Rage against the Church all you want. Following her teaching on sex is the only way to be honest with ourselves and each other. Stray from it, and a deep need within will go unfulfilled.
“I need to know that your love is a love I can be sure of.”
Elton John said his favorite pop song was Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 “I Can’t Make you Love Me.” It is such a bittersweet song, and its bittersweetness stems from the fact that a total mutual gift cannot be one-sided. When only one partner means “You. And only you. Forever,” the sadness engenders the pure angst and soul-surrendering resignation distilled in this song, whose cords longingly lilt towards resolution. If “I’ll feel the power, but you won’t,” then what I am saying with my gift of self is not being heard. I am shouting into the darkness of incomplete acceptance. I know you won’t love me tomorrow.
I may choose to exercise my freedom and give of myself fully.
But the other person is also free. A mutual gift of self is not a one-sided choice. It is by definition the fruit of a shared choice. Respecting the freedom of the other person is integral to fully human love (thus sex procured via lies, money, drugs or violence does not rise to the level of fully human love).
To desire this type of authentic human union, to declare one’s intention is to put one’s own self out there big time. It is spiritual nakedness before it is physical nakedness. It is the height of human vulnerability. As Billie Joel sings in “And So it Goes,” “I would choose to be with you / That’s if the choice were mine to make / But you can make decisions too / And you can have this heart to break.”
The choice is not only mine, or only yours. It must be a mutual decision. Before I give my whole self, “I need to know that your love is a love I can be sure of.” Do you want “Me. And only me. Forever”?
Carole King’s classic is a poetic proof of the Church’s stance on premarital sex. Before the “words unspoken” must come the spoken words that declare a mutual commitment, a mutual promise of a gift of self that will last forever.
The fact that this type of commitment is still desired even in a society that seems to reject traditional marriage is evidenced by John Legend’s “All of Me” hitting number one in recent weeks. (The beautiful woman in the video is in fact his wife, whom he married after seven years together. It makes the bed scenes somewhat better for him to have made but probably not much better for me to watch. However, the video ends with actual footage from their wedding, backed by nothing but glorious silence).
“All of me loves all of you.” Yes. Totally. And that "all" means my past present and future, all my strengths, and even the weaknesses I am striving to correct, as I also strive to love even your weaknesses (the song’s “perfect imperfections.")
Fully human love calls us to a very high standard. So conscious of our own weakness, we can almost despair at reaching such a height, even when we recognize our own need of it. Even from a purely natural standpoint, without the aid of revelation, I see in this a sign that points to marriage being not only a natural institution but needing to be elevated to a sacrament. God’s strength and God’s grace and God’s love need to be involved for our love to reach its perfection.
If you know yourself to be as weak as I know myself to be, then neither of our loves is truly a “love we can be sure of.” And yet, we are doubling down with our entire selves on our admittedly weak capacities to love each other. Want to know what you are really feeling with pre-wedding jitters? You’re peering into the gaping crevice in your own heart. You’re staring into the abyss of human limitedness — and it’s scary!
Before giving ourselves totally in the physical gift of sex, fully human love demands that we declare to each other and to the world our commitment to each other. All the better if, to honor this commitment and not break the heart of our beloved, we call down the blessing of God himself, the only love we can be fully sure of. He will set a seal on our heart. And our mutual self-gift will be fruitful in the healing of our own brokenness, as it also opens to new life.
The Church’s teaching on the true nature of human love rings true with the poets and prophets of our age on airwaves and iPods everywhere. It affirms the echoes within our own hearts, broken by sin and jaded by lowered expectations. God is love in an eternal present.
The only valid answer to “Will You Still Love me Tomorrow?” is to echo God’s answer, which is not “I will” but “I do.”
Edward Mulholland is Assistant Professor of Classical and Modern Languages at Benedictine College.