The real meaning of sex

Many people have the impression that the Catholic Church thinks sex is bad.  This belief may have been reinforced by some over-reactions by members of the Church to the abuses of sexuality that have occurred in the last 50 years.  However, the Church actually teaches that sexual union, when properly understood, is very good.  It is sacred, beautiful and glorious!

The Church’s teaching on sex has been enlightened by the Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II.

In the beginning, when God created the universe, He made human beings as male and female, with very strong sexual desires for each other. When God finished all His Creation, He said it was very good (Gen 1:31).

Scripture tells us that humans are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27). One of the key characteristics of humans that make them similar to God is their possession of intellect and free will, which enables them to reason and chose between good and evil. John Paul II said that our bodies, created as male and female, are also in the image of God.  Of course, God is not a sexual being.  “God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes” (CCC 370).  Yet, there is something about our being as male and female that is a reflection of the nature of God.

What is God?  St. John uses the simple formulation, “God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8) From all eternity, the Father has loved the Son and the Son has loved the Father.  This mutual communion of love is so perfect that it represents a third Divine Person, the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Trinity is essentially an eternal communion of love between Three Divine Persons.

The deepest and most profound expression of love that a man and a woman can have for each other is sexual union.  John Paul II taught that sexual union is meant to be a symbol and a participation in that inner love of the Trinity.  God wants us to share in the life of the Trinity and He enabled this is a particular way by creating us as male and female.

After all, the most common analogy of the relationship between God and humanity in the Bible is that of the Bridegroom and bride. The Bible is a story about a mystical marriage between God and His Church. In Heaven, this marriage will finally be consumed, as we will be united forever in perfect love with God. The sexual union of man and woman is meant to be a foreshadowing of this union in Heaven.  St. Paul makes this clear in his interpretation of marriage as described in the book of Genesis:  “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh. This mystery has great significance, but I am applying it to Christ and the Church.” (Eph 5:31-32)

Every human being has an inner urge to love and to be loved.  God created us that way. This urge can only be entirely fulfilled by union with God.  During our life on earth, this urge leads us naturally to marriage and to sexual union with our spouse, which is meant to be a foreshadowing of the ultimate union with God in eternity. However, although marriage is beautiful and holy, the couple must realize that they are not the ultimate fulfilment for each other.  Only God can fully satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.

Since marriage and sexual union are meant to be a participation in the inner life and love of the Trinity, the couple’s love must imitate the love of God.  As Jesus said: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). To love as Jesus loves is the very meaning of life and is the only road to true happiness on earth.

So how does Jesus love?  By a free, total, faithful and fruitful gift of Himself to us (1). Those four key characteristics of Jesus’ love become particularly evident in the gift of His life on the Cross and of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  Hence, sexual union will only be faithful to its authentic purpose of imitating God’s love if the man and woman give themselves to each other in a free, total, faithful and fruitful manner. Sexual intercourse aimed at using the other person for selfish gratification is not an authentic expression of sexual union and is a gross distortion of God’s beautiful plan for sexuality. Likewise, contraception takes away the total and fruitful dimensions of the sexual act and distorts it.

Interestingly, the four characteristics of true love are exactly what a couple commits to in their marriage vows, which implies that the true meaning and fulfilment of sexual union can only be achieved within the context of marriage. In fact, the sexual union can be seen as the renewal of the couple’s wedding vows through the free, total, faithful and fruitful gift to each other through their entire being, body and soul (2).  By loving each other as God loves, the couple is fulfilling the meaning of their existence and being (3).

Some people, even Christians, see these teachings on sexuality as an illegitimate interference of the Church in their private lives. They would rather live sex “their own way.” They somehow believe that sex will be ‘better’ if God is left out of it. This poses a logical contradiction: if the very source of love is not welcome during sexual intercourse, can the act truly be a reflection of the love of the Trinity as it is meant to be? Without condemning them, these reluctant individuals need to understand that the Church’s teaching on sexuality is not meant to be a burden but rather a helpful guide to ensure that Christians speak the language of the body in truth. “The Church’s sexual ethic begins to make sense when viewed through this lens.  It’s not a prudish list of prohibitions.  It’s a call to embrace our own ‘greatness,’ our own God-like dignity.  It’s a call to live the love we’re created for.” (1)

When considering whether a particular sexual act is morally correct or not, Christians only need to ask themselves: Would this act be a reflection of God’s free, total, faithful, and fruitful love?  “Masturbation, fornication, adultery, intentionally sterilized sex, homosexual acts, etc. – none of these image God’s free, total, faithful, and fruitful love.  None of these behaviors express and renew wedding vows.  They aren’t marital.  Does this mean people who behave in such ways are ‘inherently evil?’  No.  They’re just confused about how to satisfy their genuine desires for love.” (1)

It is also important to note that marriage is not a license that makes all sexual behavior acceptable. Not all instances of sexual intercourse between a married couple are truly “marital” in the sense of imaging God’s love.  A married couple can still fall into the deception of lust and use each other for their personal gratification.  This would not be authentic marital love. The same could be said of the use of contraception.  As bluntly explained by Christopher West:  “When a couple uses contraception, the spouses are really saying that they prefer the momentary pleasure of a sterilized orgasm over the possibility of participating in the inner life of the Trinity” (2).

Every human being experiences lust, which prompts us to use others to obtain sexual gratification without making a true gift of ourselves.  Given our fallen nature, we may be tempted to believe that authentic marital love is a lofty and unattainable ideal. However, we must remember that Christ came to redeem every part of Creation, even our lustful desires, so that through grace we can realistically hope to live sexuality as God meant it to be.

In sum, the true purpose of sexuality needs to be better understood, particularly among the youth.  Rather than condemn them, we need to lovingly teach them that the vision of sexuality generally disseminated in the world will not lead them to the true happiness that they are searching for – which only comes through sharing in the inner love of the Trinity.  Only genuine marital sex within the context of marriage can lead them to a complete fulfillment of the meaning of their existence.


(1) West, Christopher (2004):  “What Is the Theology of the Body & Why Is It Changing So Many Lives?”

(2) West, Christopher (2003): “Marriage and the Eucharist”, CD distributed by the Mary Foundation.

(3) Pope John Paul II (1980):  “The Human Person Becomes a Gift in the Freedom of Love”, Homily during the General Audience of January 16, 1980.

5 thoughts on “The real meaning of sex

  1. Not only will “the vision of sexuality generally disseminated in the world … not lead [to] true happiness”, but, in fact, it will lead to great unhappiness, leading to a dark place, out of which one’s soul cries out to be liberated from. Only Jesus can take us out of our dark places, into the Radiance of His Light and Truth, because He suffered and died so that our sins may be forgiven. That’s Love, with a capital L.

    John 13:1 (New King James Version)

    John 13
    Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
    1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.

    ” … He loved them to the end.” And in marriage, we vow to love and honour our spouse, to the exclusion of all others, “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for rich or for poor, untill death do us part”.

  2. thank you, this is a very important topic.

    I encourage anyone interested in the theology of the body to check Dawn Eden’s master’s thesis on the topic: “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity’: Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity.”

    I think if we keep in mind that sexual love in marriage is a limited and temporary good (ending with the end of the marriage at the death of one of the partners) then we understand how is is that ”Only genuine marital sex within the context of marriage can lead them to a complete fulfillment of the meaning of their existence” is not entirely true (as you say above, ‘Only God can fully satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart’).

    And to say ”The deepest and most profound expression of love that a man and a woman can have for each other is sexual union” likewise gets nuanced. Jesus himself said ‘no one has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his friends’. The love that Jesus had for Mary Magdalene, not to mention other women in his life, had nothing to do with sexual union.

  3. Why doesn’t the Catholic Church just say sex is bad and the end with it. All this mulling around with moral theology just complicates the matter. Except in very limited circumstances, sex can lead to all sorts of unfortunate occurrences. Let’s just write it off as something just plain bad—like tobacco.

    • It’s not bad, Bill. It’s actually a supreme good.

      But good does not mean easy.

      Easy sex is meaningless sex.

      No Olympic champion becomes one because they did not discipline themselves.

  4. Bill, sex is AWESOME, BEAUTIFUL AND SACRED. It deserves so much better than the porn and selfishness that people have made it into. Let’s face it, most sex these days is merely two people using each other to masturbate. That’s cheap.

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