The Church’s message on relationships and sex is tough but also fulfilling

Who is shaping our norms, asks Breda O’Brien

In preparation for the October Synod on the Family, the Irish bishops plan to hold a conference in June to address the ‘disconnect’ between Church teaching and the way people live their lives in families.

 It will be a worthwhile initiative, but I am sure that the bishops know that it will not be anywhere near enough to counteract current cultural trends.

The Church’s teaching on marriage and family is tough, but incredibly fulfilling in the context of a coherent worldview, one based on the idea that God is love, and that he wants our ultimate happiness.

How many people have this worldview today? There was interesting research published recently by the US Pew Foundation, regarding so-called Millennials, people aged between 18 and 33.

While over half of US Millennials believe in God, only a third of them see themselves as a religious person. The figures for belief in God are higher in Ireland. However, it still does not mean that these young people have a relationship with God, much less a relationship with a believing community that influences and challenges them.

Most of us are shaped by societal norms. Who is shaping our norms around family? It certainly isn’t the Church. There are quite weak messages coming from home and parish, with incredibly strong messages coming from various media, particularly online media.

Take some of the most popular social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. All of them are dominated by liberal values, which young people absorb just as easily as they once absorbed Catholic values.

They have formed views long before they have realised that they are being influenced. Their identity is formed by a consumerist culture, where choice and individual freedom are king.

Romantic love

At the moment, the messages are that while family is important, family form is unimportant, and all that matters is love. There is no strong message that currently unhappy marriages can improve if certain skills are learnt.

In fact, the strongest message is that romantic love is the only basis for marriage. Yet while romance is lovely, it will not sustain a relationship for a lifetime. Romance must exist alongside mature commitment and self-sacrifice.

There are utterly confusing and conflicting messages about gender. On the one hand, there is a hyper-sexualisation of identity going on, particularly for young women.

However, there is also a very strong message that there is nothing particularly distinctive about being either male or female, so there is no difference between an opposite-sex relationship and a same-sex relationship, provided that it is loving and consent is freely given.

Sexual mores have changed utterly. Our family watches Call the Midwife, which takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. In one episode, one of the lead characters, Jenny Lee, is very upset when it appears that her boyfriend, Alec, has booked one room for a weekend away, even though they have been going out for months.

Her friend, Trixie, says sagely to her, “You are a modern girl in many ways. He might just be making assumptions.”

The idea of booking separate rooms would be surprising rather than the norm today, if someone agreed to a weekend away.


Scott Stanley, an American family scholar, has an interesting blog post on the impact that earlier sexual relationships and far more sexual partners has on marital happiness. Under the somewhat whimsical title Life before Marriage–does what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas?  he looks at probable outcomes.

The title comes from a popular American saying that what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, in other words, that it is possible to draw walls around experience and move on.

He doubts it very much. He believes that people tend to treat their twenties like Vegas, a period of experimentation and wild behaviour, but expect it to have no impact on long-term happiness.

As he says of people’s expectations: “Multiple serious relationships, sexual hook-ups, cohabiting partnerships, having a child or two—none of this will impact one’s marriage or future relationships, in this view. It’s Vegas.”

But the reality is that while “experiences are not destiny, but cohabitation, having children before tying the knot, and accumulating a large number of sexual partners are reliably associated with greater risks for struggles in marriage.”

So the messages that are being transmitted by our culture today often damage the chances of happy marriages.

On the other hand, though challenging, the Christian worldview enhances the chance of happiness, so the Catholic Church adapting to current cultural trends around pre-marital sex and cohabitation won’t help.

But how can we let people know the life-giving value of the Christian approach, when their minds have often been made up for them long before they realise it? Only through strong, vibrant Christian communities that are actively transmitting a positive worldview, and that is becoming an ever greater challenge.