A lesbian pastor in Mississippi recently explained a problem she has with Christians who assert their right to religious freedom when it comes to their moral convictions. “You’re being treated with disrespect, as a second-class citizen—not even a citizen, an outsider,” she states. “And after a while, that begins to tear a person down, to hurt them emotionally and spiritually. Rejection is hard for everyone, and we get it over and over.”
Indeed, many Americans would agree. Religious liberty may be fine as far as it goes, they think, but when one person’s religion clashes with another person’s sexual preferences, it goes too far.
We tend to believe this because we equate sexual conduct with personal identity. That is, we often believe that objecting to sexual actions is equivalent to objecting to the persons who are acting, and objecting to persons is equivalent to bigotry.
But is that chain of reasoning correct? Are those who object to contemporary sexual mores simply bigots? Is religious liberty simply an excuse for bigotry? Is religious liberty the basic condition required for the robust exercise of religion? Is religion more than a matter of attending religious services? This section will explore these questions.
Christianity, Sexuality, and Happiness
The picture of Christianity as a kill-joy religion is as common as the assignment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school. But what is authentic Christian teaching about sexuality?
The Catholic Church has consistently condemned heresies (such as Gnosticism) that viewed the body and sexuality as evil or morally suspect. This is because an anti-body worldview is not compatible with the incarnational nature of Christianity. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God becomes flesh, which testifies to the innate goodness of the body.
Scripture contains the genuine Christian teaching about sexuality. In the opening book of the Bible, Genesis 1:27 testifies, “God created mankind in his own image … male and female he created them.” The creation of the two sexes in relationship to each other was not a mere by-product of evolution but the plan of the Father and mysteriously connected to being the image of God.
This plan had everything to do with the procreation of children: “Be fertile and multiply …” (Gen 1:28). The male-female relationship is the only natural way to bring about the new creation of a child.
This revealed plan of the Father has a wisdom that is supported by science. The human infant is born in a very vulnerable state. While a baby horse will stand and nurse within an hour after birth, the average human baby will take nearly a year to stand on her own for a few seconds.
Why is this important? Because, unlike horses and all other animals, the strengths of human beings do not lie primarily in their physical prowess. Horses are speedier than we are, and birds can fly. Our uniqueness is found in our ability to reason and to choose a course of action not dictated by mere instinct. Only we are able build cars and planes to do what we cannot do by our body’s ability alone.
The primary purpose of the human baby is, therefore, different from the purpose of a horse. Horses need to be strong and fast to thrive, while human beings need to think and choose well in order to flourish. Traditionally, the word used to describe the qualities of reasoning and choosing well is “virtue.”
This means that the formation of the young human being is especially important: it is not enough that we be fed and exercised sufficiently, like a horse. While our physical growth and nutrition is key, even more important is the formation of our minds and wills in virtue so that we can thrive as human beings. Thus, unlike most other animals, the human being’s formation—also called education—happens optimally within a stable family who attends to the child’s growth in virtue.
The fact that a new child comes about through both a mother and a father contributing half of the child’s DNA is no accident. A very simple life-form has the whole power of reproduction in itself. Why does human generation require two parents who are of different sexes? The two sexes of complex non-human animals contribute genetic diversity, but not much in the way of long-term child-rearing. Yet, while a mare nurses her foal for about half a year, the formation in virtue that human beings need takes much longer. Two human parents are better equipped to educate little human beings in virtue. This is much more challenging than the upbringing required for other animals.
Even more interesting is why the two parents must be of opposite sexes for conception to happen. After all, this requirement for an opposite-sex partner reduces the possible mating field by about half. The necessity of a male and a female for human reproduction reveals is that it is good that the partners be different.
Those differences go as deep as how males and females sense the exterior world. Females tend to see more detail and color, and they also have a better sense of smell and more sensitive hearing. Males have a greater tolerance for noise and odor. Females tend to be risk-adverse with new situations, whereas males usually enjoy risk for its own sake. And so forth. Of course, these differences are averages, with many individual variations. But the differences are statistically significant enough to point to the fact that men and women are not just interchangeable.
The differences circle around the key difference between men and women: each contributes to reproduction differently. Men reproduce through sperm outside themselves, while women reproduce through ova inside themselves. The whole purpose of the category of “sex” (male and female) is to classify these differences in procreation.
The difference in reproduction extends to differences in parenting. Mothers tend to be more emotionally and verbally expressive, with a strong antenna for dangerous situations. Fathers tend to give children more freedom, out of a concern for preparing them for the real world.
Children need both. We know now from several decades of study that children flourish best when they are raised by their married, biological parents in a low-conflict relationship. Further, we also know that both men and women benefit in multiple ways—increased physical and mental health, better finances, greater enjoyment of sex—when they are married.
All of this is to say that the plan of God the Father outlined in the first chapter of Genesis is backed up by human wisdom concerning how men, women, and children thrive in relationships. Of course, sometimes these optimal conditions don’t exist, and we demonstrate considerable ingenuity and resilience in finding work-arounds. But the frequent success of these work-arounds is not an argument against what is optimal.
The point of this digression is to emphasize that sexuality exists within this broader context of human flourishing within relationships. Our culture’s model for sex is two adults expressing themselves sexually without concern for procreating children. But sexuality was never simply a matter of adults, because the children who might be conceived are also part of the equation. In fact, biologically speaking, children are the whole point of sexuality.
Beginning in the twentieth century, we tried to change the rules about sex. Birth control, with abortion as a back-up, was supposed to make sex only about adult enjoyment and not about possible children. It never worked, because all contraceptives have user- and method-failure. And when the birth control fails, then abortion feels necessary. This is why increased contraceptive use among adolescents leads to an increased abortion rate.
Rather than make sex more carefree, what this contraceptive revolution has done is to make sex more stressful, especially for women. Recent revelations of widespread sexual harassment have cast a light on the dirty secret of the sexual revolution: it benefits sexual bullies (mostly men) and puts the weaker party (usually women) at a huge disadvantage. Many women have sex that they don’t really want to have, because the sex is too often seen by them as a means to a relationship, whereas, for their exploiters, the relationship, to the extent one is pursued at all, is a means to the sex.
Not only is the sexual playing field unequal between women and men, so too are the consequences. Men are biologically capable of walking away from a pregnancy in a way that women are not. Even if they choose to abort, women still have to carry out that decision, leaving them vulnerable to the post-abortive trauma reactions that many of them will experience.
All of this makes it unsurprising that many people are simply walking away from relationships altogether. This exodus is facilitated by online pornography, which makes sex a solo affair.
These actions and attitudes arise from treating sexuality as though it is all about recreation and not at all about procreation. God’s plan is something different. Sex is meant to be enjoyable, but its greatest joy comes from existing within a loving and committed relationship ordered to new life.
Pope St. John Paul II explained why. In many works, especially his “theology of the body,” he argues that we are made to give of ourselves. We can only be happy in relationships of self-giving love, relationships that for most people will take the form of marriage. For many others, their self-gift will be made within consecrated celibacy. But whatever the form, we cannot be fulfilled without giving of ourselves. This is how maleness and femaleness are connected to being made in the image of God (Gen 1:27): the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternal relations of self-giving love, while we are meant to imitate that self-gift, beginning in the family.
This truth is expressed in the very structure of our bodies. Because we cannot generate a child on our own, our bodies testify to our incompleteness without relationships of self-giving love. John Paul II calls this the “spousal meaning of the body.” The body witnesses that we are made for love.
This teaching leads not only to the flourishing of the individual but also of society. As noted above, individuals are healthier and wealthier in intact families. This has a cumulative effect, especially important for the more impoverished. Healthy family life serves the common good.
Faithful and fruitful marital love is deepened and perfected in the sacrament of matrimony, which reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church. Ephesians 5 presents the relationship between Christ and the Church as a spousal relationship of bodily self-gift, in which Christ pours himself out in love for the Church, his bride. The eternal relationships of love that are the life and being of the Trinity are translated for us by Christ’s relationship to the Church and then meant to be imitated in every sacramental marriage.
This larger background helps to explain why the freedom to proclaim and live out Catholic teaching on sexuality is so important to the practice of the Catholic religion. The teachings on sexuality are an intrinsic part of a larger vision of the human good and, ultimately, of the triune God himself.
Catholics are called to proclaim the truth by their words and actions. When this proclamation presents counter-cultural messages about the human person and sexuality, it is not to denigrate those who act in ways contrary to the Gospel. Revelation tells us that we are all sinners, and yet we are to love our neighbor. Hate is incompatible with the Gospel. But if a Christian refuses, for example, to provide services at a same-sex wedding, that is not the same as hate. It is, rather, a refusal to give approval to a sexual lifestyle. It is a stance based on principles, not on the persons involved.
This distinction is difficult for our society to appreciate because the sexual revolution has presented sexual desires and actions as constitutive of our persons. In other words, our identity is supposed to come from our sexuality. In fact, it is the other way around: our sexual choices should flow from our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God.
Thus, when the Mississippi pastor decries being treated with disrespect, she has a point, if she is referring to how she is treated as a human being. All persons deserve respect and love. But if she is referring to others’ approval of her sexual choices and lifestyle, she is missing the point that respecting persons is different from respecting their choices. We are not our desires and choices, not even our sexual desires and choices. We are persons who flourish in certain ways and not in others.
Religious Liberty and Authentic Freedom
We tend to think of freedom as the bare right to make choices. On this reading, freedom increases when you have more choices and decreases when you have fewer. Ironically, the limit-point of this way of thinking would mean you would never make any choice at all, because you have the most options in front of you if you never choose any of them!
After a choice, some options necessarily fall away. If I choose to go to college X, I won’t be going to college Y. But this natural narrowing of our choices is a good thing, not a bad thing. It is better to go to college X than to avoid college altogether just because I want to have all my options before me.
This example shows that the freedom to make choices is the beginning, not the end, of freedom. You have the freedom to make a choice so that you can actually choose! But what then is the end or goal of freedom, if not the maximizing of choices? What, in other words, should I choose?
The Second Vatican Council describes the goal of freedom as the good: “Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness.” The free pursuit of the good is willed by God, “so that [the human person] can seek his Creator spontaneously and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him.”
In order to know what the good is, our intellect must engage. This is why both our reason and our freedom are essential to our being “in the image of God,” because reason and freedom must work together to seek God and order our lives to him. As Jesus says, “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). The cooperation between truth and freedom, intellect and will, is what the Council calls “genuine freedom,” rather than the counterfeit freedom-of-many-options.
John Paul II puts it this way: “[O]nly the freedom which submits to the Truth leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth.” Jesus Christ himself is the Truth to whom our lives must conform if we want to be truly fulfilled.
Christ the Truth speaks the truth of how we must live. The moral law is written in our conscience, a voice that leads us well only if we form it correctly by listening more to God through the Church and less to the culture. Vatican II states, “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience.” This law does not apply to Christians only but to all human beings, because the moral law points the way to human flourishing for all.
Ultimately, this submission of freedom to the Truth who is Jesus Christ requires grace. Fortunately, that grace is provided to us in the sacraments. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1). The Church’s liturgical life makes the sacraments available to Catholics.
Thus, when the Church asks for religious liberty, she is asking for the civil liberty to pursue the full freedom given to us in the liturgical and moral law of Christ. First, she needs the freedom to live out her entire liturgical life, because it is in this context that the sacraments are made available to sinners who need them.
Christians, and all people of faith, need the freedom to live out and speak about the moral law to others, so that everyone might be given the possibility of experiencing the truth that will set them free. For people whose identity is wrapped up in their sexual choices and desires, this testimony about the moral good might be received as an attack, but the aim in genuine evangelical activity is only to offer the truth. “On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.”
Lastly, Christians require the freedom to speak to others about the beauty of Jesus Christ. As John Paul II insisted, “To the question, ‘why mission?’ we reply with the Church’s faith and experience that true liberation consists in opening oneself to the love of Christ.” He notes that the New Testament shows that evangelization “was in fact considered the normal outcome of Christian living, to which every believer was committed through the witness of personal conduct and through explicit proclamation whenever possible.”
The good that is the practice of the Christian religion is doubted today, while our culture has no doubt that sexual expression is an inviolable good and right. Further, the culture mischaracterizes as hateful and applies a significant amount of coercion to those who do not agree.
In the face of this pressure, society needs to protect the ability of religious people to speak and act. Christians need the freedom to proclaim their conviction that the good we seek is found in Jesus Christ, who meets us in his Church.
From Human Rights Watch, “‘All We Want is Equality’: Religious Exemptions and Discrimination against LGBT People in the United States,” Feb. 19, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/02/19/all-we-want-equality/religious-exemptions-and-discrimination-against-lgbt-people.
For more information on the average differences between men and women, as this and the following two paragraphs summarize, see Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, second ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 2017); Louann Brizendine, M.D., The Female Brain (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006); Louann Brizendine, M.D., The Male Brain: A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think (New York: Harmony Books, 2011); and Carole Hooven, T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2021). These books are cited for their scientific evidence, not for their moral reasoning, which may be at odds with the Catholic faith.
All quotes in this paragraph from the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, no. 17.
Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, no. 84, emphasis in the original.
Gaudium et spes, no. 16.
Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris missio, no. 39, emphasis in the original.
Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris missio, no. 11.
Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, no. 27.
Angela Franks, PhD, is a theologian, speaker, writer, and mother of six. She serves as Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and as a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge. She is a Life and Dignity Writing Fellow for Church Life Journal, published by the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame.