Although Catholics in the United States frequently discuss issues related to human sexuality, our catechesis on marriage and sex very rarely treats these as the complex mysteries that they are. Instead, we tend to unintentionally promote an unrealistic vision of sex in marriage. This is in great part the result of catechesis that is designed primarily to persuade married or engaged adults to conform their behavior to the moral law on matters of sexual ethics like contraception, cohabitation, and sex outside of marriage. Teaching Catholics about chastity—both within and outside of marriage—is often preoccupied with anticipating objections, and is impoverished as a result. This includes even our best attempts to convey coherent and orthodox sexual teaching rooted in Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body (TOB).
In my experience, our approach to talking about marriage and human sexuality rarely presents the comprehensive unity and integrity of John Paul’s catechesis (and Catholic teaching as a whole). It has also in many ways failed to provide a truly human and realistic vision of marriage in which sexuality is one part.
“God himself created sexuality, which is a marvelous gift to his creatures” (AL 150). The problem isn’t the importance of sex, which is “a source of joy and pleasure” (CCC 2362) for married couples and integral to the procreative purpose of marriage. Rather, it is that a myopic focus on sex-related questions elevates them in importance and thus obscures how marriage is lived in love—with all its joys and sorrows—throughout life. This limited vision is also at odds with what Pope St. Paul VI called a “Christian realism” about sex and marriage, and is significantly out-of-step with the very comprehensive approach taken by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia.
Pope Francis’s landmark document on family life honors the complexity of sex in marriage by placing it in the context of the entire union, emphasizing the need for integration. “The marital union is thus evoked not only in its sexual and corporal dimension, but also in its voluntary self-giving in love,” he writes at the beginning of Amoris Laetitia (AL 4). Marriage does not require renouncing experiences of sexual pleasure and enjoyment, but “integrating them with other moments of generous commitment, patient hope, inevitable weariness and struggle to achieve an ideal” (AL 148).
Many contemporary marriage preparation and catechetical programs on human sexuality in the United States are shaped by the TOB, and are barely beginning to incorporate the insights of Amoris Laetitia, if they are doing so at all. These programs tend to focus on the positive aspects of sex in marriage that emphasize its goodness—rooted in scriptural imagery (to heighten contrast with cultural misunderstandings of the Church as sex-negative)—as well as the need for sex between spouses to be “free, total, faithful and fruitful.” One such program, Joy-Filled Marriage, published by Ascension Press and co-authored by popular TOB authors Christopher West and Gregory Popcak, is used in some of the largest dioceses in the United States. In a promotional video for Joy-Filled Marriage, West introduces the program as the answer to the current “crisis” in marriage in the Church, and the “glorious gift of the theology of the body” as part of the answer. He then touts the program’s ability to respond to current “issues” in marriage preparation—namely, that couples today “are already sleeping together” and using contraception before marriage prep—by referring to exit surveys which show a quarter of couples say they are likely to stop having premarital sex or using contraception after completing his program.
To be clear, the use of TOB-based resources is not the problem, but rather how resources like West’s present John Paul’s teaching and shape Catholic understandings of sexuality. As someone who has studied John Paul’s TOB catechesis in its entirety and his book Love and Responsibility, I both love this teaching and seek to live it. The Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is a gift in my own life. I also dedicated much of my professional career to supporting others in following this teaching as a teacher of natural family planning. In my work I noticed some latent problems experienced by Catholics who had been formed by popular interpretations of the TOB. A real possibility of confusion and difficulty exists for couples who encounter struggles in their marriages that referring back to the great and glorious vision that they were promised will not overcome.
West asserts that his work in promoting the TOB “seeks to translate it into language that average people can understand.” It is clear that John Paul II’s work does require a “translator” for popular audiences. Admittedly, John Paul’s theological writing can be quite opaque. If you read the series of Wednesday audiences that make up the TOB, you will note his tendency to dance thematically around questions in a sort of spiral while expounding upon various ideas—often using his own vocabulary. Additionally, his teleological and natural law framework can be difficult to understand, because it is not intuitive or immediately accessible to postmodern 21st-century Catholics.
Yet many of the popular resources based on the TOB add to the confusion. One example is the way they present the idea that marital sex is an experience by which spouses “renew their vows” and receive the sacramental grace proper to marriage. This is indeed one part of the story of human sexuality integral to the TOB’s teaching on the “nuptial mystery” (as both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis call it). In popular resources, this is presented in an awe-inspiring and positive way that is designed to attract and convince Christians to honor it. Christopher West in particular promotes what he calls a “sublime vision of marriage” where “sexual union that is free, total, faithful, and open to new life […] symbolizes and participates in the communion of Christ and the Church.”
This description of sexual union is how West justifies the Church’s teaching on contraception, stating that, “If spouses willfully contradict any of these goods of marriage in their sexual expressions, marital intimacy becomes less than God intended it to be. In turn, spouses, rather than renewing their vows through intercourse, contradict them.” Greg Popcak also restates this claim, stating that “The Church teaches that every time a Christian married couple makes love, they are physically restating their marriage vows and recommitting themselves to all the promises they made at the altar.” (Holy Sex! Popcak, 109). These resources rush so quickly to address the almost-ubiquitous contraceptive use among Catholics that it is quite common to hear in TOB or natural family planning circles that to receive the grace of marriage, one must “re-enact” marital vows with sex in accord with the divine plan.
It’s not that sex is not a way that spouses might renew their promise of self-giving in marriage, but that it is not the only way that renewal takes place. Nor is it “the most complete way one spouse can give him/herself to the other” (Holy Sex website, Popcak). Nowhere does John Paul refer to sex between spouses (even “mind-blowing, toe-curling, infallible loving”—the subtitle for Popcak’s book) as itself a unique source of grace in the life of a married couple. Rather, in the Catholic view, sex is understood within the context of the personal union of spouses. Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia, “Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple” (AL 74). But it is not the only or even primary or most-frequently-trod path of that growth.
This is what is the “unitive” meaning of marital sex: it expresses an already-existing personal union and builds it up. That union spouses share is the sacramental bond of their marriage, which has existed since they exchanged their vows. The sacrament makes all the truly unifying acts of their marriage to be sources of grace in their lives. This of course includes sex expressed in the “language of the body,” with sincerity and obedience to God’s designs. It also includes far less sexy and more quotidian ways of building up spousal union.
Ultimately all marital interactions are potential channels of grace. There are many different opportunities to express conjugal union, and sex is only one of them. Pope Francis continues this thought at length in AL: “the common life of husband and wife, the entire network of relations that they build with their children and the world around them, will be steeped in and strengthened by the grace of the sacrament.” (AL 74). John Paul says that the “affective manifestations” of spousal love in the shared life of husband and wife proceed from the graced reverence they have for one another, and is rooted in the recognition of the other’s dignity:
It is from this understanding…this gift, that all the…manifestations that form the fabric of the stability of conjugal union draw true spousal meaning. This union is expressed through the conjugal act only in some circumstances, but it can and should be manifested continually, every day, through the various ‘affective manifestations’. (TOB 132:4)
But when this is translated into premarital apologetics—which often constitutes the bulk of the marriage prep that even the most committed Catholic couples receive—this nuanced focus on the day-by-day growth in marital union is lost. When we try to teach the truth about human sexuality, it is important to put sex in its proper context—as one mode of spousal communication, which Francis describes as “an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously” (AL 151). In some Catholic circles, sex is instead built up to be something of a pinnacle—extra special, possibly sacramental. This leads to the reinforcement of the (frankly strange) idea that sexual performance (e.g. “holy sex”) is directly tied to the reception of grace in the sacrament of marriage.
It’s the elevation of sex—as if there aren’t other “channels,” or as if other ways don’t channel quite as much grace—that’s a problem. Perhaps our catechesis for married couples just doesn’t go on long enough to really hit the tough years—preoccupied as it is with the concerns that we imagine of the (increasingly not-so) young adults in our marriage prep programs—to consider the real suffering that spouses will inevitably encounter. This lopsided emphasis can even prove pastorally damaging and dangerous, not only for the married but for unmarried people. An idealization—perhaps even an idolization—of marriage that emphasizes the good rather than the difficult serves no one well. Putting the marital relationship on a pedestal—where it is second only to the soul’s relationship to God as we experience in Eucharistic communion—suggests to the unmarried that their experiences of intimacy with God or with others will always fall short.
This is all to the detriment of a realistic view of marriage and our ability to share realistically about its joys and struggles. Francis approaches this realism through a lens of maturity. Perhaps it is the case when it comes to sex—including in the sex-centric TOB approach—that “Many tend to remain in the early stages of their affective and sexual life” (AL 4). Christian maturity demands that as we grow in virtue and in the life of grace, we learn to better recognize the relative importance of different parts of our lives and how to integrate how we live and act in light of this. “What is important is to have the freedom to realize that pleasure can find different expressions at different times of life, in accordance with the needs of mutual love” (AL 149) because “love ‘is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly’” (AL 164).
This isn’t merely a theological point—it has consequences in real lives. Shared suffering is also a channel of grace in marriage. Bearing with one another’s little quirks and mistakes patiently is a source of grace in marriage. Acting with kindness and compassion toward a spouse who is suffering is a way God’s grace enters into spousal communion. Lovingly caring for a chronically ill spouse is a way God’s grace makes the icon of a husband and wife truly reflect the personal communion of the Trinity. Providing tender companionship and emotional intimacy while abstaining from sex is a channel of grace, and in it we see Christlike love and accompaniment. Cultivating intimate friendship and a “union which endures long after emotions and passion subside” while maturing into old age is a source of grace (AL 120).
All these profound instances are ignored when we present the Christian understanding of marriage with a primary focus on human sexuality and behavior. Because in reality for Christian married couples, it is “starting with the simple ordinary things of life they can make visible the love with which Christ loves his Church” (AL 121). A hyper-sexualized focus in catechesis around marriage gives way to unrealistic conceptions of what marriage is. It doesn’t reflect the whole scope of married life, lived together over decades, in which sex is a relatively small part, and where difficulty and joy often live side-by-side. Francis acknowledges this at some length in the conclusion of his chapter on marriage in Amoris Laetitia, speaking of aged spouses:
While one of the spouses may no longer experience an intense sexual desire for the other, he or she may still experience the pleasure of mutual belonging and the knowledge that neither of them is alone but has a “partner” with whom everything in life is shared. He or she is a companion on life’s journey, one with whom to face life’s difficulties and enjoy its pleasures. This satisfaction is part of the affection proper to conjugal love. […] The love they pledge is greater than any emotion, feeling or state of mind, although it may include all of these. It is a deeper love, a lifelong decision of the heart. Even amid unresolved conflicts and confused emotional situations, they daily reaffirm their decision to love, to belong to one another, to share their lives and to continue loving and forgiving. (AL 163)
It is important for Catholics to learn how the sacrificial love of marriage is lived by couples caring for one another throughout the whole of married life. Embodied love expressed in presence, forbearance, and compassion, is just as vital as understanding the love of couples as lovers or would-be parents.
Popcak, Gregory. Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. Crossroad, 2008.
Pope Francis. Amoris Laetitia. Vatican Library, 2015.
Pope John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Transl. Michael Waldstein. Pauline Books & Media, 2006.
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