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The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Sex and Marriage.

In “The Sexual Person“, the Catholic lay theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler give a useful historical review of the substantial shifts in the orthodox doctrine on sex and marriage – while also illustrating how much of that teaching is stuck in the fourth century thought of Augustine, and that of Aquinas from the thirteenth century. (Is there any other field of human thought that is so rooted in those two distant periods?) This is an important book that I will be discussing regularly in small bites. For now, I simply want to point to the briefest summary of the main argument, in preparation for a specific extract referring to Pope Paul VI and Humane Vitae.

Two things strike me in this account. As I have frequently noted before, it is completely untrue that the Catholic Church has a “constant and unchanging tradition” on sexual ethics.  Rather, the tradition has been constantly evolving. Just consider the complete transformation of the view on sexual pleasure – from one that it is to be avoided at all costs, even while begetting children or in nocturnal involuntary emissions, to one where it can contribute to the sacramental value of marriage. What has evolved in the past, will surely continue to evolve. That evolution will surely be aided by the capacity of theologians and popes to retrieve, when required, obscure and forgotten pieces from history – and proclaim them of fundamental importance. In two thousand years of theological writing, there will surely be a plethora of documents now obscure, which contradict some current thinking. Some of these will no doubt be retrieved by scholars – and being rehabilitated, will influence further adjustments in the changing tradition of the Church.

 

St Augustine - 6th cent fresco, Lateran

Here follows my summary of the outline in “The Sexual Person

For the early fathers of the Church, sex within marriage was seen as good, for the purpose of procreation only. However, virginity was praised as better – even within marriage. Where sex was undertaken for the purpose of procreation, it was acceptable, but undertaken for pleasure, it was sinful. From Augustine onward, there was some grudging recognition that there was more to it than just procreation, with some value also recognised for conjugal love, which would later be described as the “unitive” value.  Nevertheless, sexual activity for pleasure, even in marriage, was for centuries considered sinful.

The Catholic aversion to sexual pleasure reached its high point when Pope Gregory the Great banned from access to church anyone who had just had pleasurable sexual intercourse. We accept as accurate Brandage’s judgement of the effect of that patristic history: “The Christian horror of sex has for centuries placed enormous strain on individual consciences and self-esteem in the Western world.”

The medieval penitentials went even further, condemning as sinful even involuntary emissions during sleep, and placing tight restrictions on when intercourse with one’s spouse was legitimate – even without taking that dreaded pleasure in the act. One such prescribed continence during three forty day periods: during Lent, preceding Christmas, and following Pentecost. Excluding these one hundred and twenty days, that left a maximum of two hundred and forty five remaining.  But four days in every week were also proscribed – Saturday and Sunday (night and day), and Wednesday and Friday (daytime). This effectively leaves a maximum of one hundred and forty days available for legitimate relations with one’s spouse – but excluding further the entire menstrual period, and the period after conception.

The impact of these penitentials and their harsh judgements on sex was profound. They helped shape a moral focus on individual acts, turning moral reflection into an analysis of sin. They also shaped a focus on genitalia.

That focus and the act-centred morality it generated were perpetuated in the numerous manuals published in the wake of the Council of Trent. These manuals controlled seminary education well into the twentieth century and continued to propagate both an act-centred morality and Catholic ambivalence toward both sexuality and marriage.

Aquinas later expanded the “purpose” of marriage by recognizing both a primary purpose (which remained procreation) and a secondary purpose – not pleasure itself, but mutual support and faithfulness between the spouses. For believers, there is also a third end – a sacramental one. Aquinas also begins to modify the total aversion to pleasure, recognizing that “within the ends of marriage”, sexual desire and pleasure are not sinful.

By the twentieth century, the 1917 Code of Canon Law codified three notions of marriage: as a contract between spouses, in which the partners exchanged rights to their sexual acts, and whose primary purpose is procreation. That renewed emphasis on procreation was substantially revised later in the century, especially by the Second Vatican Council, but also before it.

In 1936, in response to the Anglican church’s approval of artificial contraception, Pope Pius XI published Casta Connubii“. This firmly rejected contraception and emphasized procreation – but it did more.

He retrieved and gave a prominent place to a long-ignored item from the Catechism of the Council of Trent: marriage as a union of conjugal love and intimacy.  If we consider only the juridical definition of marriage, we could reasonably conclude that marriage has nothing to do with mutual love, that a man and a woman who hated each other could could be married as long as each gave to the other the right over her or his body for procreation.  By emphasising the essential place of mutual love in a marriage, Pius firmly rejected such nonsense and placed the Catholic view of marriage on the track to a more personal definition.

In this document, Pius XI quite explicitly describes the “chief reason and purpose” of marriage as the mutual love and interior formation of the spouses. This renewed emphasis on conjugal love was reaffirmed by Vatican II. The council clearly stated that marriage is “ordered” to the procreation and education of children, but also stressed that this does not imply any hierarchy of ends. The importance of the generation and education of children

“does not make the other ends of marriage of less account”, and marriage “is not instituted solely for procreation”.

 

Recommended Books


Salzmann, Todd, and Lawler, Michael: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology

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10 Responses

  1. Here’s my beef with Todd & Mike. Previously posted at ncronline.org:

    I’m still waiting for someone to take my questions seriously. As I wrote over a year ago: Submitted by Mark Andrews (not verified) on Feb. 26, 2009.

    [Julie Hanlon] Rubio (in words that sound like a quote from the book jacket) says the authors, Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, are “squarely in the Catholic tradition.” Its more accurate to say the book is “squarely in a Catholic tradition – that of the authors.”

    Presuming the good intentions of Salzman and Lawler, their arguments raise a number of questions, if not problems. In no particular order:

    1. Epistemology is not so socially and culturally conditioned that humans cannot gain real, reliable of our real existence in the real world. If “it is impossible to gain pure knowledge of nature. We can only reflect on our limited human experience of nature, acknowledging that it is always partial, evolving and in need of application” then how is possible to know enough about the world to survive within it, much less engage in an intelligible exchange of meaning-laden symbols about that world?

    2. The replacement of what I’ll call “traditional” complementarity with a so-called “holistic” complementarity appears (as the authors claim) take a wider, more realistic view of actual human relational behavior, and what constitutes “human relational flourishing.” Missing from their analysis is:

    a. Full incorporation of Kinsey’s landmark work of observational zoology with respect to the very wide array of human sexual behavior. To appeal to “sexual orientation” as commonly defined – heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual (which the authors do not address in their book) – fails to to see these as mere labels for what is, according to Kinsey, an exceeding wide array of stable sexual behaviors and orientations, most of which lack labels and cannot be easily collapsed into straight, gay or bi.

    b. Looking at the ACTUAL wide array of ACTUAL human behavior, who is to say that some other relationship, say a “group marriage,” might or might not support “human relational flourishing?” No where do the authors make this argument – and nowhere do they rule it out. It can’t be done using the authors “flourishing” criteria.

    c. Who is to decide what constitutes authentic “flourishing?” An appeal to some abstract, external notion of virtue, say the cardinal and theological virtues? Why privilege those virtues over any others humans may construct or find? If appeal to some external authority is desirable then why privilege a “theological” magisterium over the pastors of the Church? If the ultimate authority is internal, when why address the topic of virtue at all, if, in the end, I and/or my partner(s) are the final arbiters of what constitutes virtuous, flourishing behavior?

    d. The hundreds, if not thousands of years of Catholic pastoral experience, in which the Church recognizes itself (or not) in the wide array of human behavior is ignored by the authors in favor something subjective. The real danger here is that people can justify any behavior, no matter how self-serving, as virtuous, flourishing, loving, just, moral, unitive and pro-creative.

    The pro-creative aspect is particularly important, as the actual actions of an actual woman and man to bring an actual human living human being into actual existence – in and of themselves without reference to any form of assisted reproduction – trumps any abstract notions of virtuous, flourishing, loving, justice, unity and pro-creativity. Secular marriage and the Christian sacrament are merely recognition of this fundamental cell of human society, within which human beings love their children into being and create an environment in which those children flourish.

    I challenge anyone to deny or doubt this. Look yourself in the mirror and ask how you got here. Last time I checked, no amount of non-reproductive sex, no matter how virtuous, flourishing, loving, just or moral, ever brought new life into this world. Its no stretch to use the involuntarily infertile marriage of a man and a woman as an icon for and of the fertile variety. For Christians to say otherwise renders all the nuptial imagery of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures powerless and only loosely metaphorical.

    A final thought is the attempt to Catholicize the decoupling of biological sex, gender identification, marriage, reproduction, children and the family seems to have more in common with a transhumanist agenda than a Catholic one. Beware.

    • Mark, this is a lengthy response, which deserves wider attention than just in a comment thread. I have copied the full post for publication as a “reader responds” thread for publication tomorrow.

      For this comment thread, I offer for now just a couple of observations.

      I agree with you fully that the authors have unjustly ignored Kinsey’s findings on bisexuality. In this, they are not the only culprits: the entire subject has been badly neglected, by writers on all sides of the ideological spectrum. However, this does not invalidate their arguments: they consistently refer to orientation as being “primarily” an attraction to either the same or the opposite sex. In this, they are firmly in agreement with specialists in the field of sexuality, rather than theology.

      It is entirely possible that an approach based on human flourishing might lead to acceptance of polygamy – but like bisexuality, this is a subject that is too easily simply dismissed as a horror too ghastly to contemplate. I emphatically do not endorse polygamy – but given that it was firmly part of Biblical tradition, and is widely practised in many cultures around the world, I think we should at least give it serious consideration. In my view, a proper analysis of human flourishing would not in fact lead to support for polygamy, because the key point of the concept requires flourishing for all – not just the men. Salzmann & Lawler’s proposed sexual ethic also requires a firm foundation in the principle of justice.

      Polygamy was and is practised in cultures where patriarchy rules supreme. In a more just and egalitarian society, it would necessarily be ruled out by questions of justice – and the need for flourishing for the women, as well as the men.

      Procreation is certainly and quite obviously one purpose of both sex and marriage – but emphatically not the only purpose, as Pius XI affirmed in Casta Connubii, and Vatican II reaffirmed. (It is not even the primary purpose).

      Even in the animal world, sexual activity is not limited to procreative purposes, but includes an astonishing range of variations that cannot possibly lead to conception, including masturbation (alone or with others), homosexual sex, intercourse without penetration or outside of the fertile period, sex with immature adolescents – and even the use of sex toys (some primates make their own dildos).

      Certainly, non-reproductive sex has never brought any children into the world – by definition. However, it is undeniable, and confirmed in the Magisterium, that sexual activity brings additional benefits other than only procreation. These benefits are also available in non-reproductive sex.

      • “Poly” as defined & practice in modernity constitutes its own tradition – a new one – compared to the ancient modes of polygamy & polyandry. Each needs to be considered in its time and place.

        I can’t see polyamory (sic, and a pormanteu) as anything other than the group grope, aka Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Think.”

        “Biblical” polygamy appears to be about male sexual gratification & power to a modern, but that is a mistake. In modernity we think of sex as always having some power dimension. Attention to the social & cultural context of polygamy in Biblical times shows its more about male-obligations-in-social-context. That obligation is literally “care for the widow and the orphan” and not, as we imagine it, some kind of sexual power trip.

        References to ancient polygamy, ancient polyandry, or modern forms of polygamy, polyandry and polyamory all run up against the Biblical ideal of male-female relationship: always two, and always indicative of the relationship between God & Israel. That is the “constant tradition” Catholicism refers to, and the basis of all nuptial imagery in the many books of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures that follow.

        Theological attention to the scientific literature about sexual orientation always leads to a provisional science and a provisional theology. The most recent reading I’ve done suggests a 4th stable sexual orientation called “asexuality,” which is the reverse of bisexuality. Its a natural, normal orientation in which an individual experiences no sexual attraction to either biological sex, with or without a stable gender identification or gender dysphoria.

        I read and enjoyed the encyclopedic book “Biological exuberance: animal homosexuality and biological diversity” by Bruce Bagemhil. Alas, as philosophy tells us, you don’t get an “ought” from an “is.” Biological reproduction in higher species via hetrosexual relations is always prior – without hetrosexuals there are no homosexuals. Unless one was hatched whole from the thighs of Zeus.

        • “Attention to the social & cultural context of polygamy in Biblical times” shows quite clearly that women were seen as virtually the property of heir men folk who took all their decisions- as shown by the location in the commandments of “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” alongside his goods, and the one-sided nature of laws on adultery, and on the importance of female (not male) virginity until marriage. I completely reject your claim that the” Biblical ideal of male-female relationship” is always two. That is emphatically not the case in the Old Testament, not until the later books. And the Gospels have remarkably little to say at all about any sexual relationships.

          I have no comment or view whatsoever on polyamory, other than I accept it could be just a group grope – or it could conceptually be something more. I don’t know.

          I have not read anything about an asexual orientation, but fully accept (by observation) that it exists.

          I’m pleased you enjoyed Biological Exuberance. So did I. Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, with a stronger focus on the range of genders and gender transitions, is also worth reading. In referring to animal sexuality, I was in no way suggesting that is implies ought: on sexual ethics, nature is strictly neutral, as I have frequently observed. But “what is” completely demolishes the argument that the only “natural” purpose of sex is procreation.

          • “But “what is” completely demolishes the argument that the only “natural” purpose of sex is procreation.”

            Not completely – lets go thank our respective Mom’s & Dad’s for their selflessness, and forgive them for their mistakes. If that’s not “what is” then how is it with both exist and are having a conversation.

          • I’ve already agreed that procreation is an important purpose of sex and marriage. But “an important purpose” does not make it the only purpose.

            I have nothing further to add to this.

  2. And before saying “the Gospels have remarkably little to say about any sexual relationships” have a look at Bruce Malina’s “The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd edition.”

    A “high-context” society has no reason to explain what it takes for granted. We moderns are a “low-context” society – instruction books for everything. The statement “the Gospels have remarkably little to say about any sexual relationships” is what happens when a “low-context” reader encounters a “high-context” text.

  3. Terrance, thank you for your time. Mark

  4. I’d like to follow-up on my post by saying Dr. Todd Salzman showed real kindness to me in the Spring of 2011 by contacting me and offering to discuss my critique. What followed was a great, very personal conversation about where we agreed with one another, and where we agreed to disagree with one another.

    Todd showed himself the better man and a true Christian by reaching out to me and I thank him for it. I will post this note wherever I’ve previously posted my critique of he & Dr. Lawler’s work. Mark Andrews.

  5. Did Pope Pius XII support evolutionary theory?

    The following is the extract from Catholic Church and evolution, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

    “In the 1950 encyclical humani generis, Pope Pius XII confirmed that there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution, provided that Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation by God and not the product of purely material forces.”

    Let’s analyze the above paragraph as below:

    The phrase, Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation by God, as mentioned above gives us the truth of God’s direct involvement in creation of individual soul. As the phrase, there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution, is mentioned before the phrase, PROVIDED that Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation of God, it gives us the conclusion that Paul Pius XII only supported evolutionary theory provided that it supports individual soul was a direct creation of God. However, evolutionary theory does not support individual soul was the direct creation of God. Instead, it supports that God only assisted in the evolution instead of He created individual soul by Himself directly. Indeed, evolution assumes material force, i.e. natural selection, that causes one animal to be transformed into another.

    As the phrase, provided that, has been stressed before the phrase, Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation by God and not the product of purely material forces (natural selection), it gives us a conclusion that Paul only encourages Christians to believe in evolution on the condition if it supports that God was a direct creator of individual soul, and that each of the creation was not the result of the product or the end-result of purely material force, such as, natural selection that drove the animals to be transformed.

    As evolutionary theory does not support a direct creation from God and that it supports that it was the end-result of purely material force, such as, natural selection that drove animals to transform, Paul Pius XII did not call Christians to support evolutionary theory.

    Paul Pius XII only called Christians to support evolutionary theory only if the teaching supports that it was God that created individual soul. Besides, they have to support that the existence of individual soul was not the product of material force but God’s direct creation.

    Nevertheless, Paul Pius XII did not support evolutionary theory since this teaching does not support God’s direct creation. Besides, this teaching supports the end-result of evolution was the product of material force, such as, natural selection, that drove animals to transform.

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