[Ah, spring, that heady time when a youth Catholic’s mind turns to, “Is this a sin?” And to answer these questions, and generally provide a brief respite in the tactical politics which we all enjoy so much, I present a book review written by my wife, the lovely MrsDarwin. Enjoy. –Darwin]
In my days as a young unmarried Catholic, I often suffered through chastity talks or had dating manuals pressed on me. The Protestant dating manuals (or, more accurately, not-dating, since apparently dating is right out in those circles, to be replaced by the nebulous concept of “courtship”) were painfully earnest in their descriptions of hypothetical couples who were keeping their relationships 99.44% pure by following strict rules of behavior. Chastity talks were even more painful because you had to be there in person, squirming in your folding chair and wishing the floor would swallow you as the speaker hemmed and hawed, or, even worse, was wildly enthusiastic for Purity! There seemed to be no happy medium between either rigid guidelines that seemed designed to minimize contact between a couple, or hazy exhortations to purity that gave one no practical guidance in the matter of a relationship rooted in reality.
After the discussion following this post about the proper level of physical interaction before marriage, Darwin ordered a book on the subject by Brett Salkeld, a fellow blogger and acquaintance. Brett and his co-author Leah Perrault know this sad scene all too well, and they have written a refreshing remedy and valuable resource, How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.
Here are two famous answers to the question “How far can we go?”
- Keep both feet on the floor.
- Asking “How far can we go?” is like taking your girlfriend or boyfriend in your arms, walking to the edge of a cliff, and asking, “How close can I get to the edge?”
We had to write this book because we think both these answers are unsatisfactory. We think we can do better. The first answer is very practical, but anyone with a little imagination can get around it. In trying to set out an easy-to-follow guideline for Catholic couples, it ignores the question of Christian formation. It says that physical intimacy is only about how you act, and has no connection to the kind of person you are called to become.
The second answer is much more dangerous. The foundation of the metaphor it uses is that sex is roughly equivalent to suicide! In other words, sex is dangerous and sinful. Any advance in physical intimacy is just getting you closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. When we give answers like this it is no wonder the world thinks the Church is down on sex!
…One of the reasons that Christian books on sex and dating have given a misleading view about sexuality is that they ignore the essential communicative aspect of sexuality. Sexual sin is presented as crossing some vague boundary partway up an imaginary list of increasingly intimate physical acts. But, in the context of physical intimacy, sin isn’t crossing an arbitrary line. Sexual sin is about using your body to lie to your partner (and probably yourself) about the nature of your relationship. There need to be one or two clear lines about what is appropriate for unmarried people, but those lines are not drawn to keep people from acts that impure in and of themselves. They are drawn to keep people from lying with the language of their bodies. This book, then, is not primarily about which acts are and are not permissible. This book is about learning to speak the truth with your body.
One thing I really appreciate here is that Salkeld and Perrault have a respect for their young audience, and don’t treat the question “How far can we go?” as an attempt to find out how much whoopie one can get away with, but an honest query about what is right and appropriate at any point in a relationship. (I snickered out loud at their description of a youth group leader who answers this question from a young couple by saying, “I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your relationship will do much better if, instead, you ask yourselves how pure you can be.” If you haven’t heard twaddle like that, you haven’t been around the Authentically Catholic! youth scene much.) They emphasize from the start that their model of dating “presumes that those who use it are sincerely trying to live holy lives. If you’re hoping to find loopholes so you can get away with as much as possible and still say you’re following Catholic rules, this model isn’t for you.”