really good talk on this, in the context of celibate priests in the Catholic church, check out Father Eric Bergman’s talk at the Institute of Catholic Culture. He is a married priest, having originally been Anglican, so he has an interesting personal perspective on it!)