What are some of the common misunderstandings of sexuality in marriage that can lead to unhappiness, alienation and even divorce, and how can they be avoided? I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that more than fifty percent of marriages fail. And yet among certain couples who order their marriages in a certain way—that is, without contraception—the divorce rate is closer to two percent. Why such a dramatic difference?
I know a college professor who has been telling her students for years that if they do four simple things, yet still get divorced, she will pay them one thousand dollars—and no one has yet tried to collect on the wager. The four conditions are: 1) chastity before marriage, 2) daily family prayer, 3) weekly family attendance at church and 4) no contraception.
Regarding the first condition, as people in love know, chastity before marriage—that is, abstinence from sexual intercourse and from other intimate sexual contact—is not easy. Fallen human nature has its own biological imperative, and it doesn’t like to wait around for the marriage ceremony. Physical intimacy is a great and wonderful gift from God, meant to glue husband and wife together, to bind them to each other so that they are much less likely to drift apart. I strongly encourage you, after you are married, to express your love for each other as often as you possibly can in the marital embrace, subject to mutual respect and the demands of daily living. This wonderful act of self-giving is both a sign and a reconfirmation again and again of the commitment that you will have made to each other in your marriage vows. Some have argued that, because of the physical pleasure involved, sexual intercourse is a selfish act and should be strictly limited or used only for the purpose of having children. This is not a Catholic understanding of marriage. St. Thomas Aquinas once replied to the question “whether there would have been sexual pleasure in Paradise if Adam and Eve had not sinned,” that sexual pleasure in Eden would have been greater because of freedom from concupiscence. The union of man and woman in marriage is a great good, and the marital act is an expression of that union. In its essence it is specifically an unselfish act, an act of self-giving. Although, as sinners, husband and wife may at some times treat each other with less than perfect love, or even with unkindness, cruelty or exploitation, the essential nature of the marital act is not exploitative but nurturing. Its fruitfulness extends not merely to the begetting of children, but to a mutual “begetting”—a mutual giving of life and its increase by the spouses to each other. Traditionally the Church has viewed sexual union between husband and wife not as a mere pleasure to be indulged in only rarely and reluctantly, but as a “debt” that each owes to the other, a debt the payment of which should not be withheld without serious cause.
On the other hand, sexual intercourse outside of marriage is a completely different matter. Yes it’s fun, it’s pleasurable, it even seems to bring you closer. But it’s really a sham. And I think, deep down in our hearts, we really know that. It’s the pleasure without the commitment, the attempt to feel oneness without the vow that makes you one. Studies show that couples who co-habitate before marriage have less stable marriages and a higher divorce rate.
What if you’ve already gone down that road? Well, whether you call them mistakes or sins, we all make wrong decisions. To be a Christian is not to be perfect all the time. It is falling and, with the help of God’s grace, getting up—over and over again, if necessary. If you have already engaged in intimate contact, it’s not too late. Many people now are discovering the beauty of what is called “secondary chastity,” that is, striving anew to live lives of abstinence from sexual intimacy. Of course, it isn’t easy. Those bodily urges are still very much in the picture. It will be necessary to avoid temptations, like being alone together in certain situations. It will require changing some of the patterns of relating to each other in physical ways; giving up those things that stir up passion like certain kinds of dancing, kissing, staying out too late, etc. It will require real self-sacrifice, but it will be a great preparation for the self-sacrifices that will be needed in marriage. It’s also a great preparation for withstanding temptations to infidelity that may come along later. What a wonderful wedding gift for an engaged couple to give each other: to recommit themselves to sexual purity for the sake of their love for each other!
It’s also important to avoid excessively long engagements. As the father of adult children, I know that education is important. But too often, I think, parents are so insistent on education and material security that they urge their children to postpone marriage too long. It’s not a good idea to rush into marriage, but it can be an equally bad idea to be too afraid of marriage. If you are unsure of whom you want to marry, don’t make a hasty decision. But it is not necessary to have a house in the suburbs and two new cars before you marry. Prolonged engagements almost inevitably lead to sexual temptations; or, to put it in a more positive light, your commitment to chastity can be a great motivator to clear away the fear and the anxieties that are keeping you from an early wedding. When you are yearning to be one with the person you love, material security seems just a bit less important. I suggest that you strive for a good balance of natural and supernatural prudence.
So that’s the first of the professor’s four conditions: chastity before marriage. The second and third, daily family prayer—together—and weekly family Mass—together—are simply ways of living the truth that we are not alone. Marriage, to be happy, must be holy. We cannot carry by ourselves all the burdens, the stresses and the temptations that will test us. We need Christ not only in our individual spiritual struggles, but also in this most intimate, most holy, most joyful—and most difficult—relationship.
What about the fourth condition, no contraception? Why not? Now we get back to the nuptial meaning of the body. If the body has meaning, if the acts of the body “say” something, what do they say? What, specifically, does the marriage embrace say about total self-giving, which a couple promises each other in their wedding vows? The marital act says three essential things that flow inexorably from the very definition of marriage and from the nuptial meaning of the body: fidelity, permanence and openness to life.
1. Fidelity. I see couples here, not triangles or quadrilaterals. Polygamy is not marriage. It is not total mutual self-giving. You cannot give yourself totally to one person if you are trying to give yourself to someone else at the same time. That’s pretty clear to most moderns, although many people are confused about what has been called serial monogamy, or the practice of having several spouses in succession. But that brings us to the second of the three intrinsic conditions of marriage.
2. Permanence. Marriage lasts “until death do us part.” There is no hidden clause in the wedding vow about “until death do us part (unless we get divorced).” It’s really simple: until death do us part, period. Now “simple” does not necessarily mean “easy.” Simple things are often the most difficult, because we cannot weasel our way out of them. Why does marriage have to be life-long? Why is divorce impossible? You notice I say that divorce is impossible, not that it’s wrong. It’s simply impossible. Why? Once again, as always, total self-giving! “Total” does not mean “for now,” or “until things get tough,” or “until I find someone else.” Total means always. If it’s not for always, it’s not marriage.
Now we get to the hard one, or at least the hardest one for us moderns to understand. I really think it is the easiest one to practice, much easier than “fidelity” and “permanence.” The third essential, intrinsic, without-which-no-marriage is:
3. Openness to life . This element is so important that, like the first two, without it there simply is no marriage. A couple who try to marry with the positive intention of avoiding ever having children have an invalid marriage, that is, they really are not married at all. If they are open to having children, they don’t necessarily have to be able to have children. The elderly or the infertile, for example, can contract a valid marriage, as long as they are willing to accept the children God sends them, even if that may be only remotely possible. And even those who plan to have children someday may not use contraception. If they must postpone children, they may do so only through natural means.
But why? Why is openness to life considered so important? Again, it’s a matter of total mutual self-giving. When a man and a woman promise themselves to each other in marriage, they promise every dimension of themselves—not just their bodies, but their minds, their affections, their decision-making, etc. But fertility, or fruitfulness—the ability to conceive and bear children—is not just a physical attribute; it is part of our very personalities. It is one of those essential aspects of ourselves that we give away when we marry. This capacity to procreate, to participate in God’s act of love in creating a new human person, does not belong to us as individuals; it belongs to our husband or wife. A wife gives to her husband her capacity to be a mother to his children; a husband gives to his wife his capacity to be a father to her children. This most intimate and essential part of our very selves is a gift we have given away to our spouses. This fruitfulness is a sharing in the image and likeness of God, in a way that no other creature can do. Lower animals can reproduce, but they cannot procreate, i.e. bring into being a new person. Only human beings, in a voluntary act of love, can participate in God’s act of creating a new immortal soul. Not even the angels are made so perfectly in God’s image.
The total gift of self, which husbands and wives promise each other in their wedding vows, is made real in each expression of love in the marital embrace. If that sacramental sign—that making real—of the covenant of marriage is distorted by contraception, it is falsified; it loses its meaning. It becomes a lie.
Even if husband and wife mutually agree to this truncation of the full meaning of the marriage act, they are simply agreeing to lie to each other. Their bodies speak an irrevocable truth, the truth of total self-giving, yet with contraception the couple denies the true meaning of what their bodies are saying. With their bodies they say, “I give you everything I am and will ever be,” but contraception adds, “but not my fruitfulness. I do not give you my power to be a father or mother. I do not give you myself as a procreator with you and with God of a new human soul. I refuse you this most sacred and central dimension of my being. I refuse to be the father or mother of your child. And I reject your gift of self; I reject your power to be the mother or father of my child.” Their act becomes an act not of mutual self-giving, but of mutual exploitation, of merely using each other for pleasure. It is really no wonder that such marriages become strained and weakened, often fatally so.
William G. White, M.D., is a family physician who lives with his wife, Cathleen, near Chicago. They have seven children and nine grandchildren