Food and Sex for Human Flourishing

In previous columns, I have been trying to show that the Church approaches moral questions rather differently from the way many people do today, relying neither solely upon the “harm” principle of utilitarianism (Will it “harm” someone else?) nor solely upon the “universalizability” principle of neo-Kantianism (Would this act be always and everywhere wrong?)

The example I proposed had to do with eating: authentically human eating involves at least two important dimensions – a nutritive and a social or communal dimension – neither of which can be stripped away from eating without courting real trouble. 

Eating the wrong sorts of food in the wrong amounts, or eating food simply to get pleasure and then throwing it up, violates the nutritive purposes of eating. 

By the same token, if you scarf down food alone walking to your next meeting, you miss out on a truly wonderful aspect of human eating that makes it most conducive to human flourishing:  sharing meals with others and conversing with them over food and drink.

First and foremost, the Church has a teaching about the nature of human life and human flourishing.  The rules and virtues the Church recommends are all related to the achievement of this full picture of human flourishing.  

Why is eating and throwing up wrong?  Does it “harm” anyone else?  Maybe not, but that isn’t the only thing that makes something “wrong.”  Is it “unhealthy”?  Yes, that’s clear.  But is it always and everywhere wrong to do something unhealthy?  Maybe not.  But again, that isn’t the only thing that makes something “wrong.”  What makes it “wrong” is that it not only is not conducive to human flourishing, it is positively destructive of it.

The question we have to keep asking those who take another view is this: Granted, you might not like the rules and restrictions, but be honest, do you really reject the Church’s vision of human flourishing? Or do you think there might be some wisdom in it?  Is it really better for people to scarf down food alone on the way to their next job? Is a world of excessively thin women with eating disorders really better than a world of women (and men) with a healthy relationship with their bodies and with food?

For the Church, the primary question is not: “What should we prohibit?” but rather:  How can we engage in activities such as eating or sex in such a way as they will be conducive to a healthy, flourishing human life? 

Eating is a perfectly healthy, natural human activity; but does that mean you can eat whatever you like whenever you like?  We all know that, to remain even physically healthy, you have to choose rather carefully the foods you eat, in what quantities, and at what times.  Healthy eating requires the disciplines of wisdom and temperance.

We could also ask the same about sex.  Is sex a perfectly healthy, natural human activity?  Yes.  But does that mean you can have sex anytime in any place with anyone in any way that might titillate your appetites? 

Well, in one sense you can – some people do. But not, as societies have always known, if you want to remain healthy.  By “healthy,” I mean not only “physically free from disease ” – that’s pretty much a no-brainer, like saying “I don’t want my food to poison me” – but also “healthy” in the sense of living a full, happy life. 

Understand that the “good” of authentic human flourishing can certainly (and will certainly, at times) involve pleasure.  But we all recognize that pleasure can sometimes lead us astray:  we eat too much delicious fatty food, we drink too much delightful alcohol, and we don’t get enough painful exercise. 

So too with sex:  It’s not evil because it’s pleasurable.  But because it’s pleasurable, it can lead us astray.  We have to be as wise about making it a part of our lives as anything else.  It will require wisdom and temperance and a clear sense of how one can avoid becoming a slave to it the way one can become a slave to eating or drinking or lazing about on the couch with a beer.

One of the most obvious answers to the question of human flourishing and sex is to recognize that, whatever else sexual intercourse involves, it involves (to put this delicately) the planting of seed in potentially fertile soil.  If the partners in this act are not ready for the potential consequences of the act – that is to say, if they’re not prepared to accept a child that is the fruit of their union – then they’re courting some serious unhappiness.

Is there anything more tragic than two human beings doing that most miraculous thing two humans can do with one another – creating a new human life together – and then having one partner say to the other:  “O dear God, no.  Not that!  Anything but that!”  That we can turn one of the greatest gifts God can bestow upon a couple, a baby, into one of the greatest punishments in life – “Oh no, she’s pregnant!” – shows that something deeply wrong has being going on.

Is the Church really so foolish, then, to suggest that sex should be reserved for a long-term, committed relationship between two people open to the procreation of new life?   How long should that commitment be?  Well, how long will they both together be parents of that child?

I tell young women that when a young man is willing to stand up in front of his friends and parents and your friends and parents and pledge before God, the state, and all present that he agrees to be fully responsible legally and morally for the consequences of the sexual act he aspires to engage in, then and only then should he be considered “ready.” 

Until then, he’s just a boy, and it should be hands off until he grows up.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.