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Sex and Fasting: They Call it Abstinence for a Reason | Catholic Life

Sex and Fasting: They Call it Abstinence for a Reason

This post is serious, and not sarcastic except for a few hopefully obvious lines.

My parents told us kids a lot about fasting from food and not-a-lot about married people abstaining from sex. This makes sense given the fact that their sexual relationship was none of our business and we didn’t really have any need to think about religious sexual abstinence in our own lives. But we did know that the main reason the Bible addresses married abstinence is for prayer (not avoiding babies, lest the overly-zealous NFP-pushers confuse you).

So while I didn’t actually learn about the Christian tradition of married sexual abstinence until I was in college, I did not feel like I was learning anything. It simply does not make sense to have sex on a day of penance as sex is happy and penitential days are sad. This was intuitive knowledge. It was less obvious to me why there had been so many restrictions on conjugal intercourse on feast days, but the rest of it required no thought on my part. It was simply obviously true, and while I learned various facts from an academic perspective, my faith required no molding.

A few months before I got married my mother made comments about me possibly being a mother within a year. I knew that Josh’s family was likely similarly speculative, and so I told him that if they started asking questions that I didn’t feel like dealing with, I would solemnly tell them that we were so desirous of children that we’d been fasting and praying for them continually from the beginning. This was to be amusing because everybody knows that the implication is that we’d been trying to get a baby from God while never engaging in the act through which God typically grants children. Everyone knows that if you’re fasting you’re not having sex.

I did not learn the truth until I read infertility blogs. Women who thought of themselves as pious Catholics posted publicly about having sex during HOLY WEEK! There was no “we felt called to try to conceive a child during this holy time of penance” or anything else, just a complete lack of concern for anything other than having a baby.

After much denial, I gradually I came to understand that American Catholics really *are* as liturgically clueless as we are so often accused.

When I jokingly mentioned having sex on a Friday I did not think of it as personal. It was a joke and while I don’t ever directly address what I do or don’t do sexually, it doesn’t seem any more intimate to joke about penitential sexual abstinence than it does to Tweet vegetarian recipes with the #FridayFood tag. They may or may not be penitential for me, and I may or may not be fasting in some form or other, but as someone who Tweets random Catholic things it makes sense for me to say things that fit into a context of Christian tradition of penance, right?

While I don’t go around trying to bring back Ember Days or get Western Christians to give up olive oil, I don’t see why anyone would think of sexual abstinence as somehow randomly disconnected from other penance post-Vatican II or whatever. Yes, maybe our catechesis stinks so much that people really think it is fitting to give no thought to the crucifixion on Fridays and Lent is all about giving up chocolate and skipping lunch on Good Friday. But is it possible that our society is really so sexually dysfunctional that we no longer feel the natural connection between penitential days and sexual abstinence?

I don’t care who does what in the bedroom. I am aware of many good reasons for modifying penitential practices to fit into the reality of family life. I just do not understand why people think of standard Christian practice as peculiar or uber-holy or demanding. You don’t have to study Medieval canon law to just know that it isn’t normal to fast from food while indulging in sex. Or do you? Have our norms changed so much that one really must grow up in an extreme-Christian (or at least Eastern Christian) family in order to find abstinence more meaningful than merely skipping meat seven days a year?

These are questions that I don’t really want answered right now. It has been long enough that I’m no longer scandalized by what is apparently the real norm for American Latin Rite Catholics. But not quite enough time has passed for me to accept the Eastern bashing which insists that Westerners are, well, not exactly Christian, when it comes to penance.

So this is the closest I’ll get to a concession for now, and comments are closed.

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