We continue our series [Part one, Part two] commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI released this oh-so-controversial encyclical on July 25, 1968, re-affirming the constant teaching of the Church on the immorality of contraception. To this day it remains a “thorn in the side” of many. It was once a thorn in my side as well. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” helped remove that thorn and show me the glorious fragrance of the rose.
Last time we observed that contracepted intercourse marks a determined “closing off” of the sexual act to the Holy Spirit, to the “Lord and Giver of Life.” In this way, as John Paul II expressed it, contraception falsifies “the language of the body.”
We all know that the body has a “language.” A wave of the hand says “hello” or “goodbye.” A shrug of the shoulders says, “I don’t know.” A raised fist expresses anger. What is sexual intercourse meant to express? What is its true language, its true meaning?
According to Scripture, the sexual embrace is meant to express divine love. Precisely here, in the consummation of their sacrament, spouses are meant to participate in the “great mystery” of divine love. Whether spouses realize this or not, this is the sacramental power of their love. It’s meant to be an image and a real participation in Christ’s love for the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).
As John Paul II candidly expressed, “Through gestures and reactions, through the whole … dynamism of tension and enjoyment — whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and femininity, the body in its action and interaction — through all this man, the person, ‘speaks.’ … Precisely on the level of this ‘language of the body’ … man and woman reciprocally express themselves in the fullest and most profound way made possible for them by … their masculinity and femininity” (TOB 123:4).
But if sexual love is meant to express Christ’s love, we must properly understand the “language” of this love. Christ gives his body freely (“No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord” -Jn 10:18). He gives his body totally — without reservation, condition, or selfish calculation (“He loved them to the last” -Jn 13:1). He gives his body faithfully (“I am with you always” -Mt 28:20). And he gives his body fruitfully (“I came that they may have life” -Jn 10:10).
If men and women are to avoid the pitfalls of counterfeit love, their union must express the same free, total, faithful, fruitful love that Christ expresses. Of course, as fallen human beings, we’ll never express Christ’s love perfectly. Even so, we must commit ourselves to the life-long journey of learning how to express this love and, at a minimum, never willfully act against it. The name for this commitment is marriage.
This is precisely what a bride and groom consent to at the altar. The priest or deacon asks them: “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you promise to receive children lovingly from God?” The bride and groom each say “yes.”
In turn, spouses are meant to express this same “yes” with the “language of their bodies” whenever they become one flesh. “In fact, the words themselves, ‘I take you as my wife/as my husband,’” John Paul II says, “can only be fulfilled by conjugal intercourse.” With conjugal intercourse “we pass to the reality that corresponds to these words” (TOB 103:3).
Intercourse, then, is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. It’s where men and women are meant to incarnate divine love. It’s a fine thing when a couple returns to the church to renew their vows on a special anniversary, but this shouldn’t undermine the fact that every time a husband and wife have intercourse they’re meant to renew their wedding vows with the “language of their bodies.”
How healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly unfaithful to their vows? On the other hand, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows with an ever-increasing commitment to them? If you’d prefer the latter type of marriage, you have just accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae. In the next column, I’ll unfold why.
[Editor’s note: Please enjoy regular features from this and other enlightening authors discussing Catholic teaching on sexuality in CE’s Theology of the Body channel.]
This column first appeared as part of Christopher West’s Body Language series for the Catholic press (www.christopherwest.com).