If we're going to talk about sex, let’s really talk about it.
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of my favorite sex-ed book. It’s The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality, by Father Paul Quay, S.J.
Father Quay was born in Arkansas in 1924. He entered the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus on September 1, 1946, and was ordained to the priesthood on June 11, 1961. Quay did a year of post-doctoral research in physics at the Case Institute of Technology and then taught physics and theology at St. Louis University for fourteen years, returning to Chicago in 1981. He died in Chicago at Loyola University on October 10, 1994, at the age of 70.
Fr. Quay’s studies in both theology and physics help to explain why The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality is such a powerful book. Although just over a hundred pages, it contains everything a Christian, or any rational person, needs to know about human sexuality.
Which is not to say there aren’t surprises in the book. When I first came across the book years ago, I was taken aback by two things: Fr. Quay’s fearlessness in stating the obvious about the human body and its symbolism, and his wisdom about sex’s connection to the divine. The chapter “Sexual Intercourse: The Natural World of Love” should be required reading in every high school, Catholic or otherwise.
Libertines and secularists are always shaming those who are embarassed by human sexuality. The human body is beautiful and sex is natural, they say. We shouldn’t fear it.
No we shouldn’t, agrees Fr. Quay. But if we’re going to talk about sex, let’s really talk about it. Does the human body have symbolism? Our every movement and gesture indicates it does. The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality is lyrical, but also blunt: our genitals have symbolic and spiritual meaning.
The man’s genitals are outside of his body, “external and outwardly directed.” This corresponds to a man’s desire to take action outside of himself: “the whole of his life manifests his inner need to take initiative.” Yet man’s other-directed nature means that he can father children with multiple women, even hundreds. This means that in strict biological terms, men are more expendable than women: “Society does not need an individual man, then, the way it needs each individual woman.” The point of marriage is not only stability for children, but to teach men selflessness. They have to channel their other-directness to the care and nurturing of just one person, and then children.
Unlike a man, a woman’s genitals are interior. Her mind may be every bit as brilliant as a man, but her sexual responses are different. She is slower to arousal, more responsive to touch than vision. She also, unlike the man, literally has an empty space inside her where a child can grow: “Sensing the child as the desired filling of that central emptiness that must otherwise remain part of her, a woman is led to find that missing center in a family, and her fulfillment in the raising of children who will be worthy of her love.”
Women are also the first and most important transmitters of cultural values: “The preservation and transmission of culture seems to be universally symbolized by the infant at its mother’s breast, by the children at her knee. For she is called by her nature to nourish them spiritually as well as physically. As her body needs more and better food when nursing, so children turn her mind to draw in all of the more stable and contemplative aspects of the culture, to digest them, and transmit them in forms suitable for her children.”
I was unfortunate enough to have gone to a Catholic high school in the 1980s, when we learned all about the plumbing involved in sex but not the true symbolism of the body or the divine meaning of the conjugal union. All the charts, graphs, feminist tracts and biology books couldn’t capture the reality the way Fr. Quay did:
In sexual intercourse…the woman shows submission and responsiveness, an unfolding, a centering of her attention upon [the man]. She seeks, as an abiding psychological attitude, to draw forth what is best in him, not just from his body but from all levels of his being. Likewise, when the man penetrates her, he focuses all of his activity, all of his substance, all of his responsibility, all of his manhood upon her…The most obvious aspect of sexual union is the pleasure it gives. But even this physical delight, though so strongly and intensely felt in the flesh, symbolizes something beyond itself.