For the first time in human history, sex can be more than a taboo designed to save the world a passle of unwanted pregnancies. For the first time in church history, sex can be seen for what it is—and for what it is not. For the first time in religious life, the vow of chastity can be evaluated from the point of view of opportunity rather than denial, from an awareness of what it permits a person to become instead of from the point of view of what it forbids a person to do. It is a new moment in religious history as well as in social history. It calls for the integration of body and soul rather than a division between the two. It is a moment worth grappling with, an exciting moment, a moment full of possibility.
Much to the chagrin of the generation before this one, and thanks to the new technology of sex, the 20th century regards sexual behavior with much more freedom, much more nonchalance than centuries before it did. On what grounds, then, does a vow of chastity appeal today? On what merits does it rest? For what purpose does it exist? To what degree is it absolute? What, if anything, is its gift?
One thing for sure: whatever its standard justifications, the traditional ideas about sex and sexuality, about the vow of chastity and religious life, simply do not work anymore. Gone, for instance, is the notion of the higher vocation where virgins inhabit a semi-spiritual realm released from the burden of their bodies and fitted thereby to fly with angels.
Gone, too, is an idea of perfection rooted in sexual inviolability, as if sex itself destroyed the moral integrity of the person any more than injustice and violence and greed do.
Gone, as well, is the very notion that “perfectibility” admits of either definition or possibility in the human condition. What, after all, is “perfection” and have we ever seen it? Was Jacob perfect? Was Jeremiah perfect? Was Augustine perfect? Was Teresa of Avila perfect? Was Jesus perfect when he broke Jewish laws, got angry in the temple, walked out on the crowds in Galilee? Then, how shall the stressed and simple people that we know ourselves to be ever manage to be perfect according to definitions that defy human responses and deny the role of growth in the development of human maturity? Perfection, in those terms, is the unattainable aspiration to be what we aren’t. And maybe an attempt as well to be what we should never be if human life with all its learnings is really to be human.
Finally, gone is the notion of virginity as some kind of red badge of courage to be taken into marriage to prove a woman’s worth, to assure her value, to legitimate his heirs. Better yet, gone is the idea that asexuality taken to the grave is a sign of human flawlessness, of total gift of human life to God, as if the struggle to give the gift is not gift itself and a lifelong commitment to a lifestyle of contemplative service is not more valuable than simply being able to maintain a check-list called chastity.
So cataclysmic are the changes in social attitudes and insights into the sexual nature of human beings that what never was expected of men is now equally assumed to be true of the nature of women. Neither Aquinas’ notion that “women do not have the strength of mind to resist concupiscence” nor Freud’s conclusion that women are by nature frigid satisfies the stereotypes of either women or men. In this new kind of cultural environment, women define themselves more as adults entitled to make choices for themselves and less as objects to be used, abused and manipulated. The world finds itself, as a result, with an entirely new set of questions about the nature of sex, the meaning of sexuality—both male and female—and the place of sexual expression in society.
Sexuality has emerged as the question that simply will not go away. In this climate, sexual behavior takes on less the notion of restriction and more the idea of choice, more the idea of self-giving and less the idea of danger, more a process of human growth and less a matter of failure, more an equally human arena than exclusively a male one. As a result, everything that was once judged settled now surfaces in a maelstrom of uncertainties. It is a very scary time. For people who want answers instead of questions, the time takes on the character of spiritual chaos.