Excellent Sex?

Church teaching is pretty clear on the negative consequences of unapproved sexual behavior, and its potential to promote human vices. But we tend to hear far less about the potential for sex to promote and foster virtue. What expectations should we have for our sex lives, spiritually speaking? In the current issue of Commonweal, Lisa Fullam applies a virtue-ethics approach to this oft-neglected area of human development.

The virtues together constitute a vision of what it means to be most fully human, to manifest the virtues present inchoatively, Aquinas says, in our nature. ...For Aquinas, virtues are the content of human flourishing, characteristics of people who more and more fulfill Gods hopes for us in calling us into being.What happens when we apply this very traditional mode of ethical reflection to the questions of sexual ethics? What are the perfections of our character, the virtues resident inchoatively in our natures that may be developed in the context of sexual relationships? The morality of sex has long been the focus of Christian teachings -- and prohibitions. But we cannot have a correct notion of virtues without a vision of the goal for our activity -- the violinist had to hear an excellent violinist before he knew what might be achieved with some wood, strings, and a bow. I propose a three-fold end or goal, a telos, that might be a starting point for a new conversation about sex. Id also like to sketch, in a very preliminary way, a few virtues of excellent sex -- the character ideals that may be cultivated in our most intimate relationships.

Fullam suggests a three-fold goal: "a feel for incarnation, an ability for intimacy, and an eye for insight."

A feel for incarnation [] means that, contrary to social messages that reduce the worth of persons to their sexual desirability, we seek in our sexual relationships to grow closer to our partner in his or her totality....Intimacy as one of the three aspects of excellent sex is related to incarnation -- sex expresses a personal reality, not only a bodily one. At the same time, it calls us to an emotional and psychological openness and vulnerability that can be far more challenging than just physical sex.....Absent insight, incarnation and intimacy alone lack a rich aspect of human self-awareness that transcends the more obvious levels of bodily and psychic/emotional intimacy. It is insight that invites us to see the echoes of our relationships beyond the immediacy of partners to include family, society as a whole, and our relationship to God.

That's just a taste -- the ideas are developed in much greater detail in the article (subscribers can read it online). I think it's a promising step forward for the discussion of how sex fits into and contributes to Christian life. Now I'm interested to hear what you think. If you've read the article, how did it strike you? Do these virtues seem appropriate? Are there others you would propose? (And if you haven't read the article... There's never been a better time to subscribe!)

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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