Michael Pakaluk: Sex as Play

Anti-Fragile Christianity
August 22, 2018
U.S. Bishop: Clerical Abuse is ‘Predominately Homosexual Behavior’
August 22, 2018

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Michael PakalukOkay, now that I’ve gotten your attention with this title, can we discuss ideas?   I assume that ideas are always connected with what we do.  Either our actions follow from our ideas, or we choose ideas that make our actions appear reasonable.  Call the former principles and the latter ideology.

Here’s one such idea: sex is play.  Might that idea be connected with the sex abuse crisis?  For the moment, put aside what that assertion could mean.  Simply ask: suppose someone believed that sex is play. Well, we play sports and games with young men and children all the time.  So, if sex is play, why wouldn’t we “play sex” with them?

If you believed that sex is play – and it’s undeniably great fun as play – then you might take yourself to be justified in assuming that others will enjoy “playing it” just as much as you do.  You might even initiate the “play” to see if they will “play along” – just as one way to see whether someone will start playing catch with you is to toss him a ball.

You balk at the idea that sex is play.  But let’s step back and ask: What could make sex something other than play?  Plato contrasted the serious with the playful.  What could serve instead to place sex in the category of the “serious”?

The possibility of procreation certainly does that.  A man and a woman hook up just once at a certain time of the month, and, assuming that we hold them responsible for their actions and rule out abortion, they are now on the hook for twenty years of feeding, clothing, and educating another human being, best accomplished by the two of them together.

That task of upbringing becomes the main test of their success as human beings and therefore of their genuine happiness.  From a religious point of view we say they will be accountable before the throne of God for the well being of that child.  If these things are not serious, then nothing is serious.


But suppose the couple uses contraception? – Pregnancy still remains a possibility with nearly all forms of contraception.  Or suppose they are sterile? – But that is the point of saying they are engaging in a “reproductive act,” that is “an act such as to reproduce, assuming everything is healthy.”

Their act is duly “serious” because it is reproductive.  The intention of the Creator for sex holds sway. Another way of putting the point is that, if the reproductive character did not give the meaning of what they were doing, then a sterile couple would be condemned to nothing more than “play” in their sexual relations.  Equivalently: the Church’s teaching on contraception is a safeguard of the nuptial significance of sex for a sterile couple.

But then what about same-sex acts, not reproductive to be sure.   What makes these “serious” and not “play”?

We omitted to say that sex is made serious, too, by the emotional bonding that it can evoke.  Probably such bonding is ultimately traceable, too, to the procreative character of sex.  In any case, women rather than men seem to be mainly affected by it.  Men are famous for being able to view sex as having no point beyond itself – like play.   So take same-sex acts between males as the best candidate for sex as play.

Clearly, the only way to infuse seriousness into such acts is to connect them to procreation, which is done by the language such as “objectively disordered.”  To say this is to say: here too the intention of the Creator holds sway, no matter how deeply felt, how closely identified with a person, or how inevitable same-sex attraction may seem.

The sexual organs are procreative and to be used only for procreative acts within marriage, the sole rational institution for raising children. In contrast, to say that homosexual acts are “differently ordered” is to break the connection with procreation and turn sex into play.  Or if we are free by convention to classify sex acts however we wish, we are free to view sex as play, if we wish.

I am not just tracing out logical connections here, as a thought exercise, invidiously ascribing them to others. I am unfolding the ideas of then-Jesuit theologian, John J. McNeill, whose 1976 book, The Church and the Homosexual was a “founding document” in the movement which today is advanced by the likes of Fr. James Martin.  McNeill’s fullest statement of his view is found in a 2008 book, Sex as God Intended: A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play.

In that book, McNeill attacks “the traditional work-related sexual ethics based on procreation,” which “destroys the play value of sex and reduces the partners to workers interested solely in seeking a future product from a present action.”  The gay community has a superior understanding of sex, he says, as it has rediscovered the ideal, from the Song of Songs, of sex as play.  It turns out, the only ethical limitation on sex as play is to avoid self-centeredness.  If compassionate acceptance of the other is present, then sex as play is free to flourish as a search for God.

“The search for sexual fulfillment is thus one manifestation of a search for union with God.  And achieving that intimacy results in intense pleasure, both physical and spiritual.  In fact, the Song of Songs makes the claim that in sexual climax there can be an experience of God him/herself.  ‘The flash of it is a flash of fire, it is the breath of Yahweh himself.’”

Suppose your neighborhood priest loves this book?

To be chaste is to reserve sex for a complete gift of self to another in marriage.  It is as difficult as any virtue, and yet, with the grace of God, many couples, single persons, and celibates do live it. Admittedly, it looks “rigid” in comparison with the unboundedness of “sex as play.”  But we want people – and priests – who correctly see sex as serious.


*Image: The Combat of Love and Chastity by Gherado di Giovanni del Fora, c. 1490 [National Gallery, London]

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children.