Conjugal IntimacyMARSHALL FIGHTLIN
Although at the wedding ceremony, the man gives up his absolute autonomy, the impulses to act like a single man are still there. It becomes the daily task of the husband to “mortify” these impulses to act like a single man, and to continue to act like a married man, concerned with his wife.
Conversely, it also is almost a cliche to say that the Roman Catholic faith is blessed with a clear vision of the meaning of sexuality. Yet this vision — beautiful and compelling as it is — is something to which Catholics often don’t do justice. In many cases we tend to be more definite about what we are against than about what we stand for. It is clear that we do not approve of premarital sex, infidelity, homosexuality, or masturbation. But we aren’t as clear and forceful in communicating the vision of what we stand for.
There is a triple theme in Catholic theology that applies to the whole human situation. It applies to man, marriage, and sexuality in marriage. This triple theme is Creation, Fall, and Redemption. The Creation theme tells us that everything in the universe is good and to be affirmed because God made it. The theme of the Fall tells us that creation has a major flaw running through it: sin. Fallen creation calls for the theme of Redemption, which tells us that Christ offers redemption to the, universe and everything in it, including man, marriage, and conjugal intimacy. This article will look at man and marriage in light of the triple theme of Creation-Fall-Redemption, and thus arrive at a Roman Catholic understanding of marital intimacy.
Scripture presents man as created in the image of God. Because man is a reflection of God, we need to ask ourselves who God is. Revelation presents God to us as self-giving Love. God created us freely, and, in the act of creating us, gave himself to us. His act of creating us is self-giving. It is characterized by freedom and generosity. Although we certainly rejoice his heart, God did not create us primarily so that he could get something from us. He created us primarily to give us of his own fullness. The act of creation is an act of complete unselfishness. God is self-giving Love who seeks what is good for those he loves.
Man is created in the image of the self-giving love of God. This means that man cannot find his fulfillment apart from giving himself in love to others. Therefore, part of man’s fulfillment is linked up with responsibilities to others and with duties. These responsibilities and duties man has toward others, but far from being a threat to his fulfillment, they are the stuff out of which his fulfillment is made.
This vision of man goes against much of contemporary thinking about fulfillment. In the last few decades, we have seen the rise of the cult of self-fulfillment. It often says, “I have to be me. I have to leave my family, my children, my responsibilities, and cut my ties, so that I can find myself. My family, my children, and my spouse are preventing me from becoming myself.” The cult of fulfillment is a direct contradiction to the vision of man as image of the loving God. In fact, one finds one’s fulfillment in honoring one’s commitments to others, one’s duties, one’s responsibilities. Man is essentially a social being. In order to be himself, he must exist with others and manifest an attitude of giving of himself to others.
The prime social unit in marriage is the man/woman relationship. As the book of Genesis tells us, it isn’t simply the individual man, Adam, who is the image of God. It is the couple, Adam and Eve together in their marital union, who are the image of God. The love that Adam and Eve show each other is a reflection of the self-giving Love who created them in the first place. The Creation theme insists that man is a body-soul unity, and not simply a soul. In Genesis, when God looked at what he had made and saw that it was “good,” he looked at man who is a body creature. For Scripture and for the Catholic tradition, man is a body-person. Our bodies are not something we have. Our bodies are part of what we are. This core insight contradicts Gnosticism. and Jansenism, which view the body as subhuman, as an instrument with which I can do what I want, as “not me.” This core insight insists that, in a very real sense, I am my body.
The body is not a neuter body. The body is a sexual body. Everyone of us is a sexual body. A person’s body is either male or female. Through and through, every cell in one’s body can be identified as either male or female. Sexuality is not something I have, but, like my body, it is something I am. My masculinity is an integral part of me.
An integral element of sexuality is fertility. I am capable of impregnating my wife. This capacity, this fertility potential, being part of my sexuality and, hence, part of my body, is not something I have, but is something I am.
When we talk about “man,” we are talking about a fertile-sexual-body-person. When we talk about “woman,” we are also talking about a fertile-sexual-body-person. Man and woman are not simply two “free spirits.” Yet man is created free. Regarding marriage, this means that man enters into his marital relationship freely,. not under compulsion. He chooses to marry. This choice is not simply an emotion, but a free act of the will, as the marriage ritual makes plain.
We know that God created man and woman out of love, but that the first couple were tempted to doubt that love, and so sinned. The result of the Fall of the first man and woman was a loss of harmony with the God of love. Man lost his harmony with God who is Love. Losing his sense of who God is, man also lost his own inner harmony. Out of touch with God, man lost touch with himself as image of God. He no longer tended to give himself to others in love. He no longer tended to love others as persons. Instead, his love tended to shrivel. He tended to love other people as things. So it is with all men. We tend to “love” others, not for their good, but because we find it pleasant, or because of what they can do for us. This is not person-love, it is thing-love—which is the kind of love one has for a glass of wine. I love a glass of wine because of what the wine does for me. This kind of love is appropriate for a thing, but not for a person; it becomes a “using,” consumer approach that is unworthy of a person.
This is the kind of love that was introduced to human life through the Fall. It threatens authentic love, the love of self-giving. Man lost his inner harmony in another sense in that he lost the harmony between body and soul. Now his impulse life tends to lead him in a direction that is not reasonable. Impulses to anger, laziness, eating, or sexual activity tend to be uncontrolled by reason. The Fall affects marriage by converting it from a reality that is reciprocal self-giving to one that is manipulative and exploitive. The more sin is introduced into the married life, the more selfishness becomes the preoccupying motivation of the couple. Self-interest dethrones self-giving. “I’ll help you only when it pleases me.”
Fallen creation’s need for redemption has been met by the loving God. Christ has offered redemption to the entire created order, including man, marriage, and conjugal intimacy. The Catholic Church has always insisted on the full humanity of Christ. By the Incarnation, God became truly and fully man. Christ had a complete human nature with a complete human body. He had all that we have, except sin. The early Fathers of the Church had a saying: “What was not assumed, was not saved.” They meant that, if Jesus did not have a full, real human body, then human bodily life was not redeemed. If. our bodies were not saved, then our sexuality and fertility were not saved, and hence marriage and family life are not holy realities. In the early centuries of the Church the Gnostic heretics denied the basic goodness of marriage and family life. They did not see these as fully redeemed. Conversely, the Church insisted that redemption is physical as well as spiritual. What is redeemed is the entire creation, including man, not simply as “soul,” but as body-person. How does the offer of redemption to man as body-person affect marriage? The link between redemption and marriage is twofold. On the one hand, the nature of marriage sheds light on the mystery of Christ and his Church. And on the other, the mystery .of Christ and his Church sheds light on the nature of marriage. First, marital imagery is used to illuminate the mystery of Christ and his Church. Sacred Scripture and the mystical tradition in the Church present our redemption by Christ in terms of a husband-wife relationship. Christ is the New Adam, the bridegroom. The Church is the New Eve, the bride. More wondrously than the first couple, the New Adam and the New Eve are united to form the image of God, “the perfect man.” The Scriptures present this marriage of Christ and the Church as a facet of the Paschal Mystery. Christ gives himself on the cross out of love for his bride, the Church. Risen from the dead, he sends, the Holy Spirit to the apostles on Pentecost. With this gift of the Spirit, the Church comes into existence as Christ’s bride, just as Eve came into existence as Adam’s spouse. But the reverse is also true: Christ sheds light on the mystery of marriage. Christ has restored marriage. He has brought it back to what it was originally intended to be. He has made marriage a participation in the union between himself and his Church. The love that a husband and wife show to each other is a participation in the love that Christ shows his Church. Vatican Council II says that married life is “a sign of and a share in that love with which Christ loved his bride and gave himself for her.” This love is closely linked to giving, to sacrifice. Love always costs the one who loves. Because it participates in Christ’s sacrificial love, married love is essentially sacrificial. Married life requires “mortification.” In this regard, married life is a specific form of baptismal life. To elaborate, when a man accepts baptism, he “dies” to his “old” selfish self, and he “rises” to a “new” unselfish, loving self. But after his baptism, the man continues to feel the impulses to selfishness. He continues to feel the impulses to act and live as he did before baptism. His daily task is to “mortify,” to put to death, those impulses by acting contrary to them, by acting lovingly in spite of his impulses to act selfishly. Something analogous happens when a man (or woman) marries. He lays aside his “old” single self, and he puts on a “new” married self. Although at the wedding ceremony, the man gives up his absolute autonomy, the impulses to act like a single man are still there. They still assert themselves. It becomes the daily task of the husband to “mortify” these impulses to act like a single man, and to continue to act like a married man, concerned with his wife, in spite of those impulses. For example, a single man walks down the street and spots a stereo in a store window. He decides he would like to buy it, and so he enters the store and makes the purchase. Once that man marries, he loses the autonomy to do what he did as a single man. As a married man, he may still want to buy the stereo, but he first must consider his wife’s feelings. Money he spends on the stereo is money she can’t spend on something else. Maybe she doesn’t like the color or the model. Maybe she feels they can’t afford it right now. The husband must forgo the purchase until he has consulted with his wife. This consultation must be a dialogue, not manipulation. The husband must listen to his wife’s real feelings about this possible purchase. He has to let go of his freedom to control the outcome of the discussion. He has to let go and “die” a little — and that is exactly how it feels. He has to be willing to hear his wife say, “That stereo? You’ve got to be kidding.” Then comes the process of working through to some kind of compromise. If the couple are being genuine in their dialogue, the conclusion that they reach will probably not be exactly what the husband originally wanted. It may be close, but it probably won’t be the same thing. Maybe they will get a smaller model or a different color. Maybe they will buy it six months from now, or maybe they won’t even get it at all. To accept the outcome of such marital dialogues, the husband must “mortify,” put to death, the single self every day. If a husband (or wife) stops “mortifying” himself, the marriage will begin to pull apart until it has dissolved into two single people. The majority of marriage problems today arise from a lack of this vision of marriage. Too many people are entering marriage not facing the fact that the first thing one does when one marries is to give up something, to “die,” and that only then do the blessings of marriage appear. The blessings are based on this initial renunciation of absolute autonomy. This renunciation has to be reasserted every day because it tends to be threatened daily by the impulses to act as a single person. Paul sums it up in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church. He gave himself up for her.”
We have discussed the meaning of man and of marriage in the light of the triple theme of Creation-Fall-Redemption. Both man and marriage are basically good, both are wounded by sin, and both have been redeemed by Christ. What light does this shed on the meaning of conjugal intimacy? As we saw before, marriage is basically a communion of love, a gift of self by each spouse to the other. If true self-giving love is present in the total marriage, then the conjugal intimacy is an expression of that love. Conjugal intimacy not only expresses that love, but helps it along, “fosters” it. This is only true if the total marriage is characterized by self-giving love. Where a marriage is not so characterized, the conjugal act has nothing to express. The conjugal act can’t express self-giving love if there is none. This is a very common problem. It is based on a misunderstanding of the place of sex in marriage. Very often wives complain, “The only time my husband ever notices me, ever talks to me, ever shows me any affection, is ever considerate, is when he wants to have intercourse.” These wives are justifiably resentful of the husbands’ approach for sexual relations because the conjugal intimacy is not expressing anything. There is no communion of life apart from the conjugal act for the conjugal relations to express. Many husbands think that conjugal relations are love. For them, all that is involved in showing love to one’s wife is to have sex with her regularly. . The Catholic view helps preserve us from this kind of problem. If we recognize that our sexual life must reflect the total marriage, then sharing thoughts and feelings with our spouse, showing attention to our spouse, must be something which is done throughout the marriage, not just as a preparation for intercourse.
Sexual relations in marriage are characterized by self-giving, by a concern for the other. This helps explain much of what the Church has taught about sex which may not have been understood very well at times. Catholics have long been familiar with the concept of marital sex as “rendering a debt” or “doing one’s wifely duty.” The language of “duty” and “debt” — far from demeaning marital intimacy — intends to focus attention on the spouse, not on the self. Even though sex is to be enjoyed, since this is the way God designed it, the enjoyment — exuberant though it may be — is set in a context of self-giving, not self-centeredness. This is well illustrated in a passage from Thomas Aquinas, in which he cautions husbands that their wives may signal their desire for sexual intimacy in ways so discreet and indirect, that husbands may miss the overture. Aquinas cautions husbands to be very attentive to these little signs that wives give them, and to act promptly on them. Here Aquinas is focusing the husband’s attention, not primarily on his own sexual desires, but on those of his wife. Another truth of marital intimacy we can distill from the Catholic perspective is that the act of sexual intimacy is an act between a male-body-person and a female-body-person. As we have. seen, man’s fertility potential is an integral part of man and his sexuality. My fertility is not an object I have. It is part of who I am. So the sexual communion between husband and wife includes the fertility dimension of the husband and of the wife. What happens to sexual intimacy because of sin? We are weak, and tend to pull back. Our love is no longer the self-giving love it was meant to be “in the beginning.” It becomes “thing love”: “I love you for what you can do for me. I love you because it is pleasant to love you.” When this notion infects the sexual relationship, it tends to separate sexuality from family. It closes it off to fertility. It tends to rip sexuality away from marriage itself. It can also separate it from heterosexuality. Finally it tends to reduce any glimmer of mutuality. When pleasure becomes the reigning principle, it involves sexuality in deceit, lying, manipulation of the partner, violence, and the destruction of innocent life. This is the result of cutting sexuality from its conjugal context and putting it under the sway of “the pleasure principle” (“I do what feels good”). Procreation becomes separated from sexuality and is treated like a disease. We take pills to eliminate diseases, and we submit to surgery to have malignancies removed. To do these things in order to remove the fertility dimension is to mutilate the self, and to treat the fertility dimension as if it were a disease, “not me.” Most couples I have talked with, who use artificial contraceptives, dislike them. This was an illumination for me. I used to view contraception as a beneficial but forbidden fruit. However, couples who experience contraception regularly report that it is ugly and intrusive — a diminishment. They tolerate it only because of their fear of an untimely pregnancy. Marital intimacy and the procreative potential can be separated in another way. Here procreation is placed in the laboratory where conception takes place, not in an act of mutual self-giving between husband and wife, but in a petri dish by a scientist. Christ has redeemed the institution of marriage. Since conjugal intimacy is the unique expression of marriage, Christ has redeemed conjugal intimacy. St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. Observe that no one ever hates his own flesh. No, he nourishes it and takes care of it, as Christ cares for the Church, for we are members of his body.” The husband must love his wife’s body as his own body. This presupposes that he loves his own body. Our bodies are sexual and fertile. The fertility dimension of the body is an integral part of who the husband is and who his wife is. Therefore, the husband must not “hate” his own fertility, but must “nourish” and “take care of it.” And he must treat the fertility of his wife’s body in exactly the same way. From a eucharistic perspective, the marriage between Christ and his Church, which took place on Pentecost, is consummated in every Holy Communion. Each eucharistic celebration is a mystical consummation of the marriage between Christ and his Church. The Eucharist expresses the conjugal intimacy between Christ and his Church. In the Eucharist Christ shows his sacrificial love and he enters into a communion ‑“two in one flesh”‑with his Church. We become one body with his Body, given for us. In this way, marital imagery sheds light on the mystery of Christ and his Church. This is the vision that the Church presents to us of conjugal intimacy. It is a natural sacrament of marital commitment. It is a reflection of the love that God has for us. It is a reflection and a participation in the love that Christ showed for his Church when he gave himself on the cross. It is worthy to be compared to Holy Communion. Just as Christ enters into conjugal intimacy with his Church through Holy Communion — the body union of a Christian and Christ — so the couple celebrate a little communion in their conjugal intimacy. This is a compelling vision of conjugal intimacy. There are some conclusions we can draw from this. I have drawn a few along the way, but there are more.
The first one is that sexual relations can only be truthful in the context of marriage. Sexual intimacy is a mystery that symbolizes marriage and belongs in marriage. Outside of marriage, conjugal relations are untruthful. Since this is so, we are opposed to what threatens the context of sexual intimacy, namely, premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, etc. The harmful manifestations of such practices are many, but we will take just one example‑pre-marital sex. Two people involved sexually before they are married are like two people who are always drunk. They don’t really know each other. They are intoxicated by the sexual experience. When the boy makes sacrifices to be with the girl, she doesn’t know why he made them. She doesn’t know if he made them for love of. her, or for love of sex. The relationship is totally different from that of two people who are saving sex for marriage. Because of the false signals that it sets up, premarital sex leads to unwise marriages. The second conclusion we can draw is that, for conjugal intimacy to be fully human, the procreative potential must be left intact. Since the fertility potential is an integral element of the person, sexual intimacy between two married persons necessarily includes the fertility dimension. The third conclusion is that to be fully free, the couple’s conjugal life must have some form of self-restraint present in it. Sin introduced man to loss of control, so that he no longer easily controls his sexual impulses. There is a danger that sexual relations will become nothing more than impulsive acts. In this case the sexual act is not a human act because it is not brought under the sway of intellect and will. It is essential that a sexual expression be brought into the sphere of the human by being under control of reason and will. One cannot freely say yes to sexual intimacy if one cannot freely say no. If one cannot say no, then one must say yes. A compelled yes is not free, and therefore it is not human. To safeguard the freedom to say no, one has to practice saying no. Married life presents a couple with numerous opportunities to practice this. The obvious examples include the postpartum period, sickness or tiredness of a spouse, lack of privacy, and job separation. When a couple is not confident that each individual has the ability to control his impulses, mistrust arises. For example, how can a sailor who is out to sea for three months trust his wife, or she him, if self-control cannot be taken for granted? Very often, abstinence can be an expression of love. When one’s wife is very tired or ill, abstinence is a loving form of consideration. Another obvious occasion for abstinence is family planning. When there is a good reason for it (as in natural family planning), abstinence does not harm a marriage. Although sexual intimacy is one expression of love, it is not the most important expression. Regular acts of consideration and tenderness are of prime importance. One never can abstain from sensitivity, sharing with one another, or displays of affection.
A final point is that, for conjugal intimacy to be authentic, the couple’s total relationship must be self-giving. If there is no sharing, no communion of life, then sexual intimacy is not true. It becomes analogous to extramarital sex insofar as there is a certain untruth about it. It expresses a communion of life that is not really there.
The above constitutes only a broad sketch of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, but one can begin to see that it is very powerful and beautiful. If we ponder the deep connections between conjugal intimacy and the God of love, and between our conjugal intimacy and the love that Christ has shown us, we will grow in appreciation of the richness of Catholic teaching on sexuality.
Fightlin, Marshall. “Conjugal Intimacy.” New Oxford Review (January-February, 1984): 8-14.
Reprinted with permission of the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). To subscribe to the New Oxford Review, call (510) 526-3492.
Marshall Fightlin is an experienced licensed psychologist specializing in personal, marriage or family problems. He offers a psychological consultation service by telephone. Visit his web site here. Contact him at: 866-636-9600.
Copyright © 1984 New Oxford Review
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.