Read I Corinthians 6:12-20
The Roman Catholic liturgy sometimes omits a verse or bit of a sentence from the public reading of a given text at Mass in order to facilitate its aural understanding. But it seems to me that this Sunday’s second reading can only be understood correctly when read in its totality, which I encourage you to do. For this text is essential if we are to correctly grasp Saint Paul’s sexual ethic and, eventually, the Church’s own teaching on sexuality. Let’s try to uncover the principles which undergird this ethic.
First, Paul’s morality is not about a list of permitted or forbidden actions. He is not interested in drawing up a series of rules which, if broken, would then be considered sins. Paul is more interested in answering this question: what human choices correspond best to the life that God is shaping in us through the Spirit? We are confronted, then, with a quest for freedom and growth, a morality which seeks the good because the good is what helps us grow in humanity. Life is not a test to determine who will be allowed into heaven: it is rather a process of unending growth which God invites us to embrace.
Next, Paul explains that sexuality is not a simple appetite like hunger or thirst. This is because human sexuality involves relationship with another. Human beings build themselves up or tear themselves down through their relationships. This is why sexuality cannot be reduced to a simple question of pleasure or of need: it is deeply relational.
Third point: our way of building and living our relationships must correspond to the relationship which grounds our life, which is to say our relationship with God in Jesus-Christ. Paul gives a very blunt example: to reduce sexual activity to a commercial exchange limited to the sole dimension of pleasure (prostitution) cannot correspond to the relationship God wants to live with us, full of respect, graciousness and love. This is why an unbridled sexual life can never be compatible with the life of grace we have discovered in Jesus.
Fourth and final observation: everything in this world is meant to serve our growth in freedom and humanity. If I enslave myself to an earthly reality – sexuality, for example – then I am moving away from the loving plan God has framed for me. But if this earthly reality allows me to grow in God’s love, to embody it and express it, then I will live more fully and more humanly. This is what happens when sexuality becomes the language of love, faithfulness and fruitfulness it is called to be in marriage.
These are but a few reflections generated by a quick reading of this paragraph from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. But they present a deep vision of human sexuality as well as an ethical project that involves the whole human being. How blessed are we that the Spirit should abide in us to give us the wisdom and strength to enact that vision and project in our lives!