At a recent conference, I had the privilege of listening to an excellent presentation on the topic of charity by a very well known Catholic apologist, who will remain nameless. At some point, his talk on Christian love shifted from a discussion of caritas to eros, and the presenter moved into the subject of sexual desire. His contention was that the physical pleasure of sexual intercourse itself was a gift from God and, to go further, specifically a gift by which God shares his life with us. After making a harmless joke about the joys of frequent sex in marriage he added, to the delightful applause of the crowd, “I like getting grace THAT way!” His proposition that sexual desire was holy, and that we get grace by enjoying it, seemed to be met with wholesale agreement. While, as a married person, in many ways I too liked and approved of his statement, I also couldn’t help thinking there might have been something theologically and anthropologically missing.
Church history is dotted with hetero-orthodox groups who have discounted the goodness of the material world, in general, and the human body and physical pleasures, in particular. The Gnostics, the Manicheans, the Albigensians, and the Puritans, to name a few, are each well known for their rejection of the natural in favor of the supernatural; refusing the flesh and all that goes with it in order to focus exclusively on attempting a hyper-spiritualized existence. This heretical view of the natural world has been present in some modern opinions about sexuality, particularly in the more negative perception that was prevalent in the pre-1960s Church. Much of the post Humanae Vitae/Theology of the Body generation has tended to lump all of these views together, including those which, though thoroughly orthodox, lean to the more conservative, pessimistic, or, in contemporary estimation, prudish side. Altogether these perspectives have been viewed as a stumbling block to the true, and much more optimistic, understanding of sexuality presented to us by Popes Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II. While it is true that in many ways the pendulum needed to move in this more positive direction, it can be argued that it has now gone far enough, and could benefit from a slight shift back the other way. A fitting guide for this reevaluation of the goodness of sexual desire is St. Augustine; a man who persevered in his own struggles with chastity and faith and therefore can give us tremendous insight into the realities of sin, grace, and the interplay between the two.
Augustine taught that our physical desires (concupiscence) resulted from the Fall, and as such are inherently dysfunctional. Among the consequences of original sin listed by God in Genesis was his warning to the woman that your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master (Gen 3:16). While Augustine certainly affirmed the goodness of the body and the created world (a recognition which was instrumental in his break from the Manicheans), he hesitated to go so far as to affirm the goodness of the natural desires associated with it. He tended, for example, to take the Pauline perspective of marriage in which conjugal union is seen not so much a good thing in itself as a proper and acceptable way to channel sexual desires and, most importantly, provide the means for the physical production of more Christians.
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Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, deemphasized the impact of original sin on humanity, and therefore endorsed a wholly positive view of the human person which did not require the saving graces of baptism. In his over-optimism regarding human nature, Pelagius and his followers would tend to favor a more positive view of human desires, including those pertaining to sexuality. Involved in an ongoing debate with the Pelagians, Augustine argued in his letter to Julian of Eclanum that marriage was a remedy for the concupiscence resulting from our fallen human nature and, according to him, “no one offers a remedy to one in good health.” He spoke of sexuality in somewhat utilitarian terms, suggesting that “one who observes moderation in carnal concupiscence makes good use of something evil; one who does not observe moderation makes bad use of something evil.”
In Augustine’s opinion, the goods of marriage were its capacity to promote faithfulness (Augustine said that marriage “stands in horror at the impiety of divorce”) and to “unite the sexes for the sake of having children.” He provides a stern warning for married couples, reminding them of the necessary struggle involved in marriage caused by original sin, whereby the goods of marriage fight against the evil of concupiscence, a battle in which goodness will hopefully gain the upper hand, but that will always lurk as a temptation for married persons. According to Augustine:
[Marriage] does not allow … evil to do anything forbidden, even though it never ceases to arouse one to such things, at times with weaker, at other times with stronger feelings, and it makes good use of its evil for the propagation of children. Who would deny that it is evil except someone who does not listen to the apostle’s warning I say this, however, as a concession, not as a command (1 Cor 7:6). When married couples are overcome, not by the desire to have children, but by the desire to enjoy carnal pleasure, and have intercourse, the apostle does not praise this, but excuses it in comparison with what is worse, because marriage intervenes and intercedes on their behalf.
With this early fifth century Catholic perspective in mind, now fast forward to the twentieth century. Humanae Vitae made lots of waves for the social and pastoral side of the Church when it came to its teaching on contraception. But the bigger waves created in the realm of theology came from its teaching about the purpose of sex. According to Paul VI, there were two purposes to marital intercourse: the traditionally held (and obvious) aspect of procreation, and the unity of spouses. This has been interpreted by many, it seems, to say that marital sex is meant to unify spouses, at least in part, due to the pleasure they mutually receive in the marital act. This interpretation might be a bit of a jump from what we actually find in the text of Humanae Vitae, especially later in the document when we read “to dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence” (para. 21). Married people tend to like the idea that sexual pleasure is a divinely designed glue in the Holy bond of matrimony given for the purpose of making us happier and more fulfilled spouses. However Scripture, patristic writings, and papal encyclicals seem to give us the impression that its adhesive qualities are always ordered specifically towards procreation, not towards gratification. Pope Paul’s repeated emphasis on the necessity of abstinence suggest that his idea of the unity of the spouses may have been closer to what we would find in Augustine than in books with titles like “Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.”
The crux of the issue, for us, is the question of whether our bodily desires point us towards God or, on the other hand, distract us from the beatific vision. The optimism which has characterized many unique varieties of humanism throughout history would tend to say that our desires themselves are good, and can be seen as points of contact with the divine. Christopher West, perhaps the most famous promoter of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, supports this perspective wholeheartedly. According to his blog, “when sexuality is lived in an ordered manner, it becomes a path that leads to the divine, to the Infinite.” In another post, he contends that God creates us as sexual beings with desire for sexual union “precisely to tell the story of his love for us. In the biblical view, the fulfillment of love between the sexes is a great foreshadowing of something quite literally ‘out of this world’–the infinite bliss and ecstasy that awaits us in heaven.”
If this is the case, though, and our sexual desire is supposed to point us towards union with God, then it seems that this recognition should automatically be accompanied by an obligation to follow the upward trajectory implicit in the design; moving from the more basic, sensual pleasures towards higher, super-sexual ones. The transcendentals, in the Platonic sense, are not so much goods to be enjoyed themselves as instances of beauty which move us beyond the sensual to the realm of the true. In other words, as we enjoy them, we should begin realizing that we aren’t supposed to dwell in that enjoyment. Modern culture, on the other hand, would lead us to believe that frequent sex is not only an indicator of, but a requisite for, a “happy” marriage.
The more pessimistic approach towards human nature, which seems to have tugged at St. Augustine to some degree especially in his later years, would be more comfortable with the notion that while goodness is found in the natural world, and while our physical desires are not totally devoid of positive purpose, they are certainly less than perfect, and as such will always pose a threat to humanity’s quest for union with God. If Christian love is primarily defined by a dying to self, gratifying pleasure seems somewhat out of place when held as a good in itself, even when enjoyed with mutual respect and openness to life. If marriage is lived in the context of sacrifice, it seems that conjugal relations for the purpose of procreation, rather than the enjoyment of spouses, is more fitting. As the Pastoral Constitution for the Church in the Modern World stated, “the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown” (Gaudium et Spes, para. 48).
While it is easy to see how contraception and infidelity are abuses of the sexual faculty, it is more difficult to determine the proper usage of sex within marriage sought apart from purposeful childbearing. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales warned “to those who are married, it is quite true, although the mass of men cannot perceive it, that they stand greatly in the need of chastity. For in them it lies not in total abstinence from carnal pleasures, but in self-control amidst pleasures. And just as to my mind there is more difficulty in the precept ‘Be ye angry and sin not’ than in ‘Be not angry,’ and that it is easier to avoid anger than to regulate it; so it is easier wholly to abstain from carnal lusts than to be moderate amid them.”
Is this to say that marital intercourse during periods of infertility is morally blameworthy? Should we only have sex when we are trying to achieve a pregnancy? I would say no, though Augustine might disagree with me. The more positive estimation of marital intimacy offered to us in the past few decades is an example of legitimate development in doctrine, and has real merit in its application to our understanding of human nature, sacrament, and the aesthetic worldview which lies so close to the heart of the Catholic faith. But nonetheless we ought to at least consider the possibility that indulging our desires, even when done lawfully and therefore without sin, can still get in the way of our path for holiness. Those desires can, if we allow them to control us rather than controlling them, cause us to make choices that are more about satisfaction, which loiters at the door of selfishness, than about sacrifice, which is integral to authentic love.
Editor’s note: The above image titled “L’idylle” was painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1850.