The Unitive and Procreative Ends of Marriage

Resolved:  Roman Catholic theology, despite some changes in the past fifty years, still places too much emphasis on the procreative ends of marriage to the detriment of the unitive ends.

In saying this I am not suggesting that the two can be divorced.  Rather, a careful balance needs to be made, and I wonder if our (Catholic) understanding has gotten out of alignment.  I have been chewing on this question for a while, particularly since I found the following quote by St. John Chrysostom on marriage:

There are two reasons for which marriage was established …to cause the man to be satisfied with one single wife and to give him children, but it is the first which is the most important…As for reproduction, marriage does not necessarily include this…the proof is to be found in the many marriages for which having children is not possible. This is why the primary reason for marriage is to regulate the sexual life, especially now that the human race has already populated the whole world. (Quoted by Orthodox Bishop Athenagoras of Sinope.)

Initially, the quote caught my eye because of his comment about having “populated the whole world”:  this put a new spin on arguments about overpopulation, a topic I have blogged about here and here.  But then it got me thinking more broadly and I am interested to hear where people think the balance between the two ends of marriage should be.

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  • Ron Chandonia

    Contemporary society seems to have forgotten the procreative ends of marriage. Marriage is no longer seen as either necessary or especially helpful in bringing children into the world or in rearing them after once arrive. The victims of this mindset, of course, are innocent children. For that reason, Christians need to focus far more than we do now on the role of marriage not only in bringing the next generation into this life but also bringing it into God’s Kingdom.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      So you are saying that there should be even more emphasis on the procreative ends of marriage to combat particular social ills?

      • Ron Chandonia

        Well, sort of, except that the “particular social ills” I cited are direct consequences of our contemporary rejection of the connection between marriage and procreation. The chief “ill,” in fact, is precisely that rejection.

    • Bruce in Kansas

      I haven’t done a meta-analysis of theology, but with 96% of Catholics rejecting the procreative aspect in their own marriages, I don’t see how one can convincingly argue it’s over-emphasized.

  • Thales

    I think JPII’s theological writings on this topic have done a tremendous amount in advancing a more developed notion of the unitive end.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      People have told me that. I have not read any of the theology of the body writings myself. I have, however, seen two lengthy talks; in both cases the speakers use the ToB to focus on the procreative ends of marriage and the evils of contraception. I the Q&A I challenged one speaker on this, asking what else the ToB had to offer our understanding of marriage. The response was muddled and didn’t add up to much. I would be happy to hear more about this.

      • Thales

        That’s a shame that the ToB talks focused on the procreative ends of marriage. In my opinion, in JP II’s writings, the notion of unity is prominent, while procreation is secondary (and perhaps even following from the unitive notion?). I’d suggest starting with JP II’s Love and Responsibility written before he was pope, before looking at his ToB writings.

  • Brandon Watson

    It’s an interesting question. I think ‘balance’ is the wrong metaphor, in the same way that it’s not quite right to talk about human beings finding the right balance between being rational and being animal — if we’re ever not reasonably consistent with both, something’s gone wrong, and any account of a good human life that ever at any point ignores either has also gone wrong. But I still think there’s something important to the question, because even when two things need to be integrated, they could be important to the integration in very different ways. As I see it, marriage is unitive qua friendship and procreative as the way it is distinctive from other friendships, the thing that gives it its distinctive modality. If that or anything like it is true, then the question boils down to the question of whether there’s a greater need to talk about marriage in terms that it shares with other friendships or a greater need to talk about what distinguishes marriage from other friendships. That ends up being a doozy of a question to answer; I think we’re absolutely awful at both, and, what makes it worse is that it’s too often the case that people who like to talk about one or the other pretty consistently show that their conceptions are simplistic and not always even consistent (not that that’s always their fault; I think these matters are both difficult and flooded with a cacophony of disagreeing voices, both of which make it difficult to get one’s bearings). So I suppose I would say either (1) that emphasizing either to any extent would be fine if it were done well; or (2) that we would probably get more beneficial results if we stopped thinking of them as two ends and instead thought of them as two incomplete ways of talking about one and the same end.

    No sacrament can be talked about perfectly, since by nature they exceed any description, but marriage has always been the toughest sacrament to talk about adequately, I think because: (1) It’s like an onion, having repeatedly been given new layers through its history. (2) It’s a sacrament by being a sign of the mystery of Christ’s relation with his Church, which means that it’s a sign among other things of the Church as a general sacrament, which means that it’s in some sense a sign of the entire system of specific sacraments (including itself!). This makes it a very pedagogical sacrament, and not just for those who are married, but I think it also means that giving a solid answer to questions like this requires keeping in mind an extraordinary amount of Catholic theology. (To take just one example, we could put the same basic question in a different perspective by asking whether we need to focus more on salvation or the Mystical Body, which are more or less the corresponding ecclesiological ends to procreation and union.)

    • A Sinner

      There is so much in this response I like, Brandon.

      First, I agree that “balance” is the wrong word. “Emphasis” may be more what David meant, but given that the unitive and procreative ends are “nested” categories rather than two independent categories, as you say speaking of balance is like speaking as if trees need to find some balance between being “plants” and being “oaks.”

      I also like what you say about how, “the question boils down to the question of whether there’s a greater need to talk about marriage in terms that it shares with other friendships or a greater need to talk about what distinguishes marriage from other friendships” as this is really what is at issue with the “labelling debates” over “gay marriage.” Obviously, there are so many things that other sorts of partnerships or household-arrangements SHARE with marriage. The question that seems to be being fought out right now (to which I’m largely apathetic legally and politically speaking) is how much we emphasize their similarities, and how much we emphasize their essential difference (which basically boils down to the question of sexual/reproductive “structure”).

    • Wei

      What a marriage is depends on the couple. In my own experience, a marriage is very different from a friendship and it is not (only) because of sex. Marriage requires persons to make a lifetime commitment to be together through good times and bad times. If you have one or more friends who would be by your side throughout your entire life and support you in good times and bad, then you are a very lucky person. I think most people have friends that they get along with well when they get together to have fun and hang out, but could never live with that person in an intimate and constant level for a lifetime.

      A large difference between marriage and friendship to me is the level of commitment to that relationship and to the other person.

  • Dan

    Marriage is historically and primarily a social construct to protect women and their offspring from use and neglect respectively and to solve the issues surrounding rightful inheritance. Marriage without the concept of offspring is simply sound and fury. There is absolutely no need for marriage to express the unitive aspect of human life and sexuality. Hence the reason the Church considers marriages without intention of procreation to be invalid, and infertility to be a valid reason for annulment.

    • Dan

      My point being that the Church is absolutely on base by emphasizing procreation as they do. Marriage where unity is a primary end is really a red herring; the underlying virtues and dispositions that go along with a valid marriage are fundamentally the foundation of what is commonly understood as the unitive end: commitment, sexual intimacy, love. None of those require marriage.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        The what do you make of St. John Chrysostom’s argument, which seems very much to the contrary?

      • David Nickol

        We have the following facts:
        • the average age for women to marry in the United States is currently 26.5
        • the average age a woman loses her fertility is 50
        • the average age a woman bears her last child is 41
        • the average age her husband will die is 78
        • marriage is indissoluble for Catholics

        Consequently, the typical Catholic married couple will spend more than half of their married life as an infertile couple, and in fact, on average, their childbearing years on average will be in the woman’ years from 26-41. And of course a certain percentage (I would guess 10%) will be infertile during their entire marriage.

        It seems to me it is untenable to conclude that marriage, with a span of 15 childbearing years, but indissoluble for life, is all about procreation.

        The story of the creation of Adam and Eve mentions nothing about childbearing. I wouldn’t give all that much weight to the story of Adam and Eve, personally, but when Jesus comments on the indissolubility of marriage, he quotes Genesis, saying:

        “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

        Still no mention of children or procreation.

        It is often argued that if marriage is about procreation, then infertile couples would not be allowed to marry. The problem with that is that rarely, even in this day and age, is there any definitive proof of infertility when a man and woman marry. However, it would seem reasonable to me if procreation were all-important that infertility would be grounds for annulment, which it most definitely is not.

        I think if you try to narrow down marriage to its essence, you will inevitably go too far.

        • Dan

          It seems to me it is untenable to conclude that marriage, with a span of 15 childbearing years, but indissoluble for life, is all about procreation.

          First, I never said “all about procreation”. It’s primary purpose is providing a stable social structure for procreation; it also historically served the purpose of providing economic protection for the woman. This social structure does not become less important beyond the “young child” years. Lastly it serves to regulate inheritance (hence legitimate and illegitimate children). In no small part it is also about unity. I am not denying that aspect. I am simply saying that unity is not intrinsic to marriage any more than to any other monogamous, committed relationship – or to a lesser degree a fully chaste relationship. We conflate the issue because historically the proper context for sexual relations (due to its intrinsic procreative nature) was marriage. Modern contraceptives mean this is no longer the case, hence why society is so confused about gay marriage – they’re mixing historical marriage whose purpose is “to regulate the sexual life”, with modern marriage, which is primarily a symbol of unity. If you keep them distinct, the matter is really quite clear.

          Still no mention of children or procreation.

          You do realize that “And the two shall become one flesh” has multiple meanings in this context, right?

      • Dan

        The answer to this question really depends on what he means by “regulate the sexual life”. The concept of a sacramental marriage was (and still very much is) underdeveloped in St. John’s day, so it’s hard to know without reading the full context of the quote what premises he is operating under.
        Furthermore, in his world, procreation is intrinsic to sexual intercourse, so it makes sense to regulate something that can result in the introduction of a new member of society. But the same objectives are essentially achieved in any monogamous relationship. Without consideration to offspring, Marriage is only an external sign of monogamy; it does not “regulate” it in any way.

    • A Sinner

      You’re wrong here, though, Dan. Infertility is NOT a valid grounds for annulment. IMPOTENCE (the physical inability to even complete the natural act) is, but NOT mere infertility or sterility.

      • Dan

        You are right, I was imprecise. Impotence is grounds for annulment, but infertility is only grounds for annulment under the umbrella of non-disclosure.

    • Brian Martin

      Dan, I think you may be mistaken about infertility being a valid reason for an annulment. My understanding is that it would only be such if the woman knew she was infertile and hid this from the man.

      • Brian Martin

        Thus it would be the deception rather than the infertility that would make the marriage invalid.

      • Melody

        “My understanding is that it would only be such if the woman knew she was infertile and hid this from the man.” That was my understanding, too. The Church has no problem marrying senior citizens, or people who know they are infertile, say as a result of cancer treatment. Even impotence doesn’t necessarily rule out marriage in the Church, the reasoning being that if the impotence were ever healed, it would be the couple’s intention to consumate.

    • Thales


      infertility to be a valid reason for annulment

      Sorry, that’s incorrect. Infertility is NOT a valid reason for annulment. (Now maliciously deceiving a future spouse about one’s infertility might affect the validity of matrimonial consent, but that’s a different issue.)

      So I think you’re off base here, considering JP II”s recent writings, where he emphasizes love’s nature as the complete mutual self-gift between persons, and the fact that this self-giving between spouses is a sign of the Church, etc. — all of which happens even if there are no children (and even if the couple is infertile).

      • Thales

        For support on the point that infertility is NOT a valid reason for annulment, see Canon 1083. “Sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage.” So two people who know with certainty that they are infertile or sterile, can still marry.

    • R.

      Whoa, Dan! Infertility is NOT a “valid reason for annulment.” You may be thinking of impotence, but infertility is not an impediment to marriage. For example, a couple in their sixties, if otherwise free to marry, can validly marry in the Church.

    • Turmarion

      Hence the reason the Church considers marriages without intention of procreation to be invalid, and infertility to be a valid reason for annulment.

      Then why has the Church recognized the validity of–and sometimes encouraged–Josephite marriages?

  • Paul DuBois

    Knowing very little of the teachings of St John, but looking at the quote above it would seem he is supporting marriage more as a means of regulating fornication than for its unitive ends. This would be very consistent with the teachings of St. Paul on marriage. St. Paul, and it seems St, John, felt without being married, some men would fall into fornication with a variety of women and commit sexual sin. .

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The problem with this interpretation is that it puts human sexuality into a negative light: “regulating fornication” seems to reduce human sexuality to lusts and passions. This is certainly what I sense when I read St. Augustine: for him sex seems “dirty” and is only salvageable because of its connections to procreation. I read St. J/C as putting a more positive understanding on it. I have been trying to find the complete quote to confirm this, but have not been able to do so.

      • Paul DuBois

        I think St. Paul intends to put a negative light on sex. St. John puts a little more positive light on sex in the quote above but the lowly state of women also comes through his quote very plainly. As does the implication that it is men who are lustful.

      • A Sinner

        Yeah, but the positive spin is still more of the “outlet for concupiscence” variety.

        Though, of course, there is a circularity in that particular paradigm. Namely: marriage, in that view, is seen as “better than burning” and fornicating and a “remedy” therefor. But then what’s wrong with fornication? What defines it as a sin? Only that it takes place outside of marriage. So there is a little begging the question here, on face value.

        However, the idea seems to be summed up in Chrysostom’s “regulating” idea. The ascetic view of the moral life that is especially emphasized in the East would see sexuality (like all desires) as about “passions.” Marriage serves to regulate them by institutionalizing them, allowing them to be integrated into a whole pattern of life towards other virtues, namely life-long fidelity and friendship and mutual support. Promiscuity is not morally neutral exactly because it involves “love” without responsibility or commitment, human beings being interchangeable and disposable (although sexuality is not the only category with which we can treat people that way.)

        Of course, the Fathers would naturally have also have frowned upon “perverse” desires, whether for unnatural heterosexual acts, or for homosexual acts. So allowing for these under the understanding that they can still encourage a friendship or relationship would have been rejected, because the rationality or intelligibility of desire would be at issue, the “right ordering” of the passions. And at that point you do have to reference procreativity, because it is that which explains which sexual passions are reasonable and which aren’t.

  • Ronald King

    “…to cause the man to be satisfied with one single wife…” appears to contain much for discussion. Marriage, with its beginning based on the need to be identified as having value in the eyes of the other(see Genesis) exposes the vulnerability of each partner to their personal history of attachments and how each has experienced and adjusted to a life of imperfect love. This is played out daily in the course of our most intimate relationships and it is the foundation upon which our social structures are formed. If we can compassionately and intelligently understand the isolation and distress exhibited in the intimacy of marriage, then we have the foundation for developing human healthing and rewarding human relationships built on the knowledge of healthy attachments. When a man is not satisfied with one single wife then it means he is not satisfied with who he is. It also means that his wife is communicating to him in some fashion her unhappiness with him in their attachment to one another. The same dynamics can exist within same-sex marriage with each partner entering the intimacy of that commitment with a history of imperfect love and the consequences of this distress.

    • A Sinner

      I’m really not sure what you’re saying here, Ronald. You almost sound like you’re saying marriage is about the prior serial monogamy of those involved.

      • Ronald King

        It is difficult for me to write everything I want to say in a concise and clear manner. However, that is one reason I am writing in order to better that undeveloped skill which took a back seat to speaking about my work for over 30 years. Sorry about the lack of clarity. If you look at Brett’s post you will see what I am attempting to state here, I think. Beginning with our earliest attachments it is the marriage/intimate relationship which reveals to self and the other the history of pain and shame associated with living in a world which does not know how to love. Intimacy can only take place in a committed relationship where each is willing to risk revealing the unloved and ugly parts of themselves to the other rather than seeking to remain the old self which is hidden and disconnected while always seeking to be fulfilled in some compensatory endeavor.
        I appreciate your help in attempting to get clarity from my poor writing skills.

  • dominic1955

    The quote would probably be found in his treatise On Marriage and Family Life.

    Like any Church Father, his opinion is a learned and honored opinion, but ultimately the Church Herself decides of what they say is right and upheld or not. The Church likewise didn’t adopt St. Augustine’s (and many of the ECFs) rather negative opinion on sexual relations even inside marriage.

    That said, I think St. John Chrysostom offers some excellent reflections on marriage in his works on the subject. I think what he really offers (as opposed to what one can prooftext out of him or any of the ECF) is really the Church’s classical (i.e. manualist) view on the matter. Said differently and (I’d say) more beautifully but on that same line. The “unitive” aspect covers both the help of spouses and the remedy of concupiscience as they would have been traditionally broken up into.

    Ultimately, while people may have gotten tripped up on the language (procreation as primary end), this is certainly the “right balance” especially today. The three ends cannot be divorced from each other, all are integral to the whole even if we say there are a primary, secondary and tertiary end and thus they are not strictly equal.

  • johnmcg

    In the marriage rite itself, as far as I remember, the only reference to the procreative aspect of marriage is the couple promising to welcome children.

    So, from that perspective, it is difficult to imagine how the procreative aspect could be emphasized *less*.

    Seeing the statistics bandied about during the debate over the contraception mandate, it does not seem to me that Catholic married couples are suffering from an overemphasis on the procreative aspects of marriage.

  • A Sinner

    I also think a major clarification is needed here:

    You reference the unitive and procreative ends “of marriage” and their relationship and emphases. The “unitive” in this sense, in part, refers to the friendship of the couple (and the procreative can be seen as including the nurturing and education of the children).

    But that is, perhaps, a very different question than that of the unitive and procreative ends OF SEX specifically, where the the “unity” referenced is specifically the “one flesh” union of the “two halves” of the reproductive system specifically cooperating in their common function.

    • turmarion

      But that is, perhaps, a very different question than that of the unitive and procreative ends OF SEX specifically, where the the “unity” referenced is specifically the “one flesh” union of the “two halves” of the reproductive system specifically cooperating in their common function.

      We’ve had this discussion before. If I understood you then, you were saying that since the unitive purpose is the “one flesh” union, and that since said union must be “open to life”, that in effect only non-contraceptive sex even is unitive to begin with. If that’s a correct reading of what you said, then it seems to me to conflate the unitive and procreative, or to absorb the former into the latter.

      This means that maybe we need to back up a little and ask what the “unitive end” of sex even means. I would think that the common sense definition is that it means the deepened intimacy, friendship, communication, and spousal love engendered by sex. That these can occur in an infertile marriage indicates to me that they need not be folded into the procreateive end.

      Of course, much of that gets back to what “open to life” means. You, and ohters sources, I”ve seen, say that it does not, in fact, mean “capable of actually producing a pregnancy”, but “being performed in such a way that hypothetically a pregnancy could occur”. Thus sex between a couple in their 80’s, or an infertile couple, is “open to life”!

      Now I’m a bit of a philosophy geek, and I’ve read explanations of this many times, and I have to say that no matter how I try, no matter how good-willed and open-minded I am, none of this makes any conceivable (pun not intended!) sense to me.

      Just to put my cards on the table, btw, I do not think Humanae Vitae is infallible, and I hold with the majority of the bishops of the committee that was appointed to study the issue before the encyclical came out. In short, while I think that the unitive and procreative aspects must not be totally separated, I don’t think the procreative end has to be present for every single “use of the matrimonial act”, as they put it (“use”—what a romantic term! You can certainly see that married people weren’t writing the encyclicals….). In short, it must be for the marriage as a whole, not for each individual act. In any case, the evidence is that at least from the time of Augustine, the Church in the West has tended to view non-procreative sex—even between infertile or older couples—with suspicion; and no mention of a “unitive” end even arises before modern times. In that light, I think the quote from an Eastern Saint is very instructive, as the East, in some ways, avoided some of the neuroticism about sex that can be seen in the West.

      Now I’m not trying to threadjack us into another debate about contraception; but maybe part of the problem that David identifies, that is, of overemphasis on the procreative end of sex, is exactly because of attempts like I’ve described to more or less totally conflate it with the unitive end, or to absorb the unitive end totally into the procreative end, or in extreme cases, to deny the unitive altogether. At least it seems that way to me.

  • Frank M.

    How about: Roman Catholic theology, despite some changes in the past fifty years, still places heavy emphasis on the material aspects of marriage (rules of behavior, engagement with the Church, contraception and genitalia) to the detriment of the synergistic spiritual development by, between and around the partners. Creating rules emphasising material behavior is appropriate to the typical developmental readiness of the prospective partners if they are youthful. If the partners are more mature, and are supported by a more mature community (family, Church and secular), it is more appropriate to emphasise spiritual aspects, and expect the partners to take greater responsibility for managing their relationship.

    And by “mature” I don’t mean “old.” There’s a big difference.

  • Ivan Kauffman

    My experience, after more than 50 years of marriage, is that the unitive and the procreative are absolutely inseparable. Without children the unitive aspect loses one of its major and most lasting aspects. And without the unitive the life-long bonding that makes it possible for us to establish and maintain healthy families simply isn’t there.
    I’d encourage you to read some of John Paul’s writings on sexuality for yourself. Those who use them to buttress already established positions are being very selective–on both sides.

  • Julia Smucker

    The irony I see here is that the imbalanced emphasis seems to have originated from a concern not to divorce the unitive and procreative ends of marriage (or as I heard someone put it once, to “reduce the procreative to the recreative”, which would be the primary concern about artificial birth control). Reacting to societal pressures toward autonomy (also tied to a consumeristic overemphasis on personal choice) and against any commitment that might limit that autonomy (which marriage undoubtedly does, and having children even more so), the Church has overstressed the procreative dimension of marriage as a counterweight to popular dismissals of it, thus falling at times into the same false dichotomy it was trying to avoid in the first place. I completely agree on the importance of the both/and, and I believe this is what the Church has generally been trying to say, though not always successfully. So the question is, how can we raise these legitimate concerns about the dichotomizing of the purposes of marriage and sexuality without making the same mistake in the other direction?

    Incidentally, I think one of the more well-rounded critiques of the pervasive dismissal of the procreative is offered by John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, in which he situates the problem of widespread recourse to abortion within a broader critique of the “idolatry of the market”, with one part of the problem being that even children are perceived as mere market commodities.

  • Agellius

    I agree with Julia that if the Church seems to overemphasize the procreative aspect, it’s in response to Western culture’s tendency to underemphasize it or even dismiss it as being in any way essential.

    • Julia Smucker

      Yes, that was part of my point, but the other part was that the Church hasn’t always been careful enough to avoid the same mistake of dichotomizing the unitive and procreative aspects. The cultural critique is valid but sometimes leads to overcorrection. That’s why the interdependence of the two is so important.

  • Commoner

    I probably don’t have anything intelligent to add to the conversation, but hey–that’s a minor detail that has never stopped me before. I am not philosophical or theological enough to be able to either explain the causes of it or come up with a solution for it, but can I just say that my observations from an entire life of living around so-called “orthodox” Catholics (and I really do have the street cred in this world, grew up in a Catholic home so traditional that some members eventually went SSPX, went to a College that prides itself on being the best, most orthodox, most Aristotelian/Thomistic of schools and caters to uber-orthodox, and then went on to live in the rather poor and very Catholic word of those employed by various Catholic schools and such. I’m surrounded by these people. I used to be one, too, but the craziness of it all got to be too much for me and now I am just a plain old Catholic, no better or different than any other fellow sinning pew-sitters.) lead me to believe that Catholics are way off when it comes to sex. How’s that for a sweeping statement? And in my experience (and I freely admit this is my own experience only), love of “Theology of the Body” is directly proportional to how messed up a person or couple is sexually. Apparently JPII’s actual TOB is too murky for us common folk, so it takes people like Chris West to translate it for us. What I’m getting at is I can’t speak to whether the messed up TOB-lovers I know actually know anything about JPII’s TOB or if they only know the Chris West version of it. It has also occurred to me that perhaps it is the people already messed up who go particularly gonzo over TOB (again, West version—I don’t know if anybody has ever gone gonzo over the entire and actual TOB as expounded by JPII, or if anybody has ever really figured out what it all means). What I do know is that it creeps me out to no end, and my spidey sense tells me to beware anybody who focuses so much on sex.

    Why does it have to be so hard? I’ve been happily married for over 20 years now, and we have a pretty robust and happy love life. But I have never felt the need to turn it into a religion or to try to understand God through sex. Not that I don’t think making love can be a very spiritual act and often is, but why the need to overthink it? Enjoy it for what it is in the right context, be aware that it can go off the rails if you don’t use some common sense, and quit worrying about it. Most “orthodox” Catholics I know overthink and agonize over sex, have some pretty sorry marriages (they look great on the outside–I only know this becuase I’ve lived in these circles all my life), occasionally get all hyped up about things like TOB or Holy Sex (or whatever the name of that book by Popcack is) and decide it is going to fix everything, including the rest of the world’s problems, and soon discover it doesn’t fix anything because they haven’t addressed any of the reasons they were so screwed up about sex and religion in the first place. Good old fashioned common sense when it comes to these things is often sorely lacking. Basic respect for each other cannot be created by all the NFP and TOB in the world! (I’ve seen this time and again! Total lack of respect for each other while touting these things as the fix-all for marriages) I can’t help but think that for all this talk about what a great “gift” sexuality is, we Catholics sure do manage to make ourselves miserable over it. Unhealthiness abounds.

    John C’s statements on sex are interesting, and I do believe balance is key. But how the heck to get anybody to be balanced in this area is beyond me. Turning religion into a sex cult a la West’s TOB surely ain’t it–at least not from what I’ve seen. If TOB is supposed to be the savior of the world, God help us all.

    • A Sinner

      “try to understand God through sex”

      That pretty much sums up my own suspicions regarding TOTB.

    • grega

      Thank you Commoner for this much needed reality check.
      It is of course not a big surprise that all religions have quite a bit to say about this issue
      since it is such an important part of our live as humans.
      And to be fair secular society is not exactly offering fantastic solutions either.
      Thus every one of us has to take bits and pieces from all kinds of directions and has to make it work in a very personal way. Yes chances are that those that really dig something like TOB have a bit of a personal tilt allready – I would actually include JPII in this. It is certainly ok for a celibate priest to muse about these things – but for me as a married man to take the outcome of such musings without a grain of salt is naive at best.

      The average Catholic is not that naive and actually pretty realisitc about life.
      Our religion will survive the current bunch of overeager converts – folks that certainly seem to dominate the catholic airwaves these days.

  • Chrysologus

    That quotation is consistent with St. Chrysostom’s view, expressed in Hom. on I Cor. 7.2, that marriage was instituted by God to prevent fornication.

    As long as Catholic doctrine forbids contraception, it seems like it is going to, by logical necessity, emphasize the procreative end of marriage. The unitive end can be emphasized only so much as long as every sexual act must be physiologically oriented toward conception. Or maybe I’m wrong.

  • turmarion

    As a result of spotty Internet, I’m coming to this a bit late, but I want to agree with Commoner re the Theology of the Body.

    I haven’t read the primary sources—from the extracts I have read, they’re pretty much unreadable—but I have read commentary on the Theology of the Body (TOB) and have known people that were into it, and been involved in web discussions regarding it.

    Very simplistically, the idea is that our sexuality is a bodily manifestation of ourselves and that our behavior actualizes or reveals our souls, in a sense. To put it another way, sexuality is part of the “language” of the body. The language is not arbitrary, though—God has structured it in such a way that, if you will, it has a certain “grammar” and “vocabulary”. That is, sexuality is supposed to point towards certain basic concepts, if it’s “spoken” correctly. Sexuality is supposed to produce children (obviously). It is also an expression of one’s vulnerability and openness to another.

    In this regard, the “grammar” of sexuality is that it is supposed to be total self-giving to another, body, mind, and spirit, in a permanent way. It is a self-giving that must be open to life—children—since to hold back from this possibility would not be a total self-giving. This is where “sin” comes in. The sin in adultery, polygamy, casual sex, or contraception is that the grammar of the language of the body is violated. Sex with no intention of full self-giving is in effect lying with one’s own body. Sex is supposed to mean “I give myself fully to you, and only you, forever, and will to receive any children that may result, since that is a part of full self-giving.” Any sex that does not do this is a lie of the body, and thus morally unacceptable. E.g. adulterous sex is not full self-giving since another is involved. Homosexual sex is not full self-giving since there is no possibility of children. And so on.

    I hope this is a fair reading of TOB.

    Now there is something to be said for this, I think. However, there are logical and practical problems. First there is the question of just where the “language of the body” comes from. It’s not necessarily self-evident that sexuality has the meaning that Pope John Paul II says it does. You could say—as he more or less does—that it has the meaning it has because God made it that way; but that comes off as the old natural law argument, which the Pope was clearly trying to avoid in his attempts to make a personalistic argument. After all, if you say it’s so because God said so, that’s not going to work for someone who disagrees in his beliefs about God. This is obviously why the Pope was more or less trying to ground sexual morality in something he seemed to see as pretty much self-evident if you looked at what sex was supposed to be. As I said, though, it doesn’t seem self-evident at all, especially in light of traditional forms of non-companionate marriage and the arguments about contraception.

    Second, as it is actually taught, TOB often comes off as a kind of Hot Catholic Sex. It is promoted by saying that not only is the correct language of the body is the only moral way to have sex, but the only enjoyable way. There are tons of glowing prose about how periodic abstinence (NFP) makes a marriage better and opens up better lines of communication, how chastity for youth is not a burden but preparing for better sex with their ultimate spouse, and how the religious aspect of sex—the sharing of body, mind, and spirit—is the highest, and only true form. In short, TOB is often sold almost as a Christian tantra. Except when, as David points out, they’re railing against contraception.

    There is, further, IMO, a rather cultish, market-driven aspect about TOB advocates, which I’m not the first to have noted.

    I think there are lots of problems here. One, it is a bit dishonest in that it de-emphasizes asceticism. In other words, it implies that if you follow TOB you’ll never be frustrated and will be perfectly sexually fulfilled if you just do it the TOB way. The implication is that NFP, for example, is not only not a burden, at times, but will make the sex when you have it so totally mind-blowing that only a philistine would fail to understand it. Two, the whole metaphysic involved—that somehow sex is a spiritual method or revelation integral to Christianity in and of itself—seems theologically suspect.

    Finally, I think it can have bad effects on real-world couples. I knew a couple once, well enough to have frank conversations, who were into TOB. There was this idea that sex, every single act, had to be perfectly self-giving, totally spiritual, and so on. In other words, a standard was put in place to which the actual sex could never measure up. The fact that the couple had very different sex drives and expectations didn’t help. Eventually, they divorced, and one ultimately left the Church altogether. I’m not saying TOB caused that; but it sure didn’t help, and I think it was a big factor. I’ve heard anecdotal tales of other couples who have experienced similar problems with TOB.

    In short, while I think TOB was a noble attempt, I think it really is very much disconnected from sex as a lived experience, and I think it doesn’t really solve some of the philosophical problems involved with sexual morality. I certainly don’t recommend it.

    • A Sinner

      Can I quote this whole thing, tumarion?? I’ll attribute it to you, link here, etc. I REALLY liked this analysis, it pretty much sums it up.

      • turmarion

        You certainly may. I’m glad that, despite our other areas of extreme disagreement, that there are some things on which we can join forces!

    • Thales

      Finally, I think it can have bad effects on real-world couples. I knew a couple once,…..


      I don’t deny at all your personal experiences and impressions. But I find comments like yours difficult to respond to because I know of several couples who have said to me that their marriages were saved from divorce by NFP. And I know of dozens of couples whose marriages and family lives are richer because of NFP. And I know of broken couples who believe their marriages fell apart because of contraception. People are extremely complicated, I guess, but it’s my firm opinion that on the whole, NFP/ToB-type understanding of sexuality and marriage is much better and healthier than a contraceptive understanding.

      There are tons of glowing prose about how periodic abstinence (NFP) makes a marriage better and opens up better lines of communication, how chastity for youth is not a burden but preparing for better sex with their ultimate spouse….

      Well, as a a general rule, periodic abstinence in NFP does make a marriage better and opens up better lines of communication — but it’s still a burden. And abstinence before marriage does preparing for a better sexual and personal relationship with one’s ultimate spouse — but it’s still a burden. Earthly life is difficult and complicated and a struggle sometimes. So, those who say or who teach or who believe that abstinence is not a burden and that NFP is the magic path to perfect happiness on Earth are either liars or fools.

      • turmarion

        Well, of course, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. There are issues of causality–do couples who use NFP have better marriages as a result thereor, or is it that couples who have better communication and higher motivation to begin with are more likely to use it? Of course, also, consequentialist arguments don’t necessarily fly in cases like this. I mean, if someone did a massive study and was able to show that couples who used NFP had worse marriages, the Vatican wouldn’t change its mind regarding contraception. Since it regards it as intrinsically evil, it would say that its actual effects aren’t sufficient resason to accept it.

        If you read A. Sinner’s blog, you’ll see that even though he’s a traditionalist–and even though he and I have got into it over contraception more than once–that nevertheless he’s no fan of TOB. You’d be surprised how many traditionalists aren’t. One can accept the Church’s teaching on sexuality completely without believing that TOB is a good, effective, or even coherent way of presenting the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Thus, Sinner and I do agree on TOB, whereever else we may differ.

        I actually have respect for any couples that are able to use NFP–or TOB, for that matter–in such a way as to improve their marriages. I have no problem with that at all. I think some of the modes in which TOB is presented–Christopher West springs to mind–are very much market-driven, and that some of the adovcates are a little cultish about it. However, as far as individual couples, I quote the great prophet John Lennon in saying, “Whatever gets you thru the night.”

        My main issue with the whole thing, really, is the extremem politicization of the issue by the Church in the last few months. I think people on each side need to be a bit more irenic, and I think the political aspect just has a corrupting effect on it all.

        • Thales

          Well, of course, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

          Yep, I agree. Which is why I found your comment difficult to respond to. And I recognize that my comment is no proof either. We just have differing personal experiences — and that’s fine.

          As for the rest of your comment, I don’t think that I really take issue with anything you’re saying, except that we may be doing a little bit of talking past each other when referring to “ToB”. I don’t know how you define “ToB”, but I group under that phrase many different approaches, philosophies, and understandings. Some may be an over-the-top fixation on sexuality (like West, if you think he deserves grouping in that category), some aren’t (like JPII’s writing itself, or more subdued commentators like David Schindler) — and that means some approaches might be wrong and foolish, and some might not be. Regardless, I often group these different approaches approaches under “ToB”, and I don’t know whether you and A Sinner are also doing so. But set aside the merits or demerits of any one particular ToB approach, because I’m not interested in arguing about any one ToB approach: In my comment, I was trying to get more generally at the fact that there are natural law or philosophical rationales for the Church’s position on sexuality and NFP (which is why I used the general phrase of “NFP/ToB-type understanding of sexuality and marriage”).

          One of the reasons why I’m Catholic is that I think the Church is not afraid of giving rational explanations for its moral positions that are grounded in science, nature, and logic — in other words, in my opinion, the Church doesn’t just say “this is immoral because the Magisterium says so”; instead, the Church says “this is immoral, and there is a rational reason supporting this position.” (Related to this is the fact that, in my opinion, the Church has more developed philosophical reasons for its position on faith and morals than many Protestants denominations.) Likewise with NFP/artif.contraception: in my opinion, the Church simply doesn’t say “artif.contraception is bad, NFP is good because we say so”; instead, it gives rational reasons for this position. So in my comment when I said “it’s my firm opinion that on the whole, NFP/ToB-type understanding of sexuality and marriage is much better and healthier than a contraceptive understanding”, I’m talking about the couple who uses NFP, not solely because “the Church says so” but also because they share the Church’s understanding of the rational underpinnings for this moral position. And I say that such marriages, in my opinion, are healthier than the alternative not solely from my personal experience or from personal anecdotes, but also because it makes sense to me rationally based on my own understanding of the world and human nature — just as it makes sense to me rationally that a monogamous marriage would be happier than a polygamous one, or a marriage free from a spouse lying all the time or using porn would be happier than the alternative.

          I’ve probably gone on to long and been sufficiently obscure, so I’ll stop now. :)

  • Wei

    I believe the ends of marriage are companionship and helping the other to become the very best version of themselves they can be. I personally think the focus on sex is excessive. Marriage is far, far more than sex. Yes, sex is important in marriage, but we spend far too much time analyzing it and trying to make it fit some sort of ideal, and yet does this focus really help real life couples to have a healthy marriage and healthy sexuality?

    Seriously, even the expectation to be virgins before marriage and to never have explored oneself sexually (since masturbation is also a sin) and then expect these two to be able to “go all the way” on their very first sexual encounter as a married couple is dysfunctional, especially for women for whom the sex could be extremely painful. Sex which cannot produce babies is illicit sex, which means that couples cannot take time to learn each other’s bodies. I find the church’s stance to be highly impractical and also to be damaging to women due to the expectations.

    I believe that sex in humans serves many purposes, including reproduction, but also bonding and just a release of tension. It would be really good if married couples could enjoy each other in a healthy way without the heavy dose of guilt.