Sexuality and Christian Ethics

Sexuality and Christian Ethics


In our modern world sexuality is a controversial concept. It assumes various connotations due to diversities in culture, religion, lifestyle, anthropological conceptions, scientific discoveries, and so on. The onus of this paper is to examine the fundamentals of human sexuality from the perspective of Christian ethics. This paper will be critical in its approach so as to discover whether or not the Christian ethical demands concerning sexuality have potency and validity in the contemporary human society.


The Meaning of Sexuality

Sexuality cannot be defined outside the context of human nature. It is an intrinsic characteristic of every human person. Simply put, it is a reality that is found in all human beings. The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines ‘sex’ as ‘the state of being male or female.’ It goes further to refer to this phenomenon as ‘either of the two groups that people, animals and plants are divided into according to their function of producing young ones.’ In defining sexuality, the same dictionary associates it with only feelings and activities connected with a person’s sexual desires. We understand from these definitions that sex is a characteristic common to both human beings and other living things. This understanding is important, but attention must be given to the scope of this research.

Central to this discussion is the examination of integral human sexuality. Azenda (2019:6) concedes that a definition of ‘integral human sexuality’ that is universally binding proves elusive. He recounts that divergent cultural opinions, religious orientations, and groups of people contribute to this difficulty. However, we shall look into the various contributions of scholars and institutions that define sexuality from a range of vantage points. Genovesi Vincent (2014:947) recounts that in 1975, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics in which sexuality is acknowledged as ‘one of the factors which give to each individual’s life the principal traits that distinguish it.’ The document also affirms that ‘it is from sex that the human person receives the characteristics which, on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, make that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely condition his or her progress towards maturity and insertion into society.’ From a Christian perspective, Genovesi avers that the significance of sexuality cannot be arbitrarily determined. Christians discover, rather, that its meaning is derived essentially from the spiritual (divine) meaning of their lives as human beings (2014:947-948). This means that even though sexuality includes corporeity it is not grounded on any spatio-temporal reality. We see a similar idea in the teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality: ‘God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility of love and communion’ (CCC, 2331). In an inclusive sense, sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others (CCC, 2332).

In his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis contends that ‘sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity (2016:109). He also forwards the idea of John Paul II who taught that sexuality is not only a source of fruitfulness and procreation but also possesses the capacity of expressing love – that love in which the human person becomes a gift (2016:109). The bottom line of his arguments is that all dimensions of the expression of human sexuality must respect the dignity of the human person. Otherwise, the original purpose and end of human sexuality will be thwarted. The question of human dignity traces sexuality to man’s divine origin. Citing Nelson and Longfellow, Azenda maintains that sexuality is intended by God to be neither incidental to nor detrimental to our spirituality, but rather a fully integrated and basic dimension of that spirituality (2019:8).


Ethics is the branch of philosophy that judges the rightness and wrongness of human action, and also tries to understand the principle behind those actions. Plato and Aristotle fostered the ground for the emergence of Christian Ethics. Augustine, who formulated the doctrine of ‘Original Sin’ was influenced by Plato’s idealism – theory of forms. His work City of God bears testimony to this assertion. The moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is highly indebted to the works of Aristotle. He adopted and pressed Aristotle’s Natural Law Theory into the service of Christian philosophy. This digression into the philosophical terrain is not our major concern but it stands to demonstrate that Christian Ethics can be approached from different frameworks and perspectives.

To render a working definition of Christian Ethics for this study, it appears handy to appeal to the idea of scholars like Willumsen (2003:673) who opine that ‘spirituality and ethics must be neither separated nor confused.’ Religion without morality may generate ethically unrestricted Gnostic or enthusiastic spiritualities. Morality without religion becomes widespread in modern forms of atheism and secular humanism. The two must be adequately integrated. In consonance, Hawkins (1963:15) asserts that the notion of moral obligation presupposes a divine law and becomes meaningless without it. The acknowledgement of God transforms the field of morality not only by introducing the element of personal allegiance but by putting specific duties in a new light. Hence, Christian Ethics can be defined as the branch of Christian theology that defines the rightness and wrongness of human actions from a Christian perspective. Some scholars choose to call it Moral Theology. Furthermore, Christian Ethics, as its name implies, is specifically related to God as disclosed in the ministry of Jesus Christ. The term ‘Christ’ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Messiah.’ It refers to Christ as the Saviour sent by God to show the world the right way to live. The earliest Christians were those Jews who believed that this had indeed happened in the ministry of Jesus.

The Jewish faith is a strongly ethical one, quite unlike the various mystery religions which were current in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. So it is no surprise that the Christian faith is also strongly ethical. Its sources are found first of all in the Bible (Preston, 1993:91). For the Roman Catholic Church, the tradition and official teachings of the Church (The Magisterium) also constitute part of the whole system of Ethics.


The Old Testament Basis of Christian Sexual Ethics

The Scriptures attest that ‘God created mankind in his image – male and female he created them’ (cf. Gen. 1:27). The Hebrew word for mankind is adam, which was often translated as ‘man.’ In this scriptural pericope, it is a collective noun and does not mean male or the individual Adam. According to the priestly tradition of creation, the two sexes were created at the same time. Their equality is therefore implied in the passage. Each of the sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way (CCC, 2335). On account of this, it becomes imperative then for every man and woman to acknowledge and accept his/her sexual identity without any question of inferiority or superiority.

Furthermore, there is a strong emphasis on sexual intercourse or being one flesh as exclusively a marital affair – it must be situated within marriage. To stress this further, The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that ‘The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity (CCC, 2335). That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body (cf. Gen. 2:24). The Yahwistic tradition shows forth that woman was fashioned not from earth but from the man’s own self. It offers the explanation at once of sexual attraction between men and women and of the phrase ‘corresponding to him.’ Boadt (2015:416) argues that the fitting identity of the two human creatures is made complete by the little poem in Gen. 2:23. They are the same because he is ‘ish and she is ‘ishah, a pun in Hebrew that is like saying ‘man and woman’ in English. The highpoints of this passage are the equality of the sexes, interdependence, mutual respect, harmony with one another, with nature and with the Creator. ‘The modern emphasis on sexual intercourse as being the heart of the relationship of the married couple is based on a theologically sound basis, emanating from the scriptures’ (Selling, 2001:4). God himself created sexuality, which is a marvelous gift to his creatures. If this gift needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the impoverishment of an authentic value (Amoris Laetitia, 150). Hence, the law ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (cf. Gen. 20:14, Deut. 5:18).

The tradition of the Church has understood the sixth commandment as encompassing the whole of human sexuality (CCC, 2336). This is on account of Jesus’ more sublime interpretation of this commandment. It is not just the act of adultery that breaks the Law, but thoughts and desires that lead to it. There was a tendency in the legal traditions to relate the commandment regarding adultery particularly to women (cf. Gen. 38:12-26). In order to address that imbalance Jesus directs his statement particularly to men (Matt. 5:27-28, Jn. 8:3-11). The first passage of Genesis, according to Joseph Selling (2001:4), emphasizes the procreational element of sexual intercourse: ‘God blessed them saying: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it’ (cf. Gen. 1:28). On this matter, Hawkins (1963:83-84) argues that when there is no positive interference, sexual intercourse, even when it does not or cannot result in procreation, retains the ideal significance of a proper expression of affection between husband and wife, that is, between persons with the status of potential joint parents. For it is not the proper expression of any sort of affection between man and woman. To suppose so would be to uphold promiscuity.

Sexuality in the New Testament

We notice in the New Testament, the virginity of the mother of Jesus (cf. Lk 1:27, 34), his own single state and the new idea of the goodness of the single state dedicated to God (Matt. 19:10-12). In this passage, Jesus refers to those who sacrifice legitimate desire for the sake of the kingdom of God. Chastity is not just abstinence from sex; it consists basically in the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being (CCC, 2337). In I Corinthians 7:32-35, Paul without proffering it as a necessity for all, declares that celibacy frees a person for a more undistracted service of God and the Church. Chastity comes in various forms: All Christians are called to chastity by the virtue of their baptism – they have put on Christ, the model of all chastity. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy (Priests and religious). Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence. The unmarried should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love (CCC, 2350). Pope Paul VI discloses in Sacerdotalis caelibatus that ‘Jesus did not make celibacy a prerequisite in his choice of the Twelve, nor did the Apostles for those who presided over the first Christian communities.’ ‘Hence, Christianity would witness to an acceptance of marriage goodness of sex for procreative purposes, but it would also demonstrate a proclivity for the single state’ (Selling, 2001:5).

Early Christian Pessimism about Sexuality

Stoic thought influenced the early Fathers of the Church (Selling, 2001:5). Tertullian proclaimed that continence brings down the gift of the Holy Spirit. Clement of Alexandria also believed in a strict control over sexuality, which meant the avoidance of frequent intercourse or the use of various positions which would maximize pleasure. Origen demonstrated his discontentment for sexuality by castrating himself. Sarah Boss (2009:209) recounts that Augustine of Hippo taught that ‘Original Sin’ was transmitted through sexual intercourse and was connected to the lust which necessarily accompanies sexual union. Concupiscence, in Augustine’s thought, was a vestige of ‘Original Sin’ which baptism did not remove. A Franciscan exhortation on chastity reads: ‘Our flesh is the devil’s night; for it resists and fights against all those things which are pleasing to God and profitable for our salvation’ (Beach and Niebuhr, 1955:169). This pessimism about sex was also at the root of the early monastic flight from the world. Those involved saw it as a way to retreat from the vice and impurities of the world. It was chiefly marked by self denial, especially of celibacy (Bruce, 2008:117-118). One might tend to conclude that Christian practices suppress and violate the optimum expression of human sexuality. These approaches however addressed the need of the Christianity of a particular epoch. Augustine’s principal intention, for instance, was not to denigrate the human condition, but to emphasize that men and women are totally dependent upon God for their salvation (Sarah Boss, 2009:209).


Christian Sexual Ethics versus Contemporary Views

Problems of moving from the Bible to the modern world continue to be explored, as do the different traditions in thinking about ethical issues which have developed in Christian history. Notable among these has been the incorporation of natural law thinking into Christian Ethics (Preston, 1993:103). The Catholic Church, for example, has strong official positions against homosexuality, contraception, sterilization, etc, on the ground that they do not correspond to natural law. On the contrary, modern ethicists refuse to accept that sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation is more in accordance with human nature than sex outside marriage for the purpose of pleasure. They purport that if sex outside marriage is wrong, it then amounts to the view that an action is wrong if it is at odds with a relevant biological function, and thus implies that even innocuous behaviors like kissing and writing are also wrong (Buckle, 1993:172). However, it seems thoughtful to say that eating is a more fundamental function of the mouth than kissing, and kissing does not prevent eating, whereas homosexuality does prevent procreation. The stance of Pope Francis in this matter is that a healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder and for that very reason can humanize the impulses (Amoris Laetitia, 151). Referring to married couples, he goes further to say: ‘In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family’ (Amoris Laetitia, 152). As a divine gift that enriches the relationship of spouses, sex in marriage must however be rooted in such love that is respectful of the dignity of the other.

Vincent Mcnamara (2014:677), observes that in almost every argument concerning the constitution of Christian Ethics, it is not uncommon to hear that Christians act morally out of love of God; that Christian morality is a covenant morality. To this effect, Logstrup Knud Ejler (1997:111) challenges Christians to support their moral views like everyone else, using arguments which make sense to non-Christians as well as Christians. Political and ethical exclusiveness, he says, among Christians is a nuisance. His idea is mistaken in the sense that Christianity does not propagate that there are laws governing people’s lives which only Christians understand. However, faith in the person of Jesus Christ remains foundational in Christianity. Parallels of Christian moral values are found in other ethical systems and cultures. Immanuel Kant (1977:237-238) and Pope Francis (2016:109-110) share similar sentiments concerning such love that springs merely from sexual impulse. While Kant insists that it makes of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of lust and dishonors it by placing it on a level with animal nature; Francis describes it as the occasion and instrument of self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts.


Any individual or institution that has concern for human dignity, justice, fairness and benevolence would considerably recognize the authenticity of Christian ethical discipline. However, systems that abnegate the divine factor may not come anywhere close to this realization. Hence, in the face of modern western freedom that tolerates homosexuality, premarital sex, contraceptives, abortion, etc, Christians holding that there is no true humanism outside the imperatives of the Gospel and the spiritual meaning of life, remain disciplined by love, respect, solidarity, social responsibility and ultimate commitment to God.


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Logstrup, Knud Ejler. (1997). The Ethical Demand, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

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Pope Francis. (2016). Amoris Laetitia, Nigeria: St. Paul Publications.

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Singer, Peter. ed. (1993). A Companion to Ethics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Willumsen, Kristopher. (2003). “Morality, Ethics, Relationship to Spirituality” in Downey,   Michael ed. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, Bangalore: Theological     Publications in India, 671-673.

  • Kenneth Oforma, CSSp

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