Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is "Sex" A Gift From God?

Well, I can hear a multitude of voices shouting “Yes! Of course sex is a gift from God!” I have some doubts, so I think it might help to first talk about what we mean by “sex”: I’m assuming in the context of our NFP discussions that those saying “sex” is a gift from God mean sexual intercourse, or the sexual act. Let’s start there.

Sexual intercourse may well be a gift from God, but it is a gift that, because of the Fall, and because of its intensely pleasurable nature, is vulnerable to all manner of abuses and perversions. Therefore, it is a gift that comes with some qualifiers and constraints. First of all, “sex” is for married couples (one man and one woman – isn’t it a shame that we have to clarify that point?!).  Why? Because “sex” is tied inevitably and intentionally to procreation. Marriage provides the proper environment for the rearing of children.

Other constraints concerning “sex” include the following: Masturbation and mutual masturbation are forbidden. Homosexual sex is forbidden. Sex between a man and a woman who are not married to each other is forbidden. Contraceptive sex is forbidden. Why? Because all of these things turn us away from God and in on ourselves. All of these prohibited examples are fruitless, sterile: their aim is solely to enjoy the pleasure of sex without any responsibility. Sterile sex means we are submitting to our concupiscence.

My friend Dr. Stacy Trasancos has a good post related to this issue – “The Case for Not Calling It Sex”. She notes:

 “Sex” comes from the Latin word secus which refers to the state of being male or female, specific qualities associated with being male or female, males or females collectively, sexual organs. It is that thing that, only in part, defines a man as a man and a woman as a woman. Sex really has very little to do with intimacy, except to identify gender and to describe bodily functions associated with that gender.

Intimacy” comes from the Latin word intimus which refers to the inmost, deep-seated, inner nature or fundamental character of a thing; essential; intrinsic. It is that thing between a husband and wife that is the deepest union, and it is not isolated to a physical act. It encompasses – is the very wellspring – of the entire union and relationship. Intimacy is uniquely human. Animals mindlessly have sex to procreate; humans, however, can experience intimacy in the marital bond to bring forth new life in love. See the difference?

The “old” words for “sex” (meaning the act of sexual intercourse) were terms like “marital embrace”, the “marital act”, the “consummation of marriage”, “conjugal love”. These terms, in addition to clinging to a sense of modesty, make clear that “sex” isn’t divorced from love and intimacy, and it isn’t divorced from procreation. Procreation is always assumed. Is that just because the ancients (and the pre-moderns) didn’t know how to regulate births?

I don’t think so. I think it’s just that they took “sex” seriously. I think they understood – better than we do, in our current hyper-sexed culture – that “sex” is easily abused and perverted. Currently, there are abuses and perversions in our current society that would make any saint – and many a sinner – from earlier times recoil in horror and disbelief (and they would use terms like "fornication" and "sodomy"). But we’ve become habituated to it. It doesn’t surprise us. That’s at least in part because, for the past half-century, we’ve separated “sex” from its procreative function. Now we are reaping the dubitable fruit of that process.

"Sex" itself may be a gift from God (what good thing isn’t?); but it’s the intimacy that we can achieve in marriage that is the greater gift. It’s the fact that we can approach “sex” with reason and will; we (ideally) enter into the goodness of “sex” only in marriage – marriage between a man and a woman, with the full knowledge and hope that children will come from our intimate union.

In Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI tells us that

…amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wishes to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: "Increase and multiply, and fill the earth." (par. 11, my emphasis)

In other words, if “sex” is a gift, then it is inextricably tied to the gift of children, since the child holds “first place” among the blessings of marriage. In an article entitled “A Theology of Life-Giving”, (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, August/September 2007)Fr. William M. Gardner notes that if we leave out the procreative aspect, the gift of “sex” is imperfect. The sexual act is directed by nature to procreation, though it does have benefits that accrue even if procreation is not achieved in a particular act. Fr. Gardner explains that

…the sexual act can only reach full perfection in conception. A non-fruitful act of sexual intercourse may be morally licit and mutually beneficial to the spouses and may also consummate a marital commitment (in each case, reaching a real level of perfection), but it is not a fully perfected sexual act since human life has not been transmitted. The sexual act has not achieved the end that distinguishes it from all other kinds of human acts.

He also quotes Blessed John Paul II: “…fecundity is the living testimony of the full reciprocal giving of the spouses” (Familiaris Consortio, #28).

Today, it seems to be taken for granted that fertility can be – and maybe even should be – controlled (whether artificially or "naturally"). Consequently, people enter marriage with rather vague expectations about children, at least in comparison with marriage only a hundred years ago: "Yeah, we'd like to have kids, eventually, probably no more than two, preferably a boy and a girl."

But for centuries, marriage had nothing whatever to do with "sexual partnership" or "soul mates" or "institutionalized immodesty." Marriage was a social institution for the procreation and education of children even before the Church came on the scene and taught about marriage from the point of view of God.

If “sex” is a gift from God, we should be viewing it with much greater reverence than prevails currently. Why aren't Catholics embarrassed to have authors like Gregory Popcak writing books in their name with titles like "Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving"? The very title itself is immodest and a potential occasion of sin! This is the same Gregory Popcak who tells us to use NFP while we're trying to discern whether God wants us to have a child at this time, and who opens his daily "advice show" on EWTN with encouragement to expect a great sex life through Theology of the Body principles! In the life of what saint was "a great sex life" a priority?

I think there's something
wrong with this picture.
If we don't obsess about our fertility and our need for sex and just live our married lives, sex will happen, procreation will happen, and God will be pleased. I don't see how "intimacy" is enhanced by all this concentration on "charts" and "mucus" and then talking about it with each other!

Perhaps married couples, and marriage preparation classes, should focus less on "marital harmony" and "sexual fellowship", and more on marriage as a vocation which is intended to lead the couple and their children to Heaven. If we focus on becoming holy, "charts" and "mucus" and "when should we have sex" become self-evidently embarrassing. To the protest, "Are you saying that we should not strive to have a good sex life?!", I want to answer, "Yes, that is what I am saying." As Pope Pius XI put it:

This conjugal faith, however, which is most aptly called by St. Augustine the "faith of chastity" blooms more freely, more beautifully and more nobly, when it is rooted in that more excellent soil, the love of husband and wife which pervades all the duties of married life and holds pride of place in Christian marriage. For matrimonial faith demands that husband and wife be joined in an especially holy and pure love, not as adulterers love each other, but as Christ loved the Church. (Casti Connubii, #23; my emphases)

I don't think that has anything to do with “sex”. 

For other posts on NFP, see the tab at the top of the page.


  1. I love how the Popes used terms like "marital embrace". Really very romantic. Its on a whole different plane than all this obsession with "sex".
    Since "sex" refers to every modern perversion as well as the "marital embrace" I think Christians should rid it from their vocabularies. Greg Popcak is a weirdo.

  2. I think St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church, has already answered this with a definite "Yes".

    He is far more influential in the east than the west, but he is a Church father.


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