'...not just the premier
Christian bioethics institute in Britain,
but one of the finest in the
world, Christian or secular'
Most Rev. Anthony Fisher O.P., Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney
Contraception and Catholic
Before addressing the specific topic of Catholic sexual morality, it may
be helpful if I outline some very general assumptions which inform the exposition.
First, we should understand any systematic study of morality as a study
of the conditions and requirements of human flourishing. We flourish as
human beings by realising in our lives some share of the basic goods of
human existence: life itself, the knowledge of truth, the appreciation of
beauty, skills of work and play, justice and friendship in our relations
with others, and friendship with God.
Secondly, we grow in our ability to flourish as human beings, and the most
important feature of this growth is the development of dispositions to choose
rightly - dispositions to readily respond to people and situations and the
challenges and opportunities they present in ways which make for our flourishing
and fulfilment. Dispositions to choose well are traditionally called virtues.
Opposed to the virtues are dispositions to choose badly, called vices: tendencies
to respond to situations in ways which do not make for our deepened sharing
in basic goods, but rather damage, destroy and distort our capacities to
share in those goods. When this happens we are damaged and diminished as
human beings. Certain kinds of choice always have this effect.
Thirdly, if virtues are dispositions to choose and act well, and vices dispositions
to choose and act badly, choice itself is an exercise of the ability freely
and decisively to settle on a course of action intended to realise what
we think of as good. Of course we may be correct or mistaken in thinking
something good. A choice to act with a view to achieving a certain purpose,
which appears to us in some way good, does not merely bring about a state
of affairs, more or less external to us, in which that purpose is realised,
but also, and perhaps more importantly, serves to shape our dispositions,
so that in consequence we become more inclined to make that type of choice.
This shaping of our dispositions is what we call the formation of character.
Fourthly, we should consider why it is that people overlook the importance
of virtue and vice. One of the reasons why people have in recent centuries
failed to see the central importance of virtue and vice is because of underlying
views about the relationship between emotion and feeling, on the one hand,
and rational choice, on the other. One set of views about the character
of this relationship rests on mistakes about the nature of human beings.
Human beings have been seen as fundamentally divided between a part characterised
by animal passion, which can be curbed, constrained and channelled, but
which is inherently irrational, and, on the other hand, reason, which does
not set the motivational agenda, does not determine what is to be found
attractive or repellant, but helps curb and channel passion and works out
the best ways of achieving what we are drawn to achieve. According to this
picture of human beings, we are not moved by an intelligent sense of what
is good, but by more or less tameable brute impulse. This particular dualistic
picture of human life has influenced much secular morality in the modern
period (but not just secular morality).
Fifthly, we need to understand that the tradition of moral understanding
which emphasises the importance of the virtues and vices rests on a unitary
view of human life. According to this view our spontaneous emotional responses
are inwardly transformable precisely by our understanding of what is good
and worthwhile, and what is evil or worthless. Our emotions are given an
inner direction by understanding, and are not just brute impulses to be
curbed. False attraction can be transformed into attraction for what is
genuinely good, and our aversions can be made reasonable from having been
Sex and virtue
I have said that we need a range of specific virtues if we are to choose
to act well in ways which make for our fulfilment as human beings. What
do we need in the way of virtue when the choices which face us arise from
sexual desire which engages our bodily sexual powers?
It helps to put the Christian answer to this question into perspective if
we begin by considering a characteristically modern response to it. It is
a commonplace among many influential contemporary secular philosophers to
deny that there is any distinctive human good at issue in human sexual activity.
If there is no such good then no distinctive dispositions are required in
us if we are to act well in regard to sex. According to this view, sexual
activity no more requires distinctive moral dispositions in us than does
driving a motor car. In both kinds of activity considerations of justice
and prudence are relevant. We should not endanger others when we drive,
we should respect their space, we should avoid killing people. And in a
similar way, in sexual activity we should avoid endangering people by, for
example, getting them pregnant, or giving them AIDS, and we should respect
their rights over their bodies and not assault them. On this view the objection
to rape is that it is common assault. The vice which makes for most assaults
is anger. But the vice which makes men into rapists is not simply anger,
even if anger tends to be involved. The vice, the bad disposition which
makes a man a rapist, is lust -- a disorder in our feelings and desires
in connection with sex.
Conventional secular wisdom, according to which you can do what you like
with your sexual capacities, providing you do not harm non- consenting parties
to the activity, is completely at a loss in face of what is specific to
sexual disorder -- the vice of lust in its multiple manifestations. Doing
what you like can leave you in such a distinctly disordered condition that
you are not rightly disposed to respect the solitary secular injunction
not to harm the non-consenting. The fact that there is a disordered disposition
specific to sex, the vice of lust, argues the need for a good disposition,
a virtue, specific to the sphere of sexual feeling, desire and activity.
The inclination of the secular philosopher to say that there is no virtue
specific to the sexual sphere follows, as I remarked, from his denial that
there is any specific good at issue in sexual activity. This denial is one
of the glaring hoaxes of modern secular liberal philosophy when you come
to consider it. The secular philosopher talks as if the begetting of children
were only contingently connected with sex, something that happens to be
the case as things presently stand, but something we don't need to take
into consideration in making sense of sex in human lives. This position
is all the more baffling when one considers the tendency of many thinkers
to regard human beings as just very complicated and sophisticated animals.
If we ask a scientist studying animal forms and behaviour what is sex for
in the life of animals he will answer that it clearly exists for the purposes
of reproduction. The fundamental good that sex secures is not primarily
a good of the individual but a good of the species, realised in the generation
of new members of that species. Sexual activity presents an obvious contrast
with an activity like eating. If we ask 'why do animals eat?' the obvious
answer is 'To preserve their lives'; but if we ask 'why do animals copulate?'
the obvious answer is 'To preserve the species'. Each answer gives the natural
point or purpose of the activity. The built-in focus of sex as a natural
activity is outside the individuals who engage in it. That is why sex is
the great engine of social life in animals.
Human beings are indeed animals, but we are not merely more complicated
than other animals. We are animals who can understand the meaning of our
abilities and give them a depth of meaning which other animals are incapable
of realising (in the sense of making real) in their lives. But sex will
not bear the weight of having meanings assigned to it which are at odds
with the fundamental point of sex or which seek to displace the central
significance of sex in human life. That central significance is similar
to its significance in the life of other animals.
It ought to be clear what the basic point of sex is in human life. The facts
about sexual differentiation and sexual complementarity show that it exists
for the sake of reproduction. Such differentiation and complementarity are
required neither for sexual pleasure nor for sex understood purely as a
means of expressing affection.
The connection between human sexual activity and the begetting of children
is not one that we invent; fertilisation is a natural causal consequence
of normal intercourse. Because there is this natural, built-in connection
between sex and the begetting of children, our chosen sexual activity necessarily
involves us in some relationship to the good of the transmission of human
life. We are involved in some relationship to this good, even when we deliberately
make our sexual activity non- generative, either by doing something to it
beforehand, or by deviating from the normal form of the activity, or by
doing something afterwards.
If the human good which is at issue in chosen sexual activity is the good
of the transmission of human life, what is required if we are to be well-disposed
towards that good? The transmission of human life is not a purely biological
activity, as though fertilisation, pregnancy and birth were sufficient to
accomplish the task. For the task is necessarily also a task of rearing
children so that they develop in ways which enable them, through their own
free choices, to flourish as human beings. So they need to be nurtured in
a sense of human dignity, in a true sense of the meaning of life and of
the human goods which are worth pursuing, and in the beginnings of the virtues.
The scope of the good which is at issue in human sexual activity is, then,
broad and deep in the commitment it requires. Exactly what commitment it
requires I shall shortly discuss. But at this juncture I would like to make
two crucial observations about the disposition, the virtue, which human
beings will need if they are to choose and act well in regard to sex. Recall
that a specific disposition is required because of the specific good which
is at issue in sexual activity. Recall that this good is the good of the
child, and that the good of the child is secured not just by his or her
begetting. The first observation is that because children are of quite central
importance to any human community it is not possible for us to remain indifferent
to whether human beings possess whatever virtue is required for the good
of children. The well-being of each of us depends on the common good --
that complex of conditions necessary to human flourishing. It is particularly
clear in our day and age, when there is so much evidence of child- abuse,
that the virtue of chastity is not an optional extra for any human being
if we are to secure a basic condition of the flourishing of children. The
second observation is that, given we have an objective conception of the
good of children we will have an objective account of what counts as the
virtue we need if we are to respect and honour the distinctive good which
is at issue in sexual activity.
Let me then approach the question of what is required for virtue in regard
to sex -- what is required for chastity -- from some consideration of what
is required for the good of children. Fundamental to the good of the child,
I remarked, is the child's sense of his or her dignity. Now human dignity
belongs to people in the first place in virtue of their humanity and independently
of achievements or defects. What a child needs at the outset, then, is to
be born into a relationship the character of which is conducive to recognition
of the dignity of the child. This is what the institution of marriage fundamentally
exists to serve, more particularly as that institution is understood in
Christian teaching. For the human reality of indissoluble commitment which
the grace of marriage creates and fosters involves a distinctive type of
personal commitment: in marriage a man and a woman unreservedly commit themselves
to a self-giving love, in which each is treated by the other as irreplaceable.
Marriage vows demand a very fundamental commitment to recognition of the
dignity of one's spouse whatever the circumstances which overtake him or
When Catholic tradition, taking up the language of St Augustine, says that
the primary end or purpose of marriage is procreation it is in fact saying
that what fundamentally makes sense of the peculiar institution of marriage,
with its peculiar interpersonal commitment, is the good of the transmission
of human life. That is what makes sense of a sexual relationship acquiring
the character of a marital relationship. For it is the good of children
which requires that a husband and wife are committed to an unconditional
acceptance of each other, and that their intercourse should be the expression
of this unconditional love. For when that is the case the child who is conceived
is conceived precisely as the fruit of an unconditional love. The child,
therefore, belongs within a community of persons founded on the unconditional
love which is consummated in marital intercourse, and it is only such a
love which is adequate to the dignity of the child. In entering the relationship
of husband and wife precisely as the fruit of an unconditional love the
child has a claim to be accepted unconditionally. It is only such acceptance
which is adequate to the true dignity of the child. As the fruit of unconditional
parental love the child enters the relationship recognisably equal in dignity
to the parents.
What explains the distinctive character of marriage and the character of
the commitment of husband and wife is, then, procreation understood in the
broad personalist sense in which Catholic tradition has understood that
good. The basic good of children is realised, St Augustine says, by "the
receiving of them lovingly, the nourishing of them humanely, the educating
of them religiously." [De Genesi ad litt.,9.7]
When the Church has spoken of procreation as the 'primary purpose' of marriage
she has not been talking about what she supposes must be uppermost in the
mind of a couple as they contemplate marriage, still less what she supposes
must be uppermost in their minds in engaging in intercourse. What talk of
'primary purpose' does is to identify the fundamental explanation for why
we have the institution of marriage: namely, to do justice to the good which
is at issue in sexual activity, and thereby to make proper human sense of
sex. Marriage is not about providing a socially approved context for just
any kind of sexual activity which might be taken to be expressive of affection
between consenting adults. If that is what we think sex is about we don't
need marriage in order to go ahead with it.
It should be clear that as a race we need human beings to be disposed to
marital sex rather than recreational sex: that is, we need it to be the
case that human beings recognise that virtue in the matter of sex requires
that its genital expression be the expression of an unconditional love between
husband and wife, open to the gift of life. It is because we need human
beings to be well-disposed to marital sex (for the good of children) that
a disposition to engage in sexual activities which are deliberately made
non-generative is to be counted as a vice; such a disposition aspires to
make sense of sex precisely to the exclusion of children.
The insistence that sex can be genuinely fulfilling only if it is marital
sex is at odds both with the strongly individualistic outlook common in
our culture and with the privatization of sex: the tendency to think that
each of us must make sense for ourselves of sex, in accordance with whatever
inclinations and attitudes we happen to have. But sex in human as in other
animals is a primary engine of social life and if the dispositions we bring
to it are not conducive to the good of children then they will have a pervasively
destructive effect on social relations.
The insistence that good sex has to be marital sex is not a procrustean
formula designed to destroy the possibility of individual fulfilment. In
choosing to make their sexual activity truly marital, a man and a woman
are thereby acting in ways which make for their own fulfilment. For, firstly,
when two people undertake to treat each other as irreplaceable, and seek
to give themselves unreservedly to each other, what they are committed to
is a particular kind of friendship which, like all true friendships, involves
loving the good of the other as one's very own good. So, insofar as the
relationship is a true friendship it makes for the flourishing of each.
And, secondly, since the friendship of husband and wife is essentially open
to the gift of new life which embodies their love, they are involved in
a relationship which of its nature demands that they transcend selfishness
and egoism. Insofar as they do transcend selfishness and egoism in raising
a family their love is strengthened and deepened. So the structure of the
marital relationship as essentially open to children is the kind of structure
which makes for the true fulfilment of husband and wife. That kind of relationship,
whether or not it is fruitful in begetting children, is clearly a good in
But what is required for intercourse to be open to the gift of life? There
was a period during the 1960s when it seemed to me, along with many other
people, that acceptance of the belief that marital intercourse should be
open to the gift of life did not require one to hold that contraceptive
intercourse was absolutely impermissible. There was an argument then current,
referred to by Pope Paul VI as 'The Principle of Totality' (in section 3
of Humanae Vitae), which sought to defend some limited recourse to
contraceptive intercourse within marriage, as serving the unitive function
of intercourse, provided the marriage was also responsibly open to the gift
of new life, at times when the parents felt they were well placed to care
for another child.
I best remember from the debates of that time the analogy developed by the
Dominican theologian, Fr Herbert McCabe, between marital sex and football.
When you are playing football, he pointed out, you don't have to aim all
your shots at the opponent's goal: occasional back-passes make sense as
part of a general strategy aimed at winning. Similarly, he argued, contraceptive
intercourse can belong within a pattern of sexual activity which overall
is open to the gift of life. So, the requirement of openness to the gift
of life is seen as adequately satisfied by the overall pattern of the marital
relationship, into which children are accepted when parents feel ready for
Theologians who argued in this way at the time thought they were simply
making room for contraceptive intercourse within marriage, but it soon became
clear that their position made it impossible to offer a consistent defence
of the Church's traditional teaching about the virtue of chastity as it
is to be lived outside as well as inside marriage. That teaching requires
all chosen sexual activity to be marital and it requires that for it to
be truly marital every act of sexual intercourse should be of the generative
kind, i.e. should not be deliberately rendered sterile in some way.
Why every act? To understand the answer we need to recall one of the preliminary
points I made about moral development. Our chosen actions do not merely
bring about effects external to us, they also form our dispositions and
character. If I lie, I thereby make myself a person who is apt to lie; I
undermine in myself recognition of the need to respect the good of truth
when I engage in the activity of stating what is the case. Similarly, if
I engage in contraceptive intercourse I undermine in myself the disposition
to recognise that the good of sex is essentially connected with children.
I act on the assumption that it has a separate meaning which makes good
and adequate sense of it. This is to act as if there is a true good of sexual
activity apart from marriage. It is important to get this point clear. To
engage in contraceptive intercourse is to choose to make that intercourse
sterile, in circumstances in which it might otherwise have proved fertile,
precisely for the sake of having intercourse. One thereby chooses to suppress
the significance of sex as generative -- as a type of activity apt for the
procreation of children. Of course, there are a number of dimensions to
the significance of sex in human life; sexual intercourse will often, for
example, (though certainly not always) be expressive of strongly felt affection.
But if one rejects its significance as generative one is in effect saying
that other distinct dimensions to its significance in themselves make sexual
intercourse worthy of choice. And that is to say that sex which is not marital
sex is worthy of choice. So if one rejects the Church's teaching that contraceptive
intercourse is wrong then the logic of that rejection is that sex which
is not marital sex is worthy of choice. On that view there ceases to be
a specific good which is to be honoured in our sexual activity, and with
the loss of the recognition of that good goes the raison d'etre of chastity.
When that happens in the mind of a Christian he's inevitably hard put to
find grounds for distinguishing his view of virtue in the matter of sex
from the view of the secular thinker for whom sex for the sake of pleasure
or as an expression of affection requires no distinctive virtue.
This effort of elucidation brings us to the central statement of Humanae
Vitae in section 12: "The doctrine that the Magisterium of the
Church has often explained is this: there is an unbreakable connection between
the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning [of the conjugal act] and
both are inherent in the conjugal act. This connection was established by
God, and man is not permitted to break it through his own volition."
Sexual activity lacks integrity, lacks the wholeness it is meant to have,
unless there is inseparably a procreative and unitive meaning to what is
done. Why does generative behaviour have to have a unitive meaning? Because
human generation needs to be integrated with the commitment to self-giving
love. Human generative behaviour is given, through the sense of this behaviour
as unreserved self-giving love, the depth of meaning it needs to have if
those engaging in it are to be adequately disposed to the good of children.
Why does unitive sexual behaviour have to have a generative/procreative
meaning? Because if it doesn't this can only be because we have sought to
make sense of sex to the exclusion of the very good which is the distinctive
point of sexual activity. And in so doing we dissociate sex in our own lives
from the good which demands that self-transcendence of egoism through which
the commitment of the couple is deepened in authentic love.
This integration of the unitive and the procreative meanings of sexual activity
is possible precisely because of what I earlier referred to as the unitary
character of our lives. One of the most obvious facts of sexual experience
is that we are very easily prone to the disintegration of our humanity in
sexual activity. Why this should be so is obvious. There are three aspects
to sexual activity: it is reproductive; it produces pleasurable sensations;
it can unite two persons, setting up a bond between them. These three aspects
can be related to the three levels of human life -- the organic, the animal,
and the rational. For every kind of organism can reproduce; every kind of
animal has sensation; and, in virtue of our distinctive abilities of intellect
and will, we can enter into different kinds of interpersonal relationship.
People's views of sexuality differ in fundamental ways according to whether
they see these three aspects of sexual activity as essentially linked or
not essentially linked. They are not of course essentially linked in the
sense of being practically inseparable. One can have pleasurable sensations
without doing anything which is at all apt either for reproduction or for
personal bonding, as when one masturbates. One can reproduce nowadays without
any personal interaction with the other parent: this separation occurs with
artificial insemination by donor and with 'in vitro' fertilisation. But
the question about whether these three aspects are essentially linked is
a question about whether they can be separated consistent with respect for
the good of sex, or whether they must be kept united. Humanae Vitae
insists that the teaching of the Church is that they must be kept united
in all our chosen sexual activity. Our bodily behaviour must be adequately
and properly expressive of the kind of relationship we enter into when we
enter into an authentic sexual relationship. lf, in our choices, we hold
together the different aspects of sex (the generative, the pleasurable and
the unitive) we show that we recognise that our humanity is personal at
every level, through and through. But if we dissociate one aspect from another
we depersonalise sex, making the body a mere instrument of our dominative,
Reflections on two objections
Two objections are often thought to count against the reasonableness
of the Church's teaching. They are:
1. How can sexual intercourse be said to be essentially generative when
most acts of intercourse are infertile? And if it cannot be essentially
generative then the inseparability thesis collapses.
2. The distinction between contraception and natural family planning (NFP)
is a distinction which marks no morally significant difference; both are
ways of ensuring that one does not have a child. Nothing of moral significance
hangs on whether one does this by artificial or natural means. Since the
Church accepts NFP it is inconsistent in rejecting contraception.
Each of these objections is worth discussing for the light one can thereby
throw on the teaching of the Church.
(1) Certain types of behaviour have what we might call a built-in significance
because of the role such behaviour plays in human life. We can respect that
significance or we can seek to negate it.
Normal sexual behaviour is one such type -- it is generative behaviour;
it has the built-in significance of being generative/procreative behaviour
because of the central role it plays in human life -- of being a cause in
the generation of human beings. As far as human performance is concerned
it remains generative behaviour in being left to be normal sexual intercourse
by those who engage in it, whether or not it is fertile. Fertility is not
precisely a state of affairs brought about by our behaviour but is a function
of conditions which are produced independently of performance, by hormonal
changes, for example.
Human beings can negate the built-in significance of certain types of behaviour.
The built-in significance of eating as essentially nutritive is negated
if one behaves as the ancient Romans did: taking emetics during a banquet
to provoke vomiting in order to continue enjoying the pleasures of eating.
One could not, however, be said to negate the built-in significance of eating
as nutritive if it happened to be the case that because of some condition
outside one's control (say, some gastrointestinal disorder) eating in fact
failed to nourish one.
In saying that certain types of behaviour have a built-in significance one
does not imply that the significance they have has to constitute one's conscious
purpose in engaging in that behaviour. When I go out to dinner with my friends
I often do not principally have in mind the purpose of nourishing myself.
Nonetheless, the significance a dinner has as an expression of friendship
builds on the built-in significance of eating as nutritive -- as something
that nourishes and sustains my life. Negate that significance and the symbolism
of a meal (as expressive of shared love and affection which nourishes a
common life) is destroyed.
It is something similar with the built-in significance of normal sexual
intercourse. The Church does not teach that in engaging in intercourse one
has to be acting with a view to procreating, an objective one could realistically
have in mind only when one was fertile. What she teaches is that sexual
intercourse will not make for an authentic unity of two-in-one-flesh if
those engaging in it set out to negate its built-in significance as generative/procreative
behaviour. And they negate that significance in setting out to render infertile
any sexual activity which might otherwise be fertile. They do not negate
its significance as generative (its "procreative significance")
by having intercourse when they happen to be infertile, since fertility
is not required for the act to be of the generative kind. This brings us
to the second objection.
(2) In answer to the second objection I want to show how aiming to avoid
conceiving children by abstinence during fertile periods is not merely significantly
different from contraception but can be an expression of virtuous respect
for the procreative good.
As I have already noted, for humans procreation means not only bringing
a child into the world, but giving that child a humane upbringing, and,
for Christians, a Christian upbringing. The demands entailed in making such
provision, as well as the health of a spouse, can mean that there may be
periods in a marriage when it is reasonable to aim not to have children.
That being so, Humanae Vitae says, one must achieve "mastery
over one's sexual impulses", so that what one chooses to do (or refrain
from doing) in securing the aim of not having children continues to be expressive
of spousal love in its integral character (as unitive and procreative).
The precise notion of mastery involved here is important. Virtue in relation
to sexual desire does not essentially consist of continence. Continence
is a halfway house to virtue. We are virtuous in respect of sexual desire
when its manifestation is rational because informed by an understanding
of the requirements of authentic love. Sensual desire, I remarked at the
outset, is transformable from within by understanding, precisely because
of the unity of our being. But in being so transformed it does not cease
to be sensual desire. The sensual enjoyment of the virtuous person is greater,
St Thomas Aquinas says, than the sensual enjoyment of the vicious person.
The jaded palate of the libertine is a commonplace of many cultures.
If it is reasonable to seek to avoid having children for some period of
time, then sexual desire needs to be responsive to this requirement. In
being made responsive, it is integrated in a person's exercise of procreative
responsibility. The exercise of procreative responsibility is central to
what chastity means in married life.
It is important to emphasise that what serves to avoid conception is abstaining
from intercourse, when one knows one is fertile. One may have a method,
such as the Billings method, or the sympto-thermal method, for determining
when one is fertile, but it is not the method as such which serves to secure
one's objective but the continence one displays in abstaining from intercourse.
When a couple for serious reasons abstain from intercourse at times at which
they might conceive, their abstaining is itself chosen sexual behaviour,
and virtuous sexual behaviour because it is expressive of a recognition
of the demands of the procreative good. But how could it be said to be unitive?
The answer lies in noticing that what motivates and informs the abstinence,
with whatever difficulties it involves, is the loving marital commitment
of the couple, a commitment to help bear each other's burdens arising from
their joint sense of procreative responsibility. A commitment so lived is
itself unitive, for it makes for the deepening of their love.
The relevant contrast that contraceptive behaviour presents to avoiding
conception by periodic abstinence, is that contraceptive behaviour involves
no need to modify sexual desire. Sexual behaviour as such is not rendered
responsive to the requirements of procreative responsibility. One merely
takes measures of one kind or another to prevent its natural consequences.
And so, with contraception, human sexual behaviour remains uninformed by
the requirements of responsibility to the good of procreation. Human behaviour
intrinsically connected to a basic human good is engaged in as though it
did not have to be shaped by the requirements of the virtue we need in order
to honour that good.
Contraception undercuts both the individual and the joint process of development
necessary to modifying sexual behaviour so that spouses act responsibly
in regard to the procreative good. This domain of bodily behaviour is treated
as manipulable in its consequences rather than transformable in its character.
It is typical of the way in which the human body in our culture is not regarded
as integral to the moral subject, sharing in and expressing the fundamental
aspirations of that subject, but is treated rather as an object to be modified.
This characteristic stance of our culture is symptomatic of the deep dualism
which runs through it.
Sexual desire needs to be integrated into the order of personal love. Marital
friendship, the love of husband and wife, requires of each that they love
the good of the other. But the defining good of the community of marriage,
a good common to both, is the procreative good, the good of children. So
love of one's spouse requires that one acts in ways which are consistent
with each spouse having, in his or her heart, a right relationship to the
good of children. One cannot have such a right relationship if the intentional
character of one's chosen behaviour is anti-procreative. If it is, and continues
to be, it destroys the true character of the friendship of husband and wife;
it depersonalises their bodily relationship, and the body of each becomes
an alienated object, both to himself or herself, and to the other. This
is the background to so much profound misery in our society.
Chastity and conversion
Christian realism bids all of us recognise that in face of the need for
unreserved self-giving love in marriage, all of us are more or less crippled,
more or less slaves to the idols of comfort, egoism, self- cultivation,
and pleasure. We cannot break with these idols because they represent the
fragile securities and forms of self-confirmation to which many of us cling.
But as long as we cling to them we cannot live the vocation of Christian
We cannot speak realistically about the Christian vocation of marriage unless
we see it as a call to holiness. The bond of Christian marriage is a holy
bond both because it is a graced reality and because it signifies the union
of Christ with His Bride the Church, a union effected by his self-sacrificing
love for us.
Husband and wife existentially witness to the relationship of Christ to
His Church through exhibiting self-sacrificing love for the true good of
each other. But the capacity for that kind of self-sacrificing love cannot
be the fruit of one's own moral endeavour: it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit
poured abroad in our hearts. Unless a man first knows in his heart that,
even though he is a sinner, God has first loved him, he will not find it
in his heart to give himself unreservedly in loving bodily union to his
wife when, as it appears, she has been acting as his enemy. For if you are
attached to comfort, pleasure and your ego, there are limitless possibilities
for your wife to appear to you as an enemy. But if the bodily union of spouses
cannot be unreserved, and comes to be hedged about by numerous conditions,
it is unsurprising if they become hostile to the good of children.
One cannot talk realistically about chastity inside or outside marriage
without discussing both the necessity and the possibility of personal religious
conversion, at the heart of which is the experience of the charity of God
in one's own life. For without the charity which can transform us we can
hardly acquire chastity.
The deep reason why so much that is said in the contemporary Church about
sex and marriage is shallow and defective is that we are unwilling to face
up to the power of sin in our lives. Everywhere one finds what amounts in
effect to a denial of the reality of Original Sin, of the extent to which
we are powerfully attracted by illusory visions of human fulfilment, and
these become idols in our lives. So much sex education, in particular, is
designed to reinforce one form of idolatry: that sex is a key to happiness
quite independently of the significance God has given it in His plans for
our fulfilment. The Church is simply not facing the task of evangelization
necessitated by the reality of much contemporary sexual experience if it
does not seek to unmask and break the grip of this idolatry. But that sort
of task cannot be tackled in a brief set of lectures, or in a short-term
parish renewal programme. What the people of God urgently need is a rediscovery
at the level of parish life of a structured way of living which makes possible
a radical and deep conversion of life and offers them a context in which
they can transmit to their children a faith and a way of living which is
a real alternative to what the world presses upon them.