Sex in the City of God: Why God Made Sex and Marriage
By Dr. Philip Blosser


Well, we’ve certainly come a long way in terms of sex and marriage, haven’t we. You know, I recently read the most amazing thing. I confess that I couldn’t help laughing a bit, though I felt a bit perverse for doing so. I read that a man in the state of Oregon had applied for a marriage license to marry his horse. I haven’t heard yet whether he succeeded in getting one, but this incident does raise quite nicely the question before us. Are there any limits to how we define the nature of marriage and the purposes of sex? On the one hand we have this secular world that increasingly seems to say no—that nature has no purposes of its own, that only people have purposes, and therefore people can do whatever they want with sex. On the other hand we have this ancient tradition that says yes—that nature does have purposes of its own, and so there are limits to how we can define marriage and the purposes of sex, and that these limits come from the nature of sex and marriage themselves as God made them.

Abraham Lincoln used to ask, “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” When people would answer, “Five,” Lincoln would correct them: “No, the answer is four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” This is certainly true. We may say whatever we like about a dog, but it doesn’t change the nature of a dog, and a dog’s tail was not made for walking. We can see this from the dog itself. Likewise, calling something a marriage doesn’t make it one, if it’s not. So can we also learn something about the nature of sex and marriage by examining sex and marriage themselves? I propose that we most certainly can, especially if do so in the light of the natural law tradition, which says that we learn what a thing is by what it does, and that we ought to treat a thing according to its nature. We don’t give a dog gasoline to drink, any more than we pump water into our gas tanks at the filling station. We learn how to take proper care of our cars and dogs by treating them according to their natures. This is called natural law. One can find this kind of analysis being offered as far back as the ancient Greeks. But perhaps the foremost exponent of natural law was the Catholic philosopher and theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, who made it one of the pillars of Catholic moral theory. Contrary to popular opinion, I think this venerable tradition of moral reasoning has a lot to teach us about sex and marriage today—much more, in fact, than we may realize.

Obstacles to understanding traditional Christian views of sex and marriage

But before turning to the topic at hand, I want to offer a bit more context for my remarks—in fact, quite a lot more context. First, I want to note how some ingrained assumptions make it very hard to fathom traditional views of sex and marriage today. C. S. Lewis noted this as far back as 1952 in two chapters of his book, Mere Christianity, devoted to sexual morality and marriage. He was not especially eager to deal with these subjects, he said, because the Christian doctrines on these subjects are extremely unpopular. He writes:

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

More about the instinct later. For now, suffice it to say that Lewis was already facing a world in 1952 that clearly thought the shoe was on the other foot, that the problem was not with our sexual instinct but with an outmoded Christianity.

But when we jump forward from Lewis’ day to our own, we find that the difficulty he faced is compounded by a second one. No one today under the age of thirty or so remembers what it was like when having sex was inseparably linked with having babies. The Supreme Court rulings that struck down the traditional laws against contraception in 1965 (Griswold v. Connecticut) and abortion in 1973 (Roe v. Wade) effectively severed the link between sex and its natural consequence of having babies. This changed the way society thought about sex. Without the risk of unwanted pregnancies, sex could become recreational. Older expressions that link sex to its marital context, such as “conjugal relations” or “marital acts,” have become so foreign as to seem quaint if not meaningless. The same year that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion (1973), the American Psychiatric Association, as a result of gay lobbying and not because of any breakthroughs in medical knowledge, officially voted to declassify homosexuality as a psychological disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. There are probably few under the age of thirty today who remember what things were like before what Oscar Wilde called the “love that dare not speak its name” became the love that would not shut up, and movies like To Wong Foo …, The Birdcage, and Crying Game, or shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy seemed not the least bit scandalous, but simply entertaining. And to top it off, over the last year, people have been taking up expressions like “same-sex marriage” as though there were hardly ever a question about such a prospect.

Back in 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote a book entitled Future Shock about the rapid changes that lay ahead just over the horizon. The trouble today is that none of the things he predicted seems the least bit shocking to those born when his book was written. Benjamin D. Wiker, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, recently proposed a literary exercise as a way of illustrating this. He writes:

Read Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic, Brave New World, the prophetic science-fiction satire written in 1932. Huxley attempted to paint a nightmarish world in which sexual pleasure has been utterly divorced from love through the use of the test-tube creation of human beings and contraception. The novel was set 600 years in the future, but alas, by the end of the 20th century, so much of the prophecy had become fact that it has almost no effect on readers, and what was meant to frighten now seems merely quaint. I know this as a college professor who has tried to use Brave New World in class. Huxley imagined that that the loveless factory production of human beings would turn sex into a mere commonplace recreational activity—but his imagined sexual free-for-all is entirely heterosexual! As for the technical aspect of things, ever try to frighten a class of undergrads with the specter of babies being made in test tubes, only to find out that an increasing number of the students themselves are, in one way or another, test-tube babies?

Thus, young people have been left desensitized to the shock value of such social and technological changes, both by the exponential pace of the changes themselves, and by their having no first-hand experience of a stable tradition as a fixed point of reference. And the resulting value vertigo has left many of them oblivious to the significance of what has been happening.

Let me see if I can illustrate this. Experiments with test-tube babies have been going on for some time—first with baby mice, then with in vitro fertilization of human embryos in the 1970s. This soon led to a culture of mechanical reproduction and “babies on demand” in the eighties, complete with sperm banks, quality control via amniocentesis and backup abortion for genetic defects. As demand for stem-cell tissue continues to grow, women may soon be paid to grow “fetal tissue” and pharmaceutical laboratories may include embryonic farms. None of this is far-fetched. Most students today will remember the scandal and excitement over the first successful cloning of a sheep named “Dolly” in 1998. More recently, in February of 2004, news that a team of South Korean scientists succeeded in cloning human embryos passed almost without notice. Scientists at Harvard apparently have plans to follow suit. Then in April of 2004, a team of scientists led by Tomohiro Kono, a biologist at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, succeeded in reproducing baby mice without the introduction of sperm. The article in National Geographic News announcing the event was entitled “The End of Males?”

Now you may be wondering what all of this has to do with marriage and sex. The end of males, of course, would spell the end of all moral distinctions based on sexuality. But that’s a mere detail. The deeper answer is quite simply that our understanding of sex and marriage depends on our understanding of natural law and human nature, but all of the bio-technological innovations just mentioned, along with the social changes of the last decades, have played havoc with our understanding of human nature and left vast numbers of people oblivious that there is even a problem.

Benjamin Wiker puts the matter apocalyptically:

The real moral crisis is this: that we, among all human beings who have ever lived, face the end of morality as such. Abortion and infanticide have existed before. So have homosexuality and pedophilia. Exclusive, lifelong heterosexual monogamy was, largely, a Christian mandate, and therefore variations on the definition of marriage are not difficult to come by historically. If these ills were all that plagued us, we would only be facing an especially ugly relapse into the darkness of paganism. But underneath these ills lies a darkness against which even the darkness of paganism is light—the rejection of human nature itself.

Even C. S. Lewis foresaw this prospect in his 1947 book, The Abolition of Man, when he wrote:

Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means … the power of some men to make other men what they please.

Historical perspectives on marriage

This puts us at a great distance today from the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage such as one finds in St. Thomas Aquinas. Sometimes I feel that the distance is so great that I nearly despair of trying to explain it to anyone. This distance is not something that developed overnight since the sexual revolution of the sixties, or the legalization of abortion, or no-fault divorce, or declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, or technologies of in vitro fertilization and cloning. These have certainly had a profound effect on us, but I think these are actually the results of subtler but perhaps more significant developments that paved the way for them. In fact, I would single out three landmark movements that define the distance between ourselves and where St. Thomas stands: (1) the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, (2) the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and (3) acceptance of widespread contraception in the mid-twentieth century. The Reformation essentially secularized marriage. Briefly, where Catholic tradition had seen marriage as a religiously sanctioned sacramental covenant, the reformers redefined it as a socially sanctioned civil contract, opening the way to divorce and remarriage. The Enlightenment, in turn, redefined marriage as a privately sanctioned contract between autonomous individuals, in principle severing it from social, civil, and religious sanctions altogether. And the introduction of widespread contraception in the twentieth century severed the marital act from its natural end of procreation, making children (and, thereby, marriage) an unnecessary addendum to sexual activity.

John Witte, Jr., a specialist in the history of marriage law, states that modern Anglo-American marriage law was formed out of two traditions—one rooted in Christianity, the other in the Enlightenment. From its beginnings, he says, the Western tradition viewed marriage in at least four perspectives:

Marriage is a contract, formed by the mutual consent of the marital couple, and subject to their wills and preferences. Marriage is a spiritual association, subject to the creed, code, cult, and canons of the religious community. Marriage is a social estate, subject to special state laws of property, inheritance, evidence, and to the expectations and exactions of the local community. And marriage is a natural institution, subject to the natural laws taught by reason and conscience, nature and custom.

These four perspectives are in once sense complementary and emphasize different aspects of marriage—its voluntary formation, its religious sanction, its social legitimation, and its natural origin. But, as Witte observes, they also stand in considerable tension, since they are linked to competing claims of authority over the form and purpose of marriage—“claims by the couple, the church, the state, and by nature and nature’s God.” Catholics, Protestants, and Enlightenment exponents all recognize multiple perspectives on marriage; but each group gives priority to one of them. Catholics emphasize the spiritual (or sacramental) perspective; Protestants emphasize the social (or public) perspective; and Enlightenment exponents emphasize the contractual (or private) perspective. In broad outline, the Catholic model dominated Western marriage law until the sixteenth century; the Protestant model (though coexisting with the Catholic) dominated from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century; and the Enlightenment model finally surfaced in the past century, in many cases eclipsing the Christian models.

Marriage in St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic teaching

While Catholic tradition emphasizes the sacramental dimension of marriage, it also recognizes the roles played by other dimensions. Thus the Church follows St. Thomas in assigning three ends to marriage, which St. Augustine sums up by the words proles, fides, and sacramentum —- offspring, fidelity, and sacrament -- offspring to be accepted and educated for the worship of God; fidelity by which one man is bound to one wife; and sacrament by which they are bound indivisibly to one another in the spiritual marriage of Christ and the Church. Of this threefold purpose of marriage, Thomas says that the first end belongs to man as an animal, the second as a human being, and the third as a Christian. Thus, while Thomas views sacrament as the most excellent end of marriage, he sees the other ends as no less essential. Typical is the hierarchical way in which he ranks the purposes of having children. Children, he says, are ordered to three ends: (1) the natural good of perpetuating the human species, subject to the duties of nature, (2) the political good of perpetuating human society, subject to the governance of civil law, and (3) the spiritual good of perpetuating members of Christ’s Kingdom, subject to the governance of the Church.

In terms of Witte’s categories, Catholic marriage as defined by Thomas, can be understood as a natural association, a contractual unit, and a sacrament. Catholic Church teaching, accordingly, may be summed up thus:

First, the Church taught, marriage is a natural association, created by God to enable man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply” and to raise children in the service and love of God. Since the fall into sin, marriage has also become a remedy for lust, a channel to direct one’s natural passion to the service of the community and the Church. Second, marriage is a contractual unit, formed by the mutual consent of the parties. This contract prescribes for couples a life-long relation of love, service, and devotion to each other and proscribes unwarranted breach or relaxation of their connubial and parental duties. Third, marriage, when properly contracted between Christians, rises to the dignity of a sacrament. The temporal union of body, soul, and mind within the marital estate symbolizes the eternal union between Christ and his Church. Participation in this sacrament confers sanctifying grace upon the couple and the community.

Marriage, then, as part of the creation order, was viewed as a great good inherently pleasing to God. As a sacrament, furthermore, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Church and was seen as a means of grace. Hence, a vocation to marriage and family was seen as a solid way of Christian living in the world. Yet the Church did not regard marriage and family life as its most exalted estate. For various reasons, which we will consider later, the Church did not see marriage as theologically or spiritually preferable to celibacy, thought it viewed both as mutually supportive and equally necessary for the good of the Church. The Church built a comprehensive system of canon law governing sex, marriage, and family life upon this conceptual foundation, which was the preeminent marriage law of the West until the sixteenth century. Civil law or common law, where it existed, was supplemental and subordinate to it. Witte writes:

Consistent with the naturalist perspective on marriage, the canon law punished contraception, abortion, infanticide, and child abuse as violations of the natural marital functions of propagation and childrearing. It proscribed unnatural relations, such as incest and polygamy, and unnatural acts such as bestiality and [sodomy]. Consistent with the contractual perspective, the canon law ensured voluntary unions by annulling marriages formed through mistake, duress, fraud, or coercion. It granted husband and wife alike equal rights to enforce conjugal debts that had been voluntarily assumed, and emphasized the importance of mutual love among the couple and their children. Consistent with the sacramental perspective, the Church protected the sanctity and sanctifying purpose of marriage by declaring valid marital bonds to be indissoluble, and by annulling invalid unions between Christians and non-Christians or between parties related by various legal, spiritual, blood, or family ties. It supported celibacy by annulling unconsummated vows of marriage if one party made a vow of chastity and by prohibiting clerics or monastics from marriage and concubinage.

The medieval canon law of marriage was a remarkable achievement, distilling the most enduring teachings of the Bible, Church Fathers, and earlier Jewish, Greek, and Roman laws and setting out many basic laws of marriage that persist to this day.

Marriage in the Protestant Reformation

This brings us to the first of our landmarks movements: the Protestant Reformation. It is not without significance that the Protestant movement began with an attack on canon law. On December 20, 1520, before a group of students and colleagues at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther burned the books of the canon law, along with the papal notice threatening his excommunication. Luther’s colleagues, Johann Agricola and Philip Melanchthon, who had organized the event had also hoped to burn the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, but apparently could not find anyone in Wittenberg willing to donate their copies for the fire. There were many reasons for Luther’s attack on canon law—particularly the canon law of marriage—not least, the sexual corruption he witnessed and his growing belief that the prohibition of marriage to clergy and religious orders represented a theology of works-righteousness. But the vociferousness of his personal vendetta against the canon laws of marriage and celibacy cannot be fathomed apart from his own struggle with chastity, his abandonment of the celibate life, and his subsequent appeal to a gospel of Christian liberty. Luther had fought a long personal battle with chastity, and eventually concluded that sexual desire is wholly unconquerable, that lust cannot possibly be subdued, and that an unmarried man was as good as damned. “You cannot vow chastity,” he wrote, “for then you would have had it previously; but you never have it; therefore the vow of chastity is null and void, just as if you wanted to vow to be neither a man nor a woman.” He himself had engaged in the misconceived attempt, as a monk, to earn God’s favor through his own efforts—an attempt that led his confessor, Staupitz, to point him to St. Paul’s discussion of God’s grace in the book of Romans. But instead of finding in his religious vows a means of God’s grace, he found in St. Paul a means of forsaking his vows. Whatever its theological justification, it is no coincidence that the renunciation of celibacy, canon law, and Church authority that Luther projected into his reform movement also served to justify his personal beliefs and actions.

Among the earliest Protestant leaders to join him were other priests and monks who had forsaken their orders and solemn vows, and one of the acts of political solidarity with the new Protestant cause was to marry or divorce in open defiance of the canon law and the bishop’s authority. Carter Lindberg relates, for example, that Andreas Karlstadt’s highly publicized marriage to Anna von Mochau in January of 1522 was designed, by its flaunted disregard of Church authority, to create a sensation and was a rather impressive act of propaganda. Lindberg relates that he spent more than 50 florins for sausage and drink, audaciously inviting even the scandalized Catholic bishops, who, it goes without saying, turned him down. “This was not just [technically] an instance of crime and disobedience,” writes John Witte, Jr. in his book Law and Protestantism, “It was an outright scandal, particularly when an ex-monk such as Brother Martin Luther married an ex-nun such as Sister Katherine von Bora—a prima facie case of spiritual incest.”

The rapid deconstruction of law, politics, and society that followed the burning of canon law books and Protestant revolt soon plunged Germany into an acute crisis, punctuated and exacerbated by the peasants’ war and knights’ uprising—a crisis that Luther, with his gospel of Christian liberty, had never intended nor expected. Witte writes:

Many subjects traditionally governed by canon law of the Catholic Church remained without effective civil regulation and policy in many of the cities and territories newly converted to Lutheranism. The vast Church properties that local magistrates had confiscated lingered long in private hands. Prostitution, concubinage, gambling, drunkenness, and usury reached new heights. Crime, delinquency, truancy, vagabondage, and mendicancy soared. Schools, charities, hospice, and other welfare institutions fell into massive disarray. Requirements for marriage, annulment, divorce, and inheritance became hopelessly confused. A generation of orphans, [illegitimate children], students, spinsters, and others found themselves without the support and sanctuary traditionally afforded by monasteries, cloisters, and ecclesiastical guilds. All these subjects, and many more, the Catholic canon law had governed in detail for many centuries in Germany.

In response to such problems, the Lutheran reformation of theology and the Church eventually broadened into a reformation of law and the state as well, retrieving and revising a great deal of Catholic canon law in the process. The principal achievements of this legal reform as it bears on marriage may be summarized in the following points. The new Evangelical marriage laws (1) shifted the primary jurisdiction of marriage from Church to state; (2) strongly encouraged the marriage of clergy; (3) denied that celibacy, virginity, or monasticism were superior callings to marriage; (4) denied that marriage is a sacrament; (5) modified the doctrine of consent to marriage to require the approval of parents, social peers, pastors, and political officials; (6) sharply curtailed the number of impediments to marriage; and (7) introduced divorce, in the modern sense, on grounds of adultery, desertion, and other faults, with the subsequent right to remarriage at least for the innocent party.

This meant, in short, that marriage was de-sacralized, no longer a sacrament, but a secular, earthly thing, a socially approved civil contract that could be made or unmade for various reasons. Among the many good and natural reasons for contracting marriage was the natural “remedy” it provided for lust, which Luther understood as an irresistible inclination incapable of being subdued. Thus celibacy came to be seen quite naturally as an aberration and regarded with suspicion.

Marriage in the Enlightenment

Our second landmark movement is the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment redefinition of marriage as a private contract between autonomous individuals, was first adumbrated ambivalently by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government in 1690, elaborated in endless varieties in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and implemented legally in the twentieth century. The essence of marriage, on this view, was a voluntary bargain struck between two autonomous individuals with no conditions preset by God or nature, church or state, tradition or community. Terms of the private contract were set by the parties themselves, with due respect for the life, liberty, and property of the other parties and compliance with general standards of health, safety, and welfare in the community. But the form and purpose and length and limits of the marriage were left to the parties themselves, each of whom enjoyed full equality and freedom in the relationship. This meant that marriage could be re-defined in nearly any way individuals pleased, paving the way to the “same-sex marriage” controversies of our time, not to mention the man in Oregon who wants to marry his horse.

Marriage and the advent of widespread contraception

Our third landmark event is the widespread acceptance of contraception in the mid-twentieth century. While convenient forms of contraception only became widely available in the 1960s, contraceptive devices and techniques were well-known well before the twentieth century, as can be seen easily by the fact that medieval canon law punished contraception, St. Thomas condemned it, the Church Fathers condemned it, and Jewish prohibitions of it can be found, among other places, in the Talmud. Thomas even considered contraceptive sex within marriage, since it falls in the category of a sin against nature, a graver offence against chastity than straightforward fornication or adultery. What does not seem to be generally known is that contraception was condemned not only by the Catholic Church, but also uniformly condemned by every Protestant denomination prior to the twentieth century. There is a little book entitled The Bible and Birth Control by an evangelical Protestant, named Charles D. Provan, which includes a compilation of numerous quotations from Protestant leaders, including Luther and Calvin, some of them quite amazing. In fact, I think what largely held in check the practice of divorce and remarriage among Protestants, even though their churches permitted it, was their absolute rejection of contraception until the twentieth century. This generally helped to keep sex within marriage, which was good for marriages. It wasn’t until 1930 that the Anglican Church first opened the door to contraception under very limited conditions, but even with this proviso the Anglican decision was greeted with unanimous condemnation by other Protestant bodies. By the time the Supreme Court struck down all civil laws against contraception in its Griswold v. Connecticut ruling of 1965, nearly all mainline Protestant bodies had opened their doors to the practice.

When the birth control pill became available in the 1960s, it was considered a great salvation of mankind for several reasons, such as concerns about world population, feminist hopes that contraceptives would help them break into the work place, and the general expectation that it would take the anxiety out of sex and create better marriages. Just three years after the US Supreme Court lifted all traditional bans against contraception in 1965, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae, addressing the issue. In contrast to the prevailing optimism of the time, he predicted four dire consequences: (1) there would be a general lowering of morality in society, (2) there would be a general disregard for the physical and psychological wellbeing of females by males, (3) governments would use family planning programs for coercive purposes; and (4) we would begin to treat our bodies as thought they were machines. Dr. Janet Smith offers a brilliant analysis of these issues in her audio CD recording entitled “Contraception: Why Not?” Not only that, she goes on to offer a wonderfully detailed consideration of why the contraceptive act completely misses the inner meaning of marriage and of sexual intercourse and leads to all kinds of problems within marriage as well as in society. So consider that a preview. But even on a common sense level, it’s easy to see that once the link between having sex and having babies is severed, this opens the door to all sorts of interesting varieties of extra-marital sex, which have very harmful effects on marriages and families and society as a whole.

Now what is very interesting about each of these three landmark movements is that each was in some way or other hailed as a very great advance over traditional understandings of sex and marriage. The Lutheran redefinition of marriage as a civil contract, unfettered by ecclesiastical impediments, its support for a married clergy, insistence that marriage is preferable to celibacy, and introduction of divorce and remarriage, seemed in many ways like positive advances over an outmoded and possibly misconceived medieval understanding of marriage. Likewise, the Enlightenment redefinition of marriage as a private contract between autonomous individuals, unfettered by any religious, civil, social, familial, or even natural sanctions, seemed to many an advance over the still overly confining Protestant sanctions of marriage. Likewise, the advent of contraception with is possibilities of anxiety-free sex, seemed in many ways like it would make for much better sex and much better marriages.

Yet each of these movements is also highly problematic, and the assumption that each represents an advance over traditional understandings of sex and marriage is, to say the least, debatable. The Lutheran secularization of marriage removed it from the jurisdiction of the Church and the protections afforded it by canon law. Its legalization of divorce and remarriage stripped marriage of its sacramental status and relegated it to the sphere of a terminable civil contract. Its undermining of the consecrated life of religious and clerical celibacy deprived the Church of her most effective front-line forces in evangelization, education, social charities, and foreign missions. The Enlightenment view of marriage as a private contract between autonomous individuals let in the twentieth century to adventures in serialized polygamy, group marriage, same-sex marriage, and man-horse marriage. And the advent of widespread contraception has led, as we have seen, to a complete break between sex and procreation, fostering a recreational view and practice of sexual intercourse entirely severed from its marital nexus.

In the remaining part of my paper, I would like to briefly explore four areas where the Catholic understanding of marriage requires further elucidation in view of these issues. In particular, I would like to focus on the Catholic Church’s view of (1) marriage as a remedy for sensuality, (2) marriage as sacrament, (3) sex as a marital act reserved to husbands and wives, and (4) the meaning of celibacy in relation to marriage.

(1) Marriage as a remedy for sensuality

There has always been a colossal strain between the demands of Christian morality and morals of the surrounding world. This was true in ancient times when pagan converts had to be told, as they were by the Council of Jerusalem, to abstain from sex outside of marriage. It is no less true in post-Christian times, in a world dominated by influence of contraception. Elizabeth Anscombe put the matter thus: “Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be.”

The old rule of Christian chastity was “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your spouse, or else total abstinence.” You may remember what C. S. Lewis said about this. It is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, he said, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. Of course, being a Christian, he opted for the instinct having gone wrong. But he went on to add that he also had other reasons for thinking so:

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

But this brings us to the puzzling thing about the Church’s view of sexual appetite. On the one hand, it seems to be something quite often seen as out of control; and so there seems to be this extremely cautious if not suspicious attitude toward it. The old Catholic word for this excessive appetite was concupiscence, which meant the desire of the lower sensuous appetite contrary to reason, or out-of-control desire, or, simply, lust. At the center of lust, of course, lie the irrational passions of sex. Concerning these, St. Thomas observes that nothing works so great a havoc with one’s mind than the passions of sexual lust. Like St. Augustine, Thomas observes that the passions of sexual appetite are “not [immediately] subject to the command of reason,” and suggests this as the primary source of disorder and sin. St. Paul suggests that married couples might abstain from sex for a period of time in order to devote themselves to prayer (I Cor. 7:5), which implies that sexual activity has the capacity to interfere somehow with prayer. Thomas concludes as much when he states that sexual activity is an obstacle to the spiritual acts of those in religious orders. Even in ordinary married sex, he suggests, there may be hazards, suggesting that if a couple engages in sex just to satisfy their inflamed sexual lusts, this could be a problem.

On the other hand, sex within marriage is clearly seen as a good. One way in which it is good, of course, is that it can produce children. But another way it is good is that it allows a couple to sexually bond and mutually satisfy one another’s natural sexual appetites. Thomas notes that St. Paul even makes this a matter of obligation, when he tells couples they have a responsibility to each other to fulfill their conjugal rights. In fact, Thomas goes so far as to condemn “insensibility”—that is, the inability to enjoy pleasure—as a vice. And he dismisses the notion that sex is innately sinful as absurd, “unless we suppose,” he says, “as some are mad enough to assert, that [our natural powers] were created by an evil god.”

Initially, these two emphases may seem contradictory. But a careful examination of what Thomas is saying here dispels that assumption. Thomas is saying that sex is perfectly good as long as it is ordered by reason to its proper ends, which include babies and bonding within marriage. But, like Augustine, C. S. Lewis and others, he is acutely aware of how easily sexual instinct can be skewed into a disordered lust. Thus, when Thomas calls marriage a “remedy for concupiscence [or lust], (remedium concupiscentiae)” he does not intend to suggest that marriage simply legitimates the indulgence of lust by providing a licit outlet for “relieving” inflamed passions. Rather, marriage is a remedy for lust because it allows sexual desire to be transformed by grace and directed by reason to the service of conjugal love itself.

Lust by definition is disordered sexual desire. By itself it can only lead toward the use of others for selfish gratification. It is essentially predatory, leading to a self-alienating and dis-integrating dissociation of self from body. As such, it is fundamentally disintegrative of the unity of the person and of the interior unity of the couple involved. Lust turns the participants’ bodies into instruments directed to extrinsic ends, such as selfish pleasure for its own sake, rather than the intrinsic end of conjugal love itself. As Dietrich von Hildebrand says, it leads a person to fling himself away with no intention of surrendering or giving his innermost self to the other. In such behavior, sexual desire is not ordered by reason to its proper ends, and so the subject exhibits what Thomas calls sexual incontinence. In defining the virtue of “continence,” he says that man, as a rational being, “is said to contain himself” from the very fact that “he holds (tenet se) to that which is in accord with reason.”

It is a common but mistaken notion, then, that the Church calls us to be chaste only until marriage. Chastity is not the same thing as abstinence. This may be one reason why Luther, who thought that marriage would solve the problems of chastity for himself and others who had quit the celibate life, was disappointed to find that it did not. In a darker moment, he even questioned whether the majority of those so married were not living in sin. Whether we are celibate or married, chastity is the virtue that frees all our sexual thoughts, desires, and actions from selfishness and allows us to order them toward authentic love for another. One reason many people are deterred from seriously attempting Christian chastity, C.S. Lewis notes, is because they think that it is impossible.

The Christian principles are, admittedly, stricter than the others; but then we think you will get help towards obeying them which you will not get towards obeying the others…. We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help…. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just [the] power of always trying again…. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God…. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.

If marriage is a remedy for lust, this is because it allows sexual desire to be transformed by grace, and this points us to the sacramental dimension of marriage.

(2) Marriage as sacrament

This morning Pastor Richard J. Niebanck said that in the evangelical (that is, Lutheran) view, there is no such thing as “Christian marriage,” but only “marriage between Christians.” In other words, for a Lutheran, there is no such thing as a sacrament of marriage. Marriage belongs to the natural, not the supernatural sphere. Here Thomas and Catholic tradition would differ. While recognizing that marriage exists among Christians as well as non-Christians, they would insist that the marriage of baptized Christians elevates a natural marriage contract to the order of grace. This means that a husband and wife not only become symbols of the union of Christ and the Church; they actually enjoy a real participation in that supernatural union. This is what confers grace. In fact, because the sacraments are all meant to draw us more deeply into the marriage of Christ and the Church, John Paul II calls marriage the “prototype” of all the sacraments. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. It “denotes a sanctifying remedy against sin,” says Thomas, “offered to man under sensible signs.” The sign itself (the conjugal act) is the sacrament; the thing signified and effected by grace through the sign is the inner bond of the marriage itself, linked to the visible sign of Christ and the Church.

Why is it important that marriage is a sacrament? Because we need grace to elevate and transform what is natural and fallen into what God meant it to be. It is not just that sex is something that is dangerous only when it is abused. Rather, as Von Hildebrand says, it involves for fallen man an intrinsic danger of overwhelming his spirit in his animal passions so that he loses himself. Here he echoes, I think, Thomas’ concerns about the danger of losing one’s rational self-possession or continence through sexual passion. The only way that wedded love can perform the marital act without this loss of self and keep its head above the waves of animal passion, says Von Hildebrand, is by keeping it consciously and deliberately anchored in a love of God.

John Crosby, interpreting the remarks of John Paul II, puts the same matter in a slightly different way:

When we feel the appeal of good things, even objectively good things, we are at first in danger of being dominated by them, of being subject to a “moral determinism” which tends to prevent us from acting through ourselves. Only in breaking through to the “truth about good” do we gain that spiritual distance to goods which lets us act through ourselves toward them.

Of course this is especially true with respect to the appeal of good things when they involve sex. More than ever, in this case, do we require knowledge of the “truth about good” in order to “act through ourselves” and not be overwhelmed by our passions. This requires grace, and it elevates the conjugal act to a sacramental act. As Thomas Howard says, the sexual act then “puts the bread and wine on the altar: the real presence of the person must now be reckoned with.”

(3) Sex as a marital act reserved to husbands and wives

Few individuals have written more profoundly and voluminously about marriage and sex than Pope John Paul II. It is precisely here, where in the popular mind he is on the weakest ground, and defending the indefensible, that the depth and rounded human wisdom of his teaching makes his study so rewarding. John Paul offers a kind of profound gloss on what I’ve been discussing here that is well worth considering. One of the texts from the Vatican II documents that John Paul II most frequently quotes is one from Gaudium et spes (para. 24), which says “that man, though he is the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” John Paul is taken with the paradoxical structure ascribed to the person here, explains Crosby:

… each human person is so much of a being of his own that he can only be willed for his own sake, and yet he is not so much a being of his own as to be able to live for himself and be happy in the solitude of his own being, he has instead to make a gift of himself to another in order to gain that being of his own which belongs to him as a person.

The most radical self-giving of one human person to another, according to John Paul, occurs between man and woman in spousal love. Here we find not merely mutual self-donation, but mutual self-surrender — a surrender made possible by the fact that each individual was first in possession of his own self to give.

The all-important category in John Paul’s analysis of sex and marriage is the human body. If one takes a certain view of the body where it is dissociated from the person, one ends up with a kind of dualism, where sex, as we saw, becomes self-alienating and disintegrative of the person as well as the relationship between the couple. John Paul insists that this sort of dualism between person and body, or self and one’s biological nature, is very unhealthy and contrary to a Catholic understanding of human nature. Beyond the dysfunctionality it can cause, it is simply inaccurate. For even though person and body are distinct in human nature, they are nevertheless not distinct beings, but one and the same being. It is the whole person who is and acts as a personal being, as a psycho-somatic unit, Thomas would say as a “rational animal.” Thus, although sexual attraction originally arises from nature and exists outside of our interiority, it is destined and meant to be drawn into our interiority. This means, as Crosby suggests, that “the sexual drive is not merely related to the person as something to be dominated by the person,” but “as something to be incorporated into the life of the person.”

In marriage, the human body, as male and female, provides the person with a medium for supreme self-donation through an act that springs from the depths of his selfhood and interiority. The capacity of the masculinity and femininity of the human body to serve this consummate self-donation of a couple in marriage is what John Paul calls the nuptial meaning of the body. It is not merely that that we confer this meaning on our bodies. He says that our bodies have this nuptial meaning as such, and their bodily union has the meaning of self-donation independently of any subjective act of conferring they might perform. This is why the sexual bodily union of two people in the absence of the mutual spousal self-donation and belonging that characterize marriage has something dishonest about it. It suggests more than is really intended. The dishonesty comes from the discrepancy between the objective bodily self-surrender and the subjective absence of spousal love. In this connection John Paul speaks of the body having a “language,” in truthful sexual relations, which is not of our own making. The nuptial meaning of the body, accordingly, does not exist merely as something conferred or intended by the spouses. Rather, it exists as pre-formed and imprinted in the nature of man and woman. This nuptial significance imprinted in the body and our nature, then, cannot be ignored without people misusing one another.

The natural law ethicist, Germain Grisez, offers a remarkable observation on this point:

Though a male and a female are complete individuals with respect to other functions—for example, nutrition, sensation, and locomotion—with respect to reproduction they are only potential parts of a mated pair, which is the complete organism capable of reproducing sexually. Even if the mated pair is sterile, intercourse, provided it is the reproductive behavior characteristic of the species, makes the copulating male and female one organism.

John Paul also sees the image of God imprinted in this complementarity of man and woman. Taking his point of departure from the earlier Vatican II document, which stated that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self,” he finds the image of God most fully imaged in the complementarity of man and woman by which we are called out of ourselves and into an existence of self-giving. This implies a fascinating development in the theology of the image of God, on two counts. First, John Paul is suggesting that the image of God is not merely something found in solitary persons, that is, in the spiritual faculties of each individual, but in interpersonal relation, in persons loving each other. Thus we discover the image of God in a place where it had been neglected by the individualistic focus of earlier theologies. Man becomes the image of God, not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Second, John Paul makes a point of drawing out of the Genesis text on the image of God the further idea that the male and female couple images God simply by the fact that each is turned towards the other and called to live as gift for the other.

One of the first things that gets lost in an overly secularized view of the body is its sense for the sacramental capacity to provide a medium for things of the spirit and to render them visible. This is what John Paul recaptures in his analysis of the nuptial meaning of the body, the spousal language of the body, the body’s incorporation into the life of the person who only finds himself by making himself a gift to another, preeminently in marriage. This is especially significant when we remember that sacramental marriage is both a symbol that points beyond itself to the marriage of Christ and the Church, and a real participation in that mystical union. In fact, seen in the light of eternity, marriage is revealed as having no autonomous meaning in itself. Its ultimate meaning if found only when two souls fall into a sacramental embrace with a Third, which leads us to the question of celibacy.

(4) Marriage and celibacy

Why celibacy? Why would anyone want to be caught dead as a celibate? Luther certainly wouldn’t have wished it on anybody. We have a hard time today understanding the logic behind this, because we’ve rarely had the logic explained to us. At first it just strikes us as strange. Thomas says, for example, that although marriage is not sinful and is a true good, it is not preferable to virginity or the monastic life. Even more baffling, perhaps, Thomas says that a married person may be considered better than a virgin if he “is more prepared in mind to observe virginity, if it should be expedient, than the one who is actually a virgin.”

One reason the virtue of celibacy is hard to explain is because, as C. S. Lewis says, in another context, “so many people cannot be brought to realize that when B is better than C, A may be even better than B. They like thinking in terms of good and bad, not of good, better, and best, or bad, worse and worst.” Hence, people just want to know if marriage is a good thing: if you reply that it is, of course, far better than promiscuous sex, but that it is inferior to the life of consecrated celibacy, they may think you are being evasive. But the other reason is that people have not had explained to them why celibacy should be considered an honorable vocation, let alone one preferable to marriage.

Though the Catholic Church has always esteemed marriage as an honored estate, it has never considered it either theologically or spiritually preferable to the consecrated life of celibacy. Here the Church follows the counsel of Jesus who commended those who, “for the sake of the kingdom of God,” have held aloof from the married state, adding “let those who can accept it” (Matt. 19:12), and the counsel of St. Paul, who even more explicitly declares that though “every one has his own gift,” he wishes that all had the gift of remaining unmarried as he was, noting that the married are burdened by divided loyalties between things of the world and things of God (I Cor. 7:7-8, 23-35). Both marriage and celibacy are regarded as necessary for the health of the Church. Indeed, Pope John Paul II explains:

Virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God not only does not contradict the dignity of marriage but presupposes it and conforms it. Marriage and virginity or celibacy are two ways of expressing and living the one mystery of the covenant of God with his people. When marriage is not esteemed, neither can consecrated virginity or celibacy exist; when human sexuality is not regarded as a great value given by the Creator, the renunciation of it for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven loses its meaning.

There is in Catholic history a venerable tradition of what is called ascetical theology and mystical theology. In recent years these traditions of ascetical and mystical theology have so fallen out of use as to be nearly forgotten. This is very unfortunate, because it is these traditions that offer the clearest rationale for the virtue of celibacy. If it is true that the ideals of the celibate and monastic life has fallen from prominence in the West today, this is not so in the east, as I’m sure Fr. Patrick Reardon would agree. John Paul II emphasized this in his Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen, when he said that for the Eastern Churches monasticism is seen as a “reference point” for all Christians.

A Catholic monk of the Byzantine Catholic tradition, Maximos Davies, offers some remarks that may be helpful at this point. Celibacy, he says, is essentially a form of asceticism. “Asceticism means, in essence, to live at the same time on earth and in heaven…. It means that the life we live right now and the life we will live for eternity are in some mysterious way one and the same.” For an ascetic, time reveals eternity. Food reveals the heavenly Feast. Possessions reveal the many-mansioned Kingdom of Heaven. The sexual act reveals divine love. “Celibacy,” he says, “is the practical recognition of the reality that lies behind the image, of the prototype behind the icon.”

All earthly loves are mortal. The tragedy of earthly love and death, he writes, “can only be overcome by the communion of humanity and divinity in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Only when two become three, when a couple becomes a trinity, the third being God, only then can the triumph of death be trampled down in the resurrection.”

Asceticism, in this light, has little to do with being a priest or monk or nun. It has everything to do, rather, with the sacrament of baptism. Through baptism we are born into a new kind of life, into citizenship in the Kingdom of God. “We die to this world in Christ and rise again in eternal life. And in this resurrection we ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven’ (Matthew 22:30).” In this sense, asceticism is a universal vocation of all Christians. Davies writes:

Seen in the light of eternity, marriage is revealed as having no meaning in itself. Marriage is honorable not because it “joins two hearts as one,” nor because through it new life comes into the world, nor because it provides for a life of comfort and security. Marriage is worthy of reverence only because the two hearts fall into a sacramental embrace with a Third, only because the children born of the union are born again through baptism into a new life, only because together the couple apply to their comforts the balm of asceticism that gives their possessions true and sacramental meaning.

Elizabeth Anscombe puts it like this:

What people are for is, we believe, like guided missiles, to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always.

… Now there are some people who want this so much that they want to be totally concerned with it and to die to their own worldly, earthly and fleshly desires. It is people who are so filled with this enormous desire and are able to follow it, who pursue the course of chastity in the narrow sense—this is the point, the glory, of Christian celibacy and virginity and of vows of chastity.

Not all are called to the radical asceticism of the celibate religious life. But Christians all are called to the asceticism of living in the light of eternity. Does this mean there will be no sex in the city of God? If you mean self-absorbed hedonism, well, yes; but not if you mean the truly ecstatic heavenly thing of which this earthly nuptial thing is only the mere image. This is attested by human sex even in its misbegotten forms, for as G. K. Chesterton once said, when a young man goes knocking at the brothel door, what he’s really looking for is God.

Sources Cited

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Crosby, John. “The Personalism of John Paul II as the Basis of His Approach to the Teaching of Humanae Vitae” in Why Humanae Vitae was Right. Ed. Janet E. Smith. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.

Davies, Maximos. “Celibacy in Context” in First Things (December 2002).

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Von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Purity: The Mystery of Christian Sexuality. Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1989.

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Dr. Blosser teaches at at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina, and is an associate of the Center for Theology. Among Dr. Blosser's published works are Scheler's Critique of Kant's Ethics.

This website was also privileged to reprint his essay "The Kasper-Ratzinger Debate and the State of the Church", published in the New Oxford Review (April 2002), and War and the Eclipse of Moral Reason, presented at the Tenth Annual Aquinas/Luther Conference held October 24-26, 2002 at Lenoir-Rhyne College.