There is an Indian parable that tells of a man who discovers an eagle’s egg abandoned in the forest. He takes it home and places it under a hen, where it hatches and grows up believing it is a chicken.
One day when it has matured it is scratching around in the dirt when it notices a majestic eagle soaring above.
It watches in awe, wondering what it must be like to be such a magnificent bird.
Its fascination is soon interrupted by one of its flightless ‘peers’.
“Don’t even let yourself imagine”, it says. “You’re never going to fly like that.”
The grounded eagle, unaware of its true identity, bows its head in resignation and goes on scratching the earth.
It could be the story of our human sexuality. We have been granted a gift from God that not only allows us to carry His life-giving power within us, but we can joyously express it with another in an intimate union of spiritual and physical self-giving.
Tragically, though, we have separated the bodily function from the spiritual intention and have confined this beautiful gift to its chicken coop equivalent.
Many Catholics pin the blame for the distortion of our true sexual identity on the “revolution” of the 1960’s, which, under the guise of freedom, equated sexuality with self-gratification.
The distortion, however, began before this and the Church perhaps inadvertently contributed to its misunderstanding.
Before the 1960s, the Catholic teachings on sexuality, or at least those that reached the pews and the schools, could themselves be accused of failing to recognise the fullness and beauty of God’s gift of sexuality.
Much of the message that was filtering through to the faithful was one of repression, prohibition and fear.
The Church, it seemed, did not fully understand the wonderment and majesty of sexuality as an expression of God’s life-giving love and consequently presented it in a package more aligned to the chicken coup rather than the awesomeness of the eagle.
The explosion of sexual “freedom” and expression ignited in the 60s should have therefore come as no surprise.
God placed within us his power to create life – an element that the pre-60s Church acknowledged. However, he also allowed us to express it to one another in a way that is also life-giving to our spouse, in the ultimate expression of love – a love founded on commitment and self-sacrifice – and this was the dimension that the Church at the time did not express adequately.
With the fullness of his gift repressed and within the context of a society seeking to distance itself from God’s perceived shackles, the pendulum of sexual understanding consequently swung to its polar opposite.
Tragically, however, as people searched for a way to express their biological instincts, all they managed to do was shift their sexual understanding from one chicken coop to another.
By removing God from the equation, people were guided only by their personal urges and desires and when widespread use of contraception was added to the mix, it ultimately led to a society driven by self-gratification, rather than self-giving.
The consequences of confining sexuality to physical pleasure and separating it from its spiritual foundation and life-giving potential, has inevitably led to the skyrocketing of pornography, sexual assaults, pre-marital sex, affairs, broken marriages, sexual disease, the increased sexualisation of music and media and an ever expanding diversity of sexual identity.
At the time the Church was contending with her own upheaval in the form of Vatican II and struggled to respond to the swing of the sexual pendulum.
The teachings filtering down to the Catholic pews and schoolyards during the sexual tsunami of the 1970s still did not reflect the beauty and intimacy that God had intended.
Contraception, pornography and masturbation were said to be “evil”, but it wasn’t adequately explained why. The fact that they triggered the belief that sexuality equates to self-gratification and that this would be carried into all future relating, in both attitude and action, was not clearly conveyed. The Christian understanding that love is self-sacrificial and therefore entails the giving of oneself, rather than receiving, was not effectively transplanted into the arena of sexuality.
It was only in the 1970s and 80s, when Pope John Paul II gave a series of talks that became known as the Theology of the Body, that the faithful where provided with the opportunity to discover the joy, fulfilment and true freedom of sexuality as God intended.
This pope was able to outline, in far more elegant words than my own, the reasons why we become imprisoned within “chicken coops” when we divorce our sexual nature from its spiritual context.
But, more importantly, he has provided us with the opportunity to embrace the fullness of God’s awesome and wonderful gift, so that we can now soar far above the world’s understanding of sexuality – with the wings of an eagle.