The Purpose of Sex in Marriage

Marriage requires sex. This seems to be the sine qua non of marriage even in a world where the definition of marriage has been broadened in ways never imagined even a generation ago. And indeed marriage does require sex because sex is unitive in a unique way and marriage is about union. A shake of the hand, a pat on the shoulder, or a kiss on the cheek are not simply different degrees of contact on the same scale as a truly sexual act. They are different in kind and quality. The unitive nature of sex is a quality over and above its procreative nature. In the love that renders our sexual acts truly human, a man and woman unite beyond their biological natures. But is that love rooted in the physical warmth and intimacy of the sexual act or is it rooted in its biologically creative purpose? Understanding the unitive nature of our sexuality dovetails with an understanding of ourselves as the lovers we are meant to be. To live our sexuality fully is to see that its unitive nature completes us as persons, as couples and as a people. Likewise, to live it incompletely renders us incomplete and divided.

Humanae Vitae recognized that sexual relations between married adults could be both unitive and procreative, clearly indicating that sex had value beyond simple procreation. But in recognizing the unitive nature of sex as different from its procreative nature Humanae Vitae did not separate the two. The encyclical declares that the doctrine taught within it “… is based on the inseparable connection … between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (article 12). Yet, despite clearly asserting their unity, the popular mind, in its rush to embrace contraception, separated the two, claiming the unitive nature of sex remains unaffected when removed from the procreative. Many of us, including most Catholics, both lay and clerical, grabbed the “unitive” and ran. We ran away from Humanae Vitae as fast as we could, leaving its procreative link behind.

Perhaps we should have asked before we cut and ran, can sex that is not open to procreation, sex that is shut off from its very nature, be unitive? We need only look about in a hyper-sexualized world to see there is no inherent unitive value in sex divorced from its natural end. With a fifty percent chance that a marriage will end in divorce, with non-marital live-in arrangements coming and going, and with myriad sexual relationships never meant to last more than a single evening, to postulate sex as inherently unitive would be absurd. Perhaps Humanae Vitae was right in connecting the unitive nature of sex to its procreative nature. A marriage that accepts in every conjugal act the possibility of a child with its own needs, changes the nature of a relationship into something larger than its two participants. In considering the yet to be conceived child, a man and wife subordinate their lives to another. Their love for each other is no longer solely about themselves but a gift to their child not yet conceived. It is this love, rooted in the creative nature of the sexual act, that makes it unitive.

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Separating the procreative nature of our sexuality from its unitive nature destroys the very thing that makes it unitive. The simple act of contraception radically changes the sexual act transforming it into something completely different, much as a trip to the moon with all its joys, thrills and perils is different from a computer simulation of the same. Those sharing a small capsule to the moon share a real experience in a real way with a real achievement. They become different people united in a unique way. They are true travelers. The participants in the computer simulation share no more than the thrill of a video game, a moment rather than a journey. They are faux travelers. Likewise creative sex and purposely sterile sex are not two variations on a continuum. They are completely different acts. Our own language deceives us in using the word “sex” to refer to both. Sexuality open to creation truly embarks upon a journey in life, one with joys and sorrows, one that changes the lives of its participants beyond their will, and one that requires a continual openness to the life of another.

Sexuality divorced from its nature is a faux sexuality. In its best sense (one that ignores abortion, the pain of children unwanted and love lost) it is a simple high between two people. Like our simulated lunar excursion its experience can be intense and, certainly shared, but there is no true journey, only moments, moments closed to a possible other. To assert a unitive nature in faux sexuality is to claim a relationship with truly creative sexuality where none exists. The one is no more the other than a lunar excursion to a real moon is to a digital simulation, one with no moon at all. To describe both as “sex” is a contradiction. A word that mocks itself renders itself meaningless.

The meaning of “sex,” however, is foundational to who we are as men and women. When it becomes meaningless, we break unity with our own selves. If “sex” has no real meaning then neither does “male” or “female.” These terms have no concrete meaning without the words “mother” and “father.” Sex independent of creation divorces “mother” and “father” from “male” and “female.” Because its definition is no longer anchored to a tangible reality, a sexuality divorced from parenthood requires only the illusion of being male and female. In progressive modern terms to be a male or female no longer pertains to an empirically and visually verifiable observation. Rather, it is a decision subjectively made by each person regardless of biological fact. A surgeon can now remove a person’s sex organs, add some cosmetic alterations, and insist all buy into the illusion that a person’s sex has been changed, when it has actually been removed. Only in a world cut loose from sexual reality could this be seen as therapeutic rather than barbaric. In such a world “male” and “female” truly mean nothing at all.

Nor are the terms “mother” and “father” anchored to any reality when no longer tied to our creative sexual natures. When cut adrift from the concept of male, being a father retains no inherent connection to the sexual act. For many women, a full time, resident father is now optional. He is someone unnecessary if inconvenient. Yet a father diminished is only the beginning of sex that is no longer procreative. Both the high divorce rate and the number of fluid family relationships among those never married not only reduced the concept of the father as a basic part of a family, but also the concept of either or any natural parent as being particularly necessary for a child’s well being. It followed naturally that children were disposable, portable, and endlessly adaptable according to the perceived need of their ever-changing parents. When to be a man no longer includes fatherhood, his maleness becomes a simple biological attribute, a part separable from his humanity. Rather than a father he becomes a sperm donor. With men so reduced women can only suffer a similar fate. Already on the horizon the signs read, “Womb for Rent.”

With gender succumbing to the devastation of sex rendered meaningless, nothing remains to define marriage. But true marriage does have meaning and it is inherently unitive. Marriage is a true union of complements. To marry two things is to make them one. Two metals married become a single something else, a real, physical something else. Copper and tin melted together become brass, not two things, but one new unique thing with its own unique properties. But marriage is more than the simple pairing of complements. Marriage requires a unitive or marital act. Copper and tin require fire and cauldron to marry the two into brass. In the creative sex act two physically distinct and complementary people become organically one for the purpose of creating life. But as humans we are more than just animal natures. We exist as body and soul. Marital union requires both.

In addition to being biologically complete the sexual act must also be spiritually complete. The biological must have the full consent of the spiritual. Such an act is not only unitive within the individual, mating body and soul, tying male to father and female to mother, but also unitive between two individuals who unite as one and submit their will to a creative purpose larger then themselves. A true marital act is an integral part of a lifetime journey and not an occasional day trip. Marriage is a real union of two people that truly results in a relationship bonding a man and woman to each other and to their children, uniquely and physically. A marriage license does not validate the sex in a relationship, rather it is the sex, fully assented to in its true creative meaning, that validates the marriage. Wedding vows simply build a covenant to protect the marriage and the family it creates. A marriage without a true marital act is beyond definition, requiring neither complements nor true union. The vows preceding such a marriage simply affirm shared sentiments.

Marriage undefined and based on sentiment undermines the naturally unitive nature of the family. Instead of the loudly proclaimed diversity modern society yearns for, each family becomes less than unique. Marriage undefined requires a family undefined, a family whose natural and unique bonds have no value. In a family without definition the pieces of the family puzzle can no longer be individual, curvilinear pieces that neatly and uniquely fit each other. Instead the pieces must be crushingly reshaped as identical squares, pieces that can be readily interchanged from family to family.

Instead of the complexity of a molecular world of infinite combinations, the new family requires the simplified uniformity of the periodic table of elements. No longer do men love men as men, women love women as women, and men and women love each as the complements they are, but all are required to love interchangeably as faux men and faux women, engaging in faux sex. All relationships must seemingly mock the truly married rather than be special in their own way. Families are no longer uniquely constituted and inviolable but endlessly fungible according to the varying personal needs of their component parts.

Into this dissonant morass of words without meaning the term “same-sex marriage” is no longer an oxymoron. In a world where words have no sense it makes perfect sense. A self-sterilized society cannot credibly deny full participation to relationships sterile by their very nature. Though its more optimistic supporters proclaim it the medicine marriage needs to restore its fortunes, same-sex marriage is the natural culmination of sex torn from its creative roots. It would be wrong to blame its proponents for creating a crisis. Like most of us they simply accepted a sexuality already rendered meaningless as the new normal, a normal into which same-sex marriage naturally fit.

A sexuality without definition, one into which anything fits, can no more be unitive than discord can be melody. Separating the unitive nature of sex from its procreative nature removed the glue that truly bonds a man and woman into the unity of husband and wife. Without that bond the unity of mother, father and child cannot hold. By itself the unitive no longer unites but undertakes the mundane task of engendering good feelings between two people. By itself the procreative stands by ready for duty when it conveniently conforms to our plans. In breaking our sexuality into separate components we subordinated the “other” to our desires. A love restricted for the benefit of its exclusive participants challenges the very meaning of love. In breaking the bond between the unitive and the procreative we broke a part of ourselves that teaches us selfless love.

Like a child who breaks a vase and re-assembles the pieces to create the illusion of a vase still complete, we hid the breakage behind good words, words like “sex,” “marriage,” “male,” “female,” “husband,” “wife,” “father,” “mother,” and, most critically, “love.” We still use these words as they have been used for a seeming eternity before, but now they are façades covering the emptiness behind them. Like the guilty vase-breaking child we cannot bring the breakage into the light of day. Though a vase broken is readily renamed a pile of shards, we cannot name the pieces of our broken sexuality without admitting ourselves broken. In speaking empty words about things that matter we suffer the ultimate disunity. Rather than conversation that unites us as fellow travelers, we talk past each other with words that are empty boxes, boxes that each speaker and each listener fill with a meaning of choice. Instead of a people uniting, it is the chaos of Babel we approach. When we separated the unitive and procreative natures of our sexuality we lost both. Instead of unified and fertile, we find ourselves sterile and divided.

Ultimately, love is the foundation for all Catholic theology. In Church teachings on sexuality many of us have missed the love, preferring to see prohibitions that stand between us and the good life. But we need to see the love, because seeing it and living it will make us better lovers. Our sexuality is foundational to how we love, but a foundation without definition is no foundation at all. Words are important because we use their meanings to define who we are. When those words lose meaning, our lives lose meaning also. The language of love and sexuality is broken. Thinking it whole and knowing no better, good people now form their lives around this broken thing, hurting themselves on its broken, jagged edges.

We need to have a real conversation about real love with real words that have real meaning. Our sexuality lived in its truly creative meaning is a gift to another. That other is one who we know nothing of and who may never be. It is, however, one who depends on us completely to do the right thing. Living our sexuality for the child not yet conceived challenges us to be true lovers. Living it is not easy. In fact, it is incredibly difficult. But to live it rightly, to even fail repeatedly while trying to live it rightly, will only increase our love. The Catholic Church does not teach to condemn to hell but to elevate to heaven. Its teachings on sexuality are not a proclamation of sin but an invitation to people striving to love, an invitation that beckons, “Do you want to love more?”


  • Pete Jermann

    Pete Jermann is a self-employed craftsman and former homeschooling father.

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