Consenting to Sex

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Recent news articles exploring the post-#MeToo world of romance have noted the phenomenon of cell phone “consent apps,” allowing millennials to sign digital contracts before they have sex with their peers, sometimes strangers they have just met. Many of these apps are being refined to include a panic button that can be pressed at any time to withdraw any consent given. Lawyers reviewing the practice, as might be anticipated, have urged caution, noting that consent apps are not able to provide definitive proof of consent, because feelings may “change throughout an evening, and even in the moments before an act.”

When we look at modern views about sex, it’s not a stretch to sum them up this way: as long as two consenting adults are involved, the bases are covered. When it comes to “sex in the moment,” consent is touted as key, allowing for almost all mutually-agreed upon behaviors or practices.

Yet this approach to sex is fundamentally flawed, and it’s often the woman who is the first to notice. Even when consenting unmarried couples scrupulously use contraception, there remains an awareness, particularly on the part of the woman, that a pregnancy could follow, and a concern about who will be left holding the bag if that were to happen. Sex between men and women involves real asymmetries and vulnerabilities, with men oftentimes being, in the words of sociologist Mark Regnerus, “less discriminating” in their sex drives than women, eager to forge ahead as long as there appears to be some semblance of consent. Women often sense, rightly, that consent for a particular sexual act ought to be part of something bigger, a wider scope of commitment.

Consenting to sex, of course, signifies the surrendering of our self to another. Sex ultimately speaks of giving our self, and receiving another, in a total, rather than a fragmentary way. This is part of the reason why this unique human activity holds a perennial fascination for us; it goes far beyond other forms of communication, exchange, and bonding. To give our self fully to another, and to receive that person fully, forms a bond with them that extends beyond the morning dawn. Human sexual union is not a mere joining of bodies, but is preeminently a joining of human hearts. It is, at its core, consenting to share one of the deepest parts of our self with another. As Dr. Angela Franks has perceptively noted:

Sexuality is not simply a matter of something that I have, as though my body is another possession just like my wallet or my car. If, as Gabriel Marcel said, I am my body, then sexuality has to do with my very person, which has a deep value. To use the language of Pope John Paul II, when a person is reduced to being merely an object for another’s desire, then the experience violates the core of one’s sense of self.

In casual sexual encounters, the consent we give each other may seem sincere and genuine, expressing our desires within the moment, but this kind of consent is largely transactional and temporary. By consenting to pre-marital or extra-marital sex, we declare, in effect, that we are giving ourselves, our bodies and our hearts to each other, although in truth, our giving remains partial and conditional, and we may be out the door the next morning or the next month. Our consent, limited and qualified as it is, amounts to little more than an agreement to use each other as long as it’s convenient, and when the break up occurs, we are hurt, because we thought we had something special, even though we didn’t really want to commit to anything special.

In the final analysis, human sexual activity calls for something much deeper and more abiding than mere transactional consent, namely, the irrevocable and permanent consent of spouses. Professor William May describes it this way:

In and through his act of marital consent… the man, forswearing all others, has given himself irrevocably the identity of this particular woman’s husband, while the woman, in and through her self-determining act of marital consent, has given herself irrevocably the identity of this particular man’s wife, and together they have given themselves the identity of spouses. …Husbands and wives, precisely because they have given themselves irrevocably to each other in marriage, have established each other as irreplaceable, non-substitutable, non-disposable persons and by doing so have capacitated themselves to do things that non-married individuals simply cannot do, among them to ‘give’ themselves to one another in the act proper and exclusive to spouses—the marital act—and to receive the gift of life.

Through the enduring commitment of marital consent, a man and a woman establish the foundation for personal sexual consent. In the absence of that larger marital commitment, all other consents, even with legalized authorization or electronic notarization, ring hollow.

COMING UP: Past 25 years remembered, next 25 anticipated at More Than You Realize conference

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“Be not afraid!”

This was the rallying cry at the Aug. 11 More Than You Realize conference, echoing the very same call St. John Paul II gave exactly 25 years ago when he visited Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.

Over 5,000 faithful from across the Archdiocese of Denver filled the seats of the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland at what was the largest Catholic gathering in Colorado since WYD ’93. The all-day conference was presented in both English and Spanish tracks, featured a dynamic lineup of renowned Catholic speakers, and culminated in a powerful commissioning Mass.

The name More Than You Realize and consequently, the logo resembling an eyechart, stems from the idea that almost everything may appear a certain way at surface level, but upon closer inspection, it can be more than one realizes and seen in a different light. This is especially true when it comes to the Catholic Church.

Over 5,000 gathered at the Budweiser Events Center Aug. 11 for the More Than You Realize conference, which celebrated the last 25 years since World Youth Day in Denver and looked to the next 25. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

In planning for nearly two years, pastors from each parish of the archdiocese hand-picked those parishioners and members of their community who they wished to attend the conference, which revolved around the idea of discipleship. Through engaging videos and talks given by speakers such as Chris Stefanick, Luis Soto and Dr. Edward Sri, attendees were invited to join a new movement of discipleship within the archdiocese, echoing the one sparked 25 years ago at World Youth Day.

“[I] had a great rejuvenating time at the More Than You Realize Conference,” said Alex Martinez, a parishioner at St. Pius X Parish. “I am excited to see the MTYR movement take shape.”

Brenda Garrett, a parishioner of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception said, “It was an amazing event, so blessed my pastor Father Ron from the Cathedral Basilica sent me. I am so proud to be part of this movement.”

The key to evangelization

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford spoke before Mass began about the impact of World Youth Day 1993 and the challenges the Church faces today.

“What does the summer of ’93 teach us about our present circumstances in 2018?” the cardinal asked. “The Holy Spirit was sent out in a special mission to our Church in 1993. The power of that sending was unexpected and disorienting to me as archbishop and to most others.”

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford speaks during the More Than You Realize conference. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

But despite urban violence, threats of boycotts, organized protests and other issues prior to World Youth Day 1993, “a fundamental change took place in the Church of Denver,” said Cardinal Stafford, “but not only here — among the young people who came throughout the world, [and] even the Holy Father.

“Above all, our Church was transformed,” he said.

Cardinal Stafford said that to evangelize those who don’t know the Gospel, we first need “…a deep awareness of the delight of the Father taking in each of us as baptized men and women,” he said.

“I would urge you to think deeply and to pray deeply about realizing how delighted God is in you — each of you — because you are received by the Father as being [part of] the body of his Son, who is beloved.”

‘Jesus is much more than you realize’

In his homily given in both English and Spanish, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila also touched on what World Youth Day 1993 means for us today.

“The world likes to tell us many things about ourselves,” he said, “and not many of them today are good or uplifting. Just look at the distorted image of beauty that is prevalent today, let alone the distortions of what it means to be a human person…

“The devil is certainly having a field day in a world that has abandoned God, and even in some members of the Church who have a weak faith in Jesus,” he said.

But despite similar issues taking place in 1993, the pope brought to Denver a message of hope.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrates the commissioning Mass that closed out the conference. (photo by Andrew Wright)

“When St. John Paul II spoke to the youth gathered for the prayer vigil on Saturday night at Cherry Creek State Park, he reminded them that God and a much bigger role for them to play in history,” said Archbishop Aquila.

That message is just as important today, within an archdiocese and Church that stand at a crossroads, the archbishop said.

“We have an opportunity to make a major impact for Jesus Christ, even as the surrounding culture is becoming less Christian.”

The pope opened the doors for those who attended to become greater disciples of Christ — not just directly after World Youth Day, but forever.

“St. John Paul II believed in retrospect that a revolution had taken place in Denver,” said the archbishop. “We, today, are the inheritors of this spiritual revolution, and we must not be afraid to put out into the deep to let our nets down for a catch.

“Jesus is much more than you realize. The Church is more than you realize. And your role in the plan of God is much more than you realize or [can] even imagine,” he said.

“And so, I beg you as your shepherd today to open your hearts to Jesus and speak heart-to-heart with him who loves you most.”

Aaron Lambert, Moira Cullings and Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.