Is Sexual Desire Holy?

At a recent conference, I had the privilege of listening to an excellent presentation on the topic of charity by a very well known Catholic apologist, who will remain nameless. At some point, his talk on Christian love shifted from a discussion of caritas to eros, and the presenter moved into the subject of sexual desire. His contention was that the physical pleasure of sexual intercourse itself was a gift from God and, to go further, specifically a gift by which God shares his life with us. After making a harmless joke about the joys of frequent sex in marriage he added, to the delightful applause of the crowd, “I like getting grace THAT way!” His proposition that sexual desire was holy, and that we get grace by enjoying it, seemed to be met with wholesale agreement. While, as a married person, in many ways I too liked and approved of his statement, I also couldn’t help thinking there might have been something theologically and anthropologically missing.

Church history is dotted with hetero-orthodox groups who have discounted the goodness of the material world, in general, and the human body and physical pleasures, in particular. The Gnostics, the Manicheans, the Albigensians, and the Puritans, to name a few, are each well known for their rejection of the natural in favor of the supernatural; refusing the flesh and all that goes with it in order to focus exclusively on attempting a hyper-spiritualized existence. This heretical view of the natural world has been present in some modern opinions about sexuality, particularly in the more negative perception that was prevalent in the pre-1960s Church. Much of the post Humanae Vitae/Theology of the Body generation has tended to lump all of these views together, including those which, though thoroughly orthodox, lean to the more conservative, pessimistic, or, in contemporary estimation, prudish side. Altogether these perspectives have been viewed as a stumbling block to the true, and much more optimistic, understanding of sexuality presented to us by Popes Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II. While it is true that in many ways the pendulum needed to move in this more positive direction, it can be argued that it has now gone far enough, and could benefit from a slight shift back the other way. A fitting guide for this reevaluation of the goodness of sexual desire is St. Augustine; a man who persevered in his own struggles with chastity and faith and therefore can give us tremendous insight into the realities of sin, grace, and the interplay between the two.

Augustine taught that our physical desires (concupiscence) resulted from the Fall, and as such are inherently dysfunctional. Among the consequences of original sin listed by God in Genesis was his warning to the woman that your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master (Gen 3:16). While Augustine certainly affirmed the goodness of the body and the created world (a recognition which was instrumental in his break from the Manicheans), he hesitated to go so far as to affirm the goodness of the natural desires associated with it. He tended, for example, to take the Pauline perspective of marriage in which conjugal union is seen not so much a good thing in itself as a proper and acceptable way to channel sexual desires and, most importantly, provide the means for the physical production of more Christians.

Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, deemphasized the impact of original sin on humanity, and therefore endorsed a wholly positive view of the human person which did not require the saving graces of baptism. In his over-optimism regarding human nature, Pelagius and his followers would tend to favor a more positive view of human desires, including those pertaining to sexuality. Involved in an ongoing debate with the Pelagians, Augustine argued in his letter to Julian of Eclanum that marriage was a remedy for the concupiscence resulting from our fallen human nature and, according to him, “no one offers a remedy to one in good health.” He spoke of sexuality in somewhat utilitarian terms, suggesting that “one who observes moderation in carnal concupiscence makes good use of something evil; one who does not observe moderation makes bad use of something evil.”

In Augustine’s opinion, the goods of marriage were its capacity to promote faithfulness (Augustine said that marriage “stands in horror at the impiety of divorce”) and to “unite the sexes for the sake of having children.” He provides a stern warning for married couples, reminding them of the necessary struggle involved in marriage caused by original sin, whereby the goods of marriage fight against the evil of concupiscence, a battle in which goodness will hopefully gain the upper hand, but that will always lurk as a temptation for married persons. According to Augustine:

[Marriage] does not allow … evil to do anything forbidden, even though it never ceases to arouse one to such things, at times with weaker, at other times with stronger feelings, and it makes good use of its evil for the propagation of children. Who would deny that it is evil except someone who does not listen to the apostle’s warning I say this, however, as a concession, not as a command (1 Cor 7:6). When married couples are overcome, not by the desire to have children, but by the desire to enjoy carnal pleasure, and have intercourse, the apostle does not praise this, but excuses it in comparison with what is worse, because marriage intervenes and intercedes on their behalf.

With this early fifth century Catholic perspective in mind, now fast forward to the twentieth century. Humanae Vitae made lots of waves for the social and pastoral side of the Church when it came to its teaching on contraception. But the bigger waves created in the realm of theology came from its teaching about the purpose of sex. According to Paul VI, there were two purposes to marital intercourse: the traditionally held (and obvious) aspect of procreation, and the unity of spouses. This has been interpreted by many, it seems, to say that marital sex is meant to unify spouses, at least in part, due to the pleasure they mutually receive in the marital act. This interpretation might be a bit of a jump from what we actually find in the text of Humanae Vitae, especially later in the document when we read “to dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence” (para. 21). Married people tend to like the idea that sexual pleasure is a divinely designed glue in the Holy bond of matrimony given for the purpose of making us happier and more fulfilled spouses. However Scripture, patristic writings, and papal encyclicals seem to give us the impression that its adhesive qualities are always ordered specifically towards procreation, not towards gratification. Pope Paul’s repeated emphasis on the necessity of abstinence suggest that his idea of the unity of the spouses may have been closer to what we would find in Augustine than in books with titles like “Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.”

The crux of the issue, for us, is the question of whether our bodily desires point us towards God or, on the other hand, distract us from the beatific vision. The optimism which has characterized many unique varieties of humanism throughout history would tend to say that our desires themselves are good, and can be seen as points of contact with the divine. Christopher West, perhaps the most famous promoter of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, supports this perspective wholeheartedly. According to his blog, “when sexuality is lived in an ordered manner, it becomes a path that leads to the divine, to the Infinite.” In another post, he contends that God creates us as sexual beings with desire for sexual union “precisely to tell the story of his love for us. In the biblical view, the fulfillment of love between the sexes is a great foreshadowing of something quite literally ‘out of this world’–the infinite bliss and ecstasy that awaits us in heaven.”

If this is the case, though, and our sexual desire is supposed to point us towards union with God, then it seems that this recognition should automatically be accompanied by an obligation to follow the upward trajectory implicit in the design; moving from the more basic, sensual pleasures towards higher, super-sexual ones. The transcendentals, in the Platonic sense, are not so much goods to be enjoyed themselves as instances of beauty which move us beyond the sensual to the realm of the true. In other words, as we enjoy them, we should begin realizing that we aren’t supposed to dwell in that enjoyment. Modern culture, on the other hand, would lead us to believe that frequent sex is not only an indicator of, but a requisite for, a “happy” marriage.

The more pessimistic approach towards human nature, which seems to have tugged at St. Augustine to some degree especially in his later years, would be more comfortable with the notion that while goodness is found in the natural world, and while our physical desires are not totally devoid of positive purpose, they are certainly less than perfect, and as such will always pose a threat to humanity’s quest for union with God. If Christian love is primarily defined by a dying to self, gratifying pleasure seems somewhat out of place when held as a good in itself, even when enjoyed with mutual respect and openness to life. If marriage is lived in the context of sacrifice, it seems that conjugal relations for the purpose of procreation, rather than the enjoyment of spouses, is more fitting. As the Pastoral Constitution for the Church in the Modern World stated, “the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown” (Gaudium et Spes, para. 48).

While it is easy to see how contraception and infidelity are abuses of the sexual faculty, it is more difficult to determine the proper usage of sex within marriage sought apart from purposeful childbearing.  In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales warned “to those who are married, it is quite true, although the mass of men cannot perceive it, that they stand greatly in the need of chastity. For in them it lies not in total abstinence from carnal pleasures, but in self-control amidst pleasures. And just as to my mind there is more difficulty in the precept ‘Be ye angry and sin not’ than in ‘Be not angry,’ and that it is easier to avoid anger than to regulate it; so it is easier wholly to abstain from carnal lusts than to be moderate amid them.”

Is this to say that marital intercourse during periods of infertility is morally blameworthy? Should we only have sex when we are trying to achieve a pregnancy? I would say no, though Augustine might disagree with me. The more positive estimation of marital intimacy offered to us in the past few decades is an example of legitimate development in doctrine, and has real merit in its application to our understanding of human nature, sacrament, and the aesthetic worldview which lies so close to the heart of the Catholic faith. But nonetheless we ought to at least consider the possibility that indulging our desires, even when done lawfully and therefore without sin, can still get in the way of our path for holiness. Those desires can, if we allow them to control us rather than controlling them, cause us to make choices that are more about satisfaction, which loiters at the door of selfishness, than about sacrifice, which is integral to authentic love.

Editor’s note: The above image titled “L’idylle” was painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1850.

Dusty Gates


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    In The Christian Day, Jean-Jacques Olier, the Sulpician founder, offers this advice: “It is necessary for the soul to be in fear and distrust of self; … It should make its pleasure and joy depend on sacrificing to Jesus all joy and pleasure which it may have apart from Himself. And when taking part in those things in which by Providence it is obliged to be occupied, such as eating, drinking, and conversation with creatures, it must be sparing in all, must discard what is superfluous, and must renounce, in the use of them, the joy and pleasure to be found therein, uniting and giving itself to Jesus as often as it feels itself tempted to enjoy something apart from Him and not Himself”

  • lifeknight

    Thank you for a well documented, but still confounding look at marital love.

    This is an article to ponder. The basic question, (in my mind) regards the Church teaching and promotion of Natural Family Planning. Only God knows the intent of the couples. Is the contraceptive mentality alive and well in the minds of those who abstain from intercourse during fertile times? Who knows?

    One serves humanity better in not trying too hard to second guess this issue, but in Church teaching which serves good of all. In this area I am inclined to use the Pope’s quote that I generally disdain. “Who am I to judge?”

    By NOT using contraceptive means, couples answer to God in their well formed conscience with respect to marital love and relations.

    • Simple & Plain

      I believe that NFP can absolutely take on a mentality of any other contraceptive, in that it can used to satisfy lust over love.

      • lifeknight

        Correct, “Simple and Plain” especially if we know our Baltimore Catechism. One can sin in thought, word, deed, and omission. It is difficult to know the minds of the married. Compound that with differing translations of the word “grave” and you have confusion.
        I was just too lazy to learn all the ins and outs of NFP, however I permit it to be taught in a clinic for the poor. It is definitely a hard call. I’m letting God handle it.

      • Kevin McCormick

        But the “mentality” which results in sin differs radically from an act which is inherently sinful, such as contraception. Further, the spouse which expects intercourse without regard for the other spouse’s state can have a sinful mentality toward marital sexuality, even if neither contraception nor NFP are a part of the conversation.

  • JP

    “The crux of the issue, for us, is the question of whether our bodily
    desires point us towards God or, on the other hand, distract us from the
    beatific vision.”

    They do both. Which is why articles like this are so important. Theologically, Christ’s love for His Church mirrors the conjugal love of spouses; however, there is a danger of becoming obsessed with sex (which is where our society and Church currently stand).

    We need more essays like this one. We seem as a society to have collectively lost our balance.

  • Simple & Plain

    I’m not sure how I feel about the notion of receiving grace by sexual connectivity with a spouse. I might be more inclined to think that we receive the grace by simply using the body as the way God intended our bodies to be used, which is different for every person. One may receive that grace in celibacy for the Kingdom, while another may receive that grace by having a purely selfless sexual union with their wife/husband. I feel there’s not enough emphasis put on how important celibacy is. It’s just as important as marriage, yet many have looked down on it.

    There’s also the question of love vs lust. Are married couples engaging in love, or are they having sex for lustful purposes.

    • Mark

      It is a defined dogma of the Church that celibacy chosen for the kingdom has an objective superiority over marriage. (Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas, no. 32) And precisely because this teaching has been lost, threatened or misunderstood, we can learn something vital from the current debate on the role of sex.

      • Simple & Plain

        Some people I know can’t seem to stop talking about “when are they going to allow priests to marry”.

        • Diane

          It would be better to have women priests, than to allow priests to marry. That opens up a whole new can of worms! There would be issues with the wife and family. And what if the priest didn’t stay married? What if the kids were in trouble? What if he got sued? Who pays? The Church? No…..safer for women to become priests than to allow priests to have families.

          • Defender of the Truth

            it would be even worse to allow women to be priests, and there are actually cases in which the catholic church allows priests to be married. sure it opens up different problems, but they work through it

            • The Truth

              They sometimes allow men from other Faiths that had been already married to become priests. Apples and oranges.

              • Christendom

                Truth man . . . you are off a bit. Not only other faiths (small “f” btw) but within the Church (right on, cap “C”) itself there are several Rites that allowed married priests. The Pope (you guessed it, cap “P”) can change the policy and allow married priests in the Latin Rite tomorrow if he desired. However, the Pope cannot ordain female priests. The former can be changed, the latter cannot. Should the former be changed? I would vote no. I am in my sixteenth year of marriage; celibacy is important to living out the vocation of a religious.

          • It would be better to have women priests, than to allow priests to marry.

          • The Truth

            If our clergy, both male and female were allowed to marry, they wouldn’t be catholic, they would be Protestant. Besides they have already pledged themselves to spouses, the Church and Christ respectively.

            • me

              I thought Catholic priests CAN marry. What about all the married Eastern rite Catholic prirests?

              • WSquared

                There’s a difference between ordaining a married man and an ordained man marrying.

                Priests in the Latin Rite are indeed married spiritually and theologically to the Church. Holy Matrimony for us layfolk does indeed have a spiritual and theological component– not just a physical, material one– that we often forget. Besides, if God is Love, and Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, and His grace is sufficient, it’s not exactly “unreasonable” that a man who stands In Persona Christi can’t live the discipline of celibacy with the help of God’s grace. In addition, Holy Matrimony, like every other Sacrament, is about Jesus Christ, anyway. Marriage is ultimately about God and His love for us, not just “a guy and a gal gettin’ together and having a nice church wedding.” Marriage is about the Cross and Resurrection, just like the priesthood is, and just like being single or widowed is, because that’s what living in Christ is about, period. Marriage is also a covenant, which mirrors God’s relationship with us– yes, He does indeed refer to Himself as our husband, and refers to idolatry of any kind as adultery. Without Love, we have nothing. It doesn’t matter whether we’re married or have a “special someone” or not.

                I’m fine with married men being ordained in the Eastern Rite, just as I am fine with celibacy in the Latin Rite. But the “when are Catholic priests going to get married” folks who think that marriage is somehow the magic bullet that will “fix everything” should think more carefully: we see the failure of many, many marriages, too– which should make us question the “marriage would fix the sex abuse crisis and everything else in the Latin Rite” chestnut. Yet, we’re loathe to say that marriage is “bad” when they fail (but yet have no problems saying that celibacy is “bad,” just because some vocations crash and burn).

                In addition, an Eastern Rite married man who is ordained may not remarry if his wife dies. The Eastern Rite also respects and reveres celibacy as a discipline, just like the Latin Rite, only the emphasis is different– monks are celibate, and most bishops are drawn from the ranks of the celibate. So there’s no presumption that “marriage as the magic bullet”/”married priests will make things easier” running any which way in the Catholic Church, East or West. Besides, the Latin Rite already has married clergy: permanent deacons. Note that they are married before they are ordained, also.

        • hombre111

          They are usually people who have watched vocations crash. This is now the new normal: twelve seminarians when there should be fifty, half of them from outside the United States, prepared to burden the people with heavy accents and half-understood sermons.

          Celibacy was forced on diocesan priests by the First Lateran Council (around 1050) to keep them from handing their benefices on to their children. It was about saving church property, part of a medieval pattern in which only the oldest son could marry and inherit, thus keeping the family property intact! Benefices disappeared long years ago, but the wagon train lurches on. In a similar way, the Norwegian bachelor farmers on Prairie Home companion are a throwback to that era. Unable to inherit at home, they came to the U.S..

          • Maeve

            You say “. . . twelve seminarians when there should be fifty, half of them from outside the United States, prepared to BURDEN the people with HEAVY ACCENTS and HALF-UNDERSTOOD SERMONS” and I say that these men are gifts for many of us would be without a priest nearby if we did not have the blessings of their vocations. In addition, they bring us a perspective from another part of the world, helping us to understand God’s world more completely. God has indeed blessed us with those willing to come to THIS country to serve HIM in so many ways. Then you go on to say that people die without receiving the sacraments because one priest in a big parish is not always available at the time he is needed. Without the gift and sacrifice of the priests from foreign lands we would have it even worse. Think about this very carefully. God is sending us a gift when and where it is most needed.

            • hombre111

              I agree. Without international priests, the whole thing would be more difficult. As I said, this bandaid is the new normal. But it is not a solution.

          • Jim

            Nice try. If you had read the referenced encyclical you would have seen the reference to the dogma from the Council of Trent.

            • hombre111

              Celibacy imposed on diocesan priests is not a dogma. It is a discipline which a pope could erase with the stroke of a pen.

        • The Truth

          Priests are married, they are married to the Church. The church is the bride of Christ, and they are his representative here on Earth. Sisters are also married to Christ, they have offered their lives in devotion to Him, just as a wife would to her husband and vice versa.

          • Simple & Plain

            Amen. I think it’s a powerful symbol when a priest/sister wears a ring of marriage to symbolize their surrender and devotion to Christ.

    • hombre111

      “I’m not sure how I feel about the notion of receiving grace Grace by sexual connectivity with a spouse.” Augustine was a lot more pessimistic than this author makes him out to be. The Protestants took him at his word and so they believe that we are rotten at the core. Catholics, at both Orange and Trent, tried to do better. But the spirit of Augustine dies hard.

      • Colin Kerr

        no, I think you are exaggerating to say that Protestants took him at his word. I think the author gives a very fine presentation, and doesn’t say that he and Augustine agree on every point

  • Kevin McCormick

    What seems to be missing from the Augustinian perspective (which I don’t claim to know in depth) is the simple observation that by God’s design a married couple is only fertile for 5 to 7 days every four weeks or so. Theologically speaking, what are we to make of this simple natural fact? What did God have in mind for the expression of sexual love before the Fall? What are we to make of the holy book of the Song of Solomon? Can the Augustinian approach can answer these questions adequately or does his theology flow from his own personal weaknesses and struggles?

    • Martha

      Well, the Song of Solomon is mostly about his adoring his love, not necessarily all the acts associated with the adoring (ooooh, your hair, your eyes, yadda yadda), if memory serves.

      But yes, the natural facts of the matter seem to point to not-so-frequent encounters. Like you said, you’ve got a little over a week or so for conception purposes. And the week of cycling was a strictly taboo time in Judaic law (the red tent!). Then lump in pregnancies, which really don’t seem like they should be a copulation moment, and what have you got left? A whole lotta self control, that’s what.

      I suppose it’s like food and gluttony. Or any other vice you could mention- the ‘too much of a good thing’ mentality.

      It seems like becoming closer to God usually entails acts of self sacrifice, so yeah, I think therein lies our answer. I’m going with Dusty.

      • Kevin McCormick

        I’m not so sure that Dusty and I are in opposition to one another.

        Mosaic Law does not equate to God’s original design for the human person, whereas the menstrual cycle does (unless there is some theological evidence that I’m unaware of). Why not design man as he does the animals, who copulate nearly exclusively for the purposes of reproduction or domination? It would seem that God had something more in mind with human persons.

        Further, the entire bible uses spousal images to express God’s love for his people. The bible begins with marriage and ends with marriage. The Song of Solomon is just one of the more explicit moments in a narrative that culminates in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Surely the metaphor offered to us of the eventual union of God and man is not somehow tainted by the pleasure associated with it.

        The problem we have in our time is the divorcing of the unitive and procreative, in both directions. True marriage always requires self sacrifice to be truly loving.

        • Martha

          I don’t think you’re in opposition either, Kevin. My last statement sounded that way though, didn’t it. I meant I’m on Dusty’s side vs the world view, not yours. I agree with you, and maybe need to revisit the Song of Solomon.

          I was also thinking of the wedding night in the book of Tobit. It has a very lovely soliloquy about just this subject before they consummate their marriage.

          • Kevin McCormick

            Yes, it’s a beautiful prayer.

  • Mark

    Thank you so much for trying to keep us on the rails, as I think we’ve gone off of them. But now, even within devout Catholic circles, trying to maintain a more moderate view is opening oneself to all manner of criticism from the faithful. Also, the Church has always taught that celibacy for the kingdom is a higher calling. As one following that path, I feel like the current West-ian style promotions of sex would have me believe I’m missing a vital channel of grace. (He even goes so far to say in one of his books that “unless we are healed in our sexuality we cannot enter the Kingdom.” True only insofar as nothing broken exists in the kingdom, but the implication in the context he used was that this “healing” could only occur by opening wide the doors to unfettered enjoyment).

    The brief “nod in the general direction” of celibacy they offer in their books belies the deep traditions of the awesome gift of being called to be a “eunuch for the Kingdom.” I think it’s easier to understand sexuality from the starting point of Christ the celibate than it is to try to understand celibacy from the starting point of sex.

    • JP

      I remember reading that at some point during the High Middle Ages almost 20% of the European population was in the religious vocations. Part of the reason could have been that if one wanted to pursue an intellectual vocation one had to go into the priesthood. Also, some of the most profitable businesses were owned and operated by Nuns and Monks. In Great Britain during the 11th Century, the best farms were often operated by religious orders; the same was true for breweries, and hostels. In other words, one could find a decent job and employment for life inside of Europe’s many religious houses. Of course, there were cloistered orders, where one spent most of one’s time praying and worshiping. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, there is a line where Henry admitted to hiring a few hundred clerics to offer up prayers 24×7 for the soul of Henry’s brutal uncle. But, to live this life the cleric had to give up sex and promise to be chaste.

      One thing that is lost in the debate about the sanctity of Family versus the religious calling is the simple fact that Christ came into the world through natural means and he humbled Himself to the Family, thus elevating the Family. I understand that both Saint Mary and Christ’s foster-father, Saint Joseph, were chaste; however, everything Christ did had an underlying reason. After Christ, no more would spouses be allowed to divorce (The Eastern Church did allow it; but the Church of Rome taking Saint Matthew’s Gospel to heart did not). The Marriage Act, after Christ, took on an even more important place than in Mosaic Law. Sex became as sign of Faithfulness that mirrors Christ’s Faithfulness to His Spouse, the Church.

      Whether it is the self-giving of spouse during the Marriage Act, or the religious sublimating their desires, the effects are the same. Both have a power and significance because both are being Channeled through Christ. Both have obligations and both require a degree of self-giving that can in fact become painful. They are both equal in dignity and are interconnected. When one flourishes so does the other; when one fails, so does the other. Good families produce holy priests; and holy priests can lead families to an even deeper understanding of Christ. The same goes for all religious vocations.

    • Martha

      ‘(He even goes so far to say in one of his books that “unless we are healed in our sexuality we cannot enter the Kingdom.” ‘

      Who said that??!! Good heavens! Hopefully he means ‘healed’ in the sense that we aren’t being unchaste according to our position. ‘Cause yikes. That’s one pervy thing to say otherwise.

      • Berri Sheed

        The “healing of our sexuality” reference there refers to the NOUN (masculinity, femininity) NOT the verb (sexual union). No need to mischaracterize to debate.

  • Michael Foley

    An excellent corrective to Theology-of-the-Body excesses that distort Catholic teaching. One constructive criticism, though: St. Augustine does teach that natural desires are good; it is natural desires affected by original sin that create concupiscence and need to be treated with caution. This is a crucial qualifier; for Augustine, nature qua nature is good, even the natural desire for sexual pleasure. It is only East of Eden that things get complicated.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    What it really comes down to is that here in the West, more Catholics need to become more creative in the bedroom – and create more real Catholics.

    • lifeknight

      Sometimes a little humor can help!

      • Shere Khan

        always, no humour no truth.

    • St JD George

      So true. I’ve written before so I’ll be pithy. I was of the “no growth and only replacement” mentality once and have deep regrets. I lived in Europe and have seen first hand the destructive force of forsaking childbearing for the pursuit of mammon. We recently moved to an area where we’ve been blessed to get to know some really large Catholic families, and it is a real joy to be around them.

    • The Truth

      A Protestant once told me the best sex he had was when he and his wife were open to pregnancy. Unwittingly he was supporting natural family planning and unwittingly enjoying the blessing’s that come from God when the act is in line with His will.

  • gsk

    In all things, moderation, While the author mentions anger, I’ll refer to television. Back in the day, it was easier just to get rid of it altogether than to learn (and teach the children) moderation. Authentic freedom is based on controlling the person, being master of yourself.

    Another point that seemed to be lost in the TOB craze, perhaps because of the age of the promoters, is the idea of suffering. Sometimes the higher ground is denying one’s self, rather than engaging in a perfectly acceptable activity, which is what NFP teaches. There comes a time when authentic married love is wonderfully expressed in changing a colostomy bag or giving a sponge bath. That’s why I prefer the name “catechesis on human love,” which about covers it–and then all kinds of chaste relationships can be included.

    Very thoughtful article, thanks!

    • Martha

      I agree with most of what you say, gsk, but NFP has always seemed to me like sneaking cookies while mom was out of the kitchen. When my husband and I have needed to space children, we’ve abstained. Sometimes for close to a year. That is denying one’s self. Or just go with it and have more children, that is also denying one’s self!!! ;D I always tell people that Christ never asked us to pull up a lawn chair and have a margarita with Him; he told us to pick up our cross and follow Him. He also said the world would think us mad. So there ya go.

      I don’t mean to start a fight about NFP, just saying what I’ve experienced.

      • JP

        It’s good to hear that my wife and I were not alone. That’s exactly how we spaced children. And to tell you the truth, there were many many nights where we were just too exhausted to ever get “in the mood”.

        • Martha

          Ha! I hear you. Still in the trenches, holding a 3 month old as I type. Perhaps that was God’s plan: if you follow the plan, sleep will become your deepest desire. 😉

      • Paul

        If this has worked for you, far be it from me to judge. However, this is clearly not the advice St. Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 7 – that husband should not deprive wife and vice versa. Also virtually any marriage counselor would tell you that lengthy abstainance in a marriage is an invitation to trouble – indeed this is exactly what St. Paul advises in 1 Corinthians 7 as well. (Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control – 1 Cor. 7:5.) In a world where so many marriages end and infidelity is rampant, it is really playing with fire to not meet your spouse’s needs for physical intimacy. As a betrayed spouse, I have firsthand knowledge of this and this is NOT something you want to ever have to deal with.

        • Martha

          Thank you for your thoughts, Paul; there is certainly wisdom there. I’m truly sorry for what you’ve gone through. God Bless.

      • Berri Sheed

        Puzzling since Mom baked the cookies and served them for our lunch. Not sure how denying yourself lunch for an hour makes you a better child than your sister who eats her lunch in 10 minutes, or your brother who fasts.

        Suffering is realizing that lunch is a joy that ends. No need to compare our sufferings.

        How or whether we eat our lunch, we are to enjoy it as “a reminder of the unending sweetness that awaits us in Heaven.”

        • Martha

          Wow, that analogy went weird quickly. 😉

          Most couples I know that have used NFP did so as a form of birth control. I think that is the usual application of NFP, and it really shouldn’t be used that way. It is meant only for dire circumstances, and thankfully most of us don’t face those (even though we might think we do). It’s just another way to circumvent God’s plan and enact our own, in most cases.

          The few times I used it, not only was it a pain, unnatural (yes, really), frustrating, (I could go on), but it was also something that caused me a deep interior sense of guilt and shame that only went away upon prayer, reflection, and the realization that God did not want me using it. Then…peace. And many children. 🙂

    • Berri Sheed

      You underestimate both NFP and Theology of the Body. With respect, a study of both will not only reveal your preferences above, but *why* and *how*.

  • St JD George

    We as a collective society I think really do a lousy job on this subject and so in that regard I think it’s good to discuss openly to try and improve. In educating too often the only exposure entirely misses the most important point of God’s plan. On one end it’s usually highly clinical like a biology discussion which gravitates towards how to avoid pregnancy and doesn’t satisfy emotionally. Or on the other end classically there is either no discussion or only to put the fear of God into people for expressing curiosity in the opposite sex which comes with age and very natural. How often is there a conversation about God’s plan for sex as a gift of love within the holy sacrament of marriage. Desire is natural but only a act of love when in a giving spirit and mutual interest, not from lust or acting against the wishes of the other partner. Without that foundation it’s no wonder we as a society are so confused, including acceptance of same sex couples and other unholy unions. A reflection on where and why we are where we are should also be part of the conversation. This is as much a confession from one who made quite a few mistakes before accepting Christ into my life including recognizing his love for me in the blessing of my wife before I could fully appreciate.

  • justanotherlittlesoul

    Though Mr. Gates expresses a desire for balance, I find some of his points overgeneralized. He relegates physical pleasure in the marital act, for example, to the realm of concupiscence alone. Could it not be the result of an authentic gift of self (which implies self-sacrifice)? Self-seeking gratification does not originate in something physical, but in the will. If a couple lives by choice what the marital act symbolizes — “My whole being is a gift to you” — then the sexual act in its totality, including the pleasure that comes from it, is good and beautiful. St. John Paul II spoke about the “law of the gift”, that when we make a sacrifice of ourselves for others, we experience not loss, but gain and fulfillment. The author ignores this point.

  • gamburch1 .

    I think it’s helpful to compare sexual desire to the appetite for food. God made us as sexual beings and, in purely biological terms, reproduction and child rearing are our most important functions. Sexual appetite is good, as is the desire for food to nourish our bodies, as long as the appetite is properly channeled. The sexual connection between loving spouses has a very important function besides that of procreation. To me, the fact of being naked with one’s spouse is a very good metaphor for the sort of complete honesty and intimacy that create a marriage that is a source of strength, self-actualization, and goodness. Sexuality in marriage can also be a means of manipulating or degrading the other. The appetite for, and pleasure derived from, eating good food, well and lovingly prepared, is bound tightly with our family and social lives and helps to enhance them. Abuse of eating through gluttony, or maybe even through over-emphasis on diet and food faddism, is obviously harmful

  • CadaveraVeroInnumero

    Not the Puritans, but we won’t go into that here.

    A very sober and timely piece. Thanks for bringing Augustine and his fight against the Pelagians back into the discussion. Your agreement/disagreement with the great saint pitched the perfect tone.

    Side note; Wish Catholic publications and bookstores would not use and sell copes of Bouguereau’s paintings. He was not a very nice man – but, then,. maybe I’m just being a Puritan!

  • Mike

    Human sexuality is a very complex subject. 

    What really happened, for better or for worse, is that the popes of the Post Vatican II era tried to repackage sex a good thing in order to conform to the modern reality, , despite the fact that the church has clearly taught for most of its history that sex is a necessary evil designed solely for the procreation of children. (meanwhile the great popes of old we’re having orgies and fathering illegitimate children- although this could very well be Protestant propaganda) 

    In essence, the sexual teachings of Paul VI and John Paul II were giving a wink and a nod to non-procreative sex,  while at the same time claiming to not have changed the church teaching . “Natural Family Planning” is an example of  such hypocrisy- it gives Catholic couples an excuse to have non procreative sex while lying to themselves by saying that they are not practicing contraception. 

    I am not taking a side-I am just pointing out the reality. St. Augustine hated sex because he was consumed with sexual desire, as were many of the church fathers who the churches sexual doctrines are based. 

    In my opinion- sex is obviously designed for procreation. I do more or less agree with the views of John Paul II despite the fact it is an obvious reversal if what has been taught before. I think we were meant to have big families and sexual urges are a good thing as they are based on our natural desire to procreate . With that said, this is next to impossible under the current economic order. This along with the oversexualization of the controlled media and the fact we are getting married much later then we are designed to is where all the problems lie. 

    I think celibacy is a wonderful ideal as is chastity-but I am also realistic. 

    • Martha

      Agreed, Mike, but saying that big families are next to impossible economically is just another excuse. I know many families who are not anywhere near what one would call ‘well to do,’ and yet have 8-11 children, and the mother stays home full time and teaches them. It’s all about priorities and sacrifices. It’s amazing the things one can do without, and the ways money can be saved (milk your own cow!). Just sayin.

      • St JD George

        Amen Martha. I was formulating a reply but you said it beautifully. It does come down to priorities and may even require one to leave the city behind and never look back. Obviously there are challenges and a decision not everyone can make, but it’s funny that those who don’t understand call it a sacrifice (or much worse), but those who accept God’s blessings do so out of joy.

      • Paul

        The median household income in the US is about $55,000 a year. This comes out to be maybe between 3 to 4 thousand a month. I’d love to see how a family making that much could afford 8-11 children. My income is substantially more than that and I have “only” five children. I can tell you, things are pretty tight with our budget. To say that economics is an “excuse” just doesn’t ring true to me.
        The fact is, in the modern developed world the dynamics of human reproduction have changed from what they were throughout most of human history. It used to be true that infant mortality, and mortality overall, was much higher so people had to have a large number of children just to ensure that any of them lived into adulthood. Now that is not the case. It also used to be true that children were able to contribute economically to the family at a much younger age. Nowadays children often are not economically self sufficient until their earlier 20’s – and sometimes not until much later than that.

        • Martha

          Other than food (which requires a rather small portion of income, actually), what substantial increase is there per child? The clothes are all hand-me-downs from the thrift store/garage sales, the insurance is cheap and reliable from a Christian share group, homeschooling is nearly free (hello internet, printer, and library!), activities are also pretty cheap since there is no carting children to and from school events (the park, the library and besides, with 8 kids, who has time for activities!)… really, food is all I can think of. So we don’t go out much or order in much. We raise a steer, we deer hunt, we have a garden, we butcher things and can vegetables. Even if we didn’t, preparing store bought food isn’t that big of a deal, just no fancy stuff. We do have a few in music lessons, but I’ve seen people do that themselves, too, or trade with other families to teach other skills.

          We have 8 kids, and we farm. I don’t feel pinched. What am I missing?

          • Paul

            Martha, interesting. This is probably not the forum for it since it’s personal information, but your particular household income may be higher than average. Also, mortgage is a big expense. You didn’t comment on how large your house is, or what part of the country you live in. I would think for a family of 10 you would need a fairly large house, even if you put two kids to a room. Four or five bedroom houses are not cheap especially if you live near a metro area. We have a five bedroom house and pay about $2,000 for mortgage alone. It is not a “fancy” house either – it’s just about 3000 square feet. Also, for a family that large, it would be practical to own a full sized van so everyone can ride together. I’m not sure how much those go for but they are also not cheap I’d guess. And food is definitely an expense. I have two teenagers and three younger ones, and we easily spend over a grand a month in food. So just between food and the mortgage, we’re over 3,000 a month. When you throw in money to give to the church, plus electric/gas in order to heat and cool the fairly large house, plus clothes, plus car insurance, car payment, gasoline, and tolls to get to work, that’s a substantial amount of money. Also I would think one would want to at least give the children something for Christmas and birthdays and such. With my five kids, four of them have birthdays near the end of the year, so it can add up! I also have no idea how to butcher things or can vegetables so we tend to get just “ordinary” groceries from Walmart and such. Anyway I’m genuinely interested in tips for saving money if you have any!

    • gsk

      Sex is a “necessary evil”?? That’s a bit much, with all the beautiful nuptial imagery in the Bible. Babies and bonding are both important, and the graces of the sacrament not only nourish the bond but spill over into the wider community. I think you’ve been reading too much propaganda, or have been hanging out with neo-Jansenists.

  • Martha

    Wow. Thank you for that article, Mr. Gates; I don’t think it could’ve been said better. Can we print like a billion copies and drop them from planes throughout the world?

    Your comments about the speaker were spot on, and the ‘Holy Sex’ thing. Those kinds of things always tend to make me feel uncomfortable, just too in-line with secular thinking, which can’t be a good thing!

  • noterroristsallowed

    If God made women for men and men for women, then why do religious men live in isolation and celibate.?

    • Mark

      The celibate man who remains in “isolation” isn’t going to be celibate for very long. I’m not sure where to begin with the rest of your reply, or why you don’t mention religious women. However, a cursory reading of the history of your comments reveals serious anger issues with men.

    • JP

      It is interesting that you choose the phrase “celibate isolation.” That in and of itself indicates you don’t understand the idea of celibacy in the least. There was a time when the Church didn’t demand celibacy of its priests. And it was during that time when corruption and worldly matters almost took the Church down.
      Despite popular opinion no one has ever died from a lack of sex.

      • noterroristsallowed

        I’m done. I’m letting it be known to my family too especially to my nieces whom I have taken to the Catholic Church for the past 9 years.

        • MaryB435

          I respect your decision to leave, but please come back soon. I think you will be happier. Let’s pray for each other.

    • GG

      Why not study the faith? Your comment shows you really are not aware of Church history or teaching.

  • Robyn Meriel

    Too often women are made to feel ashamed of their sexuality. Attractive teenaged girls are sometimes called “slut” or “whore,” even when they are very naive and innocent. I encourage my daughters to be proud of their womanhood. I think there is something very good about making the most of one’s looks and being attractive to and attracted by potential suitors. This is, at least in part, what leads to marriage. One of my teens recently made the transition from ugly duckling to swan. She had her eyebrows done, highlights and lowlights put in her hair, used prescription acne cream, started working out at the gym, had her ears pierced, got contact lenses, and got some flattering and attractive outfits. She went from dowdy to stunning in a few months and is suddenly getting a great deal of male attention. I think this is, in some ways, God’s plan for her. She has become, almost overnight, a beautiful young woman with a choice of suitors. There is always an element of sexual desire in dating, and I think there is holiness in that. My 17-year-old, while chaste, is learning about relationships with the opposite sex and this will eventually, I hope, lead to her marrying and having her own family.

    • Martha

      I agree, as long as wanting to be feminine doesn’t evolve into vanity, and dressing attractively means elegant and beautiful vs. immodest and trashy. I think that’s primarily where the condemning words of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ have their origin.

      Parents are always pleased (they should be, anyway) when their daughters and sons rise up to the positions they’re meant to fill: girls to the feminine and beautiful, and boys to the masculine and handsome. You’re right, there seems to be something about this that is part of God’s plan. It’s a very beautiful thing that the world in general has taken to an obscene extreme (think Bratz dolls!), and for that reason I’m saddened when I see very Catholic families shy away from any display of beauty in their daughters (not even light makeup, no earrings, nothing that would appear the least bit vain). That’s allowing the secular world a victory in their hijacking of the good, true, and beautiful.

  • Paul Bennett

    This is perhaps the worst logical leap of inference I have ever seen. I must assume it’s the fault of bad editing, because to confuse chastity with periodic celibacy is a mistake I cannot imagine a literate Catholic making.

    You said:

    In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales warned “to those who are married, it is quite true, although the mass of men cannot perceive it, that they stand greatly in the need of chastity. For in them it lies not in total abstinence from carnal pleasures, but in self-control amidst pleasures. And just as to my mind there is more difficulty in the precept ‘Be ye angry and sin not’ than in ‘Be not angry,’ and that it is easier to avoid anger than to regulate it; so it is easier wholly to abstain from carnal lusts than to be moderate amid them.”

    Is this to say that marital intercourse during periods of infertility is morally blameworthy?

  • treecie

    Well, the important thing is to love God and to love your spouse. You have to keep both of those things at the forefront at all times, and this keeps your sexual desire holy. In itself it is good and holy, because God made it to join spouses (unitive) and make children (procreative), and while we can pervert these ends and frequently do, that does not detract from the goodness of sexual desire. Sexual activity Iis not just about species survival but also a sign of spousal love such as God has for His people. The Bride and the Bridegroom love with a transcendent love that sees the beauty in the other that not everyone sees, but only the lover. Ideally, every married couple would be able to see each other with those eyes of love, but we are frail and fallible and complicated. Still, that is the plan. And from that “romantic” love can come great love of children and of neighbor, once a person has experienced its beauty and healing power. In fact, celibacy is most fruitful when it applies that kind of love to God

  • Jim Russell

    ***Augustine taught that our physical desires (concupiscence) resulted from the Fall, and as such are inherently dysfunctional. ***
    Not exactly true as stated. Augustine taught that *disordered* physical desires resulted from the fall. The physical desires themselves are created goods.
    And it is St. John Paul II who teaches that, in pursuing authentic purity of heart, we can indeed be liberated from the domination of concupiscence.
    As such, in marital relations, to the extent that such relations (and the sexual desire associated with them) are liberated from the domination of concupiscence, they are to be considered goods that do help us grow in holiness.
    Augustine’s pessimism arises precisely because he views the pull of disordered desire to be so great that he cannot suppose that even marital relations are engaged in without *some* at least venial lust associated with the relations. Countering this pessimism, St. John Paul II asserts that pursuing purity of heart in this arena is a task “truly worthy of man.”

    • mparks12


  • Jim Russell

    One more clarification: The author above writes: “But the bigger waves created in the realm of theology came from its teaching about the purpose of sex. According to Paul VI, there were two purposes to marital intercourse: the traditionally held (and obvious) aspect of procreation, and the unity of spouses. ”

    But this is really no “wave” at all. It was the traditional teaching of the Church long before Paul VI. Even Pope Pius XI in “Casti Connubii” (1930) makes clear that the ends of marriage (including marital intercourse–“the use of the matrimonial rights”) include the unitive dimension:

    ***”For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.”*** [CC #59]

    And here “subordination to the primary end” (procreation/education of children) does not of course mean a couple cannot have relations unless they intend to procreate. Which, naturally, is why men and women of any mature age–even past childbearing years–are permitted to marry…

  • Guest_august

    “And as St. Augustine tells us in the City of God (Book 14, chapter 21-24) the use of marital sex relations separate from its procreative intent is a sin, even in the context of a valid marriage.
    St. Augustine summarizes:
    “The use of Matrimony for the mere pleasure of lust is not without sin, but because of the nuptial relation, the sin is Venial.”
    To put it succinctly: Sex for the sake of Lust is sin.
    Is this not the reason why every sex act that is purposely separated from the procreative intent is cheered on by Satan and his cohorts?”
    “And if a Christian wishes to be perfect – “as your heavenly Father is perfect” – then the Christian would do well to adopt the slogans:
    “If you want the kids, do the sex.”
    “If you don’t want the kids, don’t do the sex.”
    But again, that is if the Christian wishes to be perfect “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
    Remember in Paradise they don’t do the sex, and they don’t marry but are like the heavenly Angels. (In the light of this, we urge you all to disregard the propaganda called the Theology of the Body.)”
    Read more:

    • Jim Russell

      TOB is not “propaganda”–it’s magisterial and also now counted among the writings of the saints…

      Besides, all “lust” is sin. But the Church has never taught that *intention* to procreate is necessary for every act of marital relations. Rather she has always taught that the couple’s intention must be *open* (not *closed*) to the transmission of new life. And, actually, that’s a big difference…

      • Guest_august

        The author of the so-called “Theology of the Body” is not a saint of the Holy Catholic Church; so don’t get me started on that.
        Secondly any sex act done with the intention of avoiding procreation is a sin. But in the context of married life the sin is venial. I think that is clear enough.

        • Jim Russell

          Oh–my apologies–I was talking about the *Catholic* Church–I see you have something else in mind…God bless….

          St. John Paul II, ora pro nobis!

          • JP

            I think his point is that a couple could follow the letter of the “law” and still avoid having children through out their married life. Outside of abstinence, NFP is the most efficient means for a couple to avoid pregnancy. The key is intent. Some NFP proponents go a bit too far; they in fact turn NFP into Catholic Birth Control.

            In the end, those decisions are ultimately between the spouses and God. However, I think a Catholic couple should be careful that they don’t turn NFP into Catholic Birth Control.

            • Paul

              I don’t see how the intent in the use of NFP is ever different from the intent of using contraception, unless NFP is being used to conceive. Otherwise, the intent of both is always to avoid pregnancy. Indeed, proponents of NFP often brag that NFP is more effective in avoiding pregnancy than artificial contraception, if done correctly. This seems to be a sleight of hand by some NFP proponents – to pretend somehow that the intent is any different than when using artificial contraception.

        • Kevin McCormick

          How can an act of intercourse “intend” to avoid procreation except by God’s design? God designed it so a married couple is only fertile for 5-7 days per cycle and only when the woman is cycling. Does this mean that one can never have intercourse except during these fertile periods? If not, then how would it differ from intercourse during pregnancy or during non-fertile times while breast-feeding or for that matter after menopause? Surely you are not suggesting that couples past menopause should abstain until death. If not, then what exactly is the purpose of sex after menopause except that it is unitive for the couple. God is responsible for all of these times of natural infertility and I don’t quite see how you can distinguish some as being a licit time for intercourse and others not.

          • Guest_august

            1. When Onan was told to marry his brother’s widow in a levirate marriage, he decided in his heart to have the sex but not to have the baby. That is an example of having the act of intercourse with the intention to avoid procreation. (cf Genesis 38 v 8-10)
            2. A Catholic couple can have sex anytime they want as long as they don’t do it with the intention of avoiding procreation. Whether they have sex in the fertile or infertile period is immaterial as long as their intention is not the avoidance of procreation. Otherwise such sex acts are sinful but because of the nuptial union the sin is VENIAL.
            3. Therefore sex can be had even in menopause because children are known to be born to supposedly menopausal women e.g. the Matriarch Sarah.
            But still all sex acts separate from procreative intent are sinful but if the couple are married the sin is VENIAL.
            (cf the City of God Book 14)

            • Kevin McCormick

              Onan profaned the act of intercourse itself so as to avoid the natural consequences of the act. This equivalent to contraception. This is radically different from abstaining. There are a multitude of reasons that a couple might abstain from intercourse. Abstinence is not a sin, venial or otherwise. In fact it can be a virtuous act depending on the situation.

              • Guest_august

                Who is talking about abstaining? We are saying that even in the case of natural birth-control used by a married couple; in as much as they engage in the sex act with the explicit intention of avoiding procreation, that is a sin. But because they are married it is a VENIAL SIN.

                • gsk

                  Sorry, that’s nonsense on stilts

                • Jim Russell

                  The “Augustinian position”–whatever it might be–is *not* the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church….

                  The Magisterium teaches that periodic abstinence and engaging in marital relations during the infertile period as an exercise in responsible parenthood is NOT sinful–even if the couple is at that moment reserving relations to coincide with the infertile time.

                  • Guest_august

                    Why would any Catholic want to reserve sexual relations to coincide with the infertile time?
                    If you want the kids do the sex.
                    If you don’t want the kids don’t do the sex.
                    What is so complicated about that.
                    Now for those struggling with concupiscence and lust, it is better to engage in the sex act “rather than burn”. But that is not the way of perfection in Sacred Scriptures and the Church Fathers.
                    That is: “If you wish to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect…”

                    • Jim Russell

                      “Do the sex”??? Really?? I’ve never seen those three words together in magisterial teaching…

                      Why would Catholics reserve relations to the infertile time? Maybe because some of them know that Pope Pius XII said that doing so was permissible, in his allocution to Italian midwives, October 29, 1951….

                    • Jim Russell

                      btw–you might be interested to find out what has made its way into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2362:

                      ***Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure: “The Creator himself…established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation.”***

                      Wanna guess who gave us that quote? That’s right, Pope Pius XII, October 29, 1951….

                • Kevin McCormick

                  Faithful Catholic married couples engage in intercourse as a re-stating of the wedding vows. The intention is faithfulness, unity and fruitfulness. That does not mean that every act must occur during a fertile period. Choosing to act during infertile periods does not violate God’s plan. You obviously do not follow Church teaching on this and I am sure that you are no fan of our St. Pope John Paul the Great. But are you aware that this was also taught by Pope Pius the XI in Casti Connubii and even back to Pope Leo XIII?

            • gsk

              That’s not what Augustine’s quote says. It says that LUST is sinful — and not all intimacy is based on lust. It’s the intention of the persons, not necessarily the actions. Saint John Paul reminds us that married people have to fight lust with chastity, just like everyone else.

      • James

        This is true, although a precise definition of “lust” is necessary to understand what the Church is saying. In the Catholic sense of the word, the problem with “lust” is objectification, not sexual desire.

    • Paul

      How does this reconcile with the text of 1 Corinthians 7, where St. Paul says husband and wife should not deprive each other, except by mutual consent for the purposes of prayer? St. Paul says nothing about only having sex to conceive – indeed one gets the opposite feeling from the text. Indeed if one was only having sex to conceive, one would necessarily be depriving the other, in clear contravention to St. Paul’s advice: “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
      The author of this article also makes the dubious assertion that Paul somehow ties sex to procreation, which I don’t believe he does – at least not in 1 Corinthians 7.

  • Mary Trani

    I once read that in the Middle Ages women typically had 5 children. A woman marrying in late adolescence would get pregnant for 9 months and then remain infertile as she completely breast fed the child for about two years then got pregnant again for nine months and breast fed that child for two years (hard to do but biologically programed in us) and so forth until she went through menopause which was probably earlier than today due to lack of overabundance of food. So God provides much infertile time in a woman’s life and much of that time she can experience a sexual life with her spouse without thought of bearing children. I was a little shocked to read that some people still think that fertility lasts 5-6 days. We know so much more today about fertility and it really amounts to about 48 hours a month. St. Paul says it is better to marry than to burn. I feel concupiscence really involves the lust for sexual contact with someone not your spouse. We have two commandments that warn about that. Marital love is a wonderful antidote to lustful desires for someone not your spouse. We need to see the whole picture and how marital love saves us from so many complicating and negative consequences of going outside marriage to satisfy our sexual needs and elevating our desires to the raising of children, not just procreating them.

    • Daniel P

      Your information about fertility is false, at least for my wife and I. We have had conceived after making love 4 days before ovulation, as well as after making love 3 or 4 days after ovulation. That adds up to 7 or 8 fertile days per cycle.

      (The ovulation date has been reliably determined, each time, by the Creighton method).

      • Mary Trani

        Wrong, buddy. You are under the false and somewhat conceited notion that your sperm is supercharged and lasts for days. I’m not so sure how long sperm lasts, but think about it. Ovulation lasts for 48 hours. Even supercharged sperm can go looking for an ovum before or after ovulation and it’s still a 48 hour window. After conceiving 7 times I can tell you, ovulation has a short window. We have just begun to be able to predict the time frame of fertility and haven’t utilized all the indicators. The Creighton method is not the be all and end all of fertility prediction. It truly helps to be in a female body to appreciate this.

        • LM

          Sperm can live for up to 5 days. I can tell you that as someone who has conceived on the outside of that 5 day window. However, you are right in that you cannot conceive 3 or 4 days *after* ovulation The egg does not live that long.

        • Daniel P

          My wife is a nurse. When I get a chance, I will have her check the chart about the length her egg lasted that particular time. I seem to recall it at least being the third day after ovulation (it could have been in the morning; we don’t chart such things), which would imply at least 50 hours or so.

          As for the accuracy of my info: (1) the charts don’t tell lies, (2) my wife is an expert on these things, and (3) the virgin birth only happened once. On these days we conceived (certainly the time we made love days before ovulation), we were using NFP to *avoid* pregnancy. So yes, we’re quite sure.

          • Daniel P

            A little research shows me the problem: Creighton method determines a “peak” day, but ovulation can occur up to three days after “peak” day. That means that there IS the 7-8 day window I’ve told you about — which I have two of my children as evidence of — but you are right to say that eggs do not last three days.

        • Kevin McCormick

          Actually sperm can live up to five days in the presence of the fertile mucus secreted by the cervix. I’m neither a doctor nor a nurse, but I am trained in the CCL symptom-thermal method of fertility awareness. The doctors who have worked with CCL have indicated that the woman’s egg only lasts for approximately 24 hours after ovulation has occurred. However, without some pretty heavy duty equipment, it is not possible to pinpoint the exact time of ovulation.

      • James

        You are assuming that Peak Day is ovulation, which is incorrect. Ovulation may occur as late as 3 days after Peak, as determined by the Creighton Model. This is why couples must wait until the evening of Peak+4 to resume relations.

        The most reliable confirmation of ovulation is a sustained thermal shift, which is not part of the Creighton Model. The tradeoffs, however, are that this extra caution often leads to more extra abstinence and extra complexity can lead to extra confusion. (The secular Justisse Method adds a BBT check to Creighton.) The Billings Method has a more specific definition of Peak, but one that does not apply in every cycle, even if ovulation has occurred.

        Looking at LH tests and thermal shift, for my wife, the LH surge usually occurs on Peak+1 to Peak+3 with the thermal shift beginning the next day.

        We had 2 surprises using Creighton, both of whom were “double peak” babies. (We assumed ovulation happened when it hadn’t.) We also concieved a Peak+3 pregnancy with Billings that ended up being ectopic.

  • Peter Pagan

    Dear Mr. Gates:

    Your essay contains the following excerpt:

    “…marriage was a remedy for the concupiscence resulting from our fallen human nature and, according to him, ‘no one offers a remedy to one in good health.’”

    The foregoing may suggest to more than a few readers the following: Had there been no concupiscence or inordinate (sexual) desire following Adam’s sin, there would have been no (need for) marriage. Marriage, however, is not only a sacrament, but also a natural institution which is good per se! The procreative meaning of the conjugal act is essential and indispensable, to be sure, but the unitive meaning of this same act should not be downplayed in the least.

    Marital intercourse as such is not inherently disordered, while lust is. Prior to any sin, whether original or actual, marital intercourse need not have been associated with lust, and the sexual act would have been found inherently pleasant, not painful or indifferent. That is not to say that the proper end (telos) of the sexual act is pleasure, notwithstanding the claims of those who advocate hedonism. Yet it is far from evident that married couples who, as an expression of authentic (virtuous) spousal love, engage in sexual intercourse necessarily commit a sinful act, or that the sexual act between spouses is necessarily unchaste.

    Just as hedonism should be avoided (reason shouldn’t be the slave of the passions), so one must be careful not to suggest in the least that the body, or the sexual act, is inherently impure or corrupt, despite the fact that one cannot rightly hold, after Adam’s original sin, that the sensitive appetites are regulated perfectly by reason. When a sensitive appetite is not regulated by reason aided by moral virtue, there will be disorder.

    Even so, sensitive appetite as such should not be considered unholy. What is natural is not unholy, and sensitive appetites among bodily beings is natural, and what is natural is naturally good. A common problem, however, is that what many take to be ‘‘natural’’ is not really natural, but a manifestation or instance of wounded (fallen) nature, such as sodomitic acts, which are actually unnatural or contrary to nature, nature as originally constituted by the transcendent Author of nature–God.

    If the focus is on the body of the person, rather than on the whole person–union of body and soul–, then the desire is not properly ordered and regulated by reason aided by virtue. That said, one must remember that something can be naturally good without being either unholy (sinful) or holy (raised to the supernatural order of sanctifying grace).

    -P.A. Pagan, Ph.D.

  • Profling

    How does a pope know so much about sexuality? And what connection does sex have with heaven? Sounds more like Islam there.

    • ForChristAlone

      When you have read all of St John Paul’s Theology of the Body teaching and believe to have some understanding of them, then return to comment about how a Pope can know about such things as sexuality.

  • mparks12

    Physical desire did NOT originate with the Fall, as you say. disorder in physical desire did. it is the disordered desire that is called concupiscence.

  • David

    This seems to reference the questionable, if at least unsupported contention of Christopher West that conjugal relations are holy and a source of grace. That has certainly not been a magisterial teaching nor even a theological opinion taught by any number of popes/doctors/saints, but is a very recent claim. As noted, it is easy to see why this is so eagerly gobbled up- “you mean I become holy, be spiritual, and obtain grace by “having sex?” The alarm bells should rightly go off when hearing such novel ideas that tickle the ears of those who hear it. Others, such as Alice Von Hildebrand and David Schindler, have shown a tendency to equivocate, confuse, or completely separate caritas, eros, and agape, on the part of some. The idea also has a pagan mysticism to it- that sex is a form of union with the divine. Let us also be reminded that what folks like West claim is from JPII is not necessarily so, to put it mildly.

    • Kevin McCormick

      Actually, the Church REQUIRES that a couple have intercourse if they have properly proclaimed their marriage vows at the altar. Not doing so means that the marriage is incomplete. Intercourse is sealing and fulfillment of a sacrament, raised to such by Christ himself. This is not a new teaching, only a clearer realization of the gift of married life. Sex has always been sacred as it is the sacrament through which God brings new life, including you and me, into the world!

      • David

        However, that was the not the issue the article or I raised, but the claim that conjugal relations are an intrinsic source of holiness and of grace. To say that intercourse is what helps to make for a marriage does not lead to the latter conclusions. Also, we need to be careful of confusing sacramentality
        of marriage- which is had solely because both parties are baptized- and what makes for a ratified and consummated marriage. Intercourse has little or nothing to do with sealing or fulfillment the sacrament, i.e., there can still be a sacramental, but non-consummated marriage; or a non-sacramental, consummated marriage, which might be just as grace-filled, at least arguably for the baptized person. As I note in reply to Deacon Jim above, the Church has never taught/referenced “sacred sex” or “holy sex,” and I would ask for citations if this is claimed.

        • Kevin McCormick

          Actually it was the issue raised. A sacrament is composed of two elements: form and matter. The form in marriage are the vows. The matter in marriage are the bodies of the husband and wife uniting in the marital embrace. Without intercourse, the marriage would be like saying “Amen” to receive communion yet without ever receiving the Body or the Blood of Christ. The sacrament would be meaningless. The whole idea of a sacrament is that it is a spiritual AND physical reality.

    • Jim Russell

      David–of course conjugal relations are both holy *and* a source of grace if/when conjugal relations occur as an implicit and enfleshed renewal of the marriage covenant. This is nothing new. And it’s something both West and JPII seem to agree upon.

    • Jim Russell

      David–try this one from St. John Paul II–I think you’re arguing with him, not West:

      ****St. Paul clearly says that both conjugal relations and
      the voluntary periodic abstinence of the spouses must be a fruit of the “gift
      of God,” which is their “own,” and that the spouses themselves, by consciously
      cooperating with it, can keep up and strengthen their reciprocal personal bond
      together with the dignity that being “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit who is in [them]”
      (see 1 Cor 6:19) confers on their bodies.****

      • David

        Can you provide a direct citation? It is unclear if the whole thing is from JPII or just the parts in quotes, in which case, the text is mostly yours. But even this does not say that conjugal acts confer grace: e.g., you are taking such words as “keeping up and strengthening their bond” as meaning such but that is a meaning you are placing onto it. And please don’t say that even though the actual words such as grace are not used, that’s what is meant. Theological claims must be precisely stated not generically inferred. Perhaps there is also confusion or equivocation between grace and an expression of love and the properties of marriage that relations enhance, e.g., unity. This is where it would be good to see the text, particularly the editio typica in Italian, and thus also to see the larger context.

        The text of JPII that West claims says that sex confers grace does not say such- the audience of 10/13/1982, in which JPII speaks about the sacramental nature and “gracing” of marriage, but gracing referring to sacramental redemption as a whole, and marriage to marriage as a whole, not to conjugal relations. JPII also speaks generally of graces received “at the altar” that render the couple capable of the “spiritual blessings” of marriage (through which is “gradually [revealed in them] the singular capacity to perceive, love and practice those meanings of the language of the body which remain altogether unknown to concupiscence itself.” (Audience of 10/24/1984). This is again not referring to conjugal acts specifically. Perhaps here is also a tendency to not realize JPII’s context of marriage and the marital act as analogy.

        Even if one could argue that is what JPII meant, if he is a sole source then that is a novel and recent idea. If you claim it is nothing new, can you provide references from magisterial docs or other writings from doctors/popes/spiritual writers?

        It would also be interesting to ask some questions: what type of grace is bestowed? Is it bestowed ex opere operato (by the mere performance of the relations) or ex opere operantis? Also, the Church’s tradition, not even JPII, does not talk about “sacred sex” or “holy sex”, and does not speak about sex as a form of mystical union. Or else, please provide references.

        • Jim Russell

          TOB 85.7 (7/14/82)

          Why don’t you seem to want the sexual union of husband and wife to be a source of grace in the life of the married couple?

          • Jim Russell

            One quick point that might help bring our perspectives a bit closer–I see evidence in the TOB corpus that JPII acknowledges grace resulting from the “conjugal act” in the context of the redeemed “sacramentality” of marriage *as* one of the Seven Sacraments–that is, the conjugal act is a source of grace in the marriage of the baptized.

            I suspect he would acknowledge the inherent goodness of the conjugal act in valid non-Sacramental marriages, but I don’t think he would see relations in such marriages as “efficacious” sources of grace. He refers to marriage as the “primordial sacrament” and is intentionally using sacramentality in a broad sense. In TOB 97.2, he clearly states that “marriage, as the primordial sacrament, was deprived of the supernatural efficaciousness it drew at the moment of its institution from the sacrament of creation in its totality. Nevertheless, also in this state, that is, in the state of man’s hereditary sinfulness, marriage never ceases to be the figure of the sacrament, about which we read in Ephesians 5:22-33…”

            But it’s through what JPII calls the “sacrament of redemption” that marriage in the fullness of its “sign” (including and especially the conjugal act) is restored as a source of grace that effects what it signifies…

        • Jim Russell

          Here also is TOB 103.3 [all JPII’s words, just as above]:

          *****Thus, from the words with which the man and the woman
          express their readiness to become “one flesh” according to the eternal truth established in the mystery of creation, we pass to the reality that corresponds to these words. Both the one and the other element are important with regard to the structure of the sacramental sign, to which we should devote what follows in the present considerations. Given that the sacrament is the sign by means of which the saving reality of grace and the covenant is expressed and realized,we must now consider it under the aspect of sign, while the preceding reflections were devoted to the reality of grace and the covenant. [TOB 103.3]*****

          The “reality” of the conjugal act, JPII is saying (go read the whole section), is (along with the “words” of marital consent) constitutive of the “sacramental sign” of Matrimony. And we all know that Sacraments “effect what they signify,” right? They confer *grace* upon the recipients. If the conjugal act is the “reality” behind the words (so much so that the marriage is not fully constituted *unless* consummated), then it should be abundantly obvious that the grace of Matrimony accompanies the spousal self-gift of the conjugal act in its “reality,” just as that grace is present in the ratification of Matrimony when the couple administers the Sacrament to one another in their exchange of consent…..

          • David

            You did not provide the citation for the alleged first quote. It seems like the original words supposedly of JPII you provided to claim your point are mostly not his, although you clearly made it sound as though he was saying something explicitly of the sort. The passage you first cite here makes no claim that conjugal acts confer grace but speaks of marriage as a sacrament in general. You are clearly reading something into it with your commentary that “JPII is saying such and such”… You also falsely equate conjugal acts with the essence of marriage, so the erroneous conclusion about a reference to marriage as a whole meaning conjugal acts. See my reply to Kevin M. below about consummation and sacramentality- consummation does not complete the former, but the sacrament is present solely from two baptized persons. A non-consummated marriage is still a true, valid marriage.

            And I repeat the previous questions: where is even a single reference from the Church’s tradition that conjugal acts confer grace, and that this assertion is not something new, even assuming that JPII said such, which has certainly not been shown? I assume you cannot provide one- because you will not find one- and that is why you avoided it. The same goes for the idea of “holy sex” and conjugal acts as a form of union with God.
            And your second post below seems aimed at steering away from the questions and the inability to submit proof, by an essentially ad hominem attack, i.e., why I am so opposed to this, is there something wrong with me…

            • Jim Russell

              The citation is in my reply below, repeated here–TOB 85.7 (7/14/82). ALL the words that follow (between the asterisks) are from JPII, not me: ****St. Paul clearly says that both conjugal relations and the voluntary periodic abstinence of the spouses must be a fruit of the “gift of God,” which is their “own,” and that the spouses themselves, by consciously cooperating with it, can keep up and strengthen their reciprocal personal bond together with the dignity that being “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit who is in [them]” (see 1 Cor 6:19) confers on their bodies.****

              As to the question below–it’s quite sincere–I’m curious why you are resisting the idea?

              • David


                I note that the context in which he is speaking in that section and paragraph is continence, and that continence and common
                life are gifts OF God, not that they bestow these gifts. The gift he is speaking of is not necessarily grace- it looks like it may even be a reference to common life and/or continence, for he says “THIS gift of God” in the same sentence; and as I also pointed out before you are assuming that “maintaining and strengthening their bond” must mean that grace is bestowed, which does not follow by any means. I could get into translation issues although I don’t have the official Italian text at hand to see what that says.

                That being said, however, if the best that can be pointed to is such a text, or the others you have provided, which lack
                any direct claim of this position, and rely very heavily on one’s interpretation of what it means, that is very weak. As this is also a novel claim, the evidence should strong and explicit. There is still the matter of the points that are yet unanswered: any evidence of such a position in Church tradition, if even as a theological opinion proposed by any amount of people. We can reverse your question to me: why are you so adamant about promoting a position not taught by the Church and lacking any foundation in her tradition and relying at most on doubtful interpretation
                of a few scattered texts of JPII? I am not the one making an unsupported claim.

                I would add that there is still a mistaken notion of consummation constituting a marriage and such. A consummated marriage with one baptized person can also be dissolved, for instance.

                • Jim Russell

                  It’s just not as difficult as you’re making it out to be, in my view. JPII identifies the “conjugal act” as the “reality” behind the “words” of marital consent, both of which he says make up the “sacramental sign” that is marriage, which he also identifies as the “primordial sacrament”. The “sign” that is a “sacrament” effects what it signifies. Sacramental signs efficaciously communicate grace.

                • Jim Russell

                  Re consummation–the marriage comes into being with the “words,” JPII says, but without consummation, “marriage is not yet constituted in its full reality.” [TOB 103.2]

                  As to past teaching, I would be curious whether you have any evidence from past magisterial teaching indicating that we are to believe the conjugal act, properly realized by the couple, is *not* an experience of grace for the couple?

                  I just can’t figure how one would conclude this when, in fact, we all profess that God is truly *present* in the conjugal act. So much so that sometimes God creates from nothing a new human soul. If *that’s* not an experience of God’s grace for the couple, I guess I’m not sure what *would* qualify as an experience of God’s grace….

                  • David


                    Let’s not stray from the focus: your original reply to me claimed that the notion that sexual acts confer grace was” nothing new” and certain- you said “of course” this is so. There is no evidence offered whatsoever able to support the first claim, so it couldn’t and shouldn’t have been said; and certainly how can such be concluded without the evidence for it? This also means that you cannot claim the second- that it is certain or clear. Even the texts of JPII you reference provide no explicit/clear indication of it, to put it mildly.

                    There is now proposed a logical fallacy- making a claim, then asking for someone to disprove it, to provide indication that we are not to believe it. That’s also not the way theology works. This is another unwitting indication that this idea has not necessarily been concluded from any tradition/texts but is an idea that someone likes, then searches for some text they think can support it. It seems the only reason for this claim is because C. West argues for it, and tries to claim that JPII supports it. Then other people have followed West’s idea.

                    It is not I or anyone else that is making this out to be something difficult. You or C. West and others who may want to follow him are the ones who have made a dubious and arguably unsupported, and new claim. This has rightly been challenged. This was the point of Gates’ article, although moreso for the equally dubious and unsupported notions in Catholic tradition of “holy” or “sacred” sex and sexual acts as a form of union with God. You can’t then illogically try to make the person challenging it to be the one who is not getting it.

                    • Jim Russell

                      David–you surely have noticed that West’s work has not figured into my responses on this question here. My assertion really has nothing directly to do with his work–rather, an honest reading of the TOB corpus itself and in context makes clear (in more explicit terms than ever before, perhaps) something that is “nothing new” in the landscape of Catholic teaching on marital sexuality: namely that the conjugal act is intended by God to be something holy and sacred–an encounter not only of the spouses with each other but also an encounter imbued with the presence of God, as made abundantly clear in the fact that the couple cooperates *with* God in pro-creation. There is grace to be found in this experience shared by God and the married couple.

                      If you are not satisfied with the TOB citations I’ve made here, I suggest reading the whole corpus (which I don’t plan to type out in full in the comboxes).

                      If you are not persuaded that the conjugal act can be a means of grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony, then I’m not sure what else could convince you, if what is found in the TOB corpus doesn’t.

                    • Jim Russell

                      David–see my citation of Aquinas above and let me know what you think….

                    • Jim Russell

                      David–did you see the Aquinas quote above? It seems to be what you have been asking for–something from Catholic tradition that clearly supports the idea that the conjugal act can be a source of grace. What say ye?

                • Jim Russell

                  David–I’ve added a comment above that should make clear that JPII claims the “sacramentality” of the body–meaning the body participates in the sacramentality of marriage as a source of grace. If you really want to continue suggesting that the two becoming “one flesh” in the conjugal act is not a means/source of grace for the married couple, you’re up against St. John Paul II. In the order and ethos of redemption, conjugal love and the conjugal act are both redeemed such that the perennial “sign” of that primordial sacramentality is once more grace-giving….

            • Jim Russell

              Btw–a ratified but not consummated marriage can be *dissolved*. Whether baptized or not baptized….Consummation is what fully constitutes the marriage as *indissoluble*. So, yeah, it’s kind of important for the couple to experience the “reality” (as JPII says) of the “words” exchanged when the marriage is ratified via marital consent….

    • ForChristAlone

      “unsupported contention of Christopher West that conjugal relations are holy in themselves and a source of grace.”

      Are you certain that West would say that conjugal relations are a SOURCE of grace? Only God gives grace. These relations might be an occasion of grace, a conduit for grace but not a source. Quote me where West says this.

  • Mary

    Think of the artwork “The Ecstay of St. Theresa” by Bernini, an artist who greviously sinned by having an affair with another artist’s spouse and then errupting in jealousy over the same woman having an affair with his own brother , Then after Bernini was married (the Pope gave him his bride and arranged the marriage) he had a large family of 11 children, became prayeful and humble and ended his career with this sublime artwork that many consider as embodying a sense of physical as well as spiritual ecstasy as a form of union of Teresa’s soul with God. I think that as we see God present in our spouse the action of physcal love can point to the spiritual union and can be a form of prayer for that union. It just should never be considered equal to that union or in place of that union and to do so would be to fall into a form of sin. Nature does point to God and the nature of human sexuality would follow the same rule.

  • How does one reconcile the belief that “the marriage bed be kept holy and undefiled” from St. Paul with the author’s belief that the marital embrace “isn’t a good thing in and of itself” and is mostly concerned with socially acceptable release of sexual tension?

    That Christopher West is wrong is a tired cliche that many of us have been able to prove time and time again. We need an alternative. Jansenism like this ain’t it.

    • Jim Russell

      Hey–we agree again–you’ve been able to prove it’s a tired cliche! 🙂
      (see what I did there)…..

  • And might I add, this is a rare bout of ecumenism: Deacon Jim Russell and myself are on the same team for a change!

    • Jim Russell

      Ha! Yes–happy to be in agreement!

  • Wait a second. Didn’t God tell Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” BEFORE the fall? How in the world could those desires be so disordered if God created Adam an Eve with them?

    • Peter Pagan

      Hi Laura. I tried to make a similar point in my comments a few days ago. “Be fruitful and multiply” could be understood as referring to the indispensable procreative meaning of the marital act, which is natural and perfectly reasonable. There is a tendency among some, however, to downplay the rich and profoundly beautiful unitive meaning of the marital act, and this tendency is unfortunate. In any case, there are certain complexities overlooked in “Is Sexual Desire Holy?” Pax tecum, Peter Pagan

  • ForChristAlone

    Try as the author will, he seems always to revert back to a manicheanism of sorts – an unresolved ambivalence about the sex act in marriage apart from its purely utilitarian aspects.

    I do not accept the assertion that our sexual desire is the result of the concupiscence of original sin. It is original sin that has caused our sexual desires with which God perfectly created man that have been perverted. Rather than sexual desire purely motivated as modeling God as the Giver of gifts, through original sin the sexual desire was perverted into man as the “taker” of gifts. Man, in his sinful nature will always look upon sex as an act of taking, rather than an act of giving. Our path to holiness calls us to a transformative experience of sex in such as way that, through grace, we return it to an act of self-donation.

    No, man as God created him was declared not just good but very good, along with man’s sexual desire.

    • Shere Khan

      no sexual desire, no people;the sex function is merely another function which must be enlisted to serve the higher.. What is wrong with Manichaenism? – I’ve always been rather attracted to is far older than Christianity as are Buddhism and Hinduism.

  • Shere Khan

    it is well to consider that the root word of holy is healthy, or hale.everything that is necessary is, by definition healthy, notwithstanding standing that body is a source of the holy denying, or lower.

  • James

    This article seems to confuse “lust” and “eros”. It seems confused on the definition of lust and, understandably, misunderstands the purpose of eros.

    The dictionary defines lust as “a very strong sexual desire”. This is NOT how the Church or TOB defines lust. It is NOT a sin to desire sex. It is NOT a sin to desire sex with your spouse. The Church sees sexual desire a part of the love called eros. Eros is necessary component of love. You are supposed to have passion about what and who you love.

    Instead, the Church defines “lust” as a kind of sexual objectification. It is wrong to use a person as a means to an end. It is wrong to use your spouse as a means to sexual gratification. At its most extreme, this becomes sexual abuse, which can happen in marriage.

    SJPII taught that when a couple takes action to close off the sexual act to the transmission of new life, they are per se using each other as a means to sexual gratification. If, however, if the transmission of new life is naturally biologically impossible, then the couple has done nothing objectively wrong and one cannot make the assumption based on an objective view of their actions that they are using each other.

    The objections to this teaching are “from the right” that a couple who confines their relations to the times when the transmission of new life is biologically impossible may be using each other for sexual gratification. While they may be true, this requires an analysis of their subjective motivations and intentions. It cannot be determined from their objective behavior, which is morally neutral (or even mildly virtuous due to the health benefits of charting). Additionally, the sacrifice required by learning, observing, and abstaining, in order to confine relations to the infertile period, is so contrary to an attitude of “using for sexual gratification” that the problem often solves itself. Using NFP with a self-centered motivation is the equivalent of binging on vegetables—odds are you’ll get healthy in spite of yourself.

    (Note: In some cases what may appear to be an improper or selfish use of NFP may actually be a sexless or sex-starved marriage, which is a separate problem beyond the scope of this discussion.)

    The objection to the teaching “from the left” is that taking action to close of a sexual act from new life does not necessarily equate to using each other for sexual gratification. Like the objection “from the right”, this objection leans too heavily on a subjective view of the couple’s intentions. Objectively, any attempt to remove the life giving aspect from the sexual act comes at a cost—either a cost on the body of the beloved, such as with biochemical (hormonal BC) or surgical sterilization, or at a cost of intimacy, like with a barrier. The price exacted acts against the unitive aspect of sex, no matter the intention or motivation of the couple, to render it at best, considerably less unitive, and at worst, anti-unitive.

    These couples are like the “Diet Coke-heads”, who ingest who-knows-what strange chemicals in their attempt to avoid both calories and fasting, then call it healthy. No matter how good one’s intentions are, that’s not good for anyone’s health in the long run.

  • JohnE_o

    “But nonetheless we ought to at least consider the possibility that
    indulging our desires, even when done lawfully and therefore without
    sin, can still get in the way of our path for holiness.”

    Meh – I’ll take that risk…

  • Mainer

    lust remains lust even within matrimony. With the exception of Adam & Eve’s time in Paradise until their banishment mankind has known only a world of disordered affections/attachments influenced by sin in varying degrees. Witness: contemporary history.

    • Jim Russell

      Witness the grace of Christ’s redemption–our affections/attachments can be *ordered* once again because grace is the remedy for concupiscence….

      • ForChristAlone

        But I would guess that such redemption of the body is never fully realized in this life – only in the resurrection of the body.

        • Jim Russell

          It’s a lifelong project, to be sure–but it’s possible, JPII says, to experience liberation from the domination of concupiscence in the context of this life (rather than only in the resurrection of the body) and he says it’s a task truly worthy of man….

          • ForChristAlone

            I guess I’m not there yet.

            • Jim Russell

              I don’t think many could claim to be–it’s basically the “way of Christian perfection” outlined by the mystic saints/doctors. What JPII has in mind, I think, is the “purgative way” (as the path toward the illuminative and unitive) of St. John of the Cross….real progress can be made, but the work of it is never done in this life….

  • Eric Worthington

    You can marry in the Catholic faith if you know you cannot have children, but you cannot marry if you know you cannot have sex. At least that is my understanding, if I am misunderstanding then please correct me. If this is true then this simple set of rules makes it very difficult to define the primary purpose of marriage as being the having and raising of children, and it also makes it difficult to devalue the sexual act within marriage to being purely procreative.

    • ForChristAlone

      I seem to recall that in Canon Law if you have intractable impotence it would preclude a sacramental marriage.

      I can see your point about reducing marriage to the purely procreative aspect. I think, though, it is a matter of what is in your heart. Is your heart open to having children even though your body seemingly precludes this possibility.

  • Suz

    Interesting and what about after a couple cannot conceive any longer..older couples for example.

  • Steve Kellmeyer

    It would help a lot of the CCC had not omitted the traditional third reason for marriage (and sex): a remedy for concupiscence.

    JP II mentioned it, but no one ever points out that JP II mentioned it.

  • Jim Russell

    Perhaps a few commenters will find the following quote from JPII a bit more clarifying, regarding how the ultimate expression of the two becoming “one flesh” (marital relations) can be both holy and a source of grace:

    TOB 87.5:

    ****The sacrament or sacramentality—in the most general
    sense of this term—intersects with the body and presupposes the “theology of
    the body.” According to the generally recognized meaning, the sacrament is, in
    fact, a “visible sign.” “Body” also refers to what is visible; it signifies the
    “visibility” of the world and of man. In some way, therefore—even if in the
    most general way—the body enters into the definition of sacrament, which is “a
    visible sign of an invisible reality,” namely, of the spiritual, transcendent,
    and divine reality. In this sign—and through this sign—God gives himself to man
    in his transcendent truth and in his love. The sacrament is a sign of grace,
    and it is an efficacious sign. It does not merely indicate and express grace in
    a visible way, in the manner of a sign, but produces grace and contributes
    efficaciously to cause that grace to become part of man and to realize and
    fulfill the work of salvation in him, the work determined ahead of time by God
    from eternity and fully revealed in Christ.****

  • K J George Karrikkoottathil

    The Catholic Church turned the word “sex” into a meaning less word now. Sex is the physical manifestation of love between two persons – here the man and woman or husband and wife. The sex act between a husband and wife can not be termed as something sinful.
    ” for a monk to have, at least once in his life, experience of carnal passion, so that he can one day be indulgent and understanding with the sinners he will counsel and console… well dear Adso, it is not a thing to be wished before it happens, but it is not something to vituperate too much once it has happened.” This is the best advice one must follow.

  • Jim Russell

    I think David will find the following to be of interest. Where can we root the claim being made that JPII asserts that the conjugal act can be not only holy but also a source of grace?

    Well, the Thomistic-rooted JPII might be waxing eloquently upon what Aquinas had to say:

    ****Since no act proceeding from a deliberate will is indifferent…the marriage act is always either sinful or meritorious in one who is in a state of grace. For if the motive for the marriage act be a virtue, whether of justice that they may render the debt, or of religion, that they may beget children for the worship of God, it is meritorious. (Summa, Suppl., Q41, Art. 4).****

    For Aquinas, if you’re in a state of grace, conjugal relations are always either sinful or meritorious. The Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us that (see Cath. Encycl. link below) “every meritorious act has for its main object the increase of grace and of eternal glory.” Meritorious acts are a source of an increase of grace for the individual accomplishing the act.

    Sooo….the conjugal act, when it’s motivated by virtue in a person (or couple) in the state of grace, is meritorious and produces an increase of grace for the person (or couple).

    According to Aquinas. Anyone wish to argue with Aquinas on this? 🙂

    • Jim Russell

      OK–24 hours later, I’m calling it official–Aquinas’ view remains unchallenged and vindicates what JPII says in the TOB corpus (as well as C. West’s presentation of what JPII expresses on this point in the TOB corpus).

      Thanks for the conversation, all!

      • David


        It’s rather revealing that someone feels a need to come back & essentially declare their position as the “winner” and that the issue is now supposedly settled…. And where does this 24 rule come from? This passage certainly deserves further consideration. As some immediate observations, however, he is addressing in that question marriage as a natural institution and whether marital acts are sinful, as some taught. In fact, it mentions such acts as meritorious because they render a debt and fulfill justice, even on a natural level. (Is he even speaking of supernatural merit here?) He is NOT addressing marriage as a sacrament and the graces of the sacrament but reserves that to elsewhere (e.g., Q. 42.) It is your intervention that then connects the subjects/questions, which is also to say that you represent as Aquinas’ view what is really partly your own conclusions (And you have to be very careful in doing so, e.g., to speak of sin vs. virtue/merit does not automatically mean that any act or species of act that can be meritorious bestows grace. And strictly speaking meritorious acts can give us the right to further graces but do not necessarily themselves bestow it.) So, there is some doubt here that Aquinas is addressing the issue you claim. This is the danger of isolating things from their larger context.

        When he does address sacramental marriage and its graces, he negates the ideas that intercourse/consummation is what makes for marriage
        and that consummation is a foundation for the graces of marriage, but rather it is consent/the contract (e.g., Q. 42.3-4, 45, 46.2). It is the latter view that has been taken up into Tradition, which is another issue- to what extent anyone’s views have been taking up into tradition. The point
        needs to be reiterated: consummation/intercourse does not make the sacrament to be a sacrament, or a true and valid marriage, and because it is not of the essence of marriage. (Consider Mary and Joseph, for
        example.) The sacrament is had solely by the fact of having two baptized persons, who have given their consent. The latter two points are doctrine (see CCC 1626, Code of Canon Law cc. 1055 §2, 1057, Pius XI Casti Connubii ##39-40, inter alia. C. Connubii #40 has an explicit statement of consent being the foundation/gateway for the graces). This is one reason it can be questioned that conjugal acts bestow grace.

        For the sake of argument, let us say that this gives some support to your claim; you have now produced one possible reference. And that settles the issue? It is only your claim that JPII says such, largely provided by your own interpretation versus anything he directly says, and arguably even contrary to things he does say, which has already been addressed
        ad nauseum. But I do think the conversation is probably over, particularly noting what I said in the first sentence.

        • Jim Russell

          David–it’s not about me being the “winner”–the truth is what I want to “win.” You and I agree, btw, on what “makes” marriage–marriage comes into being with consent. JPII says consummation brings it into its full reality.

          As you say, consent *is* the “gateway for the graces”–without consent, a “conjugal act” isn’t, by definition, actually conjugal. And if what JPII calls the “word” of the sacramental sign is the gateway for the graces, then how much more must the “reality” of the sacramental sign be a source of grace?

          Btw, feel free to challenge what Aquinas said–but let’s not try to pretend he’s saying the marital act is somehow “meritorious” without bringing about an increase of grace for the subject….

    • MaryB435

      A question about “rendering the debt”, and “not depriving each other”……..Much of the discussion revolves around openness to life. That applies to the first half of marriage only. With advancing age and declining health, the “procreative” aspect no longer applies, and the “debt” often becomes an ever-increasing burden, painful chore, and heavy cross for the wife, who, despite Old Testament examples, knows she will NOT conceive another child. She also feels the burden of protecting her husband from temptation. HE didn’t go through the change of life.

      What is the will of God at that point? How long does the Lord want her to carry that cross? Is it a sin not to want to carry it? Should she pray for more strength to carry the cross? How does the marital act unite when it is a difficult duty only? Does the unitive aspect consist entirely of sacrificial love at that point? And didn’t the parents of St. Therese live in continence for a long time?

      One theory is that the couple grows in love for each other in this way: The husband “dies to himself” by accepting the reality that the marital embrace will be LESS often than he would like, while the wife “dies to herself” by accepting that the marital embrace will be MORE often than she would like. Weren’t we always told to “offer it up?” Is that an accurate theory?

      • Jim Russell

        Right–I think St. Paul sums it up in Ephesians 5: “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Couples seem called to sacrificial love which, perhaps at different times, can require either abstaining or “rendering the debt.” If self-giving love is at the heart of the couple’s choices, then the unitive dimension is realized not only in the act, but also in a sense in the refraining from the act….

  • Colin Kerr

    Perfect balance by the author. Bravo!