"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, May 18, 2009

Must thinking about sex be an oxymoron?

No, but sometimes it seems so. There's usually little sound thinking on the topic, and even when there is, it gets drowned out by gaffes, sound bites, kvetching, and plain old embarassment.

At the moment, Poland and the United States seem to have something in common beyond their geopolitical alliance: Catholics who feel the need to glorify conjugal sex. Many Americans have now become aware of Pope John Paul the Great's "theology of the body" through the recent, double-edged Nightline interview with TOB's chief popularizer, Christopher West. Until now, TOB has been the preserve of a small minority of American Catholics who are theologically orthodox but cannot be classified as "traditionalists." Their opponents usually describe them derisively as "neo-Caths." Across the pond, the small minority of European Catholics who take official Church teaching about sexuality seriously have been made familiar with TOB by the Rev. Ksawery Knotz's new guide entitled Sex As You Don't Know It: For married couples who love God. That book, which I had time only to leaf through in the library, seems to me a much-needed updating of the old "marriage manuals" sometimes given to couples of my parents' generation. On the other hand, the best thing I can say about the West interview is that all publicity is good publicity. I agree with the critiques of his presentation offered here and here by unquestionably sound Catholic thinkers. The curious thing, though, is that both West and Knotz have sparked misunderstanding and therefore criticism of TOB from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. That is rather typical of all things Catholic these days. I think it opportune to defend TOB while, at the same time, giving the critics their due.

The basic problem TOB advocates face is a prejudice common to both ecclesial and secular culture in the West: that wanting good sex does not mix with authentic Christian spirituality. The general assumption seems to be that pursuing sexual pleasure, even within marriage, runs counter to the love of God as understood by the Great Tradition of Christianity. Unbelievers have no more trouble than some believers in seeing that "the flesh" wars against "the spirit" (Gal 5:17). This topic is one of the central salients in spiritual combat, as priests who hear the confessions of males know all too well. Its also being the most widely discussed is not altogether unreasonable from any standpoint. If only because of the effects of original sin, the deadly sin of lust is common and even manifests itself in marriages. Like any other deadly sin, lust is incompatible with the love of God and neighbor, even if the neighbor happens to be one's spouse. It doesn't even take faith to know that the line between lust and healthy sexual desire is quite porous. So the notion that one should strive to be both good in bed and an orthodox Catholic seems ludicrous to unbelievers and disaffected Catholics as well as to many traditional believers.

But all that only tells us what is the case. The purpose of TOB is to discern more fully God's original plan for human sexuality, and thus to tell us what can and ought to be the case. It can and ought to be the case that sexual relations between spouses both express and foster their genuine, spiritual love for one another, what the late pope called their "complete, mutual self-gift." In that context, their sexual pleasure becomes a medium for, rather than an obstacle to, the love of a God who has given us the great gift of sexuality for the sake of profound interpersonal communion. That such a message will fall mostly on deaf ears is only to be expected of secularists, both explicit and de facto. Among educated Catholics, however, resistance to that message does not arise simply from awareness of the dangers of lust. If that were the only difficulty, it could be chalked to up to cynicism, an attitude always called "realism" by its true victims. Such pessimism was pretty much St. Augustine's—unsurprising in a man who had fathered an illegitimate child in his oat-sowing days, and was inspired to a kind of asceticism by reading about St. Antony of Egypt. But TOB distinguishes healthy sexual desire from the sin of lust rather realistically, and that distinction is not in any case what occasions the most basic objection—save from people who, given their experience and level of spiritual development, are inclined to believe that sexual desire is always lust. I'm afraid that the main basis for objection is, once again, the hermeneutic of discontinuity.

As I've often said before, most progressives and traditionalists assume that some of the doctrinal developments rightly associated with the documents of Vatican II are innovations discontinuous with prior, definitive teachings of the Church. TOB is seen by progs and trads alike as one of those developments. What makes TOB a special case, though, is that both progs and trads dislike it; typically, progs like innovations as much as trads dislike them. To give some idea of the context for this unique situation, I shall begin with an ostensibly arcane but actually quite crucial point: the difference between the definitions of the object of matrimonial consent given in the 1917 and 1983 codes of canon law respectively.

The older code says that the object of matrimonial consent is "a right to the body, a right both perpetual and exclusive, for the purpose of performing the actions apt by their nature to procreate children" (c. 1081 §2). That arose from the long-standing theological doctrine that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, a purpose which could only be carried out adequately by a couple's mutual conferral of a "perpetual and exclusive" right to sex of the procreative sort. But the newer code defines getting married as "an act of will by which a man and a woman, by an irrevocable covenant, mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage” (c.1057, §2; emphasis added). On this showing, the object of matrimonial consent is logically equivalent to a theologically expansive definition of marriage: a "covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring" (c. 1055 §1).

That "covenantal" definition of marriage for juridical purposes, as distinct from the older, thinner "contractual" view, was occasioned by the words of Vatican II:

The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the jugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole. By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt. 19:ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them (Gaudium et spes §48; emphasis added).

Notice that the GS account pointedly omits the old teaching that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation. Instead, it says that marriage is "ordained" thereto and that children are the "ultimate crown" of marriage, because they are a gift which God typically, but not always, chooses to bestow on a couple within a relationship naturally ordered to spiritual not merely physical fruitfulness. Accordingly, the indissolubility of marriage is a spiritual exigency arising not merely from its necessity for the proper upbringing of children, but also from the "intimate union" of the "persons" of spouses in their "mutual gift" of themselves. Such a union is in fact constitutive of the marital "covenant." It is a spiritual reality first established, regularly expressed, and hopefully solidified by conjugal intercourse, and thus makes the couple fit not merely to reproduce, which any animal can do, but to procreate. That is why "having sex" is meant to be "making love" and, mirabile dictu, sometimes is. In my experience, women tend to get that much more readily than men. Despite my oft-expressed rejection of much contemporary feminism, they don't say men are dogs for nothing.

All the same, the first thing to be said about this theological development is that it is not discontinuous with prior, definitive doctrine. Rather, it is perfectly consonant with the vision of marriage laid out in Ephesians 5: 21ff, where spouses are urged to "be subordinate to one another" in such wise that their relationship signifies, and helps to make concrete, the loving union between Christ and the Church. That is what makes marriage "a great mystery," a musterion (5:32)—or, what is called in Latin a sacramentum, the term with which the Vulgate translates musterion. Thus the sacramentality of marriage, which the Lord himself sought to restore by insisting on indissoluble monogamy, consists in how the physical union of sexual intercourse establishes, expresses, and facilitates a fundamentally spiritual union. This is not to deny, of course, that the fundamental natural purpose of sex and marriage is procreation. Nor is it to deny that matrimonial consent involves what the 1917 Code said it does. It is simply to bring out explicitly what is sacramental and thus supernatural about matrimony. True as far as it went, the older juridical definition of marriage did not do that.

On the eve of the "sexual revolution," and for reasons I needn't belabor, progressive Catholics enthusiastically welcomed the aforesaid development. What they didn't count on, though, was how the papal magisterium employed it to reiterate an ancient teaching which, within living memory, had become extremely unpopular: the ban on contraception.

In Humanae Vitae (1968), Pope Paul VI asserted that the "conjugal act" has both unitive and procreative "significance," and that its purpose is accordingly dual: spiritual as well as physical, with the latter reflecting and enhancing the former. But that is also the main reason he gave for reiterating that "direct [intentional--ML] interruption of the generative process," i.e. contraception, is gravely wrong. He argued, in effect, that actively blocking procreation unavoidably entails corrupting the "unitive" or spiritual quality of the conjugal relationship, and confidently projected a general lowering of morals and of respect for women if a contraceptive mentality set in. The forty years since have proved him to be perfectly right. But at the time, not many people bought the projection or the argument. That is why, toward the end of his "catechesis" on TOB in 1984 (cf. #119 and ff), Pope John Paul endeavored to bolster the argument. According to TOB, a couple's withholding the gift of their own fertility from each other amounted to rendering their mutual self-gift less than complete, thus reducing their degree of union, opening the way to lust, and obscuring what is sacramental about marriage. Needless to say, progs have not bought that argument either. To this day, they do not at all concede that Vatican II's personalistic account of marriage requires upholding the traditional ban on contraception.

Progs continue to uphold the personalism, however, and it's not hard to understand why. If marriage is what Vatican II said it is, and the object of matrimonial consent is accordingly what the current Code implies it is, then the juridical grounds for nullity emerge as broader than in the past. Most people, at the time of their wedding, are quite capable of understanding and freely consenting to "marriage" as the old Code defines it; that is mainly why annulments were so hard to get prior to Vatican II. But nowadays it is unrealistic to hold that most Catholics, let alone most people, understand and freely consent to marriage as the new Code defines it. Hence, in the English-speaking countries at least, divorced Catholics who desire to remarry in the Church can, and often do, get annulments for the purpose of doing so. That ever-shrinking minority of theological progressives who still uphold the doctrine of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage approve of such relative liberality. I do too.

It goes without saying, however, that most trads do not. Their attitude is not hard to understand either. Many Catholic couples marrying these days, within as well as outside the Church, are indisposed to understand, let alone embrace, exactly what is meant by marriage as a sacramental covenant going beyond a mere contract for "perpetual and exclusive right" to sex of the procreative sort. Understood as such a right, indissolubility makes perfect juridical sense; but "covenant"? Explicitly or implicitly, most couples think of the marital covenant as a fuzzy, optional ideal rather than as a clear and binding norm: as long as we "love" each other, we're in covenant, whatever that means; but when we don't anymore, we (probably?) aren't. Human nature and the state of our culture alone would be enough to explain, if not exonerate, that attitude. And in many marriage tribunals until quite recently, marital failure was often taken, just in itself, as strong evidence of the sacramental invalidity of the failed marriages. That was, and to some extent still is, a pastoral abuse. But the theological problem actually runs deeper.

The larger passage about marriage in Gaudium et spes, a selection from which I quoted above, contains many syntactically indicative statements about marriage. E.g., a married couple provide mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. Now I once heard the late Elizabeth Anscombe react to that by asking: "And what if they don't?" The point is well taken—for they often don't. One might put the point as a question: if the ideal is the norm, then what is to preclude saying that those who find they cannot attain the ideal are no longer bound by the norm? The Fathers of Vatican II clearly sought to preclude that conclusion, but it still isn't clear how to induce people to "get it." Marriage-preparation classes usually aren't much help.

As I've suggested, progs approve the wiggle-room for annulments provided willy-nilly in the new code, to the extent they uphold "indissolubility" at all. That wiggle-room disturbed John Paul II, who sought to reduce it by using TOB to argue that the baptized really are capable, as a rule and with divine help, of consenting to and living out marriage as defined under the new code. So, in addition to the use of TOB to bolster the traditional teaching on contraception, its use to support the dominical and formally defined doctrine of marital indissolubility also disturbed progs. But the trads, by and large, have not been mollified. That, I believe, is essentially because the prog and trad objections to TOB are mirror images of each other.

The prog objection is that the moral teaching TOB was meant to bolster remains too objectivistic: it doesn't give enough weight to the actual experience of the faithful, but disappoints by upholding rigid moral norms that used to be explained in purely natural-law terms. TOB, in this view, still presents a narrow and unrealistic ideal as the norm, thus making the teaching of the Church about sexuality and marriage as pastorally destructive as it was once theologically paltry. In other words, the abstract has been made the enemy of the concrete. The trad objection is also that Church teaching has become pastorally destructive, but for the opposite reason: the personalism which has so influenced Catholic development of doctrine about marriage is too subjectivistic. By making "love" essential to rather than merely desirable within marriage, it allows people who claim not to "love" each other to rationalize ditching their spouses and seeking sexual fulfillment in new spouses. In other words, the mystical has been made the enemy of the attainable. In both cases, the developed teaching of the Church on sexuality is seen as unrealistic.

Some critics from both ends of the spectrum have extended that critique to "nuptial-mystery theology" in general, of which TOB is the best-known application. NMT is a theological paradigm which, as I explained here, impinges as much on ecclesiology and even triadology as on sexuality. Essentially, the criticism is that TOB in particular and NMT in general are forms of "realized eschatology." What that means may be explained as follows.

The key to understanding eschatology is that it seeks to explain both the relationship and the distance between the "already" manifest reality of the Kingdom—i.e. the Church, and all who are drawn by the grace she mediates—and the "not yet" of the Kingdom whose definitive establishment awaits the Second Coming. Hence the Church, for example, is both the spotless Bride of Christ, one body with him in a mystical marriage—the "already" part—and a pilgrim Church of sinners, on the way to the consummation of that mystical marriage in the fully realized Kingdom—the "not-yet" part. So, the charge of "realized eschatology" is just a rather portentous-sounding way of saying that TOB and NMT emphasize the "already" at the expense of the "not yet." Or, if you like, it's a way of saying that they present a yet-to-be-attained ideal as the norm.

The charge is spurious. It reflects the same sort of despair about which Chesterton observed that "the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has not been tried at all." Consider that is precisely the relationship between the already and the not-yet which explains how sinners can become saints while, in a real sense, remaining sinners as long as they remain with the Church Militant. Regarding conjugal sexuality, it is precisely that relationship which explains how a human faculty corrupted by original sin can nonetheless function as an important occasion of grace for the mutual sanctification of spouses. But neither progs nor trads seem to grasp that. They seem to believe that the ideal of holiness within marriage that TOB presents is so unrealistic as to undermine willingness to embrace it. But that's the main problem Christians have with Christianity in general. If that's not a reason to ditch Christianity, it's not a reason to ditch TOB.

To my mind, that's evidence of TOB's soundness. It's too bad that advocates like Christopher West obscure that with grandstanding. But it's good that priests like Fr. Knotz soldier on anyhow. Somebody's got to show that thinking about sex needn't be either lustful or prudish, and thus oxymoronic.
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