A few weeks ago, I sat down in the Carey Auditorium in Hesburgh Library keen to listen to a talk on “Catholicism and a Culture of Consent.” I wondered how speaker Dr. Donna Freitas might approach these two topics. I wondered how her talk might address causes behind the plague of sexual assault on campuses, including our own. I hoped her talk might present the beauty of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality in the midst of a culture that seeks to reduce and reinvent the meaning of sex—or deny that it has any meaning at all.
I found myself nodding in agreement as Freitas spoke of the harmful ambivalence towards intimacy and one’s partner promulgated by the hookup culture, which she described as a “competition not to care.” The narcissistic, self-emptying hookup culture teaches people that it is normal to objectify themselves and others. To address sexual assault, she said, we must address this harmful culture.
Moved by Freitas’ explanation of ambivalence as a form of suffering particular to our day and age, I was eager to hear how Catholicism might counteract indifference and selfishness.
She proposed that the solution to ambivalence lies in teaching consent, the foundation for healthy relationships. Consent is about caring about the other and, according to her, “reaches to the core of who we are as people.” Catholics should care about consent as a social justice issue. In the question-and-answer session, she said, “There are different attitudes about sex and what is good or not within the context of the Catholic tradition” and that it is “simply unrealistic” to hope and expect everyone to be abstinent until marriage in the midst of a sexually permissive culture.
I hoped for and expected more, and I was disappointed.
I was disappointed that Freitas was not concerned that exclusively using language of consent fundamentally restricts our ability to educate students about the harms of abusing their sexuality. To be sure, obtaining consent is a crucial step. Yet from the Catholic perspective, it is not an all-encompassing step—there is more to sex than obtaining consent. Simply put, two people may consent to an activity that is not conducive to their flourishing. Consent is descriptive and entails agreement and permission; it does not itself establish normative behavior.
Consent-based education can easily harbor an impoverished view of human sexuality, one that entertains a view of the human person as essentially reducible to an input-output machine of yeses or nos In a culture of consent, does it matter whether or not you know and care about the good of the other? Not necessarily—so long as you are in agreement and grant permission for the activity.
I was disappointed that an impoverished view of sex and sexuality as reducible to obtaining permission for activities was offered instead of the truth that is sex and sexuality are irreducibly laced and graced with meaning as gifts from God. If sex is simply about consent, why does it have to have to mean something? Can two partners just choose to agree on its meaning? What happens when they stop agreeing?
I was disappointed by the insinuation that practicing chastity—the virtue pertaining to the integrity of the human person and the proper integration of the gift of sexuality—is simply too difficult. I was disappointed with the suggestion that remaining abstinent until marriage is just one choice among many that a Catholic may make regarding his or her sexuality. I was disappointed that the dominant cultural narrative—that abstinence until marriage is to be met with an eye roll, for it is deeply and terribly restrictive and all but impossible in a sexually permissive culture—was left unchallenged.
Perhaps I expected too much. Freitas is primarily a researcher who conducts studies on college campuses and presents her findings; she is not a Catholic theologian. Perhaps through no fault of her own, her talk, entitled “Catholicism and a Culture of Consent” and part of the Gender Relations Center and Campus Ministry’s series “SEXuality and Faith,” was advertised as espousing a Catholic perspective while in fact she did not necessarily intend for it to do so. Yet it remains fruitful to consider what was missing from her talk given that it was billed in such a way and given that it parallels deficiencies in the university’s approach to sex and sexuality.
My frustration and disappointment with the talk pales in comparison to the talk’s offering of despondency and resignation to failure at living out the Church’s teaching on sex. Regardless of our struggles and shortcomings, we are all called to strive to practice chastity. Desperate cynicism that resigns itself to failure is not only deeply troubling but is also antithetical to Christian hope. Where might the Church’s teachings on the gift and beauty of sexuality be respected and practiced if not here at a Catholic university?
Let us turn to words of hope in the Second Vatican Council constitution named after that virtue, Gaudium et Spes: “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for his own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self” (24).
We do not find ourselves through the contractual language of consent but through self-giving love in which and for which we are made.
Self-giving love, which is the true contrary to the hookup culture, frees us to choose the good for ourselves and for others. Authentic love is not fundamentally about consent, but about knowing and pursuing the good of the other—even if they themselves do not know or care to pursue it. For example, I am glad my mom corrected me when I attempted in my preschool days of hoped-for acrobatic glory to leap from the highest monkey-bar. Today, I may be able to consent to a variety of sexual activities, but this does not mean these activities are good for me.
Love sometimes makes us uncomfortable because it forces us to encounter what is truly good and ultimately most fulfilling for us, not just what we immediately want. Love means intervening when we try to perform activities harmful to ourselves or to others, whether this is bounding from the monkey bars or bounding into behavior that hurts others and ourselves. Love places what might be seen as demands on us—but demands that free us by reminding us that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and only forming ourselves to this truth will bring true happiness.
Beyond this talk, I hope that Notre Dame might cherish and teach this truth to her students. Catholicism means rejecting the dominant culture’s permissive view of sex that anything goes—so long as there is consent. But Catholicism also means rejecting a puritanical view of sex as irretrievably smeared with the dirty fingerprints of sin. For “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Catholicism means affirming that sexuality is a gift, a very good gift that can be used for a wide register of virtue or vice.
Restricting education around sexuality and sex to consent-based policies does not reach the core of who we are as persons. Human persons are not reducible to a yes-no binary. The core of who we are as persons is that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are created in and for love. We are persons meant to encounter and to be encountered in relationship. We are meant to be gifts to each other.
Sexuality and sex are not blank slates into which we can indifferently inscribe meaning. Sexuality is deeply expressive of who we are as created in the image of the Triune God and therefore meant for relationship. Sex is a gift, and only in the context of the comprehensive self-gift of marriage can this gift be given.
I hope that the university might better educate us on the Church’s teachings about sex—or at the very least, expose us to this teaching. Notre Dame is failing its students if she fails to teach the truth of sexuality. The truth that we are meant to be gifts to each other is more important than any formula we learn, book we read, or paper we write while at Notre Dame.
We are called to witness to the beauty and wisdom of this teaching, not shy away from it or be embarrassed by it. We are called to joyfully live it out. To be sure, this is not easy—but why should it be?
C.S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Let us not settle for a reduction of who we are, but let us wrestle with the anxieties of our embodiedness. We have the capacity for concupiscent straying of entangled desires, yet we have the capacity for the beautiful, expressive, creative power of rightly-directed desire towards the good of others and ourselves—that is, desire that finds its rest in God. The sacramentality of our embodiedness means that when we give ourselves away in love as a gift, we image and point to the kenosis of Divine Love. Through giving ourselves away in love and performing charity we move in harmony with the symphonic glory of self-giving Divine Love.
This is the consent that reaches to the core of who we are as persons: fiat to self-giving Love.
Stephanie Reuter is a junior studying PLS. The Jeweler’s Shop, Pope St. John Paul II’s three-act play about three couples, has been lingering on her “To-Read” list for far too long. Encourage her or swap reading recommendations at firstname.lastname@example.org.