By Grazie Pozo Christie

Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is a rich and complex document about marriage and family – both the noble Christian ideals and the troubled and broken ways we too often experience them.

Many have interpreted the exhortation’s merciful tone toward Catholics who are in “irregular” situations as a seismic shift in Church teaching about sexuality and marriage (toward a “modern” sexually liberal outlook). They have been brought back to reality by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has published pastoral guidelines on Amoris for the priests of his parish.

His guidelines restate what the Church has always taught about the right ordering of human sexuality. Beautifully and succinctly said: “Catholic belief, rooted in Scripture, reserves all expressions of sexual intimacy to a man and a woman covenanted to each other in a valid marriage. We hold this teaching to be true and unchangeable, tied as it is to our nature and purpose as children of a loving God who desires our happiness.”

This is a courageous and astounding countercultural statement to our modern Western ears. Steeped as we are in a culture sodden with sex, the idea that only some kinds of sexual intimacy can lead to happiness and fulfillment is shocking. And to many it is deeply angering. Chaput’s robust defense of the Christian ideal, his wise reading of Amoris, and his pastoral recommendations for the priests of his parish have been attacked. Even Philadelphia Mayor Kenney was impelled to tweet that he believed Chaput to be “not Christian.”

When Christ laid down the lines of Christian morality more than 2,000 years ago, his audience found it no less troubling. It was shocking to think that a man ought to stay faithfully beside his wife, despite the challenges and difficulties, despite the restless heart that longs for change and something new. It was galling to be told by the upstart prophet that a man who takes a new wife commits adultery, as a writ of divorce cannot invalidate a prior marriage. It was astounding to pagans who heard with wonder that sex, whether with free men, women, children, or slaves, was much more than a delightful pastime. Sex, the apostles maintained, is so deeply momentous in its capacity for creation, in its mutual intimacy, that it must be kept in the dignified and protected space of the marriage bond.

G.K. Chesterton explained this perfectly: “For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication.”

Today’s progressives reject this view with the same vigor as so many of Christ’s contemporaries did. First and foremost in the progressive articles of belief is that the sexual revolution has been a benefit to all humanity. All the evidence to the contrary – the fatherless children, the struggling single mothers, the degradation of women as sex-objects, the legions enslaved as sex-workers, the loneliness and heartache of the sordid hook-up culture – all these things are blithely ignored. Sex is natural and good! Anything that curtails its free expression, like the Church and its teachings, must be unkind and intolerant.

So the Church is endlessly attacked. Chaput’s guidelines are derided, the ACLU vents its spleen in lawsuits against her charities and hospitals, the administration keeps harassing nuns who can’t pay for contraception for their employees, and Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close.

In the face of all this, the Church holds fast to Christian morality in all its purity and wholesomeness, and teaches her sons and daughters to form their consciences according to the truth. As Chaput says: “This is a true work of mercy. It should be undertaken with patience, compassion, and a genuine desire for the good of all concerned, sensitive to the wounds of each person, and gently leading each toward the Lord.” And it really is merciful, to remind us that Christ liberated the world from the tyranny of sex and the bad psychology of sexual liberation 2,000 years ago. And he can do so again.

Grazie Pozo Christie serves on the advisory board for The Catholic Association.