Thoughts on sex and marriage – Part 2

by SDG

in Moral Theology

Link to Part 1

SDG here with more thoughts on sex and marriage.

Note: This post includes some explicit language regarding lawful and unlawful acts. To spare the sensibilities of those who would prefer not to encounter such language, I’ll put the whole post below the fold.

In my first post I began to address the question of what sex is using as a springboard some comments from a non-Catholic friend who proposed that “we have moved above the biological/procreative aspect of sex” and “can treat it as something other than procreative … because we are using sex for another purpose that need not include procreation.”

In my earlier post I acknowledged that human sexuality certainly includes dimensions beyond the procreative — that there are multiple aspects or goods in sex as it is ideally experienced by human beings. In fact, the list of such levels/goods is rather extensive. Among them might be included (without being limited to) the following:

  1. biological (sex is attempted procreation)

  2. instinctive (sex is the gratification of a primal impulse)

  3. visceral or sensible, i.e., with respect to the senses (sex is greatly pleasurable)

  4. recreational (sex is fun)

  5. volitional (sex is freely given and received)

  6. emotional/interpersonal (sex expresses intimacy and love)

  7. relational/marital (sex embodies the lifelong commitment of husband and wife)

Of course I don’t mean to say that couples ought to have all of these things consciously in mind — that would be ridiculous. Sometimes couples will be motivated more by one aspect or good, sometimes by another. Sometimes one partner might be more motivated by one good, and the other by another. None of this is necessarily problematic.

Nor do I mean to say that all of these goods must always be actually fully present in every sex act. It’s an imperfect world; things go wrong, often through no fault of our own.

For example, some couples may at times experience difficulty in achieving the visceral or sensible pleasure of sex for both partners, usually (not always) for the woman. Other times, for whatever reason, the recreational or even emotional aspects of sex may be lacking.

Where this happens through no one’s fault, that is one thing. However, where such privations come about deliberately, either through the fault of one of the parties or through the fault of another, great wrong is done.

For example, a selfish husband may gratify his own desires without doing everything he can and should for his wife’s pleasure. Far worse, female genital mutilation may impair the woman’s sexual satisfaction.

In the same way, other aspects of the sex act are deliberately excluded only with grave harm and wrongdoing. Deliberately exclude the volitional aspect, and you have rape. Deliberately exclude the relational aspect, and you have fornication or adultery.

However it may work out in practice, sex must always be done in a way that is at least open to the multifaceted goodness of sex in all its levels and aspects. Whatever aspect of sex is a couple’s motivation tonight, either they take the occasion to accept the mystery of sex in its fullness, insofar as it is available to them, or they seek to reject and exclude some or another aspect, to the detriment of the act itself and their own being.

The loving and generous coital union of a husband and wife who give themselves in this act to one another completely and without reservation embodies openness to the mystery of sex in all its fullness.

Acts by which the parties are less than fully united diminish and falsify the mystery of sex. This occurs, for instance, when the partners are not married; or when they are not loving or generous; or when barriers are employed; or when sex culminates in acts other than coital union (which includes completed acts of oral or anal sex, whether between partners of the same sex or opposite sexes); or when chemicals or surgery are employed to suppress and withhold the gift of one’s procreative powers.

Such chemically or surgically induced infertility is very much analogous to the surgical impairing of the body’s ability to take pleasure in sex: Healthy and properly functioning organs and systems have been compromised for the specific purpose of inducing a dysfunctional state. Again, non-deliberate instances are another matter. Premature ejaculation is one thing; deliberate withdrawal is another. Nocturnal emissions are one thing; masturbation is another.

Even though procreation is not the only purpose of conjugal union, even though conjugal union is not always fruitful, on many occasions or for some persons cannot be fruitful, and indeed is sometimes deliberately rendered unfruitful, true conjugal union always includes a procreative dimension.

In fact, every act of coital union, physiologically speaking, is an act of attempted procreation. For a man to make love to a woman is always to say, not necessarily with his mind or heart (and potentially contrary to his actual intention), but nevertheless with his body, in a word made flesh, “Conceive if you can!” — and for a woman to make love to a man is always to say with her body “Impregnate me if you can!” Together, the two enacted wishes ideally form a perfect harmony, a single, shared bodily wish: “Let’s have a baby if we can!”

Of course that conditional “if we can” points to what is possible at most for a few days each month, for a few decades of a woman’s life. Yet the physiology of the act and the biological meaning of that act doesn’t change during the infertile periods or after menopause. There is a union of complementary reproductive systems, of body parts and functions designed for precisely this union, for this purpose.

More to come.

Link to Part 1

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{ 21 comments }

bearing December 16, 2008 at 1:47 pm

I couldn’t help but comment that the “good” you have listed first is misstated, misclassified, or perhaps represents two separate goods that should be distinguished.
For “attempted” procreation is more than just biological.
Procreation is biological, sure. Animals do it. But once you introduce the concept of “attempting” procreation via sex, you enter the realm of the peculiarly human, and as such, no longer merely biological. To procreate is biology alone; to attempt to procreate is to unite physical behavior with an act of one’s will.

SDG December 16, 2008 at 2:25 pm

I couldn’t help but comment that the “good” you have listed first is misstated, misclassified, or perhaps represents two separate goods that should be distinguished. For “attempted” procreation is more than just biological.

Procreation is biological, sure. Animals do it. But once you introduce the concept of “attempting” procreation via sex, you enter the realm of the peculiarly human, and as such, no longer merely biological. To procreate is biology alone; to attempt to procreate is to unite physical behavior with an act of one’s will.

I think you’ve misread me on two different levels.
First, as my subsequent comments above (if you follow me) should make clear, by “attempted reproduction” I don’t necessarily mean “a deliberate effort to make a baby.” Rather, I mean the teleology of the act itself in its biological character — the merging of reproductive systems, the introduction of male seed into the female generative tract. Biologically and teleologically, this is an act of attempted reproduction, even if it is simultaneously falsified by contraceptive efforts or even just a contraceptive intent (like “I really hope we don’t get pregnant!”).
Second, even where the “attempt” is volitional and deliberate, the good itself toward which the will is ordered remains a specifically biological good. In this sense, “biological” does not here mean “driven by biology,” but “belonging to the biological order.” (Likewise, the goods that exist at other levels, e.g., visceral, recreational, etc., may also be objects of the will — e.g., we may do something not simply as a reflexive response to pleasure but because we specifically volitionally choose the pleasure in question — but it is not necessary to cross-reference everything as “volitional.”)
Hope that helps.

starscream December 16, 2008 at 4:09 pm

The purpose of sex is procreation of children? that’s absurd. we are watching you nazis.

SDG December 16, 2008 at 4:38 pm

The purpose of sex is procreation of children? that’s absurd. we are watching you nazis.

(snort!)
The mark of perfect absurdity: I honestly can’t tell if this is satire (from a witty Catholic) or sincere (from a looney-tune postmodernist).
Thank you, in either case.

starscream December 16, 2008 at 4:42 pm

it was a joke.

SDG December 16, 2008 at 4:45 pm

it was a joke.

I was leaning that way, but in this world you can never be sure! You got the tone almost exactly right. :‑)

Matheus December 16, 2008 at 5:55 pm

I honestly can’t tell if this is satire (from a witty Catholic) or sincere (from a looney-tune postmodernist).

it was a joke.

It could only be serious from someone born from a pair of vegetables.:)

Pantheist Christian December 16, 2008 at 6:32 pm

“Where this happens through no one’s fault, that is one thing. However, where such privations come about deliberately, either through the fault of one of the parties or through the fault of another, great wrong is done.”
Interpretations and authenticity of the theological opinion of Karol Wojtyla notwithstanding, it is not the case that willing an absence of viscerality of pleasure in one’s self or one’s lover is inherently wrong. Ideally sexual intercourse is primarily a spiritual encounter with the greatest joy being spiritual in nature. To the extent that viscerality of pleasure inhibits that, one may legitimately will in one’s self or one’s lover and work to that same end in moderating that viscerality. That does not mean that every means used to that end, let alone acts which are not properly speaking for the sake of that end, such as certain mutilative practices, is morally beautiful.
My understanding of both the truth and of CCC 2351 is that not only in objective act, but in desire and delectation that sexual pleasure cannot rightly be sought isolated from the unity and creativity of love. Even if one’s intention prior to the act and the constitute elements objective to the act are “in line”, if one engages even for a moment in a desire for or delectation in sexual pleasure isolated in one’s desire or delectation from the unity and creativity of love, then one has sinned — just as one would sin if one engaged in morose delectation with respect to a spontaneous climax isolated from any unity and co-creativity in love (so even if the motions are initially involuntary, once one delects in them in that isolation, then one has sinned, traditionally gravely, though I agree more with modern authors in questioning that assumption of grave matter).
The teaching of the church on the ends of marriage and the ends of sexual intercourse have changed over time. In previous years, the primary end of marriage was the procreation of children and the propagation of children, with unitive elements of friendship if mentioned, mentioned explicitly as a secondary end. Then, these two ends were mentioned without distinction between one being primary versus the other secondary.
St. Thomas taught that the essence of marriage was friendship. He did not say the essence of marriage was procreation or any other thing. This is not necessarily opposed to a notion that the primary end of marriage is not friendship as the essence of a thing and its telos can sometimes be distinct.
I think the way to reconcile the older teaching with the newer teaching and more modern approaches that go beyond even the newer teaching is to interpret the older teaching to be speaking of marriage qua institution established by God in the order of human nature for the good of the human race. Whether an institution of marriage were, in nature, established or not, the natural reality and good of romantic friendship and even procreation would have remained. But the institution of marriage by God, written into the cosmos of man and his environment, serves the end of that good of sexual friendship as well as the good of procreation, of human propagation and the rearing of children.
The fabric of man is such that natural law, participating in the eternal law of God, dictates that children be born not of a less committed relationship, but of the life-long committal friendship which constitutes the essence, ontologically, of marriage. Human nature and the environment of man could have been created and constructed differently by God such that procreation occurred apart from sexual friendship (as it does in some other species) or so that the bond of parenthood and childhood was not apt to obtain only within the context of that permanent romantic friendship which is marriage (one way in which by nature that bond is designed to be stable and thus to aptly benefit from a stable bond between mother and father is in the pain of childbirth which psychologists note is causal to the bond created between the new mother and child). But for whatever wisdom of providence, God constructed the universe in this way and man’s embodied soul in this way within it.
This is the ontological grounding of the unique status that this permanent romantic friendship rightly deserves in society. What this permanent romantic friendship is named is as I have argued previously of absolutely no consequence. A distinct question from whether this permanent romantic friendship is to be properly esteemed (with other things esteemed proper to their own nature, and not to the nature of this thing), is whether or how this societal esteem should be reflected in politics (i.e. the public ordering of society). Every man should recognize the truth as beautiful and sin as less than wholly beautiful and should never consider the two to be equal or similiar in every respect. The State however is not a man, but an abstract extension of the will of society. The State refers to corporations as persons and grants them rights similar in some ways to real persons and recognizes them as juridical persons; this is no sin and voting for such State action does not contradict Christian ontology or Christian anthropology. William Levada in San Francisco was faced with a dilemma of being forced to either give health benefits to same sex couples or shut something down altogether. His solution, controversial, was to give health benefits to any other designated person, irrespective of one’s relationship to her. That policy treated homosexual relationships, living-in-sin heterosexual relationships, and marriages the same exact way with the same recognition as such — but in doing so it did not recognize any of those things as something they were not. It did not say of homosexual relationships that they were wholly beautiful. As a policy it is mere political machinery; the interpretation it may be given by members of society is another matter. Likewise if the State accords the same exact legal rights and duties to homosexual couples as it does heterosexual couples who are in permanent relationships, it does not thereby lie, recognize something for something it is not; it is merely political machinery and judicial formalism. Whether in that machinery and formalism, they are both called by the same term is then immaterial. It would only be material if the term employed carried in the statutory defintion an implicit moral approbation of that which was being recognized. Arguably, the word “marriage” ordinarily does carry with it an implicit moral approbation of the reality which one denotes by it (invariant to variant usage). However in the cold machinery of politics and formalism of law, it would not unless so defined in statute, just as the word “state” ordinarily in America refers to a member of the union but in countless federal statues refers not just to the 50 member sovereigns of the Union but per statutory definition to Puerto Rico or even Guam.
There is a practical danger, namely that the statutory usage may influence ordinary usage in a way such that the ontological beauty unique and proper to that whose essence is sexually complementary friendship, that the minds of men would be darkened. A lesser practical danger is a marring of the English language and of the language of human culture that goes beyond the English language itself. But these are practical concerns, not concerns that would render such things inherently evil as such in their object.

SDG December 16, 2008 at 8:14 pm

Interpretations and authenticity of the theological opinion of Karol Wojtyla notwithstanding, it is not the case that willing an absence of viscerality of pleasure in one’s self or one’s lover is inherently wrong. Ideally sexual intercourse is primarily a spiritual encounter with the greatest joy being spiritual in nature. To the extent that viscerality of pleasure inhibits that, one may legitimately will in one’s self or one’s lover and work to that same end in moderating that viscerality.

This line of thought either does not engage the point at issue, or does not establish the premise it sets out establish. There is an ambiguity in the word “absence” that prevents a final judgment.

St. Thomas taught that the essence of marriage was friendship. He did not say the essence of marriage was procreation or any other thing. This is not necessarily opposed to a notion that the primary end of marriage is not friendship as the essence of a thing and its telos can sometimes be distinct.

St. Thomas enumerates the goods of marriage as faith, offspring, and sacrament, sacrament being the chief good. Friendship he calls natural to marriage; I cannot find that he says it is the “essence” of marriage. Be that as it may, I am here discussing the nature of sex, not the nature of marriage.
The rest of the post seems to me not to require comment at this time.

Serena December 16, 2008 at 8:45 pm

It all seems so obvious, and still there are so many who speak of children as a “punishment for being a sexual being”. By that logic, oxygenation of the blood is a punishment for being a respiratory being, locomotion is a punishment for being an ambulatory being, and (I know America is jampacked with people who already assume as much) nutrition is a punishment for being a digestive being. Once a society has decided not to allow the human body to function, it projects all its fears onto its own biology and becomes irrational.
Perhaps your friend was making his false dichotomy because he couldn’t imagine how self-fulfillment and the laws of biology can coexist, having grown up in a world where nature is always the enemy. Good post, either way.

David T December 16, 2008 at 8:52 pm

You know, I agree with most of what SDG has said, but I think it makes the issue a little too complicated. The way I see it, the problem is that people have confused the ceremony surrounding marriage with ‘marriage’ itself. Marriage is the coital act between a man and a woman. That is why homosexuals can’t get married. The ceremony of marriage, the legal status of marriage, isn’t marriage. it’s just a recognition by society that, hey, this man and this woman are going to ‘marry’ tonight. So how about this? As absurd and offensive as it may sound, what if we just replaced the term “marriage” with “hetero coital union”? At least then, the GBLTs couldn’t claim that they should be allowed to engage in it also…lol.

SDG December 17, 2008 at 5:23 am

David T: I agree with most of what you have said, but I think it makes the issue a little too simple. ;‑) “Marriage is the coital act between a man and a woman” — well, not quite. Such an act may be fornication, adultery or rape … plus, genuinely married people can engage in unlawful, non-coital acts. So perhaps we need to make it a little more complicated. I’ll get to that in another post or two.

The Masked Chicken December 17, 2008 at 5:42 am

I have two, completely unrelated points to make.
The first is a question: since only man and not animals can add a volitional aspect to sex, is this volitional aspect an intensifier of the original purpose of sex (making it something beyond mere animal sex, but in the same direction) or does it change it into something new (place it in a different “evolutionary” tree, if you will)? If the former, doesn’t that also connect sex to the soul? If the later, then could not some argue that man has a degree of autonomy that other animals do not enjoy?
Make no mistake, I hold to what the Church teaches (option 1), but I imagine some atheists could try to argue position 2, since some might not believe in the existence of a soul or a moral order.
Point 2:
It’s a week before Christmas. Please, please, please…how about a separate Christmas post…pretty please…Jimmy, Tim J., SDG…if not, I might post the lyrics to, “Its a Chicken Christmas…” and you wouldn’t want that, now, would you :)
The Chicken

The Masked Chicken December 17, 2008 at 5:51 am

It’s a Chicken Christmas…sorry, comma impaired.
The Chicken

Ryan Harkins December 17, 2008 at 9:32 am

SDG, I linked to this article over at American Catholic, as it mirrors very well a series of post I’m working on. I hope you don’t mind!

Brian Day December 17, 2008 at 10:19 am

It’s a Chicken Christmas…sorry, comma impaired.
And apostrophe impaired also.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist :)

The Masked Chicken December 17, 2008 at 10:40 am

Dear Brian,
A comma is just an apostrophe lying down on the job :)
(Yeah, I meant apostrophe…this is such a Wednesday…).
The Chicken

SDG December 17, 2008 at 10:48 am

SDG, I linked to this article over at American Catholic, as it mirrors very well a series of post I’m working on. I hope you don’t mind!

Not at all — thanks, Ryan! I’ll see about returning the favor.

And apostrophe impaired also. Sorry, I couldn’t resist :)

We were all thinking it. :-)

Pantheist Christian December 17, 2008 at 3:22 pm

That St. Thomas held the essence of marriage is friendship is clear from this text as well as others. “Sacrament” cannot be the essence of marriage as I’ll explain below.
http://www.diafrica.org/kenny/CDtexts/ContraGentiles.htm
This appears to be an unabridged translation.
In contemporary language, the essence of a thing corresponds to what is known as its “essential properties”, properties without which it could not be whereas other properties may obtain not without it being impossible for the thing to be exemplified. Marriage, including the constitutive elements of marriage, is essentially grounded in or orderered to a sexual* friendship. There can exist exemplifications of marriage without an ordering particular to the exemplification to coital procreation as such (for ex., traditionally, the virginal marriage between Joseph and Mary and other marriages through church history where the spouses feel called and even vow to be abstinent), though conventionally there would still remain the moral right to mutual congress. There can exist exemplifications of marriage without a grounding in a sacrament as non-sacramental marriages, contrary to the popular belief of some, are just as real and valid and enjoy the true character of a marriage and a certain, though not absolute, permanence or stability. However, in the thought of St. Thomas all marriages without exception, be they sacramental or non-sacramental, virginal or consummatory, are grounded in an ontological realization of a bond — even in non-sacramental marriage — that is not only ordered to sexual friendship but is constitutive of the ground of that sexual friendship peculiar to the essence of a marriage flowering in grace (be it natural grace; or sacramental or supernatural grace), even if it be the case that the couple is not particularly friendly with each other and is in the state of mortal sin.
This constitutive essence of marriage is what St. Thomas uses to argue against polygyny (polyandry would also be argued against on the same grounds but St. Thomas uses also separate grounds to argue against that, that he views as more absolute).
*sexual, here is meant in a sense similar to the way Peter Kreeft is prone to use the term, a way consistent with for example the virginal affection that JPII taught obtained between Joseph and Mary. Among modern authors it is common to emphasize that all men, including priests, are sexual beings even in their promise of celibacy or vow of chastity. Peter Kreeft goes further and contemplates God qua sexual being; this highlights how “sexual” here does not have, if you will, the base or carnal sense our carnally-preoccupied society has engendered in the minds of many.
P.S., In my opinion, this essence of marriage is as I have probably at least made allusion to before, a better ground for the rejection of societal approbative recognition of homosexual relationships than a ground based on some other principle which is not the essence, strictly speaking (as in an essential property), of marriage. The CCC makes note of this when it teaches, rightly, that homosexual relationships to the extent that they are homosexually oriented (as opposed to being merely and authentically human), “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” (I believe that’s a verbatim quotation … but it is from memory). Note the juxtaposition of both affective and sexual complentarity there as a basis for rejecting the purported moral beauty of homosexual relationships qua homosexual relationships. An exploration of the impossibility of the obtaining of the authentically human and sexual affective complementarity between two women or two men, would I think be more philosophically sound and also, more politically expedient.

stromboli December 19, 2008 at 8:43 am

I’ll just note oddities on this topic:
1. No Pope has ventured to take this to the infallible level despite laymen doing so in their own way…. and the dissenting theologians post Humanae Vitae (which was introduced as non infallible twice at press conferences by Monseignor Lambruschini) in 1968,…they, the dissenters…. had only to sign statements by order of Rome
that it was “authentic magisterial teaching” which is cuts below “infallible”…(later stronger statements…”definitive”… by the CDF can be denied centuries from now as not the Pope per se in an infallible venue).
2. He…the Pope…. can do this infallibility status regarding the topic in two ways: alone and thus as ex cathedra needing no Bishop agreement/ or with the Bishops by way of poll which was done as to abortion-euthanasia-killing the innocent in Evangelium Vitae sections 57/62/65….but was not done in that very encyclical as to birth control which it also commented on. That same pre EV polling may have asked the Bishops on birth control also… but did not receive unanimity if it did.
Why would Bishops and several highly regarded theologians who wrote parts of Vatican II not assent?
They are not importuned by the doctrine in their own lives?
Those reasons of those celibates should be available in writing with counter arguments by those of high position magisterially or theologically. It is an oddity that it is not available. The IC was so aired by both sides of centuries with Aquinas and Augustine being on the losing side in the end. Where did transparency of intellectual debate flee to? That is an oddity.
3. Another oddity is that tradition is stronger on other topics which have been thrown out the window despite having scriptures and centuries of practice behind them. And the Didache referred to in this case is read ordinarily by how many Catholics? If it has been read outside this topic and outside the research venue by 100,000 Catholics out of 1 billion, I would be very surprised.
4. The final oddity is that no Pope seeks TV air time in which to state the issue while submitting himself to cross examination by others. If he is in fact together on this issue so that reasonable men can see the truth of what he is saying, why not take it really public rather than it remain always in document form where it is safe but for that very reason is not convincing the vast majority of Catholics. Christ spoke to his adversaries in the streets and temple (TV is the world’s streets now) and made Himself therefore vulnerable to their counter claims. Once a Pope arrives who has this courage on this topic and does not hide in documentary form, you will see increased obedience of at least millions more Catholics. If Popes continue to effectively if not consciously hide in written form, the obedience will remain around the 4% that the US Bishops cited two years ago.

c matt December 22, 2008 at 7:30 am

Why would Bishops and several highly regarded theologians who wrote parts of Vatican II not assent?
Who knows? Maybe the same reason God doesn’t smite you on the spot every time you utter an expletive in violation of the 2nd Commandment. It is not an easy teaching to follow, and perhaps, they want to bring folks along slowly.
As for “hiding” in documentary form, rubbish. The documents are there for anyone to access, analyze and criticize, and many have. For decades. Important subjects are not treated like a Perry Mason episode. Even “cross-examination” only happens in a limited sense – the deep legal issues in lawsuits are not delved into through cross-examination – they are done through briefing (i.e., documentary form).
The problem is most people are too lazy to do the hard work of reading, analyzing and writing a proper response.

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