July 15, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Reflections on marriage’s sexual dimension

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

“Authentic love needs to … welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union” (“The Joy of Love,” #157).

Pope Francis does not shy away from discussing the role of sex in marriage. Following his predecessors, Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, our current pope wants to make sure that Catholic teaching on sex is seen in its most positive and life-giving light.

“Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is ‘a negation of the value of human sexuality,’ or that the Church simply tolerates sexuality ‘because it is necessary for procreation,’ ” Pope Francis writes. “Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon, ‘and there can be no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity’ ” (“The Joy of Love,” #150).

The Church does teach that discipline and self-mastery are essential to a healthy sexuality. “Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity” (#151). The erotic dimension of love in marriage is integral to the complete gift-of-self that is uniquely present in the marital covenant that allows an individual man and an individual woman to become “one flesh.” As Pope Francis observes, “a healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the [physical] impulses” (#151).

The pursuit of sexual pleasure in marriage is in no way “a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family” (#152).

On the contrary, the joy of authentic, life-giving sex contributes directly to the unity and self-giving of married couples. This truly positive view of the meaning of sex in marriage sets Catholic teaching apart from all attempts to reduce sexual activity to something that degrades or dehumanizes couples. This positive understanding of sex is essential to what Pope Francis calls “a healthy realism” that can balance conflicting views ranging from “anything goes” to “nothing doing” (#153).

“It is, after all, a fact that sex often becomes depersonalized and unhealthy; as a result, ‘it becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desire and instincts’ ” (#153). It is never permissible to use another person as an object of our own self-gratification. “In our own day,” the Holy Father writes, “sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of ‘use and discard.’ The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing” (#153).

Even in marriage, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation. Quoting Pope Paul VI, the Holy Father reminds us that “the conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife” (#154).

The pursuit of sexual pleasure in marriage is a good thing, an occasion of intimacy, joy and real love. What’s more, it is a source of wonder and amazement at the “gift” that the other person is to his or her spouse. As a sacrament, marriage unites a woman and a man in a lifelong partnership that forms an indissoluble bond that transcends their physical unity. That’s why the joy of marriage is not contingent on youth and beauty, but continues even in the face of the trouble and tragedies of living and growing old together.

None of us is perfect—in our sexuality or in any other aspect of our lives. The human condition too often involves weakness, infidelity and sin. That’s why mercy, the ability to forgive ourselves and others, is so important to a healthy human sexuality. “Still, we must never forget that our human equilibrium is fragile; there is a part of us that resists real human growth, and any moment it can unleash the most primitive and selfish tendencies” (#157).

In matters of sexuality, a “healthy realism” is called for. Let’s thank God for the great gift of intimate, physical love expressed joyfully in marriage. Let’s also pray for the grace to be disciplined and unselfish in our use of this great gift whether we are married, single or committed to celibacy or the vow of chastity. †

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