Catholic priests and theologians don’t always seem to understand sex. Many years ago, as a new Catholic, I was talking with a priest about the Catholic understanding of marriage. The crucial thing, he said, was that the husband finished in the proper place. That made it a procreative act.
It was a theological question, he continued, whether the wife could then finish. He indicated that he thought not. He was a high-flyer, back in the diocese for a few months between his studies in Rome. He didn’t seem to be otherwise crazy. I’ve come across the idea a few times since, so he’s not only one to think this.
All I can imagine is that the priest thought, as theorists tend to do, in a schematic, by-the-numbers, almost juridical way. In this case, that the procreative purpose being achieved, the thing to be done had been done, and the couple should stop. To continue would be to start another act which might or would not be procreative.
“Oh, yeah, that’s going to fly,” I thought. It seemed to me a made-up problem with an obvious answer. Married people know — because experience — that the whole encounter of husband and wife is a single act. The order of events doesn’t matter. The couple serve the unitive purpose of marital sex by caring for each other’s enjoyment. The husband who feels they’re done when he’s done is a pig. He should not be encouraged by weird and pointless theological distinctions.
I thought of that odd discussion when I read an article in the National Catholic Register titled “Sex is About ‘Mutual Self-Giving and Human Procreation’ — Accept No Counterfeits.” The newspaper summarized the point in the subtitle: “An ongoing conjugal life is important to marital and moral wellbeing.” If only the writer had left it there.
E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian teaching at Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary. He writes theRegister‘s “Difficult Moral Questions” column, in which this article appears. (I write, by the way, a monthly column for the newspaper, though I’m a little behind.) It’s a good column, clear and helpful. But this one, holy cow, no.
The article begins with a letter from a 71-year-old man whose wife is two years older. They’ve been married 44 years. “Because of physical issues we have not had intimate relations for close to 10 years,” he writes, and admits that sometimes he lies in bed thinking about their youth and masturbating. He wanted the theologian’s opinion on his substitute.
Brugger explains the Christian teaching on marriage and its counterfeits, but then presses it too far. “An ongoing conjugal life, however infrequent, and even if awkward and at times difficult, yet consistent, is important to marital and moral wellbeing,” he says. The man and his wife should possess “a joint willingness to do what’s necessary to keep your marriage healthy,” meaning to enjoy intimate relations.
He admits they may not be able to do what he wants them to do, but seems from the rest of the article to assume that it is. Personally, I would have assumed that the man knows what they can do and what they can’t. “You may need to seek medical or psychological assistance,” he adds. “Only after exhausting all options can you conclude that God is calling you and your wife to continence.” After giving good advice on what to do if they can’t have sex, he concludes: “So, pray for grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and speak with your wife and gently ask her to begin again this difficult journey.”
No, you poor man, don’t. You don’t need to, and you shouldn’t. You don’t need to have sex. You can legitimately say, “Been there, done that,” when you’re 71 and 73 and in your fifth decade of marriage, and one of you has a body that doesn’t work that way anymore. You can accept (as you have) the reality that the “journey” isn’t too difficult to take. You’ve got everything in your marriage you need.
The physical organs break down. In some people sooner than others. For all sorts of reasons: age, genetics, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes. Other organs involved in intimate relations break down too, especially the heart, which may no longer survive the excitement. And people suffer psychological discouragements? impediments?, like the effects of trauma.
The man and his wife might have romped a lot over the first three and a half decades of their marriage. They might have had enough “unitive experience'” for many lifetimes. The fact they’re still married may mean that they romped their hearts out for years, and now they’ve settled into a less strenuous but no less loving form of marriage. Which seems to me, for what it’s worth, more romantic and indeed erotic than the clinical pursuit of more sex to fulfill a theological principle.
A Conjugal Life Full of Meaning
But Brugger insists on their doing “what’s necessary to keep your marriage healthy.” Why is continuing to engage in sex necessary to keep a marriage healthy, especially when the people are old and can’t do it anymore? Especially when it requires “a difficult journey”? I think the professor, like the priest, understands the matter in a schematic by-the-numbers way, without accounting enough for experience. Sexual intimacy is a necessary good in a marriage, therefore it will always be a necessary good (unless you really, really can’t do it, and we’ll assume you can until proven otherwise), even if it is “awkward and at times difficult.”
The Catechism says nothing about this, presumably because no one thought it needed saying. It gives a hint to what it might have said had the writers taken up this question, in the line on couples who cannot have children: They “can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.”
The elderly man and his wife could do that — presumably, judging from the man’s message, are doing that. That sexual intimacy is a necessary good in marriage doesn’t mean it is a necessary good through the whole course of a marriage. That takes the principle farther than the principle can go, and imposes a burden on people who have enough burdens already. The Church doesn’t teach that old married people must have sex.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was When Christians Lie for Jesus (Even in Defense of Life) Bad Things Happen, and his previous article for the homepage was The Crucial Lesson Anti-Masker Hypocrisy Teaches. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
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