BTW, SM, I want to tell you that I really appreciate your openness to discussion on these matters. I hope this post doesn't come off as patronizing. I think most people think Catholic views on sexuality are repressive and have more to do with guilt than healthy shame or love. While some of us may certainly have unhealthy views of sex, the doctrine of the faith has a very healthy view of sex. Anyhoo, here's the original post:
The difference in our perpectives is tied to our different world views, which are informed by our belief systems. I would assume, as an atheist, that you're also a materialist. From a materialist perspective, you can't really go beyond the immediate act to some greater reality. Your sex life has meaning (if it has meaning) because it's tied to something in the here-and-now that you value—in your current case, your marriage; in previous cases, sexual satisfaction. In your married life, it can have the additional impact of continuing your family line. However, that's still a purely temporal concern.
That's not how it works in Catholic thought (with an eye toward natural law). Sex is tied to marriage because sex is tied to procreation. (I'm sure I haven't surprised you there.) From a biological perspective, you cannot say that the pleasure is tied to sex for its own sake. It's clearly a means of motivation, just as appetite is a means to motivate us to eat. However, just as misusing the appetite of hunger can cause emotional and physical harm, so can the misuse of the sexual appetite.
However, procreation and its motivating factors are only part of the picture. We believe that marriage is necessary to provide a stable environment in which to raise children. Part of that stability comes from the bonding that takes place during the sexual act—a bonding that acts on a spiritual level, as well as a chemical, neurological level (see oxytocin and vasopressin). On a spiritual level, a permanent bonding takes place in the sacrament of marriage, and it is reinforced during the sexual act. Marriage is described in Genesis 2 as a cleaving of man to woman. (I'm sure, as a writer, you can appreciate the duality of that word "cleave" given that Eve was first taken from Adam). This scripture is one on which the sacramentality and indissolubility of marriage in the Cathoic church is based. A marriage isn't created solely by the whims of two individuals. It's created by God. As Christ said, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mt 19:6).
So sex is a spiritual act, and in the Catholic mind, having enaged in sexual behavior outside of marriage means a misuse of a spiritual act, the misuse of a sacred gift. It offends God because it uses a natural thing unnaturally. It also wounds the other spiritually, whether he or she recognizes the wound. When someone returns to the Catholic faith sincerely, they (meaning "I") look back on these acts not as meaningless activities but as betrayals of trust, as sins against our neighbors, and as wounds to our own spirituality.
A final thought...
While many Catholic Christians certainly have shame and remorse for our past sins, it would be a mistake to assume that all of us simply fear eternal retribution. Yes, we recognize an ultimate judgement, but that's not what our remorse is about. Just as one always regrets hurting a loved one, we regret our offences to God and to our brother and sister—not because of fear but because of love. Our role as Christians is to will and hope for the best outcome for everyone, and where we have hindered that end, we are culpable. While we may be granted mercy, leading someone else to the wrong choice results in an eternal loss. When we mourn our past failings, this is part of our grief.
[Technorati tags: Christianity, Catholic, Catholicism, Church History]