Theology of the Body and the Sexual Ethic

There are three frames through which to view sexuality in the light of Christian teaching that I hope will be helpful and hopeful. First: Christian sexuality must always be a both-yes proposition if it is to be enjoyed in the fullest measure. Debating whether procreation, on one hand, or the mutual enjoyment of the spouses’ physical intimacy should have pride of place is a fool’s errand. The only answer is both-yes. Both procreation, openness to life and the inestimable gift of children, along with the romantic expression of the act itself meant to glue two soulmates into one flesh fully are preeminently important, equally important, both-yes.

The idea that man and woman, made in God’s image and likeness, have been made for one another and that by their coming together they may be “fruitful and multiply,” as we read in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, is found throughout scripture. In fact, the very verbatim phrase found at the end of chapter two in Genesis—”they shall become one flesh”—is repeated in both St. Matthew and St. Mark’s gospels and in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.[1] We hear the gift of sex extolled in the Old Testament— “may he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine…your lips, my bride, drip honey, honey and milk are under your tongue…may my beloved come into his garden and eat its choice fruits,” quoted directly from the Song of Songs[2] —as we hear it praised in the New Testament, too, as when Paul counsels periods of extended abstinence only “that you may devote yourselves to prayer” soon after “com[ing] together again” because husbands and wives should “not deprive one another.”[3] Sex is good. Sex can be holy. What then does our Catechism say about sex, and what conclusions can we draw from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body?  “Conjugal love involves a totality,” we read in the Catechism, “in which all the elements of the person enter…it aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul.” Furthermore, this unity is to be ordered towards “procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory,” children being, the Catechism declares, “the supreme gift of marriage.” But lest anyone put too much emphasis on procreation listen to the Catechism once final time. “The conjugal love of man and woman…stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity…these two meanings or values of marriage (the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life) cannot be separated.”[4]

John Paul II confirms nothing less, that marriage is about a “sacramentality of the body” where husband and wife try to reclaim the original meaning of human sexuality, being “naked, but not ashamed,” seeing sex as the good it is—being in proper relation with themselves, God, and God’s original design for sex—and be “inebriated” in the love God has so gratuitously poured out for us in the gift of human sexuality. “Do you know what you really want here?” Christopher West asks near the close of his book Theology of the Body for Beginners, connecting the sacrament of marriage to the source, center and summit of our Faith, it too fleshy in the full incarnate glory of the God who gives it to us. “You want the Eucharist and marriage, and the Catholic Church has them in their fullness.” [5]

There is of course more, so much more, but I’ll leave it to you to explore those valuable sources, the Bible and Catechism at the top of the list, further as we now turn to my aforementioned focal points I would like you to reflect further on, the very heart and catalyst of this essay: the both-yes proposition—which you’ve just heard about in a certain form, that catechetical twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity.

Sex is a both-yes proposition. With equal estimation, especially for the sake of equilibrium, we must understand that an openness to life along with the mutual comfort and pleasure of the spouses are the “point” of sex. You may see no controversy here but there is a silent, sometimes open, philosophical war waged around these two poles. And taking one to the extreme always is at the expense of the other, an unholy polarization that wreaks havoc within the marital union and beyond. So, let’s begin there, the extremes. Quite a few people hold that sex is solely about pleasure and that procreation need not factor into the equation at all. Rampant promiscuity, one that drives widespread acceptance of contraception, further seeds the rotten fruits of venereal disease, infidelity, and the ongoing abortion epidemic, the latter a necessary result of seeing sex as a common exchange of goods—as common as a handshake or kiss on the cheek—where should any member of the transactional party experience buyer’s remorse, so to speak, the product can be painlessly and easily returned without question. No need to belabor these points here; suffice to say the imbalanced mindset and behavioral patterns that emerge from seeing sex solely as a means to personal pleasure are openly acknowledged even by proponents of this position. There might be literally a thousand half-hour sitcom episodes dedicated to the depressed state of someone who finds their latest one-night stand not as fulfilling as was hoped.

But to the other extreme here—that sex is only about procreation—is destructive in its own way, too. Catholics, devout Catholics, often forget this. But tell me how it could not be for a woman who feels her husband only wants to be intimate with her so she can get pregnant with their next child, who feels her husband sees her as nothing more than a baby-making machine? Or, how could a husband not feel wounded when ascertaining that the only time his wife plans a romantic evening together it when coinciding with her peak fertility? Is she still madly in love with him, he the person, or is she only after the matter he can provide her in the fulfillment of her lifelong motherhood goals; he in the role of the baby-making machine spouse?

Sex must be, if you want to be both holy and happy, a both-yes proposition. Be open to life, always. Have as many children as God is calling you to, for parenthood is a holy vocation and children are, truly, one of the most precious gifts we can receive. Yes, the Catholic sexual ethic is always about procreation just as it is always about the mutual comfort spouses offer one another—both-yes, always—offering their most intimate selves to one another freely, no strings attached, not even holy strings, rather enjoying the marital act because they’re supposed to, they are free to, and realize few joys can match a mutual appreciation that that person right there, with me now, with me forever, loves me and only me in this way and I them the same.

[1] Genesis 1:28, 2:24; St. Matthew 19:5; St. Mark 10:8; Ephesians 5:31.

[2] Song of Songs 1:2, 4:11-16

[3] Corinthians 7:5

[4] Catechism of the Catholics Church, 1643, 165, 2363.

[5] Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II’s Sexual Revolution (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2004), 4, 26, 85, 123.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

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Author of a novel entitled The Holdout (Adelaide Books, 2018) and a Civil War history Catholic Confederates (Kent State Univ. Press, 2020). Thermonuclear Mirth, a novel, is under contract and forthcoming with Arouca Press. A collection of essays, The Hippo Lectures, stemming from talks given at St. Augustine's, is completed and in circulation. Selected fiction has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Riddle Fence, Nashwaak Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Eclectica Magazine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, New English Review, The Southern Distinctive, PILGRIM, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Black Bear Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Scriberlus. Selected articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Catholic Historical Review, The Polish Review, the Journal of Southern History, the Journal of Southern Religion, and Idaho Magazine. Future research will be concentrated on writing a comprehensive Great War history about people on the Palouse. Earned his PhD in history from Mississippi State University. Currently teaches in Washington State University’s School of Design + Construction, the WSU department of history, and in the University of Idaho's College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences. Previously taught in the history department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has played baseball collegiately, professionally in Europe in the Czech Republic and Belgium, and for the Polish National Team. He is fluent in English, Polish and French with ability in Russian and Italian.

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