Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sex and Truth

We wrote previously about NFP and Church Authority and also about NFP and Truth. In this final post in the series, we'd like to talk about sex: what it is and what it isn't.

There is some problematic thinking about sex which is common among a certain stripe of Catholic today, thinking which is in some ways a reaction to an equal and opposite set of errors that were common perhaps fifty years ago. What I mean by this is perhaps best summed up by a class on the Theology of the Body which MrsDarwin and I attended perhaps ten years ago. The speaker was an unmarried young woman who worked for the diocesan office of evangelization, and as she began the class she said: "There's no greater happiness that we'll ever experience, no greater love, than when we're united with God in heaven. And you know what thing on earth is the closest that we'll ever get to that perfect unity with God's love in heaven? When a husband and wife have sex. In fact, really, those of you who are married, I don't even know why you're here right now. You could be home having sex right now and experiencing God much more directly than you will here listening to me."

Let's give the young thing credit and assume that she knew not of what she spoke. MrsDarwin and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.

I'm glad that there has been good theological thinking and writing done over the last few decades looking at how the act of spouses having sex is not merely an expression of controlled lust or a way to have children, but a means of husband and wife physically expressing their love for each other and openness to the children who may come to them. John Paul II's book Love & Responsibility is particularly good and readable in this regard. The Wednesday Audiences collected under the title Theology of the Body proceed to incorporate this thinking in a wider understanding of the human person and it place within salvation history, but if you strictly wanting to read about how spouses deal with each other and with sex virtuous, I think that Love & Responsibility is more focused and readable.

However, like any useful and exciting line of thinking, people quickly began to take it too far. This isn't a fault of John Paul II's thought, and I don't want this post to be seen as a wholesale rejection of theology of the body. However, treating any good as the greatest good is wrong even if the good itself is genuine, and this is what I think we begin to see when people attempt to give sex a significance and power beyond its nature.

This becomes an issue when people then face the possibility that even as a married couple they may need to voluntarily abstain for a time from sex in order to avoid having having for children for a time. I've heard it argued, by people who believe that Catholic couples should be given permission to use artificial contraception in such circumstances, that it's wrong to ask a married couple to abstain from sex for a time because sex is the highest expression of married love. The analogy put forth in this case was that asking a married couple to abstain from sex for a time would be like asking a priest to abstain from saying mass.

So let's take a honest look at sex. Under the title of "having sex" fall acts which are (or in some cases simulate in sensation) the human reproductive act. Biologically sex has an inherently reproductive character. (If it didn't, we wouldn't be having these angst-ridden conversations stemming from people are worried about getting pregnant but still want to have sex.) However, it is also an intensely pleasurable experience and it provides a feeling of closeness between the couple. Looking at the place of sex in the natural world, this also fits with the reproductive nature of sex, in that young humans take a long time to rear and so closeness between the parents (not just at the time of conception but for many years afterwards) if of great importance to all involved.

In Catholic terms, these two aspects of sex are called its procreative and unitive dimensions. And these two aspects, the unitive and procreative, are what make sex such a powerful metaphor. This is, after all, the somewhat amazing thing from a religious perspective, that the thing we as a couple want to do in order to express our love for each other, can in the process of the physical expression of that love result in the creation of a new and unique human being. Our love can, metaphorically, be given human form as a person capable of acting and loving and being united one day with God in heaven as befits a creature made in the image of God.

And yet, for all that this makes sex a great metaphor for God's creative love that generates the world and all of us, let's also have a little realism about what sex is actually like. For starters, men and women in general, and individual spouses in particular, do not usually advance towards climax at the same speed or in the same way. Indeed, one of the ways in which both spouses need to show some generosity and love for each other in the way that they have sex is by taking into account that the other is often not going to be advancing simultaneously.

This need to think of the other and have consideration for them is in fact often talked about enthusiastically by theology of the body popularizers. It's pointed to as a way in which spouses being virtuous (and thus generous to each other) in their approach to the act of having sex itself results in better sex. This is true, in the basic sense that the couple will often have more fulfilling sex if each is conscious of looking after the other's needs. And yet, this is often simplified optimistically to something approaching a magazine headline in the checkout aisle" "more virtuous sex is more amazing sex!". True to a point, but one must also keep in mind our all-too-imperfect human bodies.  The fact is, no matter how determined you are to to be generous to your spouse, you cannot make your spouse come by sheer force of will. There will be times when you are quite simply, physically, out of sync: where one of you is much more easily aroused than the other, when you're not in the same mood, when things aren't just working. This isn't because you lack generosity or virtue, it's because our bodies are imperfect and they don't always do what we want them to do.

Add to this that while sex absolutely has a strong unitive dimension, the experience of it (like any extremely strong bodily sensation) has an isolating aspect as well. Sex at and near its climax is so bodily that one's awareness of the other is heavily filtered through one's own sensation. The end result of having had sex is usually a sense of profound unity, but only after passing through stages in which the sensations of one's own body far outweigh the awareness of the other. After all, it is because the most intense aspects of sex are experienced oneself that sins such as pornography, masturbation, and prostitution have such a draw. While they may not offer the full experience of being united with another in passion, they do easily provide enough of the individual enjoyment of sex to be sought after.

What does this have to do with anything? My aim here is not to run sex down or suggest that it's not an important part of marriage. Indeed, the Church considers sex to be an important enough part of marriage that you cannot validly contract a Catholic marriage if you are physically incapable of having sex.

However, I do think it's important to have some realism about sex in order to develop a proper understanding of what it does and does not mean for a couple to have to be moderate at times in their sexuality. Sex is not the only way that a married couple can show love to each other. Indeed, at some times it is not even the best way to show love for each other. And while only a married couple can morally have sex, that does not mean that they must or can have unlimited sex without consideration for any other factor once they are married.

When we marry, we promise to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. That promise will almost certainly mean periods during which sex is not good, healthy, or perhaps even possible. People should keep this in mind before making arguments like, "NFP is an occasion of sin for some couples. Sometimes they just have to use contraception because otherwise the husband is going to end up using porn or being unfaithful." I was appalled some years ago when I read a piece about marital infidelity in which the author said a common time for a man to become unfaithful was right after his wife had had a baby. How could anyone do that? And yet that is a period during which the wife physically needs to heal for several weeks before being ready to have sex again, and at the same time has much of her attention taken up by an engaging little creature who is not her husband.

Virtue is a habit to the good. If a couple finds it impossible to abstain from sex for periods of time without falling into all sorts of vices in order to give release to their 'needs', it quite honestly sounds like their attachment to sex has become un-virtuous. This doesn't mean that it's a problem to like sex, or that it's sinful in and of itself to miss it and feel a certain frustration when you have to abstain for a time. But something which drives you to serious sin when you lack it is something you are enslaved to. And no matter how good a thing is, we are not meant to be enslaved to our pleasures. If we are at any risk at all of developing that sort of vicious attachment to sex, which should be an expression of love rather than of addiction, some conscious schooling in self denial and detachment is very much needed.

And this is where we see the problem with taking sex as symbol of God's creative love too literally. Is there symbolism? Yes. It is an act of love which is fruitful and brings for new life. But when we're enjoying sex, particularly in the way which leads people to say that it's impossible for them to abstain for a time when they desire not to conceive, we're not enjoying it as a reflection of God's love. We're enjoying it as a very intense bodily sensation. We're enjoying it for what it does for us.

None of our pleasures should own us. Although sex is absolutely a good for a married couple, it must not be allowed to become a god, and to avoid that we must treat it with the moderation with which we would treat all other goods.

MrsDarwin: The first commandment says, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." Only God is God. Only he fulfills every desire of the human heart. No creation can do this. Sex cannot do this, no matter how virtuous the marriage and admirable the spouses. A spouse cannot do this, no matter how holy and generous and wise. At some point in every marriage, the spouses, whether fertile or infertile, providentialist or abstinent, no matter their temperament or character or suitability, must accept that the other cannot meet their every need. Our hearts are such that only God can fill them.

Sex is an essentially marital way of showing love -- not that marriage consists of sex, but that sex is only licit within marriage. But the sacrament is more than sex. Sex is procreative, yet not every instance of sex will result in procreation -- due in part to the cyclical nature of a woman's fertility. Sex is unitive, but many instances of sex provoke disunity. A couple desperate to conceive can find that the burden of sex makes the act divisive and unsatisfactory. A couple out of physical sync, or with differing levels of stamina and health, can end up in two radically different states, a deeper divide than the mutual longing of abstinence. This is not necessarily because of sin -- in fact, a couple trying to avoid the stimulating effects of pornography or fantasy can end up, in the short term, less satisfied than those who resort to those aids.

The fact that marriage is a sacrament means that grace is essential to it. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that there are times in marriage in which only grace will suffice, even for the happiest marriage. Casti Connubi states
61. ...There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. This truth of Christian Faith is expressed by the teaching of the Council of Trent. "Let no one be so rash as to assert that which the Fathers of the Council have placed under anathema, namely, that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you."[48] [emphasis added]

62. This same doctrine was again solemnly repeated and confirmed by the Church in the condemnation of the Jansenist heresy which dared to utter this blasphemy against the goodness of God: "Some precepts of God are, when one considers the powers which man possesses, impossible of fulfillment even to the just who wish to keep the law and strive to do so; grace is lacking whereby these laws could be fulfilled."
As anyone who has lived a millisecond of the Christian life can attest, grace does not mean that living virtuously automatically becomes easy. It simply becomes possible, regardless of our feelings about it. Fertility does not cease be a blessing even when it becomes a burden; it does not cease to be a burden simply because it is a blessing. Acknowledging the procreative nature of sex, whether through trying to conceive or by abstaining in a fertile period, does not necessarily feel less daunting because it is an exercise in honesty. God's grace has a way of revealing to us the parts of ourselves that we'd rather hide: a desire for gratification, the need to cling to illusions of control, the emptiness we try to fill with the admiration or desire of the other. The physical stripping down of sex is also a metaphor for the spiritual stripping down of marriage, in which you are not enough for me and I am not enough for me, but only his grace is enough for me.

Since as humans we do not actually have any control, no matter the means used, over whether a particular act of sex will result in conception, all we can do is to be faithful to God in the moment. Sometimes that moment calls for abstinence when sex would be more satisfying. Sometimes that moment calls for openness when isolation would be more comfortable. Sometimes there's a glorious joy when all things work together for the good for those who love him, and every touch seems inspired, and God's good will is the only desired consequence. What we must not do is decide that the insufficiencies of his grace can somehow be overcome by a condom. If we fail, we fail; the sacrament of Confession is for us sinners. But claiming that rendering sex sterile is not a sin, not in this case, not in my circumstances, if only you knew, is a spiritual setback to sub-Eden levels. Adam and Eve at least wanted to be like God and know good from evil; how embryonic our spiritual state to want to have the control of God and yet not want to know good from evil? 


CMinor said...

Good food for thought; I will be back to reread.

One thing that crossed my mind while reading about the “greatest Good” view was that, as I age, the list of people I know who are or have spent months or even years lovingly caring for an incapacitated spouse gets longer. I’m not talking candidates for canonization, either; some of them aren’t even especially religious. Watching these people live out their vocations with someone whose ability to reciprocate may be quite limited is inspiring, and makes me rather inclined to to eye-roll when the sex-apotheosis gang gets into high gear.

Anonymous said...

Excellent rebuttal to those who seem to place wildly disproportionate expectation on lovemaking between spouses.

"The end result of having had sex is usually a sense of profound unity, but only after passing through stages in which the sensations of one's own body far outweigh the awareness of the other."

I would just add that many women do not experience climax at all through the act of intercourse itself, and it is not uncommon for women to sometimes not have a climax at all during sexual activity. As one of these women myself, I can vouch for the fact that sex without an orgasm can still produce a profound sense of unity, emotional and psychological pleasure, AND the knowledge you are focused more on your spouse than on yourself throughout the entire act of lovemaking. There is much, much more to lovemaking between spouses than the orgasm. The pain of abstinence does, however, take on a different meaning when what are missing out on is not the orgasmic pleasure of sex for yourself but the incredible feeling of giving intense love and pleasure to your spouse.