So I took a Christian Marriage class this semester and we had to write a research paper, that could be on anything pertaining to Christian marriage. Since I am ecstatic, nonetheless, to get married in July, what better topic than the act of consummating!? Ha, you can take this with a grain of salt (especially with all of the Catholic church documents cited), but I will never be able to explain how much I learned from this and in a whole new way am looking forward to fulfilling my role as wife.
For our generation, American society has soaked us in a culture of sex. Sex has never before been such an open, casual topic. Although in the past there may have been just as much sexual immorality, the media and means of communication today brings the truth about sex in our society to the surface. Access to pornography is easier than ever; the internet is an endless source of wanted and unwanted information, pictures, videos and more, and the majority of it contradicts the whole purpose and beauty of sex. Young, pre-pubescents are exposed to sex early, and from that experience, start developing ideas, expectations and views of what it is. Sex is less and less correlated with marriage to the society at large. It has become a norm to have pre-marital sex, to masturbate and to experiment freely with our body and our sexuality. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of our federal government put out a survey in 2009 to high schoolers that found that 46% of high school kids have had intercourse and 14% had sex with 4 or more partners in their lifetime
. From that statistic, we can assume that from a Christian perspective, the majority of those involved in sexual activity don’t have any idea of the meaning or purpose of sex.
Even for Christians, many do not seem to grasp the physical and spiritual experience of love that sex, or conjugal love can be. In a recent study in 2011, psychologists found that 74% of 100 Christian married individuals thought that sex was sacred in their marriage. However, 48% of the participants claimed that God was not an influence on their sexual experience with their spouse, and 56% showed below neutral attitudes towards God’s manifestation in their sex lives
. This was only one study, but there have been few scholarly studies done on the perspective of sex from Christian married couples. As Chris Padgett would say, there needs to be more married Saints! Sure, there have been many encyclicals, articles, and documents in the Catholic church written about the marital act, but few to none by a person under the covenant of Holy Matrimony. However, this is not to say that there have been some eye opening and beautiful things written such as the recent Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body or Humanae Vitae.
My general topic for this paper is sexual intimacy within the context of Christian Marriage, because I believe it is something so indescribably beautiful, yet so watered down and skewed in view of our generation and American society. From King Solomon in his yearning romantic songs to doctrine from St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae, the Catholic church has been a fan of the “one flesh” union between man and wife. The Church says that not only is chaste intimacy good and honorable, but is a source of profound and lasting happiness
. Conjugal love is fully human, meaning that it is both physical and spiritual, and an act that helps both spouses attain their human perfection. The encyclical Humane Vitae states, “Conjugal love reveals its true nature and nobility when it is considered in its supreme source, God, who is Love...”
I wanted to explore the profundity of spirituality in conjugal love, and God’s creative intention of marriage as taught through Scripture, the Catholic church and holy role models who have lived it out.
From the beginning of man and woman’s existence on earth, God blessed them and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply
. In Genesis 2:24, God’s word describes a man leaving his mother and father and holding fast to his wife, then “...the two shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
God made man and woman partners in life and allowed participation in creation of new life through the conjugal act. It may seem that this one flesh union is solely physical, however, the Lord Jesus Christ himself references this verse in his time on earth saying, “Man and wife are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Christ points out the unbreakable union of their lives under God their creator. This unbreakable union is supported by the term to “hold-fast” from Genesis, which refers to faithfulness to a covenant.
These main verses that the Catholic church bases her teaching on the purpose of married love: unity and procreation. The Catholic Catechism consolidates these saying,
Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the
person enter- appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and
affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply
personal unity, a unity that beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming
one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in a
definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility.
Because of the level of physical intimacy and sharing required by the conjugal act, which was creatively designed by God, it naturally creates a unitive bond between husband and wife. Sex physically requires a vulnerability and openness; a sharing of whole self that cannot be experienced in any other way. This unitive aspect cannot be separated from the procreative significance
. It is written in the Holy Bible that God commands man and wife to multiply, but He also has written it in the design of our human anatomy. The Church teaches that, “the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination to man’s most lofty vocation of parenthood.”
It goes further even teaching that,
...an act of mutual love that prejudices the capacity to transmit
life which God the Creator has inserted therein according to
particular laws, is in contradiction with the design constitutive
of marriage and with the will of the author of life.
There is also unity in the marital act by being sharers in the creative Wisdom of God, through bringing new life into the world. Without the comprehension of these two inseparable purposes that God designed sex to have, a couple robs themselves of the fullest potential of their married life and fulfillment of God’s will. Put beautifully in the document the Gaudium et Spes, the Church states,
By virtue of this sacrament, as spouses fulfill their conjugal and
family obligation, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ,
which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity.
Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own
personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence
contribute jointly to the glory of God.
After learning God’s intentional purpose in the gift of conjugal love, we can also learn the important requirement of total self-giving love within the act. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church,
and wives are called to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
This self-giving applies to the conjugal act, as well as in the love relationship. Physically, husband and wife generously share all of themselves and give not to receive, but to enrich the other with the gift of themselves.
Each couple must therefore accept the other’s gift, and in acceptance, then there is also a gift. John Paul II uses the term “interpenetrate” to describe this mutual exchange of full self. He adds, “...finding of oneself in giving oneself becomes the source of a new giving of oneself.”
If anything is held back, physically or even mentally or emotionally, it is not a true act of love. “Total personal self-giving, in which the whole person including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally.
The highest form of love is agape, or love that is selfless, sacrificial and unconditional; and therefore requires all of oneself. This total self-giving in an all encompassing, physical, emotional and spiritual way, is unique to the sacrament of marriage in the act of conjugal love. “The interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God the Creator,”
is a witness of trinitarian love in time. There is no separation between spouses, not physical nor spiritual, and they become truly one flesh and “...where flesh is one, one is the spirit.”
This is the depth which conjugal love was intended to have, which is completely opposite to the “use” of sex that our society instructs.
Through offering one’s whole self to unite and procreate, God’s design fills us with joy and delight. A fruit of the conjugal act is the enjoyment and pleasure received through giving. St. Thomas Aquinas explained the fruit of enjoyment as this: “To enjoy implies a certain relation of the will to the last end, according as the will has something by way of last end. Now an end is possessed in two ways; perfectly and imperfectly. Perfectly, when it is possessed not only in intention but also in reality.”
That is a mouthful of philosophical terms, but in my own interpretation, perfectly attained enjoyment comes from reality, not from intention; true joy comes in the form of a gift rather than something that is sought after. It is difficult for us humans to distinguish our intentions of an act, when we know that we will find pleasure in doing it. However, we can take St. Thomas Aquinas’ description to mean that the deepest pleasures in the conjugal act come when the intention is to give and please the other. Another doctor of the church, St. Augustine wrote, “To enjoy is to adhere lovingly to something for its own sake."
Scripture tells us that God intends us to delight in each other in the way of conjugal love, it is part of his gift and creative design. Proverbs 5:19 says, “Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” On the other side of the spectrum, there are scrupulous beliefs that sex is naughty and dirty, but God deliberately created our bodies to be sexually attracted to and to pleasing to one another. After all, there is no known function of the clitoris other than the female orgasm, which has no reproductive function.
The Catholic Catechism states, “The Creator himself...established that in the generative function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit.”
This is contrast to lust which seeks pleasure apart from the purpose of sexual intimacy.
From this inspired delight, we can draw even closer to our spouses, which leads us back to the original purpose. In the famous Song of Solomon, the lovers yearn and take so much joy in each other physically. It is clear that the Beloved (the bride) gives her whole body without reservation, even referring to her body as his, “Let my love come into his garden, let him taste its most exquisite fruits.”
The husband rejoices in the beauty of his bride, “How delicious is your love, more delicious than wine! How fragrant your perfumes, more fragrant than all spices!” and he goes on, “I come into my garden, my sister, my promised bride, I pick my myrrh and balsam, I eat my honey and my honeycomb, I drink my wine and my milk,” and the chorus of others urges them forward in their love, “Eat, friends, and drink, and be drunk with love!”
Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) of 2006 refers to Song of Songs in both its literal and allegorical meaning, stating that erotic love (eros) and self-donating love (agape) is shown there as the two halves of true love. Pope Benedict XVI pulls together both kinds of love by saying,
Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication,
but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed
inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and
thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God
The topic of conjugal love is not really something discussed through lives of the saints because it is something so personal to the life of the married couple. However, married saints do exist! One recent state native to the United States is Saint Gianna Beretta Molla who passed in 1962 and was canonized in 2004. She was a wife, mother of five and doctor of pediatrics who was dedicated her family and vocation of helping others through medical work. Saint Gianna died giving birth to her 5th daughter Gianna Emanuela, when she refused to abort the baby after finding out she had fibroma in her uterus.
Blessed John Paul II, remembered her at the Sunday Angelus of September 23, 1973 saying, “A young mother from the diocese of Milan, who, to give life to her daughter, sacrificed her own, with conscious immolation.”
She was a woman successful in fulfilling God’s will for life in being a devoted wife and self-giving mother while also sustaining her vocation of medical work. We can also acknowledge her marriage as a source of strength in helping her to be the best possible version of herself that was so holy.
Beyond just the canonized saints of the Catholic church, I extended my examples to those holy couples in the whole Body of Christ. I think that these following pieces of advice are encompassing to conjugal love an all that it confirms of love. Peter Kreeft writes, “Sex is a sign of goodness of life. Every baby conceived is a sign that God has not given up on man. It is not a mere product of automatic nature, but a deliberate act of God. God makes a soul when we make a body.”
This co-creation with God Almighty is something so unfathomably wonderful, that only a married couple gets to participate in. Another insightful quote is from Gary Thomas author of Sacred Marriage, “The maintenance of love requires a partnership with God- what you might describe as an ongoing act of revelation. We learn to look at these persons as sacred beings made in the image of God and through whom God wants to reveal himself to us.”
Through the intimacy that God created us to have with our spouse, He teaches us more and more about love. Our relationship with our spouse is supposed to imitate Christ and the church.
This physical and tangible love and selflessness allows us to learn and fall deeper in love with Christ.
Before I did research about this paper, I think I was expecting the “rules and regulations” of the Catholic Church. I was almost searching for the logistical and tedious answers to conjugal love and what the Catechism teaches about it. Conjugal love is something that I am undeniably looking forward to, as an engaged woman, and also someone who has struggled with sexual immorality in the past. What I have found and been penetrated with (also through prayer in writing this) is that the logistics are definitely not what should be focused on. Paul in his First letter to the Corinthians spoke straight to me: “The married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say...not to lay restraint upon you, but to promote good order and secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Yes, this marital act is physical, but it is also equally and if not more spiritual.
If God’s will in the center of intention of your marriage, God’s endless love will be manifested in the physical act of marriage. It is completely full of joy and pleasures, and is beautiful in that way, but so much more a means for husband and wife to become one heart and soul and attain human perfection.
I asked a fellow Franciscan University student why the Church doesn’t teach more about sex and she responded something like, “The Church is a teacher of the heart, not of the muscles.” By teaching our sentient hearts and minds of God’s calling to married couples, His creative design and intention of our bodies will be made visible.
In an even broader outlook, the act of conjugal love in marriage and the procreation of more beings who grow up knowing, loving and serving God, is a witness of love to everyone who experiences its fruits. Jesus commands us in the Great Commission to go make disciples, baptize, and teach them everything He has taught us.
The fruit of marriage which is children are our arrows that we shoot off into the world to preach the Gospel and to live out God’s will in their own life; hence the cycle repeats. We get to glorify God in our bodies by fulfilling the purpose of unity and procreation, and imitating the constant, perfect, total love by God the Father and His Son Jesus and the most Holy Spirit. Marriage is God’s gift to man, the gift of a helper, a teammate in life to help us be the person He created us to be, a person to hold hands and run into the arms of Christ with, and a person to experience complete self-giving through the beautiful act of conjugal love.
Lord I pray that whoever reads this, single or married will have a better understanding of your will and the role of Christian married couples in Your great kingdom.
I love and adore you and thank you and praise you.
I am so grateful that you have called me to serve you through being the wife of Cameron John Chadwick.