I don’t know what sort of regime of shame existed in American culture before I was here. In some people’s telling, everyone thought sex itself was dirty and shameful, and untold secrets were kept. I don’t want to take us back to the good old days that never actually existed, but I think sexual intercourse between unmarried people is still wrong. That’s what “fornication” refers to, if you didn’t know.
Frankly, I think that many of us Christians are so rightly concerned about the battle over abortion that we forget that living babies isn’t the only thing we care about. In fact, one of the driving forces of abortion is unmarried people having sex, when they aren’t ready to take on the responsibility of parenthood. We may be talking about the young, but we could be talking about entire generations of adults, who have never heard—- or received—- the message that if you want to have sex, you ought to get married.
I don’t mean that we should make a bunch of Christian adolescents anxious about their bodies, or about sex, or make them think that they have to take on the responsibility for the way other people look at their bodies. This applies especially to women. There are at least a few trenchant critiques of “purity culture” that are worth listening to. I do mean that we should encourage chastity, and abstinence from sexual intercourse until marriage.
There is of course a companion error that seems to go along with fornication, and that is cohabitation. Cohabitation is bad for two reasons: it encourages unmarried people who live together to have sex. It also sends the signal to other people that unmarried sex is acceptable, and that there are no costs to remaining unmarried, and being sexually active. We used to refer to that second example as “scandal,” much more than causing offense, but placing doubt as to the truth of a doctrine or teaching in the minds of others. Jesus said that it would be better to have a giant millstone hung around your neck, and be thrown into the sea, rather than cause one of his “little ones” to sin. “Little ones” can refer to children, but it applies to anyone who is weaker in faith or conscience than we are.
I would venture to say that we have gone soft on fornication, partly because we have so much else in the area of sexuality that seems worse to worry about. Even so, the truth is the truth.
I was reading an advice column the other day, and the questioner asked about her boyfriend’s hesitancy to move in with her, even though they had lived together during the worst times of the pandemic. My answer is always the same: if any man won’t marry a woman that he claims to love, then he has no right to anything of hers, including her body. There will still be people getting the order switched, and having sex before marriage, but I would think by now, women would understand why a man won’t commit: he has no reason to. I might even be so bold as to ask why the heathen get married at all, but I am grateful for any people who have this right instinct for permanence. It is this instinct for permanence which marriage expresses that truly builds society.
There are a lot of ideas in polite society that go unchallenged, because we don’t want to be viewed as those who grind axes, or to be lepers and pariahs. But we cannot pretend that we are also agnostic about what constitutes a family, and what does not. The persistent questions about sexual identity and the recognition of such have their roots here. We must consider the frank possibility that people are creating identities for themselves precisely because those things which they had a right to rely on—- like a permanent, stable, happy family, with a mother and father who are married to one another—- were taken away. We often hear the old saw that “children are resilient,” but what if they are not?
Along these lines, I may lament the confusion that seems to escalate related to sexual identity, but I empathize with people, because in many ways, they are just trying to pick up some broken pieces, and put them back together. Perhaps we look and see that they don’t seem to be doing it very well. On the other hand, that would be the story of us all, if there was no one there to rescue us, to love us, and to show us a better way.
Right living begins with right knowing. There is no club or party that you can join to insulate yourself from the call to holiness. It is universal, and it is demanding. We are also moved to lament, when we realize that much of what is wrong has roots in our own hypocrisy. With all that said, it does no good to apologize for the errors of the Church, if we do not confess the truth. There are too many people who seem to believe that we have sacrificed love for truth. In reality, if we do not speak the truth, we do not love those we intend to reach.